When it comes to the ways of medicine, the ancient Greeks may have been on to something. Their curative methods revolved around two things: water and sleep.
True, they thought that the gods visited the ill in their dreams and healed them with divine powers. But, nonetheless, they understood the restorative power of a good rest and proper hydration, two things I’m very appreciative of myself.
And it was in the settlement of Epidaurus, in the Peloponnese region of Greece, they built a sanctuary for the ill, dedicated to the god Asclepius. In the 6th century BC, work began on a sacred site that what was to become known as the cradle of medicine.
What is the Healing Sanctuary of Epidaurus?
The Healing Sanctuary of Epidaurus is an Ancient Greek archaeological site that was dedicated to the god of medicine, Asclepius. It was a sacred place where people came to seek treatment for ailments.
Why is Epidaurus a World Heritage Site?
Epidaurus is a World Heritage Site for two main reasons. The first is that its collection of architecture – particularly the theatre – is among the best of Ancient Greece. But it’s also a very significant site for the development of modern medicine, with healing treatments performed here more than 2000 years ago.
How long do you need to visit Epidaurus?
Although it’s possible to see all the highlights of Epidaurus in about an hour, I would recommend about two hours to see it properly and explore the (small) museum on site.
Much of the sacred sanctuary is left here – or, at least, the ruins of it are, set amongst lush quiet landscapes that surely contributed to the healthy recovery of those who came here with their ailments.
But the highlight of the site is the incredible Theatre of Epidaurus, built in the 4th century BC, with acoustics and aesthetics so good that it’s considered to be the best Ancient Greek theatre in the world.
For many people who make the journey from Athens or Nafplio to visit Epidaurus, the theatre is the main attraction… but there’s more to it than that.
Epidaurus has been listed as one of Greece’s World Heritage Sites not just for its theatre, but for what the activities here did for the development of modern medicine that we all benefit from today.
And discovering more about that history is one of the interesting things about a tour to Epidaurus.
History of Epidaurus
Although there’s evidence of ceremonial healing practices on the site as early as the 2nd millennium BC, it wasn’t until later, when the cults of Apollo (the son of Zeus) and then Asclepius (the son of Apollo) were incorporated into the idea of healing that things really started to take off.
The Sanctuary of Asclepius was founded in the 6th century BC, and it was in the 4th century BC that this sanctuary saw Epidaurus reach its peak as a centre for healing.
It became one of the most important religious centres in the Ancient World, with people coming from all over the Mediterranean to seek cures for their diseases and ailments, or to thank Asclepius for his help.
Originally the healing ceremonies used the same techniques as previous cults – through sacrifice, ritual meal, and communion. An ash altar in the sanctuary is evidence of where the bloody sacrifices took place.
But as time went on, the standard way of helping patients evolved.
The treatments at Epidaurus for the sick was to be purified in waters from a sacred spring, before they would go to sleep to ‘meet with the gods’ in their subconscious. The deities would either cure them or give them instructions on the treatment they should follow.
However, archaeologists have discovered a large number of medical instruments at the site, which suggests the gods preferred to leave the hard work of healing to man, rather than always do it themselves.
In fact, as the men (not the gods) were able to closely observe the symptoms of diseases, try different techniques, and then see how the recoveries went, they honed their treatments. They were, in effect, inventing medicine.
There’s evidence of various vases that were used to hold different drugs that were developed here. And there were even private doctors who started to set up shop outside the main sanctuary.
In the 4th century BC, with Epidaurus growing rapidly because it was such a popular pilgrimage, it became an independent city-state with its own coins and laws.
It also attracted many artists and philosophers, such as Aristotle, who came to study at the nearby Lyceum. And, of course, the theatre was a focal point for the region.
Epidaurus remained an important pilgrimage site until the 4th century AD, when it was sacked by the Goths and later abandoned. It fell into ruins which, unfortunately, is how we still find much of it today.
Things to see at Epidaurus
When you visit Epidaurus today, you can see in the ruins how large the city-state became – and how it was used all those millennia ago.
Some of the most important things to see at Epidaurus are the temples. (After all, this was a sacred sanctuary.)
Asclepius was the main idol of attention, with his reputation as a curative god bringing most people here, so the biggest one is dedicated to him. The Temple of Asclepius has a Doric design, and would’ve once had six by eleven columns.
Elsewhere in the site, there are also temples dedicated to Artemis, Aphrodite and Themis.
Another large building on the site, now just foundations, was the banquet hall and dormitory, where patients took part in ritual dining while reclining on couches. Written on large slabs on the walls were stories about the miracles performed here.
Things were so busy in Epidaurus that there was also once a stadium, complete with athletes’ quarters. Some of that still remains here to see.
And as you wander along the paths beneath the trees, you’ll also see the remains of some of the many other buildings that supported the visitors who came here for both worship and healing.
