If you’re a history lover headed to Italy, you likely have a trip to Pompeii or Ostia Antica in mind (or even both). But sometimes, you just don’t have enough time to have both amazing sites on your itinerary. If you are trying to decide which one to visit, here are twelve points to consider when your itinerary comes down to Pompeii versus Ostia Antica.
Choose Pompeii if…
Here are four reasons you should choose Pompeii:
…you want to see the most famous archeological site in the world.
While you can learn a ton about ancient Rome at either Ostia Antica or Pompeii, you’ll want to choose Pompeii if you’re looking for a bit more pizazz. It’s arguably the most famous archeological site in the world. When it was discovered, it made a huge splash and inspired art and decor across the world.
While you’ll come back with your trip with great photos and great memories either way, if you want to visit the more traditionally famous place, then pick Pompeii.
…you want to explore southern Italy.
While it’s possible to visit Pompeii from Rome on a guided tour (though it’s a super long day), pick Pompeii if you want to spend time in southern Italy. We visited Pompeii from Sorrento, but it’s also a popular day trip from Naples.
This part of Italy is just spectacular, and it deserves a few days of exploration beyond Pompeii. Whether you spend your time on the Amalfi coast or in the city of Naples, it’s an entirely different region of Italy to get to know.
…you’re curious about the famous Bodies of Pompeii
Ostia Antica was abandoned when another port city was built to serve Rome, but the way that Pompeii fell into ruins is one of the most famous stories in the world. When Mount Vesuvius erupted, the population was left to die where they stood.
Today the bodies pose both a curiosity and a reminder of the tragedy that happened in the city. Nothing gives a more visceral explanation of just why Pompeii is so well preserved like seeing the tortured remains of the city’s last inhabitants.
Good travelers will remember their etiquette while seeing them – these are the remains of people after all. However, it is something that is unique to the city and offers an important educational opportunity.
…you want to see intact murals and artwork
Because Pompeii was preserved under ash and dirt, the artwork on the walls of the houses is simply stunning. The colors are vibrant and the portraits bring the city’s inhabitants to life.
There are many famous houses in Pompeii with beautiful artwork. You can read up here so you don’t miss any during your visit.
Choose Ostia Antica if…
While you should choose Ostia Antica if these four points are important to you:
…you’ll be based in Rome
While it’s technically possible to visit Pompeii from Rome (like on this guided tour) it’s only really possible to DIY a day trip from Rome to Ostia Antica. So if you’re going to be staying in Rome, Ostia Antica is the far easier trip.
I have an entire guide on how to visit Ostia Antica from Rome, which makes it easy to DIY your day trip with train information and tips for visiting the park. However, you can also take a guided tour of Ostia Antica, complete with the tour company arranging your train tickets ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about it.
…you love stories about famous Romans
If you like visiting sites and knowing that a particular famous Roman was there in person or contributed to it in some way, then head to Ostia Antica. Marius attacked the city in the first century BC as part of the civil wars between Marius and Sulla. However, it’s history goes further than that.
Because Ostia Antica served as the port of Rome, most of the Romans in power contributed to the city’s defenses or progress in some way. This includes Pompey and Cicero during the Republic and the Emperors Tiberius and Claudius.
…you want to avoid the crowds
Pompeii was crowded when I visited a few years ago, and it’s only gotten more and more popular since then. If the thought of winding up in the middle of a hundred teenagers on a high school field trip fills you with rage, then Pompeii just might not be the place for you.
Yes, there are quiet corners you can find in Pompeii, but there will also be times on your tour where you need to memorize the back of your tour guides neck in case a sea of people walks through your group just so that you can find your way back. Plus, you’ll want to invest a little extra in a skip-the-line ticket to avoid getting stuck behind people before you’ve even made it into the park.
At a certain point, it all just begins to be too much. If you’re longing for a quiet day exploring away from throngs and throngs (and throngs) of people, then I would choose Ostia Antica. In fact, they don’t even sell a skip-the-line ticket since there’s almost never a line to skip!
…you only want to spend a few hours at the site
Yes, there are short tours of Pompeii (like this 2-hour tour), but you can’t really give the enormous city-sized site justice in just an hour or two. There’s simply far too much to see. So if either site can easily be worked into your itinerary, and what it comes down to for you is time, then Ostia Antica is a smaller place to explore.
You’ll feel like you really saw everything, instead of rushing around trying to see stuff. You can save Pompeii for your next Italian vacation when you have more time to invest in doing it properly.
Choose Both for…
Whether you choose Ostia Antica or Pompeii, you’ll be happy to know that these are what the two sites have in common:
…amazing historic sites
Whichever you choose, Ostia Antica or Pompeii, you’re in for a great time exploring ancient Roman history! You can walk through the ruins of shops, theaters, and avenues. Both sites come alive around you.
…ancient Roman religion and culture
So much of what you learn about ancient Rome is typically about politics and personalities. However, these two sites are great for learning more about how Roman religion worked, important cultural practices, and how the people lived their every day lives.
If you love beautiful ruins, then you can’t choose wrong. Both sites have the kind of architectural decay that inspires Gothic novels and pre-Raphealite paintings.
…having history come alive
While I adore visiting the Roman Forum and other ancient sites in cities, it’s different when you’re walking through an entire abandoned city. Instead of the ruins being situated in between modern gelato shops and pizzerias, you can walk block after ancient block. This makes it so much easier to see how the city once upon a time.
5 Things to Bring with You to Either Pompeii or Ostia Antica
- The Lonely Planet Italy guidebook or the Rick Steves Italy guidebook for your trip. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you arrive in Italy, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
- An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use an Italian sim card while here to help navigate the trains.
- Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS system, and general travel genie.
- A Camera since both Ostia Antica and Pompeii are super photogenic. I use a mix of my Nikon D810 and my Samsung8 smartphone these days. (Though many of these pics in this post were on my old Nikon D40).
- A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for Italy because it has many anti-theft features.
Guided Tours Mentioned in this Post
Here are all the tours mentioned in this post in an easy-to-reference list.
Guided Tours of Pompeii
- Naples and Pompeii: Full-Day Tour from Rome with Lunch
- From Sorrento: Discover Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius
- From Naples: Pompeii Ruins & Mount Vesuvius Day Tour
- Pompeii: Fast Track Entrance Ticket with Audio-Guide
- Pompeii: 2-Hour Small-Group Tour with an Archeologist
Guided Tours of Ostia Antica
Italy Travel Resources
Here are some resources to help you plan your trip to Italy. First, check out my interview with Mike Duncan on the history of The Roman Forum. I also have several episodes of my travel podcast, Rick Steves Over Brunch about Rome and Venice.
If you love history memes, check out the Roman history section of my gigantic 250 Hilarious History Memes to Soothe Your Dark Soul.
Finally, check out my list of books to read before your vacation in Italy.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Italy make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging out in cities (like Rome…ahem) where tourists can be the victims of pickpockets. Italy is the only country I’ve been to (out of almost seventy) where I’ve had someone try to pick my pocket!
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.
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