The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens is an ancient Greek architectural masterpiece. Also known as Olympieion, this temple was built between the 6th century BC and the 2nd century AD, to honor Zeus (the king of the gods of Olympus).
Located southeast of the iconic Acropolis of Athens, the Temple of Olympian Zeus is a monument in ruins, of which only sixteen columns remain (fifteen standing and another lying on the ground). But it was once considered one of the largest and most famous Greek temples in Classical Antiquity!
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- Brief History of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
- How to Get to the Temple of Olympian Zeus
- What to See at the Temple of Olympian Zeus
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Brief History of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Olympian Zeus began to be built during the government of Pisistratus, around 550 BC. However, the works were interrupted on several occasions and were only completed more than six centuries later, in the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian.
Due to its “endless” period of construction, the Olympieion underwent numerous structural changes. Furthermore, it was eventually adapted to the three Greek architectural orders (Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian), depending on the historical moment in which the works were taking place.
When Hadrian came to power, he had a colossal statue of Zeus, made of gold and ivory, placed inside the monument. As a form of thanks, the people of Athens created a statue of the Roman Emperor, which they erected at the back of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
After its consecration in 132 AD, the Olympieion became the most important temple in Greece. Despite this, it was damaged during the Sack of Athens in 267 AD (carried out by the Heruli, a Germanic people responsible for plundering the Acropolis of Athens). And when the last Roman emperors began to ban Paganism, the site was left abandoned.
How to Get to the Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Olympian Zeus stands in a huge open space, about 350 meters from the Acropolis Museum and the southern slope of the Acropolis of Athens. And here are other monuments and points of interest you can visit nearby:
- Zappeion (450 m) – a neoclassical-style conference and exhibition center with a large tree-lined park
- Panathenaic Stadium (700 m) – a Pentelic marble stadium, where the first Modern Olympic Games took place in 1896
- National Garden of Athens (750 m) – the largest “green park” in the city, with almost 160 thousand m² and more than 500 species of plants
- Syntagma Square (750 m) – the central square of Athens, also known as Constitution Square
- Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (750 m) – memorial in honor of soldiers killed in the war, guarded by the Evzones of the Presidential Guard
- Hellenic Parliament (750 m) – the Parliament of Greece, located in the Old Royal Palace
Opening Hours & Ticket Prices
The Olympieion is open every day, from 8 am to 5 pm, with the last entry being at 4:40 pm. And while it doesn’t have a weekly closing day like most museums and monuments, this archaeological site is closed on January 1st, March 25th (Greek Independence Day), Easter Sunday, May 1st, December 25th, and 26th.
As for tickets, these cost €8 (normal fare) or €4 (reduced fare). There’s also a combined ticket for €30, which is valid for 5 days and includes entry to seven different locations:
- Acropolis of Athens
- Ancient Agora of Athens
- Roman Agora
- Library of Hadrian
- Archaeological Site of Kerameikos
- Archaeological Site of the Lyceum of Aristotle
- Temple of Olympian Zeus
You can buy tickets to museums, monuments, and archaeological sites in Greece at the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport’s online ticket office. But there are also dates when access is free, such as on the following days:
- March 6th (Melina Mercouri Day)
- April 18th (International Day of Monuments)
- May 18th (International Museum Day)
- Last weekend of September (European Heritage Days)
- October 28th (Ohi Day or No Day)
- First Sunday of the month, between November and March
What to See at the Temple of Olympian Zeus
While not part of the fenced perimeter of the Temple of Olympian Zeus archaeological complex, I have decided to include Hadrian’s Arch in this visitor’s guide. Especially because it’s only 50 meters away!
Hadrian’s Arch was erected in honor of Emperor Hadrian when he came to Athens to consecrate the Olympieion.
At 18 meters high, it’s made entirely of white marble from Mount Pentelicus (the place from which the rock was extracted for the construction of the monuments of the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, and many others scattered around the Greek capital – including the Temple of Olympian Zeus).
This monumental gate is inspired by traditional Greek propylaea and Roman triumphal arches. Situated on a road that crossed Athens, it served as the “border” between the old city (founded by Theseus, the king and hero of Greek mythology) and the new city (reformulated by Hadrian).
After entering the perimeter of the Olympieion archaeological site, you’re going to pass by the Roman Baths. As you may already know, the Baths (or Thermal Baths) were a popular place for the Romans, both for recreational and therapeutic purposes.
In the last years of the construction of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the city of Athens was already under the influence of the Roman Empire. Therefore, the Greeks decided to create a small complex of public baths. Works began in 124 AD and continued until 131 AD, just before the consecration of the Olympieion.
In some areas, it’s still possible to see parts of the floor decorated with polychrome marble tiles. The Romans called this decorative technique “opus sectile”, which consisted of arranging colored stones in panels to create an image or geometric pattern. The result was close to that of the Roman mosaics, but the “opus sectile” used larger and irregular pieces.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is, of course, the main monument of the homonymous archaeological complex. The few ruins that survive hide the glorious past of a grand temple, which was once 108 meters long and 41 meters wide!
It seems hard to imagine, but the Olympieion was made up of 104 Corinthian columns. Yes, one hundred and four! But over the centuries, many of the marble blocks were used to build other buildings in the city and much of the structure that survived the looting was destroyed by an earthquake.
In the first half of the 15th century, there were only 21 standing columns – as reported by the Italian archaeologist and humanist Cyriacus of Ancona, on his visit to the capital of Greece. Today, there’s no trace of the interior of the Temple of Olympian Zeus or even of its magnificent statues (those of Zeus and Hadrian).
Other Monuments at the Temple of Olympian Zeus
The archaeological complex of the Olympieion comprises a series of ruins that constitute more than a dozen monuments. In addition to Hadrian’s Arch, the Roman Baths, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, you’ll also find:
- Ruins of houses – classic-style residences, built between the 5th century BC and 2nd century AD
- Olympieion Basilica – dates from the year 450 AD and was one of the first Christian temples of Athens
- Temple of Apollo Delphinios – was erected in 450 BC and housed a Law Court, where certain types of homicides were tried
- Temple of Kronos and Rhea – a small temple from 150 AD, dedicated to the parents of Zeus (Kronos was the God of Time and King of the Titans, and Rhea was nicknamed the “Mother of Gods”)
- Sanctuary of Panhellenios Zeus – another monument dedicated to Zeus, from 131-132 AD
- Three gates of the Themistoclean Wall – were created in 479-478 BC (after the Greco-Persian Wars) to defend the city from future invasion
- Valerian Wall – another of the walls of Athens, designed as a fortification to support the primitive walls, between 256 and 260 AD
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