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 from Sorrento to Pompeii and toured the entire ruins. Most of what we read in the guidebooks beforehand suggested allowing two to three 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 interest in touring Pompeii.
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.
The Train From Sorrento to Pompeii
We caught the earliest Circumvesuviana train from Sorrento to Pompeii, which is roughly halfway between Sorrento and Naples and an easy hour ride. The early weekday train to Pompeii was not crowded, though the train ride back to Sorrento late in the afternoon was mostly packed with commuters heading home from work in Naples - so crowded that we didn’t have a seat until we were almost back in Sorrento. That’s something to consider if you have dinner plans to get back to in Sorrento, get claustrophobic, or have difficulty standing on trains. We were exhausted after a long day of walking the ruins, and not being able to sit down wasn’t a great experience.
So the question isn't how to get to Pompeii from Sorrento - it's when. Try and arrive just after the morning work rush, and head back to Sorrento before 3:30-4:00pm. Most of the commuters seemed to exit at several stops before Sorrento.
Touring Pompeii: Should You Take a Tour or Go it Alone
What's the best way to see Pompeii - in a group tour, with a private guide, or touring Pompeii on your own?
Group Tours of Pompeii
Group tours can be an excellent way to see the sites, and there are many reputable companies that organize trips to Pompeii. 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 in September - 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 people couldn't hear the guide due to the size of the group - which is the main reason I dislike group tours in general, but especially for Pompeii - only the 6 people around the Tour Guide get any benefit. Also, the side "streets" in the Park are narrow, and you'll be blocking the street if you try and stick close to the Guide. Some larger groups left their trash behind and their Guide said nothing about it. And we were nearly run over a few times. Ugh.
Also - and perhaps most important when visiting an iconic site like Pompeii - is that 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.
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 - with various interpretations of history. Some guides are not licensed by Pompeii at all, so I recommend checking online before you visit for recommendations and background.
Hiring a Private Guide gives you the best of both worlds - the knowledge of a tour guide and the personal one-on-one attention that a tour like this demands. If you're planning on spending any amount of time here or at Herculaneum, a Private Guide may be worth the modest investment.
Touring Pompeii on your Own
We decided to tour Pompeii on our own, foregoing a large tour group. In retrospect however, I wish we would have arranged for a Private Guide ahead of time. If you decide to go it alone, there is an audio tour and a free English map available at the Visitor Information office. We also used Rick Steves' walking tour of Pompeii for guidance before our trip - another highly recommended resource.
All in all, we did well on our own, however a Private Guide no doubt would have saved us some time - maybe even a couple of hours that we could have used to see Herculaneum on the same day..
What to Do in Pompeii in One Day
You can see all of the Pompeii ruins in one day - and Herculaneum too , if you set a quick pace - and it's most impressive. Walking on preserved mosaic floors, seeing original structures still standing for the most part, and the preserved frescoed paintings is like a step back to 75AD.
You'll have plenty of time to walk through the gardens and homes of the wealthiest citizens, as well as the small homes and markets, Roman baths, the Colosseum, and the fascinating brothel with its erotic paintings.
The city streets in the Park are narrow with three or four large elevated stepping stones still in place that once prevented pedestrians crossing the street from getting their sandals wet or dirty from flooding or sewage.
Homes in Pompeii reflect an interesting daily interaction amongst social classes, but also 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.
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 Best Time to Visit Pompeii
Without a doubt, visiting Pompeii in the peak summer months is probably the worst time to visit. If you must, you must, but try and plan around this time if at all possible. The crowds - as I mentioned above - aren't just bad, they're crushing. Add in the oppressive summer heat, and it has the potential to ruin your experience. For that reason alone, we suggest planning your visit during the shoulder season.
Shoulder Season - April, May, and October are better times to visit Pompeii, when the heavy summer crowds have not yet begun or have dissipated. The weather is very nice this time of year in the southern part of Italy, though April can have some rainy days.
Winter - It may sound odd to visit southern Italy in the winter months, though it has its rewards. November through March can be a great time to visit when the south doesn't get the chilly temperatures as northern Italy does, and sites like Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Pasteum have very few crowds. The days are shorter, however, so if this is tempting, just remember to double check the shorter seasonal hours for bigger sites.
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.
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.
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.
What wasn't so impressive about Pompeii are some of the methods of preservation, at least up to this point. We saw closets full of relic bins - with intact terra cotta pots, urns, and bones - covered with dust and completely exposed to the sun and elements, not to mention the tens of thousands of tourists traipsing through each day.
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.
Clearly, the ruins of Pompeii are a huge cash cow for the Campania region and I hope government finances and historical grants allow for greater resources for preservation and interpretation in the future. But touring Pompeii was a highlight of our travels in southern Italy, and definitely hard to beat. It should be on any itinerary, along with nearby Herculaneum. The experience was awe-inspiring to imagine life and death as it came to the residents of Pompeii back in August of 79 AD.