I’m a firm believer that in the battle of Pompeii vs Herculaneum, visiting Herculaneum is way better than Pompeii (and that link has 14 reasons why). However, I’m not numb to the fact that all 14 of those may not outweigh the #1 reason people want to visit Pompeii: because it’s famous!
I get that you might still want to visit Pompeii… but maybe you’re still undecided based on my super convincing previous blog post. So, I’ve put together this post to help you decide which to choose in the contest of Pompeii vs Herculaneum.
Pompeii vs Herculaneum
As of 2022 I have visited both Pompeii and Herculaneum and, yes, the experiences are quite different. Plus, different kinds of trips may require you to choose one over the other. Let me be your guide; here’s how you decide.
Visit Pompeii because it’s famous
Between Pompeii and Herculaneum, Pompeii is without a doubt the most world famous of the two. Most people haven’t even heard of Herculaneum at all. (Or as it’s known in Italy: Ercolano Scavi.)
Though this is one of the reasons why Herculaneum is better (less famous = less crowded), this is also the reason most people would choose to visit Pompeii instead.
After my dull day at Pompeii, I wrote that while there isn’t a whole lot to see, I was happy to have visited. Now I could say “I’ve been to Pompeii” and sound like a legit world traveler. Telling people “I’ve been to Herculaneum” doesn’t have the same effect and requires even further explanation. “Pompeii,” on the other hand, is self-explanatory.
Want more awesome ancient ruins? Check out Tivoli for a couple of days – the retreat town of Rome’s ancient (and super rich) rulers.
Visit Pompeii so you can say you’ve been there
Sure, visiting places to simply say you’ve been there may not always be the best motivation, but it still beats sitting at home and never going anywhere. Besides, to each his own! I’m sure we’ve all gone somewhere for no other reason than to say we have.
I’ve thrown a coin into Rome’s Trevi Fountain, and not because I believed it would magically grant my wishes. I’ve eaten grasshoppers in Mexico, and not because I was curious as to how they would taste. And I’ve thrown crates of tea into Boston Harbor, and not because I was protesting taxation without representation (although still a worthy cause!).
Haven’t you kissed the Blarney Stone? Or visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Surely you’ve gone to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa (and not because it’s an especially stunning work of art you just have to see in person to appreciate).
If your goal in visiting one of the cities destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is to “have done it” or to be able to say you’ve done it, in the question of Pompeii vs Herculaneum, stick with Pompeii.
Check out the top 10 Pompeii tours and excursions here.
Visit Herculaneum if you’re short on time
Size-wise, Pompeii is tremendously larger than Herculaneum. To see all there is to see at Pompeii would take you days, weeks, months actually (depending on how far you are into your PhD program). However, you can breeze through Herculaneum in just a couple of hours.
To visit Pompeii in any sort of reasonable time frame, you’ll have to stick to the highlights. That will still take you hours and you’ll miss a ton of stuff. I’m still hearing about things at Pompeii that I didn’t even know existed because my tour had to cut so much out for the sake of brevity.
You can visit the whole of Herculaneum, take your time exploring the site, and still be out of there in time for aperitivo. If you have limited time available in your Italy itinerary but still want to see some ancient Vesuvio ruins, you should choose Herculaneum over Pompeii.
Visit Pompeii if you want to see grand structures
Herculaneum is smaller and more manageable than Pompeii, for sure. But it’s also more compact and, I guess ‘understated’ would be a good word to use here. In other words, you won’t find many of the grand structures and large spaces you’ll find at Pompeii. So if it’s grand ancient structures you want, head to Pompeii instead.
Herculaneum consists of mainly “smaller” buildings and such. But at Pompeii you can visit:
- Teatro Grande – a 5,000-seat theater
- The Amphitheater – a 12,000 arena
- The Forum and all its massive columns and space
- Some big temples
- The Large Palaestra – a sports training facility essentially
- And a few more
But keep in mind that the more grand structures and expansive spaces there are, the more walking and time your visit will require.
Visit Herculaneum for more art and color
Because Herculaneum was destroyed in a different manner than Pompeii was, it’s actually far more preserved than Pompeii. What that means for you is more color! More art! More interesting stuff to look at!
Pompeii was one giant, long, sweaty day of monotony. Rocks after rocks, ruins after ruins, so much brown. But Herculaneum has incredibly preserved murals and artworks around every corner.
