Skip to Content

10 of the most important buildings to see in Greece

Greece is home to some incredible architectural history, but when you go, it’s important to have your priorities in mind, and an understanding of the historical background. It enriches the environment with a knowledge of the significance of some of the buildings, and how they played a role in history. 

Ancient Greek architecture arose in 900 BC and lasted until about the 1st century AD. It originated in cultures that were situated on the Greek mainland, the islands in the Aegean Sea, colonies in Asia Minor, and the Peloponnese Peninsula. Earlier ancient Greek structures have also been found in the region that date back to 600 BC. Ancient Greek temples are found throughout the region and are the most well-known of the ancient Greek structures such as the Parthenon. Other famous Greek buildings that still survive today are the open-air theaters of which ruins can be found scattered throughout the Hellenic region. A few other ancient Greek structures which we can still find traces of today are council buildings, monumental tombs, Greek palaces, and the famous stadiums of ancient Greece. Other architectural forms that are still in evidence are the processional gateway (propylon), the public square (agora) surrounded by storied colonnade (stoa), the town council building (bouleuterion), the public monument, the monumental tomb (mausoleum) and the stadium.

The formal vocabulary of ancient Greek architecture, in particular the division of architectural style into three defined orders: the Doric Order, the Ionic Order and the Corinthian Order, was to have a profound effect on Western architecture of later periods. The architecture of ancient Rome grew out of that of Greece and maintained its influence in Italy unbroken until the present day. From the Renaissance, revivals of Classicism have kept alive not only the precise forms and ordered details of Greek architecture, but also its concept of architectural beauty based on balance and proportion. The successive styles of Neoclassical architecture and Greek Revival architecture followed and adapted ancient Greek styles closely.

Architecture in Greece has evolved so much since then, and we will follow up with a contemporary architecture in Greece article, but for now, we will focus on the history and most important ancient architecture there. 

History of Greek Architecture 

Historians divide ancient Greek civilization into two eras, the Hellenic period (from around 900 BC to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC), and the Hellenistic period (323 BC to 30 AD). During the earlier Hellenic period, substantial works of architecture began to appear around 600 BC. During the later (Hellenistic) period, Greek culture spread as a result of Alexander’s conquest of other lands, and later as a result of the rise of the Roman Empire, which adopted much of Greek culture.

Before the Hellenic era, two major cultures had dominated the region: the Minoan (c. 2800–1100 BC), and the Mycenaean (c. 1500–1100 BC). Minoan is the name given by modern historians to the culture of the people of ancient Crete, known for its elaborate and richly decorated palaces, and for its pottery, the most famous of which painted with floral and motifs of sea life. The Mycenaean culture, which flourished on the Peloponnesus, was quite different in character. Its people built citadels, fortifications and tombs rather than palaces, and decorated their pottery with bands of marching soldiers rather than octopus and seaweed. Both these civilizations came to an end around 1100 BC, that of Crete possibly because of volcanic devastation, and that of Mycenae because of an invasion by the Dorian people who lived on the Greek mainland. Following these events, there was a period from which only a village level of culture seems to have existed. This period is thus often referred to as the Greek Dark Age.

There is a clear division between the architecture of the preceding Mycenaean and Minoan cultures and that of the ancient Greeks, with much of the techniques and an understanding of their style being lost when these civilisations fell. Mycenaean architecture is marked by massive fortifications, typically surrounding a citadel with a royal palace, much smaller than the rambling Minoan “palaces”, and relatively few other buildings. The megaron, a rectangular hall with a hearth in the centre, was the largest room in the palaces, and also larger houses. Sun-dried brick above rubble bases were the usual materials, with wooden columns and roof-beams. Rows of ashlar stone orthostats lined the base of walls in some prominent locations.

