A 14-Day Journey: Driving from Athens Through the Heart of Peloponnese and Beyond
The Peloponnese is a concentrate of ancient Greece, everything we remember from childhood, school and university: the Olympic Games, Homer’s gilded Mycenae, the exploits of Hercules, Medea with Jason, rural Arcadia and Sparta itself – all of it is here. Plus a number of other names familiar from books on Greek myths. Add to that some of the best beaches, natural beauty and Byzantine ghost towns in Greece, and you may change your mind about the crowded islands in favor of the Peloponnese. And you will be right.
My name is Artem Chapaev, I am a digital nomad who moves from one city to another. I describe my travels on instagram. I’ve been to Greece most often – I love the country, know its history and culture well, and when I get tired of traveling, I plan to settle in Athens.
The best way to explore Greece is by rental car. For this trip, I chose the Peloponnese peninsula, my favorite region in Greece. I have described a 14-day trip that will allow you to see as many worthwhile places as possible. The most interesting places on the daily routes are marked in yellow. Focus on these if you need to fit the trip into a shorter time frame.
When to go
The ideal time to go if you want to swim is late September or early October, when the sea is still warm and the heat and hordes of tourists are in the past. If you don’t plan to swim, April and May are good choices.
It is best to avoid July and August because of the heat, which makes sightseeing uncomfortable.
Where to rent a car and tips for driving in Greece
You can rent a car in all the booking systems you know, I use Rentalcars because they work more with local companies and not just international networks, but cheap deals can also have other service providers. Localrent usually has good deals in low season.
A driver’s license, passport and credit card are usually required to make a booking, and many international networks require a credit card instead of a debit card. Often, these same networks will not take a deposit if you pay the full insurance amount directly to the company when you receive the vehicle, rather than through a service provider at the time of booking.
Local Greek car rental companies are more flexible: you can pay a deposit from a debit card or even in cash – it depends on the terms and conditions of each car rental company.
I always took small economical cars, and I had enough of them to visit all the places mentioned in this guide.
Parking in Greece is marked with a “P” sign and divided into color-coded zones on the sidewalk:
- Blue – paid parking.
- Yellow – parking for commercial, police or government vehicles.
- White – free parking.
In most places in the Peloponnese, it is unlikely that you will have to pay for parking – this is more likely to be the case in larger cities, but pay attention to the markings or the police may take your license plate away.
- For visitors to Greece, there is an emergency number: call 112 for information in English, French, and Greek about ambulances, fire departments, police, and coast guards.
- If you need roadside assistance, call ELPA (Automobile Club of Greece) at 10400, and chances are there will be someone there who speaks English. Make sure you have a 24-hour hotline or cell phone number for your car rental company so you can reach them in case of an emergency.
- Be warned: in Greece, contrary to common sense, the person entering a roundabout has the advantage, and the person already on the circle must move out of the way.
- Unless otherwise stated, the speed limit is 50 km/h (~39 miles/h) in towns, 90 km/h (~55 miles/h) outside towns, and 110-120 km/h on most highways (~70 miles/h).
- Violations of traffic rules are strictly punished in Greece. Running a red light or disobeying a stop sign costs €700 (762.07$). Not wearing a seat belt costs €350 (381.04$). Talking on a cell phone without a headset costs €100 (108.87$). Driving under the influence of alcohol depends on the results of the breathalyzer test – the fine can range from €200 (217.73$) to €1200 (1,306.41$). There are few police officers on the roads and many cameras.
- It is believed that the SIM cards of the Cosmote operator have the best coverage, but I did not notice any difference from others.
- Google Maps are sufficient to plan routes, find places of interest, gas stations, ATMs, supermarkets, pharmacies and opening hours of certain places. No need to download any other apps.
- Greeks speak more English than Italians or Spaniards, and even in the provinces you can find English-speaking Greeks.
- In winter it is quite possible to make our route, if you exclude mountain roads, which can be blocked because of snow, and mountain settlements, where it will be cold, but leave the coastal part, where most days it will be pleasant sunny 15-17 degrees. Still, expect rain and bad weather to interfere with your plans, and many restaurants along the way will be closed.
