There are few countries in the world that can boast landmarks covering such a long period of history. Greece’s World Heritage Sites are not measured in centuries, but in millennia.
The oldest of the World Heritage Sites in Greece, Mycenae, was founded as early as the 15th century BC, and is still in a relatively impressive condition. Some of the country’s other archaeological sites, such as the Acropolis in Athens and the city of Olympia, instantly transport you back to the Classical World.
For many visitors to Greece, it’s these ancient monuments – along with the islands – that appear to define the country. But there are many other layers of its story that are just as interesting and are also represented in the World Heritage Sites of Greece.
The long period of Byzantine rule in the region can be discovered in monasteries and churches, including a particularly spectacular collection in Thessaloniki. The medieval era is well documented in the architecture of Mystras and Rhodes. And the historic centre of Chorá tells the story of Orthodox Christianity in the nation over many centuries.
While I personally think Greece has some incredible nature, especially in the mountains of the Peloponnese and further north near the border, there are no natural World Heritage Sites in Greece. (There are two mixed ones – Meteora and Mount Athos – but they’re best known for their cultural elements.)
It’s a shame, because inscribing some natural sites would show how much variety there is here beyond the beaches.
Still, at least the range of cultural landmarks demonstrates to visitors how much depth there is to the history and why I think it’s worth going out of your way to see some of these excellent Greek World Heritage Sites.
So, let’s now have a look at each of them and I’ll share my tips on which are the best World Heritage Sites in Greece to visit.
Archaeological Sites of Mycenae and Tiryns
Well before the Ancient Greeks built many of the magnificent temples that we associate with the country’s history, other great civilisations ruled the lands here. One of the most important was the Mycenaean civilisation, which reached its peak between the 16th and 12th centuries BC.
Two of the main settlements of the this kingdom now make up a World Heritage Site – Mycenae and Tiryns, both of which transport you back to a world of myths and legends that have been told through ancient texts.
Mycenae was the birthplace of the legendary hero Perseus, as well as Agamemnon, who is said to have led his troops to Troy to rescue the beautiful Helen (the face who launched a thousand ships). With many parts of its grand buildings remaining, along with monumental tombs and its famous Lion Gate, I think it’s well worth visiting Mycenae – especially if you’re touring the Peloponnese.
A short distance away, Tiryns has well-preserved Cyclopean walls that are an incredible demonstration of how advanced the engineering was for the time. You can still make out the impressive palaces and throne rooms, with remnants of frescoes, and see a collection of masks, jewellery and weapons found in the tombs.
Archaeological Site of Aigai
One of the great kingdoms to emerge in later years, alongside the Spartans and the Athenians (more on them in a moment), was Macedon, home to the ancient Macedonians.
Their capital city was called Aigai (also spelled Aegae, and now known as Vergina) to the west of Thessaloniki. It was once one of the most important royal centres of Greece and is best known for being the burial place of King Philip II (the father of Alexander the Great, who had such an impact on the history of this region).
At the heart of the site are the monumental Royal Tombs, richly decorated with paintings, sculptures, weapons and armour that reveal aspects of Macedonian culture and history. The museum with these artefacts and the way the tombs are displayed are a really interesting experience for visitors.
The palace complex at Aigai, with an impressive theatre, is also an important part of the archaeological site, although there is less to see here because much of it is obviously in ruins these days.
Perched atop a hill in the centre of Athens, the Acropolis stands out as a symbol in so many ways – of the city overall, of its history, and of important concepts like democracy that were developed here.
The Acropolis was built by the Athenians in the 5th century BC under the leadership of Pericles, who commissioned some of the most renowned architects and sculptors of his time to create a masterpiece of classical architecture. The highlight is the Parthenon and the marble artworks that once decorated it.
But as you climb up the stone steps to the top of the Acropolis, you’ll also pass theatres and other temples, with sculptures and carved friezes from the expert artists of the Ancient Greeks. The ancient theatre of Dionysus is of particular note.
Even as one of the world’s most famous landmarks, I don’t think visiting the Acropolis is an anticlimax – it’s as impressive as you imagine, and the views of Athens and the monuments surrounding it are a highlight of your time in the capital.
The Acropolis Museum is also a spectacular companion to a visit to the World Heritage Site and is not to be missed.
Archaeological Site of Delphi
If you’ve learned a bit about Ancient Greece, you’ve likely come across the story of the Oracle of Delphi, who would offer advice and guidance, apparently direct from the god Apollo.
Those who wanted answers – including kings – would travel all the way to Delphi, up in the highlands about 150 kilometres from Athens. Nestled amidst green landscapes on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, the sacred sanctuary still feels rather mystical, with its complex of temples and majestic buildings.
