27km (17 miles) SE of Naples; 240km (150 miles) SE of Rome

On that fateful day, August 24, a.d. 79, the people of Pompeii, a prosperous fishing town, and Herculaneum, a resort just down the coast, watched Mount Vesuvius hurl a churning column of gas and ash 10 miles high into the sky. It was only a matter of time before ash and pumice buried Pompeii and flows of superheated molten rock coursed through the streets of Herculaneum. Volcanic debris quickly hardened into a layer of mud that fossilized everything—furniture, wooden beams, clothing, skeletons, graffiti, mosaics. Terrifying indeed for the ill-fated townsfolk, but lucky for us, the layer of ooze preserved Pompeii and Herculaneum as time capsules for almost 2,000 years.

Today, the excavated ruins provide an unparalleled insight into the everyday life of Roman Italy, especially that of its ordinary citizens and, notoriously, the erotic art that decorated its homes and villas. It is estimated that only 2,000 people actually died in the disaster, with most of the population of 20,000 evacuated before the full eruption. Those that stayed perished horribly: asphyxiated by toxic gases, and buried in several feet of volcanic ash. Pliny the Elder, the celebrated Roman naturalist, was one of the registered casualties. Although parts of the city were rediscovered in 1599, full excavations only began in 1748, starting a process that has never really ended, with new finds still being made.Pompeii is much more extensive than Herculaneum, with more to see, while Herculaneum provides an easier-to-manage, less crowded experience. You could easily do both in one day, though that might be “excavation overload.” If you have to choose, Pompeii provides the more sensational experience.

If you're daytripping from Rome, by making a long day of it, you can visit the famous ruins without having to spend the night near Pompeii, where the modern city has little appeal. It’s a 3 1/2-hour drive from the capital, and even less by train. Count on spending at least 4 or 5 hours wandering the site to do it justice. Remember also to take plenty of water with you as well as sunscreen, because there’s not much shade anywhere among the ruins, and you’ll be doing a lot of walking: Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes and a hat and/or sunglasses to shield your face/eyes/top of head from Pompeii’s typically penetrating sun.