When you visit Greece, its long history and culture are immediately obvious. Ancient Greece was the cornerstone of Western civilization and the remnants of the country’s history can be seen scattered in between modern cities and hidden in the countryside.
The scale of some of the archaeological sites is truly immense and there are many ancient Greek ruins that can only really be appreciated when you visit them yourself. No matter where you are in Greece (and the eastern coast of Turkey), the remnants of an ancient city, temple or sanctuary won't be far away.
While any Greek ruin is worth seeing, below are a few of my favourite sites. I’ve chosen these for their scale, diversity and the extent of their preservation... and because I just happen to really like them. If you find yourself in the vicinity of any of these places, take the time to see them for yourself – these ancient sites are definitely worth the trip.
The ancient home of the sanctuary of Apollo and his renowned oracle, Delphi was one of the most sacred sites in mainland Greece. Believed to be the navel of the world, many pilgrims made the long trip to Delphi to seek Apollo’s wisdom and guidance. Visiting Delphi now, it’s possible to follow the same path, the Sacred Way, through the site, with the remains of treasure houses and ancient Greek temples strewn alongside the path.
Highlights include the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, the columns of the Temple of Apollo and the stadium of Delphi, high above the site. It’s also worth spending some time in the Archaeological Museum of Delphi where you can see the facades of the Temple of Apollo, the Charioteer of Delphi and the frieze of the Siphnian Treasury.
To get the most out of your visit, stay in the nearby town of Arachova and visit the sanctuary early in the day to avoid the crowds. If you’re short on time it’s also possible to visit Delphi on a day trip from Thessaloniki or Athens, although it is a long day.
The best-known archaeological site in Greece, the Acropolis dominates the skyline of Athens, the Parthenon perched on its top. The ancient temple is an eternal process of restoration and its white marble and Doric columns embodies many peoples’ mental image of ancient Greece. Built in the 5th Century BCE, the Parthenon famously has no straight lines and no right angles and is an impressive example of classical architecture. Probably the most famous ancient Greek temple, the Parthenon was dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron of Athens. For the best views of the Parthenon from a distance, head to Philopappou Hill, which is directly across from the Acropolis.
Along with sweeping views of the city, there are a number of other sites to see on the Acropolis. The Erechtheion stands next to the Parthenon, marking what was believed to be the tomb of the mythical king Kekrops. The Porch of the Caryatids is held up by statues of women with the originals on display at the nearby Acropolis Museum (don’t be tempted to skip this one – it’s one of the best museums in Athens).
Other sites worth seeing on the Acropolis includes the impressive Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a second-century theatre, the beautifully preserved Temple of Athena Nike and the Theatre of Dionysus, first built over 2,500 years ago.
The Acropolis is best visited when it opens or later in the afternoon. It can become crowded in the middle of the day in peak seasons and is also very hot in summer. While you’re in Athens, also explore the ancient Agora and the Kerameikos, the cemetery of the potters which also marked the start of the Sacred Way to Eleusis.
Probably my favourite ancient site, Delos is the legendary birthplace of Apollo and Athena. Since the 6th Century BCE, no one was permitted to give birth or die on the island and all bodies were exhumed and moved in an attempt to purify the island as a sanctuary. Situated in the Cyclades group of islands, Delos was also the meeting place of the Delian League, a collection of Greek states committed to fighting the Persian War during classical times.
There are a number of archaeological sites on the island and there is still a huge amount of work to do. Aside from the mythical and historical significance of the site, the scale is extraordinary, especially for a relatively small island. Highlights in Delos include seeing the sacred lake (now empty), the Temple of Isis and the residential precinct.
Climbing to the top of Mt Kynthos is also a worthwhile activity – there are panoramic views at the top and the route up follows an ancient path and steps. Temples to Athena and Zeus once stood at the summit. There is a small museum on the island, but many of the artworks were taken to the National Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens (both worth a visit).
If you can, include Delos in your Greek island itinerary. While you cannot stay on Delos, you can visit on a day trip from Mykonos or Naxos. Tours usually spend at least three hours on the island, which gives you just enough time to climb Mt Kynthos and see the sites, although it can feel a bit rushed. Longer trips (easier to find from Mykonos rather than Naxos), give you time to explore the island at your leisure. Keep in mind that it can be very hot and windy on Delos and there isn’t much shelter.
Founded in the 8th Century BCE, Olympia is the sacred site that hosted the first Olympic Games. Olympia is located in the western Peloponnese and is easily accessible from Athens. The site was always associated with Zeus and the games were held in his honour, with all Greek city-states sending representatives to compete in them. The games were held every four years and the practice continued for over thousand years, before the games were outlawed in 373 CE.
Visiting the site now, there are a number of interesting places to explore and it’s easy to wander through the ruins. Highlights include the Ancient Stadium (essentially a field with line markings, the remains of the temples of Zeus and Hera, the palaestra and the workshop of Phidias. Phidias was the sculptor who created the statue of Greece at Olympia, one of the wonders of the ancient world, as well as the sculptures of Athena on the acropolis in Athens (see above).
