Delos Island

Overview

Introduction

In 400 BC, Delos, Greece, was considered so sacred that no one could be born or buried there. The Athenians who ruled the island believed that it was where Leto gave birth to twins Apollo and Artemis (fathered by Zeus).

Located in the center of the Cycladic Islands, 125 mi/200 km southeast of Athens, the mostly barren Delos flourished as a trading center from 400-100 BC. Elaborate temples and shrines were built to honor Apollo and other gods. But after the island was sacked and its inhabitants massacred in 80 BC, Delos was abandoned until the past century—when it was recognized as a national archaeological site. It is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

Today, the tiny, uninhabited island attracts thousands of visitors, most of whom arrive by excursion boat from nearby Mykonos. Since Delos can only be reached by water, you can sign up for a guided tour or take a taxi-boat to the island and wander around on your own. We recommend a tour or, at least, a good guidebook to explain what you're seeing. The archaeological ruins are widely scattered and there's little signage.

There's plenty to see on the island. Managed by the Greek government, there are some impressive artifacts interspersed between patches of brightly colored wildflowers. The best known is the Terrace of the Lions, a row of marble beasts guarding the Sacred Lake where Apollo was born. Nearby is the Sanctuary of Apollo, a temple dedicated to the sun god.

Don't skip the residential areas—some of the most arresting sites are there. The House of Dionysus contains a mosaic of a god riding a panther. Visitors to the House of Cleopatra are greeted by the headless statues of the owners. If you look carefully beneath what was the center of a large theater, you'll see a cistern that supplied water to the houses.

Take time to explore the entire site, but don't leave without at least walking through the museum. Though most of Delos' best artifacts are housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the island museum contains several statues and mosaics of note, as well as a model of what the city must have looked like at its peak. If you have any energy left, climb to the top of Mount Kythnos for an overview.

Boats to Delos leave from Mykonos early in the morning and return before 3 pm, which is when the island closes to outside visitors. There are no overnight facilities on this island, which is inhabited only by the keepers of the archaeological site. The island is closed to visitors on Monday.

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