The Minoan architecture of Crete was of the trabeated form like that of ancient Greece. It employed wooden columns with capitals, but the wooden columns were of a very different form to Doric columns, being narrow at the base and splaying upward. The earliest forms of columns in Greece seem to have developed independently. As with Minoan architecture, ancient Greek domestic architecture centred on open spaces or courtyards surrounded by colonnades. This form was adapted to the construction of hypostyle halls within the larger temples. The evolution that occurred in architecture was towards the public building, first and foremost the temple, rather than towards grand domestic architecture such as had evolved in Crete, if the Cretan “palaces” were indeed domestic, which remains very uncertain. Some Mycenaean tombs are marked by circular structures and tapered domes with flat-bedded, cantilevered courses. This architectural form did not carry over into the architecture of ancient Greece, but reappeared about 400 BC in the interior of large monumental tombs such as the Lion Tomb at Knidos

The construction of many houses employed walls of sun-dried clay bricks or wooden framework filled with fibrous material such as straw or seaweed covered with clay or plaster, on a base of stone which protected the more vulnerable elements from damp. The roofs were probably of thatch with eaves which overhung the permeable walls. Many larger houses, such as those at Delos, were built of stone and plastered. The roofing material for the substantial house was tile. Houses of the wealthy had mosaic floors and demonstrated the Classical style.Many houses centred on a wide passage or “pasta” which ran the length of the house and opened at one side onto a small courtyard which admitted light and air. Larger houses had a fully developed peristyle (courtyard) at the centre, with the rooms arranged around it. Some houses had an upper floor which appears to have been reserved for the use of the women of the family. City houses were built with adjoining walls and were divided into small blocks by narrow streets. Shops were sometimes located in the rooms towards the street. City houses were inward-facing, with major openings looking onto the central courtyard, rather than the street.

 

During the late 5th and 4th centuries BC, town planning became an important consideration of Greek builders, with towns such as Paestum and Priene being laid out with a regular grid of paved streets and an agora or central market place surrounded by a colonnade or stoa. The completely restored Stoa of Attalos can be seen in Athens. Towns were also equipped with a public fountain where water could be collected for household use. The development of regular town plans is associated with Hippodamus of Miletus, a pupil of Pythagoras. Public buildings became “dignified and gracious structures”, and were sited so that they related to each other architecturally. The propylon or porch, formed the entrance to temple sanctuaries and other significant sites with the best-surviving example being the Propylaea on the Acropolis of Athens. The bouleuterion was a large public building with a hypostyle hall that served as a court house and as a meeting place for the town council (boule). Remnants of bouleuterion survive at Athens, Olympia and Miletus, the latter having held up to 1,200 people.

Every Greek town had an open-air theatre. These were used for both public meetings as well as dramatic performances. The theatre was usually set in a hillside outside the town, and had rows of tiered seating set in a semicircle around the central performance area, the orchestra. Behind the orchestra was a low building called the skênê, which served as a store-room, a dressing-room, and also as a backdrop to the action taking place in the orchestra. A number of Greek theatres survive almost intact, the best known being at Epidaurus by the architect Polykleitos the Younger. Greek towns of substantial size also had a palaestra or a gymnasium, the social centre for male citizens which included spectator areas, baths, toilets and club rooms. Other buildings associated with sports include the hippodrome for horse racing, of which only remnants have survived, and the stadium for foot racing, 600 feet in length, of which examples exist at Olympia, Delphi, Epidaurus and Ephesus, while the Panathinaiko Stadiumin Athens, which seats 45,000 people, was restored in the 19th century and was used in the 1896, 1906 and 2004 Olympic Games.

 

10 of the Most Important Greek Buildings

1.Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was dedicated to “Olympian” Zeus. It’s also known as the Olympieion or Columns of the Olympian Zeus. It is a former colossal temple at the center of the Greek capital Athens. The building of the Temple began in the 6th Century by Peisistratos but work was stopped for unknown reasons. It was completed under the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 131 AD, 638 years after the project had begun. During the Roman period the temple, which included 104 colossal columns, was renowned as the largest temple in Greece and housed one of the largest cult statues in the ancient world. The temple’s glory was short-lived, as it fell into disuse after being pillaged during a barbarian invasion in 267 AD, just about a century after its completion. It was probably never repaired and was reduced to ruins thereafter. In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was extensively quarried for building materials to supply building projects elsewhere in the city. Despite that, a substantial part of the temple remains today, notably sixteen of the original gigantic columns, and it continues to be part of a very important archaeological site of Greece. The temple was excavated in 1889–1896 by Francis Penrose of the British School in Athens (who also played a leading role in the restoration of the Parthenon), in 1922 by the German archaeologist Gabriel Welter and in the 1960s by Greek archaeologists led by Ioannes Travlos. The temple, along with the surrounding ruins of other ancient structures, is a historical precinct administered by Ephorate of Antiquities of the Greek Interior Ministry. Today, the temple is an open-air museum, part of the unification of the archaeological sites of Athens. As a historical site it is protected and supervised by the Ephorate of Antiquities.

