3 Things to Know Before Visiting Pompeii

The sweltering sun beat down on us unforgivably as we got off the bus and walked through the threshold of the once thriving city of Pompeii. As I lowered my red sunglasses over my squinting eyes in an attempt to get a good look at the city, a small mob of fellow tourists brushed by me, already starting to sweat. A light breeze relieved the heat for a few seconds as I admired the size of this city. Perhaps a popular misconception, or perhaps just a personal misconception I have about ancient cities is that they will always be small….but not Pompeii.

Our tour guide rounded the stragglers up to begin the tour. Almost 2,000 years ago, in the year 79 A.D., the hot, fiery ash exploding from Mount Vesuvius ran down the mountain and covered an entire city of people in its destructive wake. Because of the amazing archaeological discoveries and their ability to preserve so much of this city, Pompeii has become a popular tourist spot when visiting Italy. If you decide to visit Pompeii, here are three things to know before you go.

1. Get a Tour Guide

Sure, you can save some money by taking a self-guided tour through Pompeii. You can see the plaster-cast bodies, find the oh so famous brothel (just follow the stone penises pointing the way!) and admire the preserved paintings adorning walls of various buildings. However, experts have learned a lot about Pompeii and about the people who lived in it. The tour guides know a lot of interesting information that will make your trip to Pompeii so much more enjoyable. Did you know that one of the oldest known fast food restaurants is in Pompeii? How about that fact that the wealthy would dig pits in their dining rooms so they could vomit after dinner in order to eat more? Neither did I…but your tour guide will.

One of the first fast food restaurants 

One of the first fast food restaurants 

2. The Truth Behind the Bodies of Pompeii

Pompeii’s most famous attraction within an attraction are the bodies. Contrary to what you may have heard, these are not real bodies that were mummified and preserved by lava. Instead, the hot lava covered people alive, but the extreme heat disintegrated their bodies and what remained were human-shaped holes in the nine-foot tall cooled lava. Archaeologists then went through and poured plaster into these holes to create the famous bodies of Pompeii. Upon entering the city, I was expecting to see these lying everywhere, perhaps keeping many of them in the place they were originally found. However, there were only three on display, and they were restricted to one roped-off area with the rest of the priceless artifacts rescued from the site.

A plaster-cast body

A plaster-cast body

3. Do the Mt. Vesuvius Hike and Take Your Time

Mount Vesuvius is actually pretty far away from ancient Pompeii. However, there are tours that offer a combo: a guided tour through Pompeii and transportation to and up the base of Mount Vesuvius. Our guide told us that the hike itself takes roughly 30 minutes to get to the first stop and another 20 minutes to get to the top. However, the incline can be tiring if you aren’t already very fit so look for a tour that gives more time to hike. The tour I took only gave us a little over an hour to climb up the mountain and come back down, so we didn’t get a chance to make it all the way to the top (it took us about 45 minutes just to get to the first stop).

The view from Mt. Vesuvious

The view from Mt. Vesuvious

Pompeii is an incredible stop to make during your trip to Italy. There is so much history packed into the exposed-brick walls of this ancient city, and there isn’t anything else quite like it in Italy. To make the most of your trip to Pompeii, make sure to book a guided tour, take the time to hike Mt. Vesuvius, and don’t be disappointed by the few plaster-cast bodies on display.