Explore the Historic Island of Delos

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Key Takeaways

  • Delos is a sacred island with important archaeological sites and is closely tied to Greek mythology.
  • It is the only Greek ruin where well-preserved private homes have been found.
  • Delos offers a complete picture of ancient Greek architecture, interior layout, materials used, and decoration.
  • Visiting Delos allows you to explore Greek heritage and experience the island's rich history firsthand.

A stone's throw from cosmopolitan Mykonos, Delos is the sacred island of ancient Greece, bare of vegetation but extremely bright under the Greek sunlight. It also boasts one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. According to Greek mythology, It is the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.

What makes it one of the most important Greek ruins, however, is that it is the only one in the country where private homes have been found in excellent condition.

Temples, an ancient theatre, stadiums for major events in the 2nd century, gyms, a sacred harbor, and other monumental structures and buildings have been discovered in many places. Also, in some areas, such as e.g., In Pella and Eretria, house foundations and mosaic floors have been found, but unfortunately, the houses themselves are not preserved in height.  

In Delos, on the other hand, they are wonderfully preserved and give us almost a complete picture of the architecture, the interior layout, the materials used, the decoration of the walls, the water supply, and the sewerage system of antiquity. Here, you’ll have a chance to explore the mystifying island of Delos and get valuable insight into Greek heritage.

The History of Delos

Remnants of the 2nd century on the archaeological site of Delos - credits: discovergreece.com

The history of Delos is intertwined with mythology, as it was considered to be the birthplace of Apollo, son of Zeus, and therefore a sacred place.

Its position was also determined in mythology. In specific, before it became Delos, which translates to ‘visible,’ it was a floating wandering rock, called ‘Ortygia’ or ‘Adilos’, which means ‘invisible.’ Poseidon anchored the rock in the absolute center of the four points of the compass concerning its position in the Aegean Sea.

It is located almost equidistant from the mainland to the northwest, with Chios and Rhodes to the east, Crete to the south, and the Peloponnese to the west.

Its geographical position attracted the interest of the ancient Greeks, along with other places that hold geometrically important positions in their elaborate mathematical approach to geography, such as Delphi. The creation of these myths, given the location of the island, was simply a matter of time.

Its geographical location did indeed bring great wealth to Delos, as Leto, Apollo's mother, had promised, a fact that is an outstanding example that unites mythology with history in the most fascinating way.

The myth

The archaeological site of Delos - credits: discovergreece.com

In early mythology, the first reference to Delos is made by its appearance as an invisible rock that floated aimlessly in the sea and which was formed when Asteria, Leto's sister, transformed into a rock to escape Zeus.

Justifying his reputation as a womanizer, Zeus later chased and left Leto pregnant, resulting in the angry outburst of Hera, which collaborated with the other gods to prevent Leto from giving birth anywhere in the world and under the sun.

For that reason, Leto had no other choice but to wander around the world looking for a safe place to give birth despite being in the final days of her pregnancy.

Zeus appealed to his brother, Poseidon, to help them find a place somewhere in the sea where Leto could rest and give birth to Zeus' child. Poseidon then took the invisible floating rock, ‘Adilos,’ and anchored it in the sea with four columns of diamond chains and then renamed it ‘Delos.’

The Greeks strongly believed in this myth. It was the reason why many brave treasure hunters lost their lives trying to retrieve the diamond chains from the seabed.

According to the myth, Leto promised Delos that she would make the island the richest in the world if Delos allowed her to rest there and give birth to her child. She also promised that her child would never leave the rock. And so it was agreed, and Leto went to the Sacred Lake, in the center of which was a palm tree.

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There, and without help, as Hera had forbidden Eilithia -the goddess of childbirth and midwives- to help Leto, she gave birth to twins. The first was Artemis, goddess of hunting and virginity. Nine days later, she gave birth to Apollo, the god of truth and light. 

It is interesting to note that, according to legend, Artemis, a nine-day-old baby, was indeed able to help her mother bring her brother to light.

In Attica, and specifically in Vravrona, Vravronia Artemis was worshiped as the goddess of vegetation and hunting and as the protector of women during childbirth as well as of newborns. She obviously had to be reborn to serve the role she was assigned.

From that moment on, Delos became a sacred place, remaining forever bathed in the light of Apollo. One must become a personal witness of how unique this Apollonian light is, to understand.

