When I first visited Pompeii a few years ago, I wasn’t familiar with the Herculaneum ruins or the fact that Herculaneum is actually better than Pompeii. I visited Pompeii because of how well-known it is, but let’s just say the blog post that followed was titled “Dull Day in Pompeii.”
Had I known how much of a better visitor experience the Herculaneum ruins are, I would’ve chosen these instead, hands down! So, when I returned to the area in March 2022, I made sure to visit Herculaneum this time.
If the Herculaneum ruins are news to you too, here’s a briefer: When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Pompeii wasn’t the only town that was destroyed—Herculaneum (known locally as Ercolano) was there too. But you’ve probably never heard of it.
Why Pompeii is the more famous of the two, I can’t tell you. Beyond that however, Herculaneum is the much more worthwhile experience. Here’s why…
1. Herculaneum is smaller than Pompeii
Herculaneum is smaller than Pompeii… in the best way possible. Pompeii is utterly HUGE. Just, way too huge for an enjoyable visit.
Where the archaeological site of Pompeii reveals an enormous ancient metropolis, the Herculaneum ruins reveal a much smaller, wealthier coastal town.
Not only was Pompeii much larger to begin with, but right now about 2/3 of this huge city has been excavated. Herculaneum, much smaller to begin with, has only been about 20% excavated at this point.
Because Herculaneum is smaller, you can easily see it all in one day. Actually, in just a couple of leisurely hours. Literally, the entire place, top to bottom, even the museum, in just a short visit. You won’t have to stick to the highlights or risk missing out on seeing something awesome because you just didn’t have time. (Like if you’re visiting as part of a day trip from Salerno.)
Pompeii on the other hand is at least a full day commitment to see just the highlights (though many an archaeology nerd could actually spend days, even weeks, exploring the site). And chances are you’re definitely going to miss something you wanted to see. It’s just impossible to see it all in one visit.
Also consider a couple of days in Tivoli if you love quick trips to ancient ruins. It’s just 45 minutes outside Rome and full of beautiful and unique sites!
2. The Herculaneum ruins are much more compact
Don’t let the fact that Herculaneum is smaller give you the idea that it’s less interesting or that there’s less to see there. That’s absolutely not true.
Rather, large and in charge Pompeii is incredibly spread out while the Herculaneum ruins are much more compact. Call it fun-size if you want. I do.
You’ll see when you get there, but Herculaneum is actually smack dab in the middle of town. The Herculaneum ruins are surrounded by apartment buildings and intersections and businesses and, I assume, just millions of pizza shops. The inside of the archaeological park echoes this same urban density.
So, you’ll spend more of your time actually seeing amazing history and less time trudging across vast gravel expanses of emptiness.
3. Herculaneum requires way less walking
I think it goes without saying that visiting the smaller and more compact Herculaneum ruins will demand a lot less walking than those of Pompeii. However, I think this still deserves a mention and your consideration.
If a visit to one of these cities will appear at the end of, say, a two-week trip through Italy, chances are you’re going to be OVER IT. The last thing you want is another 30,000-step day walking through ancient ruins.
This is also worth consideration if your itinerary is tight time-wise, if someone in your travel party has a walking impediment, or if you’ve got yourself a nice pair of blisters from all the walking and hill-climbing you’ve done in Italy thus far. If you’ve ever walked from the Shire to Mt. Doom in your bare feet, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still do your fair share of walking through the Herculaneum ruins, but I’m guessing it’ll be at least half of what you would do at Pompeii.
If it’s extra walking you want, check out this post on hiking the nearby Path of the Gods – one of the most gorgeous hikes I’ve ever done!
Best shoes for visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum
I will always preach traveling with sturdy comfortable shoes over just about everything else. No Instagram photo is worth walking these sites (or anywhere else in ancient Italy) in heels or sandals or whatever other nonsense.
Both of these sites are covered in gravel, uneven rocks of all sizes and sharpness, slippery ancient marble, uneven pavers, cobblestones, steep and uneven stairs, grass/mud/dirt, and more of the same. Make sure to have a sturdy pair of shoes on so you won’t have to focus on your feet all day.
