What to Expect in the Peloponnese
Take seven days to explore the riches of the Peloponnese on this week-long itinerary and you'll be well rewarded with lasting memories of stunning drives, amazing views and a chance to visit places where some of our most enduring legends began.
In these days of package holidays and instant vacations, the Peloponnese is less well known and less visited than other parts of Greece. Yet this place is a cauldron of ancient history and legends. This is where Paris wooed Helen and triggered the Trojan War, where the god Pan frolicked in Arcadia, where Hercules slew the Nemean Lion and where some of the most the gruesome and bloody revenge stories in Greek literature are set. Even if you've never been exposed to the texts in school, you have probably seen films and television series based on these stories.
It's also where the historic Athenians and Spartans battled it out in two Peloponnesian Wars and where the Spartans were finally defeated by Thebes.
The region is generously dotted with precariously perched castles and ancient settlements on mountain ranges that run north south, through the region like bony fingers. Along the coasts between — and beneath — fortresses, ancient monasteries and Byzantine churches there are beautiful, secluded beaches and fragrant walks through olive groves. Byzantines, Venetians and Ottoman Turks all left their marks on this southernmost part of Greece.
Where Is the Peloponnese?
Look at a map of Greece and you will see a roughly hand-shaped body of land to in the South West of the country. It looks a bit like a thumb and three fingers of an up-turned hand. It is completely separated from mainland Greece by water but linked by bridges at Corinth and Patras. The narrow Corinth Canal connects the Saronic Gulf (south) and the Gulf of Corinth (north). The canal, where the Peloponnese officially begins, is just over an hour of motorway driving from Athens. The region occupies about one third of mainland Greece and, at 8,300 square miles, is just a bit bigger than Wales.
Know the Challenges Before You Go
This is an itinerary for people who love to drive. If you are planning a motor tour of the Peloponnese you need to be aware that:
- Although modern motorways connect several of the cities and larger towns, traveling to most of the interesting sites involves driving on narrow, unlit mountain roads with frequent hairpin turns at least part of the way. It takes much longer to get from place to place than you might think.
- The terrain is scarred by rugged mountains — Mt. Taygetos at about 7,000 feet being the highest — and travel involves either long motorway journeys around them or occasionally hair-raising drives across them, west to east. East–west distances in the southern Peloponnese are not well served by motorways and national roads.
- Because of this region's history of wars and local blood feuds, ancient Greek, Medieval, Byzantine and Ottoman villages are invariable perched on top of mountains or dug into steep hills. Streets can often be composed of long flights of irregular stairs paved with very rough-hewn cobbles.
That said, if you are energized by this kind of driving and hiking, you will enjoy this region for its endlessly unfolding vistas, amazing feats of ancient architecture, beautiful Blue Flag beaches and links to lots of familiar stories.
If you think independent travel in this sort of terrain is not for you, there are a number of coach tour companies that can deliver you to several of the key sites on day trips or short breaks. And if you have accessibility issues, you should consider traveling with a specialist tour company because little is done here to cater for travelers with mobility problems.
Compared to just a few years ago, the modern essentials we have all come to expect when traveling in Europe, are here. There are plenty of gas stations — on the motorways and the outskirts of most towns — and you can usually pay with credit cards. ATMs are easy to find, though in very rural areas you may have to seek out the biggest towns. Satellite navigation devices work well in most places and 4G data services for mobile phones are widespread. So, thankfully, is free wi-fi, though it may be slow in some places.
This 7-day itinerary assumes an early start from Athens International Airport. After arrival in Athens, consider an overnight at the Holiday Inn Express or another hotel near the airport so you can get on the road quickly and avoid city traffic in Athens itself. Motorways in Athens are toll roads but the tolls are inexpensive compared to fees in the U.S. and France. Keep €1 and €2 coins handy for frequent tolls of between €1.80 and €2.50 that occur about every 20 minutes when traveling at the local speed limit.
