The Practical Guide to Visiting the Mystical Monasteries in Meteora, Greece
Meteora is hands down the most jaw droppingly unreal and otherworldly destination I’ve ever visited. Hands. down. Its name means “suspended in the air”, and once you have explored the area you will understand how that came about. Located in the central region of Greece, Meteora is home to 6 monasteries and nunneries precariously perched atop massive rock pillars. What’s truly amazing is that these 6 monasteries are still active sites of worship, and while car parks and stairways now replace baskets and ropes, visiting Meteora feels like taking a giant leap back in time. If you’re visiting Greece, Meteora is one destination that shouldn’t be skipped.
If you’re short on time, it is possible to explore Meteora in 1 to 2 days. Is it exhausting? Yes. Is it doable? Also yes. Can you do it on your own without joining a tour? Heck yes. Here’s what you need to know!
What you need to know about Meteora
The best time to visit:
The best time to visit is in late spring or autumn when the crowds are less hectic. However, Meteora is manageable in the summer months if you start early and visit the largest monasteries before the tour buses arrive.
Getting to Meteora and getting around:
We drove to Meteora after a night in Olympia (itinerary for Mainland Greece to follow soon, stay tuned!) and that was the easiest, most pleasant way for us to stick to our own schedule; the drive was fairly leisurely and took approximately 7 hours, but as you approach Meteora the roads become more narrow as you make your way through the mountains. In general, driving around Greece is extremely easy (if I can do it, so can you) and cities are well-connected by brand new highways and plenty of rest stops. Just don’t be surprised if every other car zooms past you at 20 kilometers over the speed limit!
If you don’t plan on renting a car, there are public transportation options from major cities like Athens and Thessaloniki but I would recommend staying at least 1 night in Kastraki or Kalabaka. Once you are in the area, there are plenty of day trip operators that can drive you around in a private car, or alternatively you can rent a scooter from Kalampaka. Just make sure you book a scooter ahead of time, especially if you’re visiting during the peak season (summer). If you do not plan on driving and would prefer to walk/trek between the sites, I would recommend giving yourself a full 2 days in Meteora.
You could choose to walk to get between the monasteries, but it is sweltering hot in the summer months and there is a lot of ground to cover between the different sites. I remember driving past some poor souls who were schlepping up the hilly roads in the heat and thinking, “I’m so glad that isn’t me right now”. I would recommend that you do a mixture of driving and hiking to make the most of your time in Meteora. Each monastery has space for parking on the side of the road, and it only takes a few minutes to drive between the monasteries. There are also a few different gas stations in the area so make sure you compare prices as they vary a fair bit.
What to bring and wear:
Bring: Sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, water, a snack, a good camera that can capture photos in low light as the sunsets are spectacular. Also bring cash as you will need to pay €3 to enter each monastery.
Wear: Good walking shoes. The monasteries have strict dress codes so women will need to wear a long skirt, dress or sarong. It’s not enough to keep your knees covered so no trousers or shorts. However, all the monasteries have wrap skirts at the entrances that you can borrow. Shoulders should also be covered but I noticed that they are far more strict about the long skirt. Men should wear pants but I saw a few people who got away with wearing shorts that hit below the knee. Remember that the monasteries are places of worship, so be respectful and conduct yourself properly.
In its heyday, there were a total of 24 monasteries. Today, there are 6 standing: St. Nikolaos Anapafsas, Great Meteoron, Roussanou, Holy Trinity, Varlaam and St. Stephen’s. They all vary in size and have different visiting hours that change depending on season. They are also closed on different days of the week, so it’s important to check the schedule ahead of your visit. The largest and most popular monasteries (Great Meteoron and Varlaam) fill up quickly with busloads of tourists, so its best to start your day early.
Here is the rough order in which I would recommend seeing the monasteries: Great Meteoron/Varlaam, Roussanou, Holy Trinity, St. Nikolaos/St. Stephen’s.
How to make the most of your time in Meteora
Start by visiting Great Meteoron and Varlaam in the morning
Here’s where the walking/hiking part kicks in. Drive past St. Nikolaos (the first monastery you will hit on your way up) around 100 metres and park the car on the side of the road (see map below). This is where the trail begins to hike up to the Great Meteoron and Varlaam. The hike will take approximately 45 minutes and is mostly shaded, but the path is uneven and uphill. About 3/4 of the way through you will reach a fork in the road – take the left path to head up to Great Meteoron.
Tour the Great Meteoron and after you’re done there, walk a few steps over to Varlaam, the neighboring monastery. You can easily spend 30-40 minutes wandering around each monastery and exploring the chapels, courtyards, cellars and so on. My advice? Soak it all up and bask in the incredible panoramic views. Once you have explored Varlaam, take the path on your left (as you’re exiting) to walk back down to where you parked your car. Bonus points for buying a popsicle outside Varlaam to cool yourself off.
Drive on to Roussanou and Holy Trinity
Roussanou is a working nunnery and is easily accessible; the monastery covers the entire surface of the rock and houses a church, reception halls, guest quarters and a lookout spot from outside the building.
Holy Trinity is not easy to get to as it sits high up on cliff, so pace yourself as it is only reachable only by nearly 150 steps. Because of its location and accessibility, few tour buses stop here so it may be perfect for those looking for a more peaceful opportunity to explore the grounds. In the past, the Holy Trinity also relied upon pulleys and baskets for supplies, but a small funicular is now used to carry supplies to the main building.
Once you have visited these two monasteries, head back towards Kalabaka for lunch as St. Stephen’s is shut from 1:30-3:30 pm (1-3 pm in the winter months). On your way back, you can stop at St. Nikolaos as it shuts earlier than the other monasteries.
Next, head over to St. Stephen’s, the most accessible monastery as all you have to do is cross a bridge. It suffered a lot of damage during WWII and was abandoned until the 1960s when it was restored as a nunnery.
As you drive from point-to-point, there are plenty of lookout areas that you can stop and take pictures at, just make sure you park safely and out of the way of other vehicles.
Here is my ultimate tip for Meteora: End the day with a stunning sunset at Psaropetra look out. Most people swarm to watch the sunset from another viewpoint next to Varlaam, so this one tends to be relatively uncrowded. Psaropetra is just past the Roussanou nunnery parking lot. On a clear night you can expect the most mind blowing sunset!
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Where to stay in Meteora:
We spent 2 nights at the family-run Pyrgos Adrachti hotel in Kastraki. The hotel is only 1 kilometer from St. Nikolaos should you wish to walk, or a 5 minute drive away from where the monasteries are located. If you make your way to Meteora by car, there are plenty of parking spaces but I would recommend hiring a small sedan as there are some tight corners and narrow pathways to navigate in order to get to this hotel. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, and the owners are helpful – they are the ones who told us about the Psaropetra look out! The best thing about staying at the Pyrgos Adrachti is the view from the balcony – make sure you ask for a room with this view!
Have you visited Meteora? What are your tips to travelers visiting the area?
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