Map of the sights along the route
The great itinerary in the Peloponnese
14 days of the most impressive ancient ruins, the most beautiful beaches of Greece, legendary Greek landscapes and 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites! Let’s go!
Day 1 – Athens along the Sacred Way – Daphne Monastery – Porto Hermeni – Perahora – Corinth
Leave Athens and head towards Corinth on a road called the Sacred Way. The name does not lie – it is the same road on which 2500 years ago religious processions went from the slopes of the Acropolis to the city of Eleusin, the sanctuary of Demeter. Here took place the famous Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the greatest mysteries of antiquity: although all ancient legends from Aristotle to the Emperor Hadrian participated in them, we still do not know what happened there. But after the mysterious initiation, the participants stopped fearing death and became convinced of a favorable existence after death.
Along the Sacred Way were shrines to various gods, where the participants of the procession stopped to rest and perform various rituals. One of these places, the Temple of Apollo, became the Monastery of Daphni in Christian times, the remains of which are now part of the UNESCO Cultural Heritage. Daphne is one of the abandoned and rarely visited UNESCO sites in Greece. You will probably be alone there.
Daphne. Photo by Artem Chapaev (@artemchapaev/Instagram).
The main building of the monastery is the Church of the Catholicos from the 11th century, the heyday of the Eastern Roman Empire, known to us as Byzantium. The entrance rests on columns left over from the ancient temple of Apollo, which stood on the site of the church in pagan times. Daphne is on the UNESCO list for its unique mosaic program from the Middle Byzantine period, the second heyday of the empire in the 9th-12th centuries. There are only three of them left in Greece. There is a strict hierarchy of images, beginning with the somewhat dour Christ Pantocrator in the dome, staring sternly out of the vault at the cascade of glittering gold images of angels and saints. All this instilled a solemn confidence in the congregation, which was supposed to feel part of a perfect world order.
The real Roman Imperial experience of Christianity (@artemchapaev/Instagram).
After the Daphne Monastery, the Sacred Way leads to the town of Eleusinus, now an All-Greek industrial center, which can be safely passed by, especially since the archaeological ruins of the Demeter Sanctuary are boring for the untrained visitor and the museum, where the most interesting things from the excavations are collected, is closed for renovation.
After Eleusinus, it makes sense not to turn to Megara, but to head for a place called Porto Hermeno in the Gulf of Corinth, 40 kilometers to the northwest. Here are the best preserved ancient Greek fortress of Egosthenes, the border fortifications of the Athenian polis of the classical period, a beautiful bay surrounded by hills and some excellent beaches.
Porto Hermeno (@artemchapaev/Instagram)
Following the scenic provincial road along the shore of the Corinthian Gulf, we continue southwest for 60 kilometers to the village of Perahora, more precisely to the ruins of the Sanctuary of Hera, an extremely beautifully located archaeological park: on the edge of a cape, right on the water in a small bay with a magnificent view of the Corinthian Gulf. You can swim right in it – there is a small beach right next to the ruins of ancient Greek temples dating from the 8th to the 6th century BC. It is a magical place, except on summer weekends when it is crowded. Although little remains of the sanctuary, its location is absolutely enchanting.
On the way to Corinth, just outside the city, you’ll cross the Corinth Canal (it’s worth taking a slight detour to cross the Old Bridge), a marvel of engineering. It was designed 2,600 years ago by the ancient Greeks in Corinth, begun 2,000 years ago by the Roman emperor Nero, and not completed until the 19th century by the French, who hewed it 90 meters deep into the rock. Before that, ships were pulled by hand across the narrow isthmus between the Saronic Gulf and Corinth for millennia.
Where to eat: The best place to get food is in Athens (the best place in Athens are the big Sklavenitis hypermarkets (ΣΚΛΑΒΕΝΙΤΗΣ) on the outskirts of town, e.g. this one, but remember that supermarkets in Greece are closed on Sundays) and have lunch on the beach – either in Porto Hermeno or Perahor – and dinner in Corinth, e.g., at Soul kitchen.