Day One: From Athens to Acrocorinth and Nemea
8 a.m.: Breakfast early at your hotel and try to be on the road by 8:30 a.m. for the drive to Acrocorinth via two motorways - the E94 and the E65 and local mountain roads. Wear sturdy shoes and a hat and carry a bottle of water (good advice for all the excursions and attractions in this itinerary). Acrocorinth is about 7 miles southwest of the center of Corinth. When you first see it, gleaming like white teeth atop a monolithic rock at nearly 1,900 feet, you are bound to wonder how on earth anyone built something so massive up there. That's just how they do it in Greece.
The drive from Athens is about 75 miles and takes about an hour and a half.Approach the citadel from the site of Ancient Corinth in the city. A winding mountain road with sharp, hairpin turns takes you to the parking area at the first of three Byzantine gates into the site.
10 a.m. – 12 p.m.: Enter the gates of Acrocorinth and explore the site. It has been continuously occupied since the Greek Archaic period (800 to 480 B.C.) and may have been a fortress even earlier. It was fortified by the Romans and the Byzantines, occupied by the Venetians, held by Frankish Crusaders and, until the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century, was a base for the Ottoman Turks.
There is evidence of all these occupiers but, as is typical of many Greek archaeological landmarks, not much information at the site. Nevertheless, there is plenty to explore as you climb the combination of steep marble path and irregular steps to the castle at the summit. The views from the top, where there are remains of a shrine to Aphrodite, extend right across Greece. They say that on a clear day, you can see the Acropolis in Athens from here. After your visit, head for Nemea, about half an hour on the E65 Tripoli road, for lunch.
Alternative: If the climb up the slippery marble path is not for you, stay within the city of Corinth and visit the site of Ancient Corinth, at the northern base of the hill of Acrocorinth. Excavations here have revealed occupation from as early as 6,500 B.C. The Temple of Apollo at the site (seven tall Doric columns) is one of the largest and earliest Doric temples in Greece. The Pirene Fountain, sacred to the muses, was said to be the favorite watering hole of the flying horse Pegasus. There is a small museum at the site which illustrates the occupiers of Corinth from Prehistory to the 19th century with finds from the archaeological digs.
12:45 p.m. - 2:15 p.m. : A hefty climb should be rewarded with a hearty lunch. Danaos & Anastasis (Efstathios Papakonstantinou 38, Nemea 205 00, Tel: +30 2746 024124) is popular with travelers for its grilled meats and salads, roast pork and potatoes. Line your stomach before heading out to the wineries for some sampling.
2:45 p.m. to - 5 p.m.: Visit some Nemean wineries. Nemea has an important place in history — it was the location of the Nemean Games, part of the cycle of Panhellenic games that also included the Olympics. And in mythology it was the location of the first of the Six Labors of Hercules, the killing of the Nemean Lion. According to the story, the lion scratched the hero and some of his blood fell on nearby grapes, turning them red and creating the region's famous Agiorgitiko wines. Today this is the largest vineyard zone and one of the most important AOC wine regions in Greece. There are 45 wineries, several of which can be visited. Try Domaine Bairaktaris, Lafkiotis Winery, near the site of ancient Nemea, and the organic vineyards of the Papaioannou Estate, right beside the Temple of Nemean Zeus. The Nemean vines spread across the Elissos river valley and most vineyards are near each other so you should be able to visit and sample at a few. Most require that you book or at least telephone ahead but will always welcome you to taste and can usually arrange a vineyard tour on short notice.
5 p.m. – 5:40 p.m.: Drive to the lovely Venetian town of Nafplio, your base for the next two nights.