2. Parthenon, Acropolis

One of the most influential buildings in Greek history, the Parthenon, stands on top of the citadel of the Acropolis. It was dedicated to the goddess of wisdom and patron of the Athenians, Athena. The Parthenon was initially built as a celebration and thanks to the gods for the Hellenic victory over the Persians, but it also stands as an enduring symbol of Athenian democracy, ancient Greece, and Western civilization. It has served many roles over time, from a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the final decade of the sixth century to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in the early 1460s. The construction of this building began in 447 BC when the Athenian Empire was at its height. Considered the most significant surviving building of ancient Greece, the Parthenon is said to be the pinnacle of the Doric order. Its sculptures and artwork belong to the high end of Greek art. The Parthenon was the replacement for the pre-Parthenon, an older temple of Athena which was possibly destroyed in 480 BC during the Persian invasion. Furthermore, like other Greek temples, it also served as the city’s treasury.

The Parthenon is regarded as an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece, democracy and Western civilization, and one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. To the Athenians who built it, the Parthenon, and other Periclean monuments of the Acropolis, were seen fundamentally as a celebration of Hellenic victory over the Persian invaders and as a thanksgiving to the gods for that victory. Since 1975, numerous large-scale restoration projects have been undertaken to ensure the structural stability of the temple. The origin of the Parthenon’s name is from the Greek word παρθενών (parthenon), which referred to the “unmarried women’s apartments” in a house and in the Parthenon’s case seems to have been used at first only for a particular room of the temple; it is debated which room this is and how the room acquired its name. Although the Parthenon is architecturally a temple and is usually called so, some scholars have argued that it is not really a temple in the conventional sense of the word. A small shrine has been excavated within the building, on the site of an older sanctuary probably dedicated to Athena as a way to get closer to the goddess, but the Parthenon apparently never hosted the official cult of Athena Polias, patron of Athens: the cult image of Athena Polias, which was bathed in the sea and to which was presented the peplos, was an olive-wood, located in another temple on the northern side of the Acropolis, more closely associated with the Great Altar of Athena.The Parthenon was built primarily by men who knew how to work marble. These quarrymen had exceptional skills and were able to cut the blocks of marble to very specific measurements. The quarrymen also knew how to avoid the faults, which were numerous in the Pentelic marble. If the marble blocks were not up to standard, the architects would reject them. The marble was worked with iron tools — picks, points, punches, chisels, and drills. The quarrymen would hold their tools against the marble block and firmly tap the surface of the rock. In 1975, the Greek government began a concerted effort to restore the Parthenon and other Acropolis structures. After some delay, a Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments was established in 1983. The eventual result of these restorations will be a partial restoration of some or most of each wall of the interior cella. 

3. Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Acropolis

Since ancient times, the theater has been a significant part of Greek culture. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a stone theater structure on the southwest slope of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. The Athenian magnate Herodes Atticus built the structure in memory of his wife, Aspasia Annia Regilla. It was a steep-sided theater which had a three-story front wall and a wooden roof made of expensive Lebanese cedar. The theater played host to huge music concerts and had a capacity of 5,000. With its Roman arches and three story stage building, it was originally partly covered with a wood and tiled roof. The circular orchestra has now become a semi-circle, paved with black and white marble. With 35 rows, the marble auditorium extends slightly beyond a semi-circle with a diameter of 80 metres and today seats 4680 people. It regained its former glory in the 1950s when the stage and seating areas were rebuilt using Pentelic marble. The place has been the venue for a variety of Greek as well as international performances. The audience stands and the orchestra (stage) were restored using Pentelic marble in the 1950s. Since then it has been the main venue of the Athens Festival, which runs from May through October each year, featuring a variety of acclaimed Greek as well as International performances.

