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This is one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever visited—and I’ve visited a lot of places. The monasteries of Meteora—and those imposing rock formations peeking through mist—are incredible. When you visit Meteora, you have the chance to see something unlike anything else in the world and this counts as one of my favorite experiences in Greece.
When people think of Greece, they often think of the Acropolis, or of white buildings on islands in the Aegean. The pillars and monasteries of Meteora should also be considered one of the most iconic images of Greece. This spot is one of the nearly 20 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Greece, recognized for its artistic achievement of extraordinary monastic construction in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Read on for a full guide to visiting Meteora—the best way to get there, history of the monasteries in the region, why monasteries to visit, navigating weather, and more.
Meteora is a cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site in Greece. This property was added to the UNESCO list in 1988 and is located in Thessaly, Greece. This region’s rock formations are home to the largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in the region. Six monasteries that make up the Meteora UNESCO site—all of them are built on hill-like, rounded boulders and pillars that overlook the local region.
These unique columns of rock are located beside the Pindos Mountains in Greece and the rock columns rise from the ground and are among the most unique UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The World Heritage inscription for Meteora details more about why the monasteries represent such a fascinating and unique contribution to the world:
‘Suspended in the air’ (the meaning of Meteora in Greek), these monasteries represent a unique artistic achievement and are one of the most powerful examples of the architectural transformation of a site into a place of retreat, meditation, and prayer. The Meteora provide an outstanding example of the types of monastic construction which illustrate a significant stage in history, that of the 14th and 15th centuries when the eremitic ideals of early Christianity were restored to a place of honor by monastic communities, both in the Western world (in Tuscany, for example) and in the Orthodox Church. …
The monasteries are built on rock pinnacles of deltaic origin, known as Meteora, which rise starkly over 400 m above the Peneas valley and the small town of Kalambaka on the Thessalian plain. Chemical analysis suggests that the pinnacles were created some 60 million years ago in the Tertiary period, emerging from the cone of a river and further transformed by earthquakes. The Meteora are enormous residual masses of sandstone and conglomerate which appeared through fluvial erosion. Seismic activity increased the number of fault lines and fissures and hewed the shapeless masses into individual sheer rock columns. Hermits and ascetics probably began settling in this extraordinary area in the 11th century. In the late 12th century a small church called the Panaghia Doupiani or Skete was built at the foot of one of these ‘heavenly columns’, where monks had already taken up residence.
History of Meteora & the Monasteries
Meteora is a nearly inaccessible UNESCO site that was built in the 11th century. These sandstone peaks are home to one of Greece’s most recognizable features and cultural sites. Monks have lived in the so-called “columns of the sky” since the 11th century, and 24 monasteries in total make up the site of Meteora. The geological difficulties of these rock columns are part of the indescribable challenge of building these monasteries.
Prior to the building of monasteries in Meteora, the caves were inhabited about 50,000 to 5,000 years ago. A stone wall that served to block the entrance to Theopetra Cave was the first known man-made structure in the region, constructed about 23,000 years ago. Many believed that the stone wall was built to protect the cave settlers from the cold winds.
The monks first made their way to Meteora in the 11th century and they occupied the caverns in Meteora during this time. The 24 monasteries that stood at the current UNESCO site were not built until in the 14th century. The monks needed a place to hide and live in in the face of the Turkish attacks in Greece. During this time, the monks were able to access the monasteries through windlass or removable ladders. Today, steps make access to the monasteries a bit easier—the steps were built in the 1920s.
How to Visit Meteora Monasteries
There are 24 monasteries within the the Meteora UNESCO World Heritage Site, however, only six of these 24 monasteries are still functioning today. Even that, however, is precarious as each monastery houses fewer than 10 people. I don’t recommend taking one of the day tours from Athens or Thessaloniki unless it’s absolutely necessary—you should instead spend a minimum of one night in Kalambaka. Once you’re in Kalambaka, day tours to the rock formations and monasteries is a good option here are three you should consider, depending on your interests:
- Private Meteora Tour with Transport from Kalambaka
- Group Hiking in Magnificent Meteora
- Sunset Meteora Photo Tour
Plan to spend at least one full day in the area visiting monasteries and taking photos. I spent three days taking photos, and it was well worth it. The weather was different each day, which made for great photography, and if you’re interested in seeing the range of beauty in different weather, you’ll need the flexibility a few days here will give you. If this is a once in a lifetime trip for you, consider our Travel Photography Academy, which teaches the basics and the advanced of taking better photos.
Below is a list of the six key Meteora monasteries that you will likely want to see and visit from Kalambaka:
Monastery of Great Meteoron
This is the largest of all the six monasteries that are still functioning in Meteora. As of 2015, this monastery only housed three monks. It was built in the mid-14th century and has undergone numerous restorations from the late 15th to the mid-16th century. One building in this monastery is open for tourists as a museum. This is the most popular of all the of monasteries in the area, and it’s surely one that you’ll want to visit. If you’re organizing the trip from Kalambaka, the Panoramic Meteora and all Monasteries Tour from Kalabaka visits the Monastery of Great Meteoron, as well as other key ones.
