Are you ready to explore some of the most amazing and unique geography that Greece has to offer? Whether you’re on your first Greek holiday, or you’re now planning to visit after many years of Greek Island hopping, the mainland of Greece should not be overlooked. When you visit Meteora you will experience one of the most prized cultural and historical landmarks in the country, and in fact in all of Europe.
There is nothing quite like it anywhere else!
Often described as stunning works of architecture set in a landscape that is as unique as it is breathtaking, the six monasteries of Meteora are visited every year by many tourists yet still seem uncrowded and completely accessible.
They also represent an important part of Greek history and the link between the early formation of Christian doctrine and the Turkish occupation of Greece during the 11th century AD.
What is the Meteora meaning and its history?
The word “meteora,” means “hovering in the air” which, whist a literal description of the famous monasteries, also shows just how otherworldly they seem.
The complex is made up of twenty-four Eastern Orthodox monasteries that were built on giant sandstone rock pillars between the 14th and 16th centuries. Six of them are still in use today and can be visited by the public, whilst others are popular for sightseeing externally by hikers and photographers.
The origins of the extraordinary geological formations are difficult to explain. Instead of being volcanic rock which tend to form similar structures, they are largely formed of sandstone and various deposits of stone, sand and mud that have arisen from the deposits brought by streams flowing into a delta at the edge of a large lake. About 60 million years ago, a series of earth movements from the seabed created a vertical plateau featuring many distinct fault lines in its layers of stone.
In the 9th century, hermit monks with impressive climbing skills settled into the rock caves and hollows taking on a life of great isolation and solitude. You can see still some of these caves, or ‘hermitages’ in use for similar purposes today.
Many centuries later, a monk called Athanasios Koinovitis from sacred Mount Athos, traveled to Thessaly in search of the hermits and initiated the construction of the first monastery, Great Meteoron.
The monasteries provided great protection during the Turkish invasions over the years and particularly during the 14th century. Today the Meteora Monasteries are on the UNESCO World Heritage List and the Meteora-Antichassia region has been officially declared a Natura 2000 Ecological Zone by the Greek Ministry of Environment and the EU.
The six monasteries that are still in use today are the Monastery of Great Meteoron, as well as Roussanou/St. Barbara, Varlaam, St. Stephens, St. Nicholas Anapausas and the Monastery of the Holy Trinity.
Beyond the monasteries and mountains, Meteora houses the world’s oldest known man-made structure – a wall believed to be 23 000 years old, which lies at the entrance of the Theopetra Cave. This cave is just a few kilometers away from Kalambaka and holds evidence of continuous human habitation for over 130 000 years.
How to get to Meteora
There are two ways to get to Meteora: either by signing up for one of the numerous guided Meteora tours from Athens or Thessaloniki or by using your own means of transport and staying a night or two in the city of Kalambaka or the village of Kastraki, and visiting the monasteries at your own pace.
A Meteora Tour
The great thing about joining a Meteora Tour is that you don’t have to plan much of anything, and the itinerary you follow takes into account when each of the monasteries are open.
There are a number of tours you can consider, such as the 3 day Rail Tour, the stunning Meteora Sunset Tour or the 3-day coach tour. If you’re in a hurry, you can even consider a quicker tour like the Half-Day Sightseeing Tour which only takes about four hours plus travel time.
Visit Meteora independently
It is also quite easy to visit Meteora yourself by driving or using public transport. Once there you can either drive yourself around the Monasteries or join a local tour such as this tour from Kalambaka.
Visit Meteora by Car
To get to Meteora from Athens, you have to travel northwest of the Greek capital and keep going through the Greek countryside until you reach your destination. The roughly 358km trip can be completed in 6-7 hours.
Hiring a taxi or renting a car is a popular choice among foreigners, since it provides a more personalized approach to the trip and to the route that you can take. Although more expensive than a bus or a train, this is a good way to visit Meteora, especially if you want to stop at a few other destinations along the way.
To get to Meteora from Athens by car, take the freeway E75 and head to Lamia-Karditsa-Trikala-Kalambaka. It will take around 4 hours and 30 minutes (375 km away).
