Uncovering Daily Roman Life - A Rome to Pompeii Day Trip
One of history’s greatest tragedies is that of Pompeii. What was once a bustling port city and entrance into the Roman world was completely destroyed in 79AD by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Much of the ancient city has been excavated and most historians agree that it gives one of the best depictions of what everyday Roman life was like.
In my 20’s I visited Pompeii and to be honest, I don’t remember much beyond the human casts and stray dogs. Now in my 30’s, I wanted to get more out of my visit. So I did a Rome to Pompeii day trip and met Paolo - a charming and knowledgable certified tour guide.
He painted a vivid picture of Pompeiian life and left me with a greater understanding of the ancient city. I’ll share some of my highlights and logistical tips for planning a visit to Pompeii.
GO IF YOU LIKE:
ancient history | tragedies | mosaic tiles | roman life | stray dogs
Daily Life in Pompeii
Housing and Living Conditions
The streets of Pompeii are lined with houses but the interesting part of the layout is that wealthy and poor families lived side by side.
Next to humble lots with nothing inside are opulent houses which were owned by prominent aristocrats. To see the difference you need to look inside.
Wealthy families had elaborate atriums, often decorated with the mosaics and frescoes. They also tended to have large gardens and open spaces.
Most of the houses were named after artifacts that were found inside the house. For example the most famous is the “House of the Faun”, named after the faun statue in the courtyard. It’s also known for the stone “welcome mat” that spells “HAVE” which is latin for "be well” or welcome.
Blue frescoes were rare because the colour was more expensive to produce
Restaurants and Eating Out
The people of Pompeii weren’t so different to you and I. In fact, Paolo told us that the majority of them went out to eat and didn’t cook much in their own homes. We know this because of the fast-food style restaurants (or lovingly referred to as the “MacDonald’s of Pompeii” by Paolo).
These establishments had tiled counters with large holes which were used to hold different foods and ingredients for cooking.
Pompeiians were vegetarian but the beloved Italian tomato didn’t exist in Pompeii since it came to Italy in the 1500’s from Peru.
The Streets of Pompeii
Walking the streets in Pompeii tells us a lot about how the people lived.
It’s common to find one, two or three circular stones that protrude from the road. These stones indicated traffic movements and acted as a crosswalk, or stepping stones, for the local people. Since the streets of Pompeii were grimy and wet, walking on these stones prevented locals from getting dirty. This is also why the sidewalks were elevated.
Noticeable divots in the middle of the road were made from the wear and tear of chariots. And, since this was a common form of transportation, the structure of the roads were linear - except for one which is curved - go on, try to find it.
Paolo also pointed out white dots of marble in the streets. Nope, they weren’t for decoration. The Pompeiians were genius and used the marble as a way to reflect the moonlight to illuminate the streets at night.
Sexy times At the Brothel (Lupanare)
A brothel in Pompeii?! Yeah, not surprised. Tucked away in the public sector is a small establishment - the Lupanare. Lupanare means “wolf den” in Roman and the prostitute was the “she-wolf” because she would call out to her perspective clients with wolf noises. Back then, the prostitutes would have been slaves.
But how do we know it was a brothel? Well there are some obvious signs:
The Frescoes: painted along the top of the walls are images depicting different sexual acts. It’s thought to have been a sort of menu…
The beds: there are large rock beds inside the rooms. The point was to keep things somewhat uncomfortable to help with fast turnover.
The street signage: yes, if you see phallus’ carved above street names or in the road, you’re not going crazy. These were created so foreigners could be pointed (refrain from laughing) in the right direction.
Graffiti: in the rooms we can see carvings of “reviews” left by customers
There is usually a long wait to enter the brothel. Visit first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon will avoid the line. Paolo had us skip it initially and brought us back when there was no line.
The Thermal Baths and Spas of Pompeii
One of my favourite places to visit were the Stabiane thermal baths (Terme Stabiane) because it showed some impressive engineering for the time - the hypocaust heating system.
Walking in, one has to imagine the reconstruction of these rooms. Overtop of the rock tiles that lined the floor were wooden boards - the floor of the time. This design created space under the floors which was filled with hot air from slaves burning wood in a separate room. The same system was used to heat the walls.
These baths have remnants of frescoes and carvings, painting a picture of what a beautiful gathering space it would have been.
Public Spaces in Pompeii
The Forum of Pompeii
When entering from Porta Marina, the first major sight is the Forum.
This open space is bordered by the Basilica, where justice and business was done. Surrounding the forum were other government buildings making it the heart of the city; seeing visitors from all over the world.
