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Peloponnese, Greece: The Sanctuary of Olympia

Peloponnese, Greece: The Sanctuary of Olympia

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For over a thousand years, the Sanctuary of Olympia was primarily a religious place and only open to people during the Olympic games, started here in 776 B.C. These games were held to honor the gods and to unify the Greeks, and the Sanctuary hosted them for 1,200 years. For more information on the Rick Steves' Europe TV series — including episode descriptions, scripts, participating stations, travel information on destinations and more — visit http://www.ricksteves.com.

Peloponnese: Ancient Olympia – A Place full of history

Ancient Olympia is a landscape that will touch you from the first moment. The preserved monuments confirm the history of the place and their importance in ancient Greek culture. It is an excursion worth doing all year round but especially in autumn. A unique and incredible journey through history.

Ancient Olympia today

Ancient Olympia has now evolved into a modern town. It is only 17 km from Pyrgos Ilias. About 1,300 residents live in the area. Every year it is visited by a very large number of tourists. But in the fall things are quieter. The Archaeological site of Olympia is synonymous with a journey in history that remains indelible. It was perhaps one of the most decisive places as far as it concerns its impact on the course of human civilization. It is the place where the first Olympic Games began.

Within the large surrounding area, there are many parts of the temples and other buildings of antiquity that reveal the high value that Ancient Olympia had as a place of worship to the gods of Olympus.

Peloponnese: Zarouchla. the famous part of Greece that is unknown when it was created

Messinia: Kremidia, the village that has entered the Guinness book

The Temple of Zeus

The trademark was the temple of God Zeus which was built in the years 470-456 BC. At the bottom of the interior of the temple there was the huge golden elephant statue of Zeus which was more than 12 meters high and was created by the sculptor Phidias around 430 BC.

After the abolition of the Olympic Games, the statue was moved to Istanbul, where it was destroyed by fire around 475 A.D. The statue was described as one of the 7 wonders of the world.

The temple of Hera (Heraio)

One of the oldest examples of worship of the gods in our country was dedicated to the sanctuary of Olympia by the inhabitants of Skilluntos, the ancient city of Trifylia. The first temple of Hera was built around 650 BC, while around 600 BC the ‘back room” and the cloister were added to it.

However, according to the prevailing version, the church was built around 600 BC and was occasionally subjected to various interventions and was transformed during Roman times into a kind of museum, where the famous Hermes of Praxitelis was kept – among others.

It is remarkable that the temple of Hera reflects the complete evolution of the Doric rhythm, from the Archaic to the Roman times. At the bottom of the seine, which was divided into two aisles, were erected on a pedestal the worship statues of Zeus and Hera, as Pausanias (geographer) mentions. Hera was depicted sitting on a throne and beside her stood Zeus.

The altar of Hera is located to the east of Hera. At the altar, built in the 6th century BC in the place of the oldest altar of the goddess, the ceremony of touch of the Olympic Flame takes place until today.


Olympia lies in the wide valley of the rather small Alfeiós River (also Romanized as Alpheus or Alpheios) in the western part of the Peloponnese, today around 18 km away from the Ionian Sea but perhaps, in antiquity, half that distance. [3] The Altis, as the sanctuary as was originally known, was an irregular quadrangular area more than 200 yards (183 meters) on each side and walled except to the North where it was bounded by the Kronion (Mount Kronos). [4] It consisted of a somewhat disordered arrangement of buildings, the most important of which are the Temple of Hera (or Heraion/Heraeum), the Temple of Zeus, the Pelopion and the area of the great altar of Zeus, where the largest sacrifices were made. There was still a good deal of open or wooded areas inside the sanctuary. The name Altis was derived from a corruption of the Elean word also meaning "the grove" because the area was wooded, olive and plane trees in particular. [5]

According to Pausanias, there were over 70 temples in total, as well as treasuries, altars, statues, and other structures dedicated to many deities. [6] Somewhat in contrast to Delphi, where a similar large collection of monuments were tightly packed within the temenos boundary, Olympia sprawled beyond the boundary wall, especially in the areas devoted to the games.

