Do you only have a short amount of time on mainland Greece and wondering is Meteora worth visiting? How long should you spend in Meteora? Or even where is Meteora in Greece? Well read on, and we’ll take you on our journey visiting Meteora and exploring the ancient monasteries...
The air is sweet with the smell of burning incense and the only noises breaking the silence are the quiet footsteps echoing around us. We can feel hundreds of years of history and, as we step outside, we’re perched perilously hundreds of metres high on towering cliffs.
We’re in Meteora, one of the most fascinating and stunning UNESCO World Heritage Sites we’ve been to. And to make sure we make the most of visiting Meteora and exploring the ancient monasteries, we’re joining Visit Meteora on a Half-day Sightseeing Tour followed by a Meteroa Sunset Tour.
What makes these monasteries unique is that they were built on top of huge mountainous rocks by monks over hundreds of years ago, to live lives of solitude and meditation. The monks used ladders to climb up, and ropes to to get food and other things they needed. Luckily for us, the rope ladders were replaced with steps carved into the rock in the 1920s, making it easy to view and visit the monasteries up close and see the incredible panoramic views.
Check out our day in a minute below...
Where is Meteora in Greece & How do you get to Meteora?
Meteora is in the centre of Greece, around 5 hours from Athens, and is well connected by road and rail. Direct trains run from Athens to Kalambaka, but we're taking the scenic route on a road-trip around mainland Greece.
After spending a day in Athens (link to our blog below), we're visiting the Peloponnese region (link to our blog below) and then heading north to Meteora. It’s an epic road-trip taking in the coast and mountains of mainland Greece and is definitely one of the most scenic drives we’ve ever done!
Link to blog: Athens in a Day… How to Make the Most of Your Visit
Link to blog: The 10 Best Places to Visit in the Peloponnese
We arrive in Kalambaka (the main town close to Meteora) late on Friday night, and after checking into our hotel (Hotel Famissi), we're just in time to have a wander around town and catch the last of the shops before they close and to eat a delicious local dinner at Valia Calda Restaurant (trying the Fried Black Pig from the mountains and Grilled Trout)
Visiting Meteora with a Half-day Sightseeing Tour
We’re picked up from our hotel at 8am by our driver Stavros and guide Talis, and after a few more pickups in town, we’re soon on our way to the biggest archaeological site in Greece and our day visiting Meteora and exploring the ancient monasteries begins...
As we’re driving up the twisting mountain road we look out of the window and can’t believe what we see… the rocks seem to grow out of the ground and then morph into the historic monasteries on top, and we can’t quite fathom where the rocks end and the monasteries begin... Sneha felt they are built in the rocks, are they??
Talis tells us some of the history of the monasteries… how they were formed in the 14th century, how only 6 from an initial 24 remain active today, and how and why the monks chose this beautiful but rugged and remote location. The rest of the monasteries sit in ruin, but Talis points these out to us too.
The trip is well planned out, giving us the opportunity to go inside 3 of the 6 active monasteries and experience the serene and spiritual sites (only 5 are open each day). And we also have stops at the best photo spots to see the other 3 monasteries amongst the dramatic and spectacular landscapes for some jaw-dropping photo opportunities!
Exploring The Ancient Monasteries of Great Meteoron, Vaarlam & St Nikolas
The first monastery we visit is The Monastery of Great Meteoron, the biggest and oldest of them all.
Reaching early is a must to beat the crowds and get the best experience of the peaceful sites, and so joining this tour is great in getting us to the entrance in time to beat the other coach trips and visitors flocking to the site (up to 15k visitors per day come here at peak season Talis tells us!).
As we tackle the 300 steps to the entrance (don’t worry, they are well built and easily manageable), the sight of the monastery sat atop the rock towering over the valley below becomes even more magical, and the views from the top are worth the trip alone!
Churches of the Monasteries of Meteora
But the true wonder comes when we step inside the sacred chapel and experience the spiritual and religious centre of the monastery. Everything is so beautiful… the gold ornate decorations, the detailed paintings covering the walls and ceiling, the carved wooden frescoes and seating. So much opulence and grandeur!
Photos and videos are not allowed inside the churches so significant are their importance, but some photos can be seen on the Visit Meteora website…
Courtyards of the Monasteries of Meteora
The Monastery of Varlaam is the second biggest and second oldest monastery at Meteora, and so fittingly it’s the second monastery we visit.
Sitting just below The Monastery of Grand Meteoron, it’s the one we got some great photos of when climbing the steps earlier this morning. And the favour is returned this time… Vaarlam now gives great views towards Great Meteoron!
While we were so awe-struck by visiting the church at Great Meteoron, exploring Vaarlam makes us appreciate the beauty of the courtyards of the monasteries.
They are full of bright and vibrant flowers. And the architecture of the buildings, set against the dramatic backdrop of the rocks, make us feel like we’ve been transported to another time or world… we half expect to see some characters from Game of Thrones appear at any moment!
