The architecture of the palaestra, although allowing for some variation, followed a distinct, standard plan. The palaestra essentially consisted of a rectangular court surrounded by colonnades with adjoining rooms. These rooms might house a variety of functions: bathing, ball playing, undressing and storage of clothes, seating for socializing, observation, or instruction, and storage of oil, dust or athletic equipment.
Vitruvius, through his text On Architecture, is an important ancient source about this building type and provides many details about what he calls “palaestra, Greek-style”. Although the specifics of his descriptions do not always correspond to the architectural evidence, probably because he was writing around 27 BC, his account provides insight into the general design and uses of this type of space. As Vitruvius describes, the palaestra was square or rectangular in shape with colonnades along all four sides creating porticoes. The portico on the northern side of the palaestra was of double depth to protect against the weather. Big halls (exedrae) were built along the single depth sides of the palaestra with seats for those enjoying intellectual pursuits, and the double depth side was divided into an area for youth activities (ephebeum), a punching bag area (coryceum), a room for applying powders (conisterium), a room for cold bathing, and an oil storeroom (elaeothesium).
Good examples of this building type come from two major Greek sites: Olympia and Delphi.
During the Roman Imperial period the palaestra was often combined with, or joined to, a bath.
When the Arabs and the Turkish adopted the tradition of the Roman baths, they did not continue the tradition of the attached palaestra.