I saw Chariots of the Gods on TV when I was eight. The premise: Aliens brought by UFOs helped ancient civilizations build architectural wonders, including the pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Nazca Lines. I told my mom and dad I was going to be an archaeologist when I grew up. They humored me. So did my best friend, who dug up treasures with me that her brother buried in the sandbox. Unfortunately, their cat buried treasures, too.
Fast forward 48 years, and my fellow church members were making a pilgrimage to Greece, tracing the footsteps of St. Paul. The pilgrimage included a day in Delphi, a 2.5-hour drive from Athens and a 3.5-hour drive from the next destination, Thessaloniki.
I jumped at the chance to see the ancient Greeks’ center of the Earth, to walk the same paths as King Philip II of Macedonia (Alexander the Great’s father) and Emperor Hadrian, and to marvel at the place where the Oracle of Delphi made her predictions.
And if you, too, would like to stand upon the slopes of Mount Parnassus, imagining Delphi’s long-ago splendor as you look down the valley dotted with Doric columns and cypress trees, put gorgeous Delphi on your list. Here are nine fantastic things to do while you’re there.
1. Learn About History
Delphi is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temples you see honor the Greek god Apollo and were built in the late seventh century B.C., though cave dwellers had settled on Mount Parnassus long before, beginning in 4000 B.C. Mycenaeans settled in the area between 1600 and 1100 B.C. The early people worshipped Gaia, or Mother Earth, and believed that Delphi was the center (the omphalos, or navel). They believed that Zeus had sent two eagles to fly around the Earth in opposite directions. The eagles met at the center of the globe in Delphi.
Priests from Crete who belonged to the cult of Apollo arrived on the scene in 1000 B.C. As the story goes, Apollo slew Python, Gaia’s serpent child who guarded the omphalos. Priests then built Delphi’s temples of Apollo and Athena. The gymnasium, treasuries, and amphitheater followed.
Pro Tip: Guided full-day tours leave from Athens daily. If you’re traveling independently, I would arrange a guide in advance, since you won’t necessarily find one at the entrance.
2. See Athena’s Sanctuary
Called Athena Pronaia, this temple sits outside of the main ruins of Delphi. According to legend, Athena was sent to protect her half brother Apollo. Maybe there’s some truth to the story. Accounts from Herodotus in 480 B.C. tell of an earthquake at Athena’s temple that stopped the invading Persian army from pillaging Apollo’s temple.
Several fully restored columns of the circular temple remain. Foundations of other temples and treasuries occupy nearly all of the terrace that overlooks the valley. From this vantage point, you’ll also see gymnasium ruins scattered below.
Pro Tip: Athena’s sanctuary is about a half mile southeast of the entrance to Delphi, on the south side of the road (Highway 48/EO Livadias Amfissas).
3. See The Treasury
Once you pass through the main entrance, you’ll be walking on the Sacred Way. It’s now a series of wide steps that leads gradually to the Temple of Apollo. The marble Athenian Treasury looks like a smaller-scale temple and was built to hold offerings to the oracle.
The ancients displayed spoils of war here, and an inscription reads, “the Athenians to Apollo from the spoils of the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.”
Delphi’s other treasuries lie in ruins. The Athenian Treasury is the only one that has been reconstructed.
As you climb the broad steps to the Temple of Apollo, stone tablets line the path. These, according to our guide, were utilitarian in nature — like deeds and financial records — not as pithy as the Delphic maxims that were written on the walls of Apollo’s temple.
4. See The Omphalos (It’s An Outie)
The omphalos, a carved, cone-shaped stone along the Sacred Way, is a replica of the belly button of the Earth. In ancient times, it was located in the inner sanctuary of the Temple of Apollo, flanked by two golden eagles.
5. Visit The Temple Of Apollo
This is Delphi’s main attraction. Stout Doric columns stand on one end of what was once the fourth temple. The third was made of bronze. Fables tell of the first temple being made of laurel leaves and the second of beeswax. The one that exists now was destroyed by fire and later by an earthquake, but it was rebuilt both times.
