Herculaneum Travel GuideIntroduction
The ancient site of Herculaneum, or “Ercolano” to locals, is located in Campania, in the Amalfi Coast area of Italy, and is easily accessible from the cities of Naples and Sorrento. Though it is a functional town with restaurants and facilities, it mainly remains an important archeological site and is named after the ancient Roman city which comprises its main attraction. The original city of Herculaneum fell due to the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD which also destroyed other cities like nearby Pompeii, Stabiae, Oplontis, and Monte Bursaccio. Today, visitors can view the well-preserved finds from the excavations which offer a glimpse into the lives of the citizens of ancient Ercolano before their unfortunate demise. Herculaneum is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While Pompeii is usually what comes to mind when the Mount Vesuvius eruption is discussed, it is worth noting that the artifacts and structures at Herculaneum are actually much better preserved than those at Pompeii. Visiting Herculaneum is a great way to really see how ancient Romans may have lived, as items such as doors, beds, and in some cases, even food, have managed to be preserved after all this time.
This pristine condition is mostly due to the fact that the city experienced a series of pyroplastic flows in rapid succession which ended up burying the buildings (and unfortunately, the people inside them as well) quickly, and pretty much keeping everything in its place in an airtight seal. A lot of people compare the process to that of quickly injecting plaster into a mold. This is in comparison with Pompeii which suffered events such as ash fall, the weight of which caused a lot of roofs to collapse.
These days, much of the city still remains to be uncovered, and archeologists continue the delicate and arduous task of excavating and unearthing more and more artifacts. In the meantime, preservation and restoration work is also being performed on uncovered areas.
What to See
Within the ruins of ancient Herculaneum itself, there are several points of interest that one should make a point to see.
The Villa of the Papyri
This large ancient Roman villa appears to have been the height of luxury at its time as it has been discovered that it stretches down towards the sea in four terraces, with a seafront length of about 250 meters. What is most interesting about this location, though, would be its library of scrolls. Because of the extreme heat from the volcanic eruption and its effects, the scrolls are badly carbonized, which means that it is very brittle and delicate, making it impossible to open them without destroying the entire document. Archeologists and scholars are holding on to these scrolls as they wait for advances in technology that will allow them to finally read the contents of the scrolls.
The House of the Beautiful Courtyard
This courtyard is unusual because it more closely resembles a medieval Italian courtyard than that of the typical ancient Roman ones. This characteristic has been amazing and baffling many all these years, and further studies are being made on the origins and history of this particular structure. Also on display in this area, under a protective case, are two skeletons.
The House of Neptune and Amphitrite
This spot is a must-see for its vivid and beautiful mosaics, of particular note of which is one featuring the god Neptune and his wife, Amphitrite.
Other interesting points within the ruins:
- The Baths of Herculaneum
- College of the Augustales
- Samnite House
- House of the Deer
Museo Archeologico Virtuale (MAV)
The MAV is an interactive museum which features and recreates the day to day lives of the people in Pompeii and Herculaneum prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, all with the help of modern technology and virtual reality.
Tips and Advice
- If you’re not arriving with a group in your own shuttle, Herculaneum is easily accessible via bus or commuter train from Naples and Sorrento. From the station, you can then choose to either take a short walk to the site, or hop on one of the waiting shuttles that will take you there for a few euros. There are also other shuttles that offer rides and short tours to Mount Vesuvius itself.
- The Herculaneum ticket office is a great place to get maps and guides. If you don’t already have one, there are also tour guides for hire here, as well as audio guides for rent (be aware though, that to rent the equipment, you will have to leave some form of identification at the office which you can take back after you’ve returned the audio guides).
- Eat before entering the site, or bring your own food (just remember to dispose of your trash properly after your meal!). There are many places to eat at from the train station to the site itself, but though Ercolano has facilities such as tourist offices and the like, there are very few dining options available once you enter the site itself. There are, however, plenty of places to buy drinks from, including local street vendors.
- Bring cash for your entrance ticket, as the ticket office doesn’t always accept credit cards.
- Be aware that there is very little shade at the site, and it can get very warm. Because of this, be sure to travel light, bring a drink along, wear sunscreen, and maybe bring an umbrella or hat to protect yourself from the sun and avoid dehydration or heatstroke.
- The paths at the site are mostly made of cobbled stone, and are therefore rather rough and uneven. This may pose a problem for persons with disabilities, or for families traveling with small children.