A Unesco World Heritage Site, these temples are among the best-preserved monuments of Magna Graecia, the Greek colony that once covered much of southern Italy. Rediscovered in the late 18th century, the site as a whole wasn’t unearthed until the 1950s. Lacking the tourist mobs that can sully better-known archaeological sites, the place has a wonderful serenity. Take sandwiches and prepare to stay at least three hours. In spring the temples are particularly stunning, surrounded by scarlet poppies.
Buy your tickets in the museum, just east of the site, before entering from the main entrance on the northern end. The first structure is the 6th-century-BC Tempio di Cerere; originally dedicated to Athena, it served as a Christian church in medieval times.
As you head south, you can pick out the basic outline of the large rectangular forum, the heart of the ancient city. Among the partially standing buildings are the vast domestic housing area and, further south, the amphitheatre; both provide evocative glimpses of daily life here in Roman times. In the former houses you'll see mosaic floors, and a marble impluvium that stood in the atrium and collected rainwater.
The Tempio di Nettuno, dating from about 450 BC, is the largest and best preserved of the three temples at Paestum; only parts of its inside walls and roof are missing. The two rows of double-storied columns originally divided the outer colonnade from the cella, or inner chamber, where a statue of the temple deity would have been displayed. Despite its commonly used name, many scholars believe that temple was actually dedicated to the Greek goddess Hera, sister and wife of Greek god Zeus.
Almost next door, the so-called basilica (in fact, a temple to the goddess Hera) is Paestum’s oldest surviving monument. Dating from the middle of the 6th century BC, it’s a magnificent sight, with nine columns across and 18 along the sides. Ask someone to take your photo next to one of the columns: it’s a good way to appreciate the scale.
Save time for the museum, which covers two floors and houses a collection of fascinating, if weathered, metopes (bas-relief friezes). This collection includes original metopes from the Tempio di Argiva Hera (Temple of Argive Hera), situated 9km north of Paestum, of which virtually nothing else remains. The most famous of the museum's numerous frescoes is the 5th-century-BC Tomba del Tuffatore (Tomb of the Diver), thought to represent the passage from life to death with its frescoed depiction of a diver in mid-air. The fresco was discovered in 1968 inside the lid of the tomb of a young man, alongside his drinking cup and oil flasks, which he would perhaps have used to oil himself for wrestling matches. Rare for the period in that it shows a human form, the fresco expresses pure delight in physicality, its freshness and grace eternally arresting. Below the diver, a symposium of men repose languidly on low couches and brandish drinking cups.