Lunch or dinner can cost up to €25 (27.22$) per person in traditional Greek tavernas, which tend to be inexpensive but offer a rather monotonous selection of dishes. Dinner at a restaurant with creative cuisine and a quaint ambiance can cost €35-45 (38.10-(48.99$), but probably won’t exceed that amount. The cheapest option is a pizzeria, which are plentiful along the route, and national Greek fast food: gyros and souvlaki, fried meat in pita bread, which usually cost 3 euros (3.27$).
Where to stay: The best accommodation option is a hostel or apartment in Corinth itself or in the neighboring town of Loutraki, both equally impersonal and uninteresting, but conveniently located and with plenty of cheap accommodation.
Day 2 – Ancient Corinth – Acrocorinth – Vine Valley and Nemea – Mycenae – Tirynth – Nafplion
The archaeological park on the site of the legendary ancient Greek city of Corinth is located 8 km southwest of its modern namesake. Corinth occupies an important place in Greek mythology, legend and tragedy: it is the birthplace of Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, and the hometown of Bellerophon, the conqueror of the monster Chimera, and of Sisyphus and his work. Here Medea killed her children to avenge her unfaithful father. Before the rise of Athens in the 6th century BC, ancient Corinth was the richest and most populous Greek city-state in Europe, and its excavation is one of the largest and most magnificent ancient monuments in Greece. To date, however, only about four percent of the ancient city, which covered about two square kilometers, has been discovered. The most obvious Greek monument is the Temple of Apollo, whose restored columns are the hallmark of the site. The rest of the excavated buildings date back to the Roman Empire, when Corinth had 300,000 inhabitants and the Apostle Paul wrote his “Letters to the Corinthians” here. I recommend visiting the beautiful museum in the park first, which puts everything in context.
South of the excavations of ancient Corinth is the fortress of Acrocorinth, the Acropolis of Corinth, a limestone mountain (575 m) that rises steeply from the ancient city and is one of the best natural fortresses of ancient Greece. Acrocorinth was the target of all those who aspired to rule the Peloponnese, and it changed hands several times. The Byzantines, the Franks, the Venetians and the Turks all contributed to the construction of the city, but its walls and towers stand mostly on ancient foundations.
The climb from the excavations on foot is too strenuous – it is better to drive to the entrance of the citadel. After passing through three gates, you can explore a mix of Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian and Turkish fortress walls 3 kilometers long, housing remains of Byzantine chapels, Turkish houses and mosques. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water. Most importantly, the view is one of the best in all of Greece: the vista captures a record number of famous ancient Greek sites. On a clear day, the view extends from the island of Aegina and the Parthenon of Athens in the east almost to Nafpaktos in the west, encompassing most of the Saronic Gulf and the entire Gulf of Corinth. The northern horizon is bordered from east to west by the island of Salamis and the hills of Megarida. In the foreground you can see the peninsula of Perachora, where you were yesterday, and in the distance the peaks of the famous mountains Helicon and Parnassus.
In the green hills southwest of Corinth lies the region of Nemea, the legendary wine-growing area of Greece, famous for its soft, rich reds from the local Agiorgitiko grape, which supplied wine to the royal court at Mycenae as early as the second millennium BC. The wine route through Nemea consists of about 40 wineries. Many of them are open to the public without appointment. The visit usually includes a tour of the winery and a wine tasting with local cheese and bread. The most popular are A & G PAPAIOANNOU, Lafazanis Winery, Palivou Estate and Semeli Estate, with tastings usually costing between €10 (10.89$) and €25 (27.22$).
Among the wineries of the valley are the ruins of Nemea, one of the most important sanctuaries of ancient Greece and the scene of the Pangrian Games of Nemea: as in Olympia, athletes from Greek colonies from Spain to the Crimea gathered here. According to mythology, Heracles performed the first of his twelve heroic deeds here in ancient times – he killed the Nemean lion sent by Hera to destroy the sanctuary. Before visiting the remains of the Temple of Zeus and the ancient stadium, visit the museum to see how it all looked a few thousand years ago.
