Rome to Pompeii: How to Take a Day Trip and Visit the Ancient City
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Everyone tells you it's a bad idea to drive in Rome... but who are we to follow conventional advice? Are we not Spunky Travelers? Yes, yes we are! We are BRAVE, FEARLESS, ADVENTUROUS travelers who can meet any feat, accomplish any task, and certainly, we can manage a little car ride through Rome and on to Pompeii.
...or so we thought.
Don't Drive. Just Don't Do It.
Even thought it was October, after a day of walking in the sunshine we were a hot, sweaty mess. Still, we won't complain about it. The sunshine was a pleasant break from our German rain and overcast skies.
As we said goodbye to Rome, and began our journey to Pompeii, we felt ecstatic with the upcoming thrills of adventure. We had always wanted to see Pompeii. Pompeii is place suspended in time, caught in a moment—frozen under heat. It is a place where you can step back 2,000 years into Roman life and really feel like you've stepped into a time machine. Pompeii is not just a tourist site—it is an entire ancient city!
Unfortunately, our excitement didn't last for long.
We opted to rent a car and drive from Rome to Pompeii. We decided to take the toll road because it was *supposed to be* 2 hours faster than taking a non-toll road route.
Initially, we moved along speedily and everything seemed to be going according to plan.
It wasn't until we reached the toll booth at the end of the route that we realized what a mistake we had made.
At the end of the route, there are several booths to pay your toll, exit the road, and continue on your journey to Pompeii. In theory, it's a quick "in-and-out" process. When several of the toll booths break down, however, and suddenly hundreds of Italians find themselves in a funnel neck of approximately 1234567 cars trying to squeeze through a couple operating booths... the process becomes a nightmare.
Everyone was honking, cutting each other off, yelling at each other, and refusing to let others in. There were cars driving forwards, backwards, and even sideways across the rows of traffic, all in an effort to get to an open booth. We watched several cars rear end each other. A couple of Italian guys popped out, yelled at each other in what I assume was some strongly-worded Italian, and then simply got back in their cars. No insurance, no police, nothing.
Several times we got boxed in, trying to ensure our rental car didn't get scratched or bumped. (This was a near impossible task.) We had to keep working our way inch by inch to get back into a line, only to get shoved out again.
After about an hour of sitting in this chaos, we finally reached a working toll booth. With only 6 cars in front of us, the end was in sight! We were going to be free!
But then the booth broke. Right in front of us.
We couldn't go forward. We couldn't go backward. With metal guard railings on either side of us now, there was no option to turn left or right.
Our thoughts raced. ...Are we going to be stuck forever? ...Will we ever get to Pompeii?
We're never getting out of here!
We waited. We looked around. No one was moving. No one was coming to fix the machine. Was anyone even aware that it was broken and all these people were stuck here?!?
Then, something miraculous happened. The gate went up... and stayed up.
A couple cars creeped through. Are we really moving? Yes! We are getting out of here!
Then the gate came down again. We were at a standstill once more. Ugh.
Suddenly, like a flash mob that appeared out of no where, a throng of Italians came running up the sides of the road flanking our cars. After waiting in line for over an hour, they were done with all this ridiculousness. They got animated. They ran up to the gate and lifted it up. They started waving everyone through and shouting with incredible urgency. "GO, GO, GO! Everyone MOVE! While the gates are up, for goodness sake, GO!" At least, it was something like that I imagine. After all, we don't speak Italian.
We zoomed forward and finally escaped the legitimate highway to hell. (I think AC/DC wrote that song on their way to Naples...)
We didn't end up paying a toll... which I don't really feel bad about because it took us the same amount of time to drive that toll road as it would have taken to drive the roads without tolls. We also paid with our sanity. So, there's that.
Finding a Laugh
One hilarious moment in the mix of all the craze, was a suped-up Mini Cooper full of Italian teenagers who were blaring their music. Normally, we all roll our eyes and get annoyed by the shenanigans of these rapscallions, right? Yet, in a heated moment when everyone was frustrated, cutting each other off, yelling, and at their wits end, it was enjoyable to have a gentle dose of comic relief.
At one point they shouted “oh come on! Open up the gates! We all just want to go to Napoli.”
Later they started a game where they would honk their horn to that common ditty
Beep beepbeep beep beep... and then another car somewhere in the fray would answer with the remaining beep beep. This went on and on for several rounds of different cars throughout the parking lot responding to the beep beepbeep beep beep... beep beep!
