Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii
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Ruins of Pompeii

Top choice in Pompeii

The ghostly ruins of ancient Pompeii (Pompei in Italian) make for one of the world's most engrossing archaeological experiences. Much of the site's value lies in the fact that the town wasn't simply blown away by Vesuvius in AD 79 but buried under a layer of lapilli (burning fragments of pumice stone). The result is a remarkably well-preserved slice of ancient life, where visitors can walk down Roman streets and snoop around millennia-old houses, temples, shops, cafes, amphitheatres and even a brothel.

The origins of Pompeii are uncertain, but it seems likely that it was founded in the 7th century BC by the Campanian Oscans. Over the next seven centuries, the city fell to the Greeks and the Samnites before becoming a Roman colony in 80 BC.

In AD 62, a mere 17 years before Vesuvius erupted, the city was struck by a major earthquake. Damage was widespread and much of the city's 20,000-strong population was evacuated. Fortunately, many had not returned by the time Vesuvius blew, but 2000 men, women and children perished nevertheless.

After its catastrophic demise, Pompeii receded from the public eye until 1594, when the architect Domenico Fontana stumbled across the ruins while digging a canal. Exploration proper, however, didn't begin until 1748. Of Pompeii's original 66 hectares, 44 have now been excavated. Of course that doesn't mean you'll have unhindered access to every inch of the Unesco-listed site – expect to come across areas cordoned off for no apparent reason, a noticeable lack of clear signs, and the odd stray dog. Audio guides are a sensible investment (€8) and a good guidebook will also help – try Pompeii, published by Electa Napoli.

Maintenance work is ongoing, with new discoveries unearthed regularly.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Pompeii attractions

1. Terme Stabiane

0.08 MILES

At this typical 2nd-century-BC bathing complex, bathers would enter from the vestibule, stop off in the vaulted apodyterium (changing room), and then pass…

2. Lupanare

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The explicit frescoes at this ancient brothel provided visual 'inspiration' for clients. Once ready, visitors would indulge in one of the five rooms on…

3. Via dell'Abbondanza


The Via dell'Abbondanza was one of ancient Pompeii's main streets. The elevated stepping stones allowed people to cross the street without stepping into…

4. Casa del Menandro


Better preserved than the larger Casa del Fauno, luxurious Casa del Menandro has an outstanding, elegant peristyle (a colonnade-framed courtyard) beyond…

5. Tempio di Iside

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The pre-Roman Tempio di Iside was a popular place of cult worship.

6. Teatro Grande

0.14 MILES

The 2nd-century-BC Teatro Grande was a huge 5000-seat theatre carved into the lava mass on which Pompeii was originally built. The site hosts the annual…

7. Teatro Piccolo

0.15 MILES

The Teatro Piccolo was once an indoor theatre renowned for its acoustics.