Pompeii: A Guided Walking Tour
Relive the history of Pompeii and the Mount Vesuvius eruption with Rick Steves' self-guided walking tour featuring the Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Isis, and the House of the Vettii.
Pompeii can be confusing without a guide or guidebook. This guided walk will save you the hassle and expense of finding a guide once you get there.
A once-thriving thriving commercial port of 20,000, Pompeii grew from Greek and Etruscan roots to become an important Roman city. Then, beginning in the afternoon on August 24, A.D. 79, a series of eruptions buried the city under 30 feet of hot volcanic ash. For archaeologists, this was a shake-and-bake windfall, teaching them volumes about daily Roman life. Pompeii was rediscovered in the 1600s; excavations began in 1748.
Pompeii, founded in 600 B.C., eventually became a booming Roman trading city. Not rich, not poor, it was middle class — a perfect example of typical Roman life. Most streets would have been lined with stalls and jammed with customers from sunup to sundown. Chariots vied with shoppers for street space. Two thousand years ago, Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean — making it a kind of free-trade zone — and Pompeii was a central and bustling port.
There were no posh neighborhoods in Pompeii. Rich and poor mixed it up as elegant houses existed side by side with simple homes. While nearby Herculaneum would have been a classier place to live (traffic-free streets, fancier houses, far better drainage), Pompeii was the place for action and shopping. It served an estimated 20,000 residents with more than 40 bakeries, 30 brothels, and 130 bars, restaurants, and hotels. With most of its buildings covered by brilliant, white, ground-marble stucco, Pompeii in A.D. 79 was an impressive town.
As you tour Pompeii, remember that its best art is in the Archaeological Museum in Naples.
Just past the ticket-taker, start your approach up to the Porta Marina. This was the original town gate. Before Vesuvius blew, the sea came nearly to here. Look down to the left to see the stone rings where ships were tied to the dock.
Pass through the Porta Marina and continue up the street, pausing at three large stepping stones in the middle. Every day, Pompeiians flooded the streets with gushing water to clean them. These stepping stones let pedestrians cross without getting their sandals wet. Chariots traveling in either direction could straddle the stones (all had standard-size axles).
Continue straight ahead, don your mental toga, and enter the city as the Romans once did. The road opens up into the spacious main square: the Forum. Stand at the end of this rectangular space and look toward Mount Vesuvius.
Pompeii's commercial, religious, and political center stands at the intersection of the city's two main streets. While it's the most ruined part of Pompeii, it's grand nonetheless. Picture the piazza surrounded by two-story buildings on all sides. The pedestals that line the square once held statues (now safely displayed in the museum in Naples). In its heyday, Pompeii's citizens gathered here in the main square to shop, talk politics, and socialize. Business took place in the important buildings that lined the piazza.
The Forum was dominated by the Temple of Jupiter, at the far end (marked by a half-dozen ruined columns atop a stairstep base). Jupiter was the supreme god of the Roman pantheon — you might be able to make out his little white marble head at the center-rear of the temple
At the near end of the Forum (where you're standing) is the curia, or city hall. Like many Roman buildings, it was built with brick and mortar, then covered with marble walls and floors. To your left (as you face Vesuvius and the Temple of Jupiter) is the basilica, or courthouse.
Look beyond the Temple of Jupiter. Five miles to the north looms the ominous back-story to this site: Mount Vesuvius. Mentally draw a triangle up from the two remaining peaks to reconstruct the mountain before the eruption. When it blew, Pompeiians had no idea that they were living under a volcano, since Vesuvius hadn't erupted for 1,200 years. (Still active, its last eruption was in 1944.)
As you face Vesuvius, the basilica is to your left, lined with stumps of columns. Step inside and see the layout. Pompeii's basilica was a first-century palace of justice. This ancient law court has the same floor plan later adopted by many Christian churches (which are also called basilicas). The big central hall (or nave) is flanked by rows of columns marking off narrower side aisles. Along the side walls are traces of the original marble.
Exit the basilica and cross the square to the far side, where the city's main street hits the Forum. Head toward Vesuvius, walking along the right side of the Forum. Immediately to the right of the Temple of Jupiter, a door leads into the market hall, where you'll find two glass cases holding casts of Pompeiians, eerily captured in their last moments. When Vesuvius erupted, 2,000 Pompeii citizens suffocated under the ash, their bodies buried in volcanic debris. While excavating, modern archaeologists detected hollow spaces underfoot, created when the victims' bodies decomposed. By gently filling the holes with plaster, the archaeologists were able to create molds of the Pompeiians who were caught in the disaster. You're looking at modern plaster mixed with ancient bones.
