Enter ancient Greece at Mycenae

Greece is famous for its rich amount of archeological sites. Building in the country is almost impossible due to the abundance of history hidden underneath Greek soil. As a result, even the smallest towns have archeological sites or museums. Most of these sites are fields, covered with ancient foundations and restored columns. The most famous sites might have a building that survived time, like the Parthenon in the Acropolis or the theatre at Epidaurus. At the ancient city of Mycenae, however, you can actually touch and enter the structures built thousands of years ago. This archeological site is a truly unique experience.

Location Overview

Argolis, Peloponnese

Archeological site

1.5 – 2 hours

€6,- to €12,-
seasonal

Be careful

Yes

Location

Mycenae lies in the North of the Peloponnese peninsula, in the Argolis region. The ancient site is just 1 hour and 40 minutes away from Athens Airport by car, and the first famous archeological site you find when entering the Peloponnese.

The location of the ancient city is impressive. On top of a hill, overlooking the sea in the south, and de fields and mountains all around.

Mythology

Mycenae is an ancient city on top of a hill built from giant rocks. It seems almost impossible that human hands constructed this city so long ago. So, Greek mythology came up with an explanation.

According to mythology, Zeus and Danae (the daughter of the king of Argos, a city close by) had a son, Perseus. He wandered around the area that is now Mycenae and either dropped his cap or found a mushroom. A cap, as well as a mushroom are myces in the ancient Greek language. So we can not know which of the two Perseus was about to pick up. But when Perseus picked up his myces, he found a water spring. He decided to settle right there and called his city Mycenae.

Perseus wanted to fortify the city he was now king of and called the cyclopes. These one-eyed giants were strong enough to pick up large and heavy stones with ease. They created fortification walls that mark the outline of Mycenae till today. The Cyclopean walls, named after their builders.

History

Mycenae is over nine thousand years old. The first signs of human life in the area date back to the Early Neolithic Age in the 7th century B.C. However, not much of the early Mycenae survived through time, and the archeological site mostly tells the story of the city’s prime time.

Between 1350 and 1200 B.C., Mycenae was a major center of Greek civilization. The city expanded rapidly to a population of 300,000. Many buildings in the citadel were rebuilt, and the fortification walls were constructed. The Lion Gate, the tholos tombs, and the palace, for example, all originate in this time in ancient Greece. Unfortunately, because of this, not much of Mycenae before this time survived. 

After 1200 B.C., Mycenae lost its status as the center of power. The site got destroyed for an unknown reason. The citadel was partly rebuilt later but caught fire and then was slowly abandoned. The ruins of ancient Mycenae have been a tourist attraction since Roman times and have remained popular till today. The site has been on the list of UNESCO world heritage since 1999.

The archeological site of Mycenae

The archeological site of ancient Mycenae is one of the oldest in Greece. Eight hundred years older than the Acropolis and constructed two thousand years before the close by site of Mystras. However, the site is well preserved. A visit to Mycenae is like a visit to ancient Greece.

I have never felt more connected with history than during my visit to Mykines. There are ancient streets you can walk on, structures you can enter, spaces you can experience, and walls you can touch. At the site, there is a concrete path you can follow. This path leads you to all the impressive structures of the old city. I would recommend first entering the citadel and visiting the tombs at the beginning of the site afterward.

The Lion Gate

The most famous and first structure at Mycenae is the Lion Gate. This gate marks the entrance to the city in an impressive 3-meter (10 feet) tall wall. 

The reason behind the gate’s name is above the passage. There is a large, triangular, limestone slab with the image of two confronted lionesses. Although the heads are missing, the image in the stone is still clear and detailed. But more impressively, the lionesses are not just there for ornamentation. The limestone’s triangular shape gives stability to the giant rocks in the wall above the entrance. Without this stone, the gate would collapse.

Nature and History

After passing through the Lion Gate, you have entered the citadel. From the gate, a concrete path marks the route around the city. Along grave circle A, the palace, temples, and many other buildings. 

Cyclopean walls, constructed for fortification, enclose the entire citadel. From these walls, the view of the surrounding landscape is breathtaking and reveals how well-positioned this ancient city used to be. At a both strategic and defensive location in the area. You will be continuously drawn between being amazed by the ancient structures, to being astonished by the magnificent views.

The underground cistern

At the most eastern point of the archeological site, you can find a rare experience, the underground cistern. Although its entrance looks like a cave in the fortification wall, it is actually the beginning of a spectacular piece of architecture.

The cave marks the entrance of a passage. This passage is a staircase that leads 18 meters deep and at the end of this staircase, there is an even deeper structure. A well, made of clay, collects water from a natural spring. This well used to provide a continuous supply of water to the citadel, and is one of the oldest underground aqueducts you can visit in Greece.

