Meteora, an absolute guide to one of Greece’s enchanting destinations
To many, a trip to Greece is all about the ancient city of Athens and the countless beautiful islands in the Aegean Sea. But, shift your gaze to central Greece and you find one of the country’s most spellbinding destinations, Meteora. Hidden among the mountains of Thessaly, Meteora is both naturally and historically fascinating thanks to its unique rock formations and monasteries.
Visit Meteora and you’re in for a real treat as you witness the improbable sight of ancient monasteries teetering on narrow pillars of rock. So that you don’t miss a thing, be sure to make use of this guide full of Meteora travel tips.
A Brief Background on Meteora
To fully appreciate why Meteora is so special, it helps if you first get a little background on what Meteora is and how it came to be. Meteora is interesting because it’s both a place of unusual topography but also an important historical and religious site. It’s the interplay of these features that make it such a unique destination.
Meteora is defined by a series of large pillars of rock. While some stand entirely out on their own, other work with the ordinary hillside to form valleys, creating an unpredictable landscape. It’s these upright pillars of rock that give the area its name; Meteora roughly translates to “suspended in air”.
This landscape alone would be enough of a draw for tourists, but what makes Meteora special is that on the cliffs of many of these rocks are Greek Orthodox monasteries which were built in the Middle Ages. Built in such a remote place to avoid the invading Turks, the monasteries themselves seem “suspended in the air”.
At one point there were two dozen monasteries across Meteora, today only six remain active. It is these six monasteries, along with their monks and nuns that visitors come to see in Meteora.
How to Get to Meteora
Positioned right in the middle of Greece, Meteora isn’t the most convenient place to reach. Although that may limit your options for how to travel to Meteora, it can make your journey a little more straightforward. Away from many of Greece’s other major destinations, you’re most likely to travel there from Athens or Thessaloniki. Without any airports closeby, your only options to get to Meteora are by bus or train.
Reaching Meteora by train from Athens involves a slow regional train to the town of Kalambaka. Kalambaka is the base town for most travelers as it is situated on the foot of the beautiful Meteora rocks. There is a direct train from Athens once a day which makes the journey in less than 5 hours. Additionally, there are a few slower trains from both Athens and Thessaloniki which connect via Palaeofarsalos.
As for the bus, there’s a daily bus that connects the capital with Kalambaka, taking roughly the same time to get there.
There is also the option to hire your own car and drive yourself to Meteora. Not only is this the quickest option, but it will allow you to shape your itinerary as you’d like.
How To Get Around Meteora
Since Meteora covers a surprisingly expansive area, it’s important that you work out how you plan to get around there. The right option for you will depend on how much time you have there, but also how you prefer to sightsee. For your first trip to Meteora, the main ways to get around are either by tour, driving, or walking.
1. By Tour
If you have limited time in the area and want to see the most important sights as easily as possible, then taking a tour is the way to go. There’s a huge range of guided tours to choose from, everything from a full day guided tour of the different monasteries to a tour that shows you just the best sunset spots. Then there are activity tours too, aimed at people interested in photography, food, or even rock climbing.
The two most popular tours however are the Panoramic Meteora and Monasteries Tour and the Majestic Sunset Tour. The first tour is in the morning and the second one is in the evening which means you can join both of them on the same day. By joining both of them, you’ll get the most out of your time in Meteora. Not only will you visit all the Monasteries but you’ll also get to experience the incredible sunset from the famous Adrachti Pillar.
2. By Car
Throughout Meteora you’ll find roads that wiggle their way around the wonderful landscape. Driving here, you can quickly get between each of the major monasteries without much hassle. Each monastery has its own carpark, as do some of the scenic lookouts, meaning driving around is pretty straightforward.
3. By Walking/Hiking
While it may be the slowest way to see Meteora, hiking is the recommended way to see this part of Greece. From both Kastraki and Kalambaka there are hiking trails that weave their way through the countryside up to each of the monasteries. They can at times be quite steep and you will occasionally need to follow the roadside, but ultimately you’ll see far more of Meteora on foot than you can any other way.
Best Time to Visit Meteora
Time of year is one of the most important factors to consider when planning a trip to Meteora. Depending on how you choose to get around and how you like dealing with other tourists will inform when is the best time for you. Depending on preference, there’s a case to be made for each season.
Situated in the country’s mountainous center, Meteora is considerably cooler than Greece’s islands. That means it experiences milder summers than the south, so hiking around in the heat of summer isn’t all that bad. Still, summer is peak season for Greece and it’s easy to understand how the small monasteries might become quite crowded. Alternatively, things can be very quiet for Meteora in winter with temperatures that can easily get below freezing. You may find also that it’s harder to find accommodation and places to eat as many businesses close for the off-season.
As is often true, shoulder season is a great time to come to Meteora. With more manageable tourist numbers, you won’t feel crowded and should find the weather comfortable. Even better though is seeing the landscape of Meteora bursting with color, be it the blossoms of spring or the foliage of fall.
Where to Stay in Meteora
If you plan on staying in the region for a night or more, you’re going to want to choose somewhere that gives you access not only to the sights of Meteora but also to restaurants and the like.
Essentially, your choice of locations comes down to just two areas, the town of Kalambaka and the neighboring village of Kastraki. Each sit at one end of the main monasteries of Meteora, so you can drive or walk from either. It’s also worth noting that it’s only about 2 kilometers from the center of one to the other, so it’s easy to get between the two when needed.