There were a total of four ancient Panhellenic Games – the Olympic, the Pythian, the Nemean and the Istomian – and the ruins of all four can be seen on this route if you take a detour to the east and visit the ruins of the Istomian Sanctuary of Poseidon. Not much has been preserved, but you can brag (and most importantly know for yourself) that you have been to all four sites of the ancient Greek Panhellenic Games.
Just 15 kilometers south of Nemea lies one of the most important ancient monuments in Greece, a UNESCO site and an extremely popular attraction: the ruins of ancient Mycenae. Mycenae, even by the standards of the ancient Greeks, was the most important city of the early proto-Greek civilization, now called Mycenaean, which flourished in the Bronze Age 4,500 years ago. It was Agamemnon, king of “gold-rich Mycenae,” who led the Greeks in the conquest of Troy, and it was here, in the baths of the Mycenaean palace, that he was immediately killed on his return by his wife Clytemnestra, one of the first strong and independent women of ancient Greek tragedy.
The archaeological excavations of Mycenae are closely connected with the name of Heinrich Schliemann, with whom, as a rule, all books on classical archaeology begin and around whose person as many myths and legends entwine as around his excavation sites. Before his discovery and excavation of Troy and Mycenae, the Homeric poems “Iliad” and “Odyssey” were considered merely exciting and beautiful legends. His excavations, however, confirmed their relatively historical basis (and found lots and lots of gold).
Around 1200 BC, the city of Mycenae was suddenly destroyed for reasons as yet unexplained, and the entire Mycenaean civilization perished. There were 400 years of dark ages – without writing, art and monumental architecture – after which Greek civilization was reborn in the familiar form of classical ancient Greece.
The archaeological site of Mycenae is a mighty citadel with the famous massive “Lion’s Gate”, the main visual symbol of the Mycenaean excavations. Walls of huge stones surround the tombs, residential quarters and the road leading up to the foundations of the royal palace.On the way to Mycenae is the “Treasury of Atreus”, which is not a treasury, but an imposing Mycenaean tomb in the form of a pseudo-dome – you can enter a real royal tomb from the Bronze Age.
As a continuation, there is the fortress of Tirinth, located 15 kilometers south of Mycenae, which was probably the port of the Mycenaean kingdom. The mighty citadel of Tirinth is associated in legends with Hercules: according to some myths, he was born here.
After Tirinth you will drive to Nafplion for overnight, the most beautiful city of mainland Greece and the first capital of an independent Greek state in the early 19th century.
Where to eat: There is a fairly decent Italian pizzeria near the archaeological park of ancient Corinth. In the Nemean Valley there are some good restaurants with homemade Greek cuisine, like Danaos & Anastasis, or with a more sophisticated interpretation of ancient Greek recipes, like Sofos. If you don’t want to waste time, the Gyro League has good gyros and souvlaki.
You should have dinner in Nafplion and combine it with an evening walk through the most romantic city of the Peloponnese. For example, at the very popular Greek taverns of Pidalio or at Wild Duck on the promenade in the old town, which tries to be a haute cuisine restaurant. The tastiest burgers are at Mamma’s Nafplio Burger, and at Mandaloun, a Lebanese street snack bar, you can get a good deal.
Where to stay: Definitely stay in Nafplio – try to find an apartment or hotel in the old town.
Day 3 – Nafplion – Epidaurus – Nafplion
You should spend the first half of the day in Nafplion. The city is made for walking: The winding, stepped streets lead to Turkish fountains, small churches, and views of the city and harbor.
Much of Nafplion’s originality and charm comes from the neoclassical buildings erected here when the city was the first capital of independent Greece from 1828 to 1834, before the government was moved to Athens. The Bavarian Prince Otto, who became the first king of Greece, was accompanied here by a retinue of architects who tried to transform the provincial city into a national capital.
Syntagma Square, with its cafes and Venetian buildings, is Mediterranean throughout, as is the seafront. And if you follow the picturesque pedestrian street of Arvanitia along the cliff by the sea from the old town, you will reach the city beach.
In the archaeological museum a real treasure is the world’s only complete bronze armor of a Mycenaean warrior 3,500 years old, with a helmet made of boar’s tusk. Be sure to drive up to the Venetian Fort of Palamidi for spectacular views of the city and the Argolic Gulf. It can be reached by cab for 10 euros or (if you feel up to it) by climbing the 911 steps, which start southeast of the bus station.