Parking at Meteora
There is plenty of parking at each of the Monasteries and overflow parking at some of the bigger ones. The ring road delivers you quickly and easily from one to the next and is very well kept and maintained. Far from being a hair raising road experience as is sometimes the case in Greece this is a very easy place to drive even for novices.
Visit Meteora by Train
If you plan on taking the train from Athens, the nearest stop to Meteora is at Kalampaka ( see below).
There are several trains that depart from Athens (Larissa Railway Station) to Kalambaka every day. The direct train leaves at 8:20 am and takes 4 hours and 50 minutes. The price of a one-way ticket costs between €15 and €20. The direct train back to Athens departs at 5:22 pm and gets to the capital at 10:12 pm.
For more information check out the Trainose website.
Visit Meteora by Bus
It is possible to visit Meteora by bus from many locations including Athens, Volos, Ioannina, Thessaloniki or Patras as well as numerous small towns along the way.
For more information check out the KTel website.
Fly to Meteora
There is no airport at Meteora nor in the surrounding towns. You can however fly from Athens to Ioaninna and hire a car as we did.
It is a very easy and pleasant drive that takes about 90 minutes and there is some stunning scenery along the way.
Weather in Meteora
Summer is the driest time, storms occurring all year round especially at higher altitudes.
Average monthly temperatures are;
Visit Meteora Monasteries
Each of the six Meteora monasteries have their own stories to reveal and are steeped in history and intrigue. They are all unique and impressive, filled with spiritual wisdom, serenity and the promise of a remarkable travel experience you will never forget.
The Great Meteoron Monastery
The Great Meteoron Monastery is the oldest, largest and most famous of the monasteries. It is located at an impressive 615 meters above sea level, and it towers above the other monasteries atop a giant and highly imposing stone pillar.
More like a small village than a single Monastery the complex is made up of a series of different buildings. There are numerous icons and artifacts dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries, as well as a museum, a kitchen and a wine cellar. The main cathedral in the central courtyard is embellished with beautiful 16th century frescoes.
The Holy Monastery of Roussanou is named after the first hermit who settled on the rock. The main cathedral was founded at the end of the 16th century and was decorated thirty years later.
The beautiful wall-paintings of the Catholicon were executed in 1560, when the priest-monk Arsenios was the abbot of the monastery.
Today the Roussanou monastery is inhabited by nuns and has been since 1988. It is set on a lower rock, so you can access it quite easily via a bridge, and inside you’ll find some interesting frescoes.
Founded around 1350 by a monk named Varlaam, the Varlaam Monastery has a fascinating history, having been abandoned at one time for more than a century. It is the second biggest Monastery and is located across from Great Meteoron. The elegant monastery Catholicon was built in the honour of Agioi Pantes in 1541-42, by two brothers from Ioannina, the priest-monks Hosioi Theophanes and Nectarios the Apsarades.
Renovated in 1512, it now houses a famous ecclesiastic museum and a barrel that could at one time hold up to 12 tons of rainwater. Varlaam gives you the best insight into the design, engineering and construction of the monasteries and how the Monks operated for many centuries without modern science or amenities. You can still see the original winches and nets the monks used to haul goods and indeed, each other, up and down the rock face as well as original wine barrels and food storage.
Other buildings in the Monastery include a kitchen and a small hospital as well as a bibliographic workshop and workshop of equisite gold-embroidery
St Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery
One of the oldest monasteries, the St Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery is famous for being the only monastery that’s run by a single monk. It is the closest monastery to the village of Kastraki and can easily be visited from there on foot.
The word Anapafsis translates to ‘resting’ from Greek so it is thought this monastery is so named as a place to rest before the more arduous journey up to the other monasteries beyond. The site is small and construction would have been very challenging. At the entrance of the Monastery lies the Church of St. Anthony and the crypt where the codes and the monastery’s heirlooms were previously stored. Each level is them built vertically and is accessed by a narrow staircase.
Also, you’ll find some prized artwork inside, including the frescoes of the well-known painter, Theophanes Strelitzas.
St. Stephen’s monastery
If your accommodation is in Kalambaka, chances are you can see St. Stephen’s monastery all the way from there, as it’s the only monastery visible from the city.
