Few archaeological sites are as famous as Ancient Olympia in Greece.
Everyone knows about the Olympic Games, and this is where they originated more than 2,000 years ago. Yes, they were a bit different back then, but the idea of athletes arriving from different places and competing against each other has survived until today.
The good news is that you can easily visit Ancient Olympia, no matter if you’re arriving on a day trip from Athens, whether it’s part of a longer tour through Greece or whether you’re exploring the Penelopponese peninsula.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about visiting Olympia!
Table of Contents
How to visit Ancient Olympia in Greece
Why visit Olympia
Is Olympia in Greece worth visiting?
We wouldn’t be writing this article if we didn’t think visiting Ancient Olympia was worth it.
The Olympic Games are one of the most famous worldwide events these days. In Greece, you can see the place where it all began! To honour its significance, the archaeological site was named a UNESCO world heritage site.
Plus, Ancient Olympia is a pretty cool sight. While everything is, of course, in ruins, archaeologists have found and reconstructed some of the structures. This ties in well with the archaeological museum, and after your visit, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Ancient Olympia once looked.
So yes, visiting Olympia is worth it. If you have a little bit of time on the mainland of Greece, you should try to head here.
History of Ancient Olympia
The Ancient Olympic Games started more than 2,000 years ago. Records indicated that the first Olympic games began in the 8th century BC and regularly took place until the 4th century AD.
Their main purpose was to honour the game Zeus, but they also served as an event that tied the Greek city states of that time together. Wars between them were common at that time, and the games lead to ceasefires which gave everyone a peaceful break.
The Olympic games weren’t the only Panhellenic games of that time. Instead, multiple competitions celebrated Greek athletes, held at different intervals so champions could attend all of them:
- Olympic Games (held every four years in Olympia)
- Pythian Games (held every four years in Delphi, two years after the Olympic games)
- Nemean Games (held every two years in Nemea, on years without Olympic and Pythian Games)
- Isthmian Games (held every two years in Isthmia, in the same years as the Nemean Games)
All athletes participating in the Ancient Olympic Games had to be Greek men. Women were not allowed to participate, and they weren’t even allowed to watch the games.
Instead, young women could compete in the Heraean games, which took place in the honour of Hera but did not hold the same prestige as the Olympic Games themselves.Did you know that all male athletes in the games were naked? Ancient Greeks believed that showing off a muscular and powerful body was a tribute to Zeus.
As the main purpose of the games was to pay tribute to the Greek gods, and especially to Zeus, winners only got an olive leaf wreath as a prize. However, being a champion at the Olympic games gave a lot of prestige, and most athletes were handsomely rewarded when they returned to their home state. This included exemption from taxes and free seats at festivals.
The last recorded Ancient Olympic Games took place in 393 AD. As Christianity took over, the games lost their importance. Eventually, flooding, earthquakes and fires damaged the buildings, and the Roman Empire, which ruled over the area at that time, stopped the games altogether.
Archaeologists didn’t discover the site of Ancient Olympia until the 18th century. Due to natural disasters, river floodings and possibly also tsunamis, a layer of up to eight metres of soil covers the remains. Fortunately, archaeologists have been able to recover many buildings and are still in the process of excavating more.
How to get to Olympia
Depending on where you come from, you have multiple options for getting to Olympia. You can rent a car, take a bus, take a train or visit on a guided tour.
How to get to Olympia by car
The most popular option for visiting Olympia independently is by rental car.
While it’s possible to get around the Peloponnese peninsula by public transport, it’s often much slower. Plus, online information about the Greek bus network is sparse, and it’s made even more challenging by the fact that every province operates their own bus companies.
Therefore, many tourists arrive by rental car.
The easiest way to get a car is by picking it up at the airport. You can reserve your car online by using a website like Discovercars that searches multiple rental car companies and ensures you get the best price.
It takes around 3 hours and 45 minutes to drive from Athens to Olympia and around one hour and a half if you’re coming from Kalamata.
Close to the archaeological site, you can find the parking lot where you can leave your car while you explore.
How to get to Olympia by bus
If you prefer using public transport (we know that we do), you can reach Olympia by bus. Olympia is a small town, so you can’t take a bus from Athens to directly go here.
Instead, no matter where you’re coming from, you need to first travel to Pyrgos. In Pyrgos, you can then connect to a local bus to Olympia, which takes around 30 minutes. Those local buses leave regularly, and you can check out the schedule online.
Unfortunately, the website is available in Greek only, so you might need to use Google Translate or ask a local for more information.
If you’re coming from Athens, you can find the bus schedule on the same website. It takes around four hours by bus to travel from Athens to Pyrgos.
How to get to Olympia by train
While you can find a train station close to Olympia, catching a train is only an option if you’re coming from either Pyrgos or Katakolo.
If you’re a cruise passenger and you’re stopping in the port of Katakolo, then you can take the train in the morning to head to Ancient Olympia. The ride only takes around 45 minutes, and you can look up the schedule online.
Can you visit Olympia on a day trip from Athens?
Yes, you can definitely go on an Olympia day trip from Athens.
Be prepared to spend a lot of time on the road. As we already mentioned above, it takes around four hours of driving to get from Athens to Olympia. And by bus, it’s even longer, which means that a day trip from Athens is really only feasible by car or by joining a tour.
If you try to go with public transport, it will take you too long to get there and you might not have enough time to get back to Athens.
