A guide to visiting Herculaneum, Italy

Herculaneum (Ercolano) was an ancient town, destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79, which also claimed Herculaneum’s more famous neighbour – Pompeii.

Like Pompeii, Herculaneum has been preserved, more or less in tact and is a fascinating place to visit to step back in history. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is definitely worth visiting – you can cover most of it in half a day and a lot of the murals, houses and streets are better preserved than in Pompeii.


History of Herculaneum

Like Pompeii, Herculaneum is famous as one of the few ancient cities to be preserved by the thick layer of ash that blanketed it from the explosion and protected it from the elements, and time itself. The material that covered Herculaneum also carbonised and so preserved wood in objects such as roofs, beds, doors and papyrus.

The city was then rediscovered in the 1700s, and unfortunately the early digs were completed by treasure hunters who removed many artefacts without authorisation. Regular excavations began in 1738, and have continued ever since. Today, only part of the ancient site has been excavated and in many ways I found it to be much better preserved than Pompeii. This is because Herculaneum was a wealthier town, so there was far more lavish use of coloured marble and luxurious murals which are beautiful to visit.


How to get there

Getting to Herculaneum is easy from the nearby towns of Naples or Sorrento. The easiest and fastest option is to take the Circumvesuviana train from either town to the stop Ercolano, which takes about 30 minutes. It’s then a short downhill walk to the site.

If you are visiting from Rome, you would have to get the fast train in to Naples first, with the full journey to Herculaneum taking around 2.5 hours.

You can also drive to Herculaneum if you have a car available, and there is an underground car park at the site which costs only 2 Euros per hour. Compared to driving in some parts of Italy, it’s a fairly easy drive.


Site information

Herculaneum is a relatively small site and you can easily walk around it in a couple of hours. The entrance fee to the site is 11 Euros and it opens at 8.30am. In the summer months it stays open until 7.30pm, so there is plenty of time to fit in a visit. At the entrance, maps and guides in various languages are available, so there is no need for a guided tour given you can follow it yourself and follow the map round.


What to see at Herculaneum

There are lots of beautiful things to see at Herculaneum, but here are my 5 favourite:

1. House of the Neptune Mosaic

Named for the well-preserved, vivid, glass wall mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite, this house also has a courtyard with a Nymphaeum, a grotto-like alcove with a fountain.

2. House of the Relief of Telphas

It’s not every day you get to stand in a house built between 27 BC and 14 AD! This three-story home was decorated with a number of sculptures, including one of Telephus, son of founder of the city, Hercules. The atrium is lined with columns supporting the upper floor, which I thought were particularly jazzy.

3. Hall of the Augustals

This hall was the seat to the College of the Augustales, free men who were devotees of the cult of the Emperor Augustus. The highlights are two beautiful frescoes – one with a depiction of Hercules entering Mount Olympus accompanied by Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and another depicting Hercules wrestling Achelous. Interestingly, the skeleton of the building’s custodian was found laid out on his bed.

4. The food bars

One of my favourite things in Herculaneum was the really well preserved food bars. From here, food and drink would have been served to people, like a modern day restaurant or shop.

5. Roman Baths

These are well-preserved thermal baths, and there were separate ones for men and women. The water was fed via a deep well which was heated by a furnace. It’s amazing how well preserved the mosaic floors were.


Herculaneum or Pompeii?

The easy answer is that if you have time – do both! Spend a day in Pompeii and then a half day in Herculaneum. However, if you only have one day there is no way you want to try and do both – you will have site fatigue and may as well do one properly, rather than rush around both and not appreciate it. Which one I think depends on your interests.

Pompeii Benefits:

  • Much bigger site, with more things to see
  • More famous
  • Can easily spend a day there
  • If you’re a real historian with an interest in a the Roman era, then visiting Pompeii is a must

Herculaneum Benefits:

  • Smaller, more manageable site where you can see everything
  • Only need half a day there
  • Much better preserved
  • WAY less people
  • If you want to get a feel for what ancient Rome was like, without spending a whole day or dealing with the crowds, with better photos, then Herculaneum is probably the option for you.

Thank you for reading. I hope you found this post helpful if you’re planning a visit to Italy, or are just interested to learn about such an historic site. Stay safe and happy travelling!

22 Comments

    1. Ahh I’m so glad it brought back nice memories for you. I totally agree, I definitely preferred Herculaneum to Pompeii in terms of the crowds and preservation of everything. Such an amazing place 🙂 Have a great day.

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  1. I’ve only visited Pompeii, and I actually had never heard of Herculaneum before. But I agree with you in that it’s a LOT better-preserved than the ruins in Pompeii, and I’d love to check out their mosaic details, which I’m amazed have been kept in near-pristine condition. Perhaps one day I’ll return to that part of Italy to see the tragic, yet fascinating history of Herculaneum!

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    1. Ahh Pompeii is definitely much more famous, but I loved Herculaneum as it was much less busy and much more colourful. I hope you do get to return one day, I think Italy is one of those countries that everyone could go back to time and time again 🙂 Have a lovely day Rebecca!

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  2. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited both – (both at the height of summer and Pompeii more than once). I agree that Herculaneum is much better preserved and more interesting but if tied for time and have to choose then I’d say you can’t really miss Pompeii. I’d forgotten that there was so much colour there….. and those mosaics … fabulous….

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    1. Yes Pompeii is definitely too famous to miss, though Herculaneum is such a lesser known gem. I loved it (and the much reduced crowds!). Oh to be in Italy right now! Have a great day Marie 🙂

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  3. Amazing blog post, and super informative! I remember going to Pompeii when I was a kid and I loved discovering the place. When you are there you actually feel so close to the people that used to live there as you see that we are not that different. I especially loved the food bars – I would have loved to see how it was back then! 😊 Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks so much Juliette, I really appreciate your kind words! That is so true, you can’t help but imagine people’s stories and how they lived. It’s such an interesting place to visit – I can’t wait to get back to exploring again 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Herculaneum is definitely well worth a visit, though you can’t miss Pompeii if limited for time as it’s so famous! Ah no, you didn’t, but thank you so much for the nomination 🙂 I have already done it so will politely decline but really appreciate you thinking of me. Thanks for stopping by and have a great Friday.

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