While it’s the Acropolis in Athens which gets all the attention when people think of Ancient Greece, another site, about 120 kilometres away on the Peloponnese, has a much more romantic history.
(Yes, I said ‘romantic’ – you’ll see why!)
On the site known as Mycenae, the Mycenaean culture built their citadel about a thousand years before the Acropolis existed!
For about four hundred years between the 16th and 12th century BC, their civilisation spread to all known areas in the Mediterranean basin. It was one of the most powerful empires of the time. And all of it was controlled from this hill.
Mycenae was the royal house, the centre of communication routes, and the most fiercely defended community of the Mycenaeans.
But, as far as legend is concerned, the ancient city of Mycenae is best known as the heart of the empire which launched the famous attack and siege on Troy that led to the Trojan War, one of the most famous stories of the Classical World.
Ancient poets such as Homer told stories of the Mycenaean era and its role in the tale of a face that launched a thousand ships.
In short, when Helen (Queen of Sparta) eloped to Troy with her lover Paris, her husband was so enraged he called on the kings of Greece to wage war. It was Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae, who led the armada to bring her back.
Long thought to just be legend, after the archaeological discovery of Troy in the 19th century, many historians now believe that perhaps Argamemnon was a real person. And, if so, it would’ve been here at Mycenae that he lived.
And this is why I think Mycenae has a romantic story… even if it’s also pretty violent. (Spoiler alert: The Trojan War doesn’t really end well for anyone).
The best way to visit Mycenae from Athens is on a tour, and I would recommend this great day trip, which also includes Epidaurus and Nafplio.
But more than three thousand years have passed since those days and the citadel on the mountaintop lies in ruin today. There’s still lots to see – including impressive tombs and some intricate artworks, but you’ll need to use your imagination a bit.
Still, it’s easy to see why Mycenae (along with the nearby site of Tiryns) was added as one of the Greek World Heritage Sites.
What is Mycenae?
Mycenae was an important city at the centre of the Mycenaean Empire for hundreds of years from about 1600 BC and was home to about 30,000 people at its peak in the 14th century BC.
Why is Mycenae significant?
Mycenae was listed as a World Heritage Site because of its important role in the development of classical Greek culture as the base for the Mycenaean Empire – and because of its role in the Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Is it worth visiting Mycenae?
There are lots of things to see at Mycenae and it’s certainly worth visiting to get a sense of the opulence of this ancient kingdom, with some well-preserved artefacts. It makes for an easy day trip from Athens or nearby Nafplio.
Visiting Mycenae today, there’s lots to explore and you’ll easily spend more than an hour here. It makes for one of the most interesting day trips from Athens, especially when combined with sites like Epidaurus.
There are ingenious inventions to control water and light at the site that were ahead of their times; structures of buildings would influence civilisations to come; and decorative features that still exist in parts of the ruins have been proven to be the first of their type in the world.
The Mycenaean Empire
To get a sense of how old the Mycenaean Empire is, it’s perhaps best to compare its timeline with that of Ancient Egypt. The Pyramids at Giza were well and truly built by the time the Mycenaeans came along. However, their period of influence is almost exactly the same as when the pharaohs were being laid to rest in the Valley of the Kings.
In other words, a very long time ago – about 3500 years ago, to be exact.
The Mycenaeans were primarily based on the mainland, around the Peloponnese, from around 1750 to 1050 BC. They were influenced by the earlier Minoan civilisation, which had spread from its origins at Crete to include the wider Aegean.
The Mycenaeans adopted many aspects of Minoan culture, such as architecture, art, religion, and writing – and they worshipped many of the same gods that later Greeks did, such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, and Apollo.
A warlike people, the Mycenaean Empire expanded its influence throughout Greece and across the Aegean Sea. They traded with other Bronze Age cultures in Cyprus, Anatolia, Egypt, and the Levant. They also fought with them, especially with the Hittites over control of Troy, as I’ve already mentioned.
With fighting, comes the need for defence, and the Mycenaeans were known for their fortified cities – Mycenae being the most famous, but other important ones were Tiryns, Pylos, and Thebes.
These cities were built around large palace complexes that served as administrative and economic centers. The palaces were richly decorated with frescoes, sculptures, and gold objects, but they also stored goods like wheat, oil, wine, and wool.
