Standing in the mountains in mainland Greece, surrounded by the ruins of Delphi, you can immediately understand why this spot became one of the most important sanctuaries of the ancient world.
The ruins spill over the slope of Mount Parnassos, and all around you are panoramic views of the mountains. The sacred nature of this space is almost tangible.
First settled over 3000 years ago, Delphi was considered the navel of the world in ancient times. Zeus released two eagles – one flew to the east and the other to the west – and after they flew around the world, Delphi was where they met.
Zeus placed the Omphalos stone in Delphi to mark the spot where they crossed, and you can see it in the museum at the site today.
But Delphi is best known as the home of the god Apollo and his prophesying priestess, the Pythia. Pilgrims from throughout the ancient world visited the sanctuary to receive Apollo’s wisdom and guidance in a ritual which took an entire day and was only performed a few times a year.
There’s a calmness here, looking down the world. The valley below is covered in ancient, gnarled olive groves sloping down to the Gulf of Corinth. When you’re here, it’s easy to believe you’re in the centre of the world.
Visiting Delphi now is a very different experience, but some of that same excitement and anticipation remains. If you visit early in the morning, before the tour buses arrive, you can be almost alone with the ruins and savour the sense of peace that imbues this ancient space.
Later in the day, Delphi will be busy with tourists and tour groups - it is one of the most famous Greek ruins after all. In many ways, that must reflect what the sanctuary would have been like in ancient times - bustling with pilgrims and visitors from many different places.
It's possible to do a day trip to Delphi from Athens, but if you can, take your time visiting the site. Stay in the nearby town of Arachova and give yourself a chance to fully explore the ruins and discover the treasures in the museum.
Visiting independently will allow you the most freedom, but a good guide can make the ruins and history come alive. Hearing the stories, it can be easy to imagine yourself as a pilgrim coming to make an offering to the ancient gods.
Tickets to the archaeological site and museum cost 12 euros from April to October and 6 euros from November to March.
Delphi was, of course, the home of the great sanctuary of Apollo. But he wasn’t always the god who ruled here, and he didn’t rule here alone. Originally, Delphi housed the prehistoric sanctuary of Gaia, the Mother Goddess.
Encouraged by his mother, Leto, Apollo defeated the great python who lived in Gaia’s sanctuary, replacing chaos with order and harmony and bringing this place under his protection.
The original name of the sanctuary was Pytho, after the snake and Apollo’s great priestess, the Pythia, took the name too. She offered prophecy and advice to the supplicants who travelled from across the world seeking Apollo’s wisdom.
But even then, there were other gods in Delphi – entering Delphi from the east, the first thing you see is the Temple of Athena Pronaia. With pronaia translating to “before the temple”, this was probably the first place pilgrims visited.
The shrine of Athena sits in an olive grove below Apollo’s sanctuary and once included two temples dedicated to Athena (the earliest from 500 BCE). The most memorable feature would have been the road tholos temple, which had 20 Doric columns and portrayed the Battles of the Amazons and Centaurs (you can see the remains of these in the Delphi museum).
Many believe that the tholos was dedicated to other deities, not Apollo or Athena.
Walking along the main road up the mountain slope was a ritual in itself. The path that guided pilgrims to the entrance of the Temple of Apollo is still there.
First, you pass the sacred spring of Kastalia, which sits between the two sanctuaries and is strongly associated with the oracle – the priestess bathed in the spring before entering the temple, and priests and pilgrims cleansed themselves here before going any further.
As you make your way up the path towards the temple, you pass many ruins, including the treasury houses, which held offerings to the god.
Two large – and somewhat unremarkable – rocks mark the places where Leto stood when she urged Apollo to slay the python and where the first oracle gave a prophecy.
In ancient times, when the oracle was in residence, the sanctuary would have been bustling with pilgrims and priests. Marble and bronze statues, altars and other offerings would have lined the path, as supplicants stood in the hot sun (or rain), waiting for their turn to consult the oracle.
Not much remains of the Temple of Apollo, but it would have been a formidable structure. At the threshold of the temple, the omphalos (navel) stone still marks the place where Zeus's eagles met and where Apollo killed the Python.
