1. The Acropolis of Athens, Athens
For over 3,000 years it’s weathered earthquakes, waves of invaders and countless attempts at ruin, and today, the Acropolis still stands proudly over Athens as the most important ancient site in the Western world. Visible from almost anywhere in the ancient city, the monument is a site to behold, with gleaming Pentelic marble harking back to a time of Greek antiquity. The Acropolis was first inhabited in Neolithic times and the earliest monumental buildings were constructed in the Mycenaean era. Over the years, it has adapted to different uses and civilisations, religions and beliefs, witnessing wars, fires, bombardments and natural disasters from its rocky outcrop rising 150m above sea level. In 1987 the Acropolis was granted UNESCO World Heritage status and restoration at the historical site is an ongoing process. Unsurprisingly, the attraction can get busy at peak times, so get there nice and early or just before closing to avoid the crowds.
2. Archaeological Site of Delphi, Fokida, Central Greece
According to the ancient Greeks, the Panhellenic sanctuary of Delphi was the “navel” of the world and home to the world’s most renowned oracle. For centuries, pilgrims from Greek and foreign lands would arrive with hopes of divination from Pythia, the High Priestess of Apollo, and to this day, tourists are drawn to its mystical splendour. Standing at the base of statuesque Mount Parnassus, the remnants blend harmoniously with the dramatic landscape of the Pleistos Valley, with the haunting ruins lying just 750m from a modern town. Situated around 150km northwest of Athens, Delphi dates back as far as 1500 BC and the Mycenaean Period, yet the development of the sanctuary began during the 8th century BC, with a political and religious influence that grew significantly in the 6th century BC across Greece. Today, the site is one of Europe’s most spiritual archaeological sites, having gained World Heritage status in 1987.
3. Archaeological Site of Olympia, the Peloponnese
Ancient Olympia was the site of the Olympic Games for over 1100 years, with the modern-day Olympic flame still starting its journey here every four years. Over 1600 years since the original games were abolished by Emperor Theodosius I, little remains of the magnificent temples and stadiums that once dominated the site in the northwest Peloponnese, but the monumental shell alone pulses with grandeur and greatness. Before its sporting heyday, Olympia was a sanctuary of worship for Zeus as early as the 10th century BC, but its first discernible buildings were erected in the Archaic Period, in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. The Altis, or Sacred Precinct of Zeus, is situated to the left of the main entrance path. Today, one column of the immense 5th-century-BC Doric Temple of Zeus has been restored and re-erected here, putting the sheer size of the structure into astonishing perspective.
4. Meteora, Kalabaka, Thessaly
The sheer magnificence of Meteora is a sight to behold, with Byzantine monasteries teetering in the clouds atop extraordinary rock formations. In this region of almost inaccessible sandstone peaks, 11th century monks and stonemasons heaved themselves to the top of steep 600-metre slopes to erect 24 monasteries, six of which are still active to this day. The extraordinary and mystifying landscape is not only a stomping ground for monks and nuns – several of who still reside on Meteora – it is also a haven for hikers who can happily ramble along multiple scenic trails. The nearby town of Kalabaka offers plenty of food and hotel options, while the old village of Kastraki is situated between the two, offering a nostalgic glimpse back to life in Meteora’s heyday. The site was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1988 and an experience no theologist should miss.
5. Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessalonika, Thessaloniki
Frequently outshone by the idyllic Aegean Islands and overshadowed by the ancient glories of Athens, Greece’s second-largest city is hardly a household name, but Thessaloniki is a hidden gem that should not be missed. The vibrant streets of this coastal metropolis are bustling, beautiful, and diverse, where old meets new with ravishing effects. The city’s port area is filled with UNESCO-listed relics of the empires that ruled it — the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans -as well as many traces of its multireligious past. Founded in 315 BC, Thessalonika, as it was then known, was one of the first bases for the spread of Christianity, with fine churches overlooking vast sea views which are best enjoyed from the city’s Byzantine walls. Today, the Arch of Galerius, a statuesque 4th-century monument, leads onto one of the city’s busiest shopping streets, while the waterfront buzzes around the White Tower, a 15th-century fortification built by the Ottomans who captured the city from the Byzantine Empire in 1430.
6. Archaeological Site of Mystras, the Peloponnese
Teetering on the edge of a steep mountainside with lush greenery as far as the eye can see, the Archaeological Site of Mystras is one of Greece’s most fascinating medieval ruins. A former Byzantine capital, the “wonder of the Morea” was built as an amphitheatre around a 1249 fortress erected by the prince of Achaia, William of Villehardouin. Reconquered by the Byzantines, then occupied by the Turks and the Venetians, Mystras was finally abandoned in 1832, with villagers leaving the ruins of palaces, churches and monasteries in their wake. In modern times, the site is regarded as an area of fascinating history, with most of its buildings dating from between 1271 and 1460. Restoration began at the site in the 1950s and in 1989 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.