"An entirely different experience." Top 5 Page for this destination Herculaneum by leics

Herculaneum Travel Guide: 93 reviews and 369 photos

The first time I visited Herculaneum (in 2008) I'd lost a day of my trip because the first officer on my plane had been taken ill over the Alps (aaargh!) and we had to make an emergency landing and emergency overnight stay in Milan. I'd already been at Pompeii for 5 hours, and thought I could just manage Herculaneum too, at the end of the afternoon.

So I hopped onto the Circumvesuviana train, walked down the hill from the station........and really wished I'd allowed myself time for a longer visit, and that I wasn't already so tired. I decided then that, the next time I visited, Herculaneum would get the attention it deserved.

It was another few years before I managed the return visit, but I'm glad I did. I made sure, even in mid-October, that I got to the site as early as possible. The whole area is full of school and tour groups (and cruise groups, if a ship is in port) throughout the season, and some groups visit out of season as well. There were far more people about in October than in February or March (when I had visited before). Even at 9am, there were a couple of tour groups...and more kept arriving throughout my visit.

Even so, getting there early meant I could explore most of the streets and houses alone, which always makes the whole experience so much more atmospheric.

Herculaneum is a much smaller site than Pompeii, and much of it still lies underneath modern Ercolano (not a pretty place although not in any way dangerous and is thus unexcavatable. But what I had not fully realised, despite many years of reading and programme-watching, was the huge difference in preservation between the two sites. Herculaneum was covered by a slow-moving flow of rock and mud (its inhabitants were first killed by super-heated gases from the eruption) which created an anaerobic environment, allowing organic materials to survive as well as the upper floors of buildings.

So here are iron window frames, and wooden beams and steps (charred black, but still in their original positions), and in the museums lie preserved fabrics and furniture. Herculaneum's streets are narrower, its buildings taller, there are more wall-paintings and better-preserved ones: the whole site seems more 'alive' than Pompeii.

Pompeii was an ordinary working town but Herculaneum was much more of a seaside resort, although the richest of the rich has their own summer villas on the ancient coastline (the eruption pushed the sea back by several hundred metres in many places). If you want a taste of how the *really* rich lived then visit Vill Poppea in Oplontis (Torre Annnunziata Circumvesuviana stop) or the vast villa complexes near Castellammare di Stabia.

For some reason, Herculaneum makes you understand that it was a real place with real people living there, more so than Pompeii (possibly because the latter is often so crowded). The deep excavation one crosses to enter the site was originally the shoreline. Knowing that more than 300 skeletons were excavated there in 1980, people whose last moments were spent desperately trying to escape, brings home the terror they must have experienced.

In the 'House of the Beautiful Courtyard' you'll see the skeletons of three young people (two men and a woman). One of the men has his arms around the woman, holding her head tightly to his chest to comfort her (and himself) in those last seconds. One can only begin to imagine their feelings....

On my second visit I spent three hours exploring, twice as long as I'd managed the first time. Three hours seems to me about the right length of time, time to explore each of the houses, time to wonder at the tiny, detailed paintings which were commonplace wall decoration, to enjoy the mosaic flooring, to imagine what it was like to eat at the local thermopolium (cafe) with their huge amphorae for food set into the marble counter, to visit the baths, to imagine what the streets sounded like when filled with people, hawkers, carts, time to sit quietly in one of the once-beautiful gardens and just imagine.....

Not all of excavated Herculaneum is accessible. The site was neglected for many, many years and I saw evidence of deterioration even in the few years since my first visit. There are ongoing stabilisation and restoration works, and grandiose plans for a whole new 'presentation' of the site, with access by lifts and glass roofs and parkland and goodness knows what else.

I'm dubious about these plans (in 2011 they were displayed in detail on signage within the site access). Whilst they may help to address the major and ongoing problems of keeping Herculaneum stable and preserved (which costs a vast amount of money) they also seemed to me to be creating a 'theme park' out of something which, in my opinion, is magnificent as it is. I saw much the same concept at Stabiae, where the villas are being over-reconstructed (again, in my opinion).

It is entirely possible to restore and preserve without trying to reconstruct everything. I am unhappy that vast amounts of money (from elsewhere, in the main) seems to be pouring in to make these sites more 'accessible' (I do not mean accessible to those with mobility difficulties)...which will actually mean making them a Disneyfied version of themselves.

So, my advice to you is to visit Herculaneum, Pompeii and the other ancient sites in the area as soon as possible. These sorts of mega-projects takes years to complete, assuming that they are completed, and there is still time for you to experience Herculaneum etc in their almost-original conditions.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Superbly atmospheric.
  • Cons:Get there early: it's a popular, and very small, site.
  • In a nutshell:An entirely different experience.
  • Last visit to Herculaneum: Oct 2011
  • Intro Updated Feb 21, 2013
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Reviews (6)

Comments (9)

    Apr 20, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    Visited in April 2012 and your pages captures the feeling of the place 100%. I read in before we went and was really helpful now on the return read, it brings back wonderful memories. Thanks

  • Basaic's Profile Photo
    Nov 3, 2011 at 1:20 PM

    Looks like a fascinating place, especially The Hall of the Augustals! Great page!

  • mickeyboy07's Profile Photo
    Oct 23, 2011 at 5:29 AM

    Italy seems like a second home to you,great tips and photos

  • Homanded's Profile Photo
    Sep 18, 2011 at 5:05 AM

    Fantastic images and great tips throughout your Italy pages. Am counting down the weeks and days but pre-living them through your tips and travelogues.

  • Turska's Profile Photo
    Aug 20, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    Looks VERY interesting!

  • dancinbudgie's Profile Photo
    Jan 26, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    I will find time to see this place I think....

  • iandsmith's Profile Photo
    Oct 2, 2009 at 2:27 PM

    I'm heading there next week, thanks for your tip.

  • angiebabe's Profile Photo
    Jan 19, 2009 at 10:27 AM

    Ive been waiting/holding off getting here but been really wanting to - I can see I would/will love it when I finally arrive!Thanks for the informative and encouraging write up.

  • TheWanderingCamel's Profile Photo
    Mar 8, 2008 at 2:36 PM

    I was taken to Herculaneum in 1969 - I'd never even heard of it then - and have always wanted to go back - this year is it! leyle


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