The best Greek temples in the world

When some refugees from Ancient Greece started a new colony on the shore of today’s Italy, they didn’t realise that 2500 years later their city would be the best preserved in the world!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Visiting Paestum from Naples

The Greek temples at Paestum in Italy are some of the best preserved in the whole world, an incredible collection of ancient architecture from settlers about 2600 years ago.

If you're staying in Naples or the Amalfi Coast, visiting Paestum is a fantastic side trip and shows a different era of this region's history.

The Ancient Greeks had a bit of a different approach to colonisation than the Ancient Romans. The Romans used armies and politics to claim new land, gradually expanding their empire around the world.

The Greeks, on the other hand, were relatively happy to just the rule the city-states they already had and form relationships with other ones in the region. They saw the expansion of their empire not in terms of land, but in terms of wealth and knowledge.

Yet, during the peak of the Ancient Greek civilisation, its citizens set out to form dozens of new colonies around the Mediterranean. This wasn’t part of a grand expansionist policy… so why were these Ancient Greek colonies formed?

Temples of Paestum, Italy

Well, it was generally one of two main reasons.

The first was that some people needed to flee their homes in Greece and create a new community to live in. This was usually because of a political disagreement or a similar kind of conflict – a coup attempt gone wrong, for example, or a falling out of favour with the ruler.

The second was for economic opportunities. People from Greece who saw the potential profit in trade would establish new commercial centres in foreign countries to make the most of this.

Temples of Paestum, Italy

The history of Paestum, Italy

One of these new colonies was in modern day Italy, not far from where Naples now is. It was called Poseidonia by these Ancient Greek colonisers, although the name was lated changed by the Romans to Paestum (which it is still called today).

It’s thought the founders of Paestum came from a city called Sybaris, which was in what is now the southern Italian region of Calabria.

Temples of Paestum, Italy

Pasetum was probably founded around 600 BC but it’s unclear if it was for economic reasons or if the original citizens were refugees.

The archaeological evidence does show that the city grew quickly, with roads and public buildings, coins, and art.

And, of course, Paestum had one of the most important elements of a urban centre of that period – temples.

Temples of Paestum, Italy

Paestum Greek temples

Like other Greek colonies, the settlers built impressive temples dedicated to the ancient gods. What makes the ones at Paestum so special is that they still exist in extremely good condition.

Temples of Paestum, Italy

In fact, the temples at Paestum are almost the best preserved Ancient Greek temples in the world – and that includes in Greece itself!

One of the main reasons I would recommend visiting Paestum from Naples is to see these temples. They have been designated as a World Heritage Site and, even in a region with a lot of remarkable sights, Paestum holds its own (even if it doesn’t have nearly the same number of tourists as places like Pompeii or Mount Vesuvius).

Temples of Paestum, Italy

You can visit Paestum from Naples independently, and I’ve got some info about that further on. But you’ll get a lot more out of your visit with a guided tour (and they will take the hassle out of the logistics).

Most of the tours to Paestum from Naples are private, but it’s quite good value if you’re in a group. I would recommend this private tour.

Otherwise, there are some other good options here:

There are three main temples that you’ll find at Paestum.

First Temple of Hera at Paestum

This is the oldest of the three temples and was probably built around 550 BC. It was dedicated to Hera, the goddess of women, marriage, family, and childbirth.

The architecture is actually a bit unusual because it’s wider than normal and has a different amount of columns than you would normally find in Greek temples from this period.

Temples of Paestum, Italy

You can walk inside it and get a sense of the scale as you stand amongst the columns, which have a very strong curve in their design. If you look closely, you can even see a few traces of the original paint.

Second Temple of Hera at Paestum

Adjacent is a second temple dedicated to Hera, this one built around 450 BC. There is, however, a bit of confusion about whether the temple was also dedicated to Poseidon, and some experts call it ‘The Temple of Poseidon at Paestum’.

Temples of Paestum, Italy

It’s a large temple and you can walk inside this one too. The different rows of columns form beautiful lines of sight as you move throughout the central area.

Temple of Athena

At the other end of the site, you’ll find the Temple of Athena. It was built in 500 BC and is the smallest of the three temples here at Paestum. The architecture is described by experts as ‘transitional’, meaning it shows influences of both the Ionic and early Doric styles.

Temples of Paestum, Italy

You can’t go inside this temple but it is a peaceful part of the city and a nice spot to have a rest. By the time I get here, I’ve walked through the remains of the old city and I’m ready for a rest. Seats in the shade of large trees offer the perfect opportunity.

My impressions of Paestum

I tend not to do too much research before coming to World Heritage Sites. I’ll do some reading to understand the significance of the site and know what particular highlights to look out for – but I don’t want to hear other people’s opinions or reviews.

I like to make up my own mind without any preconceived ideas.