In the afternoon, take an excursion to the ruins of ancient Epidaurus, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most important sanatorium in ancient Greece.
The sanctuary of the healing god Asclepius (Aesculapius in Latin) combined the aspects of a religious sanctuary, a health center and a fashionable spa. It is believed that snake licking was one of the shrine’s therapeutic techniques. Other treatments included dietary instructions, medicinal herbs, and sometimes even surgery.
In addition to temples and colonnades dedicated to the cult of Asclepius, there were residences for physician-priests, hospitals for the bedridden, sanatoriums for convalescents, hotels, and places of entertainment, including the nearby Theater for the Healthy.
The theater is the reason Epidaurus is on the UNESCO list – it is not only the best preserved ancient theater in Greece, but even one of the best preserved classical buildings in Greece, never destroyed in its 2,400-year history. The acoustics are impeccable: the slightest whisper or rustle of paper on the stage can be heard clearly from each of the 14,000 seats.
In summer, during the Epidaurus Festival, the theater hosts theatrical and musical performances at sunset – seeing one of the ancient Greek tragedies in the theater of Epidaurus will be one of the best memories of a lifetime (at least that’s what visitors assure us).
If you have energy for the beach, the village of Palaia Epidavros is twenty kilometers east on a scenic road with great views and some beaches, like Kalamaki.
Where to eat: A short drive south of Palaia Epidavros is the ΑΓΝΑΝΝΤΙ ΤΟΥ ΣΑΡΩΝΙΚΟΥ restaurant with incredible views of the Saronic Gulf and quite good food.
Day 4 – Nafplion – Hydra, Poros or Spetses – Nafplion
Today is the day of the islands! There are three islands off the coast of the Argolida region where you are. They are located very close to the coast, so you can visit all three in one day if you try hard enough. But it is better to choose one or two, take a walk through the main town, walk in the Greek hills and pine groves, swim, eat on the promenade and do not hurry.
The easiest of all is Poros Island, 70 km from Nafplion on the scenic road along the sea south of Palaia Epidavros. Car ferries from Galatas opposite the island cost only 6 € per car, take 5 minutes and run from morning to night. It is the only island that can be circumnavigated by car and there are several bays with beaches, the ruins of the sanctuary of Poseidon on a hill in the middle of the island with beautiful views and some monasteries. The only town on the island is pretty Poros Town, with its picture-book Greek tavernas, narrow bougainvillea-lined streets, fat friendly cats, and romantically decaying neoclassical villas. In summer, there are fewer people here than on the other two islands.
The next island is Hydra, one of the most beautiful islands in all of Greece. It’s the Greek Capri, an expensive place where the rich and famous live – Leonard Cohen, Sophia Loren and a few dozen other famous Greek artists, writers and movie stars have lived here. Consider it an expensive suburb of Athens – it’s only a couple of hours by ferry from here to the port of the capital, Piraeus. Cars and motor scooters are forbidden on the island, you can only get around on foot or at most by donkey cart. Therefore, you have to park in the town of Metohi on the mainland, 80 kilometers from Nafplion, from where ferries leave for the island every 15 minutes from morning to night.
The most beautiful thing about Hydra is its main town, where there are hardly any modern buildings, only well-preserved mansions from the 18th and 19th centuries, marble streets, rolling hills and the sea. The ideal promenade, lined with expensive yachts, invites you to drink an expensive coffee in a posh café and enjoy the atmosphere. The city is located on a hill, and the higher you climb, the better the view of the bay. Outside the city there are several hiking trails to pebble beaches, harbor taverns and monasteries in the mountains.
The third island you can reach from Argolis is Spetses. Spetses is reached by ferry from Kosta, about 80 km from Nafplion, and you must leave your car in the ferry parking lot as only local vehicles are allowed on the island.
