Herculaneum isn’t the first ancient Roman city you’d associate with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Its (much) more famous neighbour Pompeii probably takes that honour. But just a short distance away lies an unassuming gem: Herculaneum. This partially-excavated town is intimate, atmospheric and sees far fewer visitors than big-hitter Pompeii.
Herculaneum was an elegant seaside resort frequented by affluent Romans. It’s now buried underneath the modern Naples suburb of Ercolano. The excavation is compact and accessible, yet loaded with almost perfectly-preserved mosaics, frescos and structures, including remains of wooden doors and furniture.
Wandering Herculaneum was like slipping into everyday life in an ancient Roman town. I felt like some kind of post-apocalyptic voyeur as I peeked into homes, shops, official buildings and restaurants.
Why Herculaneum is Better Preserved than Pompeii:
Despite being just 15 kilometres from Pompeii, Herculaneum was destroyed and buried quite differently.
When Vesuvius erupted, it shot a massive cloud of hot gas, rock and volcanic ash more than 20 kilometres skyward at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. The debris began raining down on Pompeii almost immediately, increasing in intensity as the day went on. As Herculaneum was upwind from the volcano, it did not experience the ash storm and so was mostly unharmed structurally.
Several hours later, the debris cloud reached its peak height and collapsed, creating an incredibly powerful current called a pyroclastic flow. The flow sped down the mountain at 60 miles per hour, carrying the thermal energy of 100,000 atomic bombs. It engulfed the town of Herculaneum, killing everyone instantly. The intense heat carbonised organic materials such as wood, fabrics, plants and even food.
The result was a Roman ghost town preserved for centuries beneath a protective cocoon of hardened ash.
Unearthing Herculaneum’s Ruins:
Excavation of Herculaneum began in the 18th century. At first it was rather piecemeal and tended to result in the looting of preserved bronze statues and other valuable objects. Then, once Pompeii was discovered in 1748, attention shifted there as Pompeii was covered in significantly less hardened ash.
Excavation at Herculaneum resumed during the 20th century and continues today – more than 75% of the town is still buried. Based on what’s visible today, I can hardly imagine what treasures remain.
In the early 1980s, excavators discovered 300 remarkably well-preserved skeletons hidden in beachfront boathouses.
Today, efforts at the site are focused on preservation rather than excavation.
By far the cheapest and most ‘local’ way to visit Herculaneum is to take the Circumvesuviana. This train links Naples with Herculaneum, Pompeii and other suburban towns before terminating at Sorrento. The stop you want is Ercolano Scavi. It costs €2.50 each way from Naples, which you need to pay in cash.
Circumvesuviana timetables are available here. If you’re coming from central Naples, you’ll depart from Naples Garibaldi (Stazione Centrale F.S.). Ercolano Scavi is the 9th stop, and the journey takes just 16 minutes.
Once you exit the station, head down the main street for around 10 minutes. You definitely don’t need a shuttle, so don’t be persuaded by any touts outside the station! Herculaneum’s entrance is signposted.
You can also take a new express train from Naples that will get you to Herculaneum in 11 minutes. It’s direct but much more expensive at €15.00 return. Napoli Unplugged has more info on this service.
Note: Watch your valuables on the Circumvesuviana. Keep hand and camera bags closed and on your lap to avoid pickpockets targeting distracted tourists.
Entrance to Herculaneum costs €11.00, cash only. Concessions are €5.50. If you plan to visit Pompeii as well, you can buy a combined ticket that will save you a couple of euros. Opening hours are as follows:
- From 1 April to 31 October: 8.30 – 19.30 (last entrance 18.00)
- From 1 November to 31 March: 8.30 – 17.00 (last entrance 15.30)
The site is open every day except December 25, January 1 and May 1.
When to Visit:
I imagine Herculaneum could feel like a hot and crowded movie set fairly quickly at some times of the year. However, the site receives far fewer visitors than Pompeii, and since there is no parking for tour buses, you won’t have to navigate scads of people at once.
I visited in the lowest of the low season, on a bright and sunny Wednesday afternoon in February. I arrived around 3pm after my Vesuvius on horseback adventure, and I shared the site with Kelly the Horse Whisperer and around five other people. If this isn’t possible for you, consider arriving a couple of hours before closing time or first thing in the morning. Noon-ish might also be a good option, because there marathon day-trippers who are fitting both Pompeii and Herculaneum into one day (don’t do this!) have to eat at some point.
How to Visit:
There are three independent ways to visit Herculaneum:
- Wander around, snapping photos and gasping. This is mostly what I did.
- Download the map and guide from www.pompeiisites.org. (Lots of info on this site, btw!)
- Rent an audio guide from reception for a small fee.
Allow at least a couple of hours for your visit. Whichever way you choose, be a responsible and respectful visitor by following these tips:
- Tread softly! Here is not the place to toss garbage or dump out water bottles. The site gets enough water damage from rain and the plumbing in Ercolano.
- Do not take stones or objects with you.
- Do not climb on the ruins.
- Try to refrain from touching the ruins as much as possible. And definitely do not vandalise the site in any way.
- Protect yourself by wearing sturdy shoes, drinking water and wearing sunscreen.
Lastly, respect the site for what it is. Before any excavation, it was and still is a community’s final resting place.