Museums of the Monasteries of Meteora
The third and final monastery we visit inside is The Monastery of Roussanou. To reach this one, we take a short walk through the woods.
As we walk through the woods the smell is so nice and fresh, like the first smell of rain (although we hope it’s not going to start!), and the birds are chirping all around us. We follow the trail downhill from the road, before climbing back up the stairs to reach the monastery.
The monasteries also house small museums. Here we see ancient artefacts and original scriptures from the early monks who founded the monasteries. The many orations and holy liturgies are locked in glass cabinets, but just seeing the covers and some of the pages gives us a sense of calm and well-being. We also see the many phelonions (gowns and robes) made and worn by the monks during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the artistic embroideries which adorned the walls.
Finding the Best Photo Spots in Meteora
Another great feature of the tour is that the local driver and guide know the best places to stop for those jaw-dropping views when visiting Meteora and exploring the ancient monasteries.
Being high up on the top of the cliffs and only accessible and viewable on the twisting mountain roads, having a driver take us there and knowing where to stop (and explain what we’re looking at) is invaluable.
Possibly the most famous monastery of them all at Meteora is The Monastery of Holy Trinity. It is the most photographed monastery, and also the most difficult to reach, being perched on top of a narrow pillar with the monastery looking like it completely fills the top!
And speaking of Game of Thrones, the setting is so dramatic they wanted to film here, but the monks wouldn’t allow it due to the nature of the show. The scenery was the inspiration for the Eerie, and some shots were allowed with the monasteries being removed by special effects.
James Bond didn’t take such a forthcoming approach in asking though! For the movie For Your Eyes Only, the producers lied to the monks saying they were making a documentary in order to start filming at the monasteries, even conducting interviews with some of the monks to cover what they were really doing. It was only when helicopters started filming that they realised something wasn’t quite right and put a stop to it, but only after the producers already had plenty of footage!
Where to have lunch in Kalambaka
After a last photo stop at Sunset Rock (more on this location later), Talis asks where we all want to be dropped off, giving us the option to return to our hotels or be dropped off in either Kalambaka centre or the neighbouring Kastraki.
Since we have a few hours before our sunset tour starts, we get off in the centre of Kalambaka to stop for lunch and explore the town.
As we get off the bus near the fountain in town, and immediately spot where we want lunch... Restaurant Meteora. With great online reviews and a traditional and local looking menu, it's an easy choice to make!
We ask what's special and the waiter points us to Grandma's traditional stews, so with pork and lamb ordered, we ask if we can check out the kitchen and the stew being made, and along with the interior it's all really cool!
After lunch we explore Kalambaka, which has a very traditional and authentic Greek village feel to it off the main street. The narrow and winding lanes are lined with colourful houses and Sneha comments how well maintained all of the gardens are... it looks like the neighbours all compete for the most beautiful garden.
We check out the local shops and see the St Vissarion Holy Metropolitan Orthodox Church, and then take a walk up the hill to the Byzantine Church of the Virgin Mary... the most important monument in the whole of Meteora! (this is part of the Sunset Tour so we juts have a quick look around and play around with the drone!)
Despite the church being closed, as Sneha is looking around the courtyard a lady comes out and asks if she wants to look inside too. It is probably one of the places she has visited that has preserved everything as is to keep the historic beauty and no touches are done to modernise it.
Visiting Meteora on a Sunset Tour
Our Meteora Sunset Tour starts at 4pm and we're picked up from our hotel, and as with the tour this morning, we again have Stavros and Talis to guide us.
This evening's tour includes a visit inside one of the other monasteries we didn't see this morning, a trip to see the caves and houses built into the rocks, a guided tour of the Byzantine church of the Virgin Mary (we didn't realise this when we trekked there earlier), and then seeing The Monastery of Great Meteoron from the outside before ending with sunset at Sunset Rock (at least we hope it does, there are quite a few clouds in the sky tonight).
The Monastery of Agios Stefanos
After having visited the largest, oldest and smallest monasteries this morning, this evening we visit the most accessible... The Monastery of Agios Stefanos, or Monastery of St. Stephen, which is also a nunnery. Surprisingly there are more nuns than monks in Meteora today, although not all of the monasteries are nunneries. You'll get to know the stories and history on the tour!
With the entrance being over a small bridge it is much easier to visit than the others where you have to climb stairs, so is perfect if you want to experience the monasteries but have limited mobility.
And although smaller than Great Meteoron and Varlaam, it is still beautiful and gives the same sense of peace and tranquillity. And even more so when we see the monks and nuns walking between the church and houses.
The Byzantine Church of the Virgin Mary
After the monastery we head back down the mountains and go to the Byzantine Church of the Virgin Mary. While the monasteries sat atop the rocks are seriously impressive, this Christian church dates to around the 4th or 5th centuries, and is the only church in the World with a preserved early Christian pulpit in the centre.