We got quite a laugh. They also were trying to ask us something but we couldn’t figure out what they were saying so Ryan responded, “no hablo Italiano” and later, when we responded with our own little beep beep, they started congratulating the Spaniard (meaning Ryan) for playing along.
We finally reached Pompeii and checked in to the loveliest Airbnb. Our host was so sweet and helped us get settled after a stressful drive.
Tomorrow we’re off to Pompeii!!
It was as if 15 atomic bombs exploded at the same moment when Vesuvius erupted. A 25 to 50 mile plume of smoke rose into the air as ash and lava spread out from the volcano, burying the city of Pompeii and all its inhabitants beneath 30 to 45 feet of ash. It was 79 AD and 16,000 people were dead. The coast was pushed out 3 kilometers away from the city, and Pompeii disappeared in an instant.
The Ruins of Pompeii, in comparison with what we saw in Rome, could hardly be considered ruins! We were greeted by intact frescoes, courtyards, homes and takeaway bars, bakeries, and spas all immaculately preserved by the ash.
The city was discovered in 1748 by a farmer who dug into the amphitheater! (Could you imagine finding an entire ancient city below your farm?!?) For 1700 years an entire city just vanished! We took a 2 hour guided tour with an archaeologist named Felicia who specializes in the graffiti of Pompeii (of which there are over 10,000 instances). If you want to take the same tour we took, you can book it here with Felicia. She has been studying the city for 22 years! We really enjoyed learning with her.
**There are several options to take longer tours at Pompeii. We suggest only booking the 2 hour tour. This tour is plenty long enough to get all the historical insight you could want, and then you'll be free to wander Pompeii on your own (which you'll want to do). We found from talking with other travelers that the 5-6 hour tours were too long. Many people wanted to wander off on their own after 2 to 3 hours, and felt frustrated that they still had to stay with their group for another 2 to 3 hours.
Inside the Ancient City
As she took us through the city, I felt I was walking the streets of an ancient Roman city. I could see the tracks worn into the street from the chariots, drink from the same fountains as ancient Romans, enter into their homes and even see mosaic doormats warning me to “beware of the dog.”
Traveling around Pompeii further cemented my understanding that, deep down, we’re all human. We’re really not that different from one another. Pompeii had fast food restaurants, pets, relaxing spas, graffiti, temples, commerce, and innovation. One touching inscription our guide showed us was in a hallway where someone had written in graffiti a phrase about being a slave, working his way up to buy his freedom and said, “at last I am free.”
Pompeii had many slaves, though not in the sense we may think of slavery in the United States in the 18th century. Their slaves were perhaps more like poor workers or indentured servants.
Pompeii reveals the past. It is a city so well preserved that archaeologists can determine who these people were, what they were like, what they ate and wore, how they cooked, what they did for their professions, and so on.
In fact, there was a home where we were shown two brothers, new to wealth, who had purchased their freedom. Archaeologists know their names, how they earned their wealth, and what the paintings in their entryway meant.
I especially loved learning about the spas because I learned something new linguistic information. SPA is actually an acronym. It stands for salus per aqua or wellness by water. Just think about that for a second. Roman and Greek cultures were so extensively and globally influential that we are still using that word and idea of wellness by water.
We have our “spas” because of them!
Their city was so incredibly advanced. They had plumbing systems, running fountains with water, heated floors, and microphones (of course, not microphones with electricity, but quite functional through using water and specially shaped pottery). How did history go from this life to the life we know in the Middle Ages?
Throughout the city there are marble stones embedded in the sidewalks and streets. As people walked with torches or lights in the streets, the marble reflected the light and made it possible to see at night. If you can imagine an ancient Las Vegas Strip, Pompeii would be it! There were of course more similarities to Vegas...but I’ll come to that in a moment.
The Scandalous Life of the People of Pompeii
Pompeii had many merchants, sailors, visitors from all over, and so language barriers were easily overcome through the use of pictures. There were also painted frescos menus in the takeaway restaurants, like a McDonalds or BurgerKing would have today.
