Herculaneum: The Complete Guide

How to Visit the Archaeological Site of Herculaneum, Italy

Mosaic from Herculaneum

 Creative Commons CCO

Herculaneum is an archeological zone located at the foot of Mount Vesuvius in the town of Ercolano in Southern Italy. Named after its patron deity, Herakleia (Hercules), the wealthy seaside town (along with its more famous neighbor, Pompeii) vanished beneath a sea of lava from a devastating volcanic eruption in AD 79.

History of Herculaneum

After falling under the control of the Greeks in the 5th century BC, Herculaneum became part of the Roman Empire around 89 BC. Once a bustling seaside resort, its existence came to an abrupt end on August 24, AD 79 with the explosion of Vesuvius. Unlike Pompeii, which was buried in volcanic ash, Herculaneum was buried in a deep layer of molten magma, which engulfed nearly everything in its path.

It wasn't until the 18th century that excavations uncovered a large number of Roman houses. Unlike Pompeii, where it's estimated that 2,000 people perished along with most of the wooden structures, the fast-moving pyroclastic material that covered Herculaneum left behind buildings and domestic items remarkably preserved. Not all the residents had time to flee; some 300 Roman skeleton remains have since been found here.

The most notable home to survive is Villa dei Papiri (House of Papyri), which was the inspiration for the J Paul Getty Museum in California. The restored villa contains frescoes, mosaics, and the skeleton of a horse. It is currently not open to the public.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, much of what we know about Roman daily life was gleaned from artifacts unearthed at Herculaneum. Considered to be the most revealing ancient ruins in all of Italy, you'll see many of the antiquities extracted from Herculaneum at the National Archeological Museum in nearby Naples.

Herculaneum, Italy, in the afternoon sunlight.
Andrea Schaffer/CC/Fickr.com

What To See and Do in Herculaneum

Wander around the excavated area, popping in and out of houses and peering into ancient public spaces. Here are some of the highlights to see in Herculaneum.

Step Inside a Typical Roman Boarding House: The Trellis House (Casa a Graticcio) is an outstanding example of a typical Roman boarding house. The structure was built of opus craticium: a typical half-timber and mortar technique used at the time. Incredibly, household items such as wooden beds, wardrobes, and even a portrait remained, providing a glimpse into a day in the life of average Romans.

Witness Intricate Tiling at the House with the Mosaic Atrium: The Mosaic Atrium house is believed to have been inhabited by Roman aristocracy due to its elaborately decorated interiors and a million-dollar position facing the Bay of Naples. But it's the floor that is the thing: a black-and-white checkerboard mosaic motif that covers a grandiose atrium.

Marvel at the Sculptures at the House of the Stags: Named for the sculpted group of male deer found inside, The House of the Stags (Casa dei Cervi) is a fine example of how the "other half" lived. There's an inner porticoed garden, a formal dining room, several bedrooms, and a shady arbor sporting enviable sea views.

Get a Peek of a Nobleman's Digs at the House of the Bicentenary: Buried deep beneath the rubble, the House of the Bicentenary (Casa del Bicentenario) was unearthed more than 200 years after excavation of Herculaneum had begun (hence, its name).

Tour the House of the Gem: The two-story House of the Gem (Casa della Gemma) was named after a piece of cameo jewelry found there. The carved shell bore the engraved effigy of Livia, wife of the emperor Augustus, mother of emperor Tiberius, and grandmother of emperor Claudius. That's some family tree!

See an Ancient Infographic at the House of the Relief of Telephus: Casa del Rilievo di Telefo contains a 1st-century relief that narrates the mythical story of Achilles and Telephus.

Enter the Garden at the House of Neptune & Amphitrite: Inside this fashionable home is a garden court with the colorful portraits of Neptune and Amphitrite for which the house was named.

Imagine a "Spa Day" at the Central Baths: Constructed in the first half of the 1st century BC, the bath complex is divided into two distinct sections: one for men, which includes a heated swimming pool or "tepidarium" (a bath with an underfloor heating system). The other sector was for women: quite a bit smaller, but much better preserved.

How to Visit Herculaneum

Location: Corso Resina, 80056 Ercolano 

Hours: Herculaneum is open April to October, 8:30 am to 7:30 pm (final entry 6 pm), and November to March, 8:30 am to 5:00 pm (final entry 3:30 pm). Closed January 1 and December 25. Check the website for updates.

Prices: Adult one-day tickets cost €11. Young adult EU Citizens between 18 and 25 years old can purchase a one-day ticket for €5.50.

Visiting Tips: Herculaneum is compact and therefore much easier to tour than Pompeii, and less crowded as well. It can be explored with a map and an audio guide. Be careful when moving about and do not stand on the edge of the digs or climb the walls.

How to Get There: If you're arriving by train (which we recommend), take the Circumvesuviana line from Naples to Herculaneum (Ercolano Scavi station). It's a short walk from the station to the park entrance. If you're driving, there are parking lots near the entrance.

Nearby Attractions

Pompeii. Located 10 miles south of Herculaneum, Pompeii was a thriving metropolis until its demise by the Vesuvius eruption of AD 79.

Oplontis & Stabiae. Oplontis is best known for its Roman Villa Poppaea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Stabiae for its remains of both an Oscan settlement (oppidum) and the later Roman town.

Antiquarium of Boscoreale. Another casualty of Vesuvius's wrath, the town, and archeological area is located on the slopes of Vesuvius, just north of Pompeii where its fertile lands were resettled after the eruption.

National Archeological Museum. Located in Naples, see Roman treasures recovered from Herculaneum and Pompeii, as well as Greek art, and works from the Farnese Collection.

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