Hiking to Greece’s Majestic Meteora Monasteries

The monasteries of Meteora, Greece exhibit an impressive blend of natural and human-made beauty. Incredibly, some of these Eastern-Orthodox monasteries have crowned the tops of Meteora’s otherworldly rock formations for more than 700 years.

Monks who were trying to escape persecution originally built 24 monasteries in this part of central Greece. Over the centuries, weather and neglect took their toll on many of the structures, leaving only six active monasteries today. The remaining inactive monasteries are either closed to the public or in ruin.

In 1988, UNESCO inscribed the Meteora monasteries on its World Heritage List.

In an age of sophisticated building equipment, it’s easy to take the construction of Meteora’s monasteries for granted. Yet, imagine how difficult it was to carry the building materials to the peak of these rock formations centuries ago. On average, the tops of the formations are 300 meters (1,000 feet) high!

Also, consider the challenges monks would have faced in getting themselves up to the monasteries. Today, many of the monasteries can be reached by staircases. However originally, many of Meteora’s monks rode up in nets. Perhaps they relied on their faith to banish any terrifying thoughts that the rope on which their lives depended might break.

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The Great Meteoron Monastery.

When we set out to see Meteora’s magnificent monasteries for the first time, Shawn and I took the traditional approach – on foot. As we began our journey, we met a few creatures, including a tortoise and a viper snake. Eventually, we spotted a few of the monasteries holding court high above us. We wanted to continue exploring, but we were uncertain which path to take. Since the evening hours were quickly approaching, we decided to turn back.

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Stunning mountain scenery and patchwork quilt-like tracts of land.

The next day, we met George, our energetic tour guide from Visit Meteora. It was an overcast morning, but George led the way and took us off the beaten path as only a local can do. Together, we passed a colorful cluster of wooden beehives, a shepherd and his flock, and a small prayer shrine.

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A kaleidoscope of wooden beehives.
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Goats graze.
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A mushroom emerges from a bed of last year’s leaves.

Soon, the clouds burned off. This change in weather exposed aquamarine skies, patchwork quilt-like tracts of land, and snow-capped mountains. Eventually, we wandered away from the rock formations a bit. Here, the landscape was filled with an abundance of wildflowers, a shag-like carpet of moss, and mushrooms. We encountered geckos, as well as a parade of insects. Included in that bug procession were everything from tank-like beetles and mammoth wasps to alien-faced grasshoppers and industrious ants.

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Shag-like moss.
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As we wound underneath an oak tree’s branches, we spotted a monastery that most visitors to Meteora never see – the Ypapanti Monastery. It doesn’t sit atop rock formations. Instead, it appears to be clinging to the side of one. George explained that the Ypapanti Monastery is one of several monasteries that is no longer active. It’s currently closed to the public.

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The Ypapanti Monastery.
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Shawn and me.

Hiking a bit farther, we approached an odd landscape. It took a bit of time until we realized that we were actually now walking on top of some rock formations. Sections of the rocky tops were smooth, whereas other parts were carpeted with straw-colored grass. George stopped to add a rock to a cairn or makeshift tower, a custom that we’d later see practiced on hiking trails elsewhere in the country.

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Shawn and George walking atop one of the rock formations.
One of many makeshift rock towers created by hikers.
One of many makeshift rock towers created by hikers.

Like children seeking to find familiar shapes in the clouds, Shawn and I tried to make out faces and shapes in the rugged rocks. Eventually, we just let our minds rest so that we could take in the serenity of the landscape. Birds soared overhead and flitted from one precarious boulder top to another. We were the only people in sight.

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As we continued our trek, we caught glimpses of three additional monasteries. At this point, we’d been surrounded by nature for the past few hours. As a result, it was jarring to now see tour buses whizzing by, and visitors being hurried from monastery to monastery.

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The Holy Monastery of Varlaam.
The Holy Monastery of Varlaam.
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On the stairway leading toward the Great Meteoron Monastery, we glimpsed thousands of caterpillars rappelling down from the trees, building chrysalises. It seemed fitting that the insects swung on silk cords, not far from where monks once rode up to the monastery in a rope basket.

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Caterpillars’ silken cords swaying in the breeze. In past centuries, monks rode up in a rope basket from this tower-like structure. Today, the lift is only used for the delivery of food and supplies.

