There are plenty of places you can go to find beautiful beaches, party islands, mouthwatering cuisine, and glorious sunny scenery. But very few of them combine all these things with mesmerizing remnants of antiquity that are woven with the myths and legends that more or less shaped the Western world. When it comes to epic mythological places, Greece is the word.
The heroes, villains, tragedies and sagas of Greek mythology have outlasted the rise and fall of countless empires. They’ve inspired entire religions (looking at you, ancient Rome), and been told and retold in as many languages and media as there are silver strands in the mighty beard of Zeus. Say what you want about those ancient Greeks; they knew how to tell a story.
So if you’re planning a sun-kissed odyssey to the country that gave the world democracy, mathematics, philosophy, moussaka, and Arianna Huffington, make your holiday truly legendary and explore some of the many ancient Greek mythology places that are still around today. Here are some must-visit ancient sites where some of the greatest Greek myths took place.
1. Acropolis Now!
The line between myth and history tends to become a little blurry when you go back 2,500 years. While it may be tricky to separate fact from fiction entirely, what is clear is that Athens’ emblematic hilltop citadel, the Acropolis, is steeped in both incredible history and some truly bombastic legends.
You should certainly devote a large chunk of your visit to the Acropolis to taking in the incredible complex of Classical architecture, discerning its Doric columns, and learning about how the father of democracy, Pericles, coordinated the construction of the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. It’s all jaw-dropping cultural history, if not exactly Clash of the Titans territory. But wait!
You might be interested to know that this very place is also the fabled location where a great showdown between Olympian gods Poseidon and Athena took place, to decide who got patronage over the city of Athens. In a contest devised by the founding king of Athens, King Cecrops, whichever deity could bestow the city with the best present would be declared the winner, and given naming rights over the city. Much as sports stadium names are auctioned off to corporate brands today.
In the Blue Corner, Poseidon, wielding his ever-trusty trident, cast his powerful prongs into the Acropolis and created a seawater well in the Erechtheion temple, known as the “sea” of the Erechtheion. There’s a shred of truth in every myth, and interestingly, traces of saltwater have been found in the temple wells, which, you’ll note are several kilometers away from the coast. Weird right? This is an actual geological anomaly found around Greece, attributed to the intrusion of seawater into coastal karst limestone aquifers. But let’s go with the Poseidon story for now.
Meanwhile, in the Red Corner, Athena, being the goddess of war and wisdom that she was, cast her trademark spear into the ground, whereupon a bountiful olive tree sprang up. Now, if you ask the average Greek person whether they’d prefer more olives or more seawater in their lives, you’ll likely come up with the winner of Athens’ patron deity contest – if the city’s name and Greece’s abundance of coastline didn’t already give the result away. Athena knew her audience.
This dramatic battle of godly wits is depicted in the sculpted statues that line the upper sides of the Parthenon, known as the Pediments of the Parthenon. You can also see scenes depicting the birth of Dionysius, the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus (courtesy of a blow from Hephaestus’ hammer), as well as Zeus cheating on his wife Hera, and lots of other scenes hewn into the ancient stone by master builder Phidias, the most famous sculptor of Classical Greece. UNESCO wept.
2. Day Trip to Delos
Like the remains of ancient Rome that are scattered in, around, and underneath the modern capital of Italy, much of the archeological remains of ancient Greece have been built around by various empires since, like the Romans, Andalusian Arabs, Venetians, Ottomans, and indeed, the industrialists and capitalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. As such, a lot of the Classical architecture and Greek mythology locations now primarily exist as small pockets of antiquity amidst a sea of modern infrastructure. Not so with the island of Delos!
In Greek mythology, Delos was the birthplace of twin gods Apollo and Artemis, who were the children of Zeus and his mistress at the time, Leto. Hell hath no fury like a goddess scorned, and when Hera discovered her husband’s infidelity, she had Leto turfed off the side of Mount Olympus in a hurry. Fearing for the safety of his spawn, Zeus called in a favor with his brother Poseidon, asking for a remote location where his children could be born. This was clearly much more in Poseidon’s wheelhouse than winning city patronage competitions, and the god of the sea found some prime real estate in the Aegean Sea called Delos. The rest is history… sort of.
Apollo was a busy guy. He was the god of archery, music, dance, truth, prophecy, healing diseases, poetry, and also, the small matter of keeping the sun in the sky. While Artemis had the slightly more modest mandate, being the goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation, chastity and, ironically, childbirth. Needless to say, these were two of the most important figures in the pantheon of the 12 Olympian gods, and due in large part to these myths, Delos has been a sacred site in Greek culture ever since.