Once Christianity took hold and pagan religions fell out of favor, this temple and all of Delphi fell into ruins at the hands of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius.
In its glory days, the marble-enshrined temple was richly decorated with scenes from Greek mythology and the battles Greek warriors won. Less is known about the temple’s interior. From historical accounts, we know that the temple had altars dedicated to Poseidon and to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, with the latter altar featuring a perpetually burning fire. The Delphic maxims shared by seven Greek philosophers were inscribed on the walls, including “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much.”
Within the inner sanctum was the oracle, as well as the most precious object of all: the omphalos.
6. Envision The Oracle
It’s said that behind every great man is a great woman. Well, the Pythia was that woman, or so the ancient Greeks believed. Ensconced in the inner sanctuary, the Pythia entered a trance and received Apollo’s official answer to a petitioner’s question.
The trance was brought on by fumes escaping from a crevice in the temple floor. Studies identified some of these fumes as the sweet-smelling, euphoria-producing ethylene gas (as a retired anesthesiologist, this piqued my interest, since ethylene was used as a general anesthetic before better stuff came along). No wonder the Pythia’s garbled words needed to be translated by priests standing outside of the sanctuary and out of the fumes’ reach.
Each successive Pythia was a temple priestess chosen after the previous one passed away. She could be a woman of noble birth or one born to more humble parents. They served, one after the next, from about 1400 B.C. to A.D. 381, working several days a month for nine months a year (Apollo left for the winter).
The Pythia was consulted about personal and political matters, and no king would wage war without consulting her first. Her answers were cryptic, and often the translating priests contradicted each other. When King Croesus asked about invading Persia, she said, “A great country will be destroyed.” Unfortunately for Croesus, it was his.
Nevertheless, petitioners lined up for the Pythia’s advice. The wealthy and privileged brought extravagant gifts in order to skip the line.
Today, nothing of the inner sanctuary remains, except perhaps the hole-marked stone on which the Pythia’s tripod chair once securely sat.
7. Have A Seat In The Amphitheater
Above the Temple of Apollo, a trail leads to the Theater of Delphi, which is remarkably intact. In its heyday, as many as 4,500 spectators sat upon its limestone benches. One was Nero, during his visit in A.D. 67.
Pro Tip: A scenic overlook at the top of the amphitheater is the best way to see both the theater and Delphi’s ruins below, from the Temple of Apollo and the Temple of Athena to the gymnasium ruins and the olive groves beyond.
8. See The Ancient Stadium
Delphi was home to the biggest ancient sporting event after the one held on Mount Olympus. The unpaved trail leads to the stadium where the Pythian Games occurred every four years. This 580-foot-long stadium held 6,000 spectators, and though it was used as a pasture after Delphi was abandoned, the ancient starting blocks for runners were uncovered as well as a sign warning spectators not to take any ceremonial wine from the premises.
9. Feast Your Eyes Upon The Antiquities
The Delphi Archaeological Museum houses many precious artifacts that archaeologists have excavated at Delphi. Statues and carved figurines, gold ornaments and jewelry, and stone tablets that served as sheet music fill the modern and spacious museum that’s designed to give you an overview of centuries of history.
The original omphalos, the bronze charioteer, and the statues of the Twins of Argos are must-sees. You can’t miss the Sphinx of Naxos, standing more than 40 feet high and made entirely of marble in the fourth century B.C. An inscription at the bottom gives Naxians the right to jump to the head of the line to receive their prophecies.
You’ll need to show your ticket for the archaeological park in order to enter the museum.
Pro Tips: The Delphi Archaeological Park is open daily except for major holidays. This website shows hours and holiday closures.
Allow a half day to tour the ruins and an hour or two to visit the museum. If you’re traveling independently, I recommend getting there early in the day before the bus tours arrive and before it gets hot.
Since there is very little shade, wear a hat and bring water (you can buy water on-site, too). Wear comfortable walking shoes with good treads. Stairs lead to the Temple of Apollo, but to reach the amphitheater, stadium, and valley overlooks, you’ll be walking on unpaved paths.