Several caterpillars tried to stow away with us during the hike down to the village of Kastraki. On the way back, we saw the ruins of monasteries that once graced the tops of the boulders. We even saw two adventure seekers climbing the rugged rocks.

George gave us the option of touring some of the monasteries’ interiors, but we decided to save them for the next day. We then wove our way down a well-shaded trail back to our home away from home, on paths covered by twisted roots. Occasionally, we caught a glimpse of the majestic monasteries, which were now high above us.

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A monastery’s ruins. Centuries ago, there were more than 20 monasteries built upon Meteora’s unusual formations.
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A pair of rock climbers cling to one of the supposedly more-accessible formations.
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Video of this Experience:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Meteora is about 4 hours northwest of Athens. To get there, we traveled by bus from Skopje, North Macedonia. (We departed Skopje before sunrise, then journeyed to Thessaloniki, Trikala, and Kalambaka, all in one day. We bought separate bus tickets for each leg of the journey.)
  • It can be easy to get lost when hiking in the remote wooded areas around the Meteora Monasteries. Be sure you have a good map, or consider hiring a guide to find those less-trodden paths.
  • The weather was sizzling-hot during our springtime visit, and we were happy to have packed ample water and snacks. It’s possible to purchase refreshments near some of the more popular monasteries, but because the hike can be long, I recommend bringing your own.
  • Be sure to check the opening hours for the monasteries that you’re hoping to visit. A different monastery is closed each day to allow the monks a workday without visitors. Visit Meteora is a useful planning resource, and we also enjoyed stopping by the agency’s office in Kalambaka. With a helpful team of staff members on hand, free Wifi, great reading material about the local attractions, and cozy chairs available to the public, it’s a one-stop shop.
  • Visit the Kalambaka Tourist Center website for information about the monasteries, as well as other activities that you can do in Meteora.
  • Accommodation wise, we stayed at the cozy Guesthouse Patavalis (affiliate link) in the village of Kastraki. The hotel’s owner, Marina, whom we dubbed our ‘Greek mama’, surprised us with samples of tasty, home-cooked Greek food like spanakopita, candied figs, and milk custard pie. In total, we spent about a week at the Guesthouse Patavalis, staying in its Purple Room. We enjoyed the property’s terrace views of the surrounding rock formations, and its convenient location. It made a great hub for exploring some of Meteora’s monasteries.
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Greece.

Disclosure & Thanks:

Visit Meteora hosted us for this hiking adventure.

ευχαριστώ πολύ/ A big thank you to George for guiding us. We loved getting off-the-beaten path with you, hearing your insights about these magnificent monasteries and learning more about Greek culture.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. The video is a creation of my husband, Shawn.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and a co-founder of Eloquence. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta, as well as Heidelberg, Germany. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Though they are currently nomadic, they look forward to establishing a European home someday. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

33 thoughts on “Hiking to Greece’s Majestic Meteora Monasteries

  1. This is another great travel story Tricia. We have not been to mainland Greece, unless you count Lefkas, which is joined to the mainland. It was on Lefkas many years ago that we also witnessed the springtime mass caterpillar abseil. What puzzled us was that once they hit the ground beneath the cliff, they seemed to make for the sea.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it David, thank you. It sounds like many travelers to Greece head straight for the islands, missing the mainland. It’s a shame because Meteora’s monasteries and the region are beautiful – mountains, rolling hills, and wonderful wildlife.

      What an interesting caterpillar observation! I wonder if it was an illusion, or if they were somehow drawn to the water?

  2. Fantastic experience, Tricia! About all I have in common with this is that when we’re out walking we always put another pebble on top if we see one of these little cairns. I don’t know where the practise originated. Loved the post. :)

    1. Thanks for giving a name to the rocky mounds, Jo. Come to think of it, I’ve also seen cairns elsewhere, just cannot recall where. Wikipedia has more on the practice here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairn

      On a side note, we resumed our morning walks today. We’re trying to get fit to climb one of the local peaks here in Oberammergau. I hope my fear of heights won’t get the best of me!

      Are you in a spot that allows you to hike out to nature often?

