THE ANCIENT GREEK WORLD
What are the best ancient Greek ruins to see on your next trip to Greece? The ancient Greek world fuels the western imagination with tales of gods and goddesses, oracles, and monsters. Come with me on a journey to the 25 most important and awe-inspiring ancient Greek ruins. This is where archaeology meets history, myth, and culture.
From the Greek Dark Ages, all the way to the end of the age known as Antiquity, Hellenic civilization flourished, invented, explored, and traded. For several more centuries, Greek civilization spread out from mainland Greece, colonizing the peoples of the Mediterranean until the Romans arrived.
This article is divided into the main tourist zones of Greece: Athens, Attica and Sterea, the Greek Islands, the Peloponnese, and northern Greece.
The Map at the beginning of each section shows the locations of each of the most significant and interesting archaeological sites of Ancient Greece.
Map of Ancient Greek Ruins in Athens
THE ACROPOLIS OF ATHENS
Where to start with the majestic Acropolis Hill? The ruins of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, the Temple of Athena Nike, Herodotus’ Odeum, and the Theater of Dionysus are perhaps the major sites to see on any visit to the Acropolis.
For a comprehensive post on the Acropolis, see Everything You Need to Know About Visiting the Acropolis: Acropolis Entrance Fees, Hours and Tours
The ruins of the Parthenon are majestic. Begun in 447 BC, this temple to the goddess Athena is the greatest surviving building of Classical Greece. It was constructed when Athens was the world’s great cultural center and the other buildings you see on the top of the Acropolis were also built at this time. It is considered the most perfect example of Doric architecture ever built.
The Parthenon is built on the site of an earlier Persian temple and it has been a Greek temple, a Christian church, and a mosque during its centuries of life. It has had munitions exploded within it and its sculptures have been taken to other countries (the Elgin Marbles). It never hosted the cult of Athena, rather it functioned as a political symbol of victory over Persia, and a united Hellenic identity.
The main monuments on Acropolis Hill can be seen in a half-day (get there when it opens) and the Acropolis Museum is the next must-see stop. This stunning modern building has separate areas for the main Acropolis buildings and shows you the treasures that were inside them.
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For where to stay in Athens close to the Acropolis, read: Best Athens Hotels Near the Acropolis.
ATHENIAN AGORA OF ATHENS
As you walk up the to Acropolis, you can’t but notice the Temple of Hephaestus on the northwest slope. This beautiful and intact temple is known as a Doric peripteral temple and stands upon Agoraios Kolonos Hill. The temple is also to the northwest of the enormous excavation zone that is the Agora of Athens and is one of its many temples.
Agora is a marketplace (which is why Agoraios Kolonis hill is known as Market Hill). Because of its large dimensions, it is also known as a place of gathering. There are over two dozen significant buildings or structures in this Agora which is the best example of any Agora in Greece. The site has been excavated annually since 1931 and there is a museum on-site (in the Stoa of Attalos) that displays, not just ancient Greek finds but also Byzantine, Turkish and Roman objects.
TEMPLE OF OLYMPIAN ZEUS
This was once a mighty temple in the middle of Athens dedicated to Zeus, the King of the Olympians. You can’t but help see it immediately (500 meters) below the Acropolis.
It took 638 years for the building to be finished from its beginning in the 6th century BCE. At the turn of the millennium, the Temple of Zeus was the greatest temple in a country that was really good at building grand temples to their gods.
But like most of the wonderful ancient structures in Athens, it was subjected to multiple invasions, abandoned, and its columns were used for other buildings. Despite being used as a quarry, 16 enormous columns still stand, making it one of the most important structures of ancient Greece that remain. It is now an open-air museum.
There are two equally fascinating parts of this interesting site northwest of the Acropolis that is also called Ceramicus. The inner part of Kerameikos was inside the walls of ancient Athens. Ceramicus was the potter’s quarter and the word “ceramics” comes from this site.
The other part of Kerameikos was outside the city walls and includes a very famous cemetery. This area has been used as a cemetery for over 5000 years and the Kerameikos Museum houses the best collection of burial goods in Greece.
The Sacred Way begins here and runs to Eleusis with funerary sculptures lining the route.
Map of Ancient Greek Ruins: Greek Islands
AKROTIRI – ANCIENT THIRA (SANTORINI)
If there was ever a truly credible contender for the lost city of Atlantis, it is here at Ancient Akrotiri on the island of Santorini. Ancient Akrotiri was a sophisticated and wealthy city of three-story villas with a view of Crete from their rooftop terraces.
