Back in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii, along with many other settlements. Pompeii was completely buried under the pyroclastic flow from the eruption, but under the volcanic material, the town was actually quite well preserved. Thanks to the efforts of archaeologists, we are able to walk down the ancient Roman streets of Pompeii and get a glimpse on how the ancient Romans used to live.
I think anybody who has visited the Pompeii ruins will agree with me when I say that the site is humongous. You could spend all day exploring the ruins and you still might not cover all of it. Here, I've put together 10 of my favourite spots on the site that I found most interesting, and that will give you a taste of some of the different aspects of day-to-day life for Pompeiians back then. If you have limited time, you can check these spots out.
Keep in mind that this is still an active excavation site, so there are still archaeologists working on it. Because of this, some of the buildings may be closed temporarily as they work on them.
1. Granai del Foro (Forum Granary)
The Forum Granary was once a granary market in ancient Pompeii, but it is now used to store many of the artifacts that have been excavated at the ruins. You can't enter it, but you can peek through the bars to see a number of the body casts as well as amphorae (ancient Roman jars) amongst other artifacts.
These body casts were created by pouring plaster into the holes left behind by the decomposed bodies in the hardened volcanic ash. They show how the bodies were positioned in their final moments. I've noted in this blog post where I found body casts on the ruins.
2. Terme Stabiane (Stabian Baths)
The Stabian Baths was one of the public bath complexes found in Pompeii. Only the very wealthy had private baths so most of the public would use these public bath complexes. They contain change rooms, toilets, as well as a number of baths. Baths for men and women were strictly divided back then, and the women's baths were a lot less decorated than the men's.
My favourite thing about the Terme Stabiane was seeing the exposed hypocaust, a very smart central heating system that the ancient Romans came up with. With the hypocaust, the floor was elevated and left hollow, held up by stacks of tiles. Hot air from the furnace would flow through this hollow flooring heating up the room.
A body cast can be found here.
3. Casa Del Fauno (House of the Faun)
The Casa Del Fauno was one of the largest private homes of in Pompeii. Here, on the floor, you can see a copy of the Alexander Mosaic which depicts a battle, and dates back to 100 BC. The original was moved to the Naples National Archaeological Museum for preservation but you can still see the amazing detail that went into the mosaic.
It was here that I discovered that I had a thing for intricate mosaic floors. Look at all these beautiful details!
The House of the Faun was not the only house that had some beautiful and detailed mosaics. Another standout house for mosaics that I came across was the Casa di Paquius Proculus, where you will find the floor of one room covered entirely with mosaic.
4. Theatre Area
In the theatre area of the ruins, you'll find the Large Theatre and the Small Theatre. Performances took place in both these theatres, with the Small Theatre having a capacity of roughly 1,000, and the Large Theatre being able to hold around 5,000 spectators! I enjoyed standing at the stage of the Large Theatre looking out towards the imaginary crowd, imagining I was performing in ancient Rome!
While we were there a musical performance was being filmed in the Small Theatre. I don't know who they are (if anyone knows, please leave a comment!), but they were performing Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind which is a song that is personally meaningful to me since I have great memories of my dad singing it to me as a child. It was really special to hear it being sung in this place with so much history!
There is also an amphitheatre in the Pompeii Ruins site (separate from the theatre area) which could house 20,000 spectators, but sadly we weren't able to enter it when I visited!
5. Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries)
This villa is actually on the outskirts of the Pompeii ruins, but the frescoes here are worth the walk to see. They show figures that are almost life-size, and some have interpreted the frescoes to be depicting the initiation of a woman into a mysterious cult. This is where the name of this villa came from.
A body cast can be found here.
6. Lupanare (Brothel)
This is the largest brothel found in Pompeii with 10 rooms. The rooms each had a stone bed which would have been covered with a mattress.
On the walls of the Lupanare, you can see frescoes depicting sexual scenes, and vulgar graffiti on the walls as well. Of course they are written in ancient languages so I didn't understand them, but you can find translations of some online.
Near the Lupanare, you will find phallic symbols on the walls nearby as a 'subtle' way of hinting that there was a brothel nearby.
7. Fullonica di Stephanus (Fullonica of Stephanus)
This laundry shop has some brilliant red walls. You can also see many basins where laundry was washed and pounded. Fun fact, urine was used to wash clothing back in the day!
8. Casa e Thermopolium di Vetutius Placidus (House and Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus)
Thermopoliums were food stalls that opened onto to the public road. I imagined them to be similar to the pojangmachas (tented street stalls) of Korea, but less mobile in nature. The people of Pompeii used to eat lunch outside of their homes, so they would go to thermopoliums. You can tell if you come across a thermopolium at the ruins by the counters with large jars in them which were used to hold food.
This particular thermopolium was attached to a house, and you can explore parts of the house as well. It was here that I learned that the Romans used to eat lying down in a room called the triclinium. In this house, there was a regular triclinium (left). The cove in the wall was there to accommodate for the the dining couches. They also had a summer triclinium (right) which opened up onto a garden.
9. Casa della Venere in Conchiglia (House of Venus in the Shell)
This house is described as an average sized house for the time. What stood out here was the beautiful fresco found on the end wall of the garden. It depicts Venus lying inside a shell with angels on either side of her.
This might be a strange one to put on the list, but I found the streets within the ruins to be fascinating. They are large cobblestoned streets with raised curbs on either side that were lined with shops and houses. The streets had visible grooves on them, created by the many carts and chariots that travelled on them. You'll also find crosswalks with large slabs of stone for those who were walking from one curb to the other, so that they could avoid the lowered part of the streets which were likely covered in waste since there wasn't an adequate sewage system in place like we have today. I think it's pretty amazing how much you can learn about the ancient Roman way of life just by looking at their streets!
Tips for Visiting the Pompeii Ruins
- Go early. These ruins are one of Italy's top tourist attractions so it will get crowded fast. You'll need the time here anyway!
- Wear comfortable shoes. The ancient roads, while interesting, are uneven and not easy to walk on.
- There is minimal shelter from the sun/rain here, so bring a hat or rain jacket. If you are going on a hot day, definitely bring water with you as well!
- Bring snacks. There is a cafeteria inside but if you want to save a bit of money and time, bring some food in.
- Read up on the ruins before visiting, and pick up a map at the entrance! I did not, and I regretted it. There is very little signage in many parts of the ruins.
- As tempting as it may be to rush into the ruins and start exploring, take a couple of minutes to check out the visitor centre (it's right near the entrance). When I went, they were playing a video that described what life was like in ancient Pompeii which I found interesting and helpful. There is also a body cast on display at the visitor centre.
- Many of the artifacts that were excavated at the ruins are now housed in the Naples National Archaeological Museum so if you are interested in seeing those, make a trip there!
Want to get here?
Hours: Check this site for the current hours
Getting here: Easily accessible via the Circumvesuviana train. Get off at the Pompei Scavi station.
Admission: 11 Euros, but you can can also get the 20 Euro 5 site pass if you're hoping to visit a couple of sites.
Estimated time to spend here: At least 4 hours. I spent 5 hours here and didn't even see everything!
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