Planning a visit to Pompeii but not sure what to see? We understand—there’s a ton to see in Pompeii. The city was “flash-frozen” by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius with almost no warning, making it one of the best-preserved archeological sites of its size on Earth. To help you have a more meaningful visit, we asked our local guides to list the top things to see at Pompeii with some history.
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The Top 15 Things You Have To See in Pompeii
Pompeii was a booming port city in the Ancient Roman Empire with over 20,000 residents. On August 24th, A.D. 79 its fate was changed when the Mt. Vesuvius volcano erupted and shot a 10-mile high mushroom cloud of ash and pumice into the stratosphere.
Consequently, those who were not killed by the missiles of pumice coming down or the lava were wiped out by the toxic gases that took over the area, essentially suffocating everyone.
The volcanic ash and mud from the eruption shielded the city’s artifacts from destruction and preserved a huge amount of history. To this day, you can still see some of the bodies, clothes, and even places of business that were preserved by the eruption.
Ironically, this disastrous day for the Romans has given us an intimate look into what life was like in an ancient Roman city. Interested in exploring Pompeii with an expert guide? Check out our Pompeii tours with plenty of options whether you’re coming from Rome or looking to combine your visit with a stop on the Amalfi Coast.
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1. The Amphitheater
This is the oldest known amphitheater in Ancient Rome, which makes it one of the top things to see in Pompeii. In Ancient Greece, theaters were typically carved into the side of a mountain or hill, so they were always semi-circular.
The Romans, being extremely pragmatic, realized that if you put two of these theaters together you would get a 360-degree view. Built in 70 B.C. by the magistrates Caius Quinctius Valgus and Marcus Porcius, the amphitheater could hold 20,000 people.
They cleverly built it on the edge of the city since that facilitated moving large numbers of people. It was host to gladiator games and large spectacles just like the Colosseum in Rome. The stone structure is a great example of the large functioning society in the ancient town.
As you can imagine, these events could get pretty rowdy. People of all classes loved the gladiator contests and people would come from neighboring towns and cities to attend the event.
During one such event in A.D. 59, the crowds got so rough that a huge brawl broke out between the spectators. The magistrates then closed down the amphitheater for 10 years. They eventually opened it up sooner in A.D. 62. Some of you may even remember this theater since it hosted the Pink Floyd concert in 1972!
2. The Forum of Pompeii
Just like the Roman Forum, the Forum of Pompeii was used as the center of activity and commerce in the town. It’s where you’ll find the city’s major Temples including the Temples of Venus, Apollo, and Jupiter. You’ll also find the grand Forum Baths there.
The actual Forum you see today was built between the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. The axis of the square was changed to open onto the Temple of Jupiter. Earlier, it had opened onto the Sanctuary of Apollo.
The changes make sense because now you can get an epic view of Mt. Vesuvius from the Forum. Although, I’m sure the architects couldn’t fathom that this beautiful mountain peak would be their ultimate destruction within two centuries.
You always have to use your imagination when looking at ancient sites, but Pompeii gives you more than most other sites. This entire Forum would have been surrounded by a beautifully adorned portico and the entire center of the Forum would have been paved with travertine stone. Excavations by Maria Carolina Bonaparte revealed that the decorations that adorned this area had already been stripped off in ancient times.
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3. Pompeii’s Forum Baths
One common misconception is all ancient people were dirty and rarely bathed. In many cases, this is accurate. But it isn’t true of the ancient Romans. It might surprise you, but Roman citizens bathed every day and the men were clean-shaven.
Though only the very rich could afford private baths, the public baths in the Forum were for people of all social classes. The area was divided into men’s and women’s sections.
The baths in the Forum were built immediately after the area was colonized by the general Silla (80 B.C.). Like most buildings, these baths were heavily damaged during the earthquake of A.D. 62.
The beautiful decorations would have been done during later renovations including the vault with its elaborate stucco in relief and the terra cotta male figures known as Telemones. There’s also a great bronze brazier, which was used for heating up the room.
What was going to the baths like?