6 p.m. and beyond: Stroll the waterfront at the base of the old town. There are usually one or two small cruise ships to ogle as well as a good selection of yachts and excursion boats. The Bourtzi, a small mini-castle on an island in the middle of the harbor, was built by the Venetians and once housed the town executioner and his family. It's now abandoned but very scenic. Have a drink at a beachside taverna before heading up to Syntagma Square in the old town to look for a likely taverna for your evening meal. Nafplio has lots of eateries, especially between Bouboulinas, the beachfront road, and Syntagma Square. Relax and take your pick, but don't let the restaurant touts pressure you into choosing theirs. And if you aren't too tired from your daytime excursions, you can party into the small hours in the bars and cafes of this part of town.
Total Driving Today: 124 miles or 2 hours and 40 minutes on the road.
Overnight: Finish today at Nafplio, a charming Venetian harbor town overlooked by two castles with a third, mini-castle on an island in the middle of the bay. Unless you fancy dragging your luggage up streets that are really lengthy flights of irregular and stony steps, resist the lower priced boutiques in the old town (save your energy for exploring it at leisure instead) and pick a moderately priced place along the waterfront. We like the relatively modern, yellow brick Amphitrion Hotel or the neoclassical Grande Bretagne. Both are within easy walking distance of the old town and the beachfront cafes and both have excellent views of the Bourtzi, the mini-castle in the bay.
Day Two: Nafplio, Mycenae, Epidavros and Back to Nafplio
Today is all about two amazing World Heritage sites. The driving on the plains of Argolis is relatively easy and there's plenty of time to enjoy a bit of museum going and retail therapy.
8:30 to 9 a.m.: Breakfast at your hotel before leaving for the modern village of Mikines, the site of Mycenae. The Greeks don't make much of a meal of breakfast and you can waste a lot of time looking for anything more than coffee and bread in most tavernas. It's easier to take advantage of your hotel offering before hitting the road.
9 to 9:30 a.m.: Drive to Mycenae and park in the free parking at the site. Mycenae is almost due north of Nafplio along the EO Nafplion-Korinthou road. It's a well marked national road and an easy drive to the village of Mikines. After you pass the small commercial center of the village, turn right toward the archaeological site. It's sign-posted and the parking is at the end of the road.
9:30 a.m. to noon: Explore ancient Mycenae. There's a lot to see at this ancient citadel overlooking the olive-strewn plains of Argos. Some finds indicate it was occupied as early as 6,000 B.C. but the climb through ancient passages and between cyclopean walls probably dates from 1500 to 1300 B.C. This is a place where history fades easily into myth. Enter through the lion gates of the House of Atreus, the earliest representational monumental sculptures in Europe, and let your imagination run wild. The stories of war, revenge and death connected to the house of Atreus may have been recorded Homer, but the Bronze Age tales of murder, cannibalism and human sacrifice are every bit as gory and thrilling as the latest B-movie horrors.There's also a very good museum, included in the price of admission.
12:15 to 1 p.m.: Return the way you came to the village of Mikines for lunch. The small village has a few souvenir shops and cafes. The unpretentious Alcion Tavern (ΕΟ68, Argos Mykines 212 00, Greece, +30 694 885 3606), run by English-speaking Maria Mitrovgeni and her mother, offers a friendly welcome and the best souvlaki we sampled in the Peloponnese.
1 to 1:40: Rejoin the EO Nafplion-Korinthou road to the EO 70 Isthmou Archaias Epidavrou Road for the drive to the Ancient Theater of Epidavros and the Sanctuary of Aesclepius. This is an easy drive on well paved national roads through farmland and olive groves. The attraction, as you near it, is well sign-posted.
1:45 - 2:30 p.m. Explore the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the best preserved ancient theater in the world. The theater was actually part of a sort of ancient health spa, dedicated to Aesclepius, the god of medicine and his sanctuary is considered the birthplace of medicine. It's still used for performances in the summer months. You'll probably share the experience with busloads of other tourists but it is still worth going, if just to stand on the stone marking the center of the amphitheater and whisper to your companions high up on the top row - the acoustics of this theater are said to be perfect.
2:30 - 3 p.m. : Return to Nafplio via the EO 70.
