Visiting the Ancient Olympic Stadium in Greece

Visiting the Ancient Olympic Stadium in Greece

You’ve heard of the world-famous Ancient Olympic stadium and the Olympic Games that were held there, but perhaps you’re not sure why you should go there and if it’s really worth your time?

In this article, I’ll give all the background info you need to know, practical advice for planning your visit, the absolutely ‘can’t miss’ highlights of Olympia, how to get there, where to base yourself, and, of course, and what you can do at the Ancient Olympic stadium.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Rise and Fall of Ancient 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.

Aerial view of Ancient Olympia, Greece
Aerial view of Ancient Olympia, Greece

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.

The Tholos of Philippeion, (c. 399 BCE)  in the Altis, held the statues of Philip II of Macedonia and his family, including Alexander the Great.
The Tholos of Philippeion, (c. 399 BCE) in the Altis, held the statues of Philip II of Macedonia and his family, including Alexander the Great.

At the center of the old Archaeological site was the Sanctuary of Zeus.

The monumental Temple was built in the late to mid-5th Century BCE, but 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 six-columned Doric temple made from local limestone and covered with stucco to simulate marble. It was continually remodeled and renovated over its history.

Rather listen than read about Ancient Olympia? Check out this podcast where I interview the expert local guide, Olympia tour guide, and tour company owner, Niki Vlachou of Niki Olympic about the Olympic Games and Ancient Olympia.

The 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!

Line drawing of Statue of Olympian Zeus sitting on golden throne holding objects in both hands that once stood in the Sanctuary of Zeus, near the Ancient Stadium at Olympia
Statue of Zeus

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 created by the sculptor Phidias (who had made a similar statue of Athena for the Parthenon).

Phidias’ workshop (alongside one of the artist’s old cups) sits just outside the Altis today and is about to be restored.

Heraean Games

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.

Painting depicting the finishing stages of the stadion race of the Heraean Games by Prospero Piatti in ancient Greece
Painting depicting the Heraean Games by Prospero Piatti

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.

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 426 AD after over a thousand years in operation.

Although surreptitious pagan ceremonies carried on for some time afterward, the time of gods and sacrifices had come to an end.

Olympic Games

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.

A painting on an amphora vase of sprinters at the Panatheneic Games in Ancient Greece
A painting on an amphora vase of sprinters at the Panatheneic Games in Ancient Greece

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 Olympic games, while others, notably chariot racing, are absent.

Practical Advice for Planning Your Visit

Olympia is an easy day trip from Athens but the town of Olympia is a lovely overnight stop if you’re not spending much time outside Athens on the mainland or want to use it on a stop on the way to and from Ancient Delphi.

Trains run from Athens to Pirgos where you change for Olympia. The cruise port is 21 miles from Ancient Olympia, and no matter how long your visit lasts, make sure to see the new museum (see below).

Purchasing an electronic ticket in advance protects you from the long queues of cruise ship day trippers at the entrance to the site.

Tickets and Tours

Get Your Guide tickets are cancellable and fully refundable until 24 hours before your booking time.

You can purchase a combined Ancient Olympia archaeological site and Museum entrance ticket here: Ancient Olympia: Archaeological Site and Museum Entry Ticket.

If you’re coming from the cruise port, there’s an excellent and inexpensive return private transfer to Olympia that includes 3 hours of free time before the return to the port: Katakolo Cruise Port: Roundtrip transfer to Ancient Olympia.

I highly recommend the following 2.5-hour walking tour of all the major sites with first-rate and experienced tour guides: Private Guided Tour of Ancient Olympia.

Taking a guided tour or day trip from Athens

If catching trains, buses, and taxis is a hassle on what’s supposed to be a stress-free holiday, there are a few excellent day trips and guided tours you can take from Athens that will pick you up and drop you back at your hotel.

The best of these is the Ancient Olympia Full Day Tour from Athens.

The “Must-See” 5 sites

You can spend ages wandering around the large archeological zone and its ruins, but here are my top 5 sites not to miss and a map so that you can find them.

Map of Ancient Olympia

Map of the Sanctuary of Olympia in Ancient Greece | 15. Temple of Zeus | 4. Temple of Hera | 21. Palaestra | 15. Ancient Stadium at Olympia
Map of Ancient Olympia.
4. Temple of Hera | 10. Ancient Stadium | 21. Palaestra | 15. Temple of Zeus

1. The Ancient Olympic Stadium

Many of the events of the ancient Olympiad were held in the Ancient Olympic stadium Olympia which you’ll find to the east of the Altis.

The Krypte - the vaulted entrance to the Ancient Olympic Stadium
The Krypte – the vaulted entrance to the Ancient Olympic Stadium

Athletes would enter in style via the Krypte, the vaulted entrance that was built in the late third century BC, and take up a position at the two stone markers (the balbis) that mark the starting and finishing lines.

Today you can walk through the Krypte, enter the ancient Olympic stadium, and run a lap or a race just like the ancients!

The two stone markers at each end of the running track are 600 “Olympic feet” apart. That’s 192.27 meters of packed clay.

You can still see the lines of grooved white stone blocks that gave the athletes leverage for their start.

