Sitting along the edge of the largest tourist area of Athens, the Plaka district, is the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It’s largely passed by tourists who peek over the edge of the fences to get their digital memories of temple ruins, but it deserves a much closer examination.
Zeus was the father of many of the gods of the Greek Parthenon and deemed the most important. In Athens, I’d make the argument that Athena could have given Zeus a run for his money though. As such Zeus was well known to have the largest and grandest of the temples dedicated to him.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is no exception. This temple in it’s heyday was said to have been one of the grandest. It once had 104 large columns that to this day remain one of the best examples of the Corinthian order of Classical architecture. Classical Greek temples are characterized by one of 3 styles: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. I won’t get too technical or specific, but you’ll hear about the differences of the 3 orders every time you visit temple ruins.
Construction on it begin in the 6th century BC . The Temple was built and rebuilt many times over the coming centuries and wasn’t officially completed until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. Sadly it was’t long, however, that it feel into disuse. The temple was until it was looted for its treasure, columns moved for use in the Roman temples on Capitoline Hill.
Like other temples, the marble was considered extremely valuable and its foundations were quarried to turn its resources into homes, walls and other buildings. Only 21 columns remained standing in 1865. Today there are only 15.
Arriving at the Temple
The closest Metro stops to the Temple of Olympian Zeus are going to be Syntagma Square or the Acropolis. Both stops are heavily used and can provide you with a nice walk from either direction. I personally recommend getting off at Syntagma Square. You will walk towards the Parliament House and can either walk around or through the National Gardens. It’s a very and serene walk through the gardens. Like London, you will forget you are in the middle of a giant city.
If you get lost, aim for the Parthenon atop the Acropolis, it make for an easy landmark. There are many tour bus stops along the way if you decide to do that route. They will drop you across from the temple in front of Hadrian’s Arch. Hadrian’s Arch looks out of place being right behind a busy intersection. It’s not nearly as old as the rest of the temple, but is well worth examining. Hadrian’s Arch was built during the Roman period and once marked the ceremonial entrance to the temple.
As you approach Hadrian’s Arch, you’ll notice quite a few jewelry and souvenir vendors. I find that these carts are often overpriced. You are better off waiting to do your souvenir shopping in the Plaka district shops. You may also find a handful of Greeks dressed in gladiator or other classical heroes costumes. They will assume most tourists speak English and will attempt to jump into any photos you take around them. It can make for a memorable photo, but they do except monetary compensation in return. Nothing is free. Herakles (Hercules) appears to be the most popular!
It can be a little confusing to find the actual entrance to the temple ruins; once you see Hadrian’s Arch you will want to continue along the sidewalk behind it. Continue along the sidewalk until you see an intersection and signal. You will want to continue to the right and not cross the street. You can use the light rail tracks as a guide. There should be a sign in both Greek and English saying “attraction entrance.”
If you are coming from the National Gardens and Syntagma Square, you will see the entrance sign for the temple once you cross the intersection I just mentioned. It’s where the gardens end and the ruins begin. Again, use the light rail tracks as your guide to find the entrance.
Tickets and Hours
During the summer months, the temple enjoys opening from 8 am until 8 pm. It stays light until late in the evenings and makes for an amazing sunset opportunity with the fading sun highlighting the gold off the tips of the columns. In winter, the temple closes early! It typically is only open from 9am until 3 pm. Always check with the Ministry of Culture as hours are subject to change without notice.
Individual entry will cost you 6 Euros in the summer and 3 in the winter. If you have already purchased the combo ticket for either 30 Euros of 15 Euros (again depending on the time of year), the Temple of Olympian Zeus is included!
Once you follow the pathway past the entrance, the first think that will shock you is the sheer size of the columns! They are striking from a distance, but even more spectacular up close. There are two pathways you can take, one right up around the columns and another off to the right hand side.
I would start with the column pathway first. Walking up close to them, you will notice that none of them are actually straight. These columns, like the Parthenon, were assembled in pieces and placed together as the perfect jigsaw puzzle. The metal rods (I think it was lead it I remember correctly) that once held the columns together are visible in many of the fallen columns. You can image why it took so long to finish construction on this site.
During the days Athens was apart of the Ottoman Empire, the metal within the columns was considered a valuable commodity. The metal was looted and taken to be melted down and turned into bullets, cannons, guns and other weapons. Luckily, most of the temples around Athens large survived this period largely intact.
As you continue your walk, you can imagine a larger than life statue of Zeus made of ivory and gold dominating the temple. There would have been a large alter for sacrifices and a large treasury. I found it relaxing to sit on the grass across from the structure and stare at when I needed a break from all the walking I was doing. Notice the details of the Corinthian order on the tops and bottoms of the columns.
Once you finish your walk, as you approach side of the temple and gate near Hadrian’s Arch, you will see several Roman Bath ruins. These baths would have been places where a person would have purified themselves before entering the temple. Using the arch as an entrance, you can envision the temple stretching out much further than it sits today.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus was built to rival that of the Temple of Artemis and Parthenon as one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. It really deserves a trip to the site to enjoy it in person rather than trying to see it from through the fence. This temple can be done pretty quickly, but I would give yourself at least an hour to an hour and a half to see everything. Half of the fun is sitting on the grass or benches along the way to enjoy the ruins. If you can go at night in the summer, do it! You’ll love seeing the Parthenon lit up in the distance and enjoy the setting sun. Hoep this helps! Until next time, happy travels.