Total Driving Today - 60.3 miles or 1 hour and 40 minutes on the road
Afternoon and evening: Get in some retail therapy and photo ops in Nafplio's old town. The streets and alleys closest to the waterfront and around the marble-paved Syntagma Square are the most rewarding for little shops, galleries and souvenirs. If you are energetic — very energetic — you could try the climb to the top of Palamidi, an 18th-century Venetian fortress that overlooks the town and is reached by a legendary 999 steps.Those less energetic can drive up on a road that starts just to the east of the town (Od. Nafplio - Frouriou Palamidou).
For dinner, try Alaloum (beside Agiou Nikolau Square, about a block into the old town from the waterfront, Tel +30 2752 029883). It specializes in seafood and traditional Greek cooking.
Day Three - Kalamata and a Dip into the Mani
9 to 10 a.m. : Before leaving Nafplio visit its Archaeological Museum in Syntagma Square. It's housed in a Venetian mansion, circa 1713, that is said to be the best example in all of Greece. Among the highlights are Stone Age finds from a nearby cave that include a beautiful ceramic bowl about 8,000 years old and a suit of bronze armor from about 1600 B.C.
10:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.: Drive to Kalamata via the E65 motorway (also confusingly designated the A7, but in fact the same road).
12:15 to 12:30 p.m.: Have a quick walk around Pl.23 Martiou – 23rd of March Square and the tiny, 11th century Church of the Holy Apostles. The modern Greek republic was born In this relatively unmarked and unheralded place. This church is where the Greek Declaration of Independence was first signed, on March 23, 1821, marking the start of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Turks. To find it, take Artemidos (the main route from the A7) to Neodontas. Park on Neodontas and walk into the pedestrian area.
12:30 to 1:30 p.m.: Lunch at Kalamaki (19 Amfias Street 241 00, Tel: +30 698 117 5302), which runs off the square from just behind the church. This is a street lined with little cafes. We liked the friendly welcome, good quality meze and original salads for reasonable prices. Try the cheese doughnuts.
2 to 5 p.m. : Enough driving — it's time for the beach. You can swim in beautifully clear waters without even leaving the city of Kalamata. Navarino Bay, on the south side of the city, is rimmed with pebble beaches that have great views of Mt Taygetos. Travel about 10 miles further south, along the coast road to Mikri Mantineia for more beaches under the mountain. This town is organized for tourism so there are plenty of beach bars and cafes. Continue south through the built up area for quieter beaches and plenty of free parking.
Total Driving Today:100 miles or two hours and ten minutes.
Overnight: There are loads of small hotels and guest rooms along the beach road in Mikri Mantineia, but for a true taste of the Mani, head into the hills to a tower house. Venetians, Franks, Ottomans, Greek rebels, bandits and feuding families built themselves fortified towers, high in the foothills of Mt. Taygetos well into the late 19th century. Today the towers, many of which are listed historic monuments, are also guest houses and small hotels. We stayed at the Villa Vager Mani, a 19th-century fortified tower house converted into luxury B&B suites above the tiny settlement of Megali Mantineia. It's about two miles south of Mikri Mantineia and high enough above the coast for good views of Kalamata and the entire sweep of Navarino Bay and the Gulf of Messinia. Once you drive up the mountain road, you are not going to want to come down for dinner. Luckily the village has a decent restaurant, Taverna Anavriti, a short walk downhill from the villa. George, the "majordomo" of the hotel will show you the way.
Day 4: Mystras
6 to 7:30 a.m.: Hit the road early for the drive to Mystras, a huge Medieval and Byzantine ghost town on a steep slope of Mt Taygetos, a few miles northwest of and 2000 feet above Sparta. Take along a backpack for lunch.There are two routes from Kalamata — a hair-raising, 43-mile mountain drive over Taygetos on the Kalamatas Spartis Road or a more relaxing motorway drive of 72 miles via the A7 and A71 national toll roads. Interestingly, both routes take about an hour and a half. The motorway route is less taxing and you'll want all your energy for Mystras today. You'll also want to arrive early enough to miss the main heat of the day and the coach-loads of tourists in the lower town. Wear hiking shoes, carry a sturdy walking stick, and carry your lunch and water in a backpack.
