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History is always a good way to lure me to a destination and the island of Sicily has it in great supply. Besides the gorgeous mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale, the other major historical attraction I knew of in Sicily was in the city of Agrigento. There’s not too much unique about the city really, but Agrigento isn’t really the reason people visit Agrigento, if you know what I mean. No, they come to the city for the incredible ancient Greek ruins known as the Valley of the Temples.
This huge archaeological site is probably the most popular and impressive historical site in all of Sicily, even if it’s only home to some of the Greek temples in Sicily. The Valle dei Templi in Italian, these ancient ruins reflect an entire city all on their own and really are one of the best places to visit in Sicily. To give you a sense of what the Valley of the Temples and Agrigento have to offer, allow me to walk you through my experience visiting back in 2019.
The History of Agrigento
To appreciate why Agrigento is such an interesting place to visit, you first need to know a little of its history. And by that, I really mean the history of the Valley of the Temples. Because curiously enough, this ancient city was actually built by the Greeks who colonised parts of Sicily in the 6th century BC. Finding Roman ruins across Europe is always interesting, but Greek ones are far less common.
While known as Agrigento today, this ancient Greek city was originally known as Akragas, after the nearby Akragas river. The city is said to have seriously prospered, possibly due to the fertile Sicilian soil. From its founding during the 6th century BC it expanded greatly until the Carthaginians set fire to the city in 406 BC.
Centuries later the Romans took the territory and renamed the city Agrigentum. The city prospered again right up until the fall of the Roman Empire. Following that, the city eventually migrated to is current hilltop spot away from the coast and Saracen raids. While the modern city took damage during WWII, fortunately the Valley of the Temples was preserved. The site was recognised by UNESCO with World Heritage status in 1997.
The Valley of the Temples
So, let’s actually get to what it’s like to walk through the Valley of the Temples. As will soon become apparent to you, the area is not a valley at all, but actually a plateau. Visits to the site begin with the entrance at the very eastern end, just down the hill from the centre of town.
Once you’ve paid your entry fee and stepped onto the grounds two things will become clear to you. One is the arrow straight road that runs from the entrance right through the park that will take you through the site. The other is the giant columns of the Temple of Juno standing right above you to the left. I can’t think of a better sign of what you have to look forward to than that. That’s it in the photo above, dating from the 5th century BC in the city’s typical Doric style.
There are essentially three main ruins throughout this part of the Valley of Temples. In order, you’ll visit the Temple of Juno, the Temple of Concordia and the Temple of Hercules. There are other sights to see as well, like the Necropoli Paleocristiana and the gardens of the Villa Aurea. But in terms of wow factor, it’s these three main temples that you’re sure to remember.
A big reason the temples make such an impact is that they’ve been preserved and partially reconstructed. The Temple of Concordia above is clearly the most complete and will immediately remind you of Athens if you’ve been. It survived so well as it was converted into a Christian basilica in the 6th century, keeping its bones intact. Finally, you have the photogenic columns of the Temple of Hercules below, which is the site’s oldest temple.
Ancient Walls of Akragas
Between admiring the different temples in the area, take the time to walk along another set of ruins here. Right along the cliffs on the southside of the Valley of Temples you’ll see what’s left of ancient fortifications. These were once the city walls of Akragas, which ran for 12km right around the city.
This means the Greeks not only used the landscape to their advantage, but doubled down with proper defences as well. Makes it even more impressive that the Carthaginians took the city given how well defended it was.
What most grabs peoples’ attention though with these stone defences are the small hollows that have been carved out of them. These cavities in the walls were actually used as tombs and were known as arcosolia. They date from centuries after the fall of Akragas during the 4th-7th centuries AD, i.e. the time of the late Roman Empire. I can’t think of seeing anything else like it, further adding to how special these ruins are.
Archaeological Site Across the Road
A strange aspect of the Valley of the Temples is that it’s effectively broken up into two parts. The eastern portion described above is the main section as it’s larger and home to more prominent ruins. But unless you’re really short on time, I highly recommend continuing over the road by taking the small elevated bridge.