4. Plaka, Athens

The neighbourhood of Plaka is one of the most ancient settlements you can find in Europe. For Greece, it is the oldest settlement in the country, having more than 3,500 years of history to share with visitors. Plaka is located near the Acropolis and is well known for its colourful flowery streets. Within Plaka, you can visit the Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments. Another impressive landmark in Plaka is the Roman Agora, the first-ever commercial centre of Athens built to honour Julius Caesa. Plaka was developed mostly around the ruins of Ancient Agora of Athens in an area that has been continuously inhabited since antiquity. During the years of Ottoman rule, Plaka was known as the “Turkish quarter of Athens”. The name “Plaka” was not in use until after the Greek War of Independence. Instead, the Athenians of that time referred to the area by various names such as Alikokou, Kontito, Kandili, or by the names of the local churches. The name Plaka became commonly in use in the first years of the rule of King Otto. The origin of the name is uncertain: it has been theorized to come from Arvanite “Pliak Athena”, meaning “Old Athens”, from Albanian plak ‘old’, or from the presence of a plaque (Greek: πλάκα; romanized: plaka) which once marked its central intersection. Plaka is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists around the year, and is under strict zoning and conservation regulations, as the only neighborhood in Athens where all utilities (water, power, cable television, telephone, internet, and sewage) lie underground in fully accessible, custom-made tunneling.

5. The Palace of Knossos, Crete

Knossos Palace was once used as the political and ceremonial centre during the Minion Civilization in the Bronze Age. Knossos proper is considered one of the oldest cities in Europe, and it used to be a city in ancient Crete. The site of Knossos has had a very long history of human habitation beginning with the founding of the first Neolithic settlement (c. 7000 BCE). Neolithic remains are prolific in Crete. he palace of Knossos was by far the largest, covering three acres with its main building alone and five acres when separate out-buildings are considered. It had a monumental staircase leading to state rooms on an upper floor. A ritual cult centre was on the ground floor. The remains in Crete are found in caves, rock shelters, houses, and settlements. Knossos has a thick Neolithic layer indicating the site was a sequence of settlements before the Palace Period. The earliest was placed on bedrock. The Palace was affected by a terrible earthquake, but it was reconstructed shortly after. For unknown reasons, the Palace had to be abandoned around 1380 until 1100 BC. Some of the locals believe that the Palace of Knossos is the same as the Palace in Greek mythology relating to the Minotaur tale. The Minotaur in Greek mythology was a half man half bull creature who was kept in the Labyrinth, a maze by King Minos, the ruler of Crete. Despite the fact that the palace was excavated a century ago there are still many questions that researchers have about the palace and the people who lived in it. 

6. Delos, Cyclades Archipelago

Delos is a Greek island and archaeological monument located in the Aegean Sea’s Cyclades archipelago. It is the mythological birthplace of Apollo, and it was a religious centre during the 1st millennium BC. The Archaeological Museum of Delos exhibits statues and remains excavated from the site.The island has many monuments you can visit depending on your interests. The excavations in the island are among the most extensive in the Mediterranean. If you love art, you can explore the Archaeological Museum. You can also see the Terrace of the Lion statues, houses with mosaics, and even the amphitheatre.Investigation of ancient stone huts found on the island indicate that it has been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC. Thucydides identifies the original inhabitants as piratical Carians who were eventually expelled by King Minos of Crete. The island had no productive capacity for food, fiber, or timber, which was all imported. Limited water was exploited with an extensive cistern and aqueduct system, wells, and sanitary drains. The 2001 Greek census reported a population of 14 inhabitants on the island. The island is administratively a part of the municipality of Mýkonos. According to more recent numbers, in the year 2011 the island counted 24 inhabitants: so, it remains a tourist destination.  

7. Sanctuary of Delphi, Delphi

In the centre of mainland Greece sits the ancient sanctuary of Delphi, once believed to be the world’s navel. First settled over 3000 years ago, Delphi was home to the god Apollo and his prophesying priestess, the Pythia. Supplicants from all over the world travelled to Delphi in search of Apollo’s wisdom and guidance. The process took a whole day, and the ritual was only performed on certain days of the year. Visiting ancient Delphi is, therefore, an almost spiritual experience. You are high on Mt Parnassus’ slopes, overlooking valleys of old olive trees and the sea in the far distance. In the morning, it’s quiet, and still, the mountains stretching around you with the ruins dotted around the slope like a graveyard for the ancient gods. There’s something about Delphi that draws you in – from the first glimpse of the Sanctuary of Athena when you first arrive at the site to the small treasuries that dot the hillside as you walk up the Sacred Way to the Temple of Apollo. It was also home of the Pythian Games, the second most important games in Greece after the Olympics. Delphi declined with the rise of Christianity and was ultimately buried under the site of a new village until the late 1800s. The site contained the sanctuary of Apollo, the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia — meaning, “Athena who is before the temple (of Apollo)” — and various other buildings, most of which were intended for sports, such as the gymnasium used for exercise and learning. 

