A real example of a beautiful and rich city of the ancient world, a shining jewel among many other precious treasures of Sicily, an essential destination for art, history and culture: Agrigento.
Agrigento: where and what
Splendid Sicily is almost like a continent rich in peoples, tastes, nature, sensibilities where everything expands to infinity. A sweet and harsh land, soft and rough, bright and veiled: a world full of art and history. And today I’m taking you with me to one of the unique places on the island. I’m talking about the spectacular Agrigento and their 10 wonders to see: let’s discover them!
Meanwhile, let’s define where we are: here we are, just a few kilometers away from the coast of the Mediterranean or more exactly of the Sicilian Channel in the southwestern are of the island. Located on a hill of tuff, it dominates the Valley of the Temples and looks towards the infinite sea: this is Agrigento. All around, there’s a unique and incomparable landscape that seems to summarize the essence of Sicily: the Mediterranean scrub, the rocky promontories, the clear stones, the wide beaches …
And now let’s discover some curiosities!
Did you know that it was one of the most beautiful and richest cities in the ancient world, so much so that Pindar called it “the most beautiful city of mortals”? And that it owns the largest Archaeological Park in the world (1,300 hectares)? That inside the cathedral there are at least four architectural styles at the same time, namely Arab, Norman, Gothic and Baroque?
That Agrigento would be the famous Montelusa and the nearby Porto Empedocle would be Vigata, the towns described by Camilleri in his novels? And in the end, do you know that the so-called Writers’ Road starts here because Luigi Pirandello, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Leonardo Sciascia, Pier Maria Rosso di San Secondo, Andrea Camilleri and others lived here? You will be amazed to see Greek temples, Roman remains, Arab quarters, Norman monasteries, Baroque churches and mythical gardens coexist in the same area!
Agrigento: how and when
Nowadays the city is one of the most famous and touristic places in Sicily, but how and when did Agrigento become so popular? Over the centuries the city has had four names: Ἀκράγας for the Greeks, Agrigentum for the Romans, Gergent for the Arabs and then Girgenti for the Normans. The original meaning was “the maximum possible” …it is quite challenging, isn’t it? In 581 BC the Greeks coming from Rhodes and Crete, who had already founded Gela, started building Akragas. In 4 centuries, the city became powerful and splendid as it is clear by the wonderful Valley of the Temples, so much so that it was feared throughout the Mediterranean.
The decline started after several wars against Carthage for the domination in the Sicilian Channel. Thus, during the troubled period of the Punic wars, it was conquered by the Romans who turned the name into Agrigentum. Then, the Arabs came from Africa and the name of the city changed again. In 1089 it was conquered by the Normans who renamed it as Girgenti, the name that it kept until 1927! Then the period of the Kingdom of Sicily with the royal houses of the Normans, Swabians and Aragonese.
The centuries passed, the Bourbons arrived even in Agrigento, founded the Kingdom of Sicily and in 1816 the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. And then, here are the Redshirts! 1000 Garibaldians arrived and in 1860 there was the unification of Italy! Just a detail: in 1966 a piece of the ridge collapsed and unfortunately it took away a part of the historic center. But the real problem came later: the reconstruction created a sort of wall of anonymous and very high buildings. Therefore, when you get there, your first impression will certainly be disappointing, but I assure you that inside the old city is still charming.
10 wonders to see in Agrigento: let’s find out the top three!
Well now you know enough to go further and as I promised, I will list one by one 10 wonders to see in Agrigento: let’s discover them!
1 – The Valley of the Temples
Well now you know enough to go further and as promised I list one by one the 10 wonders to see in Agrigento: let’s discover them!
It is impossible not to start our visit from the wonders of the Valley of the Temples, so let’s drive about 5 km away from the city center. We can stop in one of the two car parks and start the journey that takes over two hours. This park is about 1,300 hectares and has become one of the 10 UNESCO sites in Sicily that still preserves an extraordinary monumental and natural heritage. It includes the majestic Doric temples, the agora, the pagan and Christian necropolises and the dense network of underground aqueducts.
