The historic associations and resonance of OLYMPIA, which for over a millennium hosted the most important Panhellenic games, are rivalled only by Delphi or Mycenae. It is one of the largest ancient sites in Greece, spread beside the twin rivers of Alfiós (Alpheus) – the largest in the Peloponnese – and Kládhios, and overlooked by the Hill of Krónos. The site itself is picturesque, but the sheer quantity of ruined structures can give a confusing impression of their ancient grandeur and function; despite the crowds, tour buses, souvenir shops and other trappings of mass tourism, it deserves a visit with at least an overnight stay at the modern village of Olymbía.

The site

From its beginnings the site was a sanctuary, with a permanent population limited to the temple priests. At first the games took place within the sacred precinct, the walled, rectangular Altis, but as events became more sophisticated a new stadium was built to adjoin it.

The gymnasium and official buildings

The entrance to the site, located just 200m from the village, leads along the west side of the Altis wall, past a group of public and official buildings. On the left, beyond some Roman baths, is the Prytaneion, the administrators’ residence, where athletes stayed and feasted at official expense. On the right are the ruins of a gymnasium and a palaestra (wrestling school), used by the competitors during their obligatory month of pre-games training.

Beyond these stood the Priests’ House, the Theokoleion, a substantial colonnaded building in whose southeast corner is a structure adapted as a Byzantine church. This was originally the studio of Fidias, the fifth-century BC sculptor responsible for the great gold and ivory cult statue in Olympia’s Temple of Zeus. It was identified by following a description by Pausanias, and through the discovery of tools, moulds for the statue and a cup engraved with the sculptor’s name.

To the south of the studio lie further administrative buildings, including the Leonidaion, a large and doubtless luxurious hostel endowed for the most important of the festival guests. It was the first building visitors would reach along the original approach road to the site.

The Temple of Zeus

The main focus of the Altis precinct is provided by the great Doric Temple of Zeus. Built between 470 and 456 BC, it was as large as the Parthenon, a fact quietly substantiated by the vast column drums littering the ground. The temple’s decoration, too, rivalled the finest in Athens; partially recovered, its sculptures of Pelops in a chariot race, of Lapiths and Centaurs, and the Labours of Hercules, are now in the museum. In the cella was exhibited the (lost) cult statue of Zeus by Fidias, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Here, too, the Olympian flame was kept alight, from the time of the games until the following spring – a tradition continued at an altar for the modern games.

The Temple of Hera

The smaller Temple of Hera, behind, was the first built in the Altis; prior to its completion in the seventh century BC, the sanctuary had only open-air altars, dedicated to Zeus and a variety of other cult gods. The temple, rebuilt in the Doric style in the sixth century BC, is the most complete building on the site, with some thirty of its columns surviving in part, along with a section of the inner wall. The levels above this wall were composed only of sun-baked brick, and the lightness of this building material must have helped to preserve the sculptures that nineteenth-century excavation uncovered – most notably the Hermes of Praxiteles.

West of the Temple of Hera, and bordering the wall of the Altis, are remains of the circular Philippeion, the first monument in the sanctuary to be built to secular glory. It was begun by Philip II to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Chaeronea, which gave him control over the Greek mainland; the building may have been completed by his son, Alexander the Great. To the east of the Hera temple is a small, second-century AD fountain house, the gift of the ubiquitous Herodes Atticus. Beyond, lining a terrace at the base of the Hill of Krónos, are the state treasuries, storage chambers for sacrificial items and sporting equipment used in the games. They are built in the form of temples, as at Delphi; the oldest and grandest, at the east end, belonged to Gela in Sicily. In front of the treasuries are the foundations of the Metroön, a fourth-century BC Doric temple dedicated to the mother of the gods.

The Pelopeion

Between the temples of Hera and Zeus is a grove described by Pausanias, and identified as the Pelopeion. In addition to a cult altar to the Olympian hero, this enclosed a small mound formed by sacrificial ashes, among which excavations unearthed many of the terracotta finds in the museum. The sanctuary’s principal altar, dedicated to Zeus, probably stood just to the east.

