My conception of Greece has never really been the same as the guide books’. This is probably because I’m Greek, myself. My dad’s family is from the island of Crete, and because of the family connection, I’d never really visited the country as a tourist before. When we’d go every few summers, it was to stay with my grandmother and help her around the house. There was a sense of duty involved that never really meshed with the idea of taking a vacation. Not that it wasn’t lovely — looking back, I know that I’ve been extremely privileged, not only to have had so many opportunities to visit Greece, but to have seen a side of Crete that not many people get to. It’s a different kind of travel experience: more “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and less “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”
The only time I’ve played tourist in Greece was when we planned a quick getaway to the mainland before my family and I flew over to see my grandmother. The place we chose to visit is called Meteora, and you’ve probably never heard of it unless you’re a die-hard Orthodox Christian, or a passionate “James Bond” or “Game of Thrones” fan.
No matter where you first see it, travelers can always agree that Meteora looks like it shouldn’t exist. Natural limestone pillars jut out of the ground and tower over the landscape in a way that makes it easy to imagine you’re in a land of gods — or to visualize a time when the entire area was submerged in a prehistoric ocean. Atop six of these insane natural pillars sit monasteries akin to what you might find in a fantasy novel.
If you’re planning a trip to Greece in the near future, I hope this guide provides ample inspiration and advice for visiting Meteora, the coolest place you’ve never heard of.
Where to Stay
You only have two choices in terms of accommodation when visiting Meteora: Kalambaka, the closest city to the monasteries, or Kastraki, the closest town. I suggest the latter. Kastraki is a quaint, sleepy sort of place that hugs the area’s natural pillars, so the views from the guesthouses are phenomenal. Plus, the smaller population means fewer crowds and greater opportunities for quiet meals in local restaurants.
Two full days in Meteora should allow you to see everything at a relaxed pace, so booking three nights at a guesthouse will work perfectly. I recommend Doupiani House in Kastraki, which offers amazing views of the iconic pillars from its large and beautifully decorated outdoor porch, and is run by a host of incredibly friendly and wonderful people. Plus, their breakfast buffet overflows with delicious traditional fare sourced from nearby farmers, including olives, mizithra cheese, fresh bread, fruit, yogurt, honey, and a plethora of homemade preserves and jams. I can honestly say that what I ate there constitutes some of the best breakfast I’ve ever had.
Tip: Staying in Kastraki also puts you very close to the best sunset spot in the area. Known as the Psaropetra Sunset Viewpoint, this lookout offers a phenomenal view of the pillars, Roussanou Nunnery, and the valley beyond.
How to Get Around
Though getting to Meteora by train or bus from Athens is doable, renting a car is the better bet. The drive to Kastraki is gorgeous and only takes about four hours. Sections of the impeccably paved highway wind up cliffs to overlook the ocean, and wildflowers grow across the medians. When my family and I made the drive, I felt like the star of my own Greek rom-com, bombing down the highway in a convertible rather than stuffed into a tiny rental car with the windows open.
The car is also helpful when you reach Meteora. Greece is good at many things (olive oil, alcohol, lamb, ancient philosophers), but public transit isn’t one of them. If you don’t have access to a car during your visit, then be prepared to hitchhike or spend your days hiking up and down a lot of hills and pillars. This can be especially tough during the summer months, when temperatures reach 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). While there, my family decided to spend one of our days hiking but ran out of water toward the end of our trek. Luckily, we met a man who gave us figs and water from the back of his truck, and that was really only possible because my Dad speaks Greek. So, if you do decide to hike, make sure you’re prepared!
What’s Open When
All six of Meteora’s monasteries are separate entities, each with its own visiting hours. One religious house is closed each day from Monday to Thursday, while two are closed on Fridays. Visiting hours also vary greatly — St. Stephen’s Monastery, for example, closes for lunch and shuts its doors for the night at 3:30 p.m., while the rest of the monasteries tend to stay open from 9 a.m. to either 4 or 5 p.m. daily.
How Much to Budget
If you’re not a Greek citizen, entering each monastery will set you back three euros, so it will cost 18 euros to visit all six. It’s well worth the total fee, though you should consider bringing along some extra cash in case you want to buy some honey or candles from one of the monks’ or nuns’ gift shops. Note: the honey we bought at Roussanou Nunnery was truly phenomenal.
What to Wear
The monasteries of Meteora, like many other religious and spiritual sites, require a dress code to enter. For men, this means wearing long pants and covering your shoulders. Ladies, while also needing their shoulders covered, should be aware that pants are not allowed — only long dresses or skirts are permitted. Thankfully, each monastery has a host of sarongs, shawls, and pairs of pants available for free use during your visit, so slip one on over your clothes and you’re good to go.
Also note that in the winter, this area of Greece gets a lot of rain, so make sure to bring along a raincoat or umbrella if you’re traveling at that time. If you’re visiting in summer, be sure to pack clothing made from breathable materials, such as linen and cotton — they’ll keep you from overheating and lessen your chances of heat exhaustion — as well as a hat to help you stay cool throughout the day.
How to Visit Mindfully
Meteora has been significant to Orthodox Christians for centuries. Around the 10th century AD, hermits came to the area with the goal of isolating themselves from the outside world and focusing on their faith. They lived in the caves that can still be spotted in the pillars. Later, monks built the monasteries atop the stone structures in order to escape from the Turks.
Back then, the monks would climb up the pillars and then send their building materials and food up and down via a system of pulleys and baskets. Today, you can climb up a series of stairs to reach certain monasteries and drive to others. Regardless, Meteora’s monasteries are not accessible to people who cannot climb stairs, with the exception of St. Stephen’s — though there are cable cars between the monasteries, they’re mostly used by the monks themselves.
Additionally, it should be noted that the six monasteries tend to draw pilgrims from all around the world. This makes them busy and crowded, so it’s always a good idea to get an early start — you’ll beat the heat, along with most of the other visitors! That being said, please remember that these are working monasteries, meaning that nuns and monks currently live and worship in them. Try not to treat the buildings any differently than you would when visiting another person’s home or holy space.
Things to Remember
Meteora is a gorgeous place with a rich history. No matter your stance on Christianity, the monasteries are truly stunning feats of human ingenuity that should be on everyone’s bucket list. So, take lots of pictures, eat great food, and enjoy one of the most underrated places in Greece.
Need some more Grecian inspiration? Glean some local advice on how to spend a weekend in Crete.