Beneath the temple, in the subterranean chamber, the Pythia made her prophecies. The Pythia was the only one allowed in this chamber, where she would chew laurel leaves, and inhale the fumes from the earth. Here, she would enter her trance, eventually speaking her enigmatic riddles, which ultimately revealed Apollo’s wisdom to the pilgrims.
Initially, the oracle only gave her prophecies once a year, on Apollo’s birthday. Later, this was increased to once a month, except during the three winter months when Apollo was away. Her prophecies were widely believed, and everyone from individuals to rulers of city-states came to Delphi to seek the guidance of Apollo.
Leaving the temple, the path takes you to the top of the site, where you’ll find a theatre and temple which once seated up to 7,000 spectators.
The views here are spectacular, overlooking the sanctuary and mountains and stretching all the way to the sea in the far distance. There’s a sense of peace and calm up here, with the remnants of the ancient past and sacred knowledge strewn at your feet.
When I visit, I am struck by how much we still don’t know about this beautiful place and ancient religion. By spending time in this sacred space, I want to touch the knowledge and vision of the ancient oracle and see this sanctuary as it once was.
Then, the buildings stood tall, people lined the streets, and the smells of incense and slowly roasting sacrificed meat would have filled the air. Up here, for a second, you can almost see these ghosts of a distant time.
But now, the treasures are gone, the games are almost forgotten and the ancient wisdom and practices are lost.
The space was once home to many gods and the voice of one. Now they are silent, buried in the consecrated ground, bereft of prayers and offerings despite the many visitors.
Adjacent to the ancient site of Delphi lies the Delphi Archaeological Museum, well worth visiting to get further insight into the ruins. This museum displays a comprehensive collection of artifacts excavated from the nearby site, painting a vivid picture of Delphi’s past.
A highlight is the striking Charioteer of Delphi, a bronze statue renowned for its intricate detailing and representation of Classical Greek art. Other exhibits of note include the Omphalos stone (mentioned above), and the ornate frieze from the Treasury of the Siphnians, which portrays epic battles between gods and giants. There are also votive offerings, inscriptions, and finely crafted omphalos stones – ancient symbols of Delphi’s revered status.
For visitors who've explored the ruins of Delphi, the museum offers invaluable context. Where the site gives a sense of space and ancient grandeur, the museum fills in the narrative with tangible remnants of daily rituals, artistic endeavors, and religious ceremonies.
Together, the archaeological site and museum provide a more holistic understanding of Delphi's significance in the ancient world.
The trip to Delphi is a scenic journey. From Athens, it typically takes around 2 to 2.5 hours to drive to Delphi, cutting through the picturesque landscapes of central Greece. If you're visiting from Thessaloniki, allocate around 4 to 5 hours for the drive.
If you opt for public transport, regular bus services operate from both cities, taking you directly to the heart of Delphi. When departing from Athens, your starting point is the KTEL bus station in Liossion.
You can expect the bus trip to take around 3-3.5 hours from Athens, and approximately 5-7 hours from Thessaloniki depending on stops, traffic, and the exact route. Remember to check the timetable in advance, as schedules can vary seasonally.
The modern town of Delphi (Delfoi) is close to the ancient ruins, and offers visitors a convenient base. From here, the archaeological site is a very short drive (or 15-minute walk) away, allowing easy exploration at your own pace. Nidimos Hotel provides comfortable rooms with parking, close to a taverna.
For a more tranquil experience, the nearby villages present a different kind of charm. Arachova, a village about 8km (5 miles) from Delphi, is not only known for its proximity to Delphi but also for its role as a gateway to the ski resorts on Mount Parnassus. Xenonas Iresioni offers beautiful rooms in the centre of town.
A bit closer to the site, Chrisso lies only 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from Delphi. Stay at Chrisso, with sweeping views of the mountains.
Once you've visited Delphi, there are many other remarkable destinations to explore in Greece. If you haven't spent time in the capital, head south to Athens, and spend a few days exploring the modern city as well as the ancient Acropolis.
From there, it's an easy ferry ride to Greece's famous islands like Santorini and Mykonos. Or explore more of the mainland - the Peloponnese region is rich with history, with places like Epidaurus and Olympia to visit.
Heading north, Thessaloniki is a fun city with a vibrant blend of Byzantine and Ottoman influences. On the way, be sure to stop in Meteora — a surreal landscape where monasteries perch on towering rock pillars.