Central Greece holds three utterly unmissable destinations. To the ancient Greeks, Delphi, the most visited, was the centre or 'navel' of the earth. It remains as magical as ever, with its superb archaeological site and magnificent scenery. The Meteora region, at the northwestern edge of the plain of Thessaly, is similarly breathtaking, with towering rocky outcrops topped by teetering monasteries (and rock climbers). And the beautiful Pelion Peninsula, beside the Aegean to the east, is criss-crossed with cobblestone paths that link lush mountain hamlets with beaches to rival the finest islands.
Elsewhere, central Greece holds many surprises. Alpine meadows and valleys, perfect for breezy summer hikes and winter skiing, cover the Evritania mountain range, while Thessaly holds lively cities such as Trikala and charming villages including Ambelakia. Above all, the region’s good-natured inhabitants serve up hospitality, superb experiences and great cuisine.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Central Greece.
Serving as the heart of Ancient Delphi, the hillside Sanctuary of Apollo is where pilgrims would journey to hear prophecies from the god Apollo, voiced through his chosen oracle (a woman from the local area). The Sacred Way, the path that climbs to the complex's centrepiece Temple of Apollo, was lined in ancient times by treasuries and statues, erected by city-states including Athens and Sparta to thank Apollo and assert their own wealth and might. Some stand complete, most lie in ruins, but together they form a magnificent spectacle. History The Greeks told many stories to explain the origins of Delphi. The site was originally sacred to Gaia (also known as Ge), the ‘Mother Goddess’ whose cult centred on the Korykeon Cave, high on Mt Parnassos. After slaying a snake or she-dragon (known as Pytho) here, Apollo took the local name of Apollo Pythios. For a thousand years, pilgrims flocked to his sanctuary for guidance. The height of its fame came between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, after the Amphictyonic League, a federation of 12 tribal states, took control of the sanctuary following the First Sacred War (595–586 BCE). As an autonomous state, Delphi earned great prosperity from benefactors including the kings of Lydia and Egypt, and the Roman emperor Hadrian. Nominally neutral, it was a locus of political power. After surviving fire in 548 BCE and earthquake in 373 BCE, the sanctuary was conquered by the Aetolians around 300 BCE, and by the Romans in 191 BCE. Although the Roman general Sulla plundered Delphi in 86 BCE, later emperors kept the oracle’s rituals alive well into the 2nd century. Ultimately its influence waned with the spread of Christianity, and the sanctuary was abolished by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century. By the 7th century, a new village, Kastri, had taken over the ancient site. It remained atop the ruins until late in the 19th century, when its inhabitants were paid to relocate to the newly constructed village of Delphi, allowing archaeologists to unearth the ancient site. Touring the Sanctuary of Apollo You'll need an hour minimum to take in all that the Sanctuary of Apollo has to offer. The following route takes in some of the site's top highlights: The Sacred Way After entering the sanctuary at its lowest point, beside the main road, you set off up the Sacred Way, laid out in its modern form by 19th-century archaeologists. The first of several stone pedestals you reach, on your right, held the Bull of Kerkyra (Corfu). Just beyond it, on the left, are the remains of the Spartan Victory Monument (an offering to the admiral Lysander). Further on sits a small conical stone known as the Omphalos, the 'navel' of the ancient Greek world. Sphinx of Naxos, Rock of the Sibyl and Stoa of the Athenians Northeast of the reconstructed Athenian Treasury stands a portion of the column that supported the Sphinx of Naxos, displayed in the on-site museum. Near it, find the Rock of the Sibyl, where Delphi's earliest prophetess made her predictions. A few steps away, behind three columns from the Stoa of the Athenians, the remarkable Polygonal Wall once supported the terrace of the second Temple of Apollo (548 BCE). Look closely, and you’ll realise it’s covered with minutely carved inscriptions. Temple of Apollo As the home of Apollo himself, the Temple of Apollo dominated the entire sanctuary. Its surviving incarnation, from the 4th century BCE, contained a statue of the god, guarded by an eternal flame, and was where the Pythia (oracle), the god’s mouthpiece, delivered her pronouncements. Its vestibule bore the so-called Delphic Maxims, including ‘Know Thyself’ and ‘Nothing in Excess’, which Socrates mentioned in Plato's Protagoras. Congregations gathered not inside the temple, but out in the open air. Serpentine Column Immediately east, the replica of the Serpentine Column, or Tripod of the Plataeans, was erected in 2015. The original bronze column commemorated the Greeks who defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea (479 BCE). Removed by Constantine the Great in AD 324, it now resides at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, in modern Istanbul. Theatre and Castalian Spring Above the temple, the well-preserved 4th-century-BCE theatre was restored by Pergamene king Loukumenes II during the 2nd century BCE. Plays were performed here during the Pythian Festival, staged every four years. The views from the top row are breathtaking. East of the Sanctuary of Apollo, a paved path parallel to the main road leads to the Castalian Spring, where pilgrims cleansed themselves before consulting the oracle. Tickets and other practicalities The entrance fee to the Sanctuary of Apollo, which is part of the wider Ancient Delphi complex, is €12. This ticket also includes access to Delphi Archaeological Museum. Entrance to the site is free during every first Sunday of the month from November 1st to March 31st. To avoid the summer heat (and year-round crowds), aim to visit early morning or late afternoon, allowing at least an hour to explore the site in full. Whenever you visit, be sure to check opening times ahead, as hours can vary.
