Is Olympia worth visiting? It was the home not just of the most famous competition in the world, but also one of the Ancient Wonders of the World, the Statue of Zeus. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an important place for the whole world. Learn about the amazing stadium, the Ancient Olympic Games, and the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. Get the best tips on how to visit and the closest places to stay.
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Archaeological Site of Olympia
Situated on the west coast of the Peloponnese Peninsula, the archaeological site of Olympia has been inhabited since at least the 9th Century BCE (BC), with burnt offerings dating back as long as three thousand years ago.
Starting out as a small shrine or sacred area, Olympia grew over the centuries to become a religious and social complex of unparalleled importance in the ancient world.
Its buildings included not just the temples of sanctuaries of the Hellenic gods, but stadiums, gymnasiums, and palaestra associated with the different sporting events of the famous Olympic Games.
Although you won’t stumble upon the great sculptor, Phidias, sweating away in his workshop or see Olympic athletes relaxing in the thermal baths, a visit to the archaeological site of Olympia is still well worth the effort, offering us a trip back in time to one of the most important sites in history.
Sanctuary of Zeus and Temple of Zeus
At the center point of the old Archaeological site was the Sanctuary of Zeus.
While the monumental Temple was built in the late to mid-5th Century BCE (BC), the Altis (an enclosed religious precinct with its own sacred grove of trees) had been established as much as five centuries earlier.
Along with the Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Hera, the treasuries of various city-states, and administrative buildings were the open-air altars built to provide offerings to various gods.
The greatest of these was the Altar of Zeus, an enormous mound of all the remains of the sacrifices burned in Zeus’ honor that has never been located.
The Temple itself was a hexastyle (six-columned) Doric temple made from local limestone and covered with stucco to simulate marble. It was continually remodeled and renovated over its history. So in a sense, the temple was never fully completed.
Statue of Zeus
Most notably, the Temple was home to the Statue of Zeus, counted by the poet Antipater of Sidon as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It’s not often you can visit the location of one of the ancient wonders of the world!
The statue was “chryselephantine”, which means that it was made using a series of both gold and ivory plates arranged around a wooden frame. It stood 41 feet tall! It was a seated figure on a cedarwood throne that was encrusted with jewels. It was destroyed, and its remains lost, in the 5th Century BCE.
The statue of Olympian Zeus was constructed by the sculptor Phidias (who had made a similar statue of Athena for the Athens’ Parthenon). Phidias’ workshop (alongside one of the artist’s old cups) sits just outside the Altis today and is about to be restored.
Temple of Hera (Heraion)
Though Zeus’ Temple hogs the limelight, the Temple of Hera is significantly older. It was built in 590BCE (BC) and is thought to be the oldest temple in the Altis.
This is not surprising, as many scholars trace Hera back into the depths of pre-history, with some insisting that she represented the matriarchal earth goddess of pre-Hellenic Greece.
At any rate, as the wife of Zeus and goddess of the hearth, Hera was one of the most important figures in the Greek pantheon, important enough that a series of games were held in her honor.
Lesser known than their all-male counterpart, the Olympics, the Heraean Games comprised of a single crucial event, the stadion.
Young unmarried women and girls in three different age categories would sprint just under two hundred meters, between the starting and finishing lines, for Heraean glory. Winners would receive the famous olive wreath, a sacrifice of prize beef to Hera, and a statue, also dedicated to the goddess, with their name inscribed upon it.
The most enduring legacy of Olympia is without a doubt the Olympic Games. Although the temples have long since crumbled and their religious rituals faded into obscurity, thanks to a late 19th Century revival, the Olympic Games live on.
The ancient Olympic Games were similar enough to our modern version. Held once every four years, it gathered athletes from around the Greek world to Olympia to compete in a number of different sporting events.
Some of the events, like running, wrestling, javelin, discus, and the pentathlon are still held in the modern Olympiad, while others, notably chariot racing, are absent.
Ancient Stadium of Olympia
Many of the events of the ancient Olympiad were held in Olympia’s ancient stadium. Sitting east of the Altis, from starting line to finish line, the racetrack itself comprised about two hundred meters of packed clay.
Athletes would enter in style via the Krypte, a vaulted entrance built in the late third century BCE, and take up a position at the two stone markers (the balbis) which mark the starting and finishing lines.
The two stone markers at each end of the running track are 600 “Olympic feet” apart. That’s 192.27 meters. You can still see the lines of grooved white stone blocks that gave the athletes leverage for their start.
The first stadium dates back to the mid-Sixth century BCE (BC) it was rebuilt and renovated between its first construction and Roman times, but its key features and purpose remained the same.
Around the track, sitting in mudbrick and stone seats set into the embankments would be tens of thousands of spectators.
Around the embankments themselves were small wells, originally dug to provide water for spectators, these in later times became votive pits, into which sacrifices were made.
Judges, known as the Hellanodikai, sat at the stadium’s south bank on a stone podium known as the exedra, while the north bank was reserved for the priestess of the goddess Demeter, the only married woman allowed to watch the events.
That said, for all this history the stadium’s life is not over yet. The venue was partially restored and returned to its original purpose for the 2004 Athens Olympics and you can still see the original starting and finishing lines!
The Olympiad’s shot-put events were conducted here, this time including both men and women, to remarkable success. “This facility is absolutely world-class.” Said shot-put world champion, Adam Nelson. “It has been for 3,500 years, so why would it change now?”
Twilight of the Gods
Like all of Greece’s important and popular religious sites, the complex at Olympia was destroyed on the order of Emperor Theodosius II in 426AD after over a thousand years in operation.
Although surreptitious pagan ceremonies carried on for some time afterward, the old world of gods and sacrifices had come to an end.
Today only the foundations of the temple are visible, having been uncovered by archaeologists in the 19th Century, giving a hint of the majesty that once was. The magnificent statue of Olympian Zeus was destroyed and its remains were lost.
So, is Olympia worth seeing?
Olympia is a wonderful site to see if your time is not limited in the Peloponnese. It is a great half-day day trip from Nafplio and it is the birthplace of one of the world’s most important global activities. The home of an Ancient Wonder of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is not only an important site for the whole world, but it is also a beautiful place to visit in Spring.
Travelers who stay at Olympia are able to see the site first thing in the morning and often you’ll have the place to yourself for a short while.
The 3 Best Places to Stay to Visit Ancient Olympia
- There are so many things to do in Greece. See all of the best things to do in Greece from Get Your Guide here
- If you’re planning a trip to Greece, check out my Greek posts here and make sure you listen to the Trip Anthropologist travel podcast series on Greece here.
- If you’re planning a trip to Athens, see my comprehensive guide to Athens Ruins: Ancient Greek Sites of Athens
- Don’t miss my guides to Everything You Need to Know About Visiting the Acropolis and Where to Stay near the Acropolis.
- Hard to decide which ancient Greek ruins to see? Read Best Ancient Ruins in Greece.
- For the must-see Ancient Akrotiri Minoan city on Santorini, see my article here