Five thousand years of history have obviously left a mark on the Greek landscape. Many ancient Greek monuments, cities, and landmarks have traveled through the eons under the sun and some have even remained in use (like the Acropolis for instance), while many others fell into obscurity and were buried under the ground only to be unearthed by archaeologist in the past two hundred years.
Such ancient sites appear today as monuments to the Greek ideas and culture that influenced the subsequent generations of the western civilization. For those brought up immersed in the western civilization, to study the ancient Greek monuments is to study one's own heritage and self.
Many visitors have made it a point to return to Greece year after year to enjoy the sun, the culture, and to study the ancient monuments. For those, Greece has unlimited resources to offer. Thousands of ancient sites, large and small, await to be seen, and unknown numbers await for the archaeologists' brush to uncover them.
But for those visitors who plan only one trip to Greece what should they see? What ancient sites should they visit?
Here is my own list of ancient Greek sites not to be missed. This is a list that relies heavily on the importance and/or beauty of each site. Once you visit these, you will want to go back to Greece for more, and I guarantee, Greece will not disappoint you.
More than any other monument, the Acropolis of Athens represents Classical Greek culture at its zenith. While modern Athens is not on my top list of places to visit in Greece, a stay of a few days is imperative to experience its ancient monuments and rich museums.
As a place of influence in ancient east Mediterranean affairs Delphi has no rivals. The Delphic oracles were received by Persian kings and Athenian leaders and they indirectly helped shape history as we know it. The landscape is fantastic, the ruins well preserved, and the site's museum houses some of the most important art works from ancient Greece.
The Olympic games have evolved over the years to become the most spectacular show business in the world, and they travel every four years from one host country to another, but in Ancient Greece, all "civilized" cities gathered in ancient Olympia to participate in athletic competitions and cultural festivals.
The vast sanctuary lies about in ruins, but the Epidaurus theater itself is a visual treat. Perfectly preserved it is still used today for festivals and concerts.
While most travel guides would pick another Minoan palace (Knossos) as the best destination in Crete, my personal visits to both places have placed Phaistos in a special place in my heart. Phaistos felt much more genuine of a place, while Knossos --spectacular as it is-- seemed a bit more contrived. If you do visit Crete, it is possible to visit both Knossos and Phaistos during one visit to Heraklion.
This unique archeological site / museum is well worth a visit to experience Macedonian culture. The tomb of Phillip II of Macedon has yielded excellent examples of artifacts which are exhibited under the Great Tumulus alongside the ancient tombs.
Akrotiri (in Santorini)
The "Pompeii" of Greece. Akrotiri is the tiny prehistoric cycladic settlement that was buried under ashes when the volcano of Thera erupted. The inhabitants seem to have had ample time to evacuate the island since no bodies were found during excavations. The town and the buildings themselves however have been preserved in remarkably good condition under the volcanic ash, and offer a rear glimpse into the life and culture of the Cycladic civilization.
Dodoni (near Ioannina)
If you are staying in Southern Greece, or one of the Aegean islands, Dodoni will probably be out of your way. It is located at the North East part of the mainland, nested in high mountains near Ioannina. The ruins and the oracle's history are a delight, anchored by a most impressive and perfectly preserved ancient theater.
While the ruins themselves at Mycenae require much imagination to appreciate and understand, a visit to the citadel that dominated Mycenaean Greece is a imperative for those who have read the Iliad and want to see the place from where Agamemnon ruled bronze age Greece.
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