Everyone's heard of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city preserved by the long-ago eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Not as many people know that there is another ancient city close to Pompeii that was also preserved by the same volcanic eruption. Herculaneum may not be as well known as Pompeii, but it offers the same opportunity to wander through an eerie ancient town that its better-known sister city does. So which city should a busy visitor plan to see?
The choice of whether to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum will depend on a few factors such as the weather, your mobility, the amount of time you have, your interests and your wallet. Now let's look at the reasons you should pick one over the other if you simply can't do both. Here's everything you need to know to make an informed decision.
Pompeii is much larger than Herculaneum. Pompeii is so big in fact that if you want to see everything it can be hard to fit it all into only one day. At Pompeii, you need to be prepared to walk all day on cobbled streets with large spaces between rocks and high curbs. This is not an ideal tourist attraction for anyone who is unsteady on their feet or has trouble standing or walking for long periods of time. It may be an obvious point but I'll say it anyway: good walking shoes are a must. Seriously. Don't show up in flip-flops.
Herculaneum, on the other hand, is smaller. It's more densely packed with structures than Pompeii so you will be constantly wowed as you navigate around. With less ground to cover, you can see it all in less time and your feet will probably thank you. Of course, you'll still need those good walking shoes.
Due to its smaller size, it stands to reason that Herculaneum has fewer main attractions. There is just less stuff but that certainly doesn't mean it isn't worthy of your precious vacation time. Herculaneum doesn't have the amphitheatre, multiple theatres, brothel or the ever-popular bodies encased in pumice and ash of Pompeii. If any of these are a must-see for you, Pompeii should be your choice.
Remember that although you may want to see everything at Pompeii because it's so expansive, you may need to prioritize. Go in with a plan of the things you can't miss and start there. If you have more time and energy then you can continue to explore after the must-sees have been checked off.
I know you're thinking that Pompeii has everything but Herculaneum is no slouch. Although it's smaller and has fewer attractions, everything it does have is very well preserved compared to Pompeii. It was also a wealthier city. You can expect better and more extravagant frescoes with more colour, remnants of wood that were carbonized and even furniture like beds which you won't find at Pompeii. All of this really helps you to imagine what life was like back then.
The first eruption in 79 A.D. hit Pompeii worse than Herculaneum. This allowed more people to escape and the buildings are less damaged. Most buildings in Pompeii no longer have any roofs whereas in Herculaneum they do. The site was covered more gradually from the Vesuvius eruptions so fewer structures collapsed.
Sometimes travelling feels like everyone has their hand in my wallet (not just my wife). It's nice to save where you can. Herculaneum is cheaper than Pompeii. The cost of entry to Pompeii is €15 whereas Herculaneum is €11. It's a somewhat small difference but for a couple travelling together, you can save €8 on the entrance fees alone.
As a less touristed attraction, Herculaneum, in general, is cheaper. Your drinks, food, and extra options for tours will all be less costly than Pompeii. Even saving only €8 will help your wallet – it can definitely buy you a delicious lunch. Two Margherita pizzas in a not so touristy restaurant in Naples will cost you about that. And you simply cannot leave this area without having at least one.
Pompeii is the place that everyone has heard of. They've even made several movies about it. It stands to reason that it is much more popular. Pompeii welcomes between 2.5 and 3 million visitors each year. Its smaller counterpart just down the road, Herculaneum, gets some 300,000 visitors yearly. Even in a smaller space, this will dramatically affect the crowds. Doing some simple math (even though it isn't my strong suit) means that Herculaneum will have approximately 10% of the crowds of Pompeii. You will definitely notice that.
If you're travelling to Italy in the summer, Herculaneum is a good respite from the extensive crowds of the many Italian tourist attractions. You will have fewer people to manoeuvre around, fewer people in your photos and smaller lines.
Most people visit Italy in the summer. That's when you have time off and the weather's good but it's hot. I mean really hot. There is nothing you can wear or do to make it not hot unless you are just going to the beach. Heatstroke can be a major concern, especially if you are not used to the amount of sun and heat.
The only way to deal with the heat is to find shade and cold drinks. At Pompeii, the cold drinks will be more expensive and there will be a bigger line. A shaded place to sit is a pipe dream. You will be out in the sun for your entire visit.
At Herculaneum, the drinks will be cheaper and there is more shade. It might still be difficult to find a seat but the shade does exist. This is another reason why I mentioned that the buildings in Herculaneum have roofs. You can escape the sun much easier here just by touring around the shaded structures.
Whether you choose Pompeii or Herculaneum, I sincerely believe you will not be disappointed. Even casual tourists with a passing interest in these ancient ruins will be amazed. You will see frescoes, graffiti, wall carvings, ancient homes and relics. Some are better preserved than others but you get the idea. This is the closest you're going to get to travelling back in time to the Roman era, and it is an experience not to be missed.
Both these sites are easily accessed by train from either Naples or Salerno. You can walk the sites yourselves, hire guides or do a self-guided audio tour. I would recommend the audio tours so you get a little history and know what you're looking at but can still go at your own pace.
To recap, if you are super into this kind of thing, you should absolutely try and visit both sites. If that's just not possible then Herculaneum is less crowded, cooler and better preserved. Pompeii has the better attractions of preserved bodies, the amphitheatre, baths and brothel.
Now all you need to do is decide what's most important to you and which site suits you best then hop on the train and start exploring! Bonum cursum! (That's ‘have a good trip' in Latin.)