As the larger of the two, Kalambaka has more accommodation and restaurants, and is where both the bus and train arrive. Kastraki, on the other hand is a small village with a quaint atmosphere. You’ll still find quite a few restaurants here and plenty of accommodation options, but you will have to make your way over from the bus or train station in Kalambaka.
Where To Eat in Meteora
To keep you going during your time sightseeing in Meteora, you’re going to need to refuel. While there aren’t any places to get food up by the monasteries, you’ll find a great selection of restaurants and establishments in both Kastraki and Kalambaka. Being the bigger town, you’ll find a bit more variety in Kalambaka, as Kastraki generally has only traditional Greek restaurants.
In these restaurants you can expect plenty of Greek staples like grilled meats, saganaki, salads, and abundant vegetables. All of this goes best with some Greek wine, including some local varieties.
One great place to visit is Taverna Xarama, this is a traditional Greek restaurant halfway between Kastraki and Kalambaka. Not only is the food here good, but you have a good chance of being serenaded with a guitar courtesy of the family that owns the taverna. In the center of Kastraki, another place to consider is Taverna Gardenia which has tasty souvlakis.
Best Things to Do in Meteora
Given that the monasteries are the main focus of this area, you can’t have travel tips for visiting Meteora without talking about each of the six active monasteries. Sure, there are some other landmarks and sights, but you come to Meteora to see the these monasteries and how they fit into this remarkable landscape. The other things to do in Meteora are really cherries on top for those that have a little extra time to spend.
At each of the main monasteries, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee. If you’re on a budget, it may help to pick only a few monasteries to actually go inside of. As for how much time you should allow here in Meteora, that will depend on a few things. If you’re on a tour or driving, it’s possible to see the highlights in one day. Hiking, as mentioned before, is best done over two days so that you’re not rushed and can explore a little further. Either way, these are the best places to visit in Meteora no matter how long you’re there for.
1. Monastery of Great Meteoron
The oldest and largest of the Meteora monasteries, the Monastery of Great Meteoron is an impressive sight. Though it does not sit quite as precariously as the other monasteries, it’s stone ribbon of stairs and countless buildings make it seem more like a fortified village than a monastery.
Inside this 14th century monastery, you’re treated not only to views of Meteora, but also gilded frescos of saints and a museum on Meteora’s history. The museum is a great place to start with to get some context on the places you’ll be visiting.
2. Varlaam Monastery
Not far from the Monastery of Great Meteoron you’ll find the next largest monastery, Varlaam. Built in the 16th century, this wonderfully preserved monastery is almost like a palace thanks to its pristine architecture. It houses a church, refectory, and chapels full of religious icons, not to mention the most monks of any of the Meteora monasteries.
3. Roussanou Monastery
Sitting roughly in the middle of the monasteries, there’s a good reason that Roussanou Monastery is Meteora’s most photographed. This is because it stands out the most against the landscape perched on a cliff that is visible from most other parts of Meteora. After sustaining significant damage in World War II, the monastery was rebuilt and is now an active convent.
4. St Nicholas Anapausas Monastery
Likely the lowest-lying of the main monasteries, the St Nicholas Anapausas looks almost like it grew from the stone pillar it sits upon. At times it’s hard to see where the monastery begins and the rock ends. Inside the monastery is an ornate chapel which sadly, you’re not allowed to take photos of. Continuing through you’ll find a little belltower and a rooftop viewing terrace which only really has views of Kastraki and the Roussanou Monastery due to its low vantage point.
5. Monastery of the Holy Trinity
The most isolated and hardest to reach of the Meteora monasteries, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity sits off on its own on an island of stone. Reached by a 140 step staircase, this monastery has received multiple renovations over the years. Picturesque with awesome views out over Kalambaka, it’s not surprising that it was used as a film location for the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.
6. Monastery of St Stephen
Just across a valley from the Monastery of the Holy Trinity lies the last of the six monasteries, the Monastery of St Stephen. Since there aren’t any stairs to reach the monastery, this is the most accessible one in Meteora. In the main chapel and cathedral you can find lingering reminders of the damage inflicted during the Greek Civil War on this now-convent.
7. Other Monasteries and Rock Formations
Across the landscape of Meteora you’ll likely see ruins from several of the other monasteries. None are really accessible today and are typically found much further away than the famous ones. Take, for example, the Monastery of Ypapanti, which is closed to the public but still visibly wedged into the cliff face.
For a full panoramic view of Meteora, visit the scenic viewpoint roughly halfway between Roussanou and the Holy Trinity Monastery. With a small car park right off the main road, it’s easy to spot. It can be tricky to fit all of Meteora’s splendour in a single shot but here gives you your best chance.
Another place to go to admire the rocks and boulders of Meteora is the Adrachti Pillar. Resting on a fairly inaccessible spur between Kastraki and Kalambaka, this is one of the skinniest rocks of Meteora. Surrounded by the hills of the region, it’s an atmospheric spot and easily reached if you walk east out of Kastraki past the Holy Tomb of the Assumption Church.
That about does it for our tips for traveling to Meteora. You should now be amply prepared to visit this magical destination and fall further in love with Greece.