Greece is so packed with UNESCO World Heritage Sites that it’s no surprise that two of my favorites are located only 45 minutes apart. Mycenae is fascinating because it’s one of the oldest sites you can see in Greece. To quote Rick Steves, the Mycenaeans “were as ancient and mysterious to Socrates and Plato as those Golden Age Greeks are to us.” Epidaurus is famous for its well-preserved amphitheatre and the ruins of the Sanctuary of Asklepios.
Accessing Mycenae and Epidaurus
As I’ve said in my other Greece posts, the mainland is best explored by car. This provides you the freedom to visit multiple sites in a day and you don’t necessarily have to use Athens as your home base.
Mycenae is about an hour and half from Athens so both sites are definitely doable as a day trip. You might even find you have time to stop in Corinth or Nafplio. You could also use Nafplio as your home base since both sites are only about 20-30 minutes.
A Brief History of Mycenae
Mythology states that the fortified city was founded by Perseus, who you may remember from second grade history as the guy who killed Medusa. The Mycenaeans were the first Bronze Age society on the European mainland. Keep in mind, this is about 1,000 years before the rise of Athens. King Agamemnon, the commander during the Trojan War, once ruled Mycenae which was described in Homer’s Iliad as “golden Mycenae”.
Highlights of Mycenae
Many of the remains at the archaeological site are from the 14th and 13th century BC. The citadel is situated on a hill with a clear path that leads through most of the main attractions.
The Lion Gates is the main point of entry to the citadel. You’ll see two lions arranged symmetrically at the top of the gate. This symbol is possibly the insignia or family crest of the royal house of Mycenae.
Grave Circle A
Immediately after entering the citadel, you’ll notice Grave Circle A, a massive stone circle that was used for royal burials. The grave circle included six grave shafts, five of which were excavated in the late 1800s. A gold death mask was uncovered and originally believed to be the mask of Agamemnon but was later determined to be of an unknown king.
Palace of Agamemnon
Continuing up the hill are the ruins of the Palace of Agamemnon. You have to use your imagination here as the palace is mostly in complete ruins.
The underground cistern is one of the coolest parts of Mycenae. You can take the dark, narrow staircase down to the bottom to see where Mycenaeans used to collect water supplied by a nearby spring. Make sure to bring your cell phone for light as it is pitch black down there!
Tomb of Clytemnestra
The Tomb of Clytemnestra is not located on the citadel so make sure you don’t miss it. While it is called the Tomb of Clytemnestra, who was Agamemnon’s wife, there is no evidence that she was actually buried there. The beehive (tholos) tomb was built in 1250 BC and was the highest freestanding dome of its time.
A Brief History of Epidaurus
The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus was a famous healing center dating back to 400 BC. People would travel from all over Greece to visit the doctor-priests who were doing the work of Asklepios, the God of Medicine. The Theater of Epidaurus was enjoyed by those who made the journey. The theater was in use until 426 AD when it was closed down by a Christian ruler along with all other Pagan sanctuaries.
Highlights of Epidaurus
Epidaurus has two main sites: the theater and the city ruins.
- Theater of Epidaurus: one of the most well-preserved ancient amphitheatres with over 12,000 seats and near-perfect acoustics
- Ruins: the ruins include the Temples of Artemis and Asklepios, the Propylaia, and many baths and hospital facilities
When traveling to Greece, you are certain to visit ruins of some sort. It can get a bit old after a while but Mycenae and Epidaurus are truly unique. If you find yourself in the Argolis region of Peloponnese, why not visit both?