That was, until the mother of all earthquakes blew apart the island that was called Thera and left the magnificent caldera that makes Santorini sunsets so spectacular.
Ancient Akrotiri was covered in lava and is being excavated. You can walk through this Minoan city that is 3,000 years old. Streets, murals, and furniture can all be seen. It’s Santorini’s hidden gem. For a comprehensive article, read Why You Must See Ancient Akrotiri on Santorini.
Read more about Santorini here
THE SACRED ISLAND OF DELOS
Delos is a small island next to its better-known sibling, Mykonos. Unlike Mykonos, Delos is not known for its parties and nightlife but it is one of the most important mythological sites of the ancient world.
Delos is so old it was a sacred sanctuary island for 1000 years before the Greeks believed it to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The Terrace of the Lions has seven remaining lions lining the Sacred Way. The Delian Temple, the remains of the colossus of Apollo, and temples and structure to Dionysius and Zeus are just some of many archaeological treasures remaining on this island. It’s no wonder UNESCO describes Delos as “exceptionally extensive and rich.”
Rhodes was called Lindos in ancient Greece and it is well known for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world that once stood guarding the entrance to the harbor, as well as for the Acropolis of Lindos.
Greek mythology holds that the island was born from the nymph, Rhodus, and Helion, the sun god. Their three children are the names of the three ancient cities on Rhodes and these cities can be seen today. The island was continually invaded, including by the Minoans, Mycenaeans and Dorians and there is a rich archaeology and history of this fascinating island.
The ancient cities, acropolis, Olympic stadiums and temples make Rhodes one of the most popular Greek destinations.
MINOAN PALACE OF KNOSSOS IN CRETE
Crete is a major heartland for Greek mythology. It is the home of the Minotaur and the labyrinth but Knossos is believed to be the oldest city in Europe, dating to 7-8000 BCE.
Knossos and its Palace was the center of Minoan culture. The first palace showed that the population was large and enormous wealth was being generated to create such incredible structures so early in human history.
Earthquakes are the scourge of Crete and the current palace is built on earlier palaces. It is enormous for such an ancient building – covering five square acres if you include its outbuildings. As the peak of the sophisticated ancient Minoan culture, it is an important site to visit to see the ancient Greek civilizations.
TEMPLE OF APHAEA, AEGINA
Less than an hour from Athens, lies the best-preserved Temple you will see in Greece. On the Saronic island of Aegina, atop a hill is a 5th century BCE Temple dedicated to Aphaea.
This perfectly proportioned temple was constructed using 32 limestone columns and 25 of the Doric columns remain standing. It is part of the Sanctuary of Aphaea, the mother-goddess, and is one of several impressive ancient Greek ruins on this once-wealthy island.
What a fantastic day trip from Athens!
The first Greek god of medicine was Aescelpius. Around 300 sanctuaries for healing were created across the Hellenistic world, the greatest remaining one being on the island of Kos (see also Epidaurus below). His symbol, of a snake wrapped around a staff, remains globally as a symbol of doctors, medicine and healing.
Askelpieon sanctuaries were all about holistic healing and beautiful natural settings were important. The sanctuary sits peacefully atop a hill looking out towards Turkey.
The Asklepieon at Kos is reputed to have been founded by the world’s most famous ancient physician, Hippocrates (who was born here in Kos).
Three levels of ruins remain including two Temples of Asclepius built in the 2nd and 4th centuries BCE as well as a Temple of Apollo, and an altar of Kyparissios Apollo.
ATTICUS AND STEREA
Map of Ancient Greek Ruins: Atticus and Sterea
The importance of Delphi to the ancient Greeks can’t be understated. It was the center of the universe, marked by the Omphalos or naval. In Greek mythology, Zeus sent two eagles to find the center of the universe and they alighted at Delphi,
Delphi was originally called Pytho. It is on the slopes of Mount Parnassus and is one of the greatest sites remaining of the ancient Greek world. Homer recounts the myth of Apollo coming to Delphi as a dolphin.
The oracle of Pytho was consulted about the most important decisions facing the Greek world at the time. Over time this prehistoric oracle became known as the Oracle of Delphi who resided at the Sanctuary of Apollo. Delphi became a site for the congregation of people from all over Greece with celebration throughout the year as well as the Pythian Games.
For any lover of ancient Greece history and myths, Delphi is not to be missed.
