The city was known for being the home of the philosophers Parmenides and Zeno of Elea, as well as the Eleatic school of which they were a part. The site of the acropolis of ancient Elea was once a promontory called Castello a Mare, meaning "castle on the sea" in Italian. It now lies inland and was renamed to Castellammare della Bruca in the Middle Ages.
The town is situated close to the Tyrrhenian coast in a hill zone nearby Marina di Casalvelino and Marina di Ascea, on a road linking Agropoli to the southern Cilentan Coast. Its population is mainly located in the plain by the sea (surrounding the southern part of the ancient ruins) and in the hill zones of Enotria, Bosco and Scifro. Velia also had a railway station on the Naples-Salerno-Reggio Calabria line, closed at the end of the 1970s.
According to Herodotus, in 545 BC Ionian Greeks fled Phocaea, in modern Turkey, which was being besieged by the Persians. After some wanderings (8 to 10 years) at sea, they stopped in Reggio Calabria, where they were probably joined by Xenophanes, who was at the time at Messina, and then moved north along the coast and founded the town of Hyele, later renamed Ele and then, eventually, Elea. The location is nearly at the same latitude as Phocaea.
Elea was not conquered by the Lucanians, but eventually joined Rome in 273 BC and was included in ancient Lucania. According to Virgil's Aeneid, Velia is the place where the body of Palinurus washed ashore.
Remains of the city walls, with traces of one gate and several towers, of a total length of over three miles, still exist, and belong to three different periods, in all of which the crystalline limestone of the locality is used. Bricks were also employed in later times; their form is peculiar to this place, each having two rectangular channels on one side, and being about 1.5 in. square, with a thickness of nearly 4 in. They all bear Greek brick-stamps. There are some remains of cisterns on the site, and, various other traces of buildings.