Crossing the bridge, it almost feels like you’re starting all over again, with fresh ruins for you to see. While there’s loads more to see here, it doesn’t feature anything as picturesque as the earlier temples. It does mix things up with the Temple of Zeus Olympios, where you can see the foundational steps that once elevated the site. The most impressive ruin here is the Temple of Castor and Pollux, which has been partially reconstructed for our benefit.
What I liked about this side of the archaeological site was the information boards it provided. Here you learn more about the details of Doric temples and how the Greeks actually built the temples. There’s even a replica of a crane that would have been used at the time.
Beyond the ruins here, you can also buy combined tickets that include neighbouring attractions like the Kolymbethra Garden and Archaeological Museum. I was content with just seeing the ruins and reading their information, but I’m sure there’s even more to be seen in these both.
As if seeing the Valley of the Temples couldn’t have been any more interesting, something special coincided with my visit. The moment I stepped off the bus near the entrance I spotted a procession entering the archaeological site. One group after another went by, all in military uniform. It was a special parade, complete with marching bands and flagbearers from different communes across Sicily.
The parade proceeded to march right down the path that stretches through the Valley of the Temples. Eventually they stopped outside the Villa Aurea, but for much of my visit, I had a marching band create unlikely background music. To this day I haven’t figured out the reason for the parade as there was no public holiday on that day. That evening, there was also a parade down the main street of Agrigento, although it felt a little less special.
Old Town of Agrigento
Having now taken you through Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, let’s take a short moment to talk about the city itself. Sitting along a hill above the ruins, few really take the time to explore the city of Agrigento during their visit. They may briefly look at it as they make their way down the hill to the site, but I do think it’s worth looking around if you can.
Known as Girgenti after the hill it’s on, the Old Town of of Agrigento traces its origins to the Middle Ages. To reach and experience the heart of Agrigento, head for the street of Via Atenea. This is the main street in the Old Town and is where you’ll find so many of the local cafes and eateries. Either side of it you’ll find staircases, steep roads and the occasional view points, which you’re free to explore if you have the time.
Really, the only thing in the Old Town you won’t find close to this street are all the local churches. They’re all at the highest points of the ridgeline, including the Cattedrale di San Gerlando.
What to See in Agrigento
One cool spot in town that stuck with me is a painted staircase known as the Scalinata Degli Artisti. Each step bears a message in a different language, while street art covers the later stairs and nearby walls. I wouldn’t say street art is all that big in Agrigento (or Sicily for that matter) but it’s a neat little spot. The stairs are on Via Neve, to the right off Via Atenea.
Further along Via Atenea you’ll come to Piazza Luigi Pirandello and the city’s town hall. The Agrigento Town Hall is kind of hard to miss, as it’s the only building I saw there with ivy draped all across its front facade. If you’re able to at least walk this far through the Old Town, you’re sure to at least get a sense of what Agrigento is like. Just round the corner there’s also a great panoramic terrace that looks out to the sea that’s nice.
Travel Tips for Visiting Agrigento
That should show you why you should not only visit Agrigento, but also allow enough time to explore it comfortably. I’d really only consider doing a day trip to Agrigento if you only want to see Valley of the Temples. It’s going to take most of a day to see the site and get there and back. Building in an extra day to see the Old Town and other nearby destinations, like the iconic Scala dei Turchi which I missed, is definitely worth it.
How you plan your visit is going to influence which of the following resources you need. With a day trip, you have a choice of a tour from Palermo or a tour from Catania. For a longer visit, you have Sicily’s public transport at your disposal. It will depend where you’re coming from, but I suggest the train from Palermo and bus from Catania. Smaller destinations start to make the journey trickier, trust me.
As for reaching the ruins, local buses run from either end of the Valley of Temples into town, with tickets costing 1.70€.
Finally, if you are sticking around in town, you’ll need somewhere to stay. My personal recommendation for a simple but comfortable B&B is La Città degli Dei, but there’s actually a huge range of places to stay in Agrigento.
Have you ever visited or wanted to visit the Valley of Temples and Agrigento? Do you love walking through ancient cities like this where you can really see what they were once like? Please share your thoughts in the comments below
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