This monastery is now also inhabited by nuns rather than Monks. Visiting St Stephens is quite a treat as you will be greeted by the hospitality of the nuns and the unique pieces found in the religious museum inside the monastery, as well as their beautiful gardens. St. Stephen’s Monastery also has two cathedrals; the old 16th-century chapel which was severely damaged during WWII and the consequent Greek Civil War, and the 18th-century main cathedral that is dedicated to Saint Charalambos and includes his holy relics.
The monastery is the most accessible and is the best Meteora monastery for people with mobility issues. There is a small solid bridge leading straight to the entry from the carpark and only a couple of wide steps to enter the main complex.
The gardens are really quite impressive as are the amazing views of the entire Valley of Thessaly and the mountain ranges beyond.
Holy Trinity Monastery
Famous for being featured in the James Bond movie, Four Your Eyes Only, the Holy Trinity Monastery, also known as Agia Triada, is set on a very steep rock and is the most difficult monasteries to access. Close to the Saint Stephen’s Nunnery it has been an organized Monastery since 1362.
Visitors have to follow a pathway that directs them initially to the foot of the rock before they climb 140 steps. Once upon a time, it was only accessed by ropes!
According to its tumultuous history, the monastery was looted during WWII by the Germans, and only a few of the once-prized treasures housed there still remain to this day. Most popular is the chapel of Timios Prodromos (St John the Forerunner), a small circular church with a cupola, decorated with wall-paintings of fine art dating from 1682.
Opening hours for Meteora
Each monastery has its own visiting days and hours, and while one monastery might be open on a certain day, others might be closed. If you’re not following a tour, and you plan on visiting Meteora by taxi, by car or by train, it’s important to plan ahead and consider avoiding the days when each of the monasteries are closed.
Typically that means avoiding:
- Tuesdays and Wednesdays for Meteoron
- Wednesdays for Roussanou
- Wednesdays and Thursdays for the Holy Trinity Monastery
- Fridays for the St. Nicholas Anapafsas Monastery
- Thursdays and Fridays for Varlaam
- Mondays for St. Stephen’s Monastery.
Where to stay – which Meteora hotel is best for you?
The nearest town to the Monasteries is Kalambaka which wraps around the foothills of the complex on the western side. Adjacent to Kalambaka is the charming village of Kastraki.
Do NOT stay in Trikala or anywhere else many of the booking sites will have you believe are in Meteora. They are not. Don’t get me wrong they are nice towns and if you have a few spare days they are really worth some time but not if your objective is to stay near the Monasteries of Meteora.
Kalambaka is a nice town of roughly 12,000 inhabitants. The city’s architecture, culture, and fascinating history makes it worth a few days or even longer here. There are a number of places of interest here including the Natural History Museum of Meteora and Mushroom Museum as well as the Church of Dormition of the Virgin Mary ( see other Things to Do below).
Hotels on Kalambaka that we recommend are Hotel Kaikis and Epavlis Hotel.
If you dont have a car you can join a tour from Kalambaka.
Kastraki is a small and quite charming Greek village that has a number of excellent tavernas and some really picturesque scenery. It is quiet and peaceful and there are some truly stunning views from some of the hotels especially at sunset and sunrise. You can even walk up to the Monasteries from here if you are fit and adventurous.
We really enjoyed our stay at Doupani House which is a traditional hotel with very friendly service and absoultely breathtaking views. Its a great choide for a Meteora Hotel. If this is booked out then we recommend Hotel Kastraki which is just around the corner or Tsikeli Hotel for an adults-only experience.
If you would like to join a tour to visit the monastaries this tour will pick you up from either Kalambaka or Kastraki.
Where to eat in Meteora
The fertile plains of Thessaly are the food bowl of Greece and grown a multitude of crops year-round that feed the country and other parts of Europe. As a result, the food on offer at cafes and tavernas is first-rate and has to be some of the most delicious, and best priced, in the country.
If you are able to drive around the area you will see many food stalls selling fruit and vegetables such as berries, apples, walnuts, figs, and grapes as well as honey and smallgoods. Wine in this area is very good and it is possible to visit some local wineries.