It is undoubtedly a spectacular evidence of a millenary history that began in the 6th century BC. with the foundation of the ancient Greek colony of Akragas. The two best preserved temples are those of Juno and the one of Concordia: they are so impressive that you can see them from many spots in the area. Just a curiosity: do you know that scholars prefer to deepen their knowledge here in the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento rather than in the Acropolis of Athens? Because here the temples are “preserved” while there, for the most part, they are “rebuilt”!
2 – Regional Archaeological Museum
After so much beauty en plein air, let’s go inside to know in depth the civilization that has left so much in the temples we have just seen. Right on the spot where the upper agora of the ancient city was, the Archaeological Museum has been opened in the 1960s. Almost 6000 exhibits in 18 rooms, there’s a lot to visit but be careful: there are two exhibition paths so if you have time, follow both otherwise the first is enough. This one keeps what was found from the excavations in ancient Akragas. Do not miss the original statue of one of the giant Telamons from the temple of Zeus and the marble Ephebe. The second path shows instead some finds from prehistory to the Greek period that have been found in that area of Sicily.
3 – Garden of Kolymbethra
Thanks to the FAI, in 2000 the Garden of Kolymbethra was beautiful again with 1,500 trees. Five hectares in the Valley of the Temples where you can walk among citrus groves, olive trees, almond trees and Mediterranean essences. Right here, between the stunning scent and the pure white of the first blooms of February, the famous Sagra del Mandorlo in Fiore (Almond Blossom Festival) takes place every year. Moreover, if you want, you can go down to 185 meters underground following the line of the Phaeacian aqueducts that dates back to the 5th century BC. They brought water to a huge tank with fish, birds and swans that in Greek was called Kolymbethra…here is the reason of the current name!
10 wonders to see in Agrigento: let’s find out three more!
4 – The Old Town with the Holy Spirit Monastery
Do you want to see one of the best-preserved old towns in Sicily that have an Arab and medieval origin?
Don’t miss the historic center of Agrigento located on the hill overlooking the city! Today we will be able to explore narrow alleys and steep stairways during a walk that begins in Via Atenea, the main street. And the, take a look at the beautiful churches, palaces and monasteries: the Holy Spirit Monastery, Palazzo dell’Orologio, the Town Hall, the Church of San Domenico, the Rabato District, the Church of Santa Maria dei Greci, the Bishop’s Palace and then the Cathedral on top of the hill!
The Monastery of the Holy Spirit deserves some extra words. In 1299 the noble Chiaramonte family decided to finance the construction of the greatest example of medieval architecture in the city. The cloister and the majestic Baroque decorations of the chapter house must be seen. It also houses a civic museum with a curious nativity scene set right in the historic center of Agrigento, and a collection of ancient traditional Sicilian tools and utensils. Just a curiosity: even today the nuns prepare exceptional pastries with almonds and pistachios…taste them!
5 – The Cathedral of San Gerlando
As I told you, right at the top of the hill, through a huge staircase we can get to the Cathedral of San Gerlando, the patron saint of Agrigento.
It was founded around the 11th century by the bishop Gerlando, and today looks like an incredible mix of Arab, Norman, Gothic and even Baroque styles! Over the centuries it was enlarged and then narrowed and shortened, frescoes and decorations created in 1600 have been removed, the wooden ceilings have been changed three times… but, it doesn’t matter, it is incredibly harmonious. Climb the bell tower and go to the balcony that overlooks the sea, Porto Empedocle and the Valley of the Temples: what a spectacular view! Another curiosity: whisper a sentence from the entrance to a friend standing in the apse… and they will perfectly hear you!
6 – Pirandello House Museum
Let’s drive just for a few minutes: 4 kilometers away from the city to a district called “Caos”. Here we find the birthplace of Luigi Pirandello.