To the north of the sanctuary can be found the Prytaneion and the Philippeion, as well as the array of treasuries representing the various city-states. The Metroon lies to the south of these treasuries, with the Echo Stoa to the east. The hippodrome and later stadium were located east of the Echo Stoa. To the south of the sanctuary is the South Stoa and the bouleuterion, whereas the palaestra, the workshop of Pheidias, the gymnasion, and the Leonidaion lie to the west.

Olympia was also known for the gigantic chryselephantine (ivory and gold on a wooden frame) statue of Zeus that was the cult image in his temple, sculpted by Pheidias, which was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Antipater of Sidon. Very close to the Temple of Zeus which housed this statue, the studio of Pheidias was excavated in the 1950s. Evidence found there, such as sculptor's tools, corroborates this opinion. The ancient ruins sit north of the Alpheios River and south of Mount Kronos (named after the Greek deity Kronos). The Kladeos, a tributary of the Alpheios, flows around the area.

Peloponnese, Greece: The Sanctuary of Olympia - History

According to UNESCO’s World Heritage website, there is probably no ancient archaeological site anywhere in the world more relevant in today’s world than Olympia

In the western Peloponnese, in the beautiful valley of the Alpheios river, lies the most celebrated sanctuary of ancient Greece. Dedicated to Zeus, the father of the gods, it lies at the southwest foot of Mount Kronios, at the confluence of the Alpheios and the Kladeos rivers, in a lush green landscape. Although secluded near the west coast of the Peloponnese, Olympia became the most important religious and athletic center in Greece. Its fame rests upon the Olympic Games, the greatest national festival and a highly prestigious one world-wide, which was held every four years to honour Zeus. The origin of the festival goes back centuries. Local myths concerning the famous Pelops, the first ruler of the region, and the river Alpheios, betray the close ties between the sanctuary and both the East and West.

According to UNESCO’s World Heritage website, there is probably no ancient archaeological site anywhere in the world more relevant in today’s world than Olympia. The stadium of Olympia, where the ancient Olympic Games were held, and the massive temple of Zeus, the largest temple in the Peloponnese, are the site’s most significant attractions.

The archaeological site of Olympia includes the sanctuary of Zeus and the various buildings erected around it, such as athletic premises used for the preparation and celebration of the Olympic Games, administrative buildings as well as other buildings and monuments.

The Altis, the sacred enclosure and core of the sanctuary, with its temples, cult buildings and treasuries, occupies the center of the site. It is surrounded by a peribolos, or enclosure wall, which in the late fourth century BC had three gates on its west side and two on the south, and is bordered on the east by the Echo Stoa, which separates the sacred precinct from the stadium. The enclosure wall was extended in Roman times and two monumental entrances were created on its west side.

The Classical Temple of Zeus and the earlier Temple of Hera dominate the Altis. East of the Heraion is the Metroon, a temple dedicated to the mother of the gods, Cybele, and behind it, on the foot of Mount Kronios, a row of treasures that were offered by Greek cities and colonies. To their west lies the Nymphaion, a fountain dedicated by Herodes Atticus. South of the Heraion and over the remains of the prehistoric settlement of Olympia is the Pelopion, a funerary monument commemorating the hero Pelops. Within the Altis are the Prytaneion, the see of the sanctuary officials, and the Philippeion, an elegant circular building dedicated by Philip II, king of Macedon. Southeast of the Heraion was the great altar of Zeus, a most important monument entirely made of ashes and therefore now completely lost. The remaining space inside the Altis was filled with numerous altars and statues of gods, heroes and Olympic winners dedicated by Greek cities or wealthy individuals, such as the Nike of Paionios.

Outside the sacred precinct of the Altis, to its south, are the Bouleutherion and the South Stoa, the southernmost building of the greater sanctuary and its main entrance from the south. West of the Altis and separated from it by the Sacred Road is a series of buildings for the sanctuary personnel, the athletes and the distinguished visitors: the gymnasium and palaestra, exercise grounds, the Workshop of Pheidias, which in Late Antiquity was transformed into a Christian church, the Greek baths with their swimming pool, the Roman hot baths, the Theokoleion or priests’ residence, the Leonidaion or officials’ quarters, and the Roman hostels.

The Olympic Games

Olympia is the birthplace of the Olympic games which began on these very grounds.