As you make you way up the hill, past the iconic ruins of the Temple of Apollo, you’ll reach the grand Theatre of Delphi with breathtaking vistas of the surrounding valley. Beyond that is the large stadium that is evidence of how the site was also an important centre of culture and religion.
From Athens, it’s easy to do a day trip to Delphi. The combination of the ruins and the environment make this one of the most beautiful World Heritage Sites in Greece. And the attached museum, which has a large collection of sculptures and artefacts from the site, means there’s also lots of history to discover.
Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus
Heading down into the Peloponnese, you start to get a sense of both the breadth and the opulence of Ancient Greece. One of the first World Heritage Sites you’ll reach is Epidaurus, which was founded in the 6th century BC.
The main attraction here is the incredible theatre, famous not just for its elegant design but for its perfect acoustics (if you can, try to see a performance here). But the story of the rest of the site is just as significant.
This captivating archaeological site was dedicated to the Greek god of medicine, Asklepios, and was used as a healing centre, reaching its peak in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. With various treatments like baths, massages, diet, and surgery, Epidaurus can make a case for being the birthplace of modern medicine.
When you visit Epidaurus and wander through the sacred grounds, you’ll see the remains of this ancient centre of healing. And, if you let yourself, you may even be able to connect with some of the energy that was used for the rituals that combined the spiritual with the physical.
Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae
On the western side of the Peloponnese, in a mountainous region that feels far off the tourist trail, is the the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae. What makes it particularly interesting is that, although it’s harder to reach than many of the other Greek World Heritage Sites, it’s considered to be one of the best preserved of the Classical period.
The temple was built in the 5th century BC and combines all three orders of classical architecture: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. It also features a unique sculptural frieze depicting scenes from Greek mythology.
The remote location highlights the significance of this site and also creates an adventurous aspect to a visit. Once, pilgrims would’ve sought out the sanctuary for divine guidance and help from Apollo, the god of healing (among many other things).
It’s also one of the reasons it’s been relatively protected. But now there is a huge conservation effort underway and the temple has been covered in an enormous tent since 1987.
With the ongoing restoration effort, I think a visit here is particularly interesting to get a sense of how large and detailed these ancient temples were, even if it involves a bit more effort to reach.
Archaeological Site of Olympia
The modern Olympics, probably the biggest event on the planet, is certainly one of the reasons that the ancient site of Olympia is such a popular place for visitors. To see where the idea originated, and stand where athletes competed thousands of years ago, is a reminder of the connection between the Ancient World and today.
The first Olympic Games were held here in honour of Zeus, the king of the gods, every four years from 776 BC to 393 AD. Over the centuries, a large amount of infrastructure was built to support the games and the crowds that would come to watch them.
Of the buildings that remain, one of the most famous is the Temple of Zeus, which once housed a colossal statue of Zeus made by Pheidias (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World).
There’s also the Palaestra, where the athletes trained for the games; the exquisite Heraion, dedicated to the goddess Hera; the Philippeion, a grand memorial commissioned by Alexander the Grea; and the main stadium itself.
When you visit Olympia these days, you may need to imagine the roar of the crowds because it’s become a peaceful site, well shaded with trees and quiet outside the peak tour bus hours. Still, there’s lots to see and the small museum has an interesting collection.
To the islands now… and floating like a jewel in the Aegean Sea, it can at first be a bit hard to imagine how busy Delos once was. Now it’s uninhabited and it’s Mykonos, just a few kilometres away, which is buzzing with activity.
But from about the 9th century BC, Delos became the focus of the worship of the god Apollo and it was said that he, along with his twin sister Artemis, were born here. The Sanctuary of Apollo on Delos brought pilgrims from around the region and the settlement gradually grew into a wealthy hub.
With its wealth and popularity, more temples were built, as well as markets, lavish houses with mosaics and frescoes, and even a large theatre. When you visit Delos from Mykonos today, you’ll be able to see much of this, as the original urban layout has been well preserved.
The marble statues of the Terrace of the Lions is one of the most important artistic parts of Delos, and the museum on the island houses even more artefacts. There’s lots to see on Delos and it’s well worth a visit, especially if you’re looking for something a bit different from the usual island shenanigans.
Pythagoreion and Heraion of Samos
The island of Samos, close to the Turkish coast, is a picturesque place to visit, but unfortunately it has one of the least interesting of the World Heritage Sites in Greece.
It is made up of two components. The first is the archaeological site of Pythagoreion, named after the renowned mathematician Pythagoras, and shows you an ancient port that would once have bustled with trade. The highlight here is the imposing Tunnel of Eupalinos, an engineering marvel that showcases the ingenuity of the ancient Greeks with its remarkable construction and precise alignment.