The amphitheater in Pompeii is one of the furthest sights but it’s certainly worth a visit. For the time, it was an impressive build. Not only was it the first amphitheater made out of rock but it was created before Rome’s Colosseum.
It was used for gladiator fights and although it didn’t have underground passageways like the Colosseum, it had hooks along the top which were signs that it had the flexibility to be covered in the event of rain.
Artifacts and Plaster Casts
Plaster Casts of Pomepiians
One of the tragic reasons people are fascinated with Pompeii is that the victims remain frozen in time.
Suffocated by the debris and ash from the volcano, those who died were preserved within the volcanic rock. During the excavation process archeologists found that as their bodies decomposed, it left an empty space between the body and the ash. They filled this space with plaster which created moulds of the Pompeiians.
Paolo pointed out how some of the people were wearing belts, meaning they were likely slaves and not able to escape. He told us that those who did escape were wealthy and had the means to access a horse and carriage or boat.
The Artifacts of Pompeii
What was once the old granary and produce market now houses some of Pompeii’s artifacts and human casts.
To be honest, it was shocking to see all these antiques in an open-air storage facility. While the most precious artifacts are preserved within the National Archaeological Museum of Naples it felt like these valuable treasures were not being properly conserved. It’s weird to see the juxtaposition between this and the excavated sight under the Vatican which has strict rules, limited access and a highly-controlled climate.
I saw tourists posing for photos on top of rocks, one guy climbed a wall for a selfie and people were touching everything. It felt like Animal Planet. It would be a shame to put all of Pompeii behind glass and barriers but if we don’t start respecting it then they should.
Mosaics & Frescoes
I don’t really have much to say about the mosaics and frescoes except they’re beautiful and having a guide will help you notice these small details, hidden away in houses.
I can only imagine how much more vibrate they would have been at the time.
Modern artwork at Pompeii
Igor Mitoraj sculptures
You may notice some green statues with cut off heads and limbs. Don’t confuse them with something from the ancient city of Pompeii. They are actually modern art pieces - installed a few years ago as part of an exhibit by the French-Polish artist Igor Mitoraj.
Ending in early 2017, most of the sculptures were removed but a few remain. The artist wanted to convey a mixture of contemporary and classical art and envisioned his statues living within the backdrop of Pompeii. They’re positioned deliberately in meaningful places and I loved them and wished I visited when the full exhibit was happening.
The Best ways to visit Pompeii
I can’t stress the difference between this visit and my first one without a guide. Although I’m pretty sure my age and maturity had something to do with it, I still recommend hiring a private guide.
If you’re not convinced, here are other ways to get more out of your visit:
Audio Guide (8 euros)
Offered at the ticket office you can rent an audio guide. I’ve used audio guides many times in my life and while I prefer them to nothing, I have heard that the Pompeii guide is “lacking” in detail - just do a quick google search for the reviews.
Large Guided Tour
As we wandered around Pompeii there were lots of large tour groups. The benefit of a guided tour is having someone who can answer your questions.
While this is a cheaper way to get a tour it can be hard to hear your guide and pacing can be fast (especially for photographers). I also find larger groups impersonal. It’s like the guides are reciting a memorized script. If you go with a group tour, find one that limits the group size and has good online reviews.
Rick Steves app (FREE)
For those of you who don’t know Rick Steves, he’s an American man who’s very well traveled in Europe. He’s got a slew of guidebooks, youtube videos and a “Rick Steves - Audio Europe” app.
I encourage you to download this regardless because it covers more than just Pompeii. I have listened to his audio guide and he talks about similar things to Paolo, though not in as much detail.
If you’ve got the time then do the research before visiting. Guidebooks are useful, just try not to wander around reading during the visit. This will take you out of the moment and make your visit more tiring. I’m a fan of Rick Steves and he’s got a guidebook that covers not only Pompeii but Naples and the Amalfi Coast.
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As you know, I never recommend anything that I didn’t enjoy personally. This is why I like to test out guides. For transparency - Paolo agreed to give me a free tour knowing that I would provide an honest write up of his services. All that to say - I highly recommend him.
Setting up the tour was easy. I messaged him on What’sApp and bam, we found a time that worked. He made sure I had the best information to navigate the trains and get to the meeting point in time.
Immediately upon starting the tour I knew it would be amazing. He was pointing out leaf fossils, holes in buildings and rocks on the street - each of these things I would have passed by but he stopped to share their meaning and significance.
