To experience Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples in southwest Sicily is to travel back in time to witness the parade of cultures that contributed to the area’s rich heritage. Founded by Greeks in the 6th Century BCE, the city grew to be home to over 200,000 inhabitants at its apex. Most of the magnificent ruins of temples you see today; the Temples of Concordia, Hercules, Zeus and Hera, date from that period.
A Brief History of Agrigento
With the decline of Greece, Agrigento passed on to the Carthaginians in 406 BCE after a long siege. The Romans, knowing a good thing when they saw it, captured the city in 261. Possession of the city passed back and forth between the Romans and Carthaginians until 210 BCE when the Roman’s definitive victory settled the issue.
The Romans held the city, which was a major source of income for the Empire, for hundreds of years until the fall of the Roman Empire.
The dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire were not as kind to Agrigento. The once glorious city successively passed through the hands of Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantium, Arabs and Normans. Although the city enjoyed some bursts of cultural and commercial revival during this time, it never again reached its prior splendor.
The population began to shrink, Saracens raided the port settlements, commerce sputtered to a trickle. In fact, history tell us that at one point during the Middle Ages the Temple of Concordia was used as a lime pit.
It was in the 1800s that archeologists and scholars began to excavate and rediscover the greatness that was Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. The sites continues to be an area of archeological study and is still not completely excavated. In 1997 the Valley of the Temples was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is thanks to the community of lovers and protectors of antiquity that we can experience Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples today.
Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples
The word valley is actually a misnomer. The temples sits high on the crest of a ridge overlooking the countryside, not in a valley. The area is hot and dry with no shade. Try to go at a time you can avoid the direct hot sun, especially in the summer months. Don’t forget your sun protection!
The Temple of Concordia, or Harmony, is the best preserved in the complex and certainly one of the best preserved in the world. It has 6 meter high (20 feet) graceful Doric columns on a raised platform to compensate for the uneven ground. Originally built in the mid 400s BCE, the temple was converted into a Christian basilica in the 6th Century thereby escaping destruction of pagan structures.
The Temple of Hercules is the oldest in the complex. Very little remain of this once magnificent structure after an earthquake devastated it, just eight Doric columns jutting upwards from its base.
The Temple of Hera or Juno Lacinia still has its Doric columns, base a portion of the roof but little else. It displays signs of a major fire resulting form one of the many sieges and we know the original roof was replaced by one of marble during Roman times.
Temple of Vulcan was once the most impressive in the complex. Today it is one of the most eroded.
After the victory of the war with Carthage, the Greeks built the Temple of Olympian Zeus to celebrate.
The Temple of Asclepius is found at a distance from the others. It is believed this was the preferred temple for ill people seeking cures.
Historians believe many of these temples would have been destroyed during the persecution of pagan structures during the late Roman period.
What impressed me the most about the Valley of the Temples was the thought that the structures were already ancient when the Romans first saw them. Can you imagine that?! Picture Romans gawking at an ancient Greek archeological site blissfully unaware that 2000 years later we would be admiring THEIR own ruins.
Getting to and Around the Valley of the Temples
The temples are connected by a 2.5 km dirt road that crosses through the archeological site. Throughout the route are useful signs doing a pretty good job of explaining the history and characteristics of the temples. There is much to see at the complex and the time you spend here will depend on your level of interest. Besides the Valley of the Temples complex, there is an archeological museum and a cute little cactus garden called Kolymbethra. If you plan to see only the complex, plan on 3 to 4 hours, more if you wish to include the additional attractions.
The ticket prices for adults €10 for adults plus a parking fee. Children under 18 are free. Your teenagers will need ID. There is an additional admission of €3 to enter the Garden of Kolymbethra.
You can only buy tickets at the main entrances at Porta Quinta Sant’Anna near the Temple of Juno. You can also buy tickets online.
The site offers private guided tours, sunset and night tours (summer only) and group tours.
Where to Stay and Eat in Agrigento Near the Valley of the Temples
Right outside Agrigento, there is an excellent “agriturismo” guest house, Baglio Della Luna. These guest houses hotels that offer meals, as well as outdoor activities such as hiking and four-wheel drives and, are located in especially beautiful environments.
These establishments are becoming increasingly popular throughout Europe. They are nice places to hang out for a couple of days to explore the scenic countryside. I’ve been to a couple of these in Europe and have found them to be a nice alternative to the traditional hotel or guest house.
This guest house had a very nice restaurant but for some reason, they were promoting a dish called “transparent egg.” As far as I could tell this was a regular, run-of-the-mill fried egg dressed up with colorful spices and displayed on a fancy dish to make it appear somehow extraordinary. Nevertheless, the waitress, and no less than the restaurant manager, came to our table to recommend the egg and sing its praises. We ordered it and, as suspected, it was a standard common egg. It was good but certainly not worthy of the drama and praise the restaurant showered on it. Very odd.
Nevertheless, the rest of the meal and the wine were exceptional. The restaurant sits on a little hill overlooking the Sicilian countryside. The sunset views are stunning.
Check out other accommodation options in Agrigento.
Day Trips from Agrigento
Villa Romana del Casale: 125 km from Agrigento via SS640
About an hour east of Agrigento is the province of Enna and the town of Piazza Armerina. Here is where you will find the well excavated Roman villa, Villa Romana del Casale, another, equally impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sometimes this magnificent structure is missed by people anxious to get to Agrigento with its outsized reputation for Greek ruins. That would be a BIG mistake.
The “Villa” is actually more like a palace with the largest, most complex and best-preserved collection of Roman mosaics in the world. Built in the 4th century AD it was severely damaged at various times in its history until it was finally abandoned in the 12th century after a landslide buried it. Excavations took place throughout the 20th century and the mosaics survived relatively intact. Seeing these beautiful mosaics is another one of those travel moments where you feel a connection to the past. It’s the reason you travel.
Ragusa: 135 km via SS115
Ragusa is a beautiful baroque town nestled on a mountaintop. The town suffered a massive earthquake in 1693 and much of it had to be rebuilt. As this was the height of the baroque period in Europe many of the city’s architectural masterpieces were build during this time. The baroque style churches and palaces in Ragusa and nearby Noto are so impressive that they were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2002.
Some of the more imposing structures include the Cathedrals of San Giovanni Battista and San Giorgio. Also noteworthy is the local museum, the Museo Archeologico Regionale Ibleo.
We got hopelessly lost in mountainous Ragusa. After about an hour of mindless meandering around the city and its outskirts, we stopped an old man on the road to ask for directions. His instructions were incomprehensible; “make a left at the old tree and a right at the place that burned down.” Knowing I would never be able to distinguish the “old tree” from any other tree, I offered to take him wherever he was going if he accompanied us to our hotel. Happily, he agreed.
He directed us to the Hotel Dell’Orologio nestled in a little crevice on the side of a mountain reachable only on foot. We would never have found it without him. His name was Vito. Later we saw Vito at a bar in the local plaza regaling several other men with the story of how he helped the lost foreigners.
These are the kind of little adventures that make a trip; getting lost, wandering, meeting people, hanging out with the locals in a trattoria in the shadow of a baroque church in Sicily.
What are your thoughts on the Valley of the Temples? Do you often imagine people in the future looking at archeological sites from our time? Do you think they will be as impressed as we are by the ancient Greeks and Romans?
Want to know more about this fascinating culture before you go? Check out these reference books.
Read the other installments of the series: Adventures in Southern Italy.
- Southern Italy-Naples
- Southern Italy-Matera
- Southern Italy-Taormina
- Southern Italy-Ortygia
- Southern Italy-Monreale
- Southern Italy-Palermo
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