Herculaneum is ‘littler’ because the visible excavations are around a quarter of the size of those at nearby Pompeii, however don’t let that put you off. Good things come in smaller packages, or so the women in my life have always told me…once they’d stopped laughing.

Herculaneum was always a smaller settlement than Pompeii but around 75% of its roads and buildings are still deeply buried under the modern town of Ercolano. Hence one reason why they can’t carry on digging it all up, the current residents might get the hump.

herculanuem travel guide

It’s ‘older’ because it was the first of the towns buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 to be rediscovered. This was back in 1709 when someone dug a well and, instead of finding water, they started unearthing sculptures.

They had unwittingly burrowed into the lavishly decorated theatre of ancient Roman Herculaneum. It is unknown as to whether they also found a poster for ‘The Mousetrap’, but the play has been running for an awful long time. By the way, in case you were wondering, the murderer did it.

News of the buried treasure soon spread, and in 1738 proper excavations started under the patronage of King Charles III of Spain. I use the phrase ‘proper excavations’ loosely, the technical term is ‘looting’.

King Charles III was building the nearby Palace of Portici and furnished it with all the classical sculptures and bronzes that were being dug up. To be fair, this was in the days before ‘serious’ archaeology had the likes of Mary Beard to wag her finger at opportunist treasure-seekers. However, Charles III did go on to create the first ever museum of all the Vesuvian finds at his Portici Palace.

portici palace ercolano herculaneum

The old Portici museum wasn’t exactly something you could roll up to, pay a few lire and expect to exit through a gift shop clutching a fridge magnet. It was strictly by appointment only, and no sketching (same as ‘no photographs’ these days). The museum was a favourite stop-off for the European aristocracy on their Grand Tour back in the late 1700s.

You can still visit the old Portici Palace, it’s only a fifteen-minute walk up the road from Herculaneum.  If you go there now it’s a museum to a museum, all the good stuff is now safely under lock and key in the Naples Archaeological Museum.

Whereas Pompeii was a bustling commercial centre, Herculaneum was more of a seaside resort for wealthy Romans. However, the sea is now around 500m away as the land shifted upwards during the eruption. The whole area around the Bay of Naples has a long history of going up and down like a see-saw due to geological instability. So not a place to invest in hotels with a sea view.

herculaneum panorama

In the 1960s they discovered 300 skeletons in ancient boathouses in Herculaneum. These would have been fronting on to the beach before the eruption. It looks like the remaining residents gathered there for shelter, possibly in the hopes that a boat would take them away. Unfortunately the incredible heat of the oncoming pyroclastic cloud made their brains pop before they could escape.

herculaneum boathouses skeletons

They are still analysing the bones for diet, disease and demographics. I only found this out after taking lots of pictures of the skellingtons in situ. I thought I’d had my money’s worth from the entrance fee for that ghoulish experience alone, but they are just plastic replicas in the boathouses now. I could have saved myself an airfare by taking snaps in the Halloween aisle at Sainsburys instead.

If you are visiting the area you will probably go to Pompeii, rather than Herculaneum. Why wouldn’t you? It’s much more famous and you need to say you’ve been there, and preferably before another eruption buries it all again. A proper visit to Pompeii will take you all day, so I wouldn’t do nearby Herculaneum in the same day, or even on the same trip.

I went to Pompeii some time ago and I always wanted to visit the better-preserved Herculaneum. For instance, a lot of the wood survived in Herculaneum, albeit carbonised. So, this time, I stayed in Naples for a couple of nights and spent a leisurely afternoon mooching around quieter Herculaneum whilst giving busy Pompeii a miss.

herculaneum wooden shutters

I enjoyed Herculaneum, although I’m still in two minds about Naples. You have to ‘see Naples and die’ apparently. That’s what Goethe said about it. I read his journal about Naples whilst I was there, and it certainly sounded much more fun back in the 18th century. Fun was hard to come by in modern Naples.

Naples does have the fantastic Archaeological Museum (with a magnificent macaroni-cheese burger in its café) and three Caravaggios in various locations (one of which was on loan in Rouen by the way, which the gallery’s website kept quiet about), but Naples is not a city that everyone will warm to.

If you want a quieter break without the murderous drivers of Naples, and their constant cacophony of car and moped horns, then maybe stay in Sorrento a little further south. I’ve never been there but it sounds like a nice resort by the sea with a great view of the Bay of Naples. Although do it soon, if there is another eruption or earthquake you may need binoculars to see it.

For more of Johnny’s Italian escapades click here.