The Temple of Olympian Zeus (Olympieion) in Athens is one of a plethora of sun-bleached Ancient Greek ruins that you will find scattered around the country’s capital. It is situated slightly out of the historic centre – just behind Hadrian’s Arch, and accessible from Leof. Vasilissis Olgas Boulevard.
Its millennia-old pillars provide a stark contrast to the modern city that has developed around it – the cars and motorbikes that speed towards Syntagma Square, and the 1950s apartment complexes that sit directly opposite. The site is relatively small and can be explored in less than an hour.
However, it is worth a visit nonetheless. Entrance to the Temple of Olympian Zeus is included with your Athens attraction pass.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus Athens
The Temple of Olympian Zeus has been a prominent fixture in the Athens city skyline for millennia. Construction of the site started in 520 BC by Peisistratus and was designed by Architects Callaeschrus, Antimachides, and Antistates.
However, the temple would not be completed for centuries to come. Various rulers picked up and then abandoned efforts to finalise the temple.
When it remained incomplete following Persistratus’ rule, it was left, half-finished and forgotten, until 174 BC. At this time, Antiochus IV Epiphanes presented the funds to continue with construction, with the aid of Roman Architect Cossutius.
When he died in 164 BC, the project was abandoned once again. Interestingly, it would be a Roman Emperor that would finally complete the site in 131 CE.
Emperor Hadrian gained an admiration for all things Greek during his time in the Mediterranean. He is responsible for the completion of several spectacular monuments that exist in Athens today.
Namely, Hadrian’s Library, the monumental bridge over Eleusinian Kephisos (Eleusis), the Hadrianic Aqueduct, and the Pantheon. His respect and love for Athens were reciprocated by those residing in the city at the time and his name was inscribed on the nearby Hadrian’s Arch as one of the founders of the city.
Features of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
When construction on the Temple of Olympian Zeus was finally completed in 131 CE, it was one of the largest temples in the Ancient World. Its excessively large columns (in comparison to other temples at the time) were one of its key characteristics.
In total, it took 638 years for the temple to be completed from start to finish. In its complete form, there were once 104 spectacular Corinthian columns, each 17 meters in height, and decorated with intricate designs.
Today, only 21 of the original columns remain. When you visit the Temple of Olympian Zeus today, it can be difficult to envisage how the site must have looked in its prime.
Despite only a fraction of the original site remaining, it is still breathtaking and impressive. So one can only imagine how much more striking it must have been in its full glory when the site was decorated with shimmering golden statues of Greek Gods and Roman Emperors.
The initial plans for the temple were for it to be constructed in Doric style – in the same way as the Temple of Hephaestus in Thission, and the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. As time progressed, the temple was completed in Corinthian style.
The primary focus of the temple was the worship of Zeus. However, Hadrian, perhaps in his arrogance, also decorated the site with dozens of stone and bronze statues of himself. You will find some of these on display in the Athens Archaeological Museum today.
Desecration of the Temple of Olympian Zeus Athens
An interesting story behind the Temple of Olympian Zeus and how it exists today is the number of times that the site was desecrated and pillaged by notable figures throughout history. Prior to the construction of the site being completed by Emperor Hadrian, some columns were stolen by Sulla in 86 BCE.
The columns were actually taken to build the Temple of Jupiter and Augustus in Rome Italy. Repair work was done, and the columns were replaced and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian.
Sadly, the Temple of Olympian Zeus did not exist in its most impressive final form for long. When Northern invaders attacked the city, Athenians had to hurriedly build defensive walls to protect themselves (253-260 AD)
They took the stone from the Temple, thus destroying many of its pillars. The invasion saw the temple ransacked, and many of its sculptures and statues taken.
Sadly, following that, it would never be operational again. The Temple of Olympian Zeus, despite all the funds and efforts that went into its creation, was functional for less than two centuries.
