The Peloponnese is the stuff of legends. Literally. It is here that Hercules fought the Nemean lion and gods walked the earth, meddling in mortal affairs; it's from here that Paris of Troy eloped with Helen and the Argonauts set sail in search of the Golden Fleece. Celestial and mythological charms aside, this region bears tangible traces of the many civilisations that once called it home, witnessed in its classical temples, Mycenaean palaces, Byzantine cities, and Ottoman, Frankish and Venetian fortresses.
The very topography that kept invaders at bay for centuries – lofty, snowcapped mountains, vast gorges, plus sandy beaches and azure waters – now draws visitors of a different kind. Filoxenia (hospitality) is as strong here as anywhere in the country; the food is among Greece's best; and the region's vineyards are contributing to Greece's wine renaissance. Locals claim to have the best of everything to give. And that’s no myth.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Peloponnese.
Spread over a steep mountainside and surrounded by verdant olive and orange trees, this former Byzantine capital and fortified city is the single most compelling set of medieval ruins in Greece. Treading the cobblestones, worn smooth by centuries of footsteps, you can walk with the ghosts, ducking into the ruins of palaces, monasteries and churches, most dating from between 1271 and 1460. History The Frankish leader Guillaume de Villehardouin built the fortress in 1249. When the Byzantines won back the Morea from the Franks, Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos made Mystras its capital and seat of government. Settlers from the surrounding plains began to move here, seeking refuge from the invading Slavs. From this time until Dimitrios surrendered to the Turks in 1460, a despot of Morea (usually a son or brother of the ruling Byzantine emperor) lived and reigned at Mystras. While the empire plunged into decline elsewhere, Mystras enjoyed a renaissance. Gemistos Plethon (1355–1452) founded a school of humanistic philosophy here and his enlightened ideas, including the revival of the teachings of Plato and Pythagoras, attracted intellectuals from all corners of Byzantium. Art and architecture also flourished, as seen in the town's splendid buildings and frescoes. Mystras declined under Ottoman rule, but thrived again after the Venetians captured it in 1687 and developed a flourishing silk industry. The population swelled to 40,000. The Turks recaptured the town in 1715 and from then it was downhill all the way; it was burned during the Orlov uprising in 1770 and Ibrahim Pasha torched what was left in 1825. By the time of independence it was a largely abandoned ruin, and the refounding of nearby Sparta in 1834 contributed to the decline, though Mystras remained inhabited until 1953. Much restoration has taken place since the 1950s (and continues to this day) and in 1989 it was declared a Unesco World Heritage site. Touring Mystras At least half a day is needed to do justice to the ruins of Mystras. The site is divided into three interconnected sections – the kastro (the fortress on the summit), the hora (upper town) and the kato hora (lower town). The fortress (upper) gate is between the kastro and the hora, while the lower gate is at the bottom of the kato hora. The following route takes in some of the site's top highlights: The fortress From the upper-entrance ticket office, the right-hand path (signposted ‘Castle’) leads up to the fortress; it's a 10-minute ascent. The fortress was built by the Franks and extended by the Turks; the views of the Lakonia plain, spread out below, are nothing short of fantastic. Agia Sofia The left-hand path descends from the ticket office to Agia Sofia, which served as the palace church and burial ground for several emperors' wives; some frescoes survive in a side chapel, including a well-preserved Birth of the Virgin Mary over the doorway. Steps descend from here via the church of Agios Nikolaos to a T-junction. Convent of Pantanassa Head right, through the Monemvasia Gate, the former entrance to the lower town, and on to the well-preserved 14th-century Convent of Pantanassa. Featuring a beautifully ornate stone-carved facade, it is still maintained by nuns, Mystras’ only inhabitants besides the motley crew of stray cats. The convent is an elaborate, perfectly proportioned building that's never overstated. The exquisite, richly coloured 15th-century frescoes here are among the finest examples of late-Byzantine art. Look out for the tiny stamped silver and gold votive offerings beneath the large icon of the Virgin. You’ll find images of eyes, ears, legs, arms, breasts, babies, husbands and wives stamped onto these small tablets, depending on the problems for which the faithful have come seeking aid. It's a continuation of a long tradition going back to Classical