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Tips for Visiting Delphi, Greece

Delphi was really amazing and should be a priority on any visit to Greece.  A little bit of advice can usually go a long way, so here are some tips to make sure you enjoy your visit.

1) The Delphi Museum Hours Are Variable

Cybele (left) rides a chariot pulled by a lion who is attacking a Giant, from the north frieze (Gigantomachy) of the Siphnian Treasury, on display in the Delphi Museum

I was warned (by a man in Athens no less) that the Delphi museum had odd hours.  This was strangely confirmed when the three recent guidebooks I consulted all listed different hours for the museum.  Once in Greece, I called ahead and found that the museum was closing at 3pm the day we wanted to go.  We had lunch on the run in Thermopylae and made it to Delphi with a hour for the museum.  Since the archaeological site itself is open from ~8am-8pm everyday, we saw bus loads of tourists dropped off just to look at the ruins because the museum was long closed.  I’d have felt a little cheated if I came all that way and didn’t get to see the famous Charioteer statue, the architectural decorations and votive objects in the museum!

2) Pace Yourself

Delphi is a lot bigger than you think it is and built on a steep hill.  If you really want to see most of the site and enjoy the staggering vistas, budget 4 hours at least to see Delphi.  I suppose you could run through it quickly and just see some parts but you wouldn’t have time to start mentally piecing all the ruins together.  It’s hard to approach a large archaeological like Delphi, which contains almost no complete buildings, and immediately grasp the scale.  It’s pretty rewarding to sit at different vantage points and imagine the ancient city.

Reconstruction of Upper Delphi

I was hoping that things would begin to cool in early September but it was still incredibly hot in Delphi.  Since there is very little shade, try to go first thing in the morning or in the afternoon (3-8pm) like we did.  Take breaks, wear a hat and drink lots of water.

3) Stay the Night in Arachova

Arachova – A more authentic and relaxing alternative to staying in Delphi

As you would imagine, the modern city of Delphi is a tourist trap.  The main street is lined with restaurants and cheap hotels each containing some iteration of Oracle, Apollo, Temple or Zeus in their title.  I guessed as much even before I left the US and made alternate arrangements…

Arachova is about 20min east of Delphi and is a lovely town.  What spares Arachova from the cheesy tourist malaise down the road is its status as a top winter destination for skiers who flock to Mt. Parnassos.  Arachova has great hotels and restaurants to serve the influx of mostly Athenians coming up to ski but is empty in the summer months.  Since the city draws Greek sports enthusiasts, you are spared the kitsch seen in Delphi.  Arachova was a beautiful, peaceful town without the crowds and a more authentic place to hang out .

View down the main street in Arachova

There are several nice hotel options; we stayed at Xenonas Iresioni‏.  It is on the edge of town but only a few minutes walk away from the center of things.  The staff was great and the room was comfortable with the biggest double bed we saw in all of Greece.  When I mentioned to the man at the front desk that I was unable to purchase a Delphi catalog because the museum shop had run out of the English version, he gave be an unused one that they had on hand.  Talk about helpful staff!

Ancient Delphi

According to myth, Zeus released two eagles to circle the world and in their flight they crossed above Delphi – the center of the Earth.  Delphi is an expansive site on the side of Mt. Parnassus with sweeping views and layers of ruins to explore.

Delphi is perhaps most famous for the Oracle at the Temple of Apollo.  The heart of the temple was situated over a crack in the ground which spewed noxious gas.  Under its influence and perhaps other substances, the temple priestess would speak which in turn was “interpreted” by the savvy and current events-conscious temple priests. Pilgrims, diplomats and kings came to Delphi for this divine advice which was not always so clear. On his second consultation regarding the impending Persian invasion, Themistocles of Athens was told famously (in cryptic oracle language) that “Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail.”  After the Persians captured and burned much of Athens, it was the decisive Greek naval victory near Salamis that sent the Persians back home.  It seems the Oracle’s “wooden wall” was not a city wall but a fleet of ships!

Delphi - Temple of Apollo

Delphi – Temple of Apollo

 As you would imagine, the Athenians were elated after their victory and most likely brought fine sculptures and gold to the Apollo in thanks.  This is actually what every Greek city-state did after a victory storing the offerings in their own dedicated Treasury building.  The road leading to the Temple of Apollo is lined with Treasuries which acted like both a museum and a bank vault meant to show off the generous gifts of the city to Apollo and to protect the objects.  Today only the Treasury of Athens remains complete after extensive restoration.  At the site today, you can see up the mountain to the Temple, but during the Classical Greek period, the view must have been obstructed with a winding street of proud, glittering Treasuries.

Treasury of Athens - Delphi

Treasury of Athens – Delphi

Delphi hosted the Pythian games every four years for about 900 years beginning in 582 BC.  Since the games focused more on arts, there is a well preserved theater in addition to a stadium for athletic competitions above the Temple of Apollo.  The modern road through Delphi cuts the Treasuries, Temple and event venues from the lower portion of the site.  Here you’ll find an athletic training grounds and a large temple complex dedicated to Athena – Apollo’s sister.  Beside the main Temple is the elegant round Tholos building which is usually (and incorrectly) associated with Apollo, the Oracle and Delphi in general, because of its beauty.  If there is not a picture of white and blue buildings from Santorini on the cover of your Greek guidebook, then it is probably a picture of the Athena Tholos at Delphi!

Temple Complex of Athena Pronaia – Delphi

Delphi does have a small museum which contains some sculptures and architectural elements from the ancient site.  The most notable piece is the bronze Charioteer which survived because it was buried during a landslide.  The figure is elegant, youthful and executed with great detail.  Since the modern world has inherited Roman stone copies of now lost Greek statues, we often forget that bronzes constituted about half of the ancient Greek statues.

Charioteer of Delphi

I have a lot of travel tips for seeing Delphi so I’ll post those separately.  In the meantime, let me say that Delphi is an impressive sight – well worth the trip and greatly enhanced by some historical background before you visit.

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