The Mycenaean civilization collapsed around 1050 BC, along with other Bronze Age cultures in the eastern Mediterranean. The reasons for this collapse are still debated by historians, but they may include natural disasters, invasions, internal conflicts, or social and economic decline.
But the Mycenaeans were not forgotten and they left behind a rich legacy that influenced later Greek culture and history. Their achievements in engineering, architecture, and military organisation set standards for future civilisations.
And, of course, their myths and legends inspired generations of poets, artists, and philosophers. These works are still some of the most famous today, more than 3000 years later.
Things to see at Mycenae
When you visit Mycenae, the best thing to do is follow the path that will lead you to all the main attractions, sometimes deviating to some of the less important ruins, and then coming back to the main trail.
But before you head up into the citadel, I recommend taking the short walk along ground level to the Treasury of Atreus, also called the Tomb of Agamemnon. It’s the largest and most elaborate tomb of this style known to hav been constructed during the Bronze Age.
Although it’s not known who was buried here, the tomb was named in the 18th century for the legendary Mycenaean king Agamemnon, even though there’s no evidence it was his grave (or that he even definitely existed!). Still, it was clearly meant for someone very important, and this is one of the most significant things to see at Mycenae.
On that way back to the citadel entrance, you can also see two more vaulted tombs that are at ground level near the entrance. The Tomb of Aegisthus and the Tomb of Clytemnestra, in particular, are amazing funerary monuments that were built in the 13th century BC.
Shaped like a beehive, the facades would’ve been decorated with two columns. Inside, the brick ceiling and walls seem to stay in place miraculously and make it feel like perhaps you could be entombed here.
Heading up the hill, the first thing you’ll come to is the Lion Gate, one of the most important things to see at Mycenae.
It got its name because of the carving of two lionesses in a heraldic pose above the gate. Other than its artistic value, the Lion Gate is also important because it’s the only surviving piece of Mycenaean sculpture.
Through the gate, you’ll first reach the Royal Graves, more technically called Grave Circle A. This is one of the earliest parts of the citadel, first used in the 16th century BC as a cemetery when it would’ve been outside the city walls.
The circle itself is almost 30 metres across and there are six shafts going down to graves, with up to five people buried in each shaft. Within these graves, archaeologists found some of the most valuable treasures of Mycenae, including gold death masks.
Walking further along the path, you’ll pass through ruins that show the foundations of houses and other buildings that made up the bulk of the city. Towards the top, you’ll reach the Palace of Mycenae, the centre of this ancient city.
Although in ruins now, you can make out the layout of the palace (which would’ve changed a few times over the centuries). There’s the main courtyard, the throne room, a grand staircase and also a temple.
Continuing on, there are more houses on the other side of the hill. Make sure you keep going because you’ll soon reach the cistern and the striking tunnel that leads to it through the rock.
After you’ve seen all the highlights of the archaeological site, it’s time for the Museum of Mycenae, which is back near the entrance. The museum has a great collection of artefacts found during the archaeological digs of the ruins, which give you a much better idea of what life was like for the Mycenaeans.
The museum also does a good job of telling the tale of the battle of Troy and the subsequent Homeric poems, which the empire played such an important role in.
Exactly what in those stories is true is still debated to this day. There is no question, though, about the importance of the Mycenaean empire and the evidence of it that remains.
What about Tiryns?
I can’t really talk about Mycenae without also mentioning Tiryns, another of the ancient Mycenaean cities.
That’s because Tiryns has been combined with Mycenae to create one of the World Heritage Sites in Greece – and it’s only about 20 kilometres away, very close to the city of Nafplio.
Although Tiryns only had about half the population of Mycenae, it was still one of the most important cities of the kingdom, acting as a powerful centre for centuries between about 1400 BC and 1200 BC.
Tiryns once had a huge palace, the ruins of which are the main feature at the archaeological site today. There were various rooms built around a central courtyard, including an adjoining temple.
The tunnels throughout the citadel also show an impressive level of engineering, built of massive limestone boulders. But the wall around Tiryns is also a feat, with the base still surviving around its whole length, reaching up to seven metres high at some points.
