The stunning UNESCO world heritage site of Paestum, Italy, is one of the most beautiful in Europe and the world. In this guide, we share what to see and how to visit its unmissable ruins
Have you ever been to a place so beautiful it knocks the breath out of your chest?
I have and the place that stunned me into this beauty-induced state is Paestum, Italy.
Located in Campania, the region of Naples, Paestum is an archaeological site dating back to ancient Greek times.
Here, cream colored temples raise from a soft carpet of grass and ancient roads criss-cross sleepy fields, what now remains of a once thriving ancient town.
A visit to Paestum is a pleasure for the senses and the intellect.
The temples will fill your eyes with unparalleled beauty and the local museum will quench your thirst for knowledge with interesting and beautiful artifacts.
I have visited Paestum several times, the last of which on the way back from our Southern Italy trip and each time the effect is the same: powerful, awe inspiring and moving.
These are the many reasons to visit Paestum and some tips for the first time visitor.
Why and how you should visit Paestum, Italy
What is special about Paestum?
Paestum is a site of unique historical value and one of the best places to visit in Italy.
It has a cluster of 3 temples and one of them, the temple of Neptune, is in such a wonderful state of preservation dubbed ‘the most perfect and best preserved temple in Greek architecture’ (A. Maiuri).
Indeed, there is no doubt that a visit to the ruins of Paestum is a unique experience.
The location and colors of the ruins are incredible and the archaeological park is just the right size to make a visit pleasant yet not overwhelming.
On top of this Paestum is also special as it doesn’t see mass tourism (yet!).
Unlike nearby Pompeii, Paestum is still mostly outside the main travel routes in Italy and this means on most days you can have the place all to yourself!
This is truly Italy off the beaten path!
What to see in Paestum
Paestum is an ancient town in the South of Italy, originally built by Greek colonies around the year 600 a.C.
It is now an archaeological park where you can see ancient ruins dating back to Greek and Roman times.
It has several areas of interest but has four things to see that truly are the star of the show: the temple of Neptune, the temple of Hera, the temple of Athena and the museum.
The temple of Neptune
The temple of Neptune in Paestum dates back to the V century a.C. and is a sight to behold.
It has three naves and is entirely surrounded by Doric columns made of golden-colored travertine.
The columns are large and heavy but they are decorated with splendid vertical grooves: they capture the light as it hits the columns and create a wonderful game of shades that make this massive stone creation look as if it was feather-light!
This temple is by far my favorite corner of Paestum: waking into is is like walking inside jungle made of stone colored trees and the presence of not one but two stories of columns make the temple properly imposing!
You feel small inside it but the sun streaming in from the open roof also makes you feel part of this magnificent creation: it is really easy to see why this was a religious building, the effect on the visitor is truly powerful!
The temple of Naptune is however more than just beautiful.
As well as being the best-preserved temple in the Greek world, it has something unique: the double order of columns that divide the tree naves of the temple is unseen in the Western Greek world and makes this temple the only example of this type of architecture in Magna Gracia.
This stucture also connects this temple with the much more famous yet less preserved great temple of Zeus in Olympia, in mainland Greece.
Fun fact: while usually referred to as the Temple of Neptune (or also Temple of Poseidon) it not sure what God the temple was devoted to. In XVII century, historians identifited the temple ans belonging to Poseidon but there are also reason to believe it may have been to Hera, Apollo or possibly even Zeus.
Beside the temple sits another building, smaller yet somewhat similar, often referred to as ‘the basilica’
It got this name in the XVIII century, when archaeologists thought this was an administrative type of building however, archaeologists now believe it was original a temple to Hera and / or Zeus.
It dates back to 530 a.C and had, inside, several religious artifacts now preserved in the local museum.
The basilica is stunning: it is in excellent state of preservation and has some special traits that make it stand out.
One is the odd number of columns at its front and the other is the peculiar shape of the columns itself, narrower at the top, things that give away the archaic origin of the building.
The temple of Athena or Temple of Ceres
A little detached from the two other temples lies another religious building identified as the temple of Athena or Ceres.
This is a wonderful Doric temple and likely the first you encounter when entering the park: to get the best view walk to it far side: the temple framed by pine trees and flower is simply stunning!
The Paestum museum
Just outside the area with the main Paestum ruins lies the site’s archaeological museums.
This is a wonderful space and one that complements perfectly a visit to the ruins.
If the temples make you experience the might and physical feel of Paestum ancient city, the museum is where you can truly learn about it and where you can admire the art of the civilizations that called this area home.
Among the things to see out, there are the stunning painted decorations of the local tombs, still flaunting exquisite colors, and many delicately decorated vases and artifacts
The most famous remains of all is the gorgeous slab covering the so called ‘diver’s tomb’: it depicts a man diving into the sea and it is of exquisite beauty!
Where is Paestum and how to get there?
Paestum is in Campania, immediately to the South of Salerno, in the South of Italy.
The best way to reach it is by car: the closest localities are Capaccio Scalo, Battipaglia and Agropoli and the site is well signposted both if coming along the coastal road or the Salerno- Reggio Calabria motorway.
Trains also connect Salerno to Paestum. The train journey takes about 30 minutes and the station is a little less than 1km away from the ruins.
Is Paestum good for kids?
Paestum is a wonderful place to visit with kids!
The main archaeological area is a dream for little children to run around and older kids will be stunned by the beautify of the temples.
Strollers may find it hard to negotiate some of the ancient streets but there are several areas with flat terrain and a carrier is not necessary.
Just outside the site there are several cafes and restaurants with shaded patios and child friendly menu options.
A brief history of Paestum
Paestum was founded by Greek colonists from Sibari around the year 600 a.C., when they escaped their homeland to find refuge in what became known as Magna Graecia‘.
It developed quickly and soon became a thriving center with a rich and wealthy population we can see glimpses of thanks to the many artifacts from that time.
Around 300 a.C Paestum gets caught into the rapid expansion of Rome and became first colony and then strong ally of the now powerful city.
The Romans contributed to the expansion of the city and are responsible for some of the buildings we now see such as the amphitheater.
In the Christian era Paestum gained its own bishop and thrives until the beginning of the XII century: at this time, Fredrick II occupied the area and Paestum got abandoned, slowly getting swallows by the swap that took over this now neglected area.
The rediscovery of this site peaked in the 1950 when the local museum was opened and with the inclusion in the list of Unesco world heritage site in 1998
I learned about the history of Paestum in the local museum where you can also buy well written booklets about the history of the city, in several languages. The books are by L. del Verme and edited by Artem
Frequently asked questions about visiting Paestum Italy
Yes, Paestum and the Cilento area entered the Unesco list of world heritage sites as outstanding cultural landscape in 1998
Yes! Paestum is one of the most beautiful sites in Italy and one easy to enjoy even if you are not particularly into archaeology or history
You can easily Paestum in a couple of hours. This time allows you to see the ruins but also visit the museum, worth a stop
yes, there is a parking area just outside the park and also on street parking (pay and display)
Paestum is about 300 KM South of Rome and it takes about 3.5h to get there. While technically possible to over this distance in one day, this is not a good day trip from Rome and it is better visited with an overnight stay in the area or en route to another location
Just outside the park you have several restaurants and cafe, one of which also has rooms for the night
You do not need special gear to visit Paestum however, make sure you have good walking shoes and something to protect you from the sun: sun cream and a sun hat are a good bet in all seasons.
I hope you enjoyed this quick overview of this wonderful sight and it inspired you to add Paestum yo your Italy trip.