Although we visited this earlier on our own, visiting it again on the tour made it all the better. Tonight the church is lit up and looks even more alive, and the priest is censing the church, chanting prayers as incense smokes and fills the room.
Talis tells us some of the history of the church which makes the visit all the more worthwhile... "You can feel the history in the walls" he says, and as we're stood next to an unassuming looking stone font, he tells us it's over 1,000 years old and imagine the people who have been baptized in it. "We are seeing pure history, it's amazing". We can feel the emotion in his voice... this isn't a quote to please the tourists, we can see this really does mean a lot to him.
The Hermit Caves of Badova
Before the days of the grand monasteries being built on top of the rocks, the monks who came to Meteora first lived inside caves carved into the rock formations to isolate themselves from civilization and, at times, to escape persecution.
So for the next part of our tour, we go to see these caves... the Hermit Caves of Badova.
We take a short walk through the woods in a valley with the rocks towering over us, and after a few minutes we reach the bottom of a huge sheer cliff, with caves and a house built into the side of it!
Our guide tells us how some monks would live in the caves for over 50 years and not come down at all! And how many died as they couldn't move properly after living in the caves for so long, and so couldn't collect food or receive help from people. Sneha is particularly shocked and saddened by this!
The houses, or sketes, were built to give extra shelter following the original cave dwellings and before the full monasteries were built. Having a look at these definitely makes us feel better as it looks like a well build small house in the rock rather than a hole in a mountain, the way Hermits stayed.
The one we're looking at is lived in by a 92 year-old monk (although due to his age he spends most of this time in town these days), and despite now being accessible by motorbike, the ladders are still in place to show us how the monks would have climbed up to enter. "I don't fancy doing that!" Paul says!
As we walk back the trail to our bus, Talis also shows a place where they used to store goods. The Hermits must have put so much efforts to carve down caves not just for as a place to stay but also to store things!
Where to watch the sunset in Meteora... Sunset Rock!
After a short refreshments and comfort break in a taverna on the edge of Kastraki (where Paul gets his now customary Greek coffee and a beer!), we head to the main event of the evening... Sunset Rock to watch the sunset.
On the way Talis asks us where the best sunset in Greece is? Many people believe Santorini... but ask anyone in the north of Greece, and Meteora is the answer!
We pick a good spot on the rock and wait for the dark clouds to clear, hoping for a beautiful sunset. The clear parts of the sky are a bright orange but we only get a very brief glimpse of the sun as a small gap appears, but is quickly enveloped by clouds again.
Maybe not quite the amazing sunset we had hoped for or had seen on our drive to Meteroa last night, but the colours of the sky and views from the rock are still worth the trip!
Joining the Visit Meteora Half-day Sightseeing Tour and Meteroa Sunset Tour was the perfect way for us to see and experience everything we wanted all in one day. Being able to visit 4 of the 6 monasteries and the Byzantine Church of the Virgin Mary, see the caves and sketes of the early monks, and be astounded by the views of Meteora all in the same day wouldn't have been possible if we tried to do it all ourselves. Plus, if we'd been driving ourselves, we (well Paul) would have missed out on many of the views from the roads. And we wouldn't have learnt the history from our knowledgeable guide Talis, or known where the best photo stops were like our driver Stavros did... and these really made the day for us!
Although both tours overlap and take largely the same routes, they each have their unique aspects and have different photo stops to ensure they are different, so it really is worth taking both tours if you can.
Make sure you have some cash. Each monastery has a €3 entrance charge and the Byzantine Church of the Virgin Mary has a €2 fee, all payable only by cash. One of our group was caught out on the Sunset Tour and decided to take a trek to a cash machine in town... getting lost and delaying the tour!
And be mindful of the dress code for the monasteries too. No shoulders or knees can be shown, and no tight or revealing clothes. Skirts are available at the entrance if required, but best to dress appropriately and show respect for the historic and religious sites.
Where to stay on your visit to Meteora in a budget friendly way ?
We stayed at Hotel Famissi in Kalambka. And while we wouldn't recommend it if you're looking for a luxurious stay, it was a relatively nice hotel which made a great base for our day of exploring. The rooms were spacious and clean, with family rooms available with a large double bed and comfortable sofa bed, and balconies offering good views of the Meteora rocks (be sure to request a mountain facing room as they get booked quickly).
The hotel is also well located at the end of the main street in Kalambaka meaning all of the shops and restaurants are within easy walking distance... something we would suggest you take advantage for breakfast as the hotel breakfast was very basic!
Our day visiting Meteora and exploring the ancient monasteries included sponsored tours provided by Visit Meteora which you can book for yourself here... Half-day Sightseeing Tour and Meteroa Sunset Tour.
Following on from the great experience we had in Athens on our Walks tour, these tours were again a great way to see and experience Meteora, and we would highly recommend taking them if you plan to visit (and you definitely should!).
Visit Meteora is a highly awarded local travel agency in operation since 2013. They provide many other tours as well as the ones we took, which can all be found and booked on their website... Visit Meteora