There are no modern buildings on the island of Delos to this day, and the only people who are allowed to stay there are the archeologists working to uncover and preserve the island’s wealth of incredible ancient treasures and ruins. In fact, this entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and due to the lack of any modern buildings cluttering up the stunning temple ruins and archaeological relics, it’s the closest thing to Classical Greece that modern Greece has to offer.
The island is accessible with a 45-minute boat trip from Mykonos, and is home to an incredible museum of archeological treasures, as well as many breathtaking remains of temples, statues, theaters, and more. With no hotels or overnight stays allowed, it’s day trips to Delos only. But when it comes to breathtaking Greek mythology places, Delos is right up there with the most important, and most spectacular. It would be a real Greek tragedy not to visit.
3. Mount Olympus
It doesn’t get much more mythical than Mount Olympus. Of all the Greek mythology places you can visit today, this soaring volcanic juggernaut is likely the most unchanged over the millennia too. According to myth, Mount Olympus was created following the Titanomachy, the great battle between the 12 Olympian gods and the pre-Olympian gods, also known as the Titans.
After an earth-shaking 10-year war, the Titans were defeated and imprisoned by Zeus in the deepest abyss of the underworld known as Tartarus. And what better way to celebrate such a titanic victory than creating your very own mountain resort for gods, complete with panoramic views over all mankind, a gated community for the muses, and a private lightning-bolt shooting gallery?
It’s easy to understand why Mount Olympus was considered the seat of the gods in ancient Greece. With no fewer than 52 cloud-piercing peaks, and as many dramatic, plunging gorges, its highest point of elevation is a whopping 2,917 meters, making it one of Europe’s highest mountain peaks in terms of topographic prominence. Like Delos, it remains completely unspoiled by the tacky ravages of modernity, and is a national park and World Biosphere Reserve that’s home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna.
It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you’re feeling Herculean during your Greek escapade, hiking this epic eminence is truly one of the most rewarding and enchanting experiences you can have. There’s a multitude of hiking trails to follow, leading to aptly named places like the Muses Plateau and the Throne of Zeus. It goes without saying, but these are some of the most divine vistas you’ll find in all of Greece, which is saying a lot.
Some Greek mythology locations require an actively engaged imagination to really feel. But when you’ve surveyed the horizon over Olympus National Park from the Throne of Zeus, your sense of wonder will summon thunder! Even if you’re not an experienced climber or hiker up for the challenge of conquering the mountain, you can still admire the majestic scenery of Mount Olympus on the many walking trails scattered around its sweeping valleys and hillsides. The beach can wait.
4. A Mini Tour in Crete
It makes sense that the largest island in the Greek archipelago is also home to one of its most famous myths. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur has been associated with Crete for thousands of years, but in case you’ve been living in some kind of cave, here’s the short version:
When King Minos ascended to the throne of Crete, he prayed to Poseidon for a snow-white bull, which he would sacrifice back to the sea for good fortune. Poseidon held up his end of the bargain, but when Minos decided he quite liked his all-new bull, keeping it and attempting to trick the sea god, Poseidon cursed Minos’ wife to fall in love with the bull. Nine months and a lot of awkward conversations later, a monstrous half-bull, half-man chimera called the minotaur was born. He was a hungry boy with a taste for human flesh!
Upon the instruction of the oracle of Delphi, Minos instructed a giant labyrinth to be built to contain the beast, and so it was built by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus. Each year, 14 young Athenians were sent to the labyrinth to be fed to the Minotaur. But Theseus, a young prince and fearsome warrior from Athens, was having none of it.
Theseus told his father, King Aegeus, that he would slay the minotaur, and return with white sails on his ship to prove his victory. With the help of a magical ball of twine he got from the Cretan princess Ariadne, Theseus was able to navigate the labyrinth, shank the minotaur to death, and return home with the wind in his sails. Just one problem…
Chuffed with himself and his beast-slaying crusade, Theseus forgot to hoist up the white sails he had promised his father. So Aegeus, seeing his son’s ship sail into view with black sails, assumed Theseus was dead. With a flair for the dramatic, and not one for double-checking things, King Aegeus committed suicide there and then by throwing himself off a cliff and into the sea. This is where we get the name, the Aegean Sea, by the way.
This rich mythology and the actual history that surround King Minos and Minoan civilization are some of Crete’s biggest cultural draws. While the Minotaur’s labyrinth has sadly never been uncovered, you can explore the stunning archaeological remains of King Minos’ Palace in Knossos, which is generally thought to be close to the location of the labyrinth itself. The labyrinthian cave networks in Gortyn, a few kilometers from King Minos’ Palace, are commonly accepted to be the location where the myth of the Minotaur originated. The caves are even nicknamed Labyrinthaki Cave by locals.