Just a short distance away lies the Heraion of Samos, a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Hera. This sacred site, surrounded by lush greenery and overlooking the sparkling Aegean Sea, feels tranquil and there’s a spiritual reverence to the complex. The remains of the Temple of Hera, adorned with elegant columns, offers a glimpse into the grandeur of the ancient architecture that once stood here.
While I would suggest visiting the archaeological areas if you are on the island, I’m not sure they alone justify a trip to Samos, especially compared to the other ancient sites in Greece.
Archaeological Site of Philippi
Back on the mainland, the Archaeological Site of Philippi takes us into the next phase of the history of Greece – the Roman Era and the beginning of Christianity.
Although Philippi was founded by the Macedonian King Philip II (and named after him), it was the Romans who expanded it into a ‘small Rome’, with majestic public buildings, a forum, and monumental terraces.
Particularly significant was the role of Philippi as a centre of the early Christian faith. It became a pilgrimage site after the apostle, St Paul, visited in about 50 AD and is said to have performed his first baptism in Europe.
Among the ruins are the remains of Christian basilicas and an octagonal church, as well as a large theatre and other public buildings from both the Hellenistic and Roman times – a cultural tapestry that includes ancient mosaic floors.
The city is not as well preserved and presented as archaeological sites like Delphi and Olympia, but I think it’s nice to see something a bit different than the usual Ancient Greek temples.
Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki
As Christianity continued to spread through Europe, another important city in its dissemination was Thessaloniki, where St Paul was also said to have preached in about 56 AD.
Over the coming centuries, a number of beautiful churches were built in the city – some large, some small – and a collection of 15 locations in Thessaloniki make up this World Heritage Site (most of them churches).
Something that makes the churches of Thessaloniki really interesting is that they cover three main periods: Early Christian, Byzantine, and post-Byzantine, constructed from the 4th to the 15th centuries, so you can see the evolution of the Christian faith in this part of the world, from almost the beginning.
The Rotunda, originally constructed as a mausoleum for Roman emperors before it was transformed into a Christian church, is a highlight. As are the 8th-century Agia Sophia (Church of St Sophia), and the Church of St Demetrios, named for the city’s patron saint who was killed on this spot in 303 AD.
It’s easy to spend a whole day walking through the city seeing all 15 of the locations, and I really enjoyed doing it. You’ll not just see some incredible Byzantine art, but you’ll explore some of the city’s local neighbourhoods.
Monasteries of Daphni, Hosios Loukas and Nea Moni of Chios
Another of Greece’s World Heritage Sites made up of a collection of churches, this time with a focus purely on Byzantine art, are the three monasteries of Daphni, Hosios Loukas, and Nea Moni of Chios. Although they’re in three completely different locations, they share similar architecture and decoration styles from the 11th and 12th centuries.
The Monastery of Daphni, on the edge of Athens, is the easiest to reach for visitors. It’s renowned for its breathtaking mosaics adorning the interior of the church that depict scenes from the life of Jesus.
Hosios Loukas, nestled amidst the tranquil slopes of Mount Helikon on the way to Delphi, captivates with its Byzantine architecture and awe-inspiring frescoes. The main church, dedicated to St Luke, showcases remarkable craftsmanship and serves as a testament to the golden age of Byzantine art.
Nea Moni, far away on the island of Chios near the Turkish coast, is a testament to the resilience of the Byzantine Empire. Despite suffering damage over the centuries, the monastery still has stunning mosaics, vibrant frescoes, and ornate marble carvings, all of which have been lovingly restored.
The Historic Centre (Chorá) on the Island of Pátmos
This is one of those World Heritage Sites that doesn’t just have a great collection of things to see, but also has a compelling story behind it. It’s what makes a visit to the beautiful Aegean island of Patmos so worthwhile.
One part of the site, the Cave of the Apocalypse, has a profound spiritual energy to it. The cave is said to be the spot where St John received the visions that inspired the final part of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. Around it are a number of small churches, chapels, and monastic cells.
At the heart of the Chorá stands the magnificent Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, an architectural masterpiece that has stood the test of time. From the outside, it looks like a fortress with its huge hulking walls, but inside are intricate frescoes that transport you to a bygone era of Byzantine grandeur, complete with a treasury of religious artefacts and a rich collection of sacred manuscripts.
Around the rest of the historic centre of Patmos are picturesque scenes of cobblestone streets, traditional whitewashed houses, and charming chapels that are blend harmoniously with the natural landscape, just as the physical buildings merge with the spiritual.