My favorite travel shoes are:
Sorel duck boots – (pictured above) I just spent all 10 days of my latest Italy trip in these shoes and I recommend them 1000%. They have a super solid sole (perfect for these sites!), they’re waterproof, and they have good traction in both wet and dry conditions. I absolutely love these shoes and will travel with these until the day they stop making them. Great for spring, fall, and winter!
(Pro tip: I wear mine with a memory foam insert and they are simply better.)
Chacos sandals – These are my summer go-to travel shoes. Like the above, they have a super solid base and are great where there’s water—they’re essentially “hiking sandals.” They’re great in wet or dry conditions and on all types of natural and uneven ground. Perfect for summer! (I personally have a couple pairs of the Z/Cloud X2.)
4. The Herculaneum ruins are much better preserved than Pompeii
When Mount Vesuvius erupted, the town of Herculaneum and the city of Pompeii were wrecked in two very different ways. Though both were utterly destroyed, Pompeii certainly got the worst of it. What this means for us is that there’s much more to see at Herculaneum as the Herculaneum ruins are far better preserved than those at Pompeii.
My big takeaway from my day at Pompeii was, “Oh wow, more rocks.” At Pompeii, you fully have to put your imagination to work. The guides describe what you’re looking at and what it used to be… but making that make sense is still hard work. And who wants to do that while you’re on vacation in Italy? Pshh.
At Herculaneum, not so much. Here, you can still visit complete buildings with beautiful, brightly colored artwork and intricate mosaic floors. Some of the buildings still have their wooden beams, doors, and stairs. You can give your imagination a rest and look at actually cool things!
I found Pompeii to be incredibly, mind-numbingly repetitive and mundane. (When I got home from that trip, I watched a documentary about Pompeii that used a hefty amount of computerized artistic rendering to give you an idea of what it looked like, etc. and found that show to be far more engaging than my actual visit!)
But Herculaneum was non-stop interesting! To me, this made a huge difference in my appreciation of the site and its history.
5. The Herculaneum ruins are less popular than Pompeii
The fact that the Herculaneum ruins are less popular might be my actual #1 reason for why Herculaneum is better than Pompeii.
Less popular = less crowded, ‘nuff said. If you’ve ever visited Italy (or any major European city) at the height of the tourist season, you’ll certainly appreciate the value in this.
Herculaneum gets about 300,000 visitors per year while Pompeii sees, brace yourself, 3.8 million tourists per year. Y’all. This is a hidden gem! And these numbers have nothing to do with the quality of the site or your visit, it’s simply because Pompeii is large enough to actually accommodate this many visitors and because it’s much more famous, plain and simple.
At Herculaneum, you won’t have to be herded through the site with the rest of the socks-with-sandals sheep, bumper to bumper with sweaty tourists stepping on the backs of your shoes… all during these times when we now know far too much about how germs spread when people open their mouths. Yikes.
You won’t have to wait in long lines or have to crowd into a space just to see what everyone is looking at. (Oh wow, more rocks.) You’ll have space to breathe and walk and take photos. It’s just so beautiful.
If cattle drives are not your scene, head to the Herculaneum ruins instead.
6. The views at Herculaneum are better than Pompeii
I personally find the views of the Herculaneum ruins much better than those at Pompeii. At Herculaneum, you get to look down on the site from above. You get a much better idea of the city this way and get lots of great photos too!
At Pompeii, for the most part, you’re seeing the site from ground level. It’s hard to get an overall impression of the site this way and, let’s face it, it’s just less interesting.
7. You can get better views of Vesuvius from the Herculaneum ruins
Because Herculaneum sits pretty much at the base of Vesuvius, you can get much better views of this massive volcano from the Herculaneum ruins. Pompeii, on the other hand, is farther away from the volcano and decent views of it are not the norm. What you’ll see at Pompeii is little more than a distant silhouette of a mountain.
As horrible of a person as this makes me sound, I was pretty excited to see the volcano that wrecked it all during my tour of Pompeii. Go figure, in my mind I thought the famous volcano that destroyed Pompeii would be decently close, but I was wrong.