Temples of Paestum, Italy

I was expecting the Paestum temples to be a bit underwhelming. In fact, I originally had a plan to catch a return train about 90 minutes after I arrived – but in the end I stayed for many more hours.

There is a combination of two general things that I thought made Paestum an enjoyable visit.

The first was the excellent state of preservation that the temples are in. You’re never going to find something that’s 2500 years old in a perfect condition, but these come the closest you’ll find around the world (certainly better than more famous places like the Acropolis or Aphrodisias).

Temples of Paestum, Italy

And the second is the access that you get to the structures. I love that you can walk up into the two largest temples, stand in the middle, or slide between the columns. You can really appreciate the way it as constructed and the delicate design balances

Paestum Museum

Another pleasant surprise is the Paestum Museum that’s near the entrance to the site. The museum has displays with excellent explanations of the history of the site and a very good collection of artefacts that have been found during excavations.

Temples of Paestum, Italy

Although there’s lots to see in the museum, the most important part is the ‘Tomb of the Diver’.

It is an incredible painted tomb that is from the Ancient Greek period and dated around 470 BC (there are other painted tombs in the area, but they are from much later).

Temples of Paestum, Italy

It is called the ‘Tomb of the Diver’ because of the painted ceiling of the tomb that shows a young man diving into water, a symbol of passing into the afterlife. But one of the other fascinating parts are the painted scenes on the walls of the tombs that show social scenes and homosexual lovers.

If you’re going to Paestum, make sure you give yourself enough time to see the museum properly (I would suggest an hour).

Practical information

Although I enjoyed walking around the site by myself, there is not much information on display. You would certainly benefit from having a guide.

Most of the tours to Paestum from Naples are private, but it’s quite good value if you’re in a group. I would recommend this private tour.

Otherwise, there are some other good options here:

If you would prefer to visit Paestum independently, I’ve got some information below to help you plan your day.

Where is Paestum?

Paestum is about 90 kilometres southeast of Naples and 300 kilometres southeast of Rome. The official address of the Archaeological Park of Paestum is Via Magna Graecia, 917/919, 84047 Paestum SA, Italy. You can see it on a map here.

How do you get to Paestum from Naples?

It is quite easy to get to Paestum from Naples by public transport. You can take a direct Trenitalia train from Naples to the stop called Paestum (it will take about 1h10m). From the train station, it is a short 10 minute walk to the site.

Or, you can get a private transfer from Naples which will be more expensive but much more comfortable (and decent value, if there are a few of you).

When is Paestum open?

The Paestum Archaeological Park and Paestum Museum are open every day from 08:30 to 19:30 except Christmas Day and New Years Day.

On the first and third Mondays of each month, the museum closes at 13:40.
The last admission is 40 minutes before closing time.

How much does it cost to visit Paestum?

A ticket to the Archaeological Park of Paestum includes admission to the Paestum Museum. It costs €9.50 for full admission and €4.75 for concession.
Entry is free for under 18s.

My top tip

If you’re coming by train from Naples, you need to be aware that there are very few return options during the middle of the day. Check the timetable in advance to make sure you don’t either have too little or too much time in Paestum.

For more information, you can visit Paestum’s official website.

I would suggest using Naples as a base to explore Paestum and some of the other great historical sites in the region. If you need accommodation, I’ve got some great suggestions:

THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN NAPLES

It’s easy to find your own bit of heritage in the beautiful accommodation options in historic Naples.

BACKPACKER

If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the really fun Hostel of the Sun.

BUDGET

There are a few good cheap hotels – I would suggest Hotel Europeo Napoli in the historic centre.

BOUTIQUE

For something with a bit more style, I would recommend the modern Palazzo d’Auria ApartHotel.

LUXURY

And when it comes to luxury, have a look at the incredible Palazzao Alabardieri.

UNESCO logo

This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

8 thoughts on “The best Greek temples in the world”

    • I would recommend 2-3 hours, including the museum. The site itself is not enormous so you can cover the ground relatively quickly – but because you can walk up into the larger temples, I would recommend taking your time to explore it properly.

      Reply
  1. Hello,
    I am looking to visit the Campania region next year and stumbled across your blog post. I am looking to visit Paestum again and loved reading your description and advice about visiting. Will explore your site more.
    Thanks, Brendan

    Reply
  2. We visited Paestum in July. It really is a beautiful place. We loved that it wasn’t as busy or expensive as Pompeii. Being able to explore inside these magnificent temples was awesome. Highly recommend you visit here. We stayed in Salerno which is an awesome location for a homebase for Naples, Amalfi etc.

    Reply
  3. We visited Paestum in the mid 60s, It was just an overgrown site. However, the magnificence of the ruins could be appreciated and much more so now that we have also visited the various Greek ruins in Sicily. There was no museum and certainly no infrastructure in the town.

    Reply

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