For more than a thousand years, Mount Athos has existed as a unique monastic community on a narrow peninsula in the north of the country. As one of just two mixed World Heritage Sites in Greece, it’s the combination of the cultural history and the beautiful landscapes that make it particularly special.
Mount Athos is home to 20 Orthodox monasteries and about 2,000 monks who follow a strict ascetic lifestyle. Considered a sacred place by Orthodox Christians, it is a treasure trove of art and culture, with countless manuscripts, icons, relics, and buildings that reflect the Byzantine heritage.
Sailing along its rugged coastline, the majestic monasteries clinging to the cliffs seem untouched by time. Stepping onto the peninsula feels like you’re entering a sanctuary of tranquility, with secluded beaches and lush forests creating an idyllic backdrop for contemplation.
In some ways, though, Mount Athos is quite a controversial World Heritage Site because access is restricted only to men. Although that’s because of traditional religious reasons, I think it raises questions about how appropriate it is in modern day for a location on the World Heritage List to ban people based on gender.
One of the most scenic landmarks in Greece, Meteora, is the country’s other mixed World Heritage Site. Again, it’s ancient monasteries that offer the chance to explore the culture, but this time they’re located on stunning rock formations, creating a surreal and landscape.
Atop these towers of rock are 24 monasteries that were built between the 14th and 16th centuries. They were founded by monks looking for isolation and spiritual elevation in this dramatic setting, and are mainly accessible by stairs or ropes that were originally used to lift supplies and people.
Stepping inside the monastic enclaves is like entering a world of stillness and serenity (away from the tourists, at least). The halls are adorned with vibrant frescoes and icons, while the architecture is particularly impressive considering their locations. Outside, there are also hiking trails to explore the area.
Meteora is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in the world. It’s one of the best places to visit in Greece and, although it’s possible to see it as a day trip from Athens, I would recommend staying overnight if you have time.
Archaeological Site of Mystras
Stretching up the slope of a verdant mountain, the ruins of the city of Mystras still give you a comprehensive sense of how important it was as a Byzantine centre of power in the 14th and 15th centuries. Founded in 1249, it flourished until the Ottomans took over, before finally being abandoned in the 19th century.
The first things you’ll probably see are the city’s fortified walls and towering castle at the top of a hill, but as you explore more of Mystras, you’ll also find Byzantine churches adorned with vibrant frescoes, streets that would once have been bustling with residents, and the imposing architecture of the Palace of the Despots (which unfortunately isn’t open to visitors).
I like that visiting Mystras takes you to a different kind of archaeological site because, although much of it is in ruins, it was still inhabited until quite recently, so it’s different to the cities of Ancient Greece.
History comes alive, and the echoes of past footsteps resonate through the cobblestone streets. There’s lots to see here and it’s certainly a good addition to any trip through the Peloponnese.
Medieval City of Rhodes
As the Byzantine Empire was starting to crumble, new powers started to make their mark on the history of Greece. One of them was the Order of St John of Jerusalem, which claimed the island of Rhodes and turned its main city (also called Rhodes) into a majestic stronghold.
Fortified in the 14th and 15th centuries, it’s one of the best preserved examples of medieval urban planning and architecture in Europe. The city has a complex network of streets, squares, gates and towers that you can easily explore for hours, gradually becoming more and more disoriented.
Among the best things to see in Rhodes are the enormous Palace of the Grand Master, which blends medieval architecture with lavish ornamentation, and the Street of the Knights, lined with imposing medieval residences. But there are also other museums, churches, and historic landmarks that remind you of the strategic importance of the island throughout the centuries.
Although it can feel quite touristy at times, with cruise ships docking right next to the historic centre, there are still plenty of pockets of local life amongst the medieval monuments.
Old Town of Corfu
And finally there’s the Old Town of Corfu, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Ionian Sea, but also one of the most historically interesting – and a great addition to the list of World Heritage Sites in Greece.
The Old Town of Corfu is a true gem that has a captivating blend of Venetian, French, and British influences. Amongst its labyrinthine alleys and hidden passages are colourful facades, blooming bougainvillea, and charming cafes.
In some parts of the city are the remnants of medieval walls, in others you’ll find gothic churches with soaring bell towers. The iconic Spianada Square, the largest square in the Balkans, showcases elegant French-inspired architecture and serves as a vibrant gathering place for locals and visitors alike.
It’s easy to spend days here, not just exploring sights like the Byzantine Museum and the Archaeological Museum, but also eating and drinking in the wonderful restaurants and bars that serve modern fare in historic buildings.
It can get busy here, but the streets feel more relaxed in the evening as they come alive with the soft glow of lanterns and the warm hospitality of the locals – the perfect way to experience all the heritage that Greece has to offer.