Unfortunately, only a part of the tunnel is open to the public. However, this is enough to reveal how advanced and intelligent the Mycenaen civilization used to be. You can enter the tunnel, descend part of the stairs and see how deep down the staircase reaches. However, even the giant stones that enclose the stairs in an arc-like shape, are an art piece by themselves.

The tholos tombs

After visiting the ancient city of Mycenae, you can enter grave circle B. Located just outside of the city’s wall, the tombs of Aegisthus and Clymentemnesta are worth the climb down the steep hillside.

The tombs are called the tholos tombs. Tholo in Greek means dome, which perfectly describes the shape of the tombs as they are large underground domes, or beehive tombs in English. But how were these impressive underground shapes created?

First, the Greeks make a large round opening into a hill. Inside this opening, they placed huge stones in circular rows, on top of each other. Each row sticks out slightly over the previous one, to decrease the diameter of the circle of stones gradually. They continue this process upward, until the circle’s diameter is as small as a singular stone. This is the top of the dome.

After the Greeks completed the dome shaped-structure, they restored the hill, by adding soil on top of the tomb. The dome shape of the structure made it survive underground. The tomb of Clymentemnesta proves the strength of the dome design. When a theatre was built on top of it at later times, the structure was able to hold the weight.

The entrance to the tombs is a wide path leading into the otherwise hidden dome. This path is called the dromos in Greek. This dromos leads to the tomb’s entrance, marked by a gate, constructed similar to the Lion Gate. 

The tomb of Aegisthus is destroyed at the top. However, the tomb of Clymentemnesta is fully preserved and impressive. The scale of the tombs at Mycenae is unbelievable, and the acoustics inside adds to their size. They are real masterpieces of ancient Greek architecture.

Tips:

  • The whole site, except for the tombs, is accessible by wheelchair. However, the concrete path is very steep at some points, so keep this in mind.
  • Visit the site in the order described above. You will go from being amazed to being more amazed, and being beyond amazed!
  • Bring plenty of water and sunscreen when you visit the archeological site of Mycenae during the summer months. The location, on top of a hill, requires quite a hike, and shading is scarce at the citadel. Therefore, it is better to visit off-season. This period will also show a clearer view of the landscape around.
  • Don’t forget to visit the museum and the tomb of Agamemnon. The museum is located slightly downhill, on the North of ancient Mycenea. You can find the tomb on the road down to the village of Mykines.
  • Combine a visit to Mycenae with Epidaurus, Nafplio, the Sunken City, the Dolines of Didyma, or any of the beaches close by.
  • You will have to pay entrance to enter Mycenae. A ticket costs €12,- from April to October. Off-season and for children, the price is €6,-. There is another ticket available that is valid for three days and combines Mycenae with other museums and ancient sites in the area. This ticket costs €20,-.
  • Mycenea is open from 8 AM to 8 PM during the summer months. When traveling outside this season, you should check the opening hours before your visit since they change each month.

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Experience the ancient theatre of Epidaurus

In the north of Peloponnese, close to Nafplion and just 2 hours away from Athens, lies the ancient city of Epidaurus. Epidaurus was a small city established in the sixth century B.C. Today, it is a big tourist attraction due to the most well-preserved ancient theatre. The site is on the list of UNESCO world heritage and is famous for its acoustics. Epidaurus is known as the most impressive ancient theatre in the world. But what is the true experience of visiting this place?

Argolis, Peloponnese

Archeological site

1 hour

€6 – 12,-
depending on age and time

Yes

Yes

History

The city of Epidaurus was not like the average ancient city. Since the sixth century B.C., it is known as the healing center of the classical world. Ill people from all over Greece would come here to visit the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Treatment would involve a cleansing diet and healing through dreams. But there are also records from performed surgeries and the use of medication.

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus was created as a part of the healing practice. It was believed that the observation of dramatic shows could increase not only mental but also physical health. The original theatre was completed in the fourth century B.C. with 34 rows. Later, in roman times (2nd century B.C.), 21 more rows were added. The complete theatre provides space for about 14.000 spectators.

Architecture

The theatre of Epidavros is an architectural masterpiece designed by the architect Polykleitos. It is built as part of the Cynortion mountain and looks over the lush landscape below. Impressive and giant gates mark the entrance on both sides of the theatre.

The gate at the entrance of the theatre, against the high walls that surround the theater’s koilon or cavea.

From the entrance, you first see the perfectly circular stage, the orchestra, with a width of about 25 meters. The center of the stage is the center of the entire theatre. This spot is marked by a small circular stone, the thymele or altar. This is the stone on which the actor in ancient Greek times would stand to reach all the spectators with his voice.

Around the stage are the 55 rows of seats, the koilon or cavea. With a radius of 60 meters and at a 26-degree incline, these rows make the theatre most impressive. The scale and the height, the perfect symmetry, and the excellent preservation. The theatre of Epidaurus is one of the few places that make you understand the scale of ancient Greek society.

