Exploring Ancient Olympia: A Guide to the Birthplace of the Olympic Games – Yoga, Wine & Travel

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.

Getting there

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. Click here to book your stay at Hotel Europa!

Do you watch the Olympic Games? Which is your favorite sport? Share it with me in the comments section below!

Planning a trip to Greece? Check out my other destination guides!

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This article contains an affiliate link. If you choose to book using this link, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my website by using these links, I only recommend products or services that I have personally used & hotels I enjoyed visiting.

Yogawinetravel.com: Exploring Ancient Olympia - A Guide to the Birthplace of the Olympic Games

Yogawinetravel.com: Exploring Ancient Olympia - A Guide to the Birthplace of the Olympic Games

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68 Comments

  1. Isobel Lee says:

    This was a really detailed and interesting post! I love the unusual facts, like selling the athletes sweat and the origins of the Olympic flame in the temple of Hera. Good to get the practical stuff too! Cheers!

    • Flo says:

      Thanks for checking this out, Isobel! I’m a massive Greek history and mythology buff so visiting Olympia was a serious dream come true!

  2. I’ve yet to visit Greece but it’s high on my list as I love history. Looks like a beautiful trip…

  3. Natalie says:

    I’m so happy to find your blog! We travel with the kids and I focus on making it educational (then I blog about the whole thing) and Greece is next on our list. The kids are ALL in with their fascination with Greek mythology (thank you Percy Jackson 🙂 which makes a place like Olympia a MUST see on this trip!

    As a former teacher, I do a lot of research and then rewrite in ‘kidspeak’ to create travel guides for the kiddos. I see that you and I are two peas in a pod with your “Do you know?” tidbits….I just LOVE stuff like that!! 🙂

    Meteroa is also on the list and I see you have a post on that, too! My lucky day! I’m off to read that next!

    • Flo says:

      I’m so glad this was helpful, Natalie! If your kids love Greek mythology I would recommend getting the Penguin Book of Greek Mythology 🙂

  4. I also grew up with Greek mythology so I guess my mind will feel at home in those majestic, awe inspiring places!
    Thank you for a lovely inspiring article, and a good hotel recommandation! Pinning this for my trip to Greece next summer!

  5. Fiona Mai says:

    Olympia is definitely a great place to explore, especially for those who are interested in history. I was particularly impressed with the hotel Europa where you stayed. The view from the outdoor restaurant must have been amazing! I’m going to have 5 days in Athens in May and can’t wait to start planning for Olympia then 😉

  6. I’ve always been so fascinated by Ancient Greece & Greek Mythology. I really hope to visit these sites some day.
    And that pool at Hotel Europa looks amazing 🙂
    #FlyAwayFriday

  7. Sara Essop says:

    I visited Ancient Olympia on a Mediterranean cruise excursion so I only spent a few hours there. It would have been great to stay over though. I couldn’t believe that I was in the birthplace of the Olympics and it was fascinating to hear about how different it was in the ancient times. The museum was a great relief from the heat outside.

  8. Natalie says:

    Awesome post, I love the tips for what to bring, because I always forget that kind of stuff. I also didn’t know that the Olympic flame was still lit in Greece, that really awesome!
    #flywayfriday

  9. Julie says:

    Wow Olympia looks like a wonderful places to visit.. so many archeological sights to see! That hotel looks really nice too! Love hotels with nice pools 🙂

  10. Thanks for the practical and definitely historically substantiated post on how to see and do Olympia. As an anthropology major, I’ve always been interested in underwater archaeology in Greece. I nearly made a poor career choice in trying to become an underwater archeologist of ancient Roman ships in Spain actually..

    To answer your question, I guess I’m a bit biased coming from Colorado, but my favorite Olympic sport by far is the snowboard slopestyle. I love it!

  11. David says:

    I’ve always been a big fan of history and Greek Mythology too and would love to see more of Greece’s many historic sites. Olympia sounds like it definitely fits the bill and it seems like quite an extensive attraction. Good tip on the hotel too. Pinning this for future reference. #FlyAwayFriday

  12. Laura says:

    Oh my gosh that’s so goofy that they wiped off the mud, etc. and sold it to fans! Athletes back then were super celebs as well it seems! I’ve always wanted to visit Greece and someday hope to see this!

  13. Anna says:

    I’ve never been there and your article is really inspiring! Thanks for sharing the history <3

  14. Nuraini says:

    “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!” Ewwww! [BTW I like how you inserted these snippets]

    😀 I grew up reading far too much Greek mythology! I even read the encyclopaedia and really had no business knowing the Greek gods’ family tree better than my own… I wondered whether there was anything left in the real Olympia.

    Greece was one of the first countries I wanted to go to, but for some reason I keep putting it off!

  15. Rosemary says:

    Your enthusiasm and knowledge shine through in equal parts in this piece – thanks so much for sharing. Haven’t made Olympia yet, just Delphi and the acropolis, many years ago, so a return trip is definitely on the cards to reach this gem. Practical tips were so helpful too. Thank you

  16. Sherniec says:

    Wow, your photos alone already got me wanting to travel the Greece! It sure is my dream destination. <333 Can't wait for the day that I can finally see it with my own eyes. Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience.