The original building dates back to the end of the 18th century: it’s a country house that was redesigned several times and then became a national monument in 1949. Nowadays in the rooms of the upper floor many personal objects, photographs, letters, manuscripts are collected. But also, first editions of some books autographed by the author and posters of the most famous shows! Do you remember the famous Pine of Pirandello? Well, you won’t find it anymore because he was extirped by a storm. On the contrary, you will see a stone block containing the ashes of the great author. In fact, Pirandello had ordered “Let the funeral urn be brought to Sicily and walled up in some rough stone in the Girgenti countryside where I was born”. Right you are (if you think so)…
10 wonders to see in Agrigento: let’s find out more and more!
We visited 6 out of 10 wonders to see in Agrigento! Now it’s time to get to know the surrounding area: let’s go!
7 – Eraclea Minoa
Now let’s drive about 40 kilometers away from Agrigento, we get to Eraclea Minoa, a city founded in the 6th century BC.
by the Greek colonists from Selinunte. The city was then conquered by the Romans who, for various reasons, abandoned it at the beginning of the 1st century AD. C. and so nobody knew anything about it anymore. But in the ‘50s of the 20th century, the excavations began and many precious vases and ceramics have been found as well as a Greek amphitheater. Moreover, the archaeological area of Eraclea Minoa is also exceptional for its location overlooking the coast, between the blue sea and the white rocks. So, take many photos! Ah…there is even a wide beach (about 6 kilometers) but I will talk later about it (number 10 on the list!).
8 – Sciacca
Now let’s drive about 30 kilometers away and we’ll get to Sciacca, a small town by the sea. People know it mainly for three reasons: thermal springs, ceramics and carnival…not enough? These thermal baths are among the most famous in southern Italy…in particular a therapeutic mud bath (56 degrees) to heal respiratory and rheumatic diseases. If you want to take something typical with you, there are more than 50 shops in the city center with handcrafted decorated pottery. The carnival attracts many tourists every year to see the handmade allegorical floats. If you want to know more…simple: read this article (click here!).
9 – Stair of the Turks
If you are there in the right season, don’t miss the so-called Stair of the Turks. I’m talking about a white rocky natural cliff overlooking the sea along the coast of Realmonte just 15 kilometers away from Agrigento. It was sculpted over the millennia by the wind and the sea, so it took the incredible shape of a white staircase that plunges into the turquoise water. I will talk about the beach in the next paragraph. The view will certainly astonish you and you will not resist to take hundreds of pictures! Why did they choose this name? The legend says that the Turks, during the Moorish invasion, used these natural stairs to reach Sicily. Another curiosity: it is so unique that even Camilleri included it in his novels about Inspector Montalbano, and Giuseppe Tornatore used it in his movie ‘Malèna’.
10 – Beaches
Finally, let’s discover the last one of the 10 wonders to see in Agrigento. Let’s not forget that the sea and the beaches are just five minutes away by car! An excellent choice is just 7 kilometers from the city, welcome to the beach in San Leone: golden sand and nice beaches, kiosks and bars, this is the hub of summer nightlife. The wind blows pretty often, so you can go surfing or kitesurfing!
If you want to know explore the coast, I suggest you two locations. Capo Rosso is a spectacular sandy beach, ideal for swimming and relaxing, that is characterized by some red and white rocks that slope down to the sea. It is located in Realmonte right next to the Stair of the Turks even if fortunately, it is much less crowded! I also suggest you the beach in Eraclea Minoa characterized by kilometers of fine sand and crystal-clear waters that is surrounded by a forest of shady pines!
Did I surprise you with these 10 wonders to see in Agrigento? Don’t think that’s all! Sicily is much more than this: come and discover it thanks to the itineraries organized by Dimensione Sicilia. One of the best ideas? Eco-tours by electric cars! These itineraries are customizable itineraries according to your time and budget to enjoy 8 days in Western and Eastern Sicily or 14 days, if you prefer. You will visit the most beautiful places on the island such as 10 UNESCO sites of Sicily including Agrigento and its surroundings. Or if you want to enjoy the beauties of the island in a different way, pick one of the tours suggested by Sicilian Secrets. In safety we trust, let’s go!
See you soon!
Translated by Gaia Guarino