Ancient Olympia is located at the west end of the Peloponnese peninsula in the midst of a fertile plain between the rivers Alphonse and Kladeos. It is located about 20min. drive from the town of Pyrgos.
The complex of ancient structures at the south slopes of Kronos hill developed over many centuries into a sanctuary. A multitude of deities were represented there during the bronze age until it was dominated by the worship of Zeus at the end of the Mycenaean era.
The history of habitation of Olympia is lost in prehistoric times, but buildings have been unearthed dating as far back as the middle Helladic era (1600-1900 BCE). It is believed that the first god worshiped at the sanctuary was Kronos who was replaced by his son Zeus about the same time that Doric tribes replaced the Mycenaeans in the Peloponnese around 1100 BCE. The largest temple at the center of the Olympia sanctuary is thus dedicated to Zeus.
Olympia is the birthplace of the Olympic games which started on these very grounds. In the year 776 BCE the first Olympiad took place at the sanctuary of Zeus and repeated every four years for centuries thereafter. The date of the first Olympic games (776 BCE) is the first accurate chronology of historical Greece since the names of the victors were faithfully recorded and the ancient Greeks measured time back to the centuries by referring to the different Olympic games.
The Olympic games were a tradition that endured centuries of time emanating a feeling of unity through competition that galvanized the independent Greek city-states into a coherent cultural entity. The games were so important to the Greeks that they put aside their traditional differences, and even went as far as ceasing open hostilities in war time in order to descent to the sanctuary of Olympia to compete in the honorable games. The tradition of togetherness helped the Greek colonies retain close ties with mainland Greece, and acted as a catalyst for the development of what we now know as the Hellenic contribution to the birth of Western civilization.
Winning an Olympic event was an honorable endeavor for any Greek athlete. Upon winning, his home city would tear down part of their defensive walls as a gesture of confidence in the ability of its defenders. Victory in the Olympic games was one of the highest honors bestowed upon a mortal, but besides a crown made of olive branches no material reward was afforded to the winners. One of the pivotal points of Greek thinking was the nobility of man as a free being who can overcome all obstacles in search of virtue. The Olympic games, in their own unique way, aided the formulation of the kind of intellect that searched for answers in nature, and a respect for rules that made co-existence of free men possible.
It is not hard to imagine how the Olympic games cultivated the collective consciousness of the Hellenes looking at the ruins which span several hundred years as they stand silently among the low trees at Olympia. The buildings visible today represent every era of Greek civilization. The temple of Hera with the oversized Capitals on the Doric columns dates back to Archaic times (built in the 7th c. BCE), while most of the buildings visible today - including the Temple of Zeus - were built during the Classical era. Some of the structures encountered when the visitor enters the sanctuary were built later in Hellenistic times while some of the better preserved buildings were Roman and Byzantine creations.
One of the most important features of the site is the stadium of Olympia which is located at the southeast end of Kronos hill. It is presented today as it was in ancient times with its flat terrain where the athletes competed, and the grassy slopes where the spectators used to sit. There are a few stone stands for the Hellanodikes (literally"the judges of the Hellenes), and the marble starting blocks which break the monotony of the stadium's plane in an austere arrangement fitting of a people who cherished virtue born of humility without excess.
In ancient times Greek men from all corners of the Mediterranean made the pilgrimage to Olympia to pay tribute to Zeus, to forge friendships and alliances, and to enjoy or compete in poetry, music, and athletic events. The stadium along with the hippodrome which is now buried under the olive groves to the southeast were the main venues where athletic events took place.
In the center of the sanctuary the remains of the imposing temple of Zeus anchor the surrounding landscapes with the monumental building foundation and the scattered massive columns which once protected the gold and ivory statue made by Phedias.
The temple's proportions and imposing scale is surprising given its small 27.68 x 64.12 m footprint. The temple's Doric columns are scattered like dominoes about the raised foundations but in ancient times they supported one of the most impressive pediments of any Greek temple. The pediment statues depict the race between Pelops and Oinomaos (East pediment) and the dynamic composition of the Centaurs abducting Deidameia on the West.
Presently the statues are beautifully reconstructed inside the nearby Olympia museum alongside the metopes of the temple of Zeus, in one large room, and next to a host of art and artifacts unearthed from the site and of course, alongside one of the masterpieces of western civilization: the statue of Hermes by Praxiteles.
For the visitor, Olympia is one of the sites that should be included in any itinerary of Greek site-seeing. It is one of the easiest archaeological sites to traverse since it has fairly level wide paths to walk through, lavatories, and plenty of shade under the many trees.
It is also a site easy to get to through a well maintained highway from Patra. You can get there by bus from Patra. From Athens, there is no direct bus to Olympia. Take the bus to the nearby town of Pyrgos (about 4 hours), and change to a local bus to Olympia (about 20min). See links to the bus schedules on the sidebar here. By rental car, the drive from Athens to Olympia takes about 4 hours, so an overnight trip is recommended.
It is possible to combine some of the major archaeological sites like Delphi, Mycenae, and Epidaurus in one short tour. Take a look at the suggested itineraries for more details.
The archaeological site and museum are within walking distance from the modern town via the provincial road (about 5 or 10 minute walk.) and there is usually plenty of free parking if you drive there.
The nearby modern town of Olympia is well suited to host visitors with some very nice hotels, a plethora of restaurants and tourist shops, and some nice beaches within a half hour drive. It is a sleepy town (similar to Delphi sans the spectacular views) with a couple of main streets lined up with back to back tourist shops and restaurants.
One of our favorite places to eat is Venus restaurant about 4 km before one reaches Ancient Olympia through the national road. The food is excellent, the large air-conditioned room perfect, and the swimming pool is a great place to cool off. The restaurant is only open for lunch and seems to be a favorite stop for just about every tour bus that visits Olympia.
We do not usually give specific hotel recommendations unless we had a positive personal experience in one. For our overnight trip we stayed at the hotel Europa which is a subsidiary of Best Western. It is on the higher price scale, but we would stay there again when visiting Olympia. The view from atop the hill is excellent, the service is immaculate, and the buildings are clean and well maintained. It has a large swimming pool and it is located a bit out of town. The nearby Olympia hotel also looked like a good choice with comparable accommodations and there are plenty of small hotels and rental rooms right in town.