They even had certain sexual menus. There were over 30 brothels in the city of Pompeii. Each brothel had pictures from which visitors could select the services they wanted to receive. Throughout the city, there was a unique navigational system to direct people to the brothels. While fountains were the main landmarks used to navigate the city for every other purpose, a different marker was used to find the brothels. Carved into the walls, visitors to Pompeii and its inhabitants could find a penis pointing in the direction of the nearest brothel. Yes, they had penis street signs.
Pompeii is nicknamed the Lasagna City because archaeologists can see 7 different layers of time eras throughout Pompeii (even before Romans arrived). There are parts of the city that date back to 7 centuries before the eruption (so about 600 BC) and the Romans arrived 2 centuries before the eruption.
Pompeii was absolutely incredible to see.
I think it would be really awesome if a part of the city was up and running like a revitalized, restored section of Pompeii. Ethno-Archaeology anyone? How cool would it be to eat some fast food like they would have eaten, see them dressed up in textiles of that era, take a chariot ride, or to hangout in a spa!
Maybe someone wants to create a Roman Disneyland? (I would definitely go!)
We loved our time in Pompeii and then decided to then head out to hike mount Vesuvius.
Remember How We Said, "Don't Drive?"
As we walked to our car, we saw a moped go past with a driver and his Labrador standing between his legs on the moped!! We also passed several horses pulling carts and scooters held together by TONS of duct tape. (No safety or inspections here?)
We wanted to go back to our Airbnb to change our shoes so we drove back and... that’s when more trouble struck. As if our highway to hell experience hadn't been enough...
Ryan caught the edge of a gate and several panels on the rental car got scraped pretty bad. There’s nothing like damaging your rental car to dampen a traveling adventure.
Instead of heading to Vesuvius, we spent the next couple hours trying to figure out how much the damage was going to cost us, and getting a claim filed. Blah!
We had been doing so good! Even with all the INSANE driving in Rome, we had no accidents—except with ourselves. How does that happen? Lame.
Anyway, we sucked it up and decided to enjoy our evening on the beach, relaxing in the black sand and splashing in the ocean. On our stroll to get there we passed lots of boutiques, several of which had decorated their mannequins with pasta. Funny, right?
Only in Italy :)
You Want to See Pompeii? Here's How to Get There!
We're glad you've decided not to drive...time to take the train!
If you're coming from Rome, you will need to take 2 trains to get to Pompeii. First, you'll need to take a train from Rome to Naples and then from Naples to Pompeii.
Train Stations: 1st train is Roma Termini to Napoli Centrale. (Sometimes you can find a train from Roma Tiburtina to Naples). 2 train is Napoli Centrale to Pompeii Scavi.
Here's a complete guide to buying train tickets in Italy from An American in Rome.
*Buy your tickets several weeks in advance for cheaper prices!
*Watch out for pickpockets on trains. Keep your bag with you and in sight.
The train from Rome to Naples takes just over an hour. Make sure you have enough time before catching the next train from Naples to Pompeii just in-case there is a train delay. When you arrive in Napoli Centrale train station, you'll then switch to a regional train called the Circumvesuviana (because it goes around Vesuvius. Cute name, huh?)
Head to the lower level of the train station to buy a ticket at the ticket window before entering the smaller station. Make sure you validate your ticket when you go into the station at the turnstile. You'll have 100 minutes from the time of validation to ride the train, which is plenty of time to reach Pompeii. You'll need to purchase a new ticket to return to Naples.
Once you get on the train, there will be multiple stops displayed on the train screens and announced. DO NOT get off at the Pompeii stop because this is the modern city. If you want to see the ancient city of Pompeii, then make sure you get off on the stop POMPEII SCAVI. (If you do end up getting off at the wrong stop, don't worry. It's about a 20 minute walk to reach the ruins).
Taking the train isn't for you? Try a bus.
There are several bus tours from Rome to Pompeii if you would rather not take a train. The train will be faster, but a bus will likely be cheaper. The bus ride will take you about 3.5 hours. Most of the bus tours leave Rome in the morning and return later that evening. You'll get to ride in an air-conditioned bus (super nice in the hot weather of Italy). You can take a FlixBus or go as a group in a guided-bus tour.
(If it were me, I would take the FlixBus and get my own guide to Pompeii or take a short 1-2 hour tour. A full day with a tour guide and a group wouldn't offer me the flexibility I would want to see the site, but I know some people like being with a group. You decide!)
You can also check out Rome's transportation app Rome2Rio to find other transportation options/buses/trains, it has them all!