You may have seen ancient ruins before, but Sicily’s Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Tempi) will simply astound you. There are very few places in the world as diverse and rich in history. Along with the archeological remains in Syracusa, this incredibly well preserved temples are one of Italy’s most impressive archaeological sites.
- Where is the Valley of the Temples?
- A Brief History of the Valley of the Temples in Sicily
- What to Expect When Visiting the Valley of the Temples
- Best Preserved Structures in the Valley of the Temples
- Other Remains in Sicily’s Valley of the Temples
- Practical Information for Visiting Sicily’s Valley of the Temples
Where is the Valley of the Temples?
The Valley of the Temples is in Agrigento, Sicily. Also known as Acragas, Agrigento was one of the most powerful cities in the Mediterranean and the leading city of Magna Graecia. The city of Agrigento and the temples that spread along a hilltop were once surrounded by huge walls.
A Brief History of the Valley of the Temples in Sicily
Sicily’s Valley of the Temples contains the remains of seven temples dating back to the 5th and 6th century B.C.: the Temple of Concordia, the Temple Juno, the Temple of Heracles, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Asclepius, and the Temple of Vulcan.
These are the finest example of Greek Doric temples found anywhere in the world, outside of Greece itself. Six of the temples are set along the crest of the hill and one is located on the banks of the Acragas River.
The city of Acragas (today’s Agrigento) was founded by the Greeks around 580 B.C. Due to its strategic position overlooking the Strait of Sicily, Acragas was a sought after prize. Over the centuries the city was conquered by Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and Normans. All these civilizations left their mark on Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples.
The archeological site was discovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Much of the excavation and restoration was due to the efforts of Domenico Antonio Lo Faso Pietrasanta, a Sicilian archaeologist. There is still a lot to be excavated in Agrigento, so one can only imagine how grandiose this place must have looked in the ancient world.
During World War II when Italy was invaded, the allies bombed heavily the modern town of Agrigento. Thankfully though, the Valley of the Temples was spared by the wrath of the US and British forces.
What to Expect When Visiting the Valley of the Temples
The Valley of the Temples in Sicily is overwhelming in its grandeur. When you look at the size of these structures, you may think that giants inhabited them. Imposing sandstone columns frame the temples, leaving a void space in the absence of the walls that got lost to erosion and war.
As you walk through this extraordinary site of megalithic structures you can’t help but wonder how were they even built? Who were the people who worshiped in these temples and what inspired them to erect such monumental places?
The Valley of the Temples is actually not a valley, but a hilltop. Your visit starts at the eastern gate and follows a gentle downhill path till it reaches the base of the Temple of Juno.
From here the path starts climbing up and then continues slightly downhill for two kilometers. Along the path you can see remains of the old Greek city wall that once surrounded the temples and the town of Acragas (today’s Agrigento).
Originally the temples were covered in marble and painted in bright colors, but today only the limestone remains. Just three of the seven temples are well preserved. The others are in ruins, as their stones were used to build the nearby Porto Empedocle.
Best Preserved Structures in the Valley of the Temples
Temple of Concordia
The largest and best-preserved structure in the Valley of the Temples is the Temple of Concordia ( 440–430 B.C.) It is almost entirely intact – only its roof is missing. Except for the Parthenon in Athens, there is no better preserved Greek Doric Temple anywhere in the world.
The temple sits on a solid base designed to overcome the unevenness of the rocky terrain. In the 6th century the bishop of Agrigento converted the temple into a Christian basilica dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul. That helped it survive the destruction of pagan places of worship that took place during the persecution of pagans, in the late Roman Empire.
Temple of Juno (or Hera Lacinia)
Although not the best preserved, the Temple of Juno (450 B.C.) has the most impressive position in the Valley of the Temples: high up on a rectangular platform, 120 meters above sea level. Today 30 columns of it are standing, but only sixteen with their capitals.
Temple of Heracles (or Hercules)
The Temple of Hercules (about 470 B.C.) is the second-largest temple at Agrigento. In antiquity the temple was famous for its statue of Hercules which a notorious art thief attempted to steal around 73 B.C. The Temple was damaged by fire at some point in antiquity and later renovated by the Romans.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
This was once the most grandiose Doric temple in the ancient world. Unfortunately not much of it remains today of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The temple was built around 480 BC to celebrate Agrigento’s victory over the Carthaginians at Himera, but was never fully completed.
