Travel tales

The ghost city of Herculaneum

Herculaneum ruins near Naples, Italy

Below an unassuming town south of Naples lies a buried Roman city – but not the one you’re probably thinking of. Herculaneum was covered by the same eruption that destroyed its more famous neighbour Pompeii in 79 AD. But where Pompeii was quickly buried by a cloud of ash, Herculaneum escaped the first part of the eruption unscathed as the wind was blowing the other way. But later that night the ash column collapsed and sent a pyroclastic flow – a super-heated avalanche of gas and rock – towards Herculaneum. Originally it was thought that most city residents had escaped because hardly any skeletons were found. But in the 1980s, excavations of the old boat chambers found remains of 300 bodies where people had been waiting to be rescued. Despite being sheltered from the ash the 500°C heat had killed them instantly.

Statue in the ruined city of Herculaneum

Herculaneum statue

Over the next few days five more flows covered the city with a layer of rock and ash 25 metres deep, forming an airtight seal that preserved it for the next 1700 years. The new town of Ercolano grew up over the top, and it was only rediscovered in the 18th century when a local who was drilling a well hit a building rather than water. The first excavations of the site tended to focus on retrieving valuables to sell rather than preserving the ruins. Then when Pompeii was discovered the focus shifted there instead – not least because it was covered in only four metres of ash so was much easier to excavate. Digging restarted in Herculaneum in the 20th century but there is still a lot more that’s waiting to be uncovered. But for now the focus is on protecting the current ruins from damage rather than uncovering new ones.

Streets of Herculaneum, Italy

Herculaneum’s streets

The difference in the way Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed has had a big effect on what you can see today. At Herculaneum the flows surrounded and filled the buildings but kept them in tact, whereas at Pompeii the weight of the ash crushed many buildings. The heat of the pyroclastic flows also carbonised the wood at Herculaneum so some of the original doors, roof beams and even furniture has been discovered. Add to that the fact that Herculaneum was a richer city than Pompeii, with larger, more ornate buildings complete with mosaics and marble cladding, and you get even more impressive ruins.

The archaeological ruins at Herculaneum

Looking down on Herculaneum, with modern Ercolano behind it

The old city of Herculaneum lies about 50 feet below the level of modern Ercolano, so when you arrive your first sight is of the ruins is from above, with Vesuvius looming in the distance behind them. As you walk through the streets, some buildings are so well-preserved that it’s hard to believe they’re over 2000 years old. Many still have their original floors and stairs, and even their decorative statues, frescoes and mosaics. In what was the dining room of house number 22 you can see one of the most beautiful mosaics showing the gods Neptune and Amphitrite. But overlooking it all are the balconies of modern houses and people going about their everyday lives – with the city of today coexisting with the ghost city beneath them.

Beautifully preserved mosaic in Herculaneum

The mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite at house number 22

The details

Herculaneum is about 12km south of Naples. There is parking outside the ruins (follow the signs for Ercolano Scavi) or it’s 10 minutes’ walk to the Circumvesuviana train station, which connects to Naples and Sorrento. The ruins are open from 8.30am to 7.30pm from April–October or 5pm from November–March. Entry costs €11 for adults or it’s free for EU citizens under 18. You can also get a three-day combined ticket which also covers Pompeii and three other archaeological sites (Oplontis, Stabiae and Boscoreale) for €22.

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Destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius like famous neighbour Pompeii, Herculaneum is a Roman city ghost city that lies below the streets of modern Italy.

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Wandering Iris
    November 13, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    Amazing place!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 14, 2014 at 9:56 am

      It really was – such an interesting story and a window into Roman life!

  • Reply
    travellingbag
    November 14, 2014 at 2:32 am

    I’ve been to Pompeii but unfortunately we didn’t make it to Herculaneum. I was really disappointed that we didn’t have the time because I studied Ancient History for my degree and learned all about the skeletons that were recovered from Herculaneum and what they can tell us about the lives of those people. Thanks for the detailed post – it was really interesting.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 14, 2014 at 9:49 am

      Thanks, it was very interesting about the skeletons and how recently they were found – does make you wonder what else is still there to be discovered. Hope you get to make the trip to Herculaneum yourself one day!

  • Reply
    I_am_Lucia88Lucia
    November 14, 2014 at 6:05 am

    I love your writing style. Keeps me reading

    Keep up the good work!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 14, 2014 at 9:54 am

      Thanks so much, that’s lovely to hear!