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Theatre experience

The instructions for visiting the theatre of Epidaurus are clear. You leave your travel partner on the circular stone plate in the middle of the stage while you start to climb up. After approximately 110 steps, you sit down on the highest row. When your friend below speaks, and you can hear every word.

In reality, however, I was not surprised when I tried to communicate with my boyfriend on stage. I could vaguely hear some of his words, but my ears mostly caught the sound of crickets around. How could it be that I was finally at this famous architectural masterpiece, and all I felt was disappointment? Was the whole story about the theatre just a way to lure tourists?

Aggrieved, I climbed down the stairs and sat in a row halfway in the theatre. When putting my phone back in my pocket, I heard a coin drop. Where did my money fall? I searched around but couldn’t see it. Another coin drops. What is happening? How can I be losing money I did not know I had with me?

Confused, I looked at the stage. And at this moment I realized just how special the theatre actually is. A man, standing in the middle of the stage, was dropping his coins. The sound started 40 meters away, but according to my ears, it sounded right next to me. That’s impressive acoustics!

The truth about the acoustics

What they often forget to tell about the theatre is how the material contributes to the acoustics. The theatre’s benches are made of limestone, except for the first marble rows for special guests. Limestone has the ability to filter out low-frequency sound and amplify high-frequency. With this material, the noise of the crowd is absorbed while the higher tones from the stage travel from bench to bench, to reach even the spectators in the highest rows.

This is why my boyfriend was surprised when I spoke to him from the stage, but reversed, the acoustics failed. His, and many other men’s voices, are too low to be amplified. So when you plan on visiting Epidaurus with a male travel partner, remember to use a coin!

The limestone benches and the theatre of Epidaurus

How did the theatre work in ancient times?

The material’s acoustics made me wonder. Did men plan in ancient Greek theatres? Or was it just women and boys before the age of puberty? Or is it the aging of the limestone that changed the acoustic aspects of the material?

No. 

The limestone properties did not change. And strangely, ancient Greek actors were men. One man, actually, during the time of the completion of Epidaurus. And although the number of men on stage changed over time, actresses were never allowed on an ancient Greek stage.

However, this one man used costumes and masks to define the different roles he played. And it is these masks that are the key to good acoustics. Ancient Greek masks both amplify the actor’s voice and change its acoustical qualities. It was the mask that helped the actor’s voice to work together with the limestone material and travel through the entire theatre. Amazing!

Tips:

  • Attend a theatre at the summer festival of Epidaurus. For a unique experience, Epidaurus offers ancient theatre plays, performed at the ancient theatre during the summer months. After sunset, you can watch a play from the same spot the Greeks used to sit thousands of years ago. For more information and tickets, check https://aefestival.gr.
  • Combine with a visit to the museum and the rest of the site. At Epidaurus, not only the theatre is well-preserved. Instead, the whole site provides a unique look into ancient times. 
  • Epidaurus is close to Mycenae, another UNESCO world heritage site. Mycenae is famous for its lion’s gate and well-preserved tombs.
  • When visiting during summer, the temperatures at Epidaurus might ask for a refreshing swim afterward. At Palaia Epidaurus, a picturesque town on the coast, 15 km away from the ancient site, you can find the sunken city of Epidaurus. Here, you can swim around the ruins of an ancient villa, a rare and exciting experience. Don’t forget to bring water shoes and snorkeling or diving gear.
  • The site of Epidaurus is well accessible for people with a disability. Paths are paved or asphalt. However, the theatre and the paths between the ruins are not.
  • Bring water, sunblock, and a hat. Not unlike anywhere else in Greece, temperatures in summer can rise to 40 degrees Celsius. Be prepared and protect yourself. Drink lots of water while you explore the ancient site.

Frequently asked questions

How to reach the ancient theatre of Epidaurus?

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus is easiest to reach by (rental) car from Athens in about two hours. For tourists, there are also many organized day tours to the site from Athens and other towns around. However, when joining these tours in summer, be prepared for high temperatures since you will reach in the middle of the day.

Do I have to pay an entry fee at Epidaurus?

Yes. A ticket for the ancient site of Epidaurus, the theatre, and the museum costs 12 euros per adult and 6 euros for children in summer. From November till March, tickets are half-price. There are a couple of days each year on which entry is free. Examples are the 18th of April, International Monuments Day, and the 18th of May, International Museums Day.

What are the opening hours of the theatre of Epidaurus?

In general, the site is open when the sun is up. From 8 am to 8pm in the summer months, and from 8 am till 5 pm during the winter. In April, September, and October it is best to check the opening hours before your visit. During holidays the site is either closed or has adjusted opening hours.

What is the best way to experience the acoustics of the ancient theatre of Epidaurus?