Greece and beyond. The nuns may provide wraps to cover your legs. Monastery of Perivleptos The path continues down, via an impressive mansion house, to the exceptional Monastery of Perivleptos, which is built into a rock and tucked away in a pine grove at the far end of the site. Inside, the 14th-century frescoes, preserved virtually intact, equal those of Pantanassa. It's an extraordinary place. The marble-floored church has a dome in whose centre you'll find the Pantokrator (depiction of Christ as the universal, all-powerful ruler) surrounded by the Apostles, and the Virgin flanked by two angels. Mitropolis (Cathedral of Agios Dimitrios) Continue down towards the Mitropolis (Cathedral of Agios Dimitrios), a complex of buildings enclosed by a high wall. The original church was built in the 1200s, but was greatly altered in the 15th century. The church stands in an attractive courtyard surrounded by stoas and balconies. Its impressive ecclesiastical ornaments and furniture include a marble iconostasis, an intricately carved wooden throne, and a marble slab in the floor featuring a two-headed eagle (the symbol of Byzantium) located on the exact site where the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, was crowned in 1449 (he died in battle during the fall of Constantinople in 1453). The church also has some fine frescoes. Exhibits at the small but modern museum upstairs include fragments of ancient cloth, buttons, jewellery and other everyday items. Tickets and other practicalities The ticket price to enter Mystras is €12. Entry to the site is free every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st. Aim to start early in the morning to beat the tour groups, wear comfortable shoes and bring water (you can refill at the convent).
On a hilltop backed by powerful mountains stand the sombre and mighty ruins of Ancient Mycenae, home of Agamemnon, the legendary king who commanded the Greeks during the Trojan War. For four centuries in the second millennium BC, this kingdom was the most powerful in Greece, holding sway over the whole region and influencing other Mycenaean cities. History The World Heritage-listed Mycenae is synonymous with the names Homer and Schliemann. In the 9th century BC Homer told in his epic poems, 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey', of ‘well-built Mycenae, rich in gold’. These poems were, until the 19th century, regarded as no more than gripping and beautiful legends. But in the 1870s the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822–90), despite derision from professionals, struck gold, first at Troy then at Mycenae. This link, between the mythical and factual, runs thick through Mycenae's history. According to Homer, the city was founded by Perseus, the son of Danae (a princess) and Zeus (a god); and by King Agamemnon’s time, the Royal House of Atreus, which ruled Mycenae, was the most powerful of the Achaeans (Homer’s name for the Greeks). Whether Agamemnon and his family ever existed is uncertain. However, the archaeological facts are that Mycenae was first settled in the Neolithic period and came to prominence in the late Bronze Age, from about 1600 BC. In the wake of the Indo-European wave that arrived in Greece between 2100 and 1900 BC, and influenced by the already-present Minoan and Cycladic civilisations, an advanced culture developed on the mainland. This new civilisation is now referred to as the Mycenaean, named after its most powerful kingdom. The other kingdoms included Pylos, Tiryns, Corinth and Argos, all in the Peloponnese. Evidence of Mycenaean civilisation has also been found at Thiva (Thebes) and Athens. The city of Mycenae consisted of a fortified citadel and surrounding settlement, at its height from 1450 to 1200 BC. Due to the sheer size of the 'Cyclopean' walls (13m high and 7m thick), formed by stone blocks weighing 6 tonnes in places, legend has it that Perseus enlisted the help of a Cyclops, one of the one-eyed giants described in the Odyssey, to build Mycenae. Archaeological evidence indicates that the palaces of the Mycenaean kingdoms declined sometime around 1200 BC and the palace itself was destroyed around 1180 BC, possibly by fire. Whether the destruction was the work of outsiders or due to internal division between the various Mycenaean kingdoms remains unresolved. Through the entrance gate, it's worth stopping by the Ancient Mycenae Museum (entrance included in the general ticket price) for additional context. Touring Ancient Mycenae Lion Gate Agamemnon's fortress is entered through the dramatic Lion Gate, a solid construction of massive stone blocks over which rear two large lions. This motif is believed to have been the insignia of the Royal House of Atreus. Grave Circle A Once inside the citadel, Grave Circle A is on the right. This was the royal cemetery and contained six grave shafts. Five shafts