The Olympics is one of our favorite events; we love to watch the best in the world compete at all kinds of sports. The place where that concept was born is the site known as Olympia in Greece. While it is in ruins now, extensive archeological work has uncovered the foundations of Olympia. They have even started some restoration work that gives you some sense of what this place was like.
Getting to Olympia:
You are likely to arrive at Olympia by way of the port city of Katakolon. This is how we came in from our cruise and I think it is the main way in for most people. The port of Katakolon is a tiny town whose sole focus is on getting tourists to Olympia. Because of this a bus can very easily be gotten from Katakolon for about €10 round trip per person.
We were a little worried about being able to get from the port to the historic site, but there are literally people standing in the main street selling you bus tickets. Just make sure you understand when the bus is leaving Katakolon, and when the bus is returning from Olympia. You don’t want to get stuck. Our bus driver was nice and placed a piece of paper in the windshield telling when the bus would be returning.
If this is your first trip to Greece the ride from Katakolon to Olympia may surprise you. Most of the way you will be in a constant state of passing piles and piles of garbage along the road. It was a little disconcerting to us just how bad things appeared to be in this part of Greece.
The bus will eventually arrive at the bus parking which is at the base of a trail that leads to the historical site and museum. You walk along this trail for a few minutes before arriving at the ticket booth. You will likely have to wait in line for a while here to buy your tickets. The wait will depend largely on the language skills of the booth attendants and the competence/incompetence of your fellow tourists.
When we were there tickets were €12 for adults, free for all children under 18, and €6 for a student from outside the EU. Note that if you are a student you should definitely bring your school ID to Europe with you as it can save you a significant amount of money. One ticket will get you admitted to both the archeological site and the museum. We would also suggest getting a map of the archeological site to help you.
What You Will See at Olympia:
Once you have bought your tickets you will be able to either go to the museum or to the ruins. If you are limited on time you should visit the ruins first, they are after all the main attraction of the site. The ruins area is pretty large. Paths wind around foundation stones and some columns have been restored to help you conceive of what the architecture would have looked like in its heyday. Plaques around the site inform you of the buildings once supported by the foundations and their functions to ancient athletes.
You will probably be able to make your way through most of the ruins, but there are a few that you want to make sure you see.
The Colonnade is the area where it is most easy to see what it would have looked like in ancient times. This is because most of the columns have been restored here. It is one of the first places you come to when following the path down from the ticket booth.
The Arena is another must see because it is where events actually took place in the early Olympics. You get to see the actual starting line which is still in the ground where racers once stood to compete, and you get to walk through the remains of the tunnel they walked through to the cheers of ancient grecian crowds.
The Temple of Zeus is in ruins now, and the statue is long gone, but the fact that this was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World is enough to make it worth visiting what remains. If you’ve ever seen the Disney movie Hercules and wondered where it is he goes to talk with Zeus this is that place. When you visit the museum you will actually see some of the statues that adorned the outside of this building in ancient times.
Another place you might want/need to visit is the water closet (restroom). There is quite fortunately a free one located at the back of the archaeological site. Since most toilettes in Europe come at a cost we suggest you take advantage of this free one while visiting.
When you leave the ruins you just need to follow the signs and you will arrive at the museum, fortunately for us the signs are written in English as well as Greek. On the way to the museum there are some gardens, but we didn’t have time to see them.
The museum itself has a lot of artifacts, but is not one of those crazily crowded museums. It has a nice historical flow from room to room, but the main event, the statues from the outside of the Temple of Zeus, is in the central room. Your enjoyment of this museum will likely depend on your appreciation of ancient Greek culture, and how much of you have already seen on your trip of Greek artifacts and statuary. To be honest I probably would have enjoyed the statues from the Temple of Zeus more if our visit to the Louvre hadn’t already saturated my small appreciation of Greek sculpture.
In the front of the museum there is a scale diorama of the whole Olympia site as it would have looked in ancient times. I found this to be particularly useful to look at to get a better sense of the ruins we had just walked through.
There is free wifi in the museum (the first we found on our cruise) but it was weak at best while we were there, allowing me to receive emails but not send any.
Olympia is a must see when visiting Greece. Is it worth traveling around the world to see? Probably not on its own, but as part of a larger tour of the islands you definitely don’t want to miss it. It’s not strenuous to visit and can easily be done with children. Just make sure you or your kids don’t step on any of the stones because even if they aren’t roped off the attendants will yell at you. Allow at least 3 hours to see the historic site and museum.