Most visitors to Italy will go to Rome and see the ancient sites. The broken bones of the Roman Empire are fascinating, but the ancient way of life can be hard to visualize. A visit to the ancient city of Pompeii is the best way, in my opinion, to get a feel for Roman daily life. But what if you aren’t planning to go south to Naples and beyond? Can you still see Pompeii in a day from Rome? Yes, anyone can do a day trip Rome to Pompeii. It’s a crazy blitz, but you can see Pompeii and more. I’ve got a plan for you, with a few options, for a fantastic day in the south.
Organized Tour or On My Own?
There are a whole slug of companies that specialize in day tours out of Rome. If you are cool with being in a huge group and being carted around on someone else’s schedule, this is a convenient way to go. They leave really early and get back late, often with shopping and meal stops included. It’s about $150-200 per person to do it this way. This is a pretty easy way to get it done. The down side here is that you will spend lots of time on a bus and need to keep to a specific schedule, with no flexibility.
Another option for those with a little more money to burn is to take a high speed train early in the morning and then hire a driver to meet you in Naples. From there, you can determine which things you’d like to see and how long to spend at each place. Many drivers have connections to private guides that you can hire for the archaeological sites, something that I recommend and will address later. My favorite driver in the area is the delightful Raffaele Monetti. I’ve worked with him for many years on the Rick Steves guidebooks and have enjoyed his energy and knowledge of the area. His van can hold a small group, so this option would be great for 4-6 people splitting the fee.
My best option, which I suggest for the more adventurous and/or budget conscious traveler, is to do the whole thing on your own. It is totally manageable, I’ve just done it again with my younger son. We had a fabulous time and I even got to see some new things I’d never been to before. I’m going to lay out a plan for you here, with timings, transportation and sightseeing options. Ready to go? Andiamo!
To do a proper day trip to Pompeii, you must start reasonably early. A full blitz that hits all of the sights needs to start as early as the train will take you. Trains normally start the high speed service around 7.
You’ve got two choices for trains, the state railway, Trenitalia (www.trenitalia.it) or the upstart rail line owned by Ferrari, Italo (www.italotreno.it). Both run trains that take about an hour from Rome, with speeds topping out around 280 km/hour. Taking the train is the real time saving piece in this plan, as driving takes more than 2.5 hours. Compare prices and schedules for both lines, and keep in mind that the price increases closer to the day of departure. Look for special offers on the websites. If you have kids with you, Trenitalia offers a free ticket to kids under 16. Both companies now allow anyone to purchase tickets online and use electronic tickets in PDF format.
I suggest buying a one-way ticket. This way, you can see how the day goes and return when you are ready. I travel with a smartphone, so I purchased my return ticket once I got on to the local train and knew what time I’d be back at the Naples train station. I’ve usually aimed to take a train back to Rome at 19:00.
Once you arrive at the main station in Naples, Napoli Centrale, you will need to get on to the suburban railway, the Circumvesuviana (CHEER-coom-vesoooo-vee-AH-nah). To find it, stand with your back to the train tracks and walk to the exit, which is a glass wall. Just before the exit, you will see a staircase going down. Go down these steps and turn to the left. At the end of the hall of shops, there is a ticket office and entrance to a platform below for the trains.
At the ticket office, I usually tell them what my plan for the day is and try to buy all of my tickets at once. You’ll need a ticket for each segment on the train, usually costing around €2 each. Before you walk away, ask “Quale binario?” (KWAH-lay bee-NAH-ree-oh) to confirm the platform number. It’s usually platform 3, typically the train to Sorrento.
The Circumvesuviana is the only part of this day that is a drag. It’s gross. The trains are old and dirty, covered in graffiti. They are usually very crowded with a very….colorful slice of humanity. Be careful and sit with elderly ladies or nuns and keep your bags close.
Choose Your Adventure
Now is the tough part, choosing how to spend your time. You have four amazing things to do- Vesuvius, Heuculeneum, Oplontis, Pompeii- and while it is theoretically possible to do them all, it will be tight. I suggest doing three out of four. If you like to linger, choose no more than two.
What follows is the plan of insanity, the full deal. You can do it, just keep it tight and eat on the run. It’s worth it. First stop, get off at Ercolano Scavi.