were excavated by Schliemann between 1874 and 1876, uncovering one of the richest archaeological hauls ever to be found, including a well-preserved gold death mask. Schliemann sent a telegram to the Greek king stating, ‘I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon’, though the mask is thought to have belonged to a ruler who lived centuries before the era when the Trojan War might have taken place. Agamemnon’s Palace Follow the main path up to Agamemnon’s Palace, accessed through what was once a monumental doorway. The rooms on the north side of the palace were likely private royal apartments (where Agamemnon was supposedly murdered). On the palace's southeastern side is the megaron (reception hall where the great hearth would have been), with the column bases remaining. Beyond this are buildings that probably served as artisans' workshops. The valley views from the top of the hill here are phenomenal. Secret cistern Head down to the northeast extension, and you'll find the entrance to the secret cistern in the corner. This marvellous vaulted tunnel, a masterpiece of engineering at the time, descends via dark steps (half-heartedly roped off) to a spring. Follow the main path anticlockwise and on the northern boundary of the citadel you'll come across the Postern Gate, through which, it is said, Orestes escaped after murdering his mother, Clytemnestra. Tombs Until the late 15th century BC the Mycenaeans interred their royal dead in shaft graves; later they used a new form of burial – the beehive-shaped tholos tomb. Back outside the Lion Gate, head down to the tholos tombs of Aegisthus, with its collapsed roof, and Clytemnestra's Tomb, with its dramatic entrance and dome roof. Near the museum, the Lion Tomb is also impressive, while another Mycenae highlight, the Treasury of Atreus, also known as Agamemnon's Tomb, is found 500m down the road from the car park, beyond the main Mycenae site. Tickets and other practicalities The entrance fee to the Ancient Mycenae site is €12 and includes access to the main complex, the Ancient Mycenae Museum and Treasury of Atreus. Two to three daily buses (excluding Sundays) head to Mycenae from Nafplio (journey time: one hour) via Argos. Buses stop in Mykines village, continuing the 1.3km to the site from April to October. A return taxi from Nafplio with waiting time is around €70.
This is where the Olympic Games took place every four years for over 1100 years, until their abolition by Emperor Theodosius I in AD 393. The Olympic flame is still lit here for the modern Games. Thanks to the destruction ordered by Theodosius II in AD 420 and various subsequent earthquakes, little remains of the magnificent temples and athletic facilities, but enough exists to give you a hint of the sanctuary's former glory. It is one of Greece's most evocative ancient sites. Wandering amid the tree-shaded ruins, you can almost picture the blood and smoke of oxen sacrificed to Zeus and Hera, the sweaty, oiled-up athletes waiting inside the original stadium and the raucous crowds waiting to see the action unfold. History According to one (of many different) legends, Zeus held the first Olympic Games to celebrate beating his father Kronos at wrestling. Archaeologists, however, date the oldest structures in the ancient complex to around 2000 to 1600 BCE, while records show the first known games – the athletic contest was originally part of a wider festival honouring Zeus – took place on the site in 776 BCE. It's worth remembering that some structures precede others by centuries; a visit to the excellent archaeological museum (as well as the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity) before or after will provide context and help with visualising the ancient buildings. Touring Olympia Archaeological Site Gymnasium and wrestling school On your right as you descend into the complex, the first ruin encountered is the gymnasium, which dates from the 2nd century BC. South of here are the columns of the partly restored palaestra (wrestling school), where contestants practised and trained. Pheidias’ workshop Beyond here is Pheidias’ workshop, where the gargantuan ivory-and-gold Statue of Zeus, was sculpted by the Athenian master. The statue, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, stood in the Temple of Zeus (in The Altis) but was destroyed in the 5th century – its existence is known only through ancient texts and its representation on coins. The workshop was identified by archaeologists after the discovery of tools and moulds; in the 5th century AD it was converted into an early-Christian church. The Altis The Altis, or Sacred Precinct of Zeus, lies on the left of the entrance path. Its most important building was the immense 5th-century-BC Doric Temple of Zeus, which enshrined Pheidias’ statue. One column of the temple has been restored and re-erected, and helps put