It is often difficult to imagine a time three centuries before the classical age. Between 800 BC and 500 BC, ancient Greece flourished in the realm of art, poetry and technology. Prior to the archaic (or ancient) period, the country lived in the Greek Dark Ages. People lived in small farming communities which, over time, developed greatly. Meeting places called agoras were built, governments were formed and laws implemented. Each city-state (or poleis) was protected by a god or goddess, who the citizens are said to have owed their complete respect and sacrifice.
Today, the ruins of ancient Greece can be found scattered over mountains, hills and valleys. Millions of people visit the country to walk in the footsteps of the gods and discover the secrets of these once bustling civilisations. In this article, we take a look at some of the most prominent remaining sites of the ancient Greek era.
Towering above the city of Athens, The Acropolis is one of the most complete ancient Greek monuments in existence. Built into the steep, rocky hill, The Acropolis’ fortification walls have surrounded it for more than 3,000 years. After entering the site through the Propylaia (gateway), visitors are free to wander to the hilltop to admire features including the Parthenon, Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike. Be sure to visit the Acropolis Museum to discover ancient artefacts recovered from the site and to see how the site looked in its prime. If you are looking at how to make the most of your Silversea cruise, an Athens Free Walking Tour can guide you through the sites, including The Acropolis.
Southern Greece, mainland
Once the main place of worship for Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, Delphi is one of the most fascinating sites in Greece. It is said to be the centre of the known world, where heaven and earth met. Today, you can walk among the ruins of the city, even the Temple of Apollo, to understand what happened here thousands of years ago. Look out for the theatre and athletic structures, which were once host to the Pythian Games.
It’s difficult to find a more spectacular site to admire ancient Greek ruins, with mountains rising in the distance. However it’s important to pace yourself, as the site is set on a steep hill. It’s recommended you allow yourself a few hours to truly take in your surroundings and to visit Delphi Museum to help you understand what the ruins once looked like.
Argiolid Peninsula, part of the Peloponnese Peninsula
Epidaurus was once a small city with fertile land home to the Temple of Asclepius, a god renowned for having powers of healing. People travelled to the famous city and helped to build its remarkable structures, including the theatre, which is perhaps the most popular part of the site today.
“Epidaurus is a fascinating site that has a good collection of things to see and a fascinating history,” said Michael Turtle of Time Travel Turtle. “In some ways, the story of the site tells this history of modern medicine. It oversaw the transition from people praying to the god for divine help to the priests actually using herbs and other natural remedies to cure people who were sick.
“The highlight is definitely the ancient theatre. It’s a masterpiece of Greek architecture and could once hold up to 14,000 people. They still do performances there but for a slightly smaller crowd. What’s really interesting is the way the acoustics work. If someone stands on the stage and speaks in a normal voice and you sit right at the top, you’ll still be able to hear them. Do a test for yourself – it’s incredible!
“Make sure you don’t miss the museum that is on the site. It is not particularly large but it has a good collection of artefacts found on the site. Because many of the buildings are just ruins, the museum helps give some context to the temple complex.”
As the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, it’s little wonder why Knossos is so popular. It is believed that the palace is linked to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. According to Greek mythology, the grand palace was designed by architect Dedalos, who wished to build a structure so complex that those who were placed within it could never find the exit. King Minos, who authorised the build, then imprisoned the architect to make sure the plan would never be revealed.
Today, sections of the palace’s vibrant exterior can still be seen. As well as the bold structure, there are many artefacts to observe. It’s recommended to visit the site as early as possible to explore while it’s quiet. If you’d like to learn more about the intriguing history of Knossos, stop by Heraklion Museum.
North eastern Peloponnese Peninsula, southern Greece
The ancient city of Mycenae was once home to Agamemnon, the king who united the Greek city states and destroyed the city of Troy. Although many of the structures are greatly decayed, there are many iconic structures, such as the Lion’s Gate, which are still standing. Visitors can also see the tomb considered to be the burial place of Agamemnon’s father, Atreus.
