Nestled in the tranquil landscape of the western Peloponnese peninsula in Greece lies a place that echoes an illustrious past—the Archaeological Site of Olympia. Ancient Olympia was one of the most significant sanctuaries of ancient Greece, and hosted the Olympic Games every four years from 776 BC to 393 AD. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site visited by millions who come to explore the ruins, and experience the rich history and Greek culture.
What is Ancient Olympia?
The Archaeological Site of Olympia is one of Greece’s most significant cultural and historical landmarks. It started a ritual that is still observed globally today with the Modern Olympics, where the worlds best athletes compete for the most coveted titles in their field.
Its origins can be traced back to prehistoric times, with evidence of human habitation in the region dating back to the Neolithic period, around 4000 BCE. The area was also considered a religious and cult centre during ancient times, focusing on worshipping gods like Zeus and Hera. However, its association with the Olympic Games has etched its place indelibly in history.
The first recorded Olympic Games were held in 776 BCE, marking the beginning of a remarkable tradition that would endure for over a thousand years. These games, held every four years, became a significant cultural and athletic event, attracting participants and spectators from across Greece and beyond.
Olympia was not only renowned for its athletic competitions but also for its religious significance. The sanctuary of Olympia was considered sacred, dedicated primarily to Zeus, the king of the gods, and Hera, his wife. Held in honour of him, The Olympic Games also served as a means of religious devotion and were accompanied by sacrifices, rituals, and ceremonies.
Over time, the Olympic Games gained pan-Hellenic status, transcending local significance to become an event that united the Greek city-states. A truce known as ekecheiria was observed during the games, ensuring safe travel and participation, even during times of conflict.
Architecturally, Olympia underwent significant development and embellishment. Majestic structures adorned the sanctuary, including temples, treasuries, altars, and stadiums. Among them, the Temple of Zeus stood out as an architectural marvel, housing the renowned statue of Zeus, sculpted by Phidias, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Temple of Hera, another prominent structure, reflected the religious devotion of the ancient Greeks.
Olympia continued to thrive during the Roman period. The games maintained their popularity, and Roman emperors often contributed to the enhancement and expansion of the site. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire, the games gradually lost their prominence, and Olympia entered a period of decline. It remained buried and forgotten for centuries until its rediscovery in the 18th century.
Today, the Archaeological Site of Olympia stands as a captivating testament to the grandeur and achievements of ancient Greece. Its ruins offer a glimpse into the past’s religious, athletic, and artistic traditions.
How to get to Olympia
Ancient Olympia is situated in in the Western Peloponnese and there are several ways to access it.
Olympia from Athens
The Archaeological Site of Olympia is relatively straightforward to get to from Athens which is which is 320 kilometers (198 miles) east. Visitors can fly into Athens International Airport (ATH), which offers numerous flights from various international destinations.
However, as no direct trains run between Athens and Olympia, you must drive, take a bus or join an organised tour.
Renting a car is a convenient option if you prefer flexibility and independence. The distance between the two locations is roughly 320 km, and the journey takes around 3.5 to 4 hours, depending on traffic and road conditions.
The best route starting from Athens is to head west on the A8/E94 highway. You can continue on the A8/E55 highway, passing by Corinth and Patras before exiting Pyrgos/Olympia and following the signs to Olympia.
Should you prefer to take the bus, the primary bus operator in the country is KTEL.
They provide regular service from Athens to Olympia, and you can catch one from the central bus station Kifissou Avenue (KTEL Kifissou). The travel time by bus is approximately 4 to 4.5 hours, and it will drop you off at the bus station in Olympia, which is within walking distance of the Archaeological Site.
Olympia from Katakolon
This small town on the western coast of the Peninsula is now a busy cruise ship port, primarily so passengers can visit Ancient Olympia.
Many will choose to join the ships organised excursion but some also pre-book a car or a driver/tour, which opens up the possibility to explore other things in the area as well such as nearby Mercouri Estate Winery, Olympia Land Winery and Pirgos Museum in the nearby town of Pirgos. There are also some great beaches near Katakolon such as Paralia Kavouri and Spiantza.
Driving from Katakolon to Olympia is fairly straight forward and well signed. Simply head north from the Port on Pyrgou-Katakolou road onto Patras-Pirgou road which soon turns into Olympia-Pirgou road. The drive takes just over 30 minutes.
Olympia from Kalamata
The quickest way is to drive out of Kalamata on the E65 highway and turn onto the E55 highway at Kalivia. This will take you past the Peristerias Archaeological Site ( worth a stop) and onto coastal Pirgou-Kiparssias road. Just past Kasiafas Lake and Thermal springs the road veers inland again and crossed the Alfeios River just before Olympia town (Archaia) and the Archaeological site just beyond it.
This drive takes about 90 minutes. It can also be done by bus using Ktel buses from Artemidos bus station or join an organised tour and let someone else take care of everything.
Opening hours and admission price
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia is open every day of the year except for the following public holidays:
1st January, 25th March, 1st May, Easter Sunday, 25th December, 26th December
Additionally, Good Friday is open between 12:00 pm – 5 pm, and Holy Saturday from 8 am and 3 pm.
The site operates different opening hours between the high and low seasons. The high season runs from April to October; during this time, admission will cost 12 € for adults. The low season runs for the rest of the year, with admission prices reduced to 6 €.
You can visit the site from 8 am to 8 pm during the high season, while the low season hours are 8.30 am to 3.30 pm. Whenever you go, the last admission is 20 minutes before closing time.
