Much smaller and easier to visit than Pompeii, Herculaneum may appear at first to also be less impressive. However, once you get down into the town from the entry ramp, you will soon be overtaken by the eerie sensation that, far from being a place of dusty ruins, the town was abandoned only recently rather than nearly 2,000 years ago. This feeling of being in a ghost town partially stems from the fact that many of the houses still have their upper floors: The particular quality of the volcanic mud that enveloped the site allowed for the unusual preservation of wood, from housing structures to room furnishings, allowing archaeologists to learn an incredible amount about daily life and building techniques in Roman times.
The excavated area stretches from the Decumanus Maximus (the town's main street) to what was once the shoreline (now a kilometer to the west); the rest of the Roman town remains inaccessible beneath the buildings of modern Ercolano. The archaeological area is a work in progress as ongoing excavations lead to new discoveries such as the boat that was found near the old shoreline in the 1990s, still filled with the corpses of victims caught in frantic postures of escape.
The highlights of your visit should definitely include the Sede degli Augustali Collegio degli Augustali (Hall of the Augustals), with its marble floor and wall paintings; the custodian's room has also been preserved, together with the bed where a man's corpse was found, presumably killed in his sleep. We also recommend a tour of the elegantly decorated Thermal Baths, and the Palestra, a monumental sports arena used for competition and training. Among the private homes, the most interesting are the Casa del Tramezzo di Legno (House of the Wooden Partition), with its perfectly preserved facade, and the Casa dei Cervi (House of the Stags), the most elegant ruin in the excavated area, with terraces that would have overlooked the sea and magnificent decorations. The Casa a Graticcio (House of the Latticework) is particularly fascinating because it's one of the very few examples of working-class housing that has survived from antiquity (a fate usually destined for only grand public buildings and the solidly constructed villas of the wealthy ); notice the partitions, cheaply made of interwoven cane and plaster. Another interesting house is the Casa del Mosaico di Nettuno e Anfitrite (House of the Neptune and Anfitritis Mosaic) with its bright blue mosaic in the rear of the building; the annexed shop still has amphorae stacked on the shelves.
Elegant villas dotted what was the western seashore of Herculaneum, and one of the most famous is the Villa dei Papiri, so-called because of the 1,000-odd badly charred papyrus scrolls that were revealed during excavations: They are now preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale di Vittorio Emanuele III in the Palazzo Reale. The villa also yielded a treasure-trove of nearly 90 magnificent sculptures, both in bronze and marble; these were Roman copies of Greek originals and are now housed in rooms 114-117 of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Note: Tours of the villa have been suspended since late 2007 for ongoing excavation. No reopening date had been announced at presstime.
The maritime pavilion contains the remains of a Roman boat that was found in front of Herculaneum and painstakingly restored, plus other discoveries from the harbor. However, at presstime it was closed to the public.