The archaeological site of Delphi can be easily visited on a day trip from Athens. This fascinating UNESCO site is definitely worth adding to your Greece itinerary.
Delphi in Greece
The archaeological site of Delphi is located on the beautiful Mount Parnassus in the Fokida area of Greece. Sitting at an altitude of 550 metres, it has a great view over the area. The site is around 190 kms / 118 miles from the capital, which makes it the perfect day trip from Athens.
In Ancient Greece, Delphi was Greece’s most sacred place, and was considered to be the navel of the world. According to legend, Zeus released two eagles, one from the Far East, and one from the Far West, and let them fly free. The two eagles met over Delphi, and as such the area was named the centre of the universe.
Today, Delphi is a UNESCO site and important centre of cultural heritage. We’ve been fortunate to have visited Delphi in Greece several times, and we absolutely love the setting and ambiance of the area!
Early history of Delphi
The oldest findings from the wider area of Delphi date since around 4,000 BC. Numerous artefacts, indicating the presence of a Mycenean settlement, were discovered in the nearby Corycian Cave, known in Greek as Korykeion Antron.
This is a cave on Mount Parnassus where ancient rituals took place. The cave is believed to have been a place of worship for the God Panas as well as the Corycian Nymphs.
A long time before Delphi was pronounced the navel of the world, it used to be home to a sanctuary of the ancient Goddess Earth. The sanctuary was guarded by Mother Earth’s son, a fierce, monstrous snake called Python.
Apollo and the site of Delphi in Ancient Greece
Apollo, the son of Zeus and one of the 12 Olympian Gods, left Olympus aiming to destroy Python and conquer this beautiful, sacred land. In a symbolic gesture of eliminating all ancient, primitive instincts, the god of Light, Grace, Music and Arts killed the gruesome serpent.
After killing Python, Apollo was self-exiled, in order to purify himself of the murder. He later returned to Delphi disguised as a dolphin, leading a boat full of Cretan sailors.
Upon arrival at Kirrha port, close to Delphi, the sailors built a temple to honour Apollo and became his priests. Apollo was pronounced protector of Delphi, and Zeus cast a massive stone right on the spot where Python was killed.
Apollo’s cult became prominent in the 8th – 7th century BC. This was the time when Apollo’s Sanctuary was founded, and when the Oracle first appeared. Later on, Delphi became the most important religious centre and a symbol of unity in Ancient Greece.
The Oracle in Delphi
Oracles were very popular in Ancient Greece. They were high priests and priestesses with special powers, who’s mission was to carry the gods’ message to the mortals.
Usually, the messages were conveyed in a mysterious, ambivalent manner, and could be interpreted in more than one way.
The Oracle at Delphi was known as Pythia, who was always a woman. She would be consulted by people before important decisions were made regarding marriage, war, or settling new colonies.
Pythia of Delphi
The importance of the Oracle in Delphi reached its peak between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, and was considered the most reliable oracle in Ancient Greece. People visited from far and wide to consult the high priestess, Pythia, who delivered her ambiguous messages.
Pythia had to follow a certain ritual before giving a prophecy. She first took a bath, drank water from the nearby Kastalia spring, and chewed on bay leaves.
The Oracle then sat on a tripod, and inhaled smoke which was likely produced by burning certain potent hallucinogenic plants along with methane. She delivered her prophecies while she was in a state of ecstasy, and the priests would then interpret her dubious messages.
Pythia delivered her prophecies only once a month in spring, summer and autumn. During winter months, Apollo left Delphi and emigrated to North Europe. According to legend, he spent that time with the legendary tribe of the Hyperboreans.
Even though the Oracle’s power diminished after the 3rd century BC, the rituals continued for several centuries. Pausanias, the great geographer, visited Delphi in the 2nd century AD and described the site in great detail.
The Oracle was terminated by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius in the 4th century AD.
Games and festivals in Ancient Delphi
Apart from being home to the Sanctuary of Apollo and the Oracle, Delphi served numerous other purposes in Ancient Greece.
Although the site was primarily dedicated to Apollo, other temples were built in the area. The impressive temple of Athina Pronaia, located outside the site of Delphi, still stands today.
Other gods that were worshipped in the area include Apollo’s sister Artemis, Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes and Dionysus.
Several festivals and athletic games took place in this beautiful area of mainland Greece. The most famous festival was the Pythian Games, celebrating the death of Python.
The Pythian Games included several athletic competitions, as well as musical and theatrical events, to honour Apollo. They were organized every four years, and were second in importance only to the Olympic Games.
The Archaeological Site of Delphi today
Excavations in and around the site of Delphi first started in the 1860s. Statues, inscriptions and numerous other artifacts have been discovered, offering great insights on life in Ancient Greece.
Within the main site of Delphi, you can see several of the original temples and buildings, most of which have been partially restored. The temple of Apollo and the Treasury of the Athenians are two of the most important buildings in the main site.
There were many more treasuries, votive monuments and other buildings in the area. Several altars, dedicated to major and minor gods, can be distinguished. Scattered around the site, you can also see remains of the original settlement and cemeteries of Delphi.
Allow yourself enough time to wander around the ancient ruins, and to climb all the way up to the Delphi stadium. It might be a bit of a challenge, especially on a hot summer day, but the views from up the top are really stunning.
Across the street from the main site, you can visit the Tholos of Athena Pronaia. Not everyone makes it here, and it’s a shame, as it’s really impressive!
You can read more information about the individual monuments on the official website of the archaeological site of Delphi.
The museum in Delphi
The fascinating museum of Delphi contains sculptures, statues and other artifacts, showcasing life in the wider area since Apollo’s cult was established. It is one of the most important museums in Greece, and has been recently refurbished to high standards.
One of the most famous exhibits is the Charioteer of Delphi, one of the finest bronze statues ever made in Greece.
How to get to Delphi from Athens
To get to Delphi independently, you can either rent a car, or use the public KTEL bus. There are several buses a day, and if you are going for a day trip it makes sense to catch the first bus of the day. It will take you 2.5 – 3 hours to get to Delphi from Athens.
If you prefer to have a guided tour of the archaeological site and the museum, you can join an organized tour to Delphi. There are numerous companies offering this tour, often combining it with a tour of the magnificent Meteora monasteries.
Visiting Delphi archaeological site
Opening hours and ticket prices vary between high and low season. At the time of writing, the site is open from 8.00 – 20.00 from April to October, and from 8.30 – 16.00 from November to March.
Check the official website for more information on prices and days of free entrance.
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