I was pleasantly surprised when I finally looked at a map and saw that Herculaneum is actually closer, then again when I got there. If you’re interested in good views of Vesuvius, head to the Herculaneum ruins instead.
Also check out: 2 Days in Florence: A Jam-Packed Itinerary + Helpful Tips
8. The location is more fascinating too
All in all, Herculaneum’s location is far more fascinating than Pompeii. Pompeii is so vast and so spread out, all you can see from Pompeii is… Pompeii (aka, more rocks).
But the Herculaneum ruins, as I mentioned, are smack in the middle of the city. And I mean right there in the middle of it all. With the exception of the ocean to the west, the Herculaneum ruins are surrounded on all sides by Neapolitan life—apartment buildings, businesses, terrifying intersections, a thousand motorbikes, and yeah the world’s best pizza.
You can see all this from inside the park—a perfect side by side comparison of the ancient world and our modern one. You’ll see satellite dishes and air conditioning units next to ancient universities. You can see Grandmas hanging their laundry out of the window to dry next to… this guy:
This fine piece of antiquity aside, it’s easy to see how this juxtaposition makes Herculaneum such a more fascinating location than Pompeii… where you mostly just see loud aggressive men trying to sell you crap kitsch in the parking lot.
9. Herculaneum is easier to navigate
One of my most traumatic travel memories takes place at Pompeii. I was there with a tour group (for which I was actually a chaperone) and somehow got separated from my group when I turned to look at something (probably more rocks).
What followed was the most frantic ten minutes of my life, literally running through the maze that is Pompeii, sweating bullets, terrified I would never find them and they would leave without me. We were there on a day trip from Rome so… I would be utterly trapped.
Pompeii is just that – an enormous maze. Everything looks exactly the same no matter which way you turn. And, visiting in the summer, there are just so many people. It’s hard to even tell where one tour group ends and another starts.
It was by some miracle that I finally recognized someone from my group and, surprise, I’m not still trapped in Pompeii. I am however still traumatized by this.
Herculaneum is nothing like this. Because it’s smaller, this is not something you’ll have to worry about it. Herculaneum’s layout is so much easier to navigate. Not to mention there won’t be hordes of lookalike people and tour groups.
And being able to see the entire site from the top down is actually a huge help in this respect. Should you get separated from your group, just head to the top and see if you can spot them. It’s like a real-life Pac-Man game.
Perhaps this isn’t exactly a reason you would choose one site over another, but it is something to think about if, say, you’ll be traveling with a toddler who has a tendency to run and hide or a husband who tends to wander off. Something to keep in mind.
10. The Herculaneum ruins provide more shade than Pompeii
If you’ve ever visited Italy in the summer, you already know the importance of this. If you haven’t, I’mma just say it is HAWT. The fact that air conditioning is not all that prevalent in Italy only enhances your misery.
That being said, the shade you’ll find within the Herculaneum ruins may just be one of the most important reasons Herculaneum is better than Pompeii. Because the buildings are better preserved (they even have roofs!) and the site is more compact, you’ll enjoy so much more cool shade here.
Pompeii is, again, super spread out, and what’s left of the buildings are mostly one-story crumbling rock walls. There are a few buildings with roofs, but not enough. And when you’re packed in there with tons of other visitors, there’s zero relief anyway.
For the rest of your visit, you’ll be exposed under the blazing sun almost the entire time. This is not the case at Herculaneum. Definitely take this into consideration if you’re visiting in the summer!
11. Herculaneum is easier to do on your own
If you’re not the kind of traveler who wants to join a giant group cattle-herding tour, Herculaneum is better than Pompeii for you.
Pompeii is ridiculously huge and complicated and pretty much requires you to be part of a tour group if you want to get anything out of your visit. Herculaneum, on the other hand, is smaller and straightforward enough that you can easily visit unassisted.