Monastery of Varlaám
Varlaámis the second largest monastery in Meteora and is just behind Great Meteoron in the number of tourist it receives. In 2015, this was the monastery that had the most number of monks in residence: seven. The monastery was built in 1541 and was decorated in 1548.
Monastery of St. Barbara
Established in the mid-16th century, the Monastery of St. Barbara (Rousanoú) was fully decorated by 1560. It’s used as a nunnery and serves as the residence of 13 nuns.
Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas
The pretty Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas (Áyios Nikólaos Anapafsás) was built in the 16th century and it comes with a small church that was decorated by artist Theophanis Strelitzas. As of 2015, only one monk resides in this monastery. This monastery is just a kilometer from Kastraki, so you could hike here in the morning one day for dramatic days.
Monastery of St. Stephen
This small church was founded and built in the 16th century—it’s one of the rare monasteries in Meteora that is built on a plain rather than on a cliff, making it accessible by a footbridge rather than steps. The Monastery of St. Stephen (Áyios Stéfanos) was turned over to the nuns in 1961 and has been reconstructed into a full functioning nunnery with up to 28 nuns residing here.
Monastery of (Holy Trinity)
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity (Ayía Triáda) is located on top of a cliff and was built in late 15th century. It underwent remodeling in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are four monks that lived in this monastery as of 2015.
How to Get to Meteora
The town of Kalambaka (also spelled Kalabaka) lies below Meteora, and this where most people stay when they visit. While cruise ship passengers do venture to Meteora by bus, this isn’t really an easy day trip from anywhere and I don’t recommend taking one. You should not travel to Meteora independently unless you plan to stay overnight, otherwise it really save you any money or hassle on a solo day trip, mostly because public transportation only gets you to Kalambaka, which is not Meteora, you will still have to get to the monasteries once you arrive. Meteora day tours from your town of choice are the best option, or you can drive yourself if you’re up for the challenge of driving in Greece.
By Train from Athens or Thessaloniki
It’s easy to catch a train from Athens to Kalambaka—which is the closest train stop to Meteora—and the journey lasts about four hours and costs 25 to 30 Euros. Trains from Thessaloniki leave from the New Railway Station (Neos Sidirodromikos Stathmos), or from If you simply can’t stay overnight in Kalambaka, then I highly recommend not trying to organize this day trip independently as you just won’t get as much out of the experience. Instead, this Athens to Meteora In-a-Day Rail Tour offers all of the highlights with a guide who will ensure you see the very best on offer.
By Bus from Athens or Thessaloniki
Buses are an easy way to get to either site, although the train is likely better from both cities (the journey is faster, safer, and easier). It’s three hours each way from Thessaloniki (you’ll have to take a bus to Trikala and switch there to a bus to Kalambaka) and nearly five hours each way from Athens. Again, if you decide to visit the monasteries of Meteora as a day trip then you really should book a tour, otherwise you’ll spend the bulk of your day just trying to figure out where to go: The Meteora All Day Tour From Athens and Meteora Monasteries Day Trip from Thessaloniki are both good options.
Where to Stay Near Meteora
Kalambaka and Kastraki have great accommodation for every budget level. Kalambaka is the main town and has the bulk of everything: accomodation, food, tours, and tourists. Kastraki is just two kilometers away and is a charming conservation village with breathtaking views.
- Grand Meteora Hotel: A gorgeous spot in Kastraki that won’t disappoint if you have a mid-range budget.
- Hotel Doupiani House: A mid-range option with a great breakfast buffet.
- Alsos House: A perfect option in Kalambaka for those on a budget.
- Hotel Kosta Famissi: Another budget option full of charm and good views.
- Pyrgos Adrachti: More of a splurge budget in Kastraki, but with just stunning views.
What to Pack
- Guidebook: Fodor’s Essential Greece is the best guidebook choice for most travelers. The Lonely Planet Greece is a go-to for most budget travelers, but the Fodor’s guide does a particularly better job in Greece.
- Clothes: Women must wear skirts to enter the monasteries—you can use provided cover ups if you’re not appropriately attired. Otherwise, bring study shoes since you’ll need to hike to visit most of the monasteries.
- Travel Adapter: Don’t leave on your trip without a travel adapter. This Glamfield one is my favorite: It features three USB chargers, USB-C, and it works in Greece, and most other countries too! If you’re looking for a lower profile adapter, however, you can’t go wrong with this one (I usually carry both!).
- Travel Insurance: Meteora is a remote area, as are many of the top sights you’ll visit when traveling throughout Greece—World Nomads is a top choice and covers medical evacuation, theft of belongings, and so much more.
Read next: Visiting the Archaeological Site of Delphi
View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Greece.
View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.