Spetses is best known from John Fowles’ book “The Magician”, in which it is picturesquely described as a simple but quaint place in the middle of nowhere, where the protagonist suffers from boredom. But that is in the past: today millionaires from Athens live in the old villas of the only town on the island, and the marina is popular with lovers of expensive yachts. Excellent restaurants and expensive clubs are open for them in the summer – everything is closed in the off-season. The town is surrounded by hills, pine forests and crystal clear bays with beaches. Spetses can be explored on foot along hiking trails, in summer there is a bus, but it is better to rent a bike, and if you just want to lie on the beach, rent a boat at the port.
Where to eat: The cheapest but also simplest Greek tavernas are on Poros, such as DIMITRIS FAMILY TAVERN and Taverna Karavolos in pretty squares in Poros Town, or Poseidon Restaurant on one of the waterfront promenades.
On Hydra, the Sunset Restaurant next to the bathing platforms west of the waterfront offers panoramic views, while the most inventive cuisine can be found at Téchnē Restaurant & Social, a little further down the same street. On Spetses, there are reasonably priced pizzas and burgers at Clock Eatery in the pretty square, or the popular To Pachni at the back of the village. If you want to enjoy seafood by the sea, Patralis is a little better than the others.
Day 5 – Nafplion – Byzantine Museum of Argos – Leonidio + Monasteries – Monemvasia
Say goodbye to Nafplion and drive to Monemvasia, a perfectly preserved Byzantine city on the slopes of a monumental rock, a Greek landmark of the Middle Ages.
From Nafplion, you will first drive to the city of Argos to visit one of the best Byzantine museums in the Peloponnese. Argos, once the most important polis of ancient Greece and now a dusty provincial town, is only 12 kilometers from Nafplion. The museum, opened only 4 years ago, helps even the most uninitiated newcomer understand the history, culture and daily life of the defunct Byzantine civilization from today’s perspective.
Eastern Laconia, the birthplace of the Spartans and the part of the Peloponnese you’re in right now, is off the main tourist routes. Leonidio is the only place for dozens of kilometers where you can meet other travelers. The town is known among mountaineers and hikers for the hundreds of trails in the beautiful Badron Gorge where it is located. Some of the locals still speak a dialect of Tsakonika that dates back to the time of ancient Sparta.
West of Leonidio are several impressively situated Greek Orthodox monasteries attached to cliffs overlooking the gorge, such as the whitewashed Metohion Panagias Elonas or Elonas. Stop by at least for the view.
About 4 kilometers southeast of Leonidio is the small fishing village of Plaka, with a beautiful beach where you can refresh yourself for an hour and have lunch at the seafood restaurants along the coast.
Then drive inland to the peninsula, to the hills and mountains of Lakona – where even in season there are few tourists. About 45 kilometers to the southwest is the picturesque, Spartan mountain village of Geraki, with the ruins of a medieval French-Byzantine fortress and settlement with basilicas, frescoes in medieval chapels, and a strange mix of Gothic and Byzantine – for 60 years in the 13th century this place was ruled by a dynasty of French knights.
Further southeast, 50 kilometers away, lies the final destination of today’s journey, majestic Monemvasia, a rocky peninsula with an iceberg-like mesa, surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Aegean and connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. The unusually well-preserved Byzantine town of Monemvasia is still inhabited today, although only about 20 people live permanently in the old town – the rest head home to villages on the mainland after work. But don’t count on seclusion: the town is well-known among many tourists. Still, it’s fun to wander through the maze of small streets and stairways, among old stone houses and fenced gardens.At the top of the cliff, where the stairway leads, is a Byzantine church with 13th-century frescoes and a fantastic view of the old town and the sea below.
Where to eat: Most of the good places to eat along the road are in Leonidio, there are a couple of good pizzerias (Restaurant-Pizzeria Pritanion and In LEONIDIO) and the inexpensive taverna I Moria with traditional Greek fried meats of all kinds. There is a good taverna Ταβέρνα του Ψαρά with fresh seafood next to the pier in Fisherman’s Plaka.
Dinner is available at Monemvasia – imaginatively prepared traditional mezes, Greek tapas at Voltes, and if you want a view, you’ll find it on the terrace of Chrisovoulo restaurant, which also offers sophisticated modern Greek cuisine. Monemvasia is a tourist destination, and prices at restaurants here are a third higher than at traditional tavernas on the mainland.