Out of these two sites, most people choose to visit Mycenae, which makes sense because it’s much larger and has a greater variety of landmarks to discover. If you only have time for one, I would recommend Mycenae.
But, if you’re in the area and interested in getting a better understanding of the Mycenaean Empire, it’s easy to do both if you have a car (they’re only about 20 minutes drive apart) and they’re different enough to make it worthwhile.
Tiryns is open from 08:30 – 15:30.
It is closed on 1 January, 25 March, Easter Sunday, 1 May, 25/26 December
Entry to Tiryns costs €4 from April – October and €2 from November – March.
There are quite a few important archaeological sites in the Peloponnese region but visiting Mycenae is one of the highlights because of how different it is (so many of the others are related to the era of the Athenians).
Having said that, if you’re doing a day trip from Athens to Mycenae, I think it’s worth including Epidaurus and its theatre, Corinth, and possibly Tiryns too (if you want even more Mycenaean!)
Because Mycenae is set on a hill, there’s a bit of walking involved to see the ancient city, but the paths are pretty good so I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly difficult place to explore.
Although the archaeological site of Mycenae is mainly in ruins, there are still quite a few things to see across the site. Although it’s not too spread out, I would recommend giving yourself about 60 – 90 minutes to visit Mycenae, including seeing the museum on site.
There are a few lovely tavernas in the small town on the way to the main entrance where you can get a good meal, but the site itself can be very hot and sunny, so I recommend taking some water and perhaps a few snacks.
Where is Mycenae?
Mycenae is on the eastern edge of the Peloponnese, just north of Nafplio and about 120 kilometres’ drive from Athens.
You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Mycenae?
To get from Athens to Mycenae by public transport, there are regular buses from Kifissos station towards Nafplio that stop at Fichti (about 4 kilometres from the site), from where you can walk or take a taxi. Check the timetable here.
If you’re coming from Nafplio, there is this one direct bus to and from Mycenae each day (leaving Nafplio at 09:30 and returning from Mycenae at 12:00).
However, the easiest way to get to Mycenae from Athens is by car, and the drive will take about two hours. (If you need to rent a car, I recommend using Discover Cars in Greece.)
Or you may find it’s worth joining a tour from Athens to avoid the logistical hassle.
When is Mycenae open?
Mycenae is open at the following times during the year:
April: 08:00 – 19:00
May – August: 08:00 – 20:00
1 September – 15 September: 08:00 – 19:30
16 September – 30 September: 08:00 – 19:00
1 October – 15 October: 08:00 – 18:30
16 October – 31 October: 08:00 – 18:00
November – March: 08:30 – 15:30
Mycenae is closed on 1 January, 25 March, 1 May, Easter Sunday, 25/26 December
How much does it cost to visit Mycenae?
Admission to Mycenae is €12 for an adult and €6 for a concession.
From November to March, entry costs just €6.
You can buy a combined ticket for €20 that also includes Tiryns, Asini, Palamidi, Museum of Nafplio, and Byzantine Museum of Argos
Are there tours to Mycenae?
Yes, there are a few good tours to Mycenae from Athens that usually include other nearby sites and are a convenient way to visit the site.
I would recommend this affordable tour that also goes to Epidaurus and Nafplio, or there’s this comfortable private tour for up to four people.
You can see more options here.
Although I personally like to travel independently, this is a case where I would recommend a tour to visit Mycenae if you don’t have a car.
Firstly, the public transport connections are a little tricky and you’ll end up spending a lot of time just travelling if you do it on your own (for starters, the bus leaves from Kifissos station in Athens, and then it drops you about 4 kilometres from the entrance!).
But more importantly, there are lots of really interesting things to see in the area that will be impossible in one day by public transport. A tour, on the other hand, will be able to take you to several of them.
Also, some of the tours to Mycenae and surrounds are quite affordable and are basically just like a convenient tourist bus (with the bonus of having a guide).
For some other options with different sites, there are these good ones:
So much of the heritage in Greece is related to the one period, and while it’s a fascinating era, it’s nice to see something a bit different, which is why I would always recommend a visit to Mycenae to people who are staying in Athens.
And of course there are lots of things to see in Athens itself, but getting out of the city for a day to explore these archaeological sites is certainly worth it.