For any history buff who loves ancient ruins, a trip to Paestum is worth the visit. It is not as popular as other tourist attractions in Italy, potentially because of its somewhat remote location. I found out about it after my first visit to Italy when I visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and I stumbled upon a painting by Antonio Joli (1759). I was puzzled that this painting showed ancient temples in remarkable condition, and (to my surprise) still look like that today.
Due to wars, earthquakes, and the lack of respect for history in earlier times, there are not many well preserved Greek or Roman temples still standing (Maison Carée is a nice example of a well preserved Roman temple in Nîmes, as is the Pantheon in Rome).
Origin of Paestum
Located off the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Paestum was originally called Poseidonia by the Greeks. Coins which have been minted during this time are inscribed with the words ‘Posidonia’. In 410 BC, the city was conquered by the Lucanians who renamed it Paistos, during which time red figure pottery prospered and detailed painted tombs were constructed (one of the most famous is Tomb of the Diver, on display in the nearby museum). In 273 BC, the Romans conquered and renamed the city Paestum. Due to Paestum donating gold and ships to the Romans during their wars, they were allowed special privileges compared to other colonies, including continuing to mint their own coins.
The city was eventually abandoned in the Middle Ages, potentially due to the swamp like conditions and influx of malaria, and a newly constructed large trade route road bypassed the city. Following the discovery of Pompeii, Paestum was rediscovered in the 18th century. It was popularized in part due to engravings by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi.
During WWII, allied forces and the American Red Cross set up tents inside the temples (Salerno Landing of 1943) to avoid bombing (the temples were reportedly off limits).
The three Greek temples are built in the ancient Doric order style.
The temples are:
First Temple of Hera (550 BC): The temple is wider than most temples, with a line of columns and two doors running down the middle. It is thought that this is due to dual dedication in the temple. It was named the “Basilica” by 18th century archaeologists who did not think it was originally a temple but a town hall. The columns are cigar shaped (called entasis, for which numerous theories are debated about the reason behind this form, potentially to to make the column more “straight”).
Second Temple of Hera (460-450 BC): Mistakenly thought to be the Temple of Poseidon/Neptune, this is most well preserved temple out of the three, located in between the other two temples. The entablature (horizontal structure sitting on top of the columns) and pediment (triangular structure sitting on top of the entablature) is preserved. Some have likened the appearance of this temple to the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, which was built around the same time.
Temple of Athena (500 BC): This is the first temple you will seen when you entire the site, located on a slightly more elevated area. Temples dedicated to Athena were usually built on the highest point in the area. While the outer columns were Doric style, the inner columns were Ionic style (which were becoming popular at the time).
How to get there
A day trip from Rome would be tiring, approximately a little over three hours with the high speed train. However if you plan on visiting Naples/Pompeii or the Amalfi Coast, then this would be a feasible option. We decided to base ourselves in the small town of Salerno (which is apparently not technically part of the coast) but still a coastal town and is located east of Vietri sul Mare (the most “east” town of the Amalfi Coast).
Our decision to stay in Salerno was based on its accessibility to Pompeii and Paestum. We decided not to stay in Naples due to its reputation, (but I’ve heard many people stay in Naples with no issues). Salerno is also much cheaper in terms of prices than staying in a popular Amalfi coast town. The extremely reasonable price of our Airbnb in Salerno justified our ridiculously priced Positano hotel (in our minds).
Rome <--> Salerno: Under 2 Hours (for specific trains)
Salerno <—> Paestum: ~1 Hour (for specific trains)
After you get off the train in Paestum, its a pleasant 11 minute walk on a dusty dirt road to the entrance of the ruins. Look for a stone fence with an arch, and go through it to walk on a straight path towards the ruins. The museum is located at the entrance too. There are a few gift shops along the way. There is a bathroom in the museum (clean too!)
I recommend not skipping the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum, as there are important historical relics to see. My favorite is checking out the Tomb of the Diver (480,470 BC), showing a young man diving into the after life. The museum is very small, but can get crowded with tour groups. It should not take more than an hour to get through the museum.
National Archaelogical Museum of Paestum
Via Magna Grecia, 919 - 84047
Capaccio Paestum (SA)