The history

The marble lions on the archaeological site of Delos - credits: discovergreece.com

Delos has a long and fascinating history dating back to the third millennium BC, more than most of the Cyclades islands, which is evident in its ancient ruins. Based on a report by Thucydides, the first inhabitants are supposed to have been Kares. Remains of elliptical huts have been found at the top of Kynthos hill, at a height of 113m high, from where residents could easily supervise and control the small valley and the surrounding sea.

Around a thousand years later, the history of the area continued with the Mycenaeans, when extensive settlements began to be built. The Apollonian sanctuary had already been established since Homeric times and reached its peak during the archaic and classical times. The mythical Mycenaean king of Delos, Anios, son of Apollo and great-grandson of Dionysus, had tried to maintain neutrality in the conflicts of the time.

He hosted the lord of Troy, Aghisis, but also the fleet of the Achaeans, and later Aeneas, son of Aghisis, who escaped from the burning Troy. When this world collapsed around 1100 BC, the Ionians settled on the island, which became their religious center, and remained so until 540 BC. when the Athenians took control of the island only to lose it during the Persian Wars.

Delos came out unscathed from the Persian wars because the Persians considered it sacred and did not plunder it like the other islands of the Cyclades. In 478 BC, after the end of said wars, the Delian Alliance of Greek cities was founded, to deal with future threats. The seat of the alliance was Delos; the huge amount of the contributions of the allied cities was kept there and the meetings of the representatives took place there.

Very soon the Delian Alliance evolved into Athenian Hegemony and the allies almost became subjects of the Athenians. The money of the common fund was transferred in 454 BC. to the Acropolis of Athens, ostensibly for security reasons, but in reality to finance the ambitious building program of Pericles. In 476 BC. the construction of the second temple of Apollo, the Great Temple, or the Temple of Delia, began to be built.

Its construction was stopped after the transfer of the fund to Athens and continued during the period of Delian Independence -314-166 BC- without ever being completed. Around 540-528 BC. the tyrant of Athens, Peisistratos, after a Delphic oracle, imposed the first purification on the island, enacting a law that no one could die or be born on the sacred island.

Thucydides writes in this regard that in the first years of the Peloponnesian War the Athenians, who were crowded within the city walls, found themselves in a desperate position because of the plague that afflicted the inhabitants. It is estimated that in 427-426 BC. the death toll from the deadly epidemic was 30,000.

Thucydides states that the Athenians had reached such a point of shame that ‘no fear of the gods or the law of men could hold them back.’ In such an atmosphere of despair and insecurity, they committed a heinous crime, the ‘cleansing’ of Delos, ostensibly for reasons of piety.

They opened all the tombs that existed on the island and transported the bones and the offerings to Rhenia, where they buried them in a common pit. At the same time, they decided that no one should be born and die in Delos, but that the interest rates and the seriously ill be transferred to Rhenia. Since then no one was born, no one died and no one was buried on the island. 

The Delians, as the Athenians wanted, became stateless. In 422 BC. the Athenians completed the ‘cleansing’, exiling the entire local population. The Delians took refuge in Adramyttio of Asia Minor, at the invitation of Farnakis, where they were slaughtered.

The few who survived returned to Delos after an operation by the Oracle of Delphi. Immediately after the cleansing, even though it was in a state of war, the Athenians began, out of remorse or fear, the extremely costly work of building another temple of Apollo from white Pentelic marble and established Delia, a celebration in honor of Apollo that took place every five years.

The inauguration of this third temple, the temple of the Athenians, took place with impressive brilliance in 417 BC, by the moderate Nikias. During the tyranny of Peisistratos or his sons, the porous temple of Apollo was built, which housed a supernatural statue of the god, the work of Tectaius and Angelion.

From the end of the 5th c. e.g. the only important building activity in the sanctuary was the partial completion of the temple of Delia and the construction of a new temple of Artemis. However, during the period of independence, the rulers of the Hellenistic states competed in the ostentatious construction of glorious buildings on the sacred island, where all Greeks could see and admire the wealth and their power.

The whole area of ​​the sanctuary was filled with hundreds of marble and bronze statues, expensive votive offerings of cities or wealthy individuals, of which only the inscribed pedestals survived. The Athenians maintained their control until 314 BC. and then Delos passed into the sphere of influence of the Macedonians. It should be noted that when the Macedonians took control, the island began to flourish as a trading center, as it had the perfect location to facilitate trade with Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor.