He covered history, geography, architecture and most importantly, daily Pompeiian life. He spoke with passion and was proud of how this ancient culture influenced engineering and language in our society today. Lastly, we moved at my pace. If I was trying to get a shot he patiently waited for me and this is my biggest plus for a good guide.
I’m sure there are other great local guides in the area but I promise you won’t be disappointed by Paolo.
Pro Tip: Spotting a Certified Guide
Certified tour guides are easily identifiable; they wear a badge that says “Certified Guide Campania Region”. If someone claims to be a tour guide and doesn’t have the badge, move on. You can also book a guide through the information desk at Porta Marina.
The below tours are offered by Paolo’s company. When booking you can put in a request for him as a guide.
Where to Stay in Sorrento
*Coming soon - Rome Travel Guide with hotel recommendations
I believe that visiting Pompeii in a day from Rome is very doable (I did it!). But you may want to go at a slower pace and enjoy the South of Italy.
If you do plan on staying in the area I will be honest - I’m not a huge fan of Naples. I would opt to stay in Sorrento which is on the Amalfi Coast, a short train ride away from Pompeii. The two watch outs are that hotels book up really fast in the summer months and they’re generally more expensive than accommodation in Naples. Below are some hotel and b&b options that have ranked high in Sorrento.
Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. I only recommend products and services I trust.
Only a 5-minute walk from the train station this bed and breakfast gets good reviews about its host and location
About a 15-minute walk from the train station, this bed and breakfast gets good reviews for being clean and having friendly hosts
A colourful apartment by the water, this place gets good reviews for being in a nice location and for having friendly hosts
Clean, modern rooms with excellent ratings online. Most of the rooms seem to have balconies with sea views which is always a perk in Sorrento.
Bright and clean rooms, on the water. A great option for relaxing.
Gets great reviews for being centrally located though it's received a few complaints about "basic" breakfast.
This hotel is supppppper luxury. Clean, modern interiors with amazing views of the water, it's one of the top hotels in Sorento.
Fill that Belly
Pompeii is only a 30-minute train ride away from the city of Naples - the birthplace of pizza. So while Naples isn’t my favourite city in Italy, it certainly has one big perk - authentic Napoli pizza.
I’m talking thin crust and saucy, topped with fresh ingredients. The classic is a margherita pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil leaves) and my favourite is the diavola which is spicy from the chili flakes and salami.
There are so many places to enjoy a good pizza, the top ones on my list were closed (it was a Sunday) but the brilliance of Naples is that if you wander and use google maps for reviews, you’ll find a great pizzeria.
The Best Pizzerias in Naples
L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele: they filmed “Eat, Pray Love” here
La Figlia del Presidente
Gino e Toto Sorbillo: Offers gluten-free pizza and a view of the water
Fresco Trattoria Pizzeria
How much time to spend in Pompeii
The official map has self-guided tours split up in 2, 3, 5 and 7 hour visits. Time in Pompeii really depends on your pace and what you hope to get out of it.
I enjoyed my 2-hour guided tour, then about 1.5 hours of roaming myself. I did rush back to catch a train and would have probably done an extra hour at a more leisurely pace.
Day Trip from Rome to Pompeii
Getting to Pompeii from Rome
Don’t waste time and money with buses or private drivers from Rome, take the high-speed train to Naples. In just over an hour you can get from Rome Termini station to Napoli Centrale station.
From Naples to Pompeii
This is where the adventure starts! Getting to Pompeii means you need to take the local, “Circumvesuviana” train. Buy your tickets at Naples centrale train station for: Pompeii Scavi/Villa dei Misteri. The trains run regularly (every 30 mins) so just grab the next one. It will be direction Sorrento and the ride lasts about 35 minutes.
If you google this train you’re going to get an onslaught of articles talking about how unsafe it is. Because of these article, my perception about the train was that I was going to get robbed and may never get back to Rome.
I can assure you, it’s not that bad. Yes - it’s dirtier and more packed compared to the high-speed train but it also only costs 3.60 euros.
Follow these tips to ensure a safe journey
Be alert and aware of your surroundings: This train is prime pick-pocket territory. Keep your eyes and hands on your valuables at the train station and on the train. Do not nap on the train.
Avoid commotions: If you notice people causing a fuss, walk away. This is a common strategy used to lure tourists close so pockets become within reaching distance.
Be aware of your interactions: It’s common for people to fake being tour guides, or train employees. If they ask “do you need help”, they’re probably not trying to help you but trying to get close to you to pick you pockets.
