Exploring Ancient Olympia: A Guide to the Birthplace of the Olympic Games
When I was younger, my mum made it a point to read us stories, tales and legends from Chinese culture so we could learn about our roots, but also filled our evenings with fables from Greek mythology. We grew up listening to tales of Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Medusa, the Labours of Hercules and Jason and the Argonauts; it’s no surprise therefore that Greece has always been high up on my list of places to travel to. After exploring the ancient ruins of the Acropolis (click here for my city guide to Athens), our next stop was Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games.
Olympia is a 3.5 hour drive away from Athens and the drive is extremely straightforward. Because of its proximity to Athens, plenty of tour operators offer day trips to Olympia, but we were heading on to Meteora afterwards so decided to stay overnight. If you are planning on visiting Olympia, 1 full day is more than enough, in my opinion.
What to see:
There are a number of sites and museums located in Olympia. The Archaeological Museum of Olympia, the Archaeological Site itself, the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity and the Museum of the History of Excavations in Olympia. Tickets are €12 (€6 for children) and covers your entry to all sites.
Their operating hours all vary and last admission is 15 minutes before the end of visiting hours:
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia & the Archaeological Site: Monday to Sunday, 08:00 to 20:00
The Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity and the Museum of the History of Excavations in Olympia: Monday 10:00-17:00, Tuesday to Sunday 09:00-16:00
Here’s my biggest tip for visiting Olympia, head to the site after 2/3 PM after all of the tour buses are gone so that you can avoid the crowds! This also means that there will be plenty of empty parking spots so you don’t have to wait around for people to exit.
What to bring:
A bottle of water (there are vending machines outside the archaeological site if you forget); sunscreen and/or a hat (there is zero shade inside the archaeological site); a comfortable pair of walking shoes; and a packet of tissues – there are clean bathrooms in the museums and at the archaeological site, but tissue is not guaranteed.
The Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity
This first museum is the closest to the main road and should be your first stop. You can purchase your entry ticket here and it grants you entry to all the different sites so hang onto it. It contains a plethora of art, statues, paintings and other ancient works depicting the athletes, as well as information on the history and beginning of the games at Olympia in the 8th century BC. There are a few different tales on how the games began, one being that the founder was Pelops who defeated the king of Elis in a chariot race and took the king’s daughter as his wife. Another tradition states that Herakles (Hercules) was the founder of the games after his victory against Augeias, who refused to compensate Herakles for cleaning out his stables.
The museum also tells the stories of glory and fame surrounding Olympic champions, their prizes and the sacrifices to Zeus that were made followed by celebratory banquets When the champions returned to their cities, they were given massive welcome fanfare and enjoyed free meals, exemption from taxes, seats of honor at festivals and were also crowned with an olive wreath. The ancient Greeks believe that the wreath would bring good fortune and divine protection.
The first games are thought to have begun in 776 BC and were held every 4 years to honour Zeus. The games were so important that warring states would enter into a truce before the event so that people could travel to Olympia to watch and participate. However, in 393 AD the games were halted as all pagan festivals were banned, and it wasn’t until 1896 until the games were restarted, with the first modern Olympic Games being held in none other than Athens, Greece.
Did you know that only free male Greeks were eligible to participate in the games and they competed nude? Once they finished training and competing, the athletes would scrape off the grease, dirt and sweat off their bodies and sell the “product” to fans!
The Archaeological Site of Olympia
After exploring the first museum, head down the path and walk for 3-5 minutes to reach the main entrance of the archaeological site of Olympia. Present your ticket at the gate to gain entry to the site and you pretty much have free rein within the ruins. The site of Olympia was once the most important religious and athletic centre in Greece and is home to the sanctuary of Zeus and the many buildings erected around it, including the Temple of Hera, the gymnasium, the Philippeion, athletic premises used for the preparation and celebration of the Olympic Games, administrative buildings and other lay buildings and monuments. It was also home to a 13-meter-tall statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and is believed to have been destroyed in a fire.
Considering the site has outlived several earthquakes and fires, it is in incredible condition and has earned its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO, “In this universal place, the Olympic Idea was born, making Olympia a unique universal symbol of peace and competition at the service of virtue. Here, too, prominence was given to the ideals of physical and mental harmony, of noble contest, of how to compete well, of the Sacred Truce; values, which remain unchanged in perpetuity.” Extremely fitting in our day and age!
Did you know that before each Olympic event the Olympic flame is initiated in the temple of Hera? The Olympic torch is lit by concentrated sun rays before being transported to the country where the games are being held. Read more about the Olympic Flame here!
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia
The oldest of the museums, the Archaeological Museum was founded in the 19th century to house the finds that the excavations in Olympia uncovered. It is a 5 minute walk away from the archaeological site itself and is considered one of the most important museums in Greece. The museum houses sanctuary finds such as bronzes, sculptures, terracottas, cauldrons and jewellery. There are a lot of artifacts here. Like, a boatload. Two of the most famous statues in the museum are the marble statue of Hermes of Praxiteles, where Hermes is depicted holding the infant Dionysus, and the statue of Nike (goddess of victory) of Paeonios which once stood in the sanctuary of Zeus.
The museum also contains the pediments from the ancient Temple of Zeus; one depicts the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos, and the other depicts the fight between the Centaurs and Lapiths.
The Museum of the History of Excavations in Olympia
This smaller museum presents the history of the excavations of Olympia from 1875 onwards. It contains exhibits of visual and photographic material including the first engravings and watercolor drawings showing Olympia before the excavations, the first photos of the excavations, portraits of archaeologists, the historic agreement between Greece and Germany for the excavations of Olympia, rare archive documents, the first maps of the sanctuary and so on.
Olympia is an amazing, unmissable place to visit for history, mythology and sports aficionados – the museums are full of fascinating exhibits and relics, and the archaeological ruins tell stories of the guts, glory and spirit of the Olympic Games. Is it on your list of places to visit in Greece?
Where to stay in Olympia:
We stayed at the incredible Hotel Europa and I cannot sing its praises more than I already do. The hotel is a quick 3-4 minute drive away from the archaeological site, has free parking, incredible staff and a beautiful pool. The rooms were spacious and recently renovated, and the bed was super comfortable. One of the best parts about this family-owned hotel is the wonderful pool, which was perfect after a long (sweaty) day of ruin and museum-hopping. Hotel Europa has a gorgeous outdoor restaurant and the property is reminiscent of a Tuscan villa in the Italian countryside. Head to the restaurant before sunset for a breathtaking panoramic view. If you plan on visiting Olympia, check out Hotel Europa!
Do you watch the Olympic Games? Which is your favorite sport? Share it with me in the comments section below!
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