  • Reply
    Debra Kolkka
    November 14, 2014 at 9:19 am

    I have been to Pompeii a couple of times. Clearly I need to go back and visit Herculaneum.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 14, 2014 at 9:55 am

      Both are fascinating but I did like the fact that Herculaneum was smaller and a lot quieter – though apparently the other related but less famous ruins at Oplontis, Stabiae and Boscoreale are the place to go if you want them to yourselves!

  • Reply
    annisa maulida
    November 14, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    Wah! I hope i will be there, sometime. 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 17, 2014 at 1:39 pm

      It’s a really interesting place to visit – hope you get to make the trip someday!

  • Reply
    cristina.nogueras
    November 14, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    I just discovered your blog today, so refreshing! I also have a passion for travel and wish I could do it more often. Looking forward to reading more about your adventures!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 17, 2014 at 1:40 pm

      Thanks so much, great to have you following along!

  • Reply
    gabrieleneumann
    November 14, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    Is this as crowded as Pompeii? My family is planning a trip to Southern Italy next year and I know Pompeii is a big tourist destination. It sounds like Herculaneum is really neat and if there are less people there, even better!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 17, 2014 at 1:39 pm

      Herculaneum is quite a bit smaller than Pompeii but it does get a lot less visitors – it felt a quieter while we were there, though you could usually find a quiet spot in Pompeii if you went away from the most popular spots.

  • Reply
    Sheila Green
    November 17, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for the background information Lucy – really fired the imagination and brought back vivid memories of our visit to Herculaneum with you in October. Sheila x

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 17, 2014 at 1:43 pm

      It was interesting reading a bit more about how it was destroyed and then uncovered, and strange to think how much more is still buried underneath the new town!

  • Reply
    thebritishberliner
    November 17, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Yep! What are we waiting for! I’ve ben to Naples but I haven’t been to the Pompeii regions or to Herculaneum. ‘Sounds like just the place. 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 17, 2014 at 1:41 pm

      That area just south of Naples is packed with things to do – Pompeii, Herculaneum, Vesuvius, Sorrento, Capri and the Amalfi Coast – easy to spend a week or two there and no chance of running out of things to do!

  • Reply
    Emily Ray (@emilyraylondon)
    November 19, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Another fantastic post! I studied Herculaneum and Pompeii at university, so it was great to refresh my memory of their history in this post. I passed Herculaneum on my way to Pompeii last year but unfortunately didn’t have enough time to go visit – next time, though!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 20, 2014 at 11:57 am

      My first trip I did the same – passed Herculaneum after Pompeii and wanted to visit there too! So was glad to make it there this time around. Must be amazing to see it if you have studied it too and learnt all about the history.

  • Reply
    Francesca (@WorkMomTravels)
    November 23, 2014 at 12:45 am

    I’ve been to Pompeii and was absolutely blown away. I’m sorry I didn’t make it to Herculaneum while I was in the region. I never knew the story of Herculaneum; now that I do, it’s fascinating. I hope to see it one day. Nicely done!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      November 23, 2014 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks, they are both such interesting places, it’s amazing to get such an insight into what life was like thousands of years ago – you can almost picture it as you walk around the streets!

  • Reply
    Isabel
    December 7, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Wow! I would’ve never even thoguht of looking through this city, now I do! Amazing 🙂

    PS: I’m loving your blog!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 7, 2014 at 8:40 pm

      Thanks so much – Herculaneum is really interesting, well worth the visit if you get the chance.

  • Reply
    Gail Wells
    December 4, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    Super post and love the comments. My travel to this area was by a cruise ship. We took a trip to the Naples Museum first, there is a model of Pompeii which helped to understand the size. The museum has artifacts from both sites. Well worth your time exploring before the trip to either site.
    Thank you for the great post.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 7, 2015 at 10:46 am

      Thanks Gail – I haven’t visited the Naples Museum yet but that’s definitely on the list for next time I’m in the area!

  • Reply
    Linda Goins
    March 31, 2016 at 5:12 pm

    We were lucky enough to see Naples Museum, though the foray in to the city of Naples was less than appealing…we based ourselves in Sorrento and then traveled to both Pompeii and Herculaneum. Much of Herculaneum was being renovated and a lot of the carbonized items were covered for this reason. (april 2015) Herculaneum was by far my favorite. It was amazing to see the houses in such amazing shape. Pompeii was great too, but again a lot was being renovated there. Including the small Coliseum …….both were numbers 1 and 2 on the bucket list so we were happy

    • Reply
      Lucy
      April 1, 2016 at 8:12 pm

      I think Naples has to have some of the scariest driving in the world! I’d like to go back and see the museum though. Loved Sorrento both times I’ve visited and agree that Herculaneum was a favourite, I think the scale of it was so much more manageable and it really came to life for me.

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