Put your valuables away: I’m talking to you photographers. Unless you’re shooting gritty street photography, there will be nothing for you on the train. Put your gear away and don’t draw attention to yourself.
Ride when the sun is up: Freaky people come out at night. So plan your train rides before the sun sets.
Ride the front of the train: The front of the train is close to the conductor and is a safer place to sit.
My Pompeii day trip was structured like this:
10:53am-12pm: Train from Rome Termini to Naples Centrale station
12pm-1.30pm: Pizza lunch in Naples
2:11pm-2:47pm: Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii Scavi/Villa dei Misteri
3pm-5pm: Private Guided Tour of Pompeii
5pm-6.15pm: Explore Pompeii alone (*winter: be mindful of earlier closing time - move entire schedule up by several hours)
6:23-6:46pm: Circumvesuviana train from Pompeii Scavi/Villa dei Misteri to Napoli Garibaldi
7:30pm-8:40pm: High speed train back to Rome
Dinner: There are lots of dinner options in Rome but my train was delayed coming back and I was too hungry to hunt for a restaurant. Luckily, at the train station, is Mercado Central. It’s a classy food court where you can try a variety of Italian meals. Keep this in mind if you get back late.
Know that trains in Italy can be delayed, so you may want to give yourself more time and leave earlier from Rome. I didn’t want to be at Pompeii during mid-day which is why I planned to visit later in the day.
Hours of Operation for Pompeii
Open every day of the week
April-October: 9am-7.30pm (last entry is 6pm)
November-March: 9am-5pm (last entry is 3.30pm)
Closed January 1, May 1 and December 25
Safety At Pompeii
Other than the pickpocketing and classic tourism scams at the train station (mentioned above) Pompeii is safe.
Of course the volcano is still active and could erupt any day but geologists claim they’ll have 30 days to prepare when it shows signs of exploding.
Oh and there are lots of stray dogs… don’t pet them. They’re not aggressive but they’re stray, so yeah, common sense.
Being Respectful in Pompeii
Unfortunately, I saw so many people doing bad things at Pompeii and since there was little security on site I felt the need to cover some basic rules of engagement.
Do not touch the ruins, walls and frescoes
The oils on our hands are public enemy number one to ancient ruins. With the huge amount of foot traffic that Pompeii gets every day it will eventually waste away if we all touched the walls and rocks. Keep your hands to yourself.
Do not stand or sit on the ruins
I can’t believe that I even have to say this but I saw a guy hop up on an old wall for a selfie and I wanted to scream. These are ruins they are not to be climbed, sat on or leaded against.
No flash photography
Just like how sun makes colourful things fade over time, flash works in the same way. Especially if you’re shooting frescoes, or colourful objects, do not use flash.
Tickets for Pompeii
Price: 15 euros (reduced rates for students and youth with valid ID)
Ask for a free map of the site when you purchase your tickets. This map outlines the different areas of Pompeii, including bathrooms and cafés.
Toilets at the train station are paid - while the toilets are free once you enter the Pompeii site.
Important Information About Ticket Purchases for Pompeii
Do not get fooled into buying tickets, guides or tours at the train station. It looks like the legitimate place to buy tickets but it’s not official. Even though there may be a guy wearing an “information” shirt, he’s not part of the official Pompeii site. He’s information for 3rd party tour companies. You’ll pay a higher price for tickets if you buy them at this office.
Walk 5 minutes from the train station and you’ll hit the entrance to Pompeii (Porta Marina) - get your tickets there.
Travel Tips for Visiting Pompeii
You can’t bring luggage onto the site - leave it in luggage lockers at the Naples train station
Don’t visit at mid day in the dead of the summer. It will be very hot. If you do, bring a hat, lots of sun screen and a reusable water bottle which can be filled with the water from the fountains on site.
The best times of day to visit are the morning or a few hours before closing (minimum 2)
If you have mobility restrictions, Pompeii will be challenging. The roads are uneven so even walking normally is tough. Be prepared with supportive walking shoes, your ankles will thank you later.
You can bring food and drinks into Pompeii but they must be consumed in the designated picnic areas
Pompeii Photography TIPS
Arrive early or late in the day to avoid the crowds
Know that those times will likely cast long shadows from the ruins and buildings, learn to work with these shadows
Inside buildings you’ll find little rays of light from openings and cracks in the walls, learn to use this light in creative ways
Flash is forbidden inside so have a lens which is able to let in lots of light
Tripods and commercial photography is only allowed with advance permission from the archeological site