Want to look into the mouth of an active volcano? Of course you do. Mount Vesuvius is one of the most famous volcanos in history, blowing its top in 79 AD. Shuttles run from the piazza directly in front the Ercolano train stop exit. They drive you up to the entrance to the park, where you hike a steep (but not difficult) gravel path to the crater.
Tickets for the bus and park entrance can be bought at the bus company office, at the end of the piazza to the left as you leave the train station. I suggest doing this first, to try for the very first departure of the day, around 8:30. It can get hot and crowded up there, and the expansive views of Naples tend to be clearer in the morning. When the driver drops you at the park entrance, be sure and ask when the next bus leaves for Ercolano. Two hours will be more than enough.
At the park entrance, there will be park rangers hanging around. They are supposed to give tours of the crater, so ask and be insistent. Have a nice stroll around the crater and be sure to look for fumaroles, the steaming crater vents.
Of all the ancient sites in Italy, this is my favorite. In this small archaeological site, you can get the best possible peek into the lives of Roman middle class people. This is not a city of emperors or wealthy traders, it’s a modest city full of apartments and shops much like the modern city above. It gives me an idea of what my own life could have been like back then.
Pompeii was covered in a layer of ash, this site was instead hit by a pyroclastic flow, meaning that hot gases first charred everything, turning it to carbon. For this reason, organic materials lasted here, such as wood door frames, bones and even food on a table. The site is so much more complete than Pompeii that it makes it much easier to understand how the city worked.
However you decide to organize your visit, I strongly suggest you see this first. The site is small, two hours should be enough. What you see and learn in Herculaneum can be used as a key in other ancient sites. Seeing this site with a tour guide will make it much more meaningful. Local, private guides gather around the ticket office waiting to find clients for tours. They were asking about €10 per person, a real bargain. If you don’t see a guide, ask at the ticket window.
Another tip for all of these sites–tickets can be bought ahead online. That will save you time in high season.
Villa Poppea at Oplontis
As a part of the combined entrance ticket to Pompeii and Herculaneum, you receive entry to another, lesser known site at Oplontis. I’d never been there before and decided to give it a try last week. What I found there amazed me.
The Villa Poppea was possibly the home of Nero’s wife, and what a grand villa it is. It was only excavated in the past 50 years, so it is very well preserved with most walls intact. The courtyards have been reconstructed, the frescoes are bright, it’s very hard to believe that it is 2000 years old. And it’s empty. This site is not well known, so you have it virtually to yourself. It’s a nice contrast to see a fancy vacation home after the more simple dwellings at Herculaneum.
It’s easy to visit Oplontis after Herculaneum. Get back on the rail line and take it to Torre Annunziata, about 10 minutes away. From that station, exit left, walk to the end of the street and go right. The site is a few blocks down, sunken below street level by about 30 feet. A visit here will take less than an hour. Be sure to pick up their free brochure at the ticket office, a guidebooklet which provides plenty of good information on each room.
Much bigger and less preserved than the other sites, Pompeii should be your last stop. I suggest this because the other sites are easier to wrap your mind around and also because arriving at the end of the day works well. Crowds diminish after 4, the early evening light is great for pictures too. Once you get the idea of how the cities worked in Ancient Rome, it will be fairly easy to read the city of Pompeii. I suggest visiting the main square and baths, focusing your time and energy in the civic buildings that you haven’t seen at the other sites. You’ll probably find Pompeii to be big and empty compared with the other sites. That’s because excavation started here in the 1700’s and many of the best artifacts were taken to museums or private collections.
You could spend a lifetime in Pompeii, but in this plan, I suggest getting there around 4 and spending 2 hours. You’ll be tired and will probably reach your saturation point. Don’t feel bad, you’ve done very well if you’ve made it this far. Have a gelato at the cafe. Aim for a train back to Naples about 6 pm.
If You Have More Time
My crazy plan will get you back to Naples at 7, ready for a pizza dinner and a train back to Rome. If you skip parts of this plan and arrive back in Naples earlier, the National Museum of Archaeology would be a great way to finish the day. It houses all of the best treasures from the archaeological areas, which is why Pompeii seems so empty. The museum is a quick taxi ride from the station and closes at 7:30, so you could theoretically jam this in too if you were ambitious.
Whew! That’s a lot. But if you have one shot at seeing it, why not do it all? You can do it, this day trip Rome to Pompeii is crazy but it’s worth it. You can sleep on the train. Or the table. Or when you go home.