By car, though, it is possible and a popular option.
If driving four hours there and four hours back again doesn’t sound appealing to you, consider joining a tour from Athens. Take a look here if you want to see an example, but be warned. Those tours aren’t cheap.
If you’re on a budget, it’s definitely better to rent a car or, even better yet, to stay overnight on the Peloponnese peninsula.
How to visit the archaeological site of Olympia
In summer, the archaeological site is open from 08:00 – 20:00 daily.
Your entrance ticket is valid both for the archaeological site and the museum, so make sure to hold on to it. You can buy the ticket either at the entrance of the site or online.
We recommend getting the online ticket if you’re visiting during the high season, as this can help you avoid any queues. The cheapest way of buying it is on the official website. Select the Peloponnese region and then the site of Ancient Olympia.
An alternative, but a few Euros more expensive, is to go through Get Your Guide.
If you’re already in Olympia and the queues at the archaeological site are too long, try heading to the Archaeological Museum. You might have shorter queues for the ticket here, since many people head to the site first and visit the museum afterwards.
What to see at the archaeological site
The largest building in Ancient Olympia is the Gymnasium. This was where athletes trained and prepared for the games. Next to it, you’ll find the smaller Palaestra, the training grounds for wrestling.
As you keep walking, you’ll soon discover the Philippeion. This round temple to Zeus was contracted by Philip II of Macedon and completed by his son Alexander the Great.
If you’ve ever watched the opening ceremony of the modern Olympic Games, you’ll know about the flame of Olympia. The torch is a modern invention and has nothing to do with the Olympic Games from the Ancient Greeks. It is, however, lit in Ancient Olympia, right in front of the temple of Hera.
Before you enter the stadium, take a look at the pedestals to your left.
Do you know what happened when someone cheated at the Olympic Games? They had to pay for a bronze statue. Those statues stood at the entrance to the stadium, with the name of the cheaters engraved on the pedestals. All of the athletes had to walk past them just before their competition.
Even today, we still know who cheated more than 2,000 years ago at the Olympic Games.
The most important building in Olympia was the Temple of Zeus. The games were held in his honour, after all.
Inside the temple stood a statue of Zeus, more than 12 metres tall. This statue is considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, the statue did not survive over the centuries, so we can only imagine how magnificent it must have looked.
How to visit the Archaeological Museum of Olympia
After visiting the archaeological site, you should head to the nearby Archaeological Museum. It houses some of the best artefacts found in Olympia.
The highlight is the statues that once adorned the Temple of Zeus. Many of them are still intact, so you can see the story that they once told.
Another important relic is the Helmet of Miltiades. You’ll see many Greek helmets in the museum, but this one is so special that it got its own display case. If you look very closely, you’ll notice an inscription indicating that this helmet was dedicated to Zeus by Miltiades.Miltiades is the general who led the Greek army to victory against the Persians in the battle of Marathon. Therefore, this helmet was likely his sacrifice after the successful battle.
Best time to visit Ancient Olympia
The best time to visit Ancient Olympia is in spring and autumn.
We went in early May, which was perfect. The weather wasn’t too hot yet, and there were barely any crowds.
July and August are the worst months due to the summer heat. If you are here in summer, make sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen, as it gets very hot.A great way to stay hydrated is to bring a reusable water bottle. You can refill it at the water fountains at the entrance to the archaeological site.
May and June, as well as mid-September to the end of October, bring milder temperatures and slightly fewer tourists. This is the perfect time for visiting. Pay attention to the opening hours, which start shortening in September. The easiest way to keep track of them is to check them on the official website of the Ministry of Culture.
Another tip for visiting is to avoid Olympia before 2 pm, especially if you come during the cruise ship season. Most groups from cruise ships arrive at around 9-10 am and leave again at around 2 pm. That means that you’ll have far fewer crowds in the afternoon.
Of course, this is difficult if you are on a cruise yourself. But if you’re travelling independently around the Peloponnese, try to time your visit to the afternoon.
Best places to stay near Ancient Olympia
If you want to stay overnight near Ancient Olympia, here are a few choices that you should take a look at. All of these hotels receive great ratings and are good options for spending the night in the area.
- Mid-range: Prytanio offers a garden and a terrace. The rooms look modern, clean and comfortable, and you’re close to both the train station and the main street with all of its shops and restaurants. Click here to check it out!
- A bit more comfort: Hotel Europa Olympia is the perfect hotel if you’re looking for a bit more comfort. Each room has a balcony, rates include breakfast and you can relax in the pool after visiting the archaeological site. Click here to find out more and book your stay!
- Budget: The cute family-run Pension Posidon is a great option if you’re travelling on a budget. The owners are very friendly and helpful, the rooms are clean and comfortable, and you can easily walk to the archaeological site. Click here to see pictures and read reviews!
As you can see, visiting Olympia can easily become the highlight of your trip to Greece. Plus, you can reach the site by car, bus or even by train, depending on where you’re coming from.
Have you been here? Did you enjoy it, or do you have anything to add? Then leave us a comment below!
Before you leave, make sure to check out our many posts about Greece, which will help you plan your trip:
- The perfect itinerary for spending one week in Greece
- How to enjoy one day in Athens
- How many days in Santorini do you really need?
- Find out how to hike to all of the monasteries at Meteora
Until your next adventure!
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