Which Ancient Greek Sites Should You See?
In 1762, scholars from the UK published Antiquities of Athens, an illustrated guide to Greece’s ancient monuments, prompting thousands of Europeans to set off and see the sights for themselves. Since then, the systematic excavation of ancient Greece has shed light on details about a culture that has so many parallels with our own.
Today, there’s a wealth of monuments, temples, and ruined estates for travelers to explore. Athens alone has the Acropolis, the majestic Periklean and the central Agora—enough to fill a week’s itinerary.
But for those of us with less than a scholar’s knowledge of the classics, it can be hard even knowing where to begin. That’s where Dylan Rogers, the Assistant Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (known for its impressive Gennadius Library, a 120,000-strong collection of books, maps and artifacts dating back to the Byzantine period), comes in. Over the past decade, Dylan has excavated all over the Mediterranean, from Sicily to Turkey. Here are 10 of his favorite sites in the “land of Gods”:
Marble Quarters of Aliki
Thasos, an island in the northern Aegean Sea, is famous for its marble—and the quarries on the island’s southeast coast are perfect for day hiking. After seeing the titular white rock in its purest form, drive an hour west to Giola to swim in a dazzling turquoise lagoon.
This all-important sanctuary to Hera (Jupiter’s wife, the queen of the gods) soars up in the hills around the scenic Argive plain. Composed of three overlapping terraces and a magnificent temple, the site has been in use for almost 3,000 years.
Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis
Half an hour’s drive from Athens, Eleusis was home to an ancient cult that conducted Mystery Rites (appropriately named, because, to this day, we still have no idea what really went on there). As the legend goes, the goddess Demeter stopped here to weep for her lost daughter, Kore (more commonly known as Persephone), who’d been abducted by Hades to the underworld. Travelers today can wander the Telesterion, a wide columned structure where initiates would gather for the mystical annual ceremony.
Christian Basilicas of Thessaly
The site of Phithiotic Thebes was an important harbor site in Thessaly; it flourished under the Romans, and by the 5th century CE, it had become arguably more important than Athens itself. Altogether, nine large Christian Basilicas were erected here, though the most impressive, says Dylan, is Basilica A of St. Demetrios. The surrounding town, Nea Anchialos, is situated on the Pagasetic Gulf, offering nice beaches and delicious fish tavernas. “Make sure to get tsipouro, a Greek liquor famous in Thessaly.” Nearby Volos, home of the mythic hero Jason, boasts an archaeological museum that Dylan calls “spectacular.”
Arch of Galerius
Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, is a vibrant place, with modern restaurants, museums and wide green spaces looking out to the sea. Straddling an intersection in the city center is the Arch of Galerius, a 3rd-century CE monument decorated with friezes depicting the Roman Emperor Galerius’ victories.
Temple of Apollo Epikourios, Bassae
Located in the majestic mountains of Arcadia, this 5th-century temple holds big appeal for architecture nerds: it’s believed to have been designed by the same man responsible for the Parthenon of Athens, and it contains the first known use of a Corinthian-style column. Oddly, now it’s covered in a giant white protective tarp.
There are numerous structures to explore around this historic city: a theater, stoa (colonnade), Asklepeion (sanctuary to the god Asklepios, god of healing), an odeon (covered theater), cemetery, and stadium. Recent restoration work, says Dylan, has made it easier to navigate the site, “though the views and landscape alone are worth the trip.”
It was here where Augustus defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra, effectively starting the Roman Empire. After the battle, Augustus built a victory monument on the terraces above the city—“a precursor to the famous Ara Pacis in Rome,” explains Dylan. Currently, in addition to the existing on-site museum, an archaeological park is in development, aimed at giving visitors a more comprehensive tour of this massive ancient city.
Palace at Zakros, Crete
One of the largest palaces on the island of Crete, this ancient Minoan site was destroyed in 1450 BC, though it remains an off-the-beaten-path gem for history lovers.
Temple of Aphaia, Aegina
This 5th-century temple is just a short ferry ride from Athens in the Saronic Gulf, and is known among experts as one of the best preserved temples in all of Greece. There’s an adjacent museum illustrating its many architectural details, including exterior sculptures depicting the destruction of Troy.