Every meal we have had in Kastraki and Kalambaka has been excellent but these 3 places are exceptional;
Other things to do in Meteora
Holy Temple of Dormition of the Virgin Mary
Apart from the Monasteries of Meteora the Byzantine temple of Dormition of the Mother of God is the most important monument in Kalabaka.
It was erected between the 10th and 11th century on the ruins of an early Christian Royal. It has a three-aisled basilica and, unique to Greece, a central Pulpit. Part of the floor mosaic is intact whilst the walls are covered in restored paintings and frescoes from the 12th to 17th centuries.
Nowadays the church is still used as a place of worship although a small entry fee is charged for visitors outside service hours. There are rarely many tourists and it is quite a remarkable place to see and feel the sheer age and gravity for yourself.
Trikala is a pleasant town less than an hour south of Meteora by car and centrally located on the Thessaly plains. It sits by the Lithaios River and has a colorful history since antiquity.
There is quite a lot to see and do in the area and you can do many of them as a day trip from Kalambaka or Kastraki whilst visiting Meteora or stay a night or two to dig a bit deeper.
The main sites include:
The stone bridges of Trikala
One of the largest of the Greek Stone Bridges at 123 meters long this bridge was originally built in 1520 and sits over the river Peneus near Trikala. It was built by Bishop Varrasion of Larisa and originally had six arches.
It is believed that this was the site of a famous battle in 1878 between local Chieftains and the Turks here there were several casualties in the Turkish defeat. The bridge of Sarakina is approximately 1 Kilometer north-west from Sarakina village and served the transport route to Diava.
Because of its impressive shape and stability Sarkina Bridge is consider a significant monument, not only for the Thessaly Plain, but also for the wider Greek and Balkan area.
Palaiokarya Stone Bridge
This bridge is quite hard to find and we almost gave up after several wrong turns. I’m very glad we preserved however as it is incredibly beautiful, and due to its hidden nature, devoid of visitors!
The bridge was built at the beginning of the 15th century by the owner of the nearby Dousiko Monastery, Saint Bessarion. It was built on a rocky trough above the riverbed bridging the Palsiokarites River and aided the Pylis community with their farms and water supply. The dam behind it was not built until 1975 which better helps to irrigate the surrounding valley. As a result, there are two waterfalls which make the bridge quite unique and very special.
To visit Palaiokarya stone bridge you continue west from Pyli and Pyli Stone bridge to Stournareika. Just before you reach Stournareika village you will see a sign for Ropotos village, you continue straight. After a few meters, you will come across the signs for “Ano Palaiokarya”, “Mesi Palaiokarya” and “Palaiokarya”.
Continue on and you will come across the sign below and you turn left on a dirt road. You will come across the bridge in about 100 meters and there is plenty of room to park. There are no shops or facilities here however there are a few good tavernas at the nearby village of Ropotos.
Stone Bridge of Pyli
The Stone Bridge of Pyli is located two kilometers west of the village Pyli and about 20 minutes away from Trikala. It is fairly easy to find and is right on the main road that heads into the mountains. The bridge sits over the Portaikos River and until 1936 this bridge was the only way to get from Thessaly to Epirus.
It was built in 1514 by Saint Bissarion and is the second-largest arch bridge of Thessaly. It has a high stone semicircular arch that is 29 meters wide and 13 meters high and is constructed of limestone and sandstone. The total length is 65 meters.The bridge was restored in 1968 and 1983 and again in2006.
The area around the bridge is lush and green with many big trees and is a lovely spot for a picnic. There is a large car park and a number of small shops and stalls selling fruit, snacks, and drinks and is a great stopping off point if you are planning on heading up to the villages of Koziakas, Elati, Pertoyli, Neraidohori and the larger area of Aspropotamos including the ski fields.
Its a truly extraordinary part of the world and is one of the most most beautiful regions we have ever visited anywhere. The Monasteries are comparable to visiting somewhere like Petra for their sheer grandeur and impressive architecture and engineering and the geology of the area only adds to the awe.
The surrounding valley and mountains are lush, green and provide a real contrast to the dry and sometimes desolate islands many tourists will only see and the area provides great insight into agriculture, farming and other industries based on nature and the environment.
Many people rush this part of the world in a single day or perhaps an overnight trip but in reality, it really is a destination that will continue to impress you if you invest a bit of time.
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