When you imagine a trip to Greece, glimpses of its ancient past–fluted columns and marble sculptures of muscular gods and well-draped goddesses–probably aren’t far from your mind. If you’re channeling your inner archaeologist à la Indiana Jones when heading to Greece, it can be difficult to know where to start! I’ve compiled this list of our top 10 favorite archaeological sites and museums that we enjoyed while in Greece, and I hope it will help you to plan your adventure!
1. The Acropolis
Okay, this one’s obvious. Visitors not even remotely interested in archaeology will likely go to the Acropolis, where you can walk through the Propylea to the world-renowned Parthenon, as well as gaze upon the lesser known monuments of the Erectheion, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and the Temple of Athena Nike. If you’re an archaeology enthusiast, however, don’t miss a walk around the slopes of the Acropolis. It’s a nice, peaceful walk (we saw hardly any other tourists) and you’ll be able to see the caves of Pan, Zeus and Apollo, more recent excavations like the Temple of Asclepius, god of medicine, and the Theatre of Dionysus.
2. National Archaeological Museum
If you visit only one museum while in Greece, visit this one! Not only will you see all the traditional ancient Greek artifacts you’d imagine – marble or bronze sculptures of gods and goddesses, namely – but they have all the best sort of artifacts from the rest of Greece too. You’ll find gorgeous Mycenean gold artifacts, like masks and jewelry, the simple silhouettes of Cycladic figures, and colorful wall frescoes from Santorini. It really is one of Greece’s unmissable museums!
3. Delphi Archaeological Site
The ancient city of Delphi – the location of Apollo’s famous oracle – was excavated in 1893, and these days the site makes a great day trip from Athens! It seems that all you ever see in pictures of Delphi is a monument called the Tholos of Delphi. It is impressive–it has a unique round shape and is set quite pleasingly in the surrounding landscape – but it represents only a small portion of all there is to see at Delphi. There’s basically a whole city left… you can still see what’s left of the Temple of Apollo, the Athenian Treasury, the “navel of the world”, the open-air library, the theatre, the stadium, and numerous other structures!
4. Delphi Archaeological Museum
Right next to the Delphi Archaeological Site is its corresponding museum, where you can see all the cool artifacts that were found on site. Some of the highlights include the Sphinx of Delphi, the Twins, the Omphalos of Delphi, the sculptures from the Temple of Apollo, and the bronze Charioteer sculpture. They also had bronze helmets and shields, some gold and silver artifacts, and a great many marble frescoes, many of them quite intact. Your ticket to the archaeological site includes access to the museum, but make sure that you arrange a day trip to Delphi that you will be there when the museum is still open – before I went I was warned that some of the day trips offered either don’t leave enough time for the museum or get you to Delphi when it isn’t open!
5. Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum is a very sleek, modern museum. One of the things archaeology lovers will appreciate most is the entrance. There’s a broad awning over one part that is surrounded by a glass railing–if you look down, you’ll see that you’re actually standing on top of an archaeological site! In fact, the whole glass floor over the entrance is over an excavation, and you can peer through at some parts to see what’s below! Then, directly inside the museum you’ll find scale models of what the Acropolis looked like at different points of antiquity, that I found really interesting. At that point you must buy a ticket to see more – and you won’t be disappointed! There are sculptures, frescoes, pottery, and so much information about the Parthenon. One of my favorite parts was seeing replicas of some of the kouros that had been painted as they would have originally been–based on pigments found on the original sculptures. It’s easy to forget that these detailed marble sculptures had once been painted too!
6. Ancient Agora
This was the third site we visited in Athens, and we were so glad we didn’t skip it! I’d thought the Ancient Agora was pretty much just the Temple of Hephaestus (which, as one of the most intact temples of its kind, is impressive enough in itself), but there was so much more to see there! There were foundations of buildings and roads, funerary steles, and sculptures, including a really cool one of Hadrian. There are some non-ancient-Greek additions too, like a marble wall the Romans made from pieces of temples they’d torn down and a Christian church built around 1000AD. Then, there’s a whole museum of pottery, sculpture, and other artifacts from ancient Greece which are housed in the Stoa of Attalos. I really had no idea how much there was to see, and I would put it as the #2 archaeological site to visit in Athens after the Acropolis!
7. Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio
The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio is located about an hour to an hour and a half south of Athens. Cab drivers can offer you an afternoon trip there (usually including lunch) for a pretty reasonable price, but since we had a rental car we drove ourselves. This temple is quite large and fairly intact, but the coolest thing about it was the setting! Appropriately for the God of the Sea, the temple is perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Mediterranean, and there are breathtaking views on all sides. We watched the sunset there while snacking on pistachio-and-cherry ice cream — if you’ve got the time for a half-day trip from Athens, I highly recommend checking out Poseidon’s special place!
8. Temple of Olympian Zeus
Not far from the Acropolis, you can visit what remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, or, Olympeion. There are only 16 columns left of the temple–and one of those is toppled!–but it’s still an incredible sight to behold. The original temple was much larger than the Parthenon in all ways… taller, wider, and with much bigger columns. I also liked the columns because they were of the more detailed Corinthian order instead of Doric, like the Parthenon’s. Be sure to check out the site, and nearby Hadrian’s Arch, when you’re in Athens!
9. Akrotiri Archaeological Site
If you have the pleasure of visiting Santorini while in Greece, don’t miss out on their main site of archaeological interest–Akrotiri! Akrotiri was a Bronze Age settlement that was destroyed when the volcano that forms the island erupted, circa 1600BC. The ash preserved the city in the same way that Mt. Vesuvius’s eruption preserved Pompeii in Italy, so archaeologists have been able to learn a lot about the structure of the city and the daily life of the Minoan people who lived there. Best of all, it’s actually an active archaeological site, so you can get a glimpse of the process of excavating a city like this!
10. Museum of Prehistoric Thira
At this museum you can see all of the treasures unearthed at Akrotiri! The museum is located in Fira, the largest city on Santorini, and is well worth a visit! There are wall frescoes, pottery, sculptures, and everyday items from the people that lived in the city. I especially liked the dolphin designs painted on some of their pottery and their system of symbols that they painted on amphoras so they could tell the contents from the outside. Be sure not to miss the blue monkeys fresco and the mysterious golden ibex on your way out either!
Is 10 sites not enough for you? Here are three more that may not be “must-sees” (at least, we didn’t get to them on our first trip to Greece!) and are a bit more off-the-beaten-path. However, they’re definitely worth checking out if you the first ten places on this list haven’t satisfied your appetite for ancient Greek culture!
I hope you enjoyed that list and that you have some new ideas for your trip to Greece! If you’ve already been, which of these was your favorite place to see? Comment below!