The hilltop city of Agrigento sits along the southwestern shore of Sicily, just over 80 miles from Palermo, the regional capital of Sicily. Founded in the 6th century BC as a Greek colony, it was once one of the leading cities of the Mediterranean world. Today, it’s best known for the vast Valley of the Temples archaeological site with its magnificently preserved Greek temples. The city’s numerous ancient buildings stand in striking contrast to modern high-rise blocks, particularly in the old town’s southern section. It’s impossible to say that Agrigento’s modern side matches the wonder of the likes of the Valley of the Temples, but it has its charms, including its 14th-century cathedral, while many attractions like the stepped white cliff overlooking beautiful sandy beaches can easily be reached nearby.
Just four miles southeast of Agrigento’s center, the archaeological wonder of the Valley of the Temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 5th century BC. The most popular attraction in the region, viewing it is reason enough alone to make this city your base for at least a few days. It contains a series of remarkably well-preserved Doric temples, and tombs, with three temples in its eastern group standing together and illuminated after dark. The main reason they’ve managed to stay in near-perfect condition some 2,500 years after they were built is that the soft clay beneath them acts as a protective shock absorber for earthquakes. The most well-preserved is the Temple of Concordia, built around 425 BC in classical proportions. It ranks among the most perfect temples in the Greek world along with the Hephaisteion in Athens. Other temples are scattered among citrus and olive trees.
The Garden of Kolymbetra is a “hidden” garden that’s been linked to the Garden of Eden in some historical texts. Part of the Valley of the Temples, it’s an oasis sandwiched between sandstone cliffs that descend to a river valley. The working historic garden features restored citrus groves, almond trees, olive trees, and other trees and plants that form a rare open-air agricultural and archaeological museum. Its aim is to show how food plants and citrus trees were cultivated over 2,000 years ago. The microclimate is ideal for them to thrive and it also creates a lush and fragrant scene for those who visit. You’ll even see the unique system of ancient underground aqueducts that are used to bring in water for irrigation. It’s an extraordinary place, encapsulating the flavors, aromas, and colors of Sicily while telling the story of ancient Akragas, now known as the city of Agrigento.
Located on the outskirts of Agrigento, this intriguing archaeological museum is one of the best in all of Sicily. It contains significant archaeological finds from the Agrigento and Caltanissetta provinces, dating from prehistoric through Roman times. They include ancient finds from the necropolis at Montelusa, the area’s oldest known graves, and from the ancient Greek city of Gela. Finds from the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages are included too. Some of the highlights include pottery from Italy and Athens, Greece that date from the 6th to 3rd centuries BC, a 5th-century BC Greek crater from Gela that depicts an Amazon battle, a marble statue of an ephebe dating from around 480 BC, and gargoyles with lion’s heads from multiple temples. It also includes a two-story room entirely devoted to the buildings of the massive temple of the Olympian Zeus. You’ll see one of the original 38 Atlas figures along with a model and reconstruction drawings.
The historic center of Agrigento, often referred to as Girgenti, dates back to the 9th century and brings together many examples of rules from the end of the Roman Empire to the present day. Girgenti is hidden from view by modern buildings but those who enter will find a real treat. The Old Town is a lovely place to stroll with its picturesque, cobbled streets and alleyways that served as the setting for many novels and short stories written by Luigi Pirandello, Nobel laureate for literature in 1934. Prepare for quite a few steep steps. As you explore, you’ll discover clues to Agrigento’s multi-cultural past, from tranquil courtyards to Norman churches and palaces, and magnificent baroque-style architecture. The best way to begin your journey is the main street, Atenea. You’ll see signs indicating the various landmarks like Monastero de Santo Spirito, the Holy Spirit Monastery known for its almond cakes made by the nuns.
Built in the late 13th century by the Chiaramonte family, one of Sicily’s most powerful noble families, Monastero di Santo Spirito sits at the top of a set of steps off Via Atenea. A gothic portal will bring you inside where you’ll see an enchanting garden in the cloister. Marvel at the façade of the Capitular Room which features a pointed arch portal and elegant double lancet windows. The monastery’s arches were built in the Chiaramontine style which embraces the artistic styles of the Swabians and Normans. Nuns still reside here today, meditating, praying, baking, and selling sweet treats based on recipes handed down through generations of nuns. That often includes dolci di mandorla (almond pastries), cuscusu (sweet couscous made with pistachios), and conchigliette (marzipan sweets shaped like a shell and stuffed with a pistachio paste). If you’d like to buy a few sweets, simply ring the doorbell and say ‘Vorrei comprare quiche dolce.’