After the death of Alexander the Great, the Aegean was shaken for almost forty years by the wars of the ambitious generals who succeeded him. In 314 BC. Antigonus declared Greece free and announced a return to the policy of Alexander's democratic government.

His fleet reached the Aegean, where the islands of Lemnos, Imvros, and Delos had already revolted against Athens and the Cyclades against Kassandros. Athens still retained the glamor of a cultural center but was now a city in decline that played no essential role in political developments.

Antigonus and his son Demetrios the Besieger founded the Common of the Islanders with a religious center in Delos, which was declared free and independent. From the middle of the 3rd century BC, the sacred island of Apollo became an important commercial center, with the establishment of wealthy businessmen and bankers. From 168 BC. Delos, like the rest of Greece, would gradually come under the control of Rome.

The island was declared a free port -ie duty-free port-, resulting in the relocation of wealthy Roman merchants and shipowners, as well as people from all over the Mediterranean. During those times, Delos became the center of the slave trade. It is estimated that around 90 BC. this small island, which is just a dot on the map of the Mediterranean, was home to about 30,000 people.

From the votive inscriptions and burial monuments of Rhenia it seems that apart from the Athenians and Romans, who constituted the majority of the population, Delos was inhabited by people from the Peloponnese, central and western Greece, Macedonia, the Aegean islands, the Thrace, and the Black Sea, the Taurus Peninsula, Troy, Mysia, Aeolida, Ionia, Lydia, Caria, Lycia, Bithynia, Paphlagonia, Pontus, Cappadocia, Pisidia, Pamphylia Cilicia, Syria, Media, Cyprus, Egypt, Kyrenia, and Arabia, among other regions.

However, from 88 BC until 69 BC, the island was destroyed and looted twice: in 88 BC. by Eupator King of Pontus Mithridates, who chose this way to damage the power and prestige of sovereign Rome. And in 69 BC. by the pirates of Athenodorus, an ally of Mithridates. Until then, such a thing was unthinkable among the Greeks.

The Romans after the catastrophe understood that the sanctity of the island is not enough to stop the intrigues and surrounded the main part of the city. The island, however, had permanently lost its sacred character, despite the efforts of Emperor Hadrian to revive the sacred atmosphere and awe of the festivities.

The period of decline was characterized by the fact that the Athenians wanted to sell the island, but no buyer could be found. In the first Christian centuries, the settlement of the island shrank and Delos become "invisible" once again. What was left of the old glory was looted in a series of successive catastrophes: in 727 AD. by the iconoclastic emperor of Byzantium Leo Isavros, in 769 AD. by the Slavs, and in 821 AD. by the Saracens. 

Delos was no more than a vast ruin. Throughout the Middle Ages, it served the surrounding islands exclusively as a place of supply of building materials, while it was transformed into a huge lime kiln, where marble monuments and sculptures melted for the production of lime. Nowadays, the entire island is a world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Reasons to visit the charming island of Delos

The archaeological site of Delos - credits: exploringworldsoldandnew.com

  1. It’s a breath away from cosmopolitan Mykonos. As a result, you can enrich your Greek holidays with a cultured visit that is a departure from the typical activities one would typically indulge in while visiting the ‘queen of the Cyclades.’
  2. It is tightly connected to Greek Mythology. From the moment you step foot on the historic island, a whole world of ancient excellence will unravel before you. There, you can see famous Greek myths and legends come to life, and breathe the same air the locales breathed thousands of years ago.
  3. It is a place where ancient Greek history is on display. Especially if you’re a history buff, you’ll be absolutely taken by it. The whole island is a majestic archaeological site that will make you awed by our country’s exceptionally extensive heritage. There, you will have the opportunity to marvel at ancient temples and monuments, while you will get to see what everyday life used to be like on the island many centuries ago.
  4. To reach Delos, you will have to sail on the shimmering waters of the Aegean on a sailing trip that will make you appreciate the beauty of Greece in all of its glory. Don’t hesitate to grab the opportunity for such an experience; you are sure to regret it if you don’t! 
  5. You’ll have the opportunity to swim in amazing deep blue waters most people don’t get to experience. Whether you dive into the sea from your boat or you reach one of the beaches nearby, it will be a swimming adventure you’ll never forget!

