After the Parthenon in Athens, one of the most visited tourist attractions in mainland Greece are Monasteries of Meteora, an extraordinary example of how human ingenuity can enhance the wonders of nature rather than deface them.
In a metaphysical landscape that could be the ideal setting for the next film in the Star Wars saga (but has already been used for James Bond films in the 1980s), rise imposing sandstone towers on top of which stand six ancient monasteries.
To see them so suspended the monasteries of Meteora seem inaccessible, in fact they are all open to visitors and can be reached, more or less easily, on foot, by bus or car. Between breathtaking views, steep steps and dizzying descents, a visit to Meteora is both an adventure, a mystical moment and a fascinating cultural journey.
The first hermits settled in the natural cavities of the rocks on which today stand Meteora around the eleventh century: these cavities, accessible only by ropes or removable ladders, represented a perfect refuge for spiritual isolation and to escape the persecution of Christians by the Turks.
The first monasteries on top of the rocks were built around the fourteenth century and quickly became important centers of worship, to which new monasteries were gradually added up to a total of 24.
Today only six remain, still in function. For its beauty and its perfect integration with the surrounding area, the monastic complex of Meteora was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
The six monasteries of Meteora that we can visit today have a very similar structure, built around a central courtyard overlooked by the monks’ cells, the refectory and one or more chapels for prayer. In the center of the courtyard is the katholikon, the main church.
Which monastery to visit? They are beautiful and all deserve to be visited, but if you do not have enough time available here is a small guide to help you choose.
On the top of an imposing 613-meter-high rock stands the Great Meteora Orthodox Christian monastery, also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration of Jesus: it is the largest and most visited of the complex.
Founded by St. Athanasius of Meteora in the 14th century, it became very rich following the generous donation of the Serbian emperor Symeon Uros, who decided to abandon his privileged position to become a monk.
Do not miss the frescoes of the katholikon depicting the persecution of Christians by the Romans: they are works of exceptional drama.
Varlaam Monastery, dating back to 1500, is the second largest and is located about 700 meters from the main monastery.
Tourists come here to see one of the ropes used until the 1930s to lower provisions and monks, but perhaps more interesting are the late Byzantine frescoes by artist Frangos Kastellanos, the small museum, or the grandiose wall painting in which Alexander the Great is depicted as a humble skeleton.
Although it is one of the most easily accessible, reached by crossing a small wooden bridge, the monastery of Roussanou seems to be one of the least touristy.
One wonders why, so beautiful is this monastery as well as its main church, with the beautiful stained glass windows and two valuable cycles of frescoes, one dedicated to the resurrection and one to the transfiguration.
The monastery of St. Nicholas is another one often ignored by tourists, perhaps because of its proximity to the village of Kastraki: the stairs that lead up to the monastery are only two kilometers from the city center.
This proximity to the secular world does not diminish its mystical atmosphere nor its exceptional photographic appeal. Inside this monastery you can also admire valuable works of art, such as the frescoes of the Cretan Theophanes Strelizas.
The Holy Trinity Monastery is the most difficult to reach, but if you’re willing to descend a vertical rock and then climb 150 steps, you’ll be rewarded with a striking building and breathtaking views.
Its remote and scenic location has already been the backdrop to the events of James Bond in 1981; very beautiful is also the seventeenth-century church, with the inevitable frescoes.
Built in 1798 and dedicated to St. Caralampo, the imposing monastery of St. Stephen is often considered the most beautiful of Meteora.
It is located just 1.5km from Agia Triada but is much easier to reach: no steep steps to climb or descend; the monastery is connected to the main road by a small bridge.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
If you have some time left after visiting the monasteries, check out these attractions as well:
The Meteor Monasteries are open all year round. Being a popular tourist attraction in the summer they are very crowded; the best time to visit the Meteora is in autumn, when the sacredness of the place is not disfigured by the mass of tourists and the colors of nature add a touch of mysticism and romance.
Winter is also very atmospheric, as long as you don’t have trouble enduring the cold!
The opening hours of the monasteries are quite restrictive: plan your visit carefully or you may not be able to see them all. Remember that in autumn and winter the closing time of the monasteries is anticipated.
If you want to spend the night in Meteora look for your hotels in Kalambaka or Kastriki, two towns that now live thanks to tourism: you can find a good choice of hotels of various categories, hostels, some apartments and b&b.
Although they are small towns, during peak tourist season they can be very crowded. If you want a bit of tranquility look for something away from the main streets.
The Meteora are located in Thessaly, an eastern region of mainland Greece. The city to base yourself from when exploring the Meteora is Kalambaka, which can be reached by bus or train from the cities of Thessaloniki and Volos; you can also take a direct train from Athens, but the journey is longer.
A rented car is a good solution: thanks to the opening of the A2 highway from Igoumenitsa to the north of Greece, the journey by car is, although long, quite easy. From Thessaloniki calculate about 250 km by car.
Once in Kalambaka you can visit the Meteora independently by taking a bus to the Great Meteora and from there moving on foot to the other monasteries, another possibility is to participate in a guided tour of half a day or a full day, either on foot or by private transport.