The Greek gods and goddesses were worshipped and celebrated all over Greece and the Mediterranean. Their ruined temples — some more excavated and interesting than others — can be found everywhere, from the heart of Greece's greatest cities to the middle of a vineyard to the bottom of a gorge or the edge of a cliff.
Still, seeking out the best of them can add an element of fun detective work to your Greek vacation. Maybe it's not exactly like the Hollywood tour of celebrities' homes, but visiting the temples of the Greek gods and goddesses can be fascinating. Here's a quick guide to the homes of the 'stars' of Greek mythology.
The Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was probably the most important international shrine of the ancient world. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi is about halfway up the sanctuary on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. And if you make the climb, you might at first be disappointed by what looks like six columns and a platform of dressed stones cut through with steps and passages that you cannot enter.
But take a moment first to enjoy the god's view. Like all celebrities, Apollo chose the best views for himself. Below the temple, in the Valley of Phocis, a deep green river of millions of olive trees spreads and plunges from the mountains all the way to the sea. Consider that supplicants to the god had to make the climb all the way up from the sea before visiting his Oracle.
Apollo spoke in prophesy and riddles through the voice of the Pythia — the Delphic Oracle, and the fate of the ancient world was shaped. Kings, ambassadors and military leaders, friends and enemies both, came from all over the known world to consult the mysterious oracle. The place was a bit like Geneva or the Hague — it was a neutral place where normally warring parties could meet to negotiate, worship and compete in games.
The Temple first because associated with Apollo at about 800 B.C. but it's likely the oracle is much earlier, dating from about 1400 B.C., the era of the semi-mythological Myceaneans (think Helen of Troy and Odysseus).
How to Visit
Delphi is in the province of Fokida in the center of Central Greece. The site lies on the EO48 between the towns of Amfissa and Arachova. It's about two and a half hours from Athens by car and there are also frequent bus services from Athens Long Distance Bus Terminal B on Aghia Dimitriou Aplon Street. The archaeological site is open almost every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m, Visit the website for full information about opening hours and ticket prices.
Aphrodite's role as the goddess of love, beauty and, let's be frank, sex, may be one reason that evidence of her temples can be so difficult to find. In ancient times, they may have been centers of holy prostitution. In fact, her name is the root of the word aphrodisiac and there is evidence that she was worshipped at an archaeological site, now in Turkey known as Aphrodisias.
This association with sex may also be why that many sites associated with her were destroyed by later, more puritanical cultures. There is a small site attributed to the goddess in Figaleia, a town in the Western Peloponnese, about 50 miles northwest of Kalamata, The area, remote and difficult to reach, sits on a mountain top about 1,200 meters above sea level It is also the site of an important temple to Apollo and a small site devoted to Artemis.
A Better Idea
A far more practical idea is to have a look at the remnants of a shrine to Aphrodite in the northwest corner of the Ancient Agora of Athens. It is quite near the Temple of Hephaestus, Aphrodite's husband.
The main Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (now in Turkey) was rebuilt several times, eventually — in its third incarnation — becoming one of the wonders of the ancient world. Sadly if you are visiting Greece to look for it, besides the fact that the site is no longer in Greece, the temple is no longer standing.
Another site, in Brauron, also known as Vravrona, about 27 miles southeast of Athens, has the remains of the Sanctuary of Brauronian Artemis. This was one of Greece's most ancient and important sites. It is here that the bodies of the children of Agamemnon, Orestes and Iphigenia, were brought on the orders of the goddess. The site includes the temple as well as an arcade of Doric columns and a "porous" bridge that allowed access to the sanctuary over a sacred spring.
How to Visit
The site is open from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and has a small museum with helpful, English speaking staff. Parts of this site date from the 8th century B.C. so the museum contains artifacts from Greece's Archaic period. The site is reachable by a combination of Athens Metro and local buses, but it is complicated and most people either drive or book a tour. Viator offers a half-day tour of the Attica countryside south of Athens that includes a visit to Brauron for about $135 (in 2019). Or you can negotiate with a taxi driver to take you on the half hour drive. It should cost about €45 each way.
The gods of ancient Greece were a competitive lot who were constantly vying with each other for lovers, followers, worshippers and territories. Sometimes they got into spats for no reason at all. In the long run, it looks like Athena has had the last laugh. The grey-eyed goddess of wisdom, victory and maidens, daughter of Zeus, was not only the patron of Athens, the most important city state of ancient Greece. She still "presides" over one of the world's greatest cities from her perch on the Acropolis. Put that in your pipe and smoke it Apollo.
In fact, all of the Temples on the Acropolis are dedicated, in one way or another, to Athena. There is largest and most familiar, the Parthenon, considered to be architecturally perfect (in concept if not in current condition). It is dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the patroness of virgins and was built in the mid-fifth century B.C. at the height of Athenian power. Then there is the small, lovely Temple of Athena Nike, dedicated to her as goddess of victory. Next to the Propylaia, the ceremonial entrance to the Acropolis, it is the earliest Ionic temple on the Acropolis and was built about twenty years later. The Erechtheion is a temple dedicated to Poseidon and Athena Polias - Athena as patrol of Athens - and is the youngest of the three. It possibly replaced an earlier temple to Athena Polias that was destroyed in a war with the Persians. You may recognize it as the temple with the Caryatids, a row of columns — sculpted as female figures — who support part of the structure on their heads.