Because I visited Pompeii first, I was expecting similar monotony at Herculaneum (despite everyone saying Herculaneum is so much better than Pompeii). But I was shocked when I got here and saw all the gorgeous vibrant colors and details.
Many of the buildings at Herculaneum still have their roofs, protecting the delicate artwork inside. You can still make out the tiniest details in many of the works and the intricate mosaic floors are incredibly well-preserved for being at least a couple thousand years old.
I remember at Pompeii there were one or two decently preserved areas that were treated like royalty because of their rarity. At Herculanuem, the whole place is like that!
When choosing between Pompeii vs Herculaneum, if it’s vibrant colors, detailed artwork, and gorgeous mosaics you want to see (instead of endless piles of brown rocks), head to Herculaneum.
Check out the most popular Herculaneum tours and activities here.
Visit Pompeii if you want to see the body casts
Though I compare Herculaneum vs Pompeii based on many of the same characteristics, they do actually offer completely different things too.
The volcanic ash that covered Pompeii after Vesuvio’s eruption basically froze the city, and all its inhabitant, in time. The decay of organic materials underneath it left human-shaped voids that archaeologists discovered could be filled with plaster to recreate the body’s form at the time of death.
Cool science, yes. But also, wow that’s dark. Regardless of the morbidity of it all, the result is pretty neat in terms of being able to better understand the events of August 24th, 79 AD.
At Pompeii, you can see a number of these body casts on display. It’s disturbing, but nevertheless interesting as it adds a necessary human element to the destruction you’re there to see.
It’s easy to visit these sites and check out the destroyed buildings and learn about the artwork and architecture. But it’s also easy to forget how many people lived here, and how much terror they must have experienced when the volcano erupted and covered their city. (Watch the epically bad movie Pompeii if you want a general idea of this experience.)
Visit Herculaneum if you want to see skeletons
On the flip side, whereas Pompeii was destroyed by and subsequently preserved in volcanic ash, Herculaneum avoided a similar destruction. Instead—and here’s where it gets dark—Herculaneum was destroyed by what’s called pyroclastic flow.
So, Herculaneum’s inhabitants instead were either instantly vaporized under the unfathomable temperatures, or slowly baked under lower (but still mega hot) temperatures.
An informative article on LiveScience.com explains:
Erupting volcanoes spew lava that can burn you, gas that can choke you and ash that can bury you. Pyroclastic flows — which do all three — can travel at speeds exceeding 50 mph (80 km/h) at temperatures reaching 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius).
For this reason, there were no bodies at Herculaneum to form ash molds to fill with plaster thousands of years later. Instead, you can see the many skeletons left behind in the boathouses where many of the town’s inhabitants fled to escape the eruption. Equally horrifying.
Visit Pompeii if you’ll be visiting in the off-season
If you’re weighing Pompeii vs Herculaneum, one of the most important factors to consider is when you’ll be visiting. Because Pompeii is so famous, you can bet this place is bursting with tourists and tour groups all summer long (aka, the tourism high season). In fact, Pompeii sees around 3.8 million tourists per year.
You’ll have a much better time at Pompeii if you’ll be there in the early spring, fall, or winter when tourist crowds are significantly slimmer. Otherwise, prepare to be sheep herded.
If your trip to Italy will take place in the summer, perhaps way-less-crowded Herculaneum will be more to your liking. (Herculaneum, on the other hand, gets around 300,000 visitors annually.) If you’re simply fed up with the massive Europe tourist crowds, Herculaneum should win the battle here.
Visit Herculaneum if it’s severely hot out
Also worth mentioning is that if you will be there during the summer, it’s good to know that Herculaneum offers far more cooling shade than Pompeii. If you’ve ever experienced a hot southern Italian summer or, say, a journey to the sun, you can imagine the value in this.
Pompeii, large and expansive as it is, is incredibly exposed. There are very few places here in which to catch some ultraviolet relief, and the ones that are there are brimming with sweaty tourists as it is.
If you’d like to explore the ruins of Vesuvio’s wrath but are sensitive to the sun or just want the chance to be mildly comfortable while you’re out, choose Herculaneum.
Visit Pompeii if you want to see penises and brothels
Yup, that’s right. But you already knew that because you’ve definitely heard about this. I get it; it’s funny and not something you see every day here in the U.S. It’s totally understandable that you’d be curious about this. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.)
