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Herculaneum & Vesuvius | A match (not) made in heaven

Herculaneum TicketsHerculaneum and Vesuvius

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From Pompeii/Naples: Pompeii, Herculaneum & Vesuvius Day Trip
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8 hr.
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From Pompeii/Naples: Vesuvius and Herculaneum Tour
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6 hr.
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Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town nestled on the Bay of Naples, thrived as a bustling settlement during the height of the Roman Empire. The town's strategic location facilitated trade and cultural exchange, contributing to its wealth and cultural diversity.

Towering ominously on the horizon, the Vesuvius is one of the most active volcanoes in Europe, situated in close proximity to Herculaneum. Its historic eruption in 79 AD not only obliterated Herculaneum but also devastated Pompeii and several other nearby settlements.

The volcano spewed a massive column of ash, pumice, and volcanic gases into the atmosphere, blanketing the towns in a thick layer of debris. The intense heat and pyroclastic surges — a series of superheated clouds of ash and gas that reach incredibly high temperatures, exceeding 500°C (932°F) — engulfed Herculaneum, preserving the town in a state of eerie suspended animation. Here’s what you need to know about that tragic day, and how an ashy chokehold on the town reduced the hapless citizens to skeletal remains.

Which volcano destroyed Herculaneum?

Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius engulfed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in a series of pyroclastic surges. Pyroclastic surges are a series of superheated clouds of ash and gas that reach incredibly high temperatures, exceeding 500°C (932°F). These clouds formed towering columns in the sky, which eventually collapsed on themselves, sending pyroclastic surges down the volcano's flanks. Herculaneum was directly in the path of this deadly flow. The extreme heat instantly vaporized most people there, leaving behind only skeletal remains.

The cost of ignorance

Two millennia ago, the people living at the foothills of Mount Vesuvius did not know that they were living in the dangerous shadow of an unpredictable volcano. While they were aware that the mountain frequently fumed and showed evidence of fire, they believed that the volcano was a gateway to the underworld, or the forge of Vulcan, god of the blacksmiths. In fact, the earthquake of 62 AD (that destroyed several structures in Herculaneum including its theater) was a harbinger of the 79 AD eruption. The Bay of Naples is the most unsteady volcanic region in the Mediterranean, but 2000 years ago, knowledge of volcanology was non-existent. People were more likely to attribute seismic activity to the wrath of gods.

While the volcano is still considered active, millions of people continue to live in this region, largely due to the fertility of volcanic soil. Acres of vines, tomatoes and other crops dot the landscape, and residents of the present day are willing to live under constant risk. Let’s take a closer look at the feared yet famed Mount Vesuvius.

Mount Vesuvius: Quick facts

Mount Vesuvius
  • Official name: Mount Vesuvius
  • Region: Campania
  • Geological age: 300,000-400,000 years 
  • Height: 4200 ft (1,280 m)
  • Mountain type: Stratovolcano
  • Status: Active

The geology and nature of Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius aerial view

Mount Vesuvius is actually part of a geological complex. Mount Somma is the older, larger structure considered the base or caldera of Vesuvius. Vesuvius is the younger, active cone that has grown within Somma's caldera over the centuries. The eruptions we typically associate with Vesuvius originate from this cone.

A distinguishing feature of Vesuvius is the central crater at its summit, a large depression formed by past eruptions. Evidence of previous eruptions can be seen in the layers of volcanic ash, rock fragments, and debris blanketing the volcano's flanks. Additionally, Vesuvius is a stratovolcano, a type of volcano known for its steep slopes and conical shape, built up from layers of lava, ash, and rock fragments.

Is it safe to visit Mount Vesuvius?

Italian authorities have a well-established plan for monitoring volcanic activity and issuing warnings in case of an eruption. With proper precautions and adherence to safety guidelines, visiting Mount Vesuvius can be a safe and rewarding experience.

Access to the crater rim is often restricted based on volcanic activity levels. Marked trails are designated for ascending the volcano, and visitors must stay on these designated paths. However, before your visit, check the latest information on Vesuvius' activity level and any access restrictions. 

