From the early Antiquity to the Modern Age, Greece offers a cornucopia of unique travel experiences to whet the sophisticated visitor’s appetite.
From ancient rituals to majestic temples, to open-air museums so large they could fit on an island, this country of philosophers is the place to be if you are looking for more than just an average holiday. History buffs prepare to have a ball in this multifaceted country where myth and reality still live closely together.
Here are 9 archaeological sites that will leave you breathless:
1.The archaological site of Vergina
The ancient site of Aigai, or Vergina, as it is commonly known today, has been a real magnet for archaeologists since the 1850s. The first excavation took place in 1861, under Napoleon III’s sponsorship, and it was led by the French archaeologist Leon Heuzey who arrived at the site convinced he would discover something big. Excavations however were soon abandoned due to the eminent risk of malaria.
It wasn’t until 1977 that real progress was made. Determined to find the tombs of the Macedonian Kings, Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos initiated a six-week dig which resulted in the discovery of four buried chambers. Three more were discovered in 1980. One of the tombs contained many valuable items including the Golden Larnax and it was identified by Andronikos as the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. The Golden Larnax with its valuable artifacts is on display at the underground museum of the site.
Info: The city of Vergina is 50 miles away from Thessaloniki , Greece’s second largest city.
2. The Oracle of Delphi
Delphi , the navel of the earth, as it was known back then, was a sanctuary dedicated to God Apollo. Home to the enigmatic Oracle of Delphi, the area is associated with the myth of Pythia, the legendary female prophet, who acted as Apollo’s mouthpiece, when she fell in a trance. It is also here that the Pythian Games were born, years before the Olympic Games of 776 BC.
Today, modern Delphi, in central Greece, is a popular tourist destination, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. There is also a small archaeological museum at the foot of the main archaeological site.
3. The Acropolis Museum
The famous Acropolis of Athens (the city at the edge), gained its final shape in the 5th c. BC, under Phidias’ inspired guidance and wisdom for symmetry, the sculptor behind this great architectural and artistic complex of the Greek Antiquity.
The new museum of Acropolis however, is less than 10 years old. Moreover, it was not until 2009 that it officially opened its doors to the public. The work of Swiss architect, Bernard Tschumi, it exhibits nearly 4,000 objects across an area of 14,000 sq. m. and it is located 400 m. away only from the Parthenon. Greek officials have openly expressed their hope to have the Parthenon Marbles officially restituted, a wish that remains to be fulfilled.
Info: Tickets are 5 euros each, The museum remains open until 10 o’clock at night on Fridays. Entrance is free on major public holidays. More information can be found here .
4. The temple of Poseidon
Atop steep cliffs, overlooking the Aegean Sea, the temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, about 30 miles south of Athens , was the ideal place to build a temple for the God of Sea. Built around 500 BC, the original temple was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. In 440 BC, it was re-built, over the ruins of the older temple.
Several columns are still standing today and one can even see Lord Byron’s name carved in one of them, an inscription probably made around 1810 when Lord Byron was visiting Athens.
5. Mycenae and Tiryns
Recognized as a World Heritage Site in 1999, Tiryns was a hill fort, which reached its peak between 1400 and 1200 BC, as one of the most important centers of the Mycenaean world. Excavated by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1884 -1885, its most notable features are the palace, its fortified walls and its cyclopean tunnels.
Mycenae, another center of rich Greek civilization, flourished in the second millennium BC. Excavations at the site began in 1841 by Greek archaeologist Kyriakos Pittakis but it was Heinrich Schliemann who completed the mission in 1874. The expedition brought to light ancient graves with their royal skeletons, spectacular grave artifacts and death masks. Upon recovering the famous golden funeral mask, Heinrich Schliemann is reputed to have said “It is as if I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.”
Info: Mycenae and Tiryns are located in the Peloponnese. The golden funeral mask is displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
6. Ancient Olympia
Olympia, located at the west end of the Peloponnese, is famous for being the site where the Ancient Olympic Games took place every four years, from 776 BC to 394 AD, in honor of Zeus. The sanctuary consists of sacred enclosures, an altar for sacrifices and temples, with the Temples of Zeus and Hera being among the most visited.
It is here that the gigantic12m (43 ft.) tall ivory and gold statue of Zeus was discovered. Sculpted by master sculptor Phidias, this Wonder of the Ancient World no longer stands there. There are many legends surrounding its destruction. Historic records about its existence however, helped archaeologists make another very important discovery. In 1954, German archaeologists unearthed Phidias’ ancient workshop in Olympia, where the famous sculptor was reputed to have created his masterpiece.
Today, the Olympic flame is lit in front of the Temple of Hera and it is transported by a torch, anywhere in the world, to the city which hosts the Olympic Games.
7. The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus
Reputed to have been Asclepius’ birthplace, the town of Epidaurus, in the Peloponnese , is perhaps most famous for the Asclepeion healing center and its Ancient Theatre. Asclepius, Apollo’s son, also known as God of healing, constructed this celebrated healing center to help visitors, from all over Ancient Greece, find cure for their ailments.
The theatre of Epidaurus , today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was designed in the 4th c. BC and it offered spectators a unique acoustic experience. Nowadays, the theater is again in use and every summer, visitors, who stop by the area, can experience theatre the way Ancient Greeks did, by catching a performance or two at the Epidaurus Festival. All plays are in Greek but synopses can be found in other languages as well.
8. The Island of Delos
Delos, a small Cycladic island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, a few nautical miles away from the cosmopolitan coasts of Mykonos is an important historical and archaeological site. According to Greek mythology, this is the birthplace of God Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. The entire island is an open-air museum which you can only visit during the day, as staying overnight is prohibited and visitors have to leave with the last boat back to Mykonos. You will find no hotels or restaurants here, and if it wasn’t for the island’s 14 permanent inhabitants, Delos would be completely uninhabited.
In 1990, Delos became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
9. Knossos Palace
The legendary Palace of Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on the island of Crete . Built around 1900 BC, it became the focal point of every activity during Minoan Crete, a rich civilization which flourished between the 17th and the 14th c. BC. The palace was subsequently destroyed by fires and earthquakes but according to its original map plan, it must have been around 22,000 sq. m. in size with over 1,500 rooms and five floors. It was fresh in the summer, warm in winter, luminous and airy and boasted a sophisticated water system.
Excavations began in 1878 by a local, Minos Kalokairinos, but it was the Englishman Sir Arthur Evans who undertook systematic diggings in the area.
Knossos Palace is also associated with the legend of the labyrinth, a structure made by the skillful craftsman Daedalus -a figure from Greek mythology-, to keep the Minotaur, a mythological creature, half man, half bull, out of bounds.
Natali Lekka is a freelance translator , writer and researcher currently living in Athens, Greece. She is mad about cultures and foreign languages and cannot wait to be on that plane again. She tweets @natalilekka