By Alex Kallimanis: Birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games in 776 BC, Olympia is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Greece. Nearby, tourists are also drawn to a long stretch of sandy beaches, with Katakolo serving as the gateway for visitors via cruise ship. In the middle lies the town of Pyrgos, where my father was born, and it offers a glimpse into typical Greek life. Here are some highlights of the birthplace of the Olympics and other nearby recommendations to help you plan a trip to Olympia!
Olympia is arguably the second most important archeological site in Greece, after the Acropolis in Athens (where western democracy was born). The ancient games were held every four years between 776 BCE and 393 CE. During the three month Pan-Hellenic truce, athletes and upwards of 40,000 spectators came from all over Greece to participate in the ancient Olympics.
City-states and individuals brought offerings for Zeus, which included money and statues. One of the most impressive gifts is housed in the Archeological Museum of Olympia today: Hermes of Praxiteles. Also known as Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, the marble statue dates back to the 4th century BC and is one of the most perfect statues from antiquity. It is pictured below on the right. On the left is the statue Nike of Paionios, which dates to 425 BC. Nike is the Greek goddess of Victory.
Before every Olympics, winter and summer, the torch is lit at Olympia in front of the Temple of Hera (Hera was Zeus’ wife). The Olympic torch is then relayed around the world before arriving in the host city. As the ancient and modern Olympics began in Greece, Greek athletes march during the opening ceremony first, and the Greek flag is raised along with the host nation’s and the Olympic flag. The Olympic torch is currently traveling around the world before the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
When Athens hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics, the shot put event was held on the track of the ancient Olympic Stadium. And a popular thing to do today in Olympia, after entering through the stone archway of the Krypte, is to jog around the dirt track of the stadium that athletes competed on thousands of years ago.
Olympia is an impressive site for its ancient temples and two museums: the Archeological Museum of Olympia, as well as the separate Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games. Modern Olympia has some good hotel options, but for most, staying closer to the beach is more ideal.
The October 2017 day we visited Katakolo, we were stunned to find four cruise ships docked in the harbor. This is a testament to just how booming tourism in Greece is, and how much the area has to offer visitors. Near the cruise dock, Katakolo’s harbor is lined with restaurants and cafes. And with that many cruise passengers, the area is frequently bustling, even on a Tuesday in October.
Katakolo is also a popular place for Greeks to vacation because there are sandy beaches in an area that covers around 40 km. Plakes Beach is right in Katakolo and will suffice if you’re short on time. But if you want to visit a better beach, head 3 km northwest to the beach at Agios Andreas, which was the natural harbor of ancient Olympia. Read more about the Katakolo area beach scene here.
If you travel near Olympia independently, you can base yourself on the beach close to Katakolo. This makes for a relaxing vacation, near a lot of restaurants and cafes to spend an afternoon or evening. Check out holiday rental options on Airbnb. If you’ve never used the service before, sign up here to receive $40 off your first stay over $75!
Katakolo is 20 miles (33km) west of Olympia. From Katakolo you can take the train to Olympia, which takes around 45 minutes each way. There is then the opportunity to tour Olympia at your leisure. You should consider a guided tour of Olympia though, as you’ll get a much better understanding of the site that way. You can also stop in Pyrgos for lunch or dinner, to get a taste of a medium sized Greek town that is not flooded with tourists, but is convenient to explore.
Pyrgos, home to around 48,000 people, is around 10 miles from Olympia and 6 miles from Katakolo. You can take the train and ride from Pyrgos to Olympia. As my father was born there, we stayed two nights in Pyrgos on our recent visit. We can recommend Hotel Olympos as a comfortable place to base yourself as that is where we stayed (our family lives in Athens now).
St. Nicholas Church, built in 1906, is a beautiful church in Karagorgia Square that has battled occasional earthquakes for over 100 years. My father was baptized in that church in 1928. St. Nicholas recently reopened after major renovations following serious damage from a 2015 earthquake.
Karagorgia Square is the central square, and the heart of the town’s nightlife. There are some great and inexpensive restaurants in Pyrgos. Piatsa Makaroni, on the main square, is a charming restaurant with delicious high quality pastas and house wine, at great prices. Some may call it Italian food, but pasta is also common in Greece.
While in the area, I visited my grandparents grave in Strefi for the first time, which is just a few miles from Olympia. We organized a taxi to take us from the ancient site to Strefi and then back to Pyrgos. It was an emotional visit with my dad and a story for a future article.
More Tips on Travel Around Olympia and Greece in General
Our recent trip to Olympia was part of my 89 year old father’s final planned trip to Greece. Read more of our tips, based on this trip, and years of experience traveling to Greece. Check out 5 Great Tips for Visiting Athens in 2018. Naxos is one of Greece’s best all-around islands, read about it in Tips for Visiting Naxos. Chania, Crete is one of the foodie capitals of Greece, and there are a host of other reasons Chania is a fantastic place to visit!