TEMPLE OF POSEIDON, SOUNION
Accessible on a day trip from Athens, the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion is dedicated to one of the most important figures of Greek mythology, the King of the Sea.
The beautiful Doric Temple of Poseidon is the second temple to Poseidon on this site, the first likely being razed by Xerxes I at the same time that he was razing all the buildings on the Acropolis of Athens.
The Temple was built in 444-440 BC in hexastyle. This means it had six Doric columns at the front of the portico. The temple would once have contained a 20 feet high bronze statue of Poseidon. The God of the Sea is the son of Cronus and was eaten by his father. Its perhaps understandable that the god of the sea, storms, earthquakes, and horses was thought to be a little bad-tempered.
The Eleusinian mysteries were an initiation ceremony that was held every year at the Panhellenic Sanctuary of Eleusis in Attica. They were the most important rituals in Ancient Greece and the Sacred Way led from Athens 14 miles to Eleusis and was the only road in Greece.
The secret religious rites were in honor of Demeter and Persephone and related to the myth of Hades abducting Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. The secret rites were practiced for 2000 years.
Among the ancient ruins at Eleusis is the Telesterion, a large hall used for the initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries. It was constructed in 435 – 421 BCE.
THE SANCTUARY OF ARTEMIS AT BRAURON (VRAVRONA)
Brauron is one of the most important sites of worship for the cult of Artemis. Sanctuaries to Artemis usually consisted of groves of trees near water. The sanctuary at Brauron includes a temple to Artemis, a stone bridge, a pi-shaped stoa, springs, and caves.
Girls participated in pre-puberty and fertility rituals and in the archaeological museum at Brauron you can see all the objects that girls threw into the sacred spring during the pre-puberty rituals (called the arkteia) to appease the goddess Artemis.
Map of Ancient Greek Ruins: the Peloponnese
TEMPLE OF APOLLO EPICURIUS, BASSAE
This incredible temple has been globally looted. Through theft, bribery, and other means, its treasures are either lost at sea or now exhibited in major museums in London and Moscow.
The Temple of Epicurius is described by UNESCO as “one of the best-preserved monuments of classical antiquity.” It is located at Bassae, in the Arkadian mountains. It is dedicated to Epicurius, the god of healing and of the sun.
Built by the Phigaleians in the fifth century, it was perhaps designed by the same man who designed the Parthenon. It is World Heritage listed in part because of its use of all three Greek columns but also for its daring architectural innovations. It’s sculptures and its wonderful preservation mean that if you are in this part of Greece, it’s a must-see site.
Only two hours from Athens, ancient Corinth became Greece’s greatest city-state. The home of Sisyphus and devoted to Poseidon, this large archaeological site dating back more than 5000 years contains a very photographic Temple of Apollo.
The Temple of Apollo is only one within an entire city you can walk around and lies beneath the Acrocorinth. The Acrocorinth is the largest and tallest acropolis in Greece and the fortress protected the route across the land into the Peloponnese.
For a comprehensive article on Ancient Corinth, see Ancient Corinth and Acrocorinth
Epidaurus is the reputed birthplace of Asclepius, the son of Apollo and the Greek god of medicine. The Asclepius at Epidaurus. Today the most impressive remaining ruins of Epidaurus are its magnificent theater at the southeast end of the Sanctuary of Asclepius.
Of all the ancient Greek theaters, the theater of Epidaurus is considered the most perfect for its aesthetics and more importantly, for its acoustics.
The Theater of Epidaurus was built toward the end of the fifth century. The music, dramatic shows, festivals and games held here (it could seat 14,000 people) were believed to help with the health of patients.
Close to Corinth and only 120 km from Athens, Mycenae was the Kingdom of Agamemnon. In the Late Bronze Age (around 1200 BCE) it was the richest palace center in Greece. In Greek mythology, it was founded by Perseus, son of Zeus.
But the Mycenae worshipped Minoan gods and goddesses and is considered the forerunner to the Greek religion. For example, the Mycenae sky deity became the Greek god, Zeus.
Mycenaen culture flourished with prosperous families dominating the area and creating elaborate tombs that can be seen today. These families organized into chiefdoms and a complex social hierarchy existed.
Mycenean culture was carried through the ancient world through the poems of Homer. In Greek history, the period from 1600 BCE until 1100 BCE is known as the Mycenae period because of the influence of this great military culture that dominated much of Southern Greece and its southern islands.
The citadel on the top of the acropolis above the ruins of ancient Mycenae is built in a style known as Cyclopean because the stones are so large it was thought only Cyclops could move them.
