The Temple of Olympian Zeus, also known as the “Olympieion,” is one of Athens’ most iconic landmarks and an essential stop for anyone exploring the Greek capital.
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A Short History of the Temple of Olympian Zeus (the Olympieion) in Athens
The Origins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Olympieion’s construction started in the 6th century BC under Athenian tyrant Pisistratus. The initial plan was ambitious, aiming to erect a massive temple dedicated to Zeus, the supreme god in Greek mythology. However, due to political and financial reasons, work was halted after Pisistratus’ death.
Resumption of Construction
Centuries later, in the 2nd century BC, Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes decided to continue the temple’s construction. Roman architect Cossutius was tasked with developing a new plan for the Olympieion, incorporating the Corinthian style for the columns and capitals. Unfortunately, Antiochus IV’s death in 164 BC led to another work stoppage.
Finishing the Temple of Olympian Zeus under Hadrian
It wasn’t until the 2nd century AD, during Roman Emperor Hadrian’s reign, that the temple’s construction resumed and was ultimately completed in 131 AD.
A passionate admirer of Greek culture, Hadrian played a significant role in revitalizing and beautifying Athens. The Olympieion’s completion was one of his hallmark achievements.
Size and Decor of the Temple
In its heyday, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was one of the largest temples in the ancient world. Measuring approximately 96 meters in length and 40 meters in width, it boasted 104 Corinthian columns standing 17 meters tall, each with a diameter of 2.2 meters at the base.
Inside the temple, there was a colossal gold and ivory statue of Zeus, created by the renowned sculptor Phidias (whose workshop was located at Olympia in the Peloponnese). This statue, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, depicted the god seated on a majestic throne, holding a scepter topped with an eagle and a Nike (goddess of victory) in his hands.
The Decline and Demise of the Olympieion
As antiquity drew to a close during the first few centuries AD, Christianity gradually emerged as the prevailing religion within the Roman Empire. In 391 AD, Emperor Theodosius I proclaimed Christianity as the Empire’s official religion and mandated the closure of all pagan temples. The Olympieion, being a temple devoted to Zeus, was not exempt and eventually fell into disuse.
Throughout the centuries, the temple suffered the ravages of time and endured damage from earthquakes. During the Byzantine era, the temple’s stones and columns were repurposed as construction materials for new buildings.
Subsequently, the Ottomans, who occupied Athens in the 17th century, also used the Olympieion as a source of stone for their building projects.
Exploring the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens
A tour of the Olympieion provides a captivating look into the history and splendor of ancient Greece. Even though much of the temple has been destroyed, the remaining ruins are impressive enough to convey the scale and magnificence of the original monument. Here are the primary remnants of the temple that can be seen today:
Undoubtedly, the most striking aspect of the Olympieion is the 15 Corinthian columns still standing out of the initial 104. These towering columns, at 17 meters high with a 2-meter diameter at the base, showcase the temple’s size and grandeur. A 16th column also lies on the ground, toppled by a storm in 1852.
The bases of the destroyed columns remain visible at the site, offering a glimpse into the temple’s original layout. These bases help visitors envision the temple’s general arrangement and appreciate the scale of the construction.
Located on the temple’s west side, the supporting wall was intended to bear the temple’s weight and ensure its stability. Its presence is a testament to the ingenuity of the architects of the era.
While less conspicuous, the temple’s foundations allow for an understanding of the Olympieion’s size and shape. By studying these foundations, archaeologists have determined that the temple was approximately 96 meters long and 40 meters wide.
Though not technically part of the temple, Hadrian’s Arch is an emblematic monument situated just a short walk from the Olympieion. This impressive marble arch, built by Emperor Hadrian in 131 AD, demarcated the boundary between the old city of Athens and the new Roman city. The arch remains well-preserved and stands as a superb example of Roman architecture.
Getting to the Temple of Zeus (the Olympieion)
Located in downtown Athens, the Temple of Olympian Zeus is easily accessible by metro, bus, or even on foot:
- 🚇 By metro: Take Line 2 (red line) and get off at the “Akropoli” station, or take Line 1 (green line) and get off at the “Thissio” station. From these stations, you can reach the site in about 10 minutes on foot.
- 🚌 By bus: Bus lines 035, 106, 126, 136, 137, 155, 227, 856, A2, B2, E22, and X80 serve the area around the Olympieion. Get off at the “Syntagma” or “Moussio” stop and walk about 10 to 15 minutes to reach the Olympieion.
- 🚶 On foot: If you’re staying in downtown Athens, you can easily reach the Olympieion on foot.
Opening Hours of the Temple of Zeus (the Olympieion)
The temple is open daily, except for public holidays.
Opening hours vary depending on the season:
- from 8 am to 8 pm in summer
- from 8:30 am to 3 pm in winter.
The Captain recommends checking the opening hours before your visit, as they may be subject to change.
Admission Fees for the Temple of Zeus (the Olympieion)
Entrance fees for the Olympieion are:
- 6 euros for adults
- 3 euros for students and seniors (over 65 years old).
- Entry is free for children under 18 and individuals with disabilities.
💡 You can also purchase a combined ticket for 30 euros, granting you access to multiple archaeological sites in Athens, including the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora, and the Kerameikos. This ticket is valid for five consecutive days.