Have you ever dreamed of being an Olympic gold medalist? Did you ever wonder what it’s like to stand on the first place podium, your fans cheering from the bleachers?
You can get a small taste of that feeling by visiting the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. This is a site with a lengthy and fascinating backstory, not to mention a direct connection to the modern Olympic Games.
The current site of the stadium was originally a racecourse back in the 6th Century BC. It was also home to the Panathenaic Games, an event held every four years to honour the goddess Athena, as well as other gods.
The Panathenaic Games included religious festivities, athletic, poetic, and musical competitions, chariot races, and animal sacrifices. The event culminated in a grand procession to the Parthenon. The games and their subsequent celebrations lasted about a week.
Originally, the stadium didn’t offer seats, so spectators just sat on the slopes of the ravine around the racecourse. But in the 4th Century BC, Lycurgus, an Athenian statesman, renovated the stadium by re-building it out of limestone. This upgrade included stone seating – but most likely only for the upper classes. It was completed in time for the Great Panathenaia held in 330/29 BC.
Herodes Atticus, a wealthy aristocrat and senator, renovated the stadium again sometime around A.D. 143-144. This included upgrading the seating, which could accommodate up to 50,000 spectators. Herodes refinished the stadium with white Pentelic marble.
The stairs leading up to the bleachers are very steep. I imagine they get very slippery when they get wet too, so take your time when climbing them!
The improvement project under Herodes also changed the shape of the stadium from its original rectilinear shape to its current horseshoe shape.
The stadium was decorated with numerous marble and bronze statues. The track itself was marked with double-faced pillars called hermai (named for the God Hermes). Four have been found.
Ummm. He really enjoys the Olympics.
The rise of Christianity changed the way Athenians celebrated and worshipped. In the 4th Century AD, Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned Hellenistic pagan festivals as well as gladiatorial duels and other bloody sports. Eventually the stadium was abandoned and fell into ruin. As was common at the time, some of the marble was taken and used in other building projects.
Archaeological digs between 1836-70 uncovered the stadium of Herodes Atticus. This led to attempts to bring the Olympic Games back to Athens. Greek benefactor Evangelis Zappas sponsored the games, held in 1870 and 1875. The Zappas Games drew 30,000 spectators, once again sparking interest in the Olympics.
Greek businessman George Averoff sponsored renovations on the stadium in time for the 1896 Olympics. This included rebuilding the stadium seating in Pentelic marble, to bring it back to its original look and feel. The stadium held the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1896 Olympics – the first international games in modern history. April 6, the day the games opened, was also Easter Monday and the anniversary of Greece’s independence.
The upper class, royalty, or other esteemed guests had special seats. These seats offered the best, unobstructed views of the events. The seats below are actually a more recent addition though, added during the reconstruction.
The stadium held approximately 80,000 spectators for the first Olympic Games. It’s still in constant use today, hosting concerts, athletic games, and other events.
You can jog around the stadium during your visit, or just stand on the wooden podium and pretend you’re an Olympic gold medalist.
There is also a vaulted tunnel to explore during your visit. It leads to the museum, so don’t miss it! Gladiators used the tunnel back in the day. But after the stadium was abandoned, young women started using the tunnel, dancing naked in ritualistic ceremonies aimed at finding good husbands. The entrance to the tunnel is on the eastern side of the stadium.
How cool is this? It’s just gorgeous, and the lighting really enhances the stone walls.
Imagine this as a wine cellar. But it’s not. It actually leads to a small but interesting Olympic Games Museum.
This exhibit outlines the history of the stadium and the Olympic Games, including photos of the archaeological excavations.
This is the Olympic Games altar (a replica, I imagine). The High Priestess lit the Olympic flame from this altar for its journey to the host city.
The museum contains Olympics Games posters, artwork, photogrpahs memorabilia, and several Olympic torches from games past. It’s so interesting to see how the shape and styles have changed over the years. There’s also a small gift shop in the museum with books, posters and other Olympic souvenirs.
There are commemorative columns on the outside of the stadium track, which you can check out before you leave. This column lists the Olympic host cities between BC 776-1894 AD.
If you’re an avid runner, you can actually go jogging here in the mornings! You just need to fill in a declaration form to accept their safety regulations before you enter the Panathenaic Stadium. You can download the application here and fill it in before your arrival to the stadium. Morning Jogging is open from 07:30 until 09:00.
Address: Leof. Vasileos Konstantinou, Athina 116 35, Greece
Red 550, Green 90, 209, or Yellow 2, 4, 10, 11
Closest Metro stations:
Acropolis, Syntagma or Evangelismos.
If you want to get there on foot, the stadium is located just south of the National Garden and east of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
General Admission ticket: 5.00 €
Reduced Admission for students and seniors over 65: 2.50 €
Children under 6 years of age, people with disabilities and those accompanying them: free admission
* The price of admission includes the use of an audio guide. I highly recommend picking one up (there is a desk just outside the entrance) as the stadium doesn’t have very many interpretive signs. The audio guide gives a great overview of the stadium’s history as well as going into detail about the construction and historic use of the site.