8. The Great Theater of Epidaurus

In terms of acoustics and aesthetics, this ancient theater is believed to be the perfect theater of all time, containing an auditorium, a stage building, and an orchestral area. The auditorium is divided vertically into two unequal parts, the lower hollow or theatre and the upper theatre or epitheatre. The two sub-sections are separated by a horizontal corridor for the movement of spectators (width 1.82 m.), the frieze. The lower part of the auditorium wedge is divided into 12 sections, while the upper part is divided into 22 sections. The lower rows of the upper and lower auditoriums have a presidency form, namely places reserved for important people. The design of the auditorium is unique and based on three marking centres. According to the Greek traveler and geographer, Pausanias, Polykleitos the Younger was behind the construction of this beautiful symmetrical theater. The theater was large enough to provide seating for 13,000 to 14,000 people. It not only hosted singing, music, and dramatic games but also included the worship of the god of medicine, Asclepius. The place was therefore used to heal patients since it was believed that witnessing a staged drama had a positive effect on both physical and mental health. Like many other Greek theaters, it was not modified during the Roman era, and even today it retains a distinctively Hellenistic feel. In 1955, an annual event for the presentation of ancient drama was established called the Epidaurus Festival which still takes place during the summer months every year.

9. Temple of Hephaestus, Agora

A work of Doric and Classical architecture, the Temple of Hephaestus is a well-preserved ancient Greek temple. Surviving the ravages of time, it stands just as it was built in 415 BC. Constructed two years before the Parthenon, the temple overlooks the city of Agora. It was dedicated to the god of craftsmanship, metal-working, and fire, Hephaestus, and was also called Theseum and served as a shrine dedicated to the hero Theseus. The building is made of both Parian and Pentelic marble. Archaeological evidence suggests that there was no earlier building on the site except for a small sanctuary that was burned during the Second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC. The name Theseion or Temple of Theseus was attributed to the monument in modern times under the mistaken assumption that it housed the remains of the Athenian hero Theseus, brought back to the city from the island of Skyros by Kimon in 475 BC, but refuted after inscriptions from within the temple associated it firmly with Hephaestus. The dimensions of the temple from north to south are 13.708m and east to west, 31.776m. It has six columns lying from east to west (the shorter side) and 13 columns from north to south (the longer side). The four columns at the corners are counted twice.The temple has served various different roles. From the seventh century to the year 1834, it served as the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George Akamas. In the early 19th century, this temple-turned-church became a burial place for many Protestants and those who gave up their lives during the Greek War of Independence in 1821. In the 1930s it became a museum and since then has been restored to its original Greek glory.

10. Erechtheion, Acropolis

This temple was built between 421 and 406 BC by the great architect Mnesicles. Although, the date is still in question because of more recent research and findings. The temple got its name from a shrine dedicated to the Greek hero Erichthonius, who was mentioned in Homer’s Iliad as a great king and ruler of Athens. It is believed that he is buried nearby. Phidias, who also worked on the Parthenon, was employed by Pericles as the sculptor and mason for this great project. The ancient temple is said to have replaced the Peisistratid temple which was situated in Athena Polis and was destroyed in 480 BC by the Persians. The temple was located on a hill and was built from the marble taken from Mt. Pentelikon and black marble from Eleusis. It had carved doorways and beautifully decorated columns. The Erechtheion is unique in the corpus of Greek temples in that its asymmetrical composition doesn’t conform to the canon of Greek classical architecture. This is attributed either to the irregularity of the site, or to the evolving and complex nature of the cults which the building housed, or it is conjectured to be the incomplete part of a larger symmetrical building.

Greece has so much natural beauty to offer, and so much of the natural landscape is integrated with ruins that blend together with the native plants. A large part of the architectural practices in the west stem from ancient Greek architecture, so it’s fascinating to learn the history, features, and how these buildings came to be, as well as their significance, to be able to understand how it all effects the contemporary built environment.