Going to the baths was a daily experience akin to going to a spa today. You could stay inside for hours relaxing or even concluding business affairs. After undressing, it was normal to do some kind of physical activity to work up a sweat. Then, you’d be covered in oil and have it scraped off with a round instrument called a strigil.
After that, you’d either get a message or go and bath. The three main rooms of the ancient Roman bath were the tepidarium (warm bath), the caldarium (hot bath), and the frigidarium (cold bath). Classically, one would bathe in each room in that order.
4. Pompeii’s Brothel
The world’s oldest profession also had its place in Ancient Rome, and the most evident example of this in Pompeii can be found in this building. The word for “brothel” in Latin was lupanar. It derives from the word lupa or “she-wolf,” which was slang for “prostitute” in Ancient Rome. So, what you were entering back in the day was a “den of she-wolves.”
The prostitutes were slaves brought in to cement Pompeii as a city of sin. Surprisingly, we also know the names of many of the women who worked here due to graffiti left behind by happy customers.
This particular lupanar was built on two floors with the owner and prostitutes sleeping upstairs. Downstairs, there were five individual rooms with a built-in bed (see the photo above) and curtains would separate the rooms. The prostitutes were mostly Greek and Oriental. They were paid 2-8 asses (to clarify, an ass was a Roman coin, like a penny) per service. To put that into perspective, a glass of wine would cost around 1 ass.
As you enter the brothel, the first thing you’ll notice is all the interesting frescos of various sexual positions lining the walls. Since Pompeii was a port town, many foreigners would come that didn’t speak Latin. They could just point to the painting of the services they desired. Also, there were phallic symbols embedded in the paving stones in the streets leading up to the brothels, so men knew exactly where to go.
5. The Palaestra
If you’re from Philadelphia, you’ll recognize the word palaestra from “The Palestra” on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Palaestra is the Latin word for “gym” and was similar to a modern-day gym with areas for training and even a swimming pool.
Ancient doctors prescribed exercise, like today, as a form of keeping yourself fit and healthy. They also believed this would help your mental bearings—Mens sana in corpore sano (healthy mind in a healthy body). The word palaestra actually originates from the Greek pale for wrestling, since it was one of the main exercises for men.
Just like today, men would lift weights. In the palaestra, they would also wrestle, fence, box, and play ball games like handball. Women would come to the palaestra as well to exercise. They usually played a game called Trochus, which involved pushing a metal loop with a hooked stick. The famous satirist Juvenal speaks of new-age women who were also lifting weights as doing a “Man’s exercise”.
6. The Large Theater
The Amphitheater was not the only center for entertainment in Pompeii. The large theatre held about 5,000 people and theater performances hosted here were usually Greek tragedies. It was built on the slope of a hill like most Greek theaters and was semi-circular.
It was built in the second century B.C. and later restored according to the Roman style of the time. This means that the seats were numbered and also a velarium was installed above. The velarium was essentially a dome, which was actually a type of tarp. It served to protect the spectators from the brutal sun.
Surprisingly, we even know the name of the architect who did modifications to the theater during the Augustan age. How? He left some graffiti with an inscription and his name on it: Marcus Artorius Primus.
The theater hosted various events, mostly comedies and tragedies according to both Greek and Roman traditions. The events themselves were almost always held in conjunction with a festival or holiday to some god, especially the Ludi Apollinaris which celebrated the main god of Pompeii, Apollo.
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7. Gladiator Barracks
Gladiators have been immortalized to us today and were worshipped by the ancients for their manly virtue and stoic attitude to death. However, the ironic aspect of this entire situation is that all gladiators were slaves, so they were simultaneously belittled as a sub-human entity.
There were two kinds of slave gladiators. Those who sold themselves into slavery on purpose, due to high debt, and those who were captured from faraway lands and forced to be slave gladiators.
If you were a free man with too much debt, you could sell yourself into slavery, write up a contract for a number of fights, and if you survived, get your freedom back. However, if you were conquered by the Romans and made a slave, you could be fighting for a very long time. Or, like Spartacus, you could just start a slave rebellion that almost brought the Romans to their knees!