In the year 776 BCE the first Olympiad took place at the sanctuary of Zeus and repeated every four years for centuries thereafter. T

he date of the first Olympic games (776 BCE) is the first accurate chronology of historical Greece since the names of the victors were faithfully recorded and the ancient Greeks measured time back to the centuries by referring to the different Olympic games.

The Olympic games were a tradition that endured centuries of time emanating a feeling of unity through competition that galvanized the independent Greek city-states into a coherent cultural entity.

The games were so important to the Greeks that they put aside their traditional differences, and even went as far as ceasing open hostilities in war time in order to compete in the Olympics.

The tradition of togetherness helped the Greek colonies retain close ties with mainland Greece, and acted as a catalyst for the development of what we now know as the Hellenic contribution to the birth of Western civilization.

Winning an Olympic event was an honorable endeavor for any Greek athlete. Upon winning, his home city would tear down part of their defensive walls as a gesture of confidence in the ability of its defenders.

Victory in the Olympics was one of the highest honors bestowed upon a mortal, but besides a crown made of olive branches and an allotment of olive oil no other material reward was afforded to the winners.

One of the pivotal points of Greek thinking was the nobility of man as a free being who can overcome all obstacles in search of virtue.

The Olympic games, in their own unique way, aided the formulation of the kind of intellect that searched for answers in nature, and a respect for rules that made co-existence of free men possible.

Archaeological Site of Olympia - Overview

Olympia, the sanctuary of Zeus and birthplace of the Olympic Games, lies in a verdant valley of the western Peloponnese at the confluence of the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos. A landscape of great natural beauty, the whole valley was in ancient times thickly wooded and full of wild olive trees, from the leaves of which were made the wreaths that crowned the Olympian champions hence the site was named Altis , meaning grove. It was also named Olympia after Mt Olympus, the abode of Zeus.

The beginnings of the sanctuary and its games are hazed in myths: Zeus prevailed in Olympia after dethroning his own father Cronus, who was worshiped upon the namesake hill to the north of the sanctuary. As to who was the founder of the games, several heroes claim the title among them Hercules and Pelops, ancestor of the Homeric Agamemnon and mythical king of the Peloponnese (the very name of the peninsula meaning the island of Pelops ). We reach the realm of history in 776 BC, the year of the first recorded athletic event that humanity nowadays celebrates as the Olympic Games . Their ancient name was Olympia and they were held every four years in honour of Zeus. The Olympiad , the four-year period between two successive celebrations, became the standard chronological system of the ancient Greek world.

The Olympics were the panhellenic top sporting event that embodied the ideal of fair competition among free and equal men, as conveyed in the words let the best win . There could be no greater honour for a youth of the time than to be crowned with the kotinos, the champion's olive wreath, nor greater glory bestowed on the athlete's bithplace: when back home, part of the city walls were pulled down for the champion to enter. Before the opening of the Games, the Sacred Truce was proclaimed, the treaty that imposed the suspension of wars and the cessation of all kinds of hostilities during the games. As an ideal of peace and reconciliation, the sacred truce lies at the heart of the Olympic values and is the most important legacy left by the ancient games to their modern successors.

The last Olympics of antiquity were held in AD 393, shortly before the emperor Theodosius I banned paganism and closed down the ancient sanctuaries. Then came successive earthquakes and river floods to bury the ancient ruins for centuries until the archaeological excavations brought them back to light in 1875. Twenty years later, in 1896, revived the first, and now international, Olympic Games of the modern era, held in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.

The archaeological site of Olympia, one of the largest in Greece, yielded a singularly rich concentration of monuments and works of art, such as the famous statues of Hermes by Praxiteles and Nike by Paeonius. Throughout antiquity, each century added its own structures, which gradually formed the complex topography of the sanctuary: the sacred precinct of Zeus, namely the temenos of Altis, enclosed the temples, votive offerings, and structures related to the religious activities. Outside the enclosure lay the athletic venues, the officials' quarters, the guesthouses and baths for athletes and visitors alike.

Hermes of Praxiteles

The "Hermes of Praxiteles" is a worldwide known statue created by one of the greatest sculptors, Praxiteles, in the 4th century BC. Hermes is holding Dionysus who is an infant, born by Zeus and Semele. Zeus asked Hermes to protect Dionysus from Hera's Envy, so Hermes was transferring him to the Nymphs who would raise him secretly.

