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Recognised as the birthplace of western civilisation, Greece feels like a history book come to life. These are Culture Trip’s pick of the must-see sites no history lover should miss.
Ancient Greece’s imposing temples, striking citadels, preserved theatres and iconic monuments are among the most impressive archaeological sites in the world and provide visitors with an extraordinary insight into ancient times. From the oracle at Delphi to the site of the original games at Olympia, to enter the world of the classics is to be transported millennia back in time.
Dive into one of the most wondrous ancient places in the world, where heaven and earth once met. Delphi was known as the prime place of worship for Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, as well as a place of worship for many other gods and goddesses. It was also the location where the oracle of Delphi was filled with the spirit of Apollo. Today, numerous ruins from the city remain, including the Temple of Apollo, treasuries, the theatre and athletic structures, including the stadium that held the athletic Pythian Games, when competitors gathered from all over Greece to compete.
The ancient city of Corinth is located on a narrow stretch of land joining the mainland of Greece and the Peloponnese. Before being sacked by the Romans in 146 BC, the city was one of Greece’s major establishments, flourishing with commerce resulting from its tactical location. Under the Romans, the city continued to prosper, which explains why the most interesting ruins to view here are of Roman build. When visiting, check out the Temple of Aphrodite, the Temple of Apollo and the Roman forum. There is also a sacred spring with a secret passage nearby, leading to a small shrine.
Known for the masterful acoustics of its well-preserved theatre, Epidaurus was a small city blessed with a mild climate, fertile land and several natural springs. Within the city stood the Temple of Asclepius, a god famed for having extraordinary powers of healing. Consequently, pilgrims travelled to Epidaurus from all over, bringing dedications that funded numerous art and construction projects. Because of the excellent condition of the theatre, it is perhaps the favourite structure to visit while at Epidaurus. The acoustics allow guests to hear clearly from anywhere in the stands, which makes the ruin a fascinating place to visit. Today, the theatre at Epidaurus is still used for live music concerts and performances during the summer.
Knossos, the capital of Minoan Crete, is the largest archaeological site in Crete. It houses the ruins of an expansive palace that is supposedly the location of the fabled labyrinth from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. It’s considered to be one of Europe’s oldest cities, and the site is home to numerous intricate murals and art works, including the Royal Chambers, porticoes and irrigation drains.
The ancient city of Mycenae, once the home of Agamemnon, the king who united the Greek city states and proceeded to demolish the city of Troy, is perhaps one of the most important and awe-inspiring sites of ancient Greece. During the Bronze Age, Mycenae dominated the culture of the area – not surprising when considering the impressive structures that remain today. The world-famous Lion Gate still stands, constructed from large stones stacked upon one another, along with a cylindrical-shaped tomb that is often considered to be the burial place of Agamemnon’s father, Atreus.
Olympia, a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of Zeus, the king of the gods, was the location of the Pan-Hellenic Games, held every four years. These games are considered to be the first Olympics, which has made the site quite popular. Within the Temple of Zeus was a statue of the deity that stood an impressive 12m (39ft) tall – it was thought of as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today, the site contains a myriad of ruins, including the thermai (ancient baths), the Heroon (monument of the unknown hero) and various temples.
The ancient city of Aigai, near Vergina, Greece, was known as the first capital of the Macedonian Kingdom. Today, Aigai, which comes from the Greek word for goats, is known as the burial site of the Macedonian King Philip II – father of Alexander the Great. It is an incredibly large burial site, featuring more than 300 tombs that are lavishly decorated and stand above ground. Aigai is also known as the city where Alexander the Great, the conqueror of much of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, was proclaimed king.
As the great rival of Athens in ancient Greece, Sparta prided itself on the iron-hearted warrior culture that remained the backbone of their civilisation. The archaeological site of Sparta today is more widespread and scattered than many of the ancient cities of Greece. As this is also the fabled home of Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon, one of the more well-preserved and studied ruins is called the Menelaion. Despite its sparse culture as far as art and impressive buildings go, the Spartan ruins still have an acropolis and city which includes a theatre.
Arguably the second-most famous archaeological site in Greece is the ancient Agora, located just below the Acropolis, in Athens. In Greek, the word “agora” refers to a gathering or market place, which is basically what this collection of ruins represents. Located in the centre of the city, the Agora remained in use for nearly 5,000 years, undergoing many new constructions and demolitions. Now, archaeologists work to explore the site in reference to ancient Athens, and visitors can enjoy the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, a long colonnaded building that extends along the edge of the site, plus learn about the well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Meteora is the largest archaeological centre in Greece in terms of the area it covers. The looming sandstone cliffs are astonishing enough, but these are somehow topped by a complex of Byzantine monasteries teetering on narrow stone pillars and overlooking the vast green valley below. Considered the ideal place to achieve isolation in early Christian times, the first monastery here was established in the 14th century, and only six of the initial 24 are still active today.
Siobhan Grogan contributed additional reporting to this article.