Close-up of the Stone starting line on the running track of the Ancient Stadium at Olympia
Close-up of the Starting line on the running track of the Ancient Stadium of Olympia

The first stadium dates back to the mid-Sixth century BCE (BC) it was rebuilt and renovated between its first construction and Roman times.

Around the track, sitting in mudbrick and stone seats set into the embankments formed a natural seating area for tens of thousands of spectators.

Tourists line up at the start line like the ancients in the Ancient Stadium of Olympia
Ancient Stadium of Olympia – line up at the start line like the ancients!

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.

The north bank was reserved for the priestess of the goddess Demeter, the only woman allowed to watch the events. Women were banned from here upon pain of death.

Cheating has always been an issue with the Olympic Games, and it occurred a lot in the contests held in the Ancient Stadium.

By the fourth century BC, a row of Bronze statues of Zeus, called Zanes, lined the entrance to the Krypte.

A Zane - (Bronze statue of Zeus) in the National Archaeological Museum, Greece
A Zane – (Bronze statue of Zeus) in the National Archaeological Museum, Greece

They were there to warn athletes of the consequences of cheating, one of which was very hefty fines.

The bronze Zanes were built with the money from fines levied against athletes caught cheating. You’ll see the row of blocks that the Zanes stood on lining one side of the walkway that leads to the Krypte.

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.

The Olympiad’s shot-put events were conducted here, this time including both men and women. Shot-put world champion, Adam Nelson said,

“this facility is absolutely world-class.” It has been for 3,500 years, so why would it change now?”

2. The Sanctuary and Temple of Zeus

Today only the foundations of the Temple of Zeus are visible, having been uncovered by archaeologists in the 19th Century, giving a hint of the majesty that once was.

Tall stone pillar in the remains of the Temple of Zeus, Ancient Olympia, Greece
The remains of the Temple of Zeus, Ancient Olympia, Greece

The magnificent Olympian Zeus was destroyed and its remains were lost.

Ruins of the Temple of Zeus, Olympia, Greece

There may not be much to see now, but there are wonderful statues found in the ruins that you can see in the unmissable Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

3. The Temple of Hera (Heraion)

The Temple of the goddess Hera is significantly older than the Temple of Zeus. It was built in 590BCE (BC) and is thought to be the oldest temple in the Altis.

Ruins of the temple of Hera in Ancient Olympia, Greece
Temple of Hera, Ancient Olympia, Greece

It’s surrounded by a single row of Doric columns that were once made of oak but they were replaced over the centuries with stone columns as the wood rotted.

You can see the surviving decorations (acroteria) from the Temple in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Perhaps the most interesting this about the Temple is the entrance. Here you’ll see the Altar.

This is where the Olympic Torch is lit every four years, and it’s here, from the Heraion, that it still begins its journey around the world.

4. The Palaestra

A Palaestra is a school for wrestlers. They always have a large, square floor of sand in the middle (the ‘square’ Palaestra in Olympia is a bit wonky) and are surrounded by rooms that in turn open onto porticoes.

The stone columned square Palaestra for the training of wrestlers, Ancient Olympia, Greece
The Palaestra for the training of wrestlers, Ancient Olympia, Greece

Boxing and wrestling were taught here but so was a martial art that kind of translates as “anything goes.”

As you can imagine, people sometimes died or were permanently disabled during this kind of rule-less fighting.

Walkway between rows of Stone columns of the Palaestra, Ancient Olympia, Greece
Palaestra, Ancient Olympia, Greece

You can walk around the large Palaestra and its many remaining impressive columns that ring the wrestling ground.

5. The Archaeological Museum of Olympia

Don’t miss the Museum, it’s one of the best in Greece. It’s best to see if after you’ve visited ancient Olympia and it’s a little way to the north of the archaeological zone.

Two statues on the Pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Ancient Olympia, in the Museum of Archaeology of Olympia, Greece
Pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Ancient Olympia, Greece

It contains everything that was found in the Temple of Zeus. It’s akin to the Acropolis Museum.

A pediment of the Temple of Zeus in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia including a statue of a horse
A pediment of the Temple of Zeus in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia

It won’t take long, but it’s such an important part of understanding why Ancient Olympia was such an important place for the ancient Greeks.

So, is Olympia worth seeing?

Ancient Olympia and its ancient stadium are incredible sights to see if your time isn’t too limited in the Peloponnese.

It is a great day trip from Nafplio, Corfu, or Paxos and is the birthplace of one of the world’s most important global activities.

The Palaestra of Olympia in spring with purple flowering trees
The Palaestra of Olympia in spring

The home of an Ancient Wonder of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site, ancient Olympia 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 can see the site first thing in the morning and often you’ll have the place to yourself for a short while. You can also get to the Museum in your own time.

Where to Base Yourself to See Ancient Olympia

Although you can visit the site in half a day, many people choose an overnight stay. Here are the 3 best places to stay overnight so that you can easily visit Ancient Olympia and choose times to visit when the site is least crowded.

Our TOP 3 picks!

Amalia Hotel, Olympia

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Leonidaion Guesthouse

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