If you’re driving, you can simply park in their underground parking garage (Cool that car off during your visit!) and the entrance to the archaeological park is right there. Super simple. If you’re arriving by train you can take it right to the Ercolano Scavi station. (Ercolano Scavi = Herculaneum Archaeological Park)
Check out the best Italy car rental deals here
Herculaneum audio guide
Once there, you can visit completely independently using the official Herculaneum audio guide that you can download straight to your phone. It has a route for adults, another for visitors with children, an interactive map, and some cool augmented reality so you can see the site as it originally looked.
Get the Herculaneum audio guide here.
12. Herculaneum is less boring than Pompeii
If you’ve picked up anything from this article, it’s probably that I was super bored during my visit to Pompeii. And I’m someone who finds everything interesting! And while Pompeii wasn’t entirely a bore, it did sway that way pretty quickly.
Pompeii is just… more of the same, over and over again. And it’s hot. And you can’t *see* a whole lot so you have to just imagine what it looked like. All while trying to decipher the guide’s accent. It’s just not the most enjoyable experience.
Herculaneum however was quite the opposite! Around almost every turn I was like, “Oh my god, look at this!” And I’ll definitely take more of the same of that.
The Herculaneum ruins are just so much more colorful and interesting. There’s incredible artwork and mosaic tile floors everywhere. There’s so much more to *see* and it’s amazing how well the site has been preserved. All-in-all, a much less boring experience.
13. Fewer penises
If you haven’t been to Pompeii, surely you’ve heard about the penises at Pompeii. They’re sticking out of the buildings as penis-shaped drainpipes, they’re carved into the walls, and they’re carved into the stones you walk on, supposedly pointing the way to the city’s many brothels (somewhere between 25 and 40 of them), which you’ll certainly visit on your tour anyway.
But while this has been proven a myth, there they are, and there they will stay. Popping up everywhere (sorry) as ancient good luck symbols.
Not to sound like an old prude or anything, but the constant juvenile focus on them does cheapen the visit in a way. Like, we get it, ding-dongs are hilarious. Can we move on? It’s like going to Amsterdam and visiting the seedy Red Light District instead of the beautiful Jordaan.
The same cultural phenomenon did not exist at Herculaneum for whatever reason. Erotic sculptures and other artworks have been discovered at Herculaneum, but these phallic symbols didn’t make it into the plethora of public streets and exterior walls the same way it did at Pompeii.
So, maybe take this into consideration if you’d like to preserve the innocence of your child just a little bit longer. Or is scrolling through TikTok what 6-year-olds do between naps now anyway?
14. More cats
Yes, this is absolutely a selling point. Not only will you meet more cats visiting the Herculaneum ruins, they’re also the nicest, funniest cats too. They’re not dirty and they don’t beg for handouts; they want only snuggles. And I am here for it.
Where to stay when visiting the Herculaneum ruins
When visiting the Herculaneum ruins, you actually have plenty of options as to where to stay.
One obvious option is stay in Naples if you have more sightseeing business (ahem, pizza eating) in this bustling city. Here are some popular hotels in Naples:
Another option would be to head down to Sorrento if some time on the coast is in your plans. Sorrento makes a great (and gorgeous) base for exploring the Bay of Naples area and is much calmer and quieter than Naples. I personally stayed at the Grand Hotel Riviera, but you can find more great Sorrento hotel options here!
Be sure to check out my post on how to spend a fabulous 5 days in and around Sorrento.
On this particular trip, I left Herculaneum and drove the quick 45 minutes over to Salerno on the Amalfi Coast. AND IT WAS A DREAM. Getting to the Positano area of the Amalfi Coast is quite a long and harrowing drive from Naples. But cutting right through the mountains and heading straight to Salerno was the easiest thing ever. You can even get there easily by train from the Ercolano Scavi station. 10/10 highly recommend.
Read all about why you should stay in Salerno when visiting the Amalfi Coast, here.
I personally stayed at Salerno Antica B&B and had the most amazing experience. It was actually one of the best parts of my entire Italy trip. If that should be booked up though, you can find more great options here.
Don’t miss my post on the best day trips you can take from Salerno (of which Herculaneum is one).
Have I convinced you that the Herculaneum ruins are better than Pompeii? Give this little hidden gem a chance on your next trip to Italy!
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