What a sight it must have been when the ancient Greek seafarers laid their eyes on the majestic Temple of Poseidon at the very tip of cape Sounio. There must have been no better reward for sailors who braved the waves of the Aegean Archipelago than the view of the orderly marble columns atop the rugged rocks that form the cape of Sounio.
A sign of approaching safe harbor for sailors who navigated towards Athens and a sign of farewell for departing ones, the temple of Poseidon has stood silently for thousands of years as a reminder of respect for mighty Poseidon and his capricious ocean. The temple's proportions are humble and serene, and yet the structure is elevated in a showmanship manner through the massive foundation that raises it so it can be easily spotted by sailors from afar. While most of the ornaments have been removed, the Doric columns impose a statement of strength, durability and serenity on the entire landscape. The aesthetics of the temple communicate a message most appropriate and welcome for those who braved the ocean in small vessels at the mercy of Poseidon's desires.
Cape Sounio has been recognized since prehistoric times as a special place of worship, and was an important sanctuary during the Greek Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods. There are two sanctuaries present on the cape: the sanctuary of Poseidon and the sanctuary of Athena; two gods that were held in high esteem by the ancient Athenians. The ruins as we see them today are the result of the renovations that took place during the 5th century B.C., and replaced a succession of buildings that date back to the archaic period.
The location of cape Sounio at the tip of Attica rendered it as a location of strategic military importance, and thus it was fortified with a mighty wall and guarded constantly by a garrison which ensured that the shipping lanes to Athens remained open. It is also most likely the place that Aegeus plunged to his death after he glimpsed the dark sails of Theseus' ship approaching, thus naming the Aegean Sea after his legend.
Standing atop the cape the horizon is full of sea three quarters of the way and as the rock breaks the stepping plane abruptly towards the smashing waves below, I could not help but feel as if the whole rock was just a floating platform; A massive raft which detached itself from land and history and floated softly along the waves towards the expanse of the Aegean Sea and the depths of History.
Sounio is about one hour away from the center of Athens. The drive is a comfortable one once you get to The Attiki Odos. On site, there is one restaurant with a good view of the temple of Poseidon, and one smaller store that sells knickknacks and souvenirs and bottled water.
Best time to visit is early in the morning, before 10:00 AM. At this time the sun is low on the horizon and the bus loads of other tourists are still eating breakfast at their hotels. After 11 AM, the summer sun can be a real challenge to deal with on top of the barren hill that has offers no shade.
Besides the Temple of Poseidon, there are a few other ruins of visual interest. You will see the remnants of the defensive walls and traces of ancient building foundations but not much else. But the view from top of the peninsula makes up for the sparsity of the site. The low hill is surrounded completely by the blue sea (except the north approach to the site), and it's perhaps the only site where one can really comprehend the importance of seafaring in ancient Greece.
From the parking lot, an uphill path will take you through the restaurant to the archaeological site where you can buy your ticket at the entrance. Ask for a site plan if you don't get one with your ticket, but don't be surprised if the ticket agent tells you that they have run out. It happened to me twice so, I should advise to bring along your own site plan so you can orient yourself once you are walking among the ruins.
The temple of Poseidon is a very photogenic one, albeit you have to enjoy it from a distance because it is roped to protect it from ware and tear. The ruins that remain date back to the glorious classical era of ancient Greece, and it was part of the ambitious building project of Perkles that included the Acropolis of Athens and the Hephaisteion in the Agora. It has been the ground for countless graffiti artists throughout the centuries and a favorite topic of travel guides is to point out the graffiti location of famous persons like Lord Byron.
Sounio was a place of worship, but it's importance lies in it's strategic position that guards the waterways toward Athens. Ancient Athenians had a garrison of triremes stationed at Sounio to act as the avant-garde sentinel that acted as an alarm and the first line of defense. The temple atop the hill was visible for miles from the sea and signaled to approaching ships that they were entering a place of culture, power, and prestige.
In terms of amenities, they are none on the archaeological site itself. If you need a rest room, you need to exit the site and use the souvenir shop's facilities (about 5 minute walk from the temple). There is no water available, so bring your own (at least two small bottles in the summer) and don't count on the souvenir shop to be open if you go before 10 AM (the restaurant will not sell water to tourists unless they sit on a table).
There is a decent beach below the hill, on the west side of the bay in front of a hotel. To get to it you have to go through the hotel, but it's open to all.
The entire site is very inspiring with the harmonic combination of sea, sun, and ancient ruins, that bring the whole package of "Greece" together in one view (or photo), so most package trips to Athens include a "sunset dinner" at Sounio either as part of the package or as an additional excursion. It's a good place to spend a relaxing evening if you have a few days to spend around Athens.