Located west of Agrigento near Porto Empedocle in Realmonte, Scala dei Turchi is a sloping staircase of white rock. Its name translates to the “Stairs of Turks,” inspired by the frequent Turkish pirate raids as the steps made it easy to climb ashore. Today the striking white cliffs are a top tourist attraction and well worth the climb. The contrast between the chalk-white and brilliant turquoise waters is stunning visually and provides a fantastic photo op. Tucked between two beaches made of marl sand, they’re popular for mud baths, providing beneficial properties for the skin. As Scala dei Turchi is one of the area’s most popular attractions, if you’re seeking peaceful contemplation or want to enjoy a tranquil swim, head to the second, smaller beach where few tourists wander. With the cliffs changing color at various times of day, becoming luminous at sunset, visit at dusk for an especially unforgettable panorama.
At the eastern end of the over 1,150-foot-high Rupe Atenea (Rock of Athene), you’ll find the small Church of San Biagio. Standing on the site of the Temple of Demeter, which dates to the 5th century BC, it was built under Norman rule in the 12th century. By following a stairway you’ll reach what is the oldest known place of worship in Agrigento. The temple was built of local limestone while the building is of the Doric order. Foundations and parts of the north wall are still visible behind the apse while two round altars to the north are believed to have been used as sacrificial sites. Inside the altars, ritual vessels were discovered along archaeological to identify the shrine, including many votive offerings. Behind a narrow chamber in the rocks are two caves with spring water directed through a number of basins to flow into the courtyard.
Built in the 11th century by the Normans on the site of the ancient Acropolis, you’ll find Agrigento Cathedral about two-tenths of a mile north of Piazza Giuseppe Sinatra. It was altered and expanded several times during the 13th and 14th centuries, with the only portion of the original structure the spectacular single-light windows to the right. The façade is reached via a gentle, wide stairway that’s flanked by an unfinished yet still magnificent belltower with an ornate balcony surrounded by a rich adorned gothic-style arch. The interior was restored in 1966 following earthquake damage and in the process, the original medieval atmosphere in the nave was recreated. In the gothic chapel to the right, you’ll see the early 17th-century silver shrine of the canonized Bishop Gerlando. The palace to the west of the cathedral is the bishop’s seminary. While it was originally built in the 14th century, it was rebuilt several hundred years later.
Favara’s Farm Cultural Park is a unique tourist attraction just five miles from Agrigento in Favara. The town was nearly abandoned until its center was transformed into an outdoor art gallery with installations, street murals, and sculptures, becoming Sicily’s most important and largest open-air exhibition of contemporary art. The deteriorating town center was saved, bringing new life to what was a depressed area to provide a venue for artists and a center for workshops, film screenings, talks, and a variety of other cultural events. A number of local elderly women who had refused to leave their homes are now living among the exhibition spaces which were converted from the abandoned houses. Much of the street art is fantastical or focused on politics, and you’ll see a variety of other works in wood, ceramic tile, and other mediums. Some of the old homes were turned into vintage shops, bars, and garden cafes.
There are a number of beaches within easy reach of Agrigento like Capo Rossello, one of the most beautiful and less than a 25-minute drive west. It’s renowned for its brilliant and unique colors with chalk-white and red rocks overlooking the dazzling blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. From the promontory, a spur of red rock hovering above the sea, you can enjoy an especially magnificent view. You’ll see Scala dei Turchi and the entire Costa Bianca to the east. On the right side, you can take a stroll to rock formations and a small port, with many photo-ops to enjoy along the way. The unspoiled dunes of Porto Palo are particularly enchanting, embodying the African soul of southern Sicily with fine white sands and clear turquoise seas with shallow depths. A bit further along the coast is Eraclea Minoa, part of a nature reserve framed by white cliffs with sandy dunes.
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