How to get to the archaeological site of Delos

Delos - credits: naxosyachtcharter.com

65 nautical miles from Lavrio and just 3.5 from the port of cosmopolitan Mykonos, Delos stands proud as the most important religious center but also one of the largest ports of the ancient Greek world.

You can reach the island of Delos by the boats that depart from the old port of Mykonos daily, except on Mondays, at 9.00, 10.00, and 11.00 in the morning, and return at 12.15, 13.30 and 15.00. Boats to Delos also leave from Tinos, Paros, and Naxos, however, not regularly.

Staying on the island outside the opening hours of the archeological site -8.30-15.00- is prohibited. The return ticket costs 15 euros. Admission to the archeological site is 5 euros for adults and 3 euros for children and the elderly over 65 years. 

A canteen next to the museum sells water, soft drinks, and snacks, but also souvenirs! It also has some tables, but it is not located in a shady place where you can relax. Shade in Delos is nowhere to be found; there is only sun and light! Unsurprisingly, sunglasses, hats, and sneakers are considered essential for your trip there.

How to explore the archaeological site of Delos

The archaeological site of Delos - credits: journeygreece.com

Delos, as a sacred place where there were magnificent buildings and shrines, was never forgotten, and there are many reports to travelers about the ruins that were visible on the island.

Many sculptures were transferred to museums in Greece and abroad, while marbles from ancient buildings were used as building material by the inhabitants of the surrounding islands.

The archaeological site of Delos re-emerged from obscurity only in the 19th century, while excavations began in 1873 by the French Archaeological School of Athens and the Greek Archaeological Service.

From 1904 to 1914, the most important parts of ancient Delos were discovered under the direction of M. Holleaux and thanks to the generous grant of the Duke de Loubat. There was also a period of intense excavation activity from 1958 to 1975.

The excavation is still going on by the Hellenic Archaeological Service and the French Archaeological School, but the center of religious, political, and commercial life, as well as many private residences, has already been discovered.

The Archaeological Museum of Delos is one of the most important archaeological museums in Greece. The museum has collected rich finds from excavations carried out by the French Archaeological School for over a century.

The exhibits are of rare beauty and archaeological value, such as sculptures, vases, inscriptions, and mosaics. Especially important is the museum's rich collection of sculptures from the early archaic period to the Roman years.

Many bases of bronze statues have been saved in the archeological site of Delos, which unfortunately could not withstand the wear and tear of time. The museum has 9 rooms, where the exhibits are placed chronologically and thematically. 

The history of the island goes far beyond the era to which most visitors refer when talking about "ancient Greece" -the golden age of Pericles- and geographically far beyond the borders of the Athenian alliance of the Cyclades. A fact that implies the coexistence of early Cycladic, classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Syrian, and other monuments in the largest archaeological site of Greece.

The tour starts from the Agora of the Combatalists, a large open square right next to the holy port, on the north side of which are the Stoa of Philip and a small Ionian temple which the "king of the Macedonians dedicates to Apollo," as informed by relevant inscription.

Given the importance - and consequently, the number of visitors - of the island throughout the classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, the construction of temples and other monuments in Delos was a maximum show of strength and wealth for the city or the people who undertook the work, hence and the great variety of origins of the tributes - which include monuments of the Delians, the Naxians, the Italians, the Syrians, and others, such as the temples to the Egyptian gods.

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The route continues, passing through the Agora of Delia, to the Sanctuary of Apollo, the center of the religious worship on the island. Behind this, the most photographed monument of Delos, the Lions' Andros, creates, perhaps more intensely than any other part of the island, awe the visitor.

Even though the marble lions, a tribute of the Naxians to Phoebus, are exact copies of the originals, dating from the 7th century BC. century and are kept in the museum of Delos, their imposing figures, gazing at the east in an eternal roar, give the feeling of an eerie sanctity in the space that has a wicked sacred way to it.

The step has become slower as you continue the tour to the now-dried lake. A palm tree rises arrogantly next to it, contributing the most incongruous image to a landscape already loaded with contrasts: white marbles press on granite slabs, colorful mosaics adorn stone courtyards, and red amphorae emerge among weeds baked under the hive.  

Opposite the sacred lake stand the all-white columns of one of the most well-preserved monuments, the Club of the Pyridonians of Beirut - shipowners, bankers, and merchants from Beirut - which dates from the 2nd century BC. century and includes temples dedicated to Poseidon and Hercules, among others.

From here, the two branches of the route lead from one to the Stadium, the High School, and the Hippodrome, and from the other to the Theater District.

The Museum of Delos

Delos Museum - credits: realgreekexperiences.com

Among the exhibits of the Delos Museum, you will find the findings of the excavations that took place in the archaeological site of Delos and that have not been transferred to the Archaeological Museum of Athens, the Louvre, the British Museum, Venice, and the rest of Europe.

Perhaps the most important find of the excavations, the lions of Delos, are all housed in a bluish, elongated room with two rows of windows - skylights on the two side walls, except for one, which adorns a square in Venice. Entry into this inspired room is forbidden. The visitor has visual contact with the imposing lions from the side, as they stand in the narrow opening of the narrow and long hall.

For the record, the exhibits - which include statues from the Archaic, Classical, and Roman periods, ceramics and objects from everyday life, as well as mosaic floors from the Hellenistic period - are particularly interesting and of great historical importance, showcasing the cultural heritage of the island and the whole country. You will need about half an hour to see all the rooms in the museum.

The Theater District

delos getyourguideThe archaeological site of Delos - credits: getyourguide.com

The best attraction -in our opinion- of the archeological site of Delos and the entire island is the silver-gray granite alleys that go up to the ancient theatre.

To their right and left, monuments, including the House of Dionysus, the House of Masks, and the House of the Dolphins, are decorated with beautiful, colorful, extremely well-preserved mosaic floors, most of which depict Dionysus on a panther.

At the end of the uphill road, the stone theater with a capacity of 5,500 spectators dating from the 3rd BC century - and which was built to replace a wooden, earlier theater - is only partially preserved. More impressive is the Minoan Fountain, right next to it.

This is the public reservoir carved into the rock in the second half of the 6th century BC. century, which supplied most of the island with water.  

If you have practiced your endurance in the sun, you will climb the stairs that lead to the highest point of the island, the "mountain" Kynthos - the altitude of which does not exceed 113 meters.

On the way, you will meet the sanctuaries of foreign gods (Syrian, Egyptian, and Gods of Samothrace). At the top, you will be rewarded for the climb with the panoramic view of the surrounding islands and the clear blue waters that shimmer under the light that right now, up here, you would take an oath that comes directly from the crown of a god leading a chariot with winged horses.

The best beaches to swim nearby

Aerial view of the sea of Delos - credits: athenstourgreece.com

Delos is not all about Greece's cultural heritage, archaeological sites, and sacred way, it also has amazing beaches for your swimming endeavors and neighboring islands full of beauty. You can dive at Fourni Beach, which you will reach if you follow for about 15 minutes the relatively inaccessible path that starts on the right of the port as you look inland.

Some of you may not even know its existence, but the nearby island of Rhenia is known to the people of Mykonos as it is separated from Delos by a small strait. Its characteristic is its secluded and, at the same time, uniquely beautiful beaches.

To visit these beaches, named Glyfada, Stena, Lia, and Ampelia, you must go by boat unless you are on a cruise already. The sea has a turquoise color that changes as you approach the shore. It is good to start in the morning, to enjoy your swim, the sun and your walk around the coast.

Of course, the best way to visit Delos and swim in the gorgeous water nearby is by joining our Mykonos Full-Day Sailing: Delos Guided Tour & Rhenia Swimming alone or with your family and friends.

Final Thoughts

If you visit Greece, the Cyclades, and especially Mykonos, with its great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port, you should definitely visit this small island that is considered an earthly paradise for those who appreciate Greek history, its archaeological sites, and its cultural heritage, as well as the crystal-clear waters of the Aegean sea.

Sail to Delos, get acquainted with its religious significance in ancient times as far back as the 2nd century, and let the magical world of ancient Greece sweep you off of your feet!

Our Tailor-Made Trip Planning
Hop on a quick call with a local expert from our team
Receive a tailor-made itinerary for your journey
Fine-tune the details and you're ready to go

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I get to Delos?

What are the opening hours of the archaeological site of Delos?

Is there an entrance fee to visit Delos?

Can I explore Delos on my own, or do I need a guide?

Are there any restrictions or rules for visitors on Delos?

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