A visit to Pompeii almost never disappoints. There are only three pieces of essential equipment: a map of the site (you can get one at the main entrance at the Marine Gate), a bottle of water (a small one is fine, as you can replenish it at one of the many water fountains) and a comfortable pair of sandals or shoes (the streets are rough and a death-trap for any kind of high-heel).
There are three public entrances to the site. The most convenient route is to come by the local Circumvesuviana train, running between Naples and Sorrento, getting off at the station Pompei scavi – Villa dei Misteri. You then enter the site by the main entrance, running the gauntlet of guides and souvenir sellers. Make sure you take some official photo ID (passport, drivers’ licence or bona fide student card) if you want to claim free or reduced entrance to the site. And check the times of the returning trains when you arrive. They run regularly, but (despite a decent, traditional Italian station bar) waiting even half an hour seems a lot longer when you’ve finished a day on the site.
You can also get into the site by the Amphitheatre or at the Piazza Esedra between the Amphitheatre and the Marine Gate. But, for these entrances, you should travel by a different branch of the Circumvesuviana (going towards Poggiomarino) getting off atPompei santuario, or by the main national (FS) line running north–south, getting off at the Pompei station. Unless you have strong reasons to opt for the others, the Pompei scavi route is the best option, and has the best bookshop.
You can leave the site (but not enter or re-enter) at the Villa of the Mysteries (below no. 10).
There is a large self-service restaurant and bar near the Forum, where you will find the only lavatories in the main area of the site (free, but you will be much more welcome if you leave 50 cents).
The most enjoyable part of any visit is simply to walk through the streets of the town. Don’t spend too much time getting hot in the Forum, which you reach soon after the Marine Gate. There are better things to come. One excellent plan is to walk along the Via dell’Abbondanza – taking in the façades, the bars, the shops and the changing character of the street as you go along. Keep your eyes open for the traffic calming measures, the ways the flow of water is blocked, the holes in the side of the pavement for tying up the animals, etc. And go into any house you find open. Also try to head down any side street where you can escape the other visitors and, cliché as it is, just imagine that you are back in the first century CE.
The site administration is under-funded, and this means that some of the buildings you will want to see will be locked. A few of these may be open through an internet site (www.arethusa.net), which allows you to book a timed entrance to a particular house, which will then be un-locked specially. (This usually, but not always, works.) The list which follows represents my top ten of buildings that are regularly open. You will have missed out if you do not see some of these, at least.
1. The House of the Tragic Poet. Bulwer Lytton’s house of Glaucus.
2. The House of Octavius Quartio. A marvellous garden with water features, and an outdoor triclinium.
3. The House of Marine Venus Take a look at the sprawling goddess of love.
4. The Stabian Baths. The easiest place to get an idea of what Roman bathing involved.
5. The Forum Baths and the Suburban Baths. If you get interested in baths, these make nice comparisons with the Stabian – and the erotic paintings in the Suburban Baths are well worth seeing in their own right.
6. The brothel. Cheesy, but ...
7. The Temple of Isis The best preserved temple on the site
8. The Amphitheatre and the palaestra next door. But remember that it is a long way from the Marine Gate to here. You probably need to decide in advance whether you are up for it.
9. The Fullery of Stephanus (on the south side of the Via dell’Abbondanza at I.6.7). It gives a good idea what a commercial establishment was like.
10. The Villa of the Mysteries. Even if it has been re-touched, the painting is tremendously impressive. It is a good idea to walk to this out of town villa as the last port of call on your visit, past the tombs lining the route. Then you can exit directly and go back to the station.
Once you have seen Pompeii, if you have time, you should try to make it to the nearby town of Herculaneum (also on the Circumvesuviana, a few minutes walk from Ercolano station). This has a much smaller excavated area than Pompeii, but the preservation of some materials (notably wood) is much better, and there are fewer visitors.
Many of the best finds from both sites are displayed – and even more are in store, or temporarily closed and not on view – in the Naples Archaeological Museum in the city centre. This is easy to reach from Metro stops Piazza Cavour or Museo. It is closed on Tuesdays, and when last visited had only a small, ill-stocked café, but better than nothing.