      1. The Yorkshire Moors are 40mins away, but I was out walking the local denes this morning. Not so dramatic but still pretty scenery, and the coast always there. :)

      2. Sounds quite serene, Jo. A branch of my mother’s family originated from Yorkshire, and so I’ve long wanted to visit that part of England. I wonder if you’re familiar with some of the place names. I’ll have to dig them up…

  3. Really interesting Tricia – never heard of these. So cool the way the tuck into the rocks and imagining how they were built is mind-boggling. Thanks for sharing

    1. A former colleague told me about Meteora many years ago, and ever since I’ve been intrigued to visit this part of Greece. Meteora wasn’t the easiest to get to from our starting point in Macedonia, so we debated diverting there, but I’m so glad we made the trip. Spending the week there has been one of my travel highlights!

    1. We were lucky to stay near Meteora for about a week, Phil, and never really lost that sense of wonder for the monasteries or the dramatic rocks. Our little guesthouse had a terrace that overlooked them and each day, we’d watch storms rolling in, new rock climbers attempting a climb, or brilliant sunsets. It’s a special place.

  4. I am in awe of how people even considered building anything on these virtually inaccessible rock formations. I can conceive of a small cabin, but a huge monastery?! I wonder how many people worked on any given monastery and how long it took them to complete such a structure… some people may have worked on these for an entire lifetime?
    Thanks for your enjoyable write-up.

    1. We had the same questions; I can only imagine how much more dramatic that area looked when there were more than 20 monasteries!

      In several of the monastery chapels, frescoes depict the torture that some believers encountered, illustrating why the monks decided to build in such unreachable locations. It’s hard to believe that monks regularly rode up in nets until the early 20th century, when stairs were carved out of the rock.

    1. I agree. I’d love to find a documentary that illustrates how the building materials were carried up, hundreds of years ago, Marilyn. We also found it interesting just imagining the logistics of getting food/supplies brought there before the staircases were built in more recent times.

    1. Thank you so much, Carol. I couldn’t either! During one of our hikes, we watched as a washing machine, or some large appliance, was being delivered via pulley. Hard to imagine them constructing these hundreds of years ago, with less primitive equipment than we have today…

  5. Beautiful post, Tricia. You also end it with valuable suggestions about planning such a trek. These monasteries are incredible and your photos illustrate that. I would much rather have a guide than be on that tour bus. :)

    1. Lynne, now on the day that the viper snake crossed just in front of me on the hiking path, perhaps I would’ve preferred to have been on a bus. :) Our guide was surprised that we saw it during our solo hike, as he’d never encountered one before.

  6. Wonderful travelogue! !! Planning to visit Meteora this May. Do you have the contact details of the guide you hired?
    Thank you
    Apu

    1. Glad you enjoyed the travelogue, Apu. We had an incredible time exploring Meteora, and we hope your trip will be just as memorable. We also went in May, and the weather was beautiful – the flowers were coming alive, the berry trees were producing fruit, and it wasn’t yet too hot.

      We partnered with the travel agency, Visit Meteora, for this post. Co-owners George and Angelina were our guides. You can find more details about their offerings here: http://www.visitmeteora.travel/ and their email address is: info@visitmeteora.travel

      Safe travels, and please tell them Tricia & Shawn said hello! :)

      1. Thank you so much Tricia. Will book through their website and surely say hello from your side when I meet them :-). Thanks again. Keep up the awesome work. It’s your blog that inspired me to visit Meteora :-)

      2. My pleasure, Apu. I’m glad that we helped sway you towards beautiful Meteora. I’d love to return someday and explore even more of the area. Some of the neighboring villages also sounded like they had a lot to offer.

        And, if you’re interested in watching how Orthodox icons are made, see if you can stop by this artisan’s cozy little shop, which is in Kastraki. It was just a few minutes away on foot from the guesthouse where we stayed: https://triciaannemitchell.com/2013/05/22/exploring-the-mysticism-of-greeces-byzantine-icons-profiling-iconographer-dimitrios-moulas/

        Happy travels!

  7. I have been to Meteora many times. The landscape is obviously breath taking. What is not so well known are the frescoes depicting scenes of early Christians being brutally tortured. This is mentioned in the comments of this post. These frescoes twisted my stomach, and they offer an explanation for the monks building there.

    1. Volos Taxi Service, indeed, I remember seeing some of those unpleasant frescoed-scenes that you describe. What was especially fascinating to me were the vintage drawings/photographs of monks riding up in the rope basket – a true test of faith.

      Despite it being a bit of a logistical challenge to get to Meteora, I’m so glad we did it, particularly during the late-spring months. It’s a beautiful part of the world.

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