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Olympia Cruises

Olympia (Katakolon), Greece

About Olympia

Gateway to Olympia, the birthplace of the modern-day Olympic Games, Katakolon is a quaint Greek port and former fishing village. The Games were held here every four years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD; the very first competitions were held in honor of Zeus, who ruled the Greek gods from Mt. Olympus. Well-kept ruins here transport visitors back to the days of the earliest athletes, who regarded physical prowess and strength among the highest of all virtues and competed for nothing less than the favor of the gods. The remains of temples with their massive columns, the stadium, the Gymnasium and the Palaestra (Wrestling School) all evoke the glory of the Games. The Archaeological Museum here features statues that once overlooked the site.

Situated in a valley in Elis, in the Peloponnese, ancient Olympia wasn’t a town in a traditional sense. Rather, it held a hallowed place as a sanctuary, dotted with venues associated with the Games and the worship of the gods. Over time the site was buried and later rediscovered in 1766 by Englishman Richard Chandler. It was a French team, however, that excavated the ancient sporting arenas and buildings, and not until 1829. Today the ruins and relics recall the golden age of Olympia.

Olympia Lifestyle and Culture

In the shadow of Mt. Kronos, Olympia prospers from its status as a major excavation site and from the travelers drawn to its rich history. Impressive ruins provide a glimpse of the athletes’ and spectators’ experiences. In town, the main boulevard of Praxitéles Kondhýli is lined with shops and the Alfeios River is ideal for picturesque walks.

The classical Temple of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was a stunning centerpiece of Olympia. Completed in 456 BC, the 40-foot-tall sculpture of ivory and gold depicted the god upon a throne. By some accounts, it was destroyed by a fire in 475 AD after being relocated to Constantinople, while others say it burned around the same time in Olympia.

The Olympic flame of the modern-day Olympic Games is lit by sunlight and reflected in a parabolic mirror at the Temple of Hera. Every two years, months before each Olympic Games, officials conduct the Flame Ceremony here, lighting the torch and seeing it off on its long journey to the host city.

Beyond its ancient history, Olympia is a center of arts and culture. During July and August of each year, the Ancient Olympia Festival features concerts, plays, photography and other exhibits.

Olympia Sights and Landmarks

The focus of any visit to Katakolon is an excursion to the archaeological site of Olympia, a sprawling and impressive complex which includes the Sanctuary of Zeus and many structures whose innovative designs foretold the sporting venues of today. Within the sacred Altis enclosure, admire two of the larger sites: the 5th-century Doric Temple of Zeus, which enshrined the enormous gold and ivory Zeus statue, and the 6th-century Temple of Hera, the site’s most intact structure. Also within the Altis, you will find the Prytaneion, where officials and event winners met; the Philippeion, a circular building dedicated to Philip II of Macedon’s victory at Chaeronea; and statues of gods, heroes and Olympians.

Outside the Altis, explore the remains of the council house known as the Bouleuterion; the 2nd-century BC Gymnasium; the partially restored Palaestra, a wrestling school where athletes trained; the Theokoleon, or Priests’ House; and Pheidias’ Workshop, where the glorious statue of Zeus was sculpted. The massive rectangular stadium with its arched entrance could seat at least 45,000 spectators.

The adjacent Olympia Archaeological Museum is a rich repository of exhibits and artifacts ranging from prehistoric to Roman times, including reassembled pediments and engraved panels from the magnificent Temple of Zeus. Visit prior to the ruins to gain some background and context. For a virtual tour of the ancient Olympics, stop by the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games.

Olympia Entertainment and Activities

To delve more deeply, journey outside of Olympia to Bassae and the Temple of Apollo Epicurius, “Apollo the Helper,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built for the god of healing and the sun in the 5th century AD, this stunning hall was designed by Iktinos, the architect of the Parthenon. Located in the Arcadian mountains, it is one of Greece’s most picturesque archaeological sites.

To sample local vintages, travel about 2.5 miles from Katakolon to the Domaine Mercouri winery, a family estate established in 1860. Tour the old wooden presses and grape crushing buckets of the original winery, then taste their selection of red and white wines as peacocks meander around the estate.

Olympia Restaurants and Shopping

What defines the Peloponnese more than anything is the olive tree, and this ancient fruit is used in just about everything. The food here is simple, letting the flavors of fresh ingredients shine through.

Pastitsio, moussaka and tzatziki are all quintessential Greek dishes. Take your pick at restaurants in both Katakolon and Olympia. In Katakolon, try Taverna Jimmy’s, which serves up home-cooked Greek food. Kastro is another good option, especially for taking in sunset views over a seafood platter. In Olympia, Taverna Bacchus and Garden Taverna are both top picks, serving traditional Greek fare.

If you’re in the market for jewelry, leather goods, local crafts or wine, Katakolon boasts inviting shops on the main road. Try Thalassashop for unique handmade souvenirs. In Olympia, you will find a number of souvenir shops selling jewelry and ceramics just outside the archaeological site.