Pompeii vs Herculaneum: Which of these two sites is the best?

Pompeii vs Herculaneum: Which of these two sites is the best?

Askos Tours
Askos Tours

Many travellers are wondering which of the two archaeological towns are worth visiting if you have limited time. Although we believe that cultural excellence cannot be boxed into rankings of beauty and importance, with this short article we try to find an answer by showing the main differences and similarities between the two fascinating archaeological sites.




The early stages of the history of the two cities are quite dark. We know that in the initial centuries of the first millennium BC the Oscans, a fierce indigenous population, populated most of Campania. From the eighth century, Greek and Etruscan colonization began, which took large territories from the Oscans. It is possible that the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were founded between the seventh and sixth centuries by the Etruscans in places where maybe small Oscan settlements probably existed.

The people of the Samnites, who are thought to descend from the Oscans relegated to the Campania hinterland due to colonization, regained much of the region, and therefore Pompeii and Herculaneum, towards the end of the fifth century BC Finally, Rome planned to expand south of the peninsula in the fourth century, and after having fought the violent Samnite Wars for several decades, completed around 290 BC the conquest of Campania. Pompeii and Herculaneum remained two cities subject to Rome for about three centuries, until the day of their tragic end caused by Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The degree of conservation of both sites is very high. Streets with a perfect paving, frescoes with bright colours, extraordinary mosaics, rich houses, shops, and places of worship give travellers an exceptional visit of its kind. The traces of everyday life, like the hundreds of graffiti found on the walls of every public and private building, are still very clear, giving us an unparalleled glimpse of Roman society.

The distance as the crow flies between the two extraordinary buried cities is around 14 km. Herculaneum is about 6500 meters from the crater, Pompeii about 10500 meters. Both overlook the crowded gulf of Naples, which was already densely inhabited in Roman times as witnessed by Strabo in his Geographies, “…it is all occupied and by the cities we have said and by buildings and plantations which, by interposing each other seamlessly, they give the impression of a single city …"

The systematic excavations of both sites began at the behest of the great Enlighten king Charles III of Bourbon. It began in 1728 in Herculaneum, here extraordinary vestiges were immediately brought to light, and therefore in 1738 it was decided to proceed with excavations also in the fertile countryside where Pompeii remained buried for many centuries.


In 79 AD Mount Vesuvius generated a violent eruption that buried Pompeii with a layer of ashes and pumice between 3 and 5 meters thick, while Herculaneum was buried during the same volcanic event by two large mud flows between 15 and 25 meters thick overall.

In Herculaneum it is possible to admire the high floors of some buildings. Immediately after the eruption, most of the upper floors of the buildings in Pompeii emerged from the ground, and therefore were destroyed by the weather and by the farmers who soon returned to cultivate those fertile volcanic lands.

A violent fire burnt Herculaneum just before being buried by the mudslides. Coal does not decompose, and can remain unchanged for millennia, therefore in the city of Hercules furniture, decorations and architectural elements in charred wood have been preserved. Traces of many fires are also visible in Pompeii, but the number of charred finds found here is much lower than in Herculaneum.

Pompeii is stretched for about 60 hectares, of which two thirds have been excavated. The part of the city that is still buried is destined for horticultural crops. The excavated portion of Herculaneum extends for just less than 4 hectares. The perimeter of Pompeii is perfectly known, since all the walls have been brought to light, while the limits of ancient Herculaneum, which today is largely covered by the modern city, are not known.

Archaeologists estimate that Pompeii could have a population of 10,000 / 12,000 inhabitants, while in Herculaneum about 3000/4000 people could live.

Pompeii was a port city, located at the mouth of the Sarno river, then navigable and well connected to thriving inland cities such as Nocera, Acerra and Nola. The vocation of the city was therefore commerce. Precious agricultural products were exported, such as wine, garum and precious fabrics. Large markets were located in the city and there were large public buildings for political assemblies and religious cults. Pompeii was therefore a dynamic city, where men and goods landed from all over the Mediterranean basin, from Asia and from northern Europe.

Herculaneum was a village nestled on a volcanic cliff in the centre of the Gulf of Naples, and was primarily a holiday resort, where the Roman aristocracy spent pleasant summer vacations away from the heat of Rome. The Economy of Herculaneum was based on the administration of the rich villas, estates and productive activities that the Roman ruling class possessed in the area. For example Marco Nonio Balbo, former governor of Crete and Cyrenaica, retired and lived the last years of his life here; and the Pisoni, very rich exponents of the Roman senatorial class related to Augusto, owned a wonderful Villa in Herculaneum, perfectly intact at the time of its discovery in 1752. The famous Villa dei Papiri.

Thousands were the victims, although the exact number is not known. Most of those unfortunate died suffocated by poisonous gases and which invaded the towns a few hours after the outbreak of the volcano. Numerous casts exist of the victims of Pompeii. Although they resemble stone statues, they are made by pouring liquid plaster into the voids generated by the decomposition of bodies in volcanic ash. It is a positive transposition of the negative left in the ashes that compacted around the body of the deceased.

In Herculaneum, however, only the skeletons are preserved, piled in large numbers at the beach, where men, women and children had taken refuge to escape the eruption. These bones, always in perfect anatomical connection, still maintain the position taken by those people in the last moment of their life. Both in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the macabre spectacle is impressive. These individuals who fell because of the volcano tell the story of the tragedy as in a real photograph.

The urban layout of Pompeii is extraordinarily well preserved. Walking, and perhaps getting lost, in the narrow streets of the city can give an emotion that everyone should experience at least once in their life. The archaeological area of ​​Herculaneum, although having appreciable dimensions, is much smaller than Pompeii, and it would be quite difficult to get lost in its fascinating streets.

To answer the question covered by this article, we suggest the following:

  • If you have two days, we recommend visiting both sites, dedicating a full day to Pompeii and half a day to Herculaneum.
  • If you only have one day, we suggest you dedicate the morning (from 2 to 4 hours) to the visit of Pompeii and the afternoon (2 or 3 hours) to the visit of Herculaneum
  • If you only have a few hours available, we suggest starting with a visit to Pompeii.
  • The tours led by archaeologists organized by Askos Tours are the best way to discover all the secrets of the two cities.

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The experts in guided walking tours and experiences in some of Italy’s most famous sites of historic interest.