Best Way to See Pompeii: Tours, Private Guide, or On Your Own?

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I couldn't have imagined it in my wildest dreams... the history, the preservation, the enormity of Pompeii. It's completely fascinating, yet chilling to imagine that day so long ago in 79AD.

 

We took a day trip to Pompeii from Sorrento and toured the entire city. Most of what we read in the guidebooks beforehand suggested allowing two hours to tour the grounds. We got there at 10:00am and left at 4:30pm, and could have stayed longer. I'm not a serious Roman Empire buff, but I am a photographer who enjoys history and archeology, so I had more than a casual, quick-tour interest in the ruins.

The Basilica of Pompeii, with only remnants of its once-stately columns

Pompeii brings new meaning to the saying "if these walls could talk", so if that's up your alley, you'll love exploring the ancient ruins. There's so much to see, it can be positively overwhelming. And though our feet were killing us by the end of the day we still wanted to duck in every last house and dwelling where there was anything to see.

Mount Vesuvius towers over the ruins of Pompeii

Pompeii sits between Naples and Sorrento, and is accessible from both on the Circumvesuviana train.

Train From Sorrento to Pompeii

 

We caught the earliest Circumvesuviana train from Sorrento to Pompeii, which is roughly halfway between Sorrento and Naples. The early weekday train to Pompeii was uncrowded, though returning to Sorrento late in the afternoon was packed with tourists and commuters heading home from work in Naples - something to keep in mind if you have late dinner plans back in Sorrento. Most of the commuters seemed to exit at several stops before Sorrento.

 

Take a Tour or Go it Alone

 

What the best way to see Pompeii - tours, private guides, or on your own?

 

Private Guides - There are experienced guides you can hire at the park entrance, or arrange for one well before your visit (I found several good recommendations on Fodors.com forums). Tour guides do vary in terms of site knowledge, as we could hear passing by during their tours. There were varying interpretations. Some guides are not licensed by PompeIi at all, so I recommend checking online before you visit for recommendations and background.

 

Pompeii Tours - Group tours can be an excellent way to see the sites, however I'm sorry to say I would not recommend a group tour of Pompeii. There must have been 25,000 tourists the day we visited - I can't imagine what it's like in the busy summer season. Tour groups were literally running to keep up with their guides. Some appeared unable to hear the guide due to the size of the group, and others left trash behind. We were nearly run over a few times. Also, most tours we saw appeared to only visit 3 or 4 main attractions like the Roman Baths and the brothel, which to me is like visiting Italy and just having a bowl of spaghetti.

 

Our Choice - We decided to tour Pompeii on our own, foregoing joining a large tour group. In retrospect however, I wish we would have arranged for a Private Guide ahead of time. If you go it alone, there is an audio tour and a free English map available at the Visitor Info office. We also used Rick Steves' walking tour of Pompeii for guidance before our trip - another highly recommended resource. 

Typical residential Roman style architecture with a central foyer inside the entrance, with smaller rooms radiating from there.

Pompeii Points of Interest

 

Most everything about Pompeii was impressive - walking on preserved mosaic floors, seeing original structures still standing for the most part, and the preserved frescoed paintings. We walked through gardens and homes of the wealthy, small homes and markets, Roman baths, their Colosseum, and brothels. The city streets were narrow with three or four large elevated stepping stones still in place that prevented pedestrians crossing the street from getting their sandals wet or dirty from flooding or sewage.

This figure seems to stand watch from a mural on a home's wall, the original paint colors still have some vibrancy.

Homes in Pompeii show an interesting daily interaction amongst all classes, but very distinct lifestyles between the aristocracy, merchants, and the working class. Throughout the ruins, you'll see what remains of sprawling, luxury villas, in close proximity to public baths, lower class homes, and brothels.

 

An original colorful mosaic in the garden of a Pompeii home

One villa we toured contained an interesting three-legged carved marble table with lion paw legs. Historical documents determined the table once belonged to the Roman Senator Casas Longus, who was the first to strike Caesar in 44BC on the Senate floor when they assassinated him on the Ides of March. It's presumed that after he was exiled to Macedonia with Brutus and his other co-conspirators, his belongings were sold to the public and the wealthy owner of this villa bought the table.  

The elaborate floor mosaics are still intact in this Pompeii villa. A sunken fountain sits just inside the front entrance of the home.

Pompeii Preservation

 

In the mid-late 18th century, the earliest "excavation" of Pompeii occurred, though at the time, it was mostly looting of arts and other priceless artifacts. Thankfully, much of the spoils remain in the Naples Archeological Museum, which is well worth a visit while you're there.

Looking into the face of humanity and destruction. Both are equally chilling - the death pose of the victim under glass, and the seeming nonchalance of the crowd.

It wasn't until the late 19th century and early 20th century that a more academic approach to excavation was used, including the use of plaster casts. 

He sleeps.

When archeologists began excavation, hollow pockets were found throughout the pumice and ash where people fell from the pyroclastic blast and were instantly buried. As bodies decomposed, empty hollow spaces remained which were later filled with plaster to recreate the forms. It was fascinating but extremely haunting. Many of the forms reveal the sudden and grueling nature of their deaths, contorted in ways that suggest they had very little time to act before the blast was at their door. Suffocation from volcanic gas and burial beneath debris and ash followed. In some figures, small bones and teeth remain as part of the casts. 

An original serpent mural, a symbol of good luck and fertility in ancient Pompeii.

What wasn't so impressive about Pompeii are some of the methods of preservation, at least up to this point. Closets full of relic bins - with intact terra cotta pots, urns, and bones - were covered with dust and completely exposed to the sun and elements, not to mention tens of thousands of tourists in a day in the off season.

 

There also didn't appear to be much regulation or interpretation for visitors, though I understand this is improving due to the PompeiViva rebranding effort.

The underground tunnels beneath the ampitheatre.

Overall

 

Best Way to See Ruins of Pompeii

Clearly, the ruins of Pompeii are a huge cash cow for the region and I hope government finances and historical grants in the future allow for greater resources for preservation and interpretation.

 

But touring the ruins was a highlight of our travels in southern Italy, and definitely hard to beat. It should be on any itinerary, along with Herculaneum, not too far from Pompeii. The experience was awe-inspiring to imagine life and death as it was back in August of 79 AD.

Have You Been to Pompeii? Did you take a tour or go it alone?