Herculaneum (Ercolano), Italy

When thinking about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius attention is always focussed on the world-famous city of Pompeii. However, its lesser-known sister town of Herculaneum suffered a similar fate and is just as worthy of exploration.


Located a short drive northwest from Pompeii, the town is arguably better preserved and is a site crammed with crumbling buildings and boasting incredible artefacts to discover.

In 1709, Herculaneum was discovered by accident during the digging of a well and excavations began in 1738. Unfortunately, the years in-between saw the site accessed by treasure hunters who removed many of the wonderfully preserved artefacts. Future excavation efforts attempted to preserve the discovered items and many of the works of art including paintings and statues are available to view on site.

The History of Herculaneum

The name ‘Herculaneum’ is thought to be related to the Greek hero Heracles, signifying that the town was of Greek Origin. Herculaneum was once a small, wealthy coastal village and a favourite holiday destination for rich families. When Mount Vesuvius began to erupt in 79 AD, the inhabitants of Herculaneum were spared from the initial toxic gasses and debris released from the volcano due to the direction of the wind. Whilst those living in Pompeii suffocated, residents in towns north of the volcano were able to evacuate before the final, devastating blast.

When the town was first excavated in the 18th century, it was believed that all residents had escaped however further investigations proved otherwise. What appears to be a moat around the town was found to be an ancient coastline in which 300 skeletons were discovered. This revealed that some people who attempted to leave by boat perished on the beaches before they could escape.

Uniquely Preserved

The thick layer of volcanic ash which buried Herculaneum for hundreds of years combined with the humidity levels in the ground has achieved unprecedented levels of preservation. The items found within the town appear to have been suspended in time, waiting to tell the secrets of the past. This is what makes the smaller town of Herculaneum such a point of intrigue when compared to Pompeii.

Unlike other towns and cities buried by the ash from Vesuvius, the surviving items in Herculaneum were not just the buildings but also many delicate items. Those investigating the ruins of the town were shocked to discover wooden furniture, house frames and boats which were very well preserved. Perhaps more startling was the preservation of items such as fruit, bread, clothing and paper. These discoveries revealed much about the lives of the ancient Romans. In particular, the paper scrolls which appeared charred beyond recognition has provided great levels of excitement. Before advanced techniques were developed, those examining the ancient rolls of paper simply tried to unravel them which lead to significant damage. More recently, scientists have used technology to scan the artefects and identify text written on the scraps of paper as though they were written only yesterday.

What to See at Herculaneum

Herculaneum, Italy

Due to its size, Herculaneum is much easier to explore than Pompeii. With only a small fraction available to explore to the public, the small grid is simple to cover in a morning. A large majority of people prefer Herculaneum to Pompeii as it has fewer crowds and is more compact. Both sites are manageable in one day, with combo tickets available at both locations and a train connecting the areas. Visitors can guide themselves around the ruins if they wish, either exploring the site with an information booklet or audio-guide.

Many sections of Herculaneum are even more preserved than Pompeii, with brilliant coloured frescos, conserved shop buildings, and public fountains. You’ll wander amongst the ruins of wealthy homes, swimming pools, baths and even a sports ground where you’ll get a taste for how the ancient inhabitants lived their lives. Remember to take a peek inside the buildings to find the treasures that remain inside.

Things to do & see at Herculaneum

  • House of Galba

    House of Galba

    A beautifully preserved upper-class mansion, the House of Galba is well worth exploring. Decorated in the peristyle, the key attraction inside is the large pool in the shape of a cross. Historians have speculated multiple uses for this pool, venturing it could have once been a reservoir, a fish pond, or even a bath for the household.

  • Sacello degli Augustali

    Sacello degli Augustali is a large square shrine set alight by an opening in the roof. What is truly exceptional about this fabulous shrine is the persevered frescoes. The shrine was once dedicated to Hercules, patron of Herculaneum, but later turned to the Imperial cult. The remaining frescos depict both religious areas but have more paintings of Hercules intact.

  • Villa of the Papyri

    Rumoured to be the home of Julius Ceasar’s father-in-law Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, this villa is set over four levels and would have stretched for more than 250 meters along the coastline. The villa gets its name from the papyrus scrolls discovered inside. The scrolls and their texts are being analysed and are thought to contain works from the great philosophers of the time including.

  • The Baths

    A visit to the ancient land of Romans wouldn’t be complete without a visit to their famous thermal baths. These baths were used by all citizens, regardless of their gender, age, or class-as it was rare for any household to have their own private baths. The decorations of these baths are still intact in this ancient town, with a mosaic of dolphins, and tepidarium floors, and wooden shelves.

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