All that’s left of it is a large base with five steps, an external wall with Doric half columns, and two stone giants that once stood upright. Now they are both lying on the ground.
Temple of Castor and Pollux (or the Temple of the Dioscuri)
Temple of Castor and Pollux was actually completely destroyed. The northwest corner that can be seen today is but a mere reconstruction from the early 19th century, created with pieces from various other temples. It includes four columns and a beam. The temple was Doric, with 6 x 13 columns, dating from the 5th century B.C.
Other Remains in Sicily’s Valley of the Temples
Besides the temples, the archeological site contains a number of ancient houses, tombs, and monuments. At the western tip of the Temple of Concordia there are parts of an ancient burial place. The burial holes that date from the late-Roman and Byzantine eras, have been built on some old cisterns.
A little further away in the valley you can see a square mausoleum. For a long time historians believed this was the tomb of Agrigento’s tyrant, Theron. However, more recent research proved that the tomb was actually newer (from the 2nd century B.C.). Nonetheless, the tomb kept its name.
The Ancient Goats of Agrigento
As we were roaming the grounds of the Valley of the Temples, we noticed some strange looking goats grazing around. They looked like no other goats we have ever seen, with long white hair and spiraling twisted horns.
These are the ‘Capra Girgentana,’ an old goat breed that came from the Middle East. It is not clear if they arrived in Sicily with the Greeks, more than 2,500 years ago, or were brought here by the Arabs in the 8th century. Fact is that they became established in this part of the island and were once a very common domestic animal. However, the breed is near extinction today, as only a few hundred of them remain in Sicily.
Practical Information for Visiting Sicily’s Valley of the Temples
We arrived in Agrigento by car via SS189, as we were driving down from Palermo to the southeastern part of Sicily. The current city of Agrigento is perched atop a hill overlooking the Valley of the Temples. The temples can be spotted from the distance and they appear quite spectacular!
There are two entrances for the archeological park. One is Porta Quinta in Contrada Sant’Anna, close to the Museum of Archeology. The other is the eastern entrance on Via Panoramica, next to the Temple of Juno. I suggest you use this one to start your visit at the Valley of the Temples.
Be advised that parking is not allowed along the road leading to the entrances. The area is patrolled by the police and you are very likely to get a parking fine.
There are however parking lots next to both entrances, but they are difficult to spot. That’s mainly because they don’t look anything like parking lots, but rather like dirt fields next to the road. You’ll notice them only as you get within 50 feet from the entrance. Parking fee is €2.00/car.
If you don’t have a car, there is a bus from Agrigento that will drop you at the eastern entrance, next to the Temple of Juno. Or you can take a taxi for about €4. However, you can easily walk on Via Panoramica to this entrance. It’s an easy 20 minute downhill walk (3.3 km) from town.
When you return to Agrigento, rather than coming back the same way and walking uphill, use the Porta Quinta entrance in Contrada Sant’Anna.
There is a very interesting Archaeological Museum in the park that shouldn’t be missed. If you plan to visit both the museum and the archeological site, you should plan to spend the entire day in the Valley of the Temples. The Archeological park also has a visitor’s center, a snack bar and toilets.
Using the archeological park shuttle
There is a 2 km walk along the ridge top on which the main temples are located, so expect to walk. For those who don’t want to walk, there is a small bus that drives people up and down the hill for 2 euros per person. However, the bus comes only every 20 minutes and is sometimes full.
Be prepared to walk
If you visit Sicily’s Valley of the Temples in summer, be prepared for walking in treacherous heat. My advice would be to start your day as early as possible to avoid the heat. Plan to visit the temples in the morning when it’s cooler, and spend the afternoon in the museum.
Given the rocky and uneven terrain in the Valley of the Temples, I recommend wearing comfortable shoes.
Hours and Admission
The archeological park is open daily from 8:30 am until 7:00 pm and the entry fee is €10 for adults. For members of the European Union the fee is €5 and for local residents the fee is just €1. The fee to rent an audio guide is €6. Entrance fee for the Archeological Museum is €8.00, but you can buy a combined ticket which is a better deal, €13.50/person.
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