Resting in the shadow of the ominous Mount Vesuvius just outside of Naples, you find the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Visiting Pompeii with kids is like taking a step back in time, when the pictures and words on a page jump out of the textbooks and come to life before your eyes.
Unlike the crumbling Roman Forum or the looted Colosseum, Pompeii was preserved intact nearly 2,000 years ago covered in volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, allowing us to see what an ancient Roman city was really like. When in Southern Italy, you should absolutely take advantage of the opportunity to see such a well-preserved ancient city. However, there are some things you need to know before you go. After visiting twice, here are a few things we learned about how NOT to do Pompeii.
Visiting Pompeii Italy with Kids: What Not to Do
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Don’t find a guide at the gate (and definitely not outside the gate)
If you want a private guide of Pompeii, it is best to arrange this in advance. If you wait until you arrive and try to find a licensed guide at the gate, you really don’t know what you are going to get. Since we had a decent experience years ago, we went this route and unfortunately, the only guy around was someone who caused me concern from the start but after getting another couple to share the cost with us, we thought it was better than nothing.
I was wrong. Next time, I’d arrange for a private tour in advance from a trusted operator like Walks of Italy. If you are feeling really ambitious, you can even take a tour up Mount Vesuvius.
While our guide did point out a few interesting facts, like that Pompeii had actually been covered up by ash and rock a few times before the more infamous Vesuvius explosion (some people never learn?), his knowledge was pretty scant.
He did like to point out (over and over) how the sewer system worked, which was a great feat of engineering. But when I asked questions about how murals were preserved with colors intact, I got answers like “they are good at their job.” Whoa, what a different experience from the amazing tour guides we’d had of Ancient Rome and the Colosseum, Vatican, and Pantheon, who were all art history graduates with a wealth of knowledge (and great personalities.)
Avoid the brothels
That isn’t just a broad statement of life, it is specific to Pompeii. Brothels are a big attraction on tours. I recalled some very detailed graffiti from our visit sans kids, which I wasn’t too eager to explain to my 10-year-old, so I smartly asked our guide if we could skip that site.
He obliged, but then preceded to point out the graphic signposts that mark the path, should we wish to explore on our own after. What did I say about choosing a good guide? Needless to say, that raised a few questions.
Don’t go at mid-day
There is very little shade in Pompeii and the sun reflecting off all that stone can be brutal on a hot day. Your best bet is to go in the early morning or late afternoon.
Of course, if you are traveling out of Rome, it is a two-and-a-half-hour drive, so avoiding mid-morning can be tough unless you stop off in Naples. Whenever you go, be sure to bring along plenty of water, because there aren’t many facilities within the archeological site, and wear a hat and sunscreen.
Don’t think you are going to see it all
Pompeii was a large city and if you climb up high, you will see that so much of it is still unexcavated. Especially if you are traveling with kids, you aren’t going to see it all.
Try to pick out a few main sights, like some of the wealthy merchant houses, the public baths, the plaster casts, the forum, and the amphitheater. I’d suggest mapping out a route in advance. If you aren’t committed to Pompeii, you could visit Herculaneum instead, which is smaller, has more shade, and is well-preserved, you just won’t get the sense of a larger city.
Think ahead about where you will have lunch
When we exited the scavi (or archeological site), we were hot, tired and hungry. So we did what every tourist shouldn’t do and went to a restaurant nearby. We knew enough to avoid the small snack bars right outside the gate and thought we made a major find at Bacco e Arianna right up the hill.
While the courtyard dining was lovely and shaded, and the food was delicious, these guys are excellent marketers. We met the owner and he convinced us to try some fresh fish right off his son’s boat…and that we would each need our own order (this was after a very generous selection of antipasto, which would have been enough.)
We forgot to ask the market price of the fish so we did a double-take when the bill came. Not only was it one of our most expensive meals in Italy, but he also only took cash. The food was great but it came at a high price. Especially since we used all our cash to pay the bill, leaving us short and unable to hire a porter when we got to Positano. Which meant we had to carry our bags, and our leftover fish (because at that price we were taking it with us), down 100 steps to our apartment rental.
Don’t wear flip flops
We actually got this one right, but only because we had experience. The ruins of Pompeii are dry and dusty and you will be walking over uneven cobblestone streets. I highly recommend closed-toe shoes or at least a good, sturdy walking sandal.
If you choose to go it alone, I’d recommend downloading the Pompeii app from Kreisa. The app offers a map, guided paths based on time or itinerary, descriptions and an audio tour for all the main buildings, the story of Pompeii and even augmented reality to show you what things used to look like. And read the complete guide to visiting Pompeii here.