At the foot of Mount Kronios on the Peloponnese west coast, lies the sanctuary of Olympia. Famous as not only the most important religious center in Greece, it was also the most important athletic site.
Olympia was dedicated to Zeus and is the birthplace of the Olympic Games, a national event, that was held at Olympia every four years to honor Zeus. The last Games were held in 393 BC and Olympia was destroyed in the next century.
The great temples, buildings, athletics tracks and gymnasiums of Olympia continue to be excavated and restored.
For 7,000 years there has been a sizeable village on this site that has been continuously occupied. That makes Argos one of the world’s oldest villages.
Phillip the II of Macedon and Alexander the Great come from the Macedonian royal family of Argos. There were a great number of mythological Kings of Argos as well as being the mythical birthplace of Perseus, a son of Zeus.
An Ancient theater of Argos (3rd century BCE) sits beside the Ancient Agora (built in the 6th century BCE) but these are only some of the archaeological ruins in this fascinating ancient city.
Situated between Nafplion and Argos, this hill fort has existed as a settlement before even the Bronze Age. It was at its most magnificent during the Mycenean Era in ancient Greece. The Citadel of Tiryns was built in 1300 BCE and controlled the trade between the sea (just over a km away) and inland routes.
Tiryns was influenced by the great Mycenaean culture of Crete and the concept of “Cyclopean” architecture and masonry comes from Tiryns because of the sheer size of the stonework used to construct the Fort. (The Cyclops were a mythical race of Thracians. They were called Cyclops after their King, King Cyclops). The thickness of the walls of the Citadel in some places is 17 meters or 57 feet!
It’s this history of the Cyclops that makes Tiryns one of my favorite ancient sites, and being so close to the main tourist areas of the Peloponnese makes this ancient Citadel of Tiryns a fascinating day trip.
Like Corinth, Sparta was one of the great city-states of ancient Greece. Originally named Lacedaemon, by 650 BCE Sparta’s military power made it the greatest of Greece’s city-states.
During the Greco-Persian Wars, the Greek city-states came together as a unified army under Sparta’s leadership. Sparta’s domination began to recede after its loss to the Thebans in the Battle of Leuctra in 631 BCE.
Sparta had a unique social system that sought to maximize the military proficiency of the Spartan population – Sparta wanted to create a society where each of its different classes supported the training, upbringing and preparedness of its elite forces for war.
Spartan historic sites to visit include a theater, temples, acropolis, city wall, and the foundations of an ancient bridge.
Map of Ancient Greek Ruins: Northern Greece
In eastern Macedonia is the UNESCO World Heritage site of ancient Philippi which lies on the Via Egnatia, the road that links Asia to Europe.
King Philip II of Macedonia took the city and named it for himself. Historians believe he did this because of the nearby gold mines and to protect it from the attacking Thracians.
Although it became an important Roman city, in Hellenistic times it was the site of a wonderful theater, walls, gates, and a funerary heroon (or temple) which can still be seen today.
Pella is the Ancient Greek word for stone and the name of this important archaeological site in Macedonia. The birthplace of Alexander the Great, Pella was an important sea port, but it is now landlocked.
Pella was an incredible city for the ancient world, with water piped to individual houses and waste piped away from them. The central market or Agora takes a full 10 city blocks!
Other incredible finds include the Pella Curse Tablet which is a written spell in a language created by the ancient Macedonians. The massive Palace and temples of Dionysius, Demeter, Aphrodite and Cybele lay in ruins at this impressive site.
Rediscovered only in the 19th century, Aigia (now called Vergina), was the ancient capital of the Macedonian Kingdom. The monumental palace ( circa 340 BCE) remains and was the seat of power of the dynasty that included Phillip II and Alexander the Great.
The city is a treasure trove of ancient Greek monuments. In addition to the Palace with its murals and painted stuccoes) there are temples, sanctuaries, temples, monumental tombs and a royal necropolis. The necropolis contains more than 500 tumuli (barrows or burial mounds).
This is a site you just can’t miss out on if your travels take you to northern Greece!
LINKS AND FURTHER INFORMATION
- 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
- To help you plan your trip to the Acropolis, read Everything You Need to Know About Visiting the Acropolis and Best Athens Hotels near the Acropolis
- For the must-see Ancient Akrotiri Minoan city on Santorini, see my blog post here
- And for the things you need to know before you book your trip to Santorini, including the best time to visit Santorini, see my travel guide here
- For a round-up by bloggers, see the top things to do in Athens
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