into perspective the sheer size of the structure. To the east of the temple is the base for the Nike (Victory statue) that visitors can admire in the archaeological museum. The altar of oaths South of the Temple of Zeus is the bouleuterion (council house), which contains the altar of oaths, where competitors swore to abide by the rules decreed by the Olympic Senate and not to commit foul play. Here were kept the official records of the Games and its champions. The stadium The stadium lies to the east of the Altis and is entered through a stone archway. It is rectangular, with a track measuring 192.27m; the stone start and finish lines of the sprint track and the judges’ seats still survive. The stadium could seat at least 45,000 spectators; slaves and women, however, had to be content to watch from outside on the Hill of Kronos. The stadium was used again in 2004, when it was the venue for the shot put at the Athens Olympics. Doric Temple of Hera To the north of the Temple of Zeus, past the pelopion (a small, wooded hillock with an altar to Pelops, the first mythical hero of the Olympic Games), is the late 7th-century-BC Doric Temple of Hera, the site’s oldest temple. An altar in front of the temple would have maintained a continuous fire during the Games, symbolising the fire stolen from the gods by Prometheus; today, the Olympic flame is lit here. Tickets and other practicalities The entrance fee to the site is €12, which covers entrance to the Archaeological Olympia Site, Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Museum of the History of the Olympic Games of Antiquity and Museum of the History of the Olympia Excavations. It is worth visiting first thing in the morning or in the late afternoon; it's a magical experience to be there without the crowds. Information panels are in Greek, English and German.
Almost wholly surrounded by ocean, Monemvasia's fortified medieval village is divided into the lower town, bisected by a main cobbled street lined with souvenir shops, hotels and tavernas that leads to the main square, and the upper town, with its ruins and fortress. The greatest pleasure of visiting the site comes from wandering the labyrinth: exploring the tiny alleyways and winding stairways that weave between a complex network of stone houses and walled gardens, and ducking into atmospheric nooks and crannies.
This superb museum features finds from the adjacent archaeological site of Olympia. Visiting it in conjunction with the ruins helps to put the ancient site into perspective. The museum's exhibits span the Olympic sanctuary's past, from the prehistoric to the Roman periods. Artefacts include increasingly sophisticated ceramics, votive offerings to Zeus and Hera, sacrificial cauldron adornments and statuary from the Temple of Hera. The main hall dramatically displays the biggest highlight: reassembled pediments and metopes from the Temple of Zeus.
Built of limestone, yet one of the best-preserved Ancient Greek structures in existence, this late-4th-century-BC theatre is the undisputed highlight of Epidavros. It's renowned for its amazing acoustics; a coin dropped in the theatre's centre can be heard from the highest seat. The theatre seats up to 14,000 people. Its entrance is flanked by restored pilasters and the foundations of the ancient stage building are beyond the circle. It's now used for performances during the annual Athens & Epidavros Festival.
The remains of this vast ancient city are as extensive as those of Olympia and Epidavros, yet Ancient Messini receives only a fraction of their visitors. Picturesquely situated on a hillside below the village of Mavromati and still undergoing excavation, the site comprises a large theatre, an agora (marketplace), a sizeable Sanctuary of Asclepius and one of the most impressive Ancient Greek stadiums. Entry includes the small museum at the site turn-off; don't miss the impressive Arcadian Gate 800m beyond, either.
Ancient Nemea was once the venue for the biennial Nemean Games, held in honour of Zeus. Three original columns of the imposing 4th-century-BC Doric Temple of Zeus survive, and the on-site museum displays rich finds from the area. The atmospheric stadium is nearby; once connected to the sanctuary by a sacred road, it plays host to a resurrected version of the Games. It's located 31km southwest of Corinth and 4km northeast of modern Nemea.
Within a modern village loom the extensive yet compact ruins of this ancient (mostly Roman) city. Home to legendary Jason of the Argonauts, stealer of the Golden Fleece, the streets of Ancient Corinth were once trodden by the likes of Pausanias, Roman traveller, and St Paul, who taught the gospel of Christ here. Follow in their footsteps by visiting the Temple of Apollo, the Peribolos of Apollo, the ancient theatre and other highlights. The excellent on-site museum puts everything into context.