Drop a coin in the middle of the stage, and check how many people start looking around for money. Many guides tell you to speak from the center point of the theatre, but the best and most impressive experience is dropping a coin. You can literally hear a pin drop at all the 14.000 seats. 

Meteora

Breathtaking and magical. Six monasteries on top of huge rock pillars that seem surreal. No words nor pictures can capture the beauty and impressiveness of this Greek landmark, where history, spirituality, nature and architecture truly come together. No wonder Meteora is on the UNESCO world heritage as well as the Natura 2000 list. Definitely visit this place when you’re around in Greece!

Location Overview

Thessaly, Central Greece

Nature / Religion

3 hours
to 3 days

Free
€3,- p.p. per monastery

Be careful

Average

Landscape

Meteora is located in central Greece, in the Thessaly region. Thessaly’s landscape is extreme. From the highest mountain in Greece, Mount Olympus, to endless cultivated plains around Trikala and Larissa. The most unique part of Thessaly’s landscape is Meteora. Where giant rock columns rise from a lush green forest.

How the rock pillars at Meteora are created remains kind of a mystery. The rocks consist of a mixture of sandstone and something called conglomerate. Conglomerate consists of small rounded pebbles and sand, created from sediment deposited by fast-flowing rivers or by waves on beaches.

There are multiple theories about how nature was able to create the pillars of Meteora. They could have been created by the sea, rivers, earth-movement, or extreme weather conditions. Most probably, Meteora is a result of a combination of all of the above. However, a real scientifically proven origin is yet to be found. What is known, is that the pillars date back about 60 million years ago and are a true natural wonder.

religious site Meteora with monastery on a rock pilar with a lush forest below
View from one monastery to another between the rock columns

Mythology

Like all unexplainable or unique natural locations, Greek mythology has a story to explain the existence of Meteora. The Olympian Gods, led by Zeus, fought a war against their ancestors, the Titans. The fight flattened the earth, creating the large valley around Meteora. However, the Titans who lost the battle turned into stone and stand in the landscape as large rock pillars.

History

The rock pillars of Meteora have always been a special place for humans. In the most famous cave in the area, the Theopetra cave, signs of the transition from Neanderthals to modern humans have been found. As well as the change from hunter-gatherers to farmers.

The history of Meteora as a holy place for the Greek Orthodox church starts in the Byzantine era. In the 9th century A.D., monks searched for the caves in the rock pillars to practice their faith in peace and solitude.
Later, from the 11th century, the caves of these hermits became the place to hide from Turkish occupants. In the 14th century, the first of the twenty monasteries on top of stone pillars were constructed.

Access to the monasteries was originally difficult and required a literal leap of faith. A long ladder or large net was the only way to reach this religious site. Since the 1920s, improvements in accessibility have opened the monasteries up to the public.

During the Second World War, Meteora was bombed. And in the 1950s an earthquake shook the famous rock pillars. Fortunately, this marvelous and unique place still exists today.

The monasteries

In the 14th and 15th century, a total of twenty monasteries at the tops of the stone pillars are constructed in Meteora. Six of them still remain standing today. The other fourteen have unfortunately become inaccessible ruins, taken over by nature.

Experience:

Today, there are multiple ways to explore the unique and beautiful area of Meteora. You can visit the monasteries by car, or with a guided tour. A concrete road takes you through the area of Meteora. Along this road are various viewpoints are well as parking areas from which you can easily access the monasteries by bridges and steps.

But you can make the experience of Meteora as religious or adventurous as you want. It is possible hike up the rock pillars from the village of Kalabaka and in the area are various hiking trails with different levels of difficulty.

No matter how you choose to discover the unique landscape of Meteora, be prepared to be blown away by the beauty of the area. During every season and every time of day, this landmark is marvelous.

The Great Meteoron Holy Monastery

Tips:

  • The name Meteora comes from the ancient Greek word meteoros. This means, raised from the ground, which is exactly what the monasteries at Meteora look like.
  • Have you seen Game of Thrones? Real images of Meteora were used in the view from Tyrion’s cell in the castle Vale, above the clouds.
  • The Thessaly region is known as the hottest part of Greece. During summer, temperatures can easily rise up to 35 or even 40 degrees. Bring enough water and plan your visit early in the morning. Even better is to visit in spring or fall.
  • Even when you’re not able to climb these, due to physical reasons or fear of heights, the area is still worth your visit, you don’t actually have to get inside one to be impressed by this landmark.
  • Monasteries in Greece often close early and have one day a week on which they do not open at all. When you want to visit one of the six monasteries in particular, make sure to check the opening hours before planning your trip. A tip for visiting in summer is to wear appropriate clothing, covering your shoulders, upper arms and knees. Read our guide for visiting religious sites in Greece before your visit.

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