Visiting Pompeii, Skipping the Guided Tour

“A hot sun shone down on 24 August 79 A.D., but the Pompeians, who were engrossed in their work and in the frantic life of the city, did not know that they had seen that wonderful sun for the last time,” writes Enrika D’Orta, in the self-guide book titled, “How to Visit Pompeii, Guide to the Excavations With a General Plan.”

Our rented apartment was on the fourth floor with a balcony overlooking one of Sorrento’s busy, cobblestone streets. The buzz of scooters, compact cars and shuffling pedestrians never seemed to leave, and we gladly joined the hustle to visit Pompeii.

We took the regional train toward Pompeii. It took about 20 minutes or so, not long. The train drops you off right outside an information office, which is connected to a street-side cafe (which only accepts cash, at least when we went).

After deboarding, we made our way upstairs, where we were able to buy a 12 guidebook in English that contained a detailed map of Pompeii: “How to Visit Pompeii, Guide to the Excavations With a General Plan.”

For the money, the book is a great deal, because it costs less than a guided tour, and it’s a great souvenir to pass along to friends or colleagues taking a similar trip. It’s concise too, making it a digestible, quick read as you’re walking along the unstable ground.

Pompeii, given its renown, deserves a fair amount of time to fully take in its history and remaining sites. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to scrutinize every wall, crevice and pebble to get a thorough experience of this ruined city.

If you’re like me, I like to take things at my own pace, moving faster at points, and slowing way down at others. I avoid shuffling from exhibit to exhibit in a crowded tour.

Arguably, however, if visiting a place like the Vatican, it’s borderline necessary to take a tour.

On this book’s cover page, it does exactly as it says: it gives you a general plan. There are three tours that you can take on your own. The first, it’s a two-hour walk through highlighting many areas of the city. The self-guided tours go up to four and six hours, giving you a much more thorough visit of Pompeii.

Also read: Here’s a Quick Guide to Rome’s Attractions

This book caters well to the must-see-everything history buff to the person strolling along taking photos of interesting statues and ancient architecture (a.k.a., me). Personally, I had a filling experience at Pompeii, especially for a first time around.

That’s what I did, and I can say confidently that I got more than enough for a first go around.

It took us about two to three hours to see what we wanted before getting hungry and making our way back to the cafe for pizza and a drink.

Mount Vesuvius

Entering the Ancient City Through Porta Marina

Whichever route you decide to take when visiting Pompeii, eventually you’ll make your way through the line, grab your ticket, which costs about 13, and pass through Porta Marina, the entrance to the ruins.

As we walked over the threshold, we decided to blend the guidebook’s itinerary with our own leisurely way through the city. The cover page of the book gives you a page-by-page guide to follow to maximize your time through the ruins. When you get there, take a few minutes to read about the history and significance of where you’re standing.

Earlier in the day, it’s fairly easy to avoid big crowds, where you’ll be forced to share and take turns gazing at the aging artwork and preserved living quarters. However, as the day continues, dozens and dozens of people wait eagerly for their turns to circle and zigzag the city.

Mixed in with a hot sun, I’d say it’s best to wait until a low point in the day to visit to get the best chance at a non-rushed and self-paced tour of Pompeii.

Since it was just the two of us, our strategy was to see as much as we can, without spending the entire day there. That turned out to be was a walk around the perimeter of the city, mainly, while diving into points we were particularly interested in, like House of the Vettii (read on).

Ashley stands near the Basilica in Pompeii, Italy

2 of My Favorite Sections of Pompeii

The Basilica, once the bustling economic center of Pompeii, is among the first sections of the city we walked through.

Walking in, you can weave through Greek-inspired sections of columns. The bases of which still stand, while other sections lie broken on the ground. What’s particularly appealing about this section is that it gives you an idea of just how established this city was.

That, too, was reflected in the House of the Vettii. The owners of the house — Aulo Vettio Restituto and Aulo Vettio Conviva — were rich merchants, and the preservation of their home shows it to this day.

“The essential value of this dwelling is the rich and complete wall decoration which are almost unique in their miraculous survival,” writes D’Orta.

You walk into a dim house. A reinforced roof protects the works of art, which appear worn and beaten from destruction and time.

What struck me most about walking through is how intricate the art was, even in its decaying state. And, this house, unlike the Forum or Basilica, seemed to stable, partially because of the reconstructed roof, but the walls stood tall and firm, keeping the art alive.

The same can be said for Pompeii overall, really. Even though it was once covered in ash due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the work of people remains hundreds and hundreds of years after they’ve gone. Remnants or not, that speaks to the lasting effect these people have had on the land.

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When You Go to Pompeii, Remember:

  • Try to go during the day’s low points. Around 11 a.m., foot traffic really picks up. It lasts throughout the afternoon too.
  • I didn’t want a guided group, so the book was a great alternative. Going with a guide helps and can make a night-and-day difference. But, I don’t recommend it for Pompeii, unless you’re a history buff.
  • Take your time, watch your step, and enjoy the day. Wearing good, stable footwear when traveling is a must. That goes double for Pompeii. But, it’s worth it without a doubt to see the magnificence of this city.