Also within the archaeological site, you’ll find the Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus, which has artefacts found here during excavations. It also has large reconstructions of temples and architectural components.
The Theatre of Epidaurus
Thousands of years later, though, it’s the Theatre of Epidaurus that takes centre stage. Virtually undamaged, it still hosts performances and concerts during the summer months.
In the days of the ancient Greeks, it could fit about 14,000 people. These days comfort (and presumably health and safety regulations) keeps the numbers much lower.
The theatre is considered to be one of the purest masterpieces of Greek architecture. To see it in person is to have your breath taken away.
It rises above you, the benches stretching upwards, narrow stone steps leading towards the top. Once you reach the highest level, you’re rewarded with the views out over the countryside.
People – actors, singers, tourists – down on the stage seem tiny. Although they are so far away, the artistic achievement of the theatre means the acoustics are almost perfect from any seat.
What better way to heal the body and the soul than with some theatre, lots of water and plenty of rest?
When you visit Epidaurus to see the archaeological site, a visit to the theatre is included. But for something special, you can try to see a performance here!
During the summer months, there are plenty of performances in the Epidaurus Theatre as part of the Epidaurus Festival. If they are in Greek (which most are), there will be English subtitles.
Although the archaeological site is one of the best places to visit in Greece, it can be a little tricky to visit because of its location.
The easiest way to get to Epidaurus from Athens is with a car, and you might want to rent one to spend a few days in the Peloponnese. (I recommend using Discover Cars in Greece.)
Getting to Epidaurus with public transport can depend a bit on the day and time you want to go – sometimes there’s a direct bus, sometimes there isn’t. I’ve got some details below about how you can check the timetable for your planned day.
If you want to visit Epidaurus as a day trip from Athens, and not continue on to another part of the Peloponnese, I would strongly recommend doing a tour. Not only will it cover all the transport logistics, but most of the good ones also include other destinations in the region, so you’ll also get to visit Mycenae, for example!
I think this is the best value day trip to Epidaurus and also includes Mycenae. There’s also this good bus tour that will take you to Epidaurus, Mycenae, and Nafplio. Or if you would prefer to not be in a group, I would recommend this private tour that also includes Mycenae and Nafplio.
Have a look at these options too:
Once you’re at Epidaurus, you will probably want around 90 minutes to see the whole site and spend a bit of time at the theatre.
There’s a smallish museum which is worth visiting, so I suggest leaving some time for that as well.
There are a couple of food and drink options near the entrance, but they are quite expensive so you may want to bring some snacks and water with you. (Or, if you have a car, head into Lygourio for a meal instead).
Where is Epidaurus?
Epidaurus is on the eastern edge of the Peloponnese, about two hours drive (130km) from Athens, or about 30 30-minute drive (30km) from Nafplio. The nearest town, Lygourio, is about 5 kilometres away.
You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Epidaurus?
To travel from Athens to Epidaurus with public transport, you can catch a KTEL bus from Kifisos station in Athens. You may have to transit in either Nafplion or the city of Palaia Epidaurus. Check the timetable here.
Using the bus can be tricky for a day trip from Athens if the timetable doesn’t line up neatly for you. It’s much easier from Nafplion.
Getting to Epidaurus by car is easy, so you may want to consider a rental car (I recommend using Discover Cars in Greece).
Or you may also find it’s much easier to just join a tour from Athens to save the logistical hassle of transportation.
When is Epidaurus open?
The Sanctuary at Epidaurus is open at the following times:
March: 08:00 – 18:00
April: 08:00 – 19:00
May-August: 08:00 – 20:00
1st September-15th September: 08:00-19:30
16th September-30th September: 08:00-19:00
1st October-15th October: 08:00-18:30
16th October-31th October: 08:00-18:00
November – February: 08:00 – 18:00
Epidaurus is closed on 1 January, 25 March, 1 May, Easter Sunday, and 25/26 December.
How much does it cost to visit Epidaurus?
In summer, an entrance ticket to Epidaurus costs €12, with a concession price of €6.
There’s a reduced rate between November and March of €6.
Are there tours to Epidaurus?
Yes, there are quite a few tours from Athens to Epidaurus that offer a different combination of landmarks on the day trip.
I think this is the best value day trip to Epidaurus and also includes Mycenae.
There’s also this good bus tour that will take you to Epidaurus, Mycenae, and Nafplio.
If you would prefer to not be in a group, I would recommend this private tour that also includes Mycenae and Nafplio.
Of course, there are lots of things to see in Athens itself, but I really think it’s worth getting out for the day to see some of these other nearby archaeological sites.
Epidaurus is certainly an impressive one – a World Heritage Site, remember – and the fact you can combine it with Mycenae makes the trip even more worthwhile.
Will a visit to Epidaurus cure you? Perhaps not of an ailment, but hopefully of your curiosity.