Day Trip to Herculaneum: It’s Not Pompeii, But Its Ruins Pack a (Volcanic) Punch

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I love Rome’s ruins: the forum, the Palatine, the scattered bits of temple and theatre and bath. But I’m the first to admit that you need some imagination, and historical background, to look at “ruin” and see “ancient city.”

Not in Herculaneum.

Destroyed (or preserved), like Pompeii, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Herculaneum shows you more than the shape of the ancient town. It shows you the town itself. The site boasts two-story buildings, colorful frescoes, and near-perfect mosaics. And because it was dumped mainly with a dense, volcanic stone called tuff, rather than the ash that felled Pompeiians, it’s only here, not at its more-famous neighbor, that you can see remnants of actual wood. There’s nothing like seeing an ancient bedframe to feel uncomfortably close to the townspeople who died here nearly two millennia ago.

Even so, Herculaneum hasn’t managed to usurp the hold that Pompeii has in the international imagination. Why? It’s a lot smaller, for a start: about a third of the size. It’s also somewhat less grand. But with better-preserved buildings, less crowds, and a closer location to Rome, it’s also a rewarding alternative to its more-notorious neighbor. And don’t underestimate the site:  It takes the thorough visitor a good three hours to peek into each house’s nook and cranny.

To get to Herculaneum from Rome, take the train to Naples. The fastest train is 70 minutes and starts at €44 one way; the slowest, at 3 hours, costs €12.40. Go to Trenitalia’s website for times and fares, but remember to put in “Roma” and “Napoli,” not “Rome” and “Naples.” From there, grab the local train, the Circumvesuviana, to “Ercolano.”

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3 comments

  1. Hi Amanda,

    I’m looking at doing something like this in a couple weeks in march and I was curious what your impressions are of some of this trip. Specifically, I had heard the the Circumvesuviana train is pretty sketchy. The trip advisor page for the line is full of stories of muggings and pickpockets. What do you think of traveling to herculaneum or pompeii on this train as far as those situations are concerned? Thanks.

    1. Hey Nick,
      So glad you asked. What you mention is actually exactly why I don’t tend to trust forums like Tripadvisor: for the most part, people will only feel an urge to go on and share their experience if it was extremely bad (or extremely good). (Plus, everyone is usually only a tourist to the place they’re speaking about, so they brought their own stereotypes/prejudices along with them on the journey – sometimes, you see what you expect to see). I’ve probably taken the Circumvesuviana 20 times or so in the last seven or eight years (including round trip to Pompeii just this November). It’s cheap and it goes through, yes, some grittier ‘burbs of Naples, so there are some characters on board. And I’m sure sometimes pickpockets too – but you can say the same of the metro in Rome. As long as you use the same street smarts you’d use anywhere else (keep your wallet in your front pocket, purse zipped and any valuables on the bottom for ladies, avoid standing in a crowd but try to get a seat immediately instead, etc), you will most likely be absolutely fine. I definitely would never tell anyone to skip sites as fantastic as Pompeii or Herculaneum because of this kind of concern, and renting a car to drive is likely a lot more stressful, while a private driver will cost you a mint. I hope that helps, and let me know how it goes!

  2. Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for the tips! My day trip to Pompeii (along with the Domus aurea tour I read about here) was one of the major highlights of my trip. The neighborhoods and people certainly weren’t any more sketchy than those that I pass see on the MTA here in New York, and the views of Vesuvius along the way were stunning.

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