Delphi’s magnificent modern museum, 500m east of town, perfectly complements the ancient site alongside. Which you visit first doesn’t matter, but the treasures collected here will bring your image of ancient Delphi to life. Rich and powerful petitioners flocked to Delphi from the 8th century BC onwards, bringing fabulous gifts and erecting opulent monuments. Unearthed by archaeologists, these now fill a succession of mind-blowing galleries.
Of all Greece's archaeological sites, Ancient Delphi has the most potent spirit of place. Centring on the mountainside Sanctuary of Apollo, home to the ancient world’s most renowned oracle, this sacred spot was never a city. To this day, the haunting ruins – a short walk east of the modern town – look out over an unbroken expanse of olive trees, sloping down to the Gulf of Corinth.
Of all the Meteora monasteries, Moni Agias Triados, which featured in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, feels the most remote. A long down-then-up footpath reaches it from the road, with the final climb following a staircase beneath an overhang cut into the rock. Apart from some beautiful frescoes in the small church, the monastery buildings hold little to see, but the bare rocks beyond, topped by a white cross, offer stunning views over Kalambaka.
Dramatically perched atop a steep pinnacle and accessed via a high narrow wooden bridge, Rousanou convent has an intimate atmosphere. Its small community of nuns engage with visitors by selling their jam and honey, and leading group tours. Their beautiful chapel, lit by stained glass, holds superb frescoes of the Resurrection (to the left) and Transfiguration (right). There’s little outdoor space, but it feels as though you could almost reach out across the abyss to touch the neighbouring monasteries.
The 15th-century Moni Agiou Nikolaou is the first monastery you reach from Kastraki, 1km from the village square. Many visitors, keen to press on to the top of the massif, skip it altogether, but it’s well worth making the steep climb up. Inside, it’s very cosy and snug. Its small church, scooped into the rock, holds exceptional frescoes painted by the Cretan monk Theophanes Strelizas, including a gorgeous depiction of The Naming of Animals by Adam in Paradise.
The Meteora’s largest monastery looks down on Kastraki from the highest rock in the valley (613m). Founded by St Athanasios in the 14th century, it grew rich and powerful after Serbian emperor Symeon Uroš donated his wealth to the monastery. Visitors can view the large katholikon (church) topped by a magnificent 12-sided dome, and the unchanged 16th-century kitchen, plus a museum devoted to the struggle for Greek independence and WWII.
The monastery of Moni Osios Loukas, a World Heritage site, overlooks a remote valley 23km southeast of Arahova, between the villages of Distomo and Kyriaki. Dedicated to a 10th-century hermit canonised for his healing and prophetic powers, its principal church, Agios Loukas, is a glorious symphony of marble and mosaics, with icons by Michael Damaskinos, the 16th-century Cretan painter. Opaque marble screens create striking contrasts of light and shade, while fine frescoes adorn the crypt where Loukas lies entombed.
One of the greatest military feats of antiquity, still legendary 2500 years on, took place at Thermopylae, signposted off the road to Athens 17km southeast of Lamia. In this narrow pass, in 480 BC, Leonidas and 300 brave Spartans sacrificed their lives to halt Xerxes’ vast Persian army long enough to secure an ultimate Greek victory. A large statue of Leonidas marks the battle site, while a modern museum alongside shows a short 3D movie but holds few other exhibits.