Throughout the year, there are several days when admission is free for everyone. They include:
6th March (To honour Melina Mercouri)
18th April (International Monuments Day)
18th May (International Museums Day)
Last weekend of September (European Heritage Days)
First Sunday of every month from November to March
Highlights of Olympia
Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus is a testament to ancient Greek architectural prowess and religious devotion. Constructed in the 5th century BCE, this majestic temple was dedicated to Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek mythology.
It was an impressive Doric structure characterised by its sheer size and grandeur, featuring imposing columns that rose to a height of over 13 metres which created a sense of awe and reverence.
The temple’s eastern pediment depicted the chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus, while the western pediment showcased the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, both sculpted with remarkable artistry.
The temple’s most prominent feature was the colossal statue of Zeus, sculpted by Phidias, which once resided inside its sacred chambers. This masterpiece stood over 12 meters tall and was made of gold and ivory, depicting Zeus seated on a throne, holding a sceptre and a figure of Nike, the goddess of victory. Regrettably, this awe-inspiring statue no longer survives today.
Despite its grandeur, the Temple of Zeus suffered damage over the centuries, including earthquakes and fires. However, its ruins still convey a sense of the temple’s former magnificence, allowing visitors to appreciate its architectural ingenuity and religious significance for the ancient Greeks.
Temple of Hera
Built around the 7th century BCE, The Temple of Hera is a remarkable ancient Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Hera.
Following the Doric architectural style, it stands as a testament to the religious significance of the sanctuary and the architectural achievements of the time.
The temple is characterised by its sturdy columns and simplicity and was peripteral, with a single row of columns surrounding it.
The temple is one of the oldest Doric temples in Greece and played a vital role in religious ceremonies and offerings dedicated to Hera, (the queen of the gods in Greek mythology and the protector of marriage and childbirth). Its stunning design comprised six columns on its façade and sixteen on the sides, which created a harmonious and balanced structure.
Inside the temple was an impressive cult statue of Hera. It represented the goddess and served as the focal point of worship.
Visitors can explore the remnants of this sacred structure and marvel at its historical significance.
Adjacent to it, you’ll see the Philippeion, an exquisite circular monument built by Philip II of Macedon. It commemorates his victory in the Olympic Games and enhances the historical and architectural significance of the area.
The ancient Olympia Stadium was the venue for the renowned Olympic Games.
It was constructed in the 5th century BCE and is one of the world’s most immense sites of cultural and historical significance.
The stadium is a rectangular space surrounded by sloping grassy embankments, offering seating for thousands of spectators who eagerly gathered to witness the sporting events. The original track, made of packed earth and measuring about 192 metres in length, still exists today, allowing visitors to walk in the footsteps of ancient athletes.
During the Olympic Games, the stadium came alive with intense athletic competition, including foot races, chariot races, and combat sports. Athletes from various city-states gathered to showcase their physical prowess and compete for glory and honour. You can almost hear the ancient spectator’s cheers and roars from within the remains of this historic venue!
Walking around the stadium, surrounded by the remnants of the spectator seating, offers a profound connection to the ancient past and a deep appreciation for the enduring legacy of athletic competition and human achievement.
The Palaestra was a vital part of the ancient Greek athletic complex.
A rectangular exercise area, it embodied the significance of physical education and athletic competition in ancient Greek society, serving as a training ground for athletes preparing for the Olympic Games.
It consisted of a central courtyard surrounded by a covered walkway known as a peristyle. It also had a courtyard that provided ample space for wrestling, boxing, and jumping.
At the same time, the peristyle offered shaded areas for athletes to rest and engage in intellectual and philosophical discussions. (Can you imagine Usain Boult and Yohan Blake doing that?)
The Palaestra served not only as a training ground but also as a social hub, fostering camaraderie and the exchange of ideas among athletes. It was a place where athletes honed their skills, tested their mettle, and learned from one another, contributing to the overall development of the individual and the community.
The architecture of the Palaestra combined practicality with aesthetic appeal. The columns and decorative elements showcased the craftsmanship and attention to detail characteristic of ancient Greek architecture. While the serene ambience of the space, shaded by the surrounding colonnade, created an environment conducive to focused training and contemplation.
Exploring the remains of the Palaestra at the Archaeological Site of Olympia allows visitors to envision the vibrant atmosphere that once filled this space.
Archaeological Museum of Olympia
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia resides next to the Archaeological Site of Olympia. Possessing a treasure trove of ancient artefacts, a visit here provides a comprehensive understanding of the historical and cultural significance of Olympia.
The museum houses an extensive collection of artefacts discovered within the Olympia archaeological site and its surroundings. These artefacts span from prehistoric times to the Roman era and include sculptures, statues, pottery, metalwork, and other archaeological finds that shed light on various aspects of ancient Greek life.
One of the museum’s notable highlights is the Hermes of Praxiteles, a renowned sculpture representing the messenger god Hermes. This masterpiece showcases the skilful craftsmanship and artistic excellence of the ancient Greeks.
Additionally, the Pedimental Sculptures of the Temple of Zeus, which depict mythological scenes, offer a glimpse into the artistic splendour of the ancient sanctuary.
Where to stay in Olympia Greece
The town of Olympia is small and has only a handful of hotels but they are good value and very pleasant. It’s a charming little town that has somehow retained an air of authenticity despite its rockstar attraction.
We recommend Leonidaion, a charming, modernized guesthouse in town with great family service.