There will those who will tell you that you shouldn’t bother visiting Pompeii. And then there are those who will tell you that you cannot miss it no matter what. I fall somewhere in the middle. If you’ve always wanted to go to Pompeii, then go. If it’s never interested you, then don’t. If you do go, plan your day carefully for maximum enjoyment. It’s popular and overrun with tourists for a reason. But it is overrun.
I’ve been to Pompeii twice. One trip was forgettable to disappointing and the other was a wonderful, memorable adventure. All of my opinions stem from these two trips. If I were to lead a day trip to Pompeii, this is how I’d do it.
Begin With A Trip Up Mount Vesuvius
While you could spend your whole day in the ruins of Pompeii, I think it’s more interesting to spend part of the day getting up close and personal with the infamous volcano that ruined Pompeii upon its eruption in 79 AD. Today Vesuvius is the only active volcano in mainland Europe. It stands at 4,000 feet high and when standing at the crater you might see little wisps of steam rising up. Anything more than that and the volcano tours are all cancelled in case of eruption.
To reach the summit, go by car, taxi, or bus and then hike. Three bus services leave from the Pompeii Scavi train station. All the tours are similarly priced and last about three hours with a little over an hour at the top.
We traveled with Busvia del Vesuvio, which took us on a fun, bumpy journey up a tiny, private back road in the national park. After purchasing tickets for 20 Euros, we hopped onto a basic, small bus and got an unexpected tour of modern Pompeii as we drove toward the volcano. Modern Pompeii feels like a suburb: houses stacked close together, gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, nothing to awe-inspiring at all. Before making the final ascent up the mountain, we all got out of the bus and into a bus that looked more like a monster truck that’s made by Mercedes.
This thing took us up impossibly small, windy roads in a pine forest while the driver screamed at someone on his cell phone. Wear your seatbelt. The driver will know if you don’t and he’ll call you out for it. The seatbelts link up to a dashboard so the driver knows when everyone is safely buckled in and can take off. Despite not loving the cell phone use while driving, I do have to say this driver seemed to know the road like the back of his hand.
The road finally opened up into a large parking area where we were all herded off the bus and directed to the trail to the summit. The driver told us it would take about half an hour to hike, but we made it there in 15 minutes even while stopping to admire the moon-like landscape and views of the Bay of Naples.
At the top there’s a small snack bar and gift shop. But beyond that, there’s this huge, incredible volcano crater that you came to see. I love all the varied shades of rock.
If you fancy a glass of wine, the locally made red at the summit of Vesuvius is actually fantastic. I didn’t try the white or the limoncello, but I bet they’re tasty too.
After taking in the view and having a drink, it was back to the monster truck, then the bus that returned us to the Pompeii Scavi train station. From there it’s just a short walk to the ticket office for Pompeii.
Be Your Own Guide At Pompeii
My dismal day at Pompeii was thanks to a too long and too short guided tour. It was too long because the guide was dull, dull, dull. It was too short because all I really saw were the backs of the heads of the other people on the tour. Talk about uninspiring.
The good news is that a guide is not required and there are so many guides to Pompeii available that you can be your own tour guide, no problem. We used Rick Steves’ Italy and followed the Self-Guided Tour in his book. You can also download his Self-Guided Tour audio.
The first thing we did was have lunch at the Ciao cafeteria within the Pompeii ruins. The sandwiches were fine, they filled us up quickly so we could start exploring quickly. I can’t say I’d recommend this spot for the food, but because there are only a few options near the train station you might as well eat at Ciao because it’ll be quick.
After lunch we spent about two hours following the guided tour and exploring on our own. We ducked away from the crowds many times and found ourselves alone with the ruins and the stray dogs that roam the place on several occasions. The only places we couldn’t avoid the crowds were the forum and the brothel. By taking a morning trip up Vesuvius, we ended up in Pompeii near closing time and during golden hour. The incredible light surely added to the magic of our trip.
Have you been to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius? What do you think?