7:30 to 8:15 a.m.: Arrive in the modern village, also known as Neo Mistra. Pick up a few things for lunch. Technically, you are not allowed to picnic on the site, but if you are discreet and clean up after yourself, you won't have any problems finding a quiet, shady spot to rest. Park your car in a safe place and find a local taxi to take you to the highest entrance gate.
8:30 a.m. to the afternoon: How long you spend at Mystras is up to you and your stamina. From the highest gate, walk to the top, the Frankish castle build in 1249 by the prince of Achaia, William II of Villehadouin. Within about 20 years, the castle had fallen to the Byzantine Empire. Walking down hill from there you pass through centuries of history. The site was the seat of the wonderfully named Byzantine kingdom — the Despotate of Morea. The last Byzantine Emperor was crowned here in the 15th century. Then it was occupied by the Ottomans and, in 1821 it became the first castle to be liberated in the Greek War of Independence.
The recently restored Palace of the Despots, down hill from the Castle, is considered the finest example of royal Byzantine architecture left in Europe. There are several Byzantine churches; some in ruins but others still holding onto icons and iconographic wall paintings. The Pantanassa Monastery, where you will probably be able to refill your water bottle, still has a convent; plan to cover up modestly if you visit the nuns.
This is an enormous site with plenty to see and amazing views over olive groves and citrus orchards, as well as the city of Sparti (the modern town associated with ancient Sparta).
Afternoon to early evening: Relax and refresh in one of Neo Mystra's nine tavernas. Then explore the village, soak up the atmosphere in the town square and, perhaps, soak your aching feet in a spring near the town square. This is a good place to indulge in the Greek pastime of drinking coffee, eating sweets and watching the world go by.
Total Driving Today: Either 43 or 72 miles, depending on your route, but an hour and a half on the road either way.
Overnight: Make your way to the Mystras Inn, a budget priced but atmospheric stone hotel built on the village's central square. Have a traditional home cooked meal in their taverna, O' Ellinas, where the olive oil is pressed from their own trees. Then allow yourself a lazy night watching old movies dubbed into Greek on the hotel's digital telly or catching up with email via the free wifi.
Day 5: Agrotourism and Beaches in the Eastern Peloponnese
9:45 a.m. to noon: Sample Greek agrotourism at Eumelia Organic Farm. New highway connections have made the fertile plains between the Tagetos and Parnonas mountain ranges much easier to visit than in the past. Here olives, citrus, herbs and vegetables thrive in fields of red earth on farm estates that have been producing oil and wine since Biblical times. It's about 50 minutes southeast of Sparta near Gouves on the E961. Let them know you're coming and you might be able to take part in a cooking class or a yoga session or partake of a farm to table lunch. At the very least, taste some of their prickly pear liqueur or cold pressed olive oil and stroll among the 2,000-year-old olive trees. Eumelia has rustic self-catering accommodations that are worth checking out for a future farm stay when you can join in an olive harvest, press grapes for wine or host a unique eco-wedding.
12:40 to 2:30 p.m.: Wash the red earth from your feet at the beach at Plytra on the Gulf of Laconia. It's about half an hour from Gouves. Plytra is a well-organized beach resort popular with Greek families. It's one of the few sandy beaches on the southern Peloponnese, with calm, clear waters and clean changing facilities. Crowded with vacationers during the summer months, it is quieter and still a pleasant place to stop for lunch and a swim in spring or autumn. Try Asopitan Plaz, right on the beach, for coffee, cold drinks and octopus if you're lucky.
Total Driving Today: 88 miles or two hours and 45 minutes.