It’s true, there are upwards of 40 brothels at Pompeii and countless penises leading the way. The brothels that survived by some miracle display, let’s just say interesting murals. A menu of sorts I believe. These are typical stops on the guided tours so you’ll learn all about them while you’re there.
Likewise, the guides will point out the many phallic “pointers” along the way—penis drain pipes, penis cobblestones, penis wall carvings, etc—if you don’t spot them yourselves. Anyone up for a game of “I spy”?
If Pompeii’s penis lore is something that has struck your intrigue, by all means that’s where you should visit because you will not find the same at Herculaneum. Though such phallus-centered art has been discovered among Herculaneum’s ruins, the same obsession did not exist throughout the city the way it did at Pompeii.
Visit Herculaneum if you want great photos
It works in Pompeii’s favor that it became world famous before Instagram was a thing because Herculaneum is just so much more photogenic. There are certainly interesting things to see at Pompeii, but the overall site is just not as exciting.
At Herculaneum, you have the awesome contrast of ancient and modern with Mount Vesuvius in a very nearby background. You get to look down on the entire site from above and get up close to amazingly preserved color.
Pompeii is just… so brown. So monotonous. So ground-level. All in all, I feel Herculaneum is just more picturesque than Pompeii. Plus, its always photo-worthy abundance of friendly cats doesn’t hurt the cause.
Check out these tours that include a visit to Mount Vesuvius as well. Yes, you can climb to the top! (The views from up there are amazing.)
Visit Pompeii if you want food and drinks
Simply put, Pompeii has an on-site bar/restaurant and Herculaneum does not. If eating is a priority to you (go figure?) definitely keep this in mind.
Herculaneum however does have an aggressive woman who will flag you down in your car to shove a brochure for her pizza restaurant at you, if that’s something you’re into. Otherwise, you can eat and drink at Pompeii in their refreshment area managed by my favorite Italian staple—the Autogrill.
Visit Herculaneum if your walking tolerance is low
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Pompeii is HUGE. The site itself is huge and the highlights are incredibly spread out. I mean, look at this…
That’s just one section of the archaeological park at Pompeii you’ll be exploring. So, if your walking tolerance is low, be prepared.
Herculaneum on the other hand is smaller and more compact and will require far less walking on gravel-y, uneven, cobblestone, dirt surfaces. Though the surfaces at Herculaneum are the same, this site is significantly more forgiving, especially in terms of distances walked. Pompeii might even max out your Fitbit, I’m just saying…
But if you do want more walking, definitely consider hiking the Path of the Gods over on the Amalfi Coast. It’s an unforgettable experience for sure!
Visit Pompeii if you’ll want additional information
If the history of these two sites is of great interest to you, and you think you’ll want to learn more about it after your visit, I would say visit Pompeii.
I say this because you’re going to be able to find out a lot more information on Pompeii than you will Herculaneum. You’ll have access to tons more books, movies, documentaries, and more. Even though Herculaneum is better than Pompeii (in my opinion), it still gets overlooked in many ways. However, Pompeii is so much larger and so much more excavated that there’s definitely more to work with there.
Start your pre- or post-Pompeii research here with these sources:
- Complete Pompeii by Joanne Berry – nonfiction, a “comprehensive account for the general reader” (probably the closest you can get to Pompeii for Dummies)
- Pompeii: An Archaeological Guide by Paul Wilkinson – nonfiction
- A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii – historical fiction, multiple authors
- Pompeii: Secrets of the Dead, National Geographic documentary on Disney+
- What Happened to Pompeii? Ancient Rome History for Kids by Baby Professor
- Pompeii – movie (2014) starring Kit Harrington and Keifer Sutherland
Pompeii vs Herculaneum: Do you have to choose?
Ok so it’s too hard and you don’t want to choose? Turns out you can have your volcanically destroyed cake and eat it too. (gross?)
While it’s pretty much impossible to thoroughly see Pompeii alone in a single day, if you’re okay breezing through just the highlights (maybe to say “you’ve been there”) you can certainly visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum in one day.
You’ll need either a super tight and well-organized itinerary, or you can make it easy on yourself and just book one of the tours that visit both. Plus, you can even fit in some time atop Mount Vesuvius!
Pompeii or Herculaneum – which one are you leaning towards?
Let me know below!
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