Where to stay: There is a good selection of apartments and hotels in Monemvasia, although prices are higher than in the neighboring settlement of Gefira on the mainland.
Day 6 – Monemvassia – Elafonissos – Githio – Spart
After a morning walk in Monemvassia, continue south – ferries depart from Punda from early morning until late afternoon to the small island of Elafonissos, famous for its Simos beach, which many consider the best beach in all of Greece because of its atypical white sand.
Back on the mainland, head north to Sparta. Briefly leave the route and head to the pretty port town of Gythio, once the main port of the ancient Greek Spartan state and now a fishing village with pastel-colored 19th-century neoclassical houses. Stepped streets lead up to the Acropolis, and a busy promenade leads to the daily market with fresh catch at the harbor.
At a distance of 5 km to Gythio, there is a beach with photogenic remains of the large (and currently rusting) ship “Dimitrios,” revered by locals as a landmark and by tourists as a reason for Instagram photos.
From Gifio to Sparta is 46 km through orange and olive groves at the foot of Mount Taighet, known for its poetry. There is nothing left of the legendary ancient Sparta: today’s Sparta is a dusty, boring provincial town that hardly invites you to explore. It makes sense to spend the night here and explore the Byzantine ghost town of Mistra in the morning.
Where to eat: On Simos beach, there’s a rustic but honest place with Greek salad and gyros. More choices in Gythio: There are several good fresh seafood restaurants on the promenade, the best being Saga fish and Trata. If you want to save money, there is an inexpensive taverna nearby with a catchy name: “Three are singing and two are dancing,” serving fried sardines and local sausages.
In Sparta, the most famous inexpensive place is Tsipouradiko To 50, a traditional taverna serving grilled meats, cheeses and vegetables. Delicious burgers can be had at Black John’s or to pass the time in the Abbaeío beer garden.
Where to stay: If you want to save money, you’ll find cheap hostels and apartments in Sparta itself; if you want views and comfort, you can stay in the surrounding villages on the slopes of Taiget, such as Mazaráki Guesthouse (9.6 on Booking) near Mistra.
Day 7 – Mistra – Kardamili – Hike around Kardamili
The impressive ruins of the medieval Byzantine churches, libraries and palaces of the UNESCO World Heritage town of Mistra are located on the foothills of Mount Taighet, 7 km west of Sparta. It is the most important Byzantine site in the entire Peloponnese and the most fascinating sight in Greece.
Mistra is one of the last outposts of Byzantine civilization and culture, which flourished just before the Ottoman Sultanate conquered the empire in the 1450s. For 1,000 years Mistra was a thriving city, much larger than medieval Sparta. In fact, the remains of Mistra are so impressive that generations of travelers have mistaken it for ancient Sparta. Walk the cobbled streets of this ghost town and visit the ruins of palaces, monasteries and churches, most of which date from 1271 to 1460 and many of which feature original frescoes by the best artists of the day. To visit the ruins of Mistra, you need at least half a day. Start early in the morning to avoid tourist groups, wear comfortable walking shoes and take plenty of water (you can fill it up at the monastery).
The road west of Mistra to the regional capital of Kalamata is 53 km long and an insanely beautiful, but time-consuming and very winding route. The road crosses Mount Taighet via the picturesque Langada Pass along the gorge with the river of the same name.
Kalamata itself is a rather boring town. There are all the necessary services and stores, a good archaeological museum and some good restaurants. If you don’t need all that, you can drive around Kalamata and head for one of the most beautiful natural regions of the entire Mediterranean, the legendary Mani.
On the way to Kardamyli, the capital of Messinian Mani, a breathtaking landscape unfolds with the green treetops, the vertical cypresses and the tiled roofs of the villages that stretch down the western slopes of Taighet to the blue sea.
The town of Kardamili itself is known from Homer’s Iliad – it is one of the seven towns that King Agamemnon gave to Achilles to appease his wrath, but no remains of ancient structures are preserved. Today it is a delightful vacation destination for wealthy Britons – few large hotels are built in the whole Mani region, so there are fewer tourists here than elsewhere, and accommodation is more expensive – you have to pay for the absence of masses of package touristsу and unspoiled, ugly, boxy landscapes.
Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin, two of the most famous authors of travelogues of the 20th century, chose to live in Cardamily, and these two have seen some of the beauties of our world. The former’s handsome villa (now owned by the Benaki Museum in Athens) stands amidst an olive grove on the behttps://goo.gl/maps/KahwZEW359UXEcdo6ach on the outskirts of town, while the latter’s grave can be found by fans in one of the mountain villages above Kardamili.
In addition to the beaches, of which there are many in the Kardamili area, it’s worth a hike to “old Kardamili,” which lies on the hillsides not far from town – a collection of abandoned medieval houses and churches – and on to the picturesque Viros Gorge, with its Byzantine churches along the cliffs. Alternatively, you can take a short detour by car to the villages of Petrovouni, Lakkos and Exochori for spectacular views of the Mani Coast.
Where to eat: In the village above Mystra there are some good places to eat such as Cafe Bistro VEIL with beautiful views or Skreka with modern, creative Greek cuisine. On the outskirts of Kalamata, Kostas Vassiliadis’ iconic tavernas offer perhaps the best rustic Greek dinner of your life for very little money. The closer you get to Kardamili, the higher the prices at the restaurants and cafes: expect to spend at least €30 per person for dinner. The most popular places to eat in the area are the Elies restaurant on Ritsa beach and the trendy Tikla gastrobar overlooking the sunset by the sea.
Where to stay: An apartment or guesthouse in Kardamily or the surrounding villages can be the most expensive accommodation on the whole route – at least 100 euros per night during the season. But it is worth it.
Day 8 – A drive through deep Mani with return to Kalamata
Today the whole day is dedicated to the deep Mani, a peculiar and unusual place, the land of the freedom-loving Maniotic Greeks, who consider themselves true descendants of the ancient Spartans. Self-governing for centuries, in their impregnable mountains of deep Mani, they did not even submit to the Ottoman Empire, which had to leave them alone after several failed attempts of conquest. They are fiercely independent and known for their fierce, spectacularly bloody internal feuds and blood feuds that make the houses of the Mani clans look like impregnable towers – sometimes a tower war in a village can last for decades. Many of the fortifications that remain today loom ominously over the coast, looking like a natural extension of the impregnable cliffs on which they stand. The landscape in this part of the Mani is barren, as are its inhabitants, especially in contrast to the lush greenery of Kardamili and its surroundings.
In addition to the stone fortified villages of the Mani, the red mountains of the deep Mani are home to numerous Byzantine churches and chapels dating from the 9th to 11th centuries. Many of them are decorated with frescoes, and almost all of them were built in places that offer breathtaking views of the brown cliffs sinking into the vast blue sea – one of the most characteristic and harmonious combinations of landscape and architecture in Greece.
The cultivated land here is very valuable, and there are few stunted olives and figs being grown. But today tourism is the main source of income for the locals: The region has been discovered by individual tourists from all over the world, and boutique hotels and restaurants are opening in the forts and towers of the Maniosti.
The Mani’s main bypass road leads down to the coast and a series of pebble beaches, so you can combine your trip with a swim. And on the edge of Cape Tanar, hiking trails are laid out from the parking lot to the lighthouse at the tip of the cape – a sense of the end of the earth, light and apocalypse.
- The most beautiful villages on the circuit along the main road around deep Mani are Wafia, Nomia, Kitta and Lagia;
- The most dramatically situated church, Ekklisia Odigitria, justifies a 15-minute walk from the road;
- The most beautiful frescoes are in the former Dekoulou Monastery (to get in, knock on the door of the house next door: the owners will gladly open the church doors and show you the paintings);
- Areopoli, the capital of deep Mani, is a pretty place with old stone houses covered with bougainvillea and some good restaurants where you can have lunch;
- The best beaches are Dexameni in the fishing village of Limeni, the tiny Kato mezapos, the beach of Girolimenas, Almiros and Marmari; you can also swