Crowning the rocks of the Kalambaka region in Greece, the hanging monasteries of Meteora are a place like no other. A centre of spirituality for centuries, visiting this UNESCO Heritage Site is a must in any trip to the Hellenic Republic.
During my stay in Thessaloniki, I took an incredible day tour to Meteora with Ammon Express. Read more to discover with me this unique site with breathtaking landscapes!
how to visit Meteora
The most convenient option to visit Meteora is booking an organised day trip. For my visit, I decided to take the Meteora day tour from Thessaloniki with Ammon Express. My visit included round-trip transportation from the city centre, as well as an English speaking trip attendant-archaeologist. The entrance fee to the monasteries is paid separately, and lunch is not included.
Ammon Express is a local tour operator offering day visits both from Thessaloniki and Athens. The visit to Meteora is only available from Thessaloniki, however, if you’re visiting the Greek capital and want to check them out, they have day trips leaving from Athens to different sites on the Peloponnese Peninsula and some near-by islands.
Overall, I had a fantastic trip with Ammon Express: the itinerary, transportation and guide were of the highest quality. I also took tour with them to Pella and Vergina the previous day and the experience was fantastic. I’m just hoping to go back to Greece and book some of their other day tours!
If you prefer visiting on your own, although it can be tricky to visit Meteora as a day trip using public transport, there are some options if you organise well.
The monasteries are located right next to the town of Kalambaka, so you’ll have a few different alternatives to get there.
1) From Thessaloniki:
If leaving from Thessaloniki, you can get a direct train from Thessaloniki’s train station to Kalambaka, which is the closest station to the monasteries.
You can also go by bus, but it requires a change. You will first need to take the bus from Thessaloniki bus station to Trikala, which will take you 2h30m, and once in Trikala take another bus to Kalambaka.
2) From Athens:
A similar option is available from Athens. If travelling by train, you can depart from Athens Larissa station (on the red line of the metro) to Kalambaka. The journey takes almost 5 hours.
If you decide to travel by bus, you can leave from Athens Liosion bus station (on the green line of the metro) to Trikala, a 4h30m journey. From Trikala, take another bus to Kalambaka.
Once you’ve reached Kalambaka, there are frequent public buses that leave from the town to the monasteries. You can check schedules and buy train tickets from the Train OSE website, as well as bus tickets from the KTEL of Trikala SA site.
History of Meteora
The complex of Meteora is composed of massive stone pillars rising from the Pindus mountains, near the town of Kalambaka. On their top are placed six active monasteries, which makes Meteora the second most important monastic community in Greece outside of Mount Athos.
These rocky formations were created over 60 million years ago due to the constant blow of wind and waves, which formed these unique shapes.
But it wasn’t until the Byzantine period in the 12th century that the monks decided to establish the Meteora monasteries on top of these rock formations.
Some of these monasteries were so isolated that they could only be accessed with scaffolds or by climbing the rocks. With the centuries, this method developed to using ropes and nets with hooks, and even a basket that was pulled all the way up by the monks.
Meteora reached its peak in the 15th century, with monks from other monasteries travelling there to experience a life of retreat in this unique location. But Meteora started declining by the 17th century when many monasteries were abandoned or destructed by foreign invaders.
Nowadays, only 6 monasteries still operate. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, bringing people from all over the world to contemplate this fascinating location.
Departure & Mt. Olympos
I met my guide and the rest of the group at 8:15am on Egniata St., just at the end of Aristotelous Square in the city centre of Thessaloniki. Check out here my 2-day visit to Thessaloniki!
I chose this meeting point as it was located very close to my hotel, however, the visit offered four other stops in different touristic places and hotels all over the city.
I quickly boarded our bus, which was quite busy that morning, and started driving to the monasteries of Meteora, located in the central region of Greece, 225km away from Thessaloniki.
As we drove past the wonderful landscapes of Macedonia, we reached one of the most iconic places in Greece, Mount Olympus. The highest mountain of Greece with an elevation of 2919m, Mount Olympus is famous for being the home of the Greek gods, according to Greek mythology.
We reached Meteora after three hours, which included a pit stop on the way. As we ascended through the mountains to reach the monasteries, impossible rock formations started to emerge from all around.
The size of these rocks is truly fascinating, it’s hard to believe that this was created over thousands of years by the actions of the wind!
Before reaching the first monastery, we stopped at a viewpoint to enjoy the wonderful surroundings, which offered views of some of the biggest monasteries on the distance.
St. Stefanos Monastery
My Ammon Express tour included different monasteries depending on the day of the week. My trip took place on a Sunday, so the first monastery that we went to was St. Stefanos Monastery. It has an entrance fee of €3.
This is one of the easiest monasteries to reach, as it can be accessed by a small bridge and doesn’t involve much climbing. The monastery dates back to the 12th century, when the first monks started their monastic life on this rock.
The monastery is composed of different religious buildings. To the southeast, there is a 16th-century chapel, used nowadays exclusively for religious purposes. You can also find the 18th-century katholikon (the main temple of the monastery), containing the holy relics of St. Charalambos.
The interior is beautifully decorated with beautiful byzantine paintings, a liturgical art that goes beyond decoration, depicting and narrating the lives of holy persons and sacred historical events of the Orthodox Faith. Unfortunately, photography inside is not allowed.
Less than 100 years ago, more than 30 monks still lived in the monastery. However, the building was severely damaged during the 20th century when the Nazis attacked it believing that it was housing insurgents.
By 1960, the place was almost abandoned until a group of nuns settled here their community. Today, 28 nuns still live here, making St. Stefanos Monastery the only female monastery of Meteora.
The monastery is located on the southern end of Meteora, right above Kalampaka. It is the only monastery in Meteora that overlooks the town.
In the middle of the complex opens a beautiful garden with breathtaking views of the valley of Thessaly, from where you can appreciate the Pindos mountain range as well as the river Pinion on the lower part of the plain.
Our second stop of the day was Varlaam Monastery, the second biggest monastery in Meteora after the Great Meteoron. It also has the largest amount of monks, seven in total, of all the monasteries occupied by men.
Contrary to St. Stefanos, accessing this monastery does involve a bit of climbing, as it is located on top of a rock that can only be reached by a set of stairs. This monastery also has an entrance fee of €3.
The monastery was founded in 1350 by Hosios Varlaam, an ascetic monk who first ascended to the rock and built three churches there, as well as a water tank and a small cell.
He was the only monk who lived in the rock, so when he died, the site remained abandoned for almost 200 years until two priests reached the rock in the 16th century and started constructing new buildings. They restored the original church and built a tower, as well as the central church (katholikon) dedicated to all the saints.
The interior of the katholikon is decorated with beautiful paintings dating to the 16th century and depicting the founders of the monastery, as well as Christ in Glory and the Last Judgment. The nave has beautiful frescos of the Virgin with the Child and different scenes of Christ’s life and passion.
The old refectory now hosts a museum with religious paintings and icons from the Renaissance period, as well as old clothes of the monks and priests.
It also contains a very interesting collection of photographies depicting how the monastery was reached with ropes and nets before the current stairs and bridge were constructed.
Before the current steps were carved in the rock in the 19th century, the monastery could only be accessed by wooden ladders that hang from the rock. Monks would jump from one ladder to another, putting at risk their own life. It wasn’t until the 16th century that they introduced a system of rope nets that the monks would pull by hand to bring materials and other monks to the top.
Just like from St. Stefanos Monastery, you will also be able to enjoy incredible views from Varlaam Monastery, including panoramic views of the Great Meteoros and Holy Trinity monasteries.
It’s said that the constructions of Meteora look like they’re hanging from the sky, and you can certainly see why: it seems impossible that those imposing monasteries can stand with such grace over those erecting stones.
After a 3 hours drive and a stop for lunch at a restaurant right next to the monastery, which offered some great local food for very affordable prices, we arrived back in Thessaloniki.
Although the monasteries may not be the most impressive buildings, their location and overall atmosphere will make a visit to Meteora an unforgettable experience. You should definitely check them out no matter where in Greece you’re travelling to!
Ammon Express invited me as a guest on this tour, but as always, all opinions are my own.