Last Updated on 03/04/23 by Rose Palmer
This story was recognized by the North American Travel Journalists Association with a Silver award in the Historical Travel category in the 2022 annual media travel awards competition .
Mt. Athos is one of Greece’s most unique UNESCO World Heritage sites, and for a country that has thousands of years of historic places on display, that is saying a lot.
Mt. Athos in Greece refers to both the mountain and the spit of land on which it sits. Mount Athos the mountain sits on the eastern most “finger” that extends from the greater Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece, and rises to a little over 6600 feet. In Greek it is called Agion Oros.
Homer mentions Athos mountain in the Iliad, but it was the Virgin Mary that put this small strip of land on the Christian map. Tradition says that on her way to Cypress, Mary’s ship was blown off course and when she saw the beauty of Mt. Athos, she asked her son to bless it and protect it as her garden.
It is believed that a monastery existed here as early as the third or fourth century ACE. In 885 the “Holy Mountain” was proclaimed to be a place that was for monks alone. Ironically, the name Athos, which comes from a Greek mythological figure, was kept, despite the location becoming more and more important to the Christian Orthodox religion over the centuries.
Despite its 30 mile length, the Mt. Athos peninsula has no official roads, only dirt tracks that cut through the heavily wooded and steep geography. Much like the Vatican in Rome, Mt. Athos is a self governing religious entity within the Greek republic. The administrative center is in the town of Karyes, which happens to also be located in the geographic center of the peninsula.
Though this is a small peninsula, it may as well be an island unto itself as there is a fence that traverses the width at the connecting point with the mainland which means you can’t go there on foot. The only way to get to one of the 20 monasteries is by boat – that is, as long as you are a man.
Women have been banned from Mt. Athos since the first monasteries were established here. Some say it is to protect the celibate lifestyle of the monks. Another explanation is that since Mt. Athos is dedicated to the glory of the Virgin Mary, she is the ultimate representative of her sex.
It is not just human women that are banned from setting foot here, but also all (well, almost all) female domestic animals – so no chickens (or fresh eggs) and no sheep or cows (or fresh milk).
Apparently though, the monks turn a blind eye to female cats since they help keep down the rodent population. Besides, anyone who has ever had a cat knows that cats do whatever they want and would probably not pay attention to the monks’ rules anyway.
To be fair, men can’t just decide to go visit Mt. Athos on a whim either. Only 100 orthodox pilgrims and 10 non-orthodox visitors are allowed per day, and they can only stay for a maximum of three days. They have to apply for a special permit that requires a prearranged acceptance for an overnight stay at one of the hermitages or monasteries.
How to visit Mt. Athos on a boat tour
As a UNESCO world heritage site however, Mt. Athos has also become a location of interest to tourists. As a result, a booming boat tour industry has grown up, with many tours originating from the port town at Ouranopoulis, located at the top of the Mt. Athos peninsula.
I was touring Halkidiki on a six day road trip, and visiting Mt. Athos was on my list of top things to do. A Google search for Mt. Athos tours brought up a number of options that I could book through the Viator or Get Your Guide sites.
I reserved the 3 hour Glassbottom Boat tour through Viator because it fit my schedule and had good reviews (this tour was only available Wednesdays and Saturdays for me).
The boat tour left at 11 AM from Ouranopoulis which was an easy and scenic one hour drive through the pastoral Greek Countryside from the Philoxenia Hotel where I was staying. The biggest challenge was finding a parking spot near the port, but I eventually located a parking lot a few blocks from the dock.
We left promptly at 11 and for the next hour and a half, the boat slowly skirted the western shoreline of Mt. Athos. Because of the “no girls allowed” edict, the boat consistently stayed 500 yards away from shore, which was close enough to get decent views of all the visible monasteries along this coast. Fortunately, I was able to get closeup pictures with my strong telephoto lens.
Throughout the tour, the boat provided commentary about Mt. Athos, its history, and each of the monasteries in a number of languages. Besides Greek and English, there was also French, German, Italian, Russian, Bulgarian and Romanian.
Most of the 20 monasteries and their attached communities are Greek, though the Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian and Romanian Orthodox churches are also represented.
It was interesting to see the diversity in the size, style and condition of each of the eight monasteries that we passed. Some looked like they were clinging for dear life to the edge of a rock ledge, while others were laid out in grand style along the water’s edge, looking more like a palace on Lake Como than a humble religious center.
St. Panteleimon monastery looked especially large and opulent and demanded attention. With its many bright green, onion domes topped by gold crosses, there was no mistaking its Russian origins. The original monastery was built in the 11th century, however the current version I saw on my tour was from the early 1800’s.
At its peak, St. Panteleimon had over 2000 monks in the early 1900’s. Though today the monks number under 100, the library here continues to be the repository of over 25,000 books, manuscripts and other ancient texts and relics.
The boat took the same route back to Ouranoupolis but travelled faster and further from the coastline. It would have been nice to be able to see all 20 monasteries on Mt. Athos, not just the eight on the western coast, but I was told that the waters along the eastern coast of Mt. Athos are too rough for small tour boats.
The Athos Cruises website gives a nice overview of all 20 Mt. Athos monasteries.
The eight monasteries I saw on the boat tour are listed below. Some of the 20 monasteries have their own websites which provides a glimpse into what they look like up close and inside, as well as the daily monastic life.
More things to do in Ouranoupolis
After the tour I also took some time to explore the small town of Ouranoupolis. Just steps from the dock was the Byzantine Tower of Posphorion.
Near the harbor there were quite a few shops, restaurants and cafes. There were a number of shops selling religious paraphernalia and icons.
The Tower of Posphorion was built in 1340 to provide protection from pirates for the monasteries. A small entrance fee let me go inside to see the short exhibit about the tower and the other archeological sites in the area.
If you have the time, the tower is part of a designated hiking trail that takes you to a number of other historic sites nearby.
Best gyros restaurant in Ouranoupolis
For a late lunch, I chose the small, out of the way gyros restaurant a block in from the tower and the harbor, called Γύρος Σπύρος . The small shop front is owned by Elizabeth and Spyros. With her good English, Elizabeth provided excellent service and was happy to answer all my questions.
Her husband Syros was the creator of the wonderful gyros. He started this restaurant 29 years ago after time in the army, and it was clear that this was both his vocation and avocation.
Equally fascinating was the small olive and olive oil shop next door to the restaurant, displaying pails of olives and barrels of oil. Unfortunately, that was not going to fit in my luggage.
My tour to Mt. Athos provided insight to the history of this unique aspect of Greek culture. It wasn’t what I expected (I had hoped for much closer views), and I was surprised at the size and apparent opulence of some of these religious institutions, but it certainly was a unique experience, which is what I am always searching for. And unfortunately, as a woman, this boat tour was the only way for me to see Mt. Athos.
Please note that my stay was hosted by the Philoxenia Hotel. All content is my own.
You may also like these other stories about Greece:
Two days on the island of Hydra: My Lovely Two Days on Hydra Island
Best historic sites on the island of Kos: A History Lover’s Guide to One Day in Kos, Greece
Explore the Sithonia Peninsula: Discovering the Best Beaches in Sithonia, Greece, With a Grain of History on the Side
Thanks for visiting.