As the name implies, the gladiator barracks were where the gladiators lived and trained for their life-and-death matches at the Amphitheater. Think of a giant dorm room or a jail where they would be locked away at night. There’s a large square with 24 columns surrounding it enclosed by small walls with pictures of hunting scenes.
Skeptical about whether this area was used for gladiators? You’ll find over 120 inscriptions inside the building with Gladiator-themed stories to confirm it. If you loved the movie “Gladiator,” this may be the coolest thing to see in Pompeii.
8. The Preserved Plaster Casts
When they started excavating Pompeii, they noticed that around the skeletons in the ash, there was a void. By pouring plaster of paris into the void, the final moments of many were immortalized.
When you visit Pompeii, you’re not only seeing ruins but witnessing the final, intimate moments of many people’s lives. There’s an amazing display of people in the positions they were in when they were covered in ash on that fateful day. You’ll see pregnant women, children, and even dogs. A rotating exhibit around Pompeii, these casts were created during the excavations of the ruins.
What were those last chaotic moments like? Luckily, we have one first-hand account by Pliny the Younger. He was near Pompeii in Misenum with his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Elder had decided to go help friends in distress and never made it back. Pliny the younger, in a letter to a friend, describes it the following way:
“You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many sought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness forevermore.”
9. Villa dei Misteri
Translated as Villa of Mysteries, the name itself derives from a fresco showing the initiation of a young girl into a mystery cult. To clarify, mystery rites were closely guarded secrets in particular pagan cults where, as the name suggests, nobody outside the cult would have any idea of what was going on.
Much of what has come down to us about these cults seemed to have involved the god Dionysus. As a result, we can safely assume that wine was an integral part of these rites and rituals since he was, of course, the God of wine.
For example, we know that during the Bacchanal rites (Bacchus was the Roman version of Dionysus) initiates would consume huge amounts of wine and work themselves into a frenzy where they would literally tear apart a live animal like a sheep and eat it raw.
The villa is a bit of a hike from the other sites and is actually outside the ancient walls of Pompeii. However, if you get a chance to visit, you’ll witness some of the best-preserved frescos of Ancient Rome. The fresco mentioned above during the mystery rites covers three entire walls of a house.
Popular Tours of Pompeii and Capri
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10. Temple of Apollo
Apollo is one of the few gods whose name remained the same between Greeks and Romans (Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno, etc.). The fact that excavations have uncovered remains from an earlier temple from the 6th century B.C. shows the strong presence of Apollo in Greek and Etruscan settlements in the area. As a result, archeologists have found artifacts from that pre-existing temple including votive items and terracotta decorations.
The building you see today would date from the third to the second centuries B.C. It has a podium, so you could get closer to the gods, with a portico that creates a courtyard. There would also have been an altar in the center. There was likely a colonnade with a terrace that would have connected the temple with the square of the Forum.
The god Apollo was celebrated throughout the year, but the real party was during the Ludi Apollonares or the Apollo games. During this three-day festival, the city would come alive with not only theatrical pieces, but also massive gladiator competitions. Meanwhile, these games were also to initiate boys and girls into the cult of Apollo and have them recognize him as one of the major gods ruling over them.
11. House of Vettii
The name comes from two brothers (Aulus Vettius Conviva and Aulus Vettius Restitutus) who were slaves that received their freedom. While the freeing of slaves was not an everyday occurrence, it did happen on a regular basis. Unable to reach the political ranks due to their social status, they found wealth through trade.
You can see where the gardens and lararium were as well as the general plan of the house. Richly decorated rooms overlook the peristyle (courtyard) and jets of water from fountains all over the palace display the riches its owners possessed.
The main productive activities of that time would have taken place in these rooms. From selling wine to cleaning clothes, cultivating flowers, harvesting, jewelry making, and creating perfumes.
After reopening in 2016 after 12 years of restoration, the frescoes you see here are some of the greatest examples of Ancient Roman artwork. There’s also a famous fresco of the fertility god Priapus that has become famous over time. When you see it, you’ll understand.
At the entrance, you’ll see some graffiti showing the prostitute Eutychus who was a slave. In the next room over, where you can find exotic paintings, she offered her services for only 2 asses (about 2 cups of wine).