Praxiteles used to depict the beauty of the young bodies and he was looking always for delicate figures. The statue is 2.13 meters tall and it is made of marble from Paros island, just like Zeus's Temple.

Hidden gems of Ancient Olympia

More monuments, more history

Don’t forget the other ruins: the Temple of Hera (the oldest and best-preserved temple at Olympia), Bouleuterion, Prytaneion, Gymnasion, Palaistra, Pheidias’ Workshop, the Leonidaion, Philippeion, Echo Colonnade, Pedestal of Paionios’s Nike and the Nymphaion. Each has a special aura and its own story.

Museum of the History of the Olympic Games

Here you’ll find 463 works from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and from other museums around Greece.

The Ancient Olympia Festival

An annual event, the Ancient Olympia Festival includes excellent theatrical, music and dance performances.

A day’s visit to the birthplace of the Olympic Games will not suffice, so much is there to absorb, with a scale of ancient history that never ceases to astound. The centrepiece of Zeus’ most magnificent sanctuary was the 13.5m tall gold and ivory statue, dedicated to the king of the gods and created by master craftsman Pheidias. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it no longer exists but you will appreciate its scale by visiting and you will be able to admire firsthand other famous artefacts, such as the statue of Hermes by Praxiteles. Both the archaeological site and the museum offer a vivid picture of the splendour, glory and breadth of a civilisation that continues to give so much to the modern world – not just in sporting action, but ethics, ideals and sportsmanship.

The Land Of Heroes: The Peloponnese

On this premium tour to Southern Greece, we will visit the ancient palaces of renowned Kings, whose history Homer immortalized in the Iliad and walk on the birthplace of the Olympic Games. On the coastlines of the Peloponnese, mighty castles still stand withstanding not only the countless attacks from Pirates of the Aegean but, more importantly, the weathering effect of time.

Our central location will be Peloponnese, home to the brave warriors of Sparta and the majestic castle towns of Monemvasia and Mani. We will also explore the beauty of Kythira island at the south-eastern tip of the peninsula.

Itinerary Description

  • Crossing the man-made Corinth canal , you will gain a bird’s eye view of this engineering marvel which has literally transformed the former Peloponnese peninsula into yet another amazing Greek ‘island’. The history of this region is one of the legendary myths of the past. Here, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and pirates left their marks in stone and history throughout its now charming towns and villages.
  • One of these small cities is the quiet and quaint town of Nafplio which was once the capital of all Greece bearing witness to the historic importance of the Peloponnese .
  • Epidaurus . In this peaceful valley of the Peloponnese lies the sanctuary of Asclepius, the god protector of human health and happiness. We will also visit the archaeological site of Mycenaewhich is included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The unique architecture and design of this ancient city had a profound effect on ancient Greek architecture. This is also the place of origin of the Homeric epics: the Iliad, and the Odyssey.

  • From there we will head southwest to the renowned ancient city of Olympia. Many masterpieces of the ancient Greek world are concentrated at this site. One of the most famous of which is without a doubt the Olympic Games!

  • We will traverse the region which is home to perhaps the most well-known olive oil in the world, and we will experience the harsh landscape ofMani, the only place in Greece that remained untamed throughout its long history of conquerors and invaders. The houses here were traditionally built like castles, clustered together in complexes for safety. Today, stone arches and Byzantine ruins are found next to inhabited homes with rose gardens and fruit trees. An incredible mosaic of past and present coming together and ready to be explored.
  • Behind medieval walls rests a well-guarded Byzantine castle city, Monemvasia which is complete with churches, majestic mansions and picturesque streets, making you feel that you have literally travelled back in time.
  • The trip would not be complete unless it includes one of our many beautiful islands. W e will visit Kythira a tiny little spot of land off the coast of the Peloponnese blessed with natural beauty that matches that of the goddess Aphrodite, who legend says was born on the island. Kythira offers enchanting and secluded beaches, Meditteranean cuisine and the mystique of pirate ships and tales of treasure hunts. The perfect ending to any trip!

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Is this a private or a group tour?