More recently, the Ottoman Turks stole a pillar from the temple in order to construct the Tzistarakis Mosque in Monastiraki square in the 18th century. This happened in violation of the Sultan’s command.
A series of bad things happened over the city following this. Locals and Ottomans alike were convinced that Tzistarakis’ actions had unleashed a curse on the city of Athens. He was eventually assassinated.
An earthquake that rocked Southern Greece in 1852 saw one more column fall to the floor where it can still be seen today. Fascinatingly, if you visit the Benaki Museum (Koumpari 1), you can see gorgeous paintings and photographs that show the site, with the fallen column, and how modern Athens has grown around it.
Visiting the Temple of Olympian Zeus Today
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is a must-see during any Athens itinerary. Admission to the site is free for children under 5 and EU citizens under 25. For all other visitors, it costs 6 per person.
However, it is better to purchase an Athens combination ticket. This includes entrance to several of Athens’ most notable historic sites for 30.
This includes the Acropolis and the New Acropolis Museum, the Ancient Agora and its Museum, the Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library, Temple of Olympian Zeus, Kerameikos, and the Archaeological Site of Lykeion. The ticket is valid for five days.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus, like many other Athens attractions, has opening times that vary with the seasons. During the summer months (March to October), the site is open from 08.00 am – 07.00 pm.
In the winter (November – February), it is open from 08.00 am – 05.00 pm. Entrance to the site is free on certain days. Namely, they are:
- 6 March (in memory of Melina Mercouri)
- 18 April (International Monuments Day)
- 18 May (International Museums Day)
- The last weekend of September annually (European Heritage Days)
- 28 October
- Every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is closed on the following days:
- January 1st
- 25th March (Greek Independence Day)
- Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday
- May 1st (Labour Day)
- December 25th and 26th
Temple of Olympian Zeus and Historic Athens Tours
If you would like to explore Athens’ historical sites with a little more context and information, you can also consider visiting the Temple of Olympian Zeus as part of a wider walking or audio tour. Opting to participate in a tour not only provides you with a deeper understanding of Ancient Greek history, but it also means that you have a local on hand whom you can ask for recommendations on the best places to eat, drink, and hang out in Athens.
A few reputable historic Athens tours that you may want to consider are detailed below for your consideration.
- Historic Athens: Small group electric bike tour
- Acropolis, Agora, and Temple of Olympian Zeus entrance tickets and audio tour
- Athens city, Acropolis and Museum tour with entrance tickets
- Hidden Athens three hour private walking tour
- Athens half day private city tour
Points of Interest Near the Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is situated in close proximity to many points of interest in Athens – both renowned tourist attractions and off-the-beaten-path highlights. Directly adjacent to the site is the Arch of Hadrian.
This triumphal arch, made of fine Pentelic marble, was constructed in 131 BC to thank Emperor Hadrian for his contributions to the city. On one side of the arch, the inscriptions read “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus.”
The inscription on the opposite side states “This is the city of Hadrian, not Theseus”. Admire the ancient structure, snap a picture of it against the contrasting backdrop of the insanely busy Leoforos Vasilissis Amalias, and continue with your day in Athens.
The National Gardens are also situated nearby. These are Athen’s answer to central park and contain a small lake, beautiful flower gardens, and excellent walking trails in their midst.
Within the National Gardens complex, you will also find the Zappeion. This gorgeous pastel yellow building is one of three in a neoclassical trilogy designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen.
As you depart the Temple of Olympian Zeus and pass by the Arch of Hadrian, perhaps the most logical route from here is to walk down Dionysiou Areopagitou. You can head towards the historic Athens neighbourhoods of Makyrigianni, old Plaka, and Thissio.
Alternatively, if you walk southwards away from the city down Leof Vasilissis Olgas, you will eventually be met with the Panathenaic Stadium. This was where the first modern Olympic Games were hosted and is the only stadium in the world made entirely out of marble.
Behind it, you will find the leafy sleepy Mets district. This is a great place to stop for a coffee in one of the area’s eclectic coffee bars.