12. House of the tragic poet
Why is it called the House of the Poet? The interesting name of this archeological find comes from a mosaic of an actor who getting ready for a play. The building itself is actually full of fine mosaics either in the atrium, the tablinum, or near the Peristyle (courtyard with fountain). Another fine mosaic to see here is Ariadne who is left by Theseus. Above all, the most important mosaic is of the Cave Canem (see below).
Today, we have photos and videos to remember what life was like. Similarly, the ancient Romans had mosaics. By studying these, we can go back in time and see not only what people looked like, but also how they dressed!
For example, from the mosaics currently in the Galleria Borghese, we know what outfits gladiators used to wear from the extensive mosaics depicting fully suited gladiators.
13. House of the Faun
The House of the Faun was the biggest and most expensive house in Pompeii, which makes it a must-see attraction in Pompeii. The word “house” is actually a misnomer since it covers an entire city block at 32,000 square feet ( 3,000 square meters). The owner had so much money he actually had a mosaic built into the street in front of his house with the Latin word HAVE, which means “greetings!”
Archeologists have assessed that the super palace saw various improvements and modifications up until the eruption, but the original building dates back to 180 B.C. The name of the building comes from a bronze statue of a faun set above the impluvium.
This was a basin-like structure that captured rainwater since there would be a hole in the roof above. Back in the day, someone would have been able to see this statue if they peered from the main doorway into the house.
It’s worth noting that the famous Alexander mosaic was originally housed in this palace. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see the mosaic now, since it is in the Archeology Museum of Naples. However, it is interesting to note that the famous Battle of Issus, where Alexander crushed Darius, only happened 150 years before this palace was built.
14. Cave Canem Mosaic
At the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet (see above) there is a mosaic of a dog with letters, which was like a doormat. The letters read Cave Canem in Latin, which means “Beware of the dog”. This just goes to show, we haven’t changed much after 2,000 years.
The black-haired dog is seemingly crouching back in the attack position with teeth bared, daring anyone to enter at their own risk. This beautiful mosaic was recently restored and now has a protective casing over it. This allows people to see it while, at the same time, protecting it from any damage.
15. Mt. Vesuvius
The most famous volcano of all time is not situated in the architectural complex of Pompeii and is not even in the city itself, but I would be remiss not to mention it. The last eruption was in 1944, but don’t worry. The experts say we should have some time before the next big one happens.
On August 24th, A.D. 79, Mt. Vesuvius unleashed its fury by sending a smoke cloud 10 miles into the air and pelting the city with fire and pumice missiles. The following day, those who stayed in the city (supposedly around 2,000 people) were killed by a toxic gas that swept through the city.
According to Pliny the Younger, the eruption lasted 18 hours. Consequently, the city itself was completely wiped out and buried under 20 feet of ash and pumice.
Only a short drive away, you should definitely go and check out the volcano that made Pompeii famous to us today! It’s the perfect way to end your Pompeii journey. If you don’t have a car and are staying in Rome, come join us for the adventure on our Private Pompeii and Vesuvius Day Trip.
Not ready to book a tour? Find out if a Pompeii day trip from Rome is worth it.
Popular Pompeii Tours
The Pompeii archaeological park is a massive place to navigate for first-time visitors. We recommend exploring the site with an expert guide who knows all the interesting stories and the top things to see at Pompeii to help make your visit more meaningful. Here are a few of our most popular Pompeii tours.
This is a 2-hour, small group tour for people who are already in Pompeii or have decided to sort out their own transportation.
There’s a lot to see in Pompeii and almost none of it is marked since it’s a preserved historical site. Let our local, expert guide explain all the best sites as they share crazy anecdotes and stories from the ancient world.
This is a small group tour with round-trip transportation from Rome. It includes a tour leader who will be with you for the day, and an archaeological guide who will lead you through the ruins of Pompeii.
After visiting the ruins (including Villa dei Misteri) with our expert guide, you will then travel on to beautiful Sorrento where you will have some free time for shopping and a meal. A private tour is also available if preferred.
This is a private tour for those who are staying in the Amalfi Coast area and don’t want to worry about transportation. We also set up local, expert guides for you in Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius—trek all the way to the top!