Overnight: Finish your travels today with a luxury treat at an 18th century fortified mansion in the hills above Monemvasia. Hotel Kinsterna - named for the Byzantine cistern the house surrounds - is a 5 star resort set amid vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards with amazing views over the Gulf of Argolis and the Aegean Sea. Relax for the afternoon, saving your energy for a big day tomorrow. There's plenty to do, from a swim in the hotel's glorious pool, a spa treatment or a wander around the grounds picking pomegranates, quinces and sweet green lemons as you pass. Blow the budget on dinner in the hotel's fine dining restaurant where familiar European cuisine gets a local treatment with Greek flavours such as mastic and quince.
Day 6 - Monemvasia
Noon to late: After a late breakfast, have a swim or a hike uphill through the pomegranates for the view and to see the hotel's ancient spring. Then leave the car behind and take a taxi into Monemvasia "city" for lunch. Taxis from Kinsterna to the town cost €12.50 in 2018 and make sense when it is easy to lose your way driving up the mountain road to the hotel after dark.
Alternatively, check into the Aktaion Hotel on the waterfront so you can stay late in the town enjoying the bars and the vibe. It's basic and cheap but friendly and clean. The cafe, a good place to have lunch, is popular with locals, and British and European expats. And its location, at one end of the bridge/causeway to the castle, offers the best views of Greece's version of the Rock of Gibraltar.
Locals refer to the village at the mainland end of Monemvasia's causeway as "the city" though it probably only has a few thousand inhabitants. The massive rock offshore, connected to the mainland by a short causeway and bridge, is known as "the castle" or "the Kastro." Out of sight of land, surrounded by walls and accessible through only one gateway is the most complete medieval settlement in Greece and possibly the most intact Byzantine village in the world.
It's a one mile walk across the causeway and along the road around the rock to reach the gates of the hidden village. But if you don't fancy the walk or the weather changes for the worse, there's a bus that leaves from the newsstand at the base of the bridge about every 20 minutes. It costs €1.20 and takes about five minutes. Inside the walls, there are:
- One or two main "roads" paved with rough boulders
- Several Byzantine churches including Christos Elkomenos in the main square, the largest medieval church in southern Greece
- Lots of shops selling local handiwork - olive wood carvings, olive soaps, textiles
- Restaurants, bars and cafes.
Once you escape the main commercial area, the streets are a series of staircases that wind their way up toward the plateau at the top of the rock. If you make it all the way, there are the remains of a Crusader castle built by a Frankish prince at the top.
Overnight: Dine at one of the many cafes and tavernas on the rock, then return to the mainland for a session of Greek wine or ouzo drinking before making your way back to your hotel.
Day 7: The Corinth Canal
Return to Athens or Athens airport via motorways through Sparta. The coast road is a narrow, mountainous journey that could easily take you seven to eight hours instead of the four to four and a half via the motorways.
If you leave early enough, you should arrive at the Corinth Canal that separates mainland Greece from the Peloponnese in time for lunch and a chance to enjoy a 19th century engineering marvel.
The four-mile long, narrow and steep-sided canal separates the Gulf of Corinth, to the north, from the Saronic Gulf to the south across the Isthmus of Corinth. It was built between 1880 and 1893 and today is used mostly for small cruise liners, large yachts and super yachts.
The best place to see the comings and goings of ships through this ultra narrow canal is at the southern end, near the town of Isthmia. If you are lucky you will see the operation of the submersible bridge. The road bridge over the canal at this point submerges when ships pass through. On its way back up, you're likely to see a lot of fish making their escape from the shallow water across the rising roadway.
To get there, leave the E94 motorway at Exit 10 toward Loutraki then follow signs toward the EO Gefiras Isthmiou – Isthmion, the road with the submersible bridge. It's quite close to the motorway; just search for the Floating Bridge of Isthmia on Google maps. There are cafes on either side of the bridge where you can lunch and watch the shipping traffic.
From here, you are just 65 miles, or an hour and ten minutes, from Athens Airport.