Exploring Ancient Sites with Kids: Ephesus and Olympia

We just finished an amazing seven day Eastern Mediterranean cruise with the kids and two of our stops were Olympia Greece and Ephesus in Turkey, two of the best preserved ancient cities in the world. We chose this cruise specifically for the itinerary since we didn’t think there would be a better chance to show our children this part of the world at their ages and we weren’t disappointed.

Our first and only stop in Greece was in the port of Katakalon, about 30 minutes from the site of ancient Olympia. This was actually the only stop on the cruise that I hadn’t been to previously, so despite reading everything I could about visiting the ancient city I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. We decided to book an excursion with the cruise company to visit Olympia since it was only a half day stop, we arrived at 0730 and left at 1230, and I didn’t want to risk not getting back to the ship in time. So after years of quietly mocking cruise ship excursion herds with their numbered stickers I found myself slapping on an excursion sticker and joining my herd.

The drive to the site wasn’t a terribly good advertisement for Greece; the area was scruffy looking and there was garbage everywhere, but the site itself was neat and well maintained. It was a bit chaotic getting in with all the groups arriving at once but after we got in everyone spread out nicely. I was pleasantly surprised by the site itself. I was expecting a bunch of ruins sitting out on an open plain in the baking sun, but the site actually had many mature trees amongst the ruins that provided lots of shade.

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I was quite disappointed by our cruise excursion guide at Olympia. She seemed bored and disengaged and droned on and on about dates and events without doing anything to try to liven it up or make it interesting. My husband said that the teacher inside him was cringing at the way she took such an amazing place and sucked all the life out of it with her commentary. We had 34 people in our group and by the end of the tour only about six were still with her.

With two small children in tow, we ditched the tour guide pretty early on. I had a Rick Steves guide on my Kindle and we were able to use it to glean some information about what we were seeing. I have to admit that it was a challenge to get the kids interested in the rows of broken columns and temple fragments, but we did our best. We ran a few races in the remains of the ancient stadium and talked about the different sports that they competed in during the games. My daughter thought it was very interesting that the word “gymnasium” came from the Greek word for naked since they competed naked back then but I hope she doesn’t bring that up on the first day of gym class when she goes back to school.

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For our trip to Ephesus we went with the cruise ship excursion as well, hoping that we’d get a better guide this time. We stopped at the port of Izmir which was about an hour from Ephesus with no public transit connections so once again we slapped on our stickers and boarded a bus with a few dozen of our new buddies.

Fortunately the guide for Ephesus was quite competent. She was obviously extremely proud of her country and used the hour on the road to tell us all about Turkey. The scenery seemed to back up her pride; the roadsides were clean and well maintained and the area looked very prosperous. Unfortunately, the ancient site of Ephesus was completely unshaded and we struggled to pay attention in the 37 degree heat. The commentary, while engaging, was still a bit too dry for our young children but the guide did her best to engage the kids, asking them questions and letting them hold up her sign for the group while she talked. The kids were also fascinated by the many cats that were sleeping in any small patch of shade they could find and frequently ran right past the ancient ruins to watch a scruffy feline snoozing underneath a pillar.

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I had been to Ephesus on my Turkey trip ten years ago, but I had forgotten just how impressive the site really is. My husband loved Ephesus and spent a lot of time taking pictures of the extensive ruins. I’d like to think that the kids will remember a bit more than just the feral cats, but we’ll have to see if anything else went into their little heads.

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Some people would say that it’s a waste to take small kids to an ancient site like Ephesus or Olympia when they’re too young to really grasp the concept of something being 2000 or 2500 years old. We did have to work quite hard to keep them engaged at times, but we really felt that they got a lot out of the visit. Having the guidebooks on the Kindle did help a lot to give us things to point out to the kids as we went by, but I do wish I had done even more research to find things on each site that they would be interested in. If I had more time at each site, I have also tried to find our own guides so that we could find a tour that was more customized towards families. But overall we were thrilled to have the opportunity to share these amazing places with our kids and we can’t wait to go back someday!

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