There are three museums on site. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find the archaeological museum the most interesting with finds from the ancient site displayed including the Hermes of Praxiteles statue and the pediments from the Temple of Zeus. The other museums are the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games and the Modern Olympic Games Museum.
You can visit Olympia as a day trip from Athens or as part of your travels through the Peloponnese. This is one of those places it’s best to visit when it first opens or in the late afternoon as it can get busy between 10am and 2pm.
Asclepius, the god of medicine, was the patron god of Epidaurus and his shrine there dates from the 6th Century BCE or earlier. It’s a relatively large complex, built into the valley and with temples dedicated to the various healing gods. Most of the most impressive buildings were born in the classical period, including the temple of Asclepios, the Tholos (round building) and the Theatre.
The Theatre of Epidaurus is probably the most famous attraction at the sanctuary. It is considered one of the masterpieces of Greek architecture and is remarkably well preserved, with perfect proportions and acoustics. Visitors to the theatre have the opportunity to demonstrate the acoustics and performances are held there during the summer.
The Sanctuary of Asclepius is the most complete example of a medical facility from ancient times and shows the transition from belief in divine healing to the science of medicine. It’s a fascinating site to visit with examples of buildings from all aspects of the Sanctuary, including the hospital, healing cults and rituals, a library, baths, sports, accommodation and the theatre.
You can visit the Sanctuary of Asclepius as a day trip from Athens if you’re short of time. If you’re spending some time in the Peloponnese, the Sanctuary is only a 30-minute drive from the beautiful seaside town of Nafplio, which is a lovely place to spend a couple of days.
Near the lovely coastal city of Kavala in Northern Greece lie the ancient ruins of the Macedonian city of Philippi. This UNESCO World Heritage site was originally founded in the 4th Century BCE, then known as Krenides (meaning "springs") before being conquered by Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.
Philippi is a very important historical site in Greece and pops up again and again in both history and Christian mythology. This is where Mark Anthony and Octavian won the battle against the Julius Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius in 42 BCE. According to the New Testament, this was where the apostle Paul first preached in Europe, and the woman he baptised in the river became the first European Christian.
It's a large and sprawling site, with archaeological works still continuing. A recently discovered tomb there is thought to belong to Alexander's mother Olympia or wife, Roxane. There are some beautiful preserved buildings in the ancient city including remains of the original city walls, a theatre and a funerary heroön (temple). From Roman times, you can also see the marble baths and forum.
Base yourself in Kavala for a couple of days to explore the region and visit Philippi while you're there as its only 13km from the city. Otherwise, you can also visit the ruins as a day trip from Thessaloniki. This ancient site also makes a good stop on a northern Greece road trip.
The ancient home to the legendary king Minos and his minotaur, Knossos, Crete's famous Bronze Age archaeological site has been called Europe's oldest city. The centre of the Minoan civilization which dominated the Aegean between around 1600 and 1400 BCE, the site includes the ruins of a large palace and surrounding buildings. A precursor to the Mycenean civilization in the mainland (see the next item on this list), the Minoans replaced their hieroglyphic writing with a linear script, Linear A, which has yet to be deciphered.
The remains of the palace at Knossos are vast, with a number of the pillars and frescoes reconstructed in the early 20th Century to give visitors an indication of what the site would have looked like. These restorations are quite controversial as the archaeological work wasn't complete, some details may have been imagined, and the methods used hinder the illumination of light in the palace (one of its major features). Saying that, the entrance to the palace definitely brings a labyrinth to mind, and it's easy to imagine the myths of the minotaur and Ariadne taking place here.
Many of the treasures of Knossos are displayed at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, including the Bull’s Head discovered at the temple repository, so be sure to visit the museum while you're in town. Knossos is located just outside the port city of Heraklion in Crete. The site is open every day with extended hours in the summer.
Tucked away in the north-eastern Peloponnese (about a half hour drive from Nafplio) is the ancient site of Mycenae. Dating from approximately 1350-1200 BCE, Mycenae was the centre of the Bronze-Age Mycenaean civilization that was spread across mainland Greece, the Aegean islands and a small amount of the eastern coast of modern Turkey. The site in Mycenae brings to mind some of the best known Greek legends of all - it was named by Homer as the home of Agamemnon, one of the great kings from the Trojan War.
Some of the significant ruins at Mycenae are the Lion Gate, the imposing entrance to the fortress crowned with twin lions, the remains of the palace itself and the Treasury of Atreus (also known as the Tomb of Agamemnon). There also a range of tombs and the brickwork and masonry is astounding. While the buildings themselves are quite plain and austere, many of the funerary items are made from precious metals and gems. The sheer size of the buildings is very impressive, with imposing arches, columns and fountains, and it seems amazing that they were buried and undiscovered for so many centuries.
The records of the Mycenaeans portray a vast and relatively sophisticated civilization with trade and economic influence across the region. The fall of the Mycenaeans heralded the start of Greece’s Dark Ages which saw little progress and a loss of literacy for the next 300 years.
Last Updated September 18, 2021