Private tours are available for any of our group packages. Ιf you are travelling solo, with your partner or with a small group of friends you can either join one of our tour group options or contact us to discuss how we can design this trip for your private group.

What are the dates for the Land Of Heroes: The Peloponnese?

The dates for this premium tour to Southern Greece are: 15 June-24 June .

However, if you are interested in any other dates for a similar group tour please contact us and we will seek to accommodate you as best we can.

Is this an all-inclusive trip?

The tour cost includes all accommodation, all tour transportation costs from the point of arrival to the point of departure (including domestic flights and ferry tickets) also meals are included (breakfast, lunch and dinner with the exception of 3 dinners specified in the itinerary) and finally, all guided tours and museum tickets.

Not included in the price are extra drinks, travel insurance, tips, gifts and personal expenses in general. However, please note that you are responsible for arranging your international flight to Athens which will be our starting destination for this trip. Your international flight must arrive one day prior to the first day of the tour.

Airport to hotel transfer and accommodation for the first night are included in the tour itinerary.

I have more questions, how will I contact you?

Great! Please follow this link so we can arrange a suitable time for a Skype or Facetime chat.

Ancient Olympia Tour

Do not hesitate to give us a call. We are an expert team and we are happy to talk to you.

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Ancient Olympia Tour Details

Ancient Olympia Tour takes you to western Peloponnese, the “Valley of Gods”, housing the most celebrated sanctuary of ancient Greece, and the sacred birthplace of the Olympic Games.

On our Ancient Olympia private tour from Athens and in the comfort of your luxurious brand-new vehicles you visit Corinth Canal, cross the historical Peloponnese all the way to the fertile valley of Pinios River where Ancient Olympia lies.

Your professional English speaking driver will provide live commentary during the trip with many photographic stops on the way to Ancient Olympia.

Departure & Return Location

Your Hotel, Athens Airport , Piraeus Port

Meeting Time

10 Minutes Before Event Time

Price Includes

Price Excludes

Nice to have with you

Ancient Olympia Tour Itinerary

7:30 am Departure

We pick you up at the Port or Airport or your Hotel in Athens at 7:30 am

Corinth Canal

Your first stop is Corinth Canal or Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow canal drilled across mainland Greece and Peloponnese.

The Corinth Canal connects the Saronic with the Corinthian Gulf, thus connecting the Aegean Sea with the Ionian Sea. In this way, the sea trip from Ioanin to Athens was reduced significantly. The length of the Isthmus is about 6 kilometres and only narrow ships and yachts fit to cross it.

Cross Peloponnese

We make our way towards western Peloponnese crossing beautiful traditional villages and lush green mountains.

Your route passes by Tripoli of Arcadia, situated in the heart of the ancient world. On the way, you drive by picturesque mountainous villages just before you arrive through a forested road to the Sanctuary of Ancient Olympia in the Ilia region.

Ancient Olympia

The archaeological site of ancient Olympia in a beautiful natural environment consists of where we will visit the museum of the Olympic game and the various archaeological sites and its Museum.

This magnificent place, the birth of the Olympic games, was housing one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient world, the gold and ivory statue of Zeus, which was created by Phidias.

As you stroll by the ancient paths you will visit the Doric Temples of Zeus and Hera, the Bouleuterion, the Prytaneion, the Stadium, the Gymnasium, the Palestra, the Workshop of Pheidias and so many others.

Hermes and Infant Dionysus- Ancient Olympia Museum

At the Ancient Olympia museum, you will admire the masterpieces of the brilliant Hermes of Praxiteles, the Infant Dionysus, the Nike of Paionios and the pediments of Zeus temple, exhibits that everybody should see at least once in his life

Lastly, we will have lunch in the cosy small town of Olympia at one of the traditional family-run local taverns.

Rio Antirio Bridge

After Ancient Olympia, we will take a completely different route for our return to Athens.

We will head northwest to another engineering miracle, the Rio Antirio Bridge, one of the world’s longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges and the longest of the fully suspended type.

It crosses the Gulf of Corinth near Patras, linking the town of Rio on the Peloponnese peninsula to Antirrio on mainland Greece by road.

Our return to Athens will be mostly close to the sea which will offer you endless views of the Corinthian gulf.