Getting to Mount Vesuvius from Herculaneum

By bus shuttle
By car
Day trips
bus shuttle

From the Ercolano Scavi train station at Herculaneum, you can cross over to the Vesuvio Express ticketing station and purchase a shuttle bus ticket for about €22 — which includes both the bus fare and entry to the Mount Vesuvius National Park. The shuttle takes you right to the ticketing office at Mount Vesuvius, from where you can begin your hike to the crater.

If you’re driving from Herculaneum, take the A3 Napoli-Salerno highway to the Herculaneum exit, and follow Google maps to Vesuvio. However, note that the car park is located below the ticketing office and the climb is steep, so book a shuttle service from here to conserve your energy for the hike!

Day trips to Mount Vesuvius
  • With convenient transfers, it's possible to visit Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius on the same day, with the starting point being Naples or Pompeii, depending on the option selected.
  • Over a 6-8 hour trip, explore both these sites at your leisure. At Vesuvius, make sure you hike up to see the crater.

Recommended tours

Exploring Mount Vesuvius

Hiking up to the crater
Guided tours
Tips and safety guidelines
timings of Mount Vesuvius

November-December-January-February: 9am to 3pm

March to October: 9am to 4pm

April-May-June-September: 9am to 5pm

July-August: 9am to 6pm

Note: In case of predicted volcanic activity or bad weather, the volcano may be closed to visitors.

Mount Vesuvius hike
Guided tours

A volcanic guide will be there to assist you on your climb. They will be able to tell you about the significance of the region, vegetation, insights on volcanic activity and geology, etc.

safety tips
  • The best way to ensure a safe and enjoyable hike up Mount Vesuvius is to go with a guide. Guides can provide you with information about the volcano, as well as help you navigate the trail.
  • The weather on Mount Vesuvius can change quickly, so it's important to check the forecast before you go. Don't attempt the hike if there is a chance of rain, thunderstorms or high winds.
  • There are a number of rules in place to help keep visitors safe on Mount Vesuvius. These rules include staying on the marked trails, not going off the trail to explore the crater and not littering.
  • Keep an eye on what the geological department has to report about Mount Vesuvius' activity. It is still an active volcano, so be up to date with the status of volcanic activity.
  • The panorama from the summit is unbeatable. Besides the crater, you'll have a panoramic view of the beautiful Bay of Naples to the west. The city of Naples itself is spread out along the coast, and you can also see the islands of Capri and Ischia in the distance. You can also spot Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Frequently asked questions about Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius

How far away is Mount Vesuvius from Herculaneum?

Mount Vesuvius is about 13 km away from Herculaneum, located across the Bay of Naples. Herculaneum lies west of the volcano.

Why was Herculaneum not rebuilt after the 79 AD eruption?

It would have been very difficult to wade through the layers of ash and debris spewed by Vesuvius, and lack of technological advancement in those days would have made rebuilding the town an impossible task. Further, the live burial of thousands of people may have deterred people from entering it, perhaps leading them to think of these sites more as burial grounds.

In the present day, do people live in Herculaneum?

No, the ancient town of Herculaneum has no official residents. While Herculaneum lies in excavated ruins — and not even all of it has been fully excavated — the towns of Ercolano (formerly known as Resina) and Portici are built above it. This is also what makes excavating Herculaneum a challenging task, as present-day settlements will have to be demolished to gain access to the buried town.

Why should I take a tour of Vesuvius on my trip to Herculaneum?

Taking a tour of Vesuvius is highly recommended as visiting the volcano is sure to enhance your understanding of the terrain, tragedy, etc. Usually, both sites can be visited on the same day as they’re only 30 minutes away from each other by road.

Did Vesuvius give out any telltale signs that it would erupt by 79 AD?

Although people were not adept at reading Vesuvius’ clues, it was evident (in hindsight) that an eruption was imminent. Besides the earthquake of 62 AD, there were also frequent home repairs being conducted across Pompeii and Herculaneum — in fact, painters in Herculaneum abandoned repair work half-way through the eruption to take cover. 

Can you hike up Mount Vesuvius?

Yes, to see the crater you can hike up Mount Vesuvius. It takes about 30 to 40 minutes to reach the summit, from where you can enjoy splendid views of the Bay of Naples. Make use of a guide who can tell you about the volcano, point out interesting features, give you insider details and more.