Greek Architecture

A Beginner's Guide

This beginner's guide to Greek architecture explains how to tell your Ionic from your Doric columns, and what to look for in temples and Byzantine churches.

The Acropolis and Parthenon in AthensThe Acropolis and Parthenon in Athens

If there is one artistic skill which, quite literally, towers above all others in Greek history it is that of architecture. Take one look at any of the better-preserved temples, such as the Parthenon or the Temple of Aphaia on Aígina, and you know that Ancient Greek craftsmen were masters. Greek temples were originally influenced by Egypt, but quickly took on a style and grace all their own. This was in part due to the building materials available. While the Egyptians worked in stone and created a sombre grandeur from it, the Greeks were using limestone and, later, marble, to create structures of grace and light.

Doric Columns

Doric columns in GreeceDoric Columns with No Base

If anyone knows anything at all about Greek architecture it is that there are two types of columns, Doric and Ionic, even if you cannot always remember which is which. The Doric comes from the Dorian Age, and is most easily identified because the columns do not stand on a base. They rise straight from the floor and are usually closer together than the Ionic style, giving a more claustrophobic feeling. The style spread throughout Greece and into southern Italy and Sicily, and an outstanding example – though imagination will be required today – was the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

Ionic Columns

Ionic column in GreeceIonic Column

The Ionic style comes from Ionia, the ancient name for western Asia Minor, where modern Turkey now is. Ionic columns are placed further apart and are also generally narrower than Doric columns, creating a greater sense of space on temple frontages. They are also usually placed on a small base, and their capitals are more ornate than the plain Doric style. Good examples are at Ephesus in Turkey, in the area where the name originated, and the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon in AthensThe Parthenon

The most famous piece of Greek architecture in the world, the Parthenon building on the Acropolis, combines both Doric and Ionic columns. To get a fuller sense of its original beauty, take a look at the small scale model that is in the National Archaeological Museum. To understand some of the drudgery needed to create that beauty, look at the displays about its construction in the New Acropolis Museum.

Greek Architecture: Phidias

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868) by Sir Lawrence Alma-TademaPhidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

If the workers provided the 90 percent of perspiration that is needed to produce works of art, then the architect Phidias provided the 10 percent of inspiration that is also required. Phidias was the great sculptor and architect of his day, who produced the statue of Olympian Zeus which stood in Olympia and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the giant statue of Athena Nike, which was the centerpiece of the Parthenon itself.

Byzantine Churches

Temples became churches, and the other great aspect of Greek architecture, visible from the tiniest rural village to the very centre of urban Athens, is the Byzantine church. These red-tiled buildings may be large or small, but there are certain standard elements that they all have in common. 

Byzantine Church of Osios LoukasByzantine Church of Osios Loukas

The altar in a Byzantine church is always to the east, and always concealed behind the screen known as the iconostasis. In front of this there are three main aisles, and above the central aisle in the largest open part of the church is the main dome. This is invariably decorated with a painting of Christ Pantokrator, or Christ in Judgement, gazing down unremittingly on the congregation beneath. 

Another icon of Christ will usually be found over the main door to the church, to greet you as you enter. The interiors of Byzantine churches are always elaborately decorated with mosaics and friezes, the walls hung with icons and votive offerings, a real assault on the senses especially during services when the air will be filled with the smell of incense and the sound of holy chanting.

Neo-Classical Athens

1896 Olympic Stadium in Athens1896 Olympic Stadium

A look at Athens today may make you wonder what happened to Greece's glorious architectural heritage, and it is true that few modern buildings stand out. Some of the finest are from the 19th century, when the new king, Otto, came from Bavaria and brought German architects in his wake. These produced a wave of Neo-Classical buildings, and of particular note are those designed by Ernst Ziller. Ziller produced, amongst other buildings, the Presidential Palace, the house of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann which now houses the Numismatic Museum and the graceful 1896 Olympic Stadium. Buildings today simply cannot compare to this and the Parthenon, which looks out over the modern city with what must be a disdainful eye.

You might like these other general Greece pages...

  • Ten Biggest Cities in Greece

    The ten biggest cities in Greece start with Athens and Thessaloniki, followed by Patras and several suburbs of Athens which are Greek cities in their own right.

  • Top Ten Things to Do in Greece

    Top Ten Things to Do in Greece include seeing the Acropolis and Parthenon, visiting the National Archaeological Museum and ancient sites like Knossos on Crete.

  • Which Greek Island?

    How to choose which Greek island from six of the most popular, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, Kos, Kefalonia and Zakynthos.

  • Weddings in Greece

    Weddings in Greece and the Greek islands can be luxury or cheap, are easy to arrange from the UK or USA in Santorini, Mykonos, and Rhodes.

  • Travelling Around Greece

    Practical information on travelling around Greece by plane, by ferry, by bus, by train and by driving, including car rental, parking and other driving advice.

  • Top Ten Biggest Greek Islands

    The Top Ten Biggest Greek Islands, the largest in size, are listed by Greece Travel Secrets and include Crete, Evia, Lesbos and Rhodes.

  • Tipping in Greece

    The Greece Travel Secrets guide to tipping in Greece from two Greece travel experts, including when to tip, what to tip and when not to tip.

  • The Nomads of Greece

    The nomads of Greece are the Vlachs, nomadic shepherds whose capital is Metsovo in the Pindus Mountains, and the Sarakatsani, shepherds in Macedonia and Thrace.

  • The Greek Gods

    The home of the Greek Gods was the top of Mount Olympus, and among the better-known Gods and Goddesses in the Greek pantheon were Zeus, Poseidon and Aphrodite.

  • Six of the Best Beaches in Greece

    Greece Travel Secrets chooses six of the best beaches in Greece including beaches on Corfu, Santorini, Crete, Lefkas, Kefalonia and on the Peloponnese.

  • Sailing in the Greek Islands

    Greece Travel Secrets lists four of the best destinations if you want to go sailing in the Greek islands.

  • Quick Guide to Greece: How to Choose the Best Destination for You

    This quick guide to Greece gives advice on choosing the best Greek destination for your holiday, whether in the Greek islands or the mainland.

  • Luxury Weddings in Greece

    Luxury Weddings in Greece, including venues such as a boutique hotel with deluxe spa on Santorini, can be booked through Ionian Weddings.

  • Life as a Waiter on Zakynthos

    Life as a waiter on Zakynthos tells what it was like for travel writer Mike Gerrard to work in a Greek restaurant, the Mantalena in Alykanas.

  • Greek Music

    Greek music is the sound of the bouzouki and tunes like Zorba the Greek and Never on Sunday are heard everywhere, while rembetika is called the blues of Greece.

  • Greek Ferry Guide

    Greece Travel Secrets Greek Ferry Guide page uses an extract from the Aferry Greece website with advice on island-hopping, buying tickets online and timetables.

  • Greece for Beginners

    Greece for beginners is an introduction to Greece and the Greek islands by way of a memoir by travel writer Mike Gerrard about discovering Greek kindness.

  • Greece At A Glance: Currency, Weather and Other Useful Information

    Greece at a glance is a potted guide to the Greek currency, language, weather, health requirements and other information to help you plan a trip to Greece.

Latest Posts

  1. Greece Looking to Open to Travelers from the United States

    The United States is one of the markets that Greece is eyeing to form a travel arrangement that will open up tourism between the two countries this year.

    Read More

  2. Restaurants in Greece Expected to Re-open for Outdoor Service After Easter

    Restaurants and other food and beverage (F&B) establishments in Greece will most likely be allowed to re-open and serve customers initially outdoors after the Easter holiday, Greek Deputy Development…

    Read More

  3. Norwegian Cruise Line to Sail the Greek Islands in July

    Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. is planning to restart operations this summer with sailings to the Caribbean and the Greek islands.

    Read More

  4. Greeks and Tourists will Abide by Same Covid-19 Rules, Says Tourism Minister

    Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis on Monday clarified that any safety and health rules that apply to Greek citizens – such as mandatory mask wearing and social distancing – will also apply to tourists…

    Read More

  5. Celestyal Getting Ready to Offer Safe Cruise Experiences from May

    Celestyal Cruises is speeding up procedures for the restart of sailings on May 29, aiming to provide its guests with carefree holidays to the Greek islands and the Eastern Mediterranean.

    Read More

  6. Greece will Open for Tourism with ‘Five Lines of Defence’ Against Covid-19

    Greek Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis said Greece has set up five lines of defence against the coronavirus (Covid-19) in order to open for tourism safely this year.

    Read More

  7. Greece Unsure About Easing Lockdown Measures for Easter

    Greek Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister Akis Skertsos on Monday told SKAI radio that it is “too soon” to discuss if lockdown restrictions would be eased in Greece in time for the Easter holiday. T…

    Read More

  8. Piraeus Port Authority to Create New Park, Bike Lane

    The Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) has announced plans to undertake the construction of a new playground and a bicycle lane at the port of Piraeus.

    Read More

  9. Culture Ministry: Summer Operating Hours for Archaeological Sites, Museums

    The Ministry of Culture has announced the summer operating hours of archaeological sites and museums across Greece. According to a ministry announcement, the opening hours of archaeological sites, mon…

    Read More

  10. The Guardian Selects 10 Crowd-free Greek Islands and Coastlines

    The Guardian recently announced its selection of 10 crowd-free Greek islands and coastlines that can offer travelers “a taste of true Greek culture”. According to the British newspaper, with the end o…

    Read More