How to Visit
All three temples are included in the admission ticket for the Acropolis. Climb up to the entrance along Dionyssiou Areopagitou, a wide pedestrian avenue that winds through the pine woods and the archaeological sites of the south slope of Acropolis Hill. The site opens at 8:30 a.m. and there is a ticket kiosk, gift shop and rest rooms on the way up. You can buy a multi-day ticket for all the monuments on the Acropolis as well as the Ancient Agora and several other archaeological sites and museums at the ticket office here. It's €30 but there is an enormous range of categories of free or discounted tickets. A single day ticket costs €20 or €10 for students, seniors, the disabled and others entitled to concessionary prices.
Hephaestus, the god of the forge, crafts and fire, was the blacksmith of the gods and patron of Greek forges. He spent most of his time in a world of fire and was swarthy, lame and possibly hunchbacked. He was said to be the child of Zeus and Hera but his mother found him so ugly, she threw him in the sea. Luckily, a sea nymph, Thetis, found him and raised him. And even luckier, he hit the big time by marrying the trophy wife of all time, Aphrodite. She was unfaithful to him, but then, he was also unfaithful to her.
His temple is beneath the Acropolis on the northwest edge of the Ancient Agora of Athens. It is the the best preserved Doric temple in the world and was built around the same time as the Parthenon. From the Middle Ages was in used as a Greek Orthodox church which may account for its state of preservation.
How to Visit
The Ancient Agora of Athens is reached on a path that winds down the Acropolis Hill. The Temple of Hephaestus, also known as the Theseion, is probably it's most outstanding monument and is very easy to spot. It's included in the price of the Acropolis ticket. You cannot go inside it but it is possible to get much closer to it than to the Parthenon so you can peer between the columns and get a sense of what it was like to worship there. It also offers a good view of most of the Agora and, on sunny days — which is most days in Athens, it is very photogenic. Keep your smart phones at the ready.
When he's not rising out of the sea on a mountain of foam, trident held high, Poseidon is usually associated with high sea cliffs, places where he can gaze out across his endless watery domain. The high sea-cliffs at Cape Sounion, an easy day trip from Athens, fit the bill perfectly. The ruin of Poseidon's temple, a range of tall, Doric columns, is dramatic and the view of the Aegean Sea from the southernmost point of Attica is even more so. Even antiquity-jaded Athenians make the drive out to Sounion for the sunset.
The spot was particularly important to Athenians because this lookout from Cape Sounion controlled access to the Athenean port of Piraeus as well as the silver mines of the Lavrion Peninsula that made Athens rich. The temple, as it now stands, was built during the 5th century B.C., the so called Hellenic Golden Age, in the reign of Pericles. The remains of an earlier temple, dating from the Mycenaen or Minoan eras, are beneath it.
How to Visit
The most popular time to visit Cape Sounion is at sunset and, in good weather, even many Athenians drive out to this romantic spot. It's about 43 miles from Athens and takes about an hour and a half of mostly motorway driving. You can also easily book a day trip tour from one of Athens many travel agencies (look for them around Syntagma Square) that takes in Cape Sounion and and other attractions. A beach and resort hotel below and west of the monument is handy for visitors keen to also watch the sun rise from this spot. Admission to the archaeological site costs €8 or €4 for students, seniors and other concessions. It is open from 9 a.m. (9:30 in winter) until sunset.
Zeus was considered king of the gods. He was also considered father of the gods, not surprising since he fathered quite a few of them. When he could be bothered (and could stand the hectoring of his jealous wife, Hera), he presided over this unruly bunch from his throne on Mount Olympus, throwing out thunderbolts from his lofty perch at anyone who annoyed him, or whose wife he coveted. The rest of the time, he was out seducing and rogering maidens, nymphs, goddesses and even swans.
As you might imagine, there are temples dedicated to Zeus all over the place. The easiest one to visit is right in the middle of Athens. The Temple of Olympian Zeus stands in a tree encircled park around which typical Athenian traffic swirls night and day. At one time, it was the biggest temple in Greece and possibly in the world. So big, in fact, with hundreds of columns, that the Greeks themselves found it a bit embarrassing. Today there are 16 columns left, 15 standing and one on the ground, to give a hint of its past glory.
How To Visit
It's pretty hard to miss this temple but the site is fenced all the way around. The only way in is through the main gate, about 200 meters from the tourist bus stop near Hadrian's Gate on Leof. Andrea Siggrou, on the west side of the park. The site is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., every day, except for the usual holidays. Admission cost €8 (concessions €4). It's pretty steep for what there is to see at this site, but if you buy the five-day ticket package that includes the Acropolis and other Athens sites, it is included.