  17. Joanna says:

    When I was little and just learned how to read well, my grandparents bought me a fascinating book, in 2 volumes: “The legends of Olympus”. I remember so many evenings being filled with stories about Zeus, Poseidon, Hera or Mars, which made my imagination going. Long time after I wished to visit Greece. I would love to go to Olympia and walk through those peaceful ruins, imagine the Gods around me.

    • Flo says:

      If you’re a fan of Greek mythology like me, you’re going to LOVE Greece! The Acropolis, Delphi, Olympia, Meteora – all such incredible places!

  18. Really useful post. It’s always great to have info like prices and opening times so I don’t have to search further. Great pictures too 🙂 Need to get to Greece!

  19. Ha says:

    Greece is always my dream place! I also grew up with stories and tales about Ancient Greece so hopefully I can visit it soon! Thanks a lot for your article 🙂 It’s very detailed and useful.

  20. Love this Flo! I haven’t visited Olympia yet but hopefully on our next Greece trip we will. I might avoid the museums though but the ancient ruins look marvelous! 🙂

  21. What a detailed and educational post! great tips too. I love the snippet about your Mom telling you of Greek Mythology and tales in the evening.

  22. Kristina says:

    I studied archaeology in undergrad and I really missbeing able to just go to sites and waltz around like when I did living in Europe. Olympia has been on my list for a looong time, so this was a lot of fun to read (and gave me major wanderlust!)

  23. Felicia says:

    wow such a historic place! Thanks for all of the information, it looks amazing! Your photos are gorgeous too 🙂

  24. Marijana says:

    Wow! I’ve always been completely addicted to Greek history, and I am also massively into sports, so this is something that I have a feeling should be high on my bucket list! p.s. you’re an amazing writer 🙂

  25. Greece was the family trip I didn’t take because I was too interested in young love. My family went on without me. They came back with stories of fantastic cafes in old town Athens and archeological wonders. I think I chose poorly. When I went to Tikal in Guatemala, I had the same experience you had with the buses leaving. We stayed overnight in a nearby jungle lodge and the magic hours before the buses came and after they left are where I really felt connected to the site and its history. What a fantastic article and splendid photography. Thank you

  26. Cassandra says:

    Oh my gosh, your guide is so comprehensive! I’m saving this for later when I make my way over to Greece. I’ve always been so fascinated with Greek mythology and loved hearing about all the myths and stories we learned in high school! Also, I had no idea they played nude and then scraped off all the grime and sold it to fans… I wonder what those fans did with that stuff!

  27. Ivy says:

    I really gotta make my way to mainland Greece to see both Olympia and Meteora. Good tip with visiting after 2/3pm after all the tour buses are gone! Attractions are always that much more special without hoards of crowds. What do you mean by lighting the torch with concentrated sun rays? And how do they transport the flame afterwards to different countries?! That’s amazing!

    • Flo says:

      I believe they use some sort of magnifying glass/mirror to direct the sunlight! Check out this article – the torch relay is AMAZING! https://www.olympic.org/news/the-amazing-story-of-the-olympic-flame

      “The Montreal 1976 Torch Relay saw an amazing technological development. On the evening of the flame’s arrival in Athens from Olympia, a ceremony was staged at the Panathinaiko Stadium, where the flame was positioned in front of a sensor that detected ionised particles from it. Converted into encoded impulses, they were then sent them via satellite to Ottawa. On the arrival of the signal in the Canadian capital, a laser beam reflected on a parabolic mirror recreated the flame in its original form in a cauldron situated on Parliament Hill.”

  28. Renata says:

    Having worked in 2 Olympic Games, I’d absolutely love to learn all the history behind this place. So funny what you mentioned about athletes selling their grease and sweat to fans! hehe :0

  29. This is so eye-opening, Flo! I love Greek myths too but I always get confused who’s who hahaa. And a 3.5hr drive doesn’t sound too far at all. I’ve been really wanting to visit the Greek islands. If I do, definitely adding Athens and Olympia in the mix too. (The museums look super cool and the sunset views at Hotel Europa is stunning too!) Thanks so much for sharing this!!!!!

  30. I didn’t know there are quite a few museums there! Would love to visit to learn about the history of Olympia!

  31. Kana says:

    Flo! This has been one of my serious travel goals in life to go to ancient Olympia! It looks just as magical and beautiful as I imagine it to be! Thanks for sharing! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday, hope to see you again this week!

  32. Chloe says:

    Loving all your recent Greece posts!! It’s such an amazing country and so much history, it’s amazing!! and that hotel looks fabulous!!! I can see why you loved it!!

  33. That hotel looks like a little bit of paradise! Great photos.

  34. Wow, all so stunning! I really like historical places like this. Thanks for the detailed overview of Olympia!

  35. Cory Varga says:

    So beautiful! I can’t help but add this to our Euro Trip this summer! Looks fab.

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