“Once you set foot on the land where one of the most glorious civilizations in the world thrived, you’ll be definitely spellbound,” said Stefania Niakarou-Simou, founder and CEO at Mysterious Greece. “Awarded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the archaeological site of Mycenae deserves your attention. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore what ignited the imagination of Homer, the greatest of all epic poets, the author of the legendary Iliad and Odyssey.
“In 1870, the great archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who has been named as the father of the Mycenaean Archaeology, unveiled the mysteries of Mycenae and opened a new chapter in the history of European civilization.
“A series of monumental tombstones, cyclopean walls and, of course, the ancient citadel has been well preserved through the passage of times. Highlights of Mycenae include the Lion Gate, the main entrance of the acropolis that is sole surviving monumental piece of Mycenaean sculpture, and the Treasure of Atreus, else known as the tomb of Agamemnon, that is considered to be the tallest dome till the construction of the Pantheon in Rome.
“Other highlights include the Archaeological Museum of Mycenae that exhibits 2,500 items found on site dating from the Copper period up until the Hellenistic Times.”
While you may be eager to explore Mycenae, it’s important to be prepared for Greece’s climate. Stefania added: “Since Greece is known for its elevated temperatures in the summer season, it is recommended to bring with you a bottle of water, a hat and your sunglasses. Also, it would be quite smart to wear comfortable shoes, as the terrain of Mycenae is craggy and steep. If you are an adventurous type of traveller, bring a torch in order to explore the underground cistern of Mycenae. Your digital camera is a must!”
Peloponnese Peninsula, southern Greece
Anyone with even the slightest interest in ancient Greece will be aware of Zeus. Olympia was once a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of Zeus and was the location of the Pan-Hellenic Games. Held every four years, these games were considered to be the very first Olympics. Today, visitors can see the thermai (ancient baths), temples and the monument of the unknown hero at Olympia.
It’s easy to find the ruins in the small town of Olympia. Once you arrive, there is a small museum which features a small model of how the grounds once looked. Discover the history of this fascinating site and stop in the town for a bite to eat.
Laconia, south eastern Peloponnese Peninsula
Once a great rival of Athens, Sparta’s warrior culture has become somewhat iconic, even on the big screen. Unlike other ancient Greek sites in the country, ancient Sparta is scattered through mountains and valleys, north of the modern city of Sparta.
The Mystras are one of the biggest highlights of ancient Sparta. These Byzantine ruins include an impressive church and fortress, but be warned, there is quite a lot of walking involved. The Menelaion is another popular site. Just a few miles out of the city, this shrine from 5th century B.C. was built to honour King Menelaus, husband of Helen of Troy.
The Athenian Agora
Set just below The Acropolis, the Athenian Agora is considered to be Greece’s second most famous archaeological site. In Greek, the word ‘agora’ is a reference to a gathering or market place. The site stayed in use for almost 5,000 years but in the present day, archaeologists explore the site to discover more about ancient Athens.
Visitors can admire the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, an impressive building within the site, as well as learn about the Temple of Helphaestus. The Athenian Agora is open to the public, showcasing stone carvings, columns and statues. It’s recommended that you visit the Museum of the Ancient Agora first to get an understanding of the history and allow two to three hours to enjoy the museum and the site itself.
Between mainland Greece and the Peloponnese Peninsula
Perhaps most well-known for its extremely narrow canal, leaving just a few feet between boats and the steep cliff faces, Corinth is well worth a visit. The ancient city was once flourishing, with good trade links and a prime location. Corinth prospered under Roman rule. Visitors can wander through the Temple of Aphrodite, the Temple of Apollo and the Roman forum. To delve deeper into the site’s history, stop by the Ancient Corinth Museum.
Evidence of ancient Greece can be found all over the country. On your family cruise holiday, take the time to walk among the scattered houses, temples and theatres that were once home to thriving civilisations. Have you visited Greece? Do you have any tips to share with your fellow travellers? We’d love to hear from you!
Image credits: Andy Hay, Ronny Siegel, Carole Raddato, Andy Hay, Tilemahos Efthimladis