King Minos’ Palace comprises a huge archaeological area and is sometimes known as the oldest city in Europe. With a history stretching back over 9,000 years, it’s home to neolithic relics as well as incredible Minoan artifacts and architecture. It’s easily one of the most fascinating ancient sites in Greece, and one of the most iconic in terms of Greek mythology locations too.
Steeped in Minotaur mythos and spellbinding Minoan history, Crete is one of the best Greek mythology places you can visit today. Every trip should include a tour of the Palace in Knossos, as well as the nearby Heraklion Archaeological Museum where you’ll find more ancient treasures that chronicle centuries of Cretan heritage. If you’re in the mood for a more modern take on ancient mythology and history, the Minoans World 3D Museum & 9D Cinema is a great way to immerse yourself in the timeless stories of Crete both real and mythological, with a fun, multi-sensory experience that kids will love too.
5. The Lost City of Atlantis
Of all the mythological places in ancient Greek lore, perhaps none is as culturally pervasive today as the lost city of Atlantis. A byword for lost civilizations and mythical cities, the fate and historicity of Atlantis has been written and speculated about for millennia. Atlantis was first mentioned in the writings of Greek philosopher Plato, who, when not seeding conspiracy theories about cursed underwater cities, is generally accepted to be the father of western thought, dialectical reasoning, and formal academia.
Much of Plato’s work is allegorical by nature, but perhaps given his stature as one of the most important figures in human history, his musings about the lost Atlantean civilization have endured as strongly as his philosophical legacy. Atlantis is mentioned in Plato’s Kritias and Timaios writings, in which he describes an advanced seafaring society located on a circular island with concentric rings around it. Having lost the supernatural power that their homeland once possessed, the warlike Atlanteans set about invading everywhere in sailing distance, until they came upon and were defeated by Athenian armies.
But things were about to get a lot worse for Atlantis. Following the defeat to Athens, the vengeful gods were enraged by the sheer hubris of the Atlantean power play. So, long story short, Poseidon got his purge on and the island of Atlantis was wiped off the map in a single trident swipe, lost for all eternity at the bottom of the sea. It all may have been intended as an allegory for the cyclical nature of civilization and the ultimate futility of technological advances in the face of nature’s furious wrath, but something about Plato’s story got its hooks into people.
The exact location of Atlantis, if indeed it did exist, is the topic of much scholarly – and a lot more non-scholarly – debate. From the coast of Casablanca to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to northern Spain to somewhere in the Red Sea, there’s no shortage of pretenders to the claim of being the site of lost Atlantis. The most popular and plausible location, however, is the Greek island of Santorini. In addition to being home to the only museum in the world dedicated to the lost city of Atlantis, Santorini has some strong geographical, geological, and archeological evidence on its side to back its claim up.
We can say with a degree of certainty that around 1600 BCE, a relatively advanced seafaring civilization on Santorini – or Thera as it was called then – was wiped off the face of the earth overnight. The Minoan eruption that destroyed the city of Akrotiri on Santorini in 1600 BCE makes the Vesuvian eruption that lava-fried Pompeii in 79 AD seem like kind of a feeble effort. Releasing approximately 100 cubic kilometers of superheated gases, ash, and molten rocks (Vesuvius released just one cubic kilometer), and causing devastating earthquakes, tsunamis, and a plume of ash clouds that could be seen as far away as Egypt, the Minoan eruption had to be at least equivalent to one Poseidon trident swipe.
In the late 19th century, the remains of Akrotiri were first excavated, revealing an ancient city ravaged by a demolition derby of volcanic hellfire and tectonic turbulence. In a similar twist of irony to Pompeii, remarkable wall frescoes were preserved by the ash fall, and are some of the best-preserved examples of Minoan frescoes found anywhere. In addition to frescoes, a treasure trove of pottery and artifacts have been found, suggesting a seafaring society that was quite advanced for the time…
Spookily, (or impressively, depending on your perspective), no human remains have been found at the Akrotiri archaeological site. This points either to Poseidon’s attention to drowning detail, or to a well-organized evacuation on the part of the Akrotiri people. The only way to be sure is to decide for yourself at the Lost Atlantis Experience in Santorini, or even tempt fate with a Santorini volcano and hot springs cruise. You also can visit Santorini with a day tour from Athens. After all, Atlantis is the most mythical of all Greek mythology places, and whether or not it really existed, a day trip to Santorini is always a good idea anyway.