Visit one of mainland Greece’s most important (and most complete) archeological sites as a day trip from Athens, the ancient sanctuary of Asclepion – the birthplace of medicine. A famous holistic healing centre in Ancient Greek and Roman times, the site is also famous for its huge theatre which features amazing acoustics, performances still taking place during the Summer months.
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How to get from Athens to Epidaurus
Rent a Car
Enjoy the freedom of making your own itinerary and driving to Epidaurus from Athens. The journey takes approximately 1 hour 45 minutes on the well-maintained highway with signposts in Greek and English – Just head for the Corinth Canal until you see signs for Epidaurus appearing.
The public bus run by KTEL departs from Athens to the village of Epidaurus every Friday and Sunday at 9.30 am and 4.30 pm with some extra services during peak times and the Summer festival. The bus does not go straight to the archaeological site but stops at Epidaurus village where you can take another bus or a taxi to the archaeological site located 20 minutes away.
Avoid the stress of making your own way to Epidaurus and book a guided tour with pickup from your Athens hotel. As well as being guided around the Sanctuary of Asklepios by a knowledgeable English-speaking guide you’ll also get to visit the ancient fortified city of Mycenae allowing you to cross off 2 of the major Greek archaeological sites in a 1-day trip.
Brief History of the Sanctuary of Asklepios and the Theatre of Epidaurus
The shrine of Asklepios (the god of medicine and protector of health and personal happiness) developed during the 6th century BC making it the earliest organised sanatorium in the world but ceremonial healing practises had been taking place in the area since pre-history with evidence of a Mycenaean sanctuary in use from 16th century BC until the 11th century BC.
A new sanctuary, dedicated to Apollo, was built in the 8th century BC and it was from here that the healing cult of Apollo Maleatas grew, the following of the god Asklepios (son of Apollo and Koronos) established in the 6th century BC. Asklepios was so popular with people that a new sanctuary had to be built to handle the increased number of worshippers. The 2 sanctuaries were subsequently known as the “Sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas and Asklepios” and it was from here that the most important holistic healing centre grew.
In the beginning, healing was based solely on the god but with the accumulation of knowledge and experience together with centuries of careful observation of the human body and nature, healing turned into a science and medicine spread across Ancient Greece, Rome, and beyond with more than 200 healing centres eventually operating under Asklepieion’s authorization throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.
The sanctuary took into account mental health and physical health with the climate and the thermal springs along with the reading of philosophical texts, music, and theatre all helping the spirit alongside cleansing, hypnosis, and other remedies and treatments.
Many of the monuments at Epidaurus such as the temple of Asklepios plus the hospital buildings were build in the 4th century including the theatre which was used for religious ceremonies to honour Asclepius, the philanthropist god. Later, in the 2nd century AD, the Roman consul Antonine financed the construction of new buildings and the refurbishment of older buildings.
In 426AD there was an official ban on ancient pagan religions but it didn’t stop people from continuing to worship at the sanctuary, however, after 2 devastating earthquakes, the first in 522AD and the second in 551AD, the sanctuary was abandoned.
Highlights of the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus
Ancient Theatre at the Asklepieion of Epidaurus
Dedicated to Asclepius (the ancient Greek God of medicine), the ancient theatre was built at the end of the 4th century BC and is considered to be the best preserved theatre in Greece due to its perfect acoustics and its incredibly well preserved structure. Performances still take at the ancient theatre during the acclaimed Athens Epidaurus Festival held each July-August.
Tholos/ Thymele at the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus
The remains of this unique circular building with labyrinth beneath the floor once featured 26 Doric columns outside and 14 Corinthian columns inside. Built between 360-320BC, the tholos, or thymele, as it’s otherwise known was used for healing cult activities with the labyrinth thought to house sacred snakes.
Stoa of Abaton at the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus
Also known as the Enkoimeterion, this two-part, two-storied stoa which was also formed part of the sanctuary boundary, was a dormitory used by visitors awaiting Asklepios’ healing advice. The Eastern section was built around 400BC with the later Western section Roman.
Stadium at the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus
Built between 480-338 BC, the rectangular stadium was used for a variety of sporting contests including running, discus, javelin, and boxing with theatre performances possibly performed here before the theatre was built.
The small onsite museum contains a variety of relics large and small that have been unearthed from Epidaurus including sections of the temple and shrine, statues, medical items made from bronze, pottery, inscriptions, and so much more.
Things to see near the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus
1 hour North of Epidaurus is Mycenae, the ancient fortified city that became the centre of the Mycenaean civilization that dominated mainland Greece, the Aegean islands including Crete and the shores of Asia Minor for 4 centuries between 1600-1100. Known for its vaulted ‘beehive tombs’ (‘tholos’ in Greek) and gold, bronze, ivory, and amber grave goods uncovered from the 16th-century royal cemetery, Mycenae is a must-visit for those who love archaeology.
A picturesque seaside town located just 35 minutes from Epidaurus, Nafplio was the first capital of modern Greece. Nafplio provides a perfect day or half-day of culture and sightseeing with its Venetian, Frankish, and Ottoman architecture found in the charming backstreets, historical Palamidi Castle, breathtaking Bourtzi Fortress located in the sea, and wealth of museums, shops, and seaside cafes and tavernas.