Continue on, leaving the Forum through an arch behind the Temple of Jupiter. Here you'll find a pedestrians-only road sign and a modern cafeteria — the only place to get food inside the archaeological site (with a coffee bar, WC, and fine views from its rooftop).
Thirty yards past the cafeteria, on the left-hand side at #24, is the entrance to the Baths of the Forum. Pompeii had six public baths, each with a men's and a women's section. You're in the men's zone. The leafy courtyard at the entrance was the gymnasium. After working out, clients could relax with a hot bath (caldarium), warm bath (tepidarium), or cold plunge (frigidarium).
Exiting the baths, immediately across the street is an ancient fast-food joint, marked by a series of rectangular marble counters. Most ancient Romans didn't cook for themselves in their tiny apartments, so to-go places like this were commonplace. The holes in the counters held the pots for food. Each container was like a thermos, with a wooden lid to keep the soup hot, the wine cool, and so on.
Just a few steps uphill is the House of the Tragic Poet, in typical Roman style. The entry is flanked by two family-owned shops (each with a track for a collapsing accordion door). The home is like a train running straight away from the street: atrium (with skylight and pool to catch the rain), den (where deals were made by the shopkeeper), and garden (with rooms facing it and a shrine to remember both the gods and family ancestors). In the entryway is the famous "Beware of Dog" (Cave Canem) mosaic.
Return to the fast-food place and continue about 10 yards downhill to the big intersection. From the center of the intersection, look left to see a giant aqueduct arch, framing a nice view of Mount Vesuvius. Water was critical for this city of 20,000 people, and this arch was part of Pompeii's water-delivery system.
Continue strait downhill one block (45 yards) to #2 on the left, the House of the Faun. Stand across the street and marvel at the grand entry with "HAVE" (hail to you) as a welcome mat. Go in. You are standing in Pompeii's largest home, where you're greeted by the delightful small bronze statue of the Dancing Faun, famed for its realistic movement and fine proportion. (The original is in Naples' Archaeological Museum.) With 40 rooms and 27,000 square feet, the House of the Faun covers an entire city block. The next floor mosaic, with an intricate diamond-like design, decorates the homeowner's office. Beyond that is the famous floor mosaic of the Battle of Alexander. (The original is also at the museum in Naples.)
Exit the house through the far-right corner of the back courtyard. Take your first left (on Vicolo dei Vettii), walk about 20 yards, and find the entrance (on the left) to the House of the Vettii. This is Pompeii's best-preserved home, retaining many of its mosaics and frescoes. (If it's closed for restoration, you can at least look through the door.)
Facing the entrance to the House of the Vettii, turn left and walk downhill one long block (along Vicolo dei Vettii) to a T-intersection (Via della Fortuna), marked by a stone fountain with a bull's head for a spout. Turn left, then immediately right, walking along a gently curving road. On the left side of the street, at #22, find four big stone cylinders.
This was a bakery and mill. The brick oven looks like a modern-day pizza oven. The stubby stone towers are flour grinders. Grain was poured into the top, and donkeys or slaves pushed wooden bars that turned the stones. The powdered grain dropped out of the bottom as flour — flavored with tiny bits of rock. Each neighborhood had a bakery like this.
Continue to the next intersection (Via degli Augustali) and turn left. Head about 50 yards down this (obviously one-way) street. Turn right just past the tavern (Taberna Hedones) and walk downhill to #18, on the right.
You'll find the biggest crowds in Pompeii at a place that was likely popular 2,000 ago, too — the brothel. The brothel was a simple place, with beds and pillows made of stone. The ancient graffiti includes tallies and exotic names of the women, indicating the prostitutes came from all corners of the Mediterranean (it also served as feedback from satisfied customers). The faded frescoes above the cells may have been a kind of menu for services offered.
Leaving the brothel, continue going downhill two blocks to the intersection with Pompeii's main drag, Via dell'Abbondanza. Cross the main drag and go straight ahead, down Via dei Teatri. Turn left before the columns (about 50 yards away), and head downhill to the Temple of Isis.
This Egyptian temple served Pompeii's Egyptian community. The little white stucco shrine with the plastic roof housed holy water from the Nile. Isis, from Egyptian myth, was one of many foreign gods adopted by the eclectic Romans.
Exit the temple and take an immediate right down an alleyway to our last stop, the Theater. During Roman times, the theater sat 5,000 people in three sets of seats, all with different prices: the five marble terraces up close (filled with romantic wooden seats for two), the main section, and the cheap nosebleed section (surviving only on the right). The square stones above the cheap seats once supported a canvas rooftop.
When you're ready to leave, backtrack to the main road and turn left, going uphill to the Forum, where you'll find the main entrance/exit.