The Bouleuterion

The ancient ceremonial entrance to the Altis was on the south side, below a long stoa taking up almost the entire east side of the precinct. At the corner was a house built by the Roman emperor Nero for his stay during the games. He also had the entrance remodelled as a triumphal arch, fit for his anticipated victories. Through the arch, just outside the precinct, stood the Bouleuterion or council chamber, where before a great statue of Zeus the competitors took their oaths to observe the Olympian rules. These were not to be taken lightly: lining the way were bronze statues paid for with the fines exacted for foul play, bearing the name of the disgraced athlete, his father and city.

The stadium

The natural focus of the Olympic site is the 200m track of the stadium itself, entered by way of a long arched tunnel. The starting and finishing lines are still there, with the judges’ thrones in the middle and seating ridges banked to either side. Originally unstructured, the stadium developed with the games’ popularity, forming a model for others throughout the Greek and Roman world. The tiers here eventually accommodated up to 20,000 spectators, with a smaller number on the southern slope overlooking the hippodrome where the chariot races were held. Even so, the seats were reserved for the wealthier strata of society. The ordinary populace – along with slaves and all women spectators – watched the events from the Hill of Krónos to the north, then a natural, treeless grandstand. The stadium was unearthed only in World War II, during a second phase of German excavations between 1941 and 1944, allegedly on the direct orders of Hitler.

The museum

Olympia’s site museum lies a couple of hundred metres north of the sanctuary. It contains some of the finest Classical and Roman sculptures in the country, all superbly displayed.

The most famous of the individual sculptures are the head of Hera and the Hermes of Praxiteles, both dating from the fourth century BC and discovered in the Temple of Hera. The Hermes is one of the best preserved of all Classical sculptures, and remarkable in the easy informality of its pose; it retains traces of its original paint. On a grander scale is the Nike of Paionios, which was originally 10m high. Though no longer complete, it hints at how the sanctuary must once have appeared, crowded with statuary.

In the main hall of the museum is the centrepiece of the Olympia finds: statuary and sculpture reassembled from the Temple of Zeus. These include a delicately moulded frieze of the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Another from the east pediment depicts Zeus presiding over a famous chariot race between Pelops and King Oinamaos – the prize the hand of the king’s daughter. The king (on the left of the frieze) was eventually defeated by Pelops (on the right), after – depending on the version – assistance from Zeus (depicted at the centre), magic steeds from Poseidon or, most un-Olympian, bribing Oinamaos’s charioteer to tamper with the wheels.

The west pediment illustrates the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs at the wedding of King Peirithous of the Lapiths. This time, Apollo presides over the scene while Theseus helps the Lapiths defeat the drunken centaurs, depicted attacking the women and boy guests. Many of the metope fragments are today in the Louvre in Paris, and some of what you see here are plaster-cast copies.

The last rooms of the museum contain a collection of objects relating to the games – including halteres (jumping weights), discuses, weightlifters’ stones and other sporting bits and pieces. Also displayed are a number of funerary inscriptions, including that of a boxer, Camelos of Alexandria, who died in the stadium after praying to Zeus for victory or death.

Olymbía village

Modern OLYMBÍA is a village that has grown up simply to serve the excavations and tourist trade. It’s essentially one long main avenue, Praxitéles Kondhýli, lined with shops, and with a few short side streets. Nevertheless, it is quite a pleasant place to stay and is preferable by far to Pýrgos, offering the prospect of good countryside walks along the Alfiós River and around the Hill of Krónos.

With time on your hands, there are three somewhat dutiful minor museums. The Museum of the Modern Olympic Games (Mon–Sat 8am–3.30pm, Sun 9am–4.30pm; €2), on the street above the Hotel Phedias, has commemorative postage stamps and the odd memento from the modern games, including the box that conveyed the heart of Pierre de Coubertin (reviver of the modern games) from Paris to its burial at Olympia. The Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity and the Museum of the History of Excavations in Olympia (both: summer daily 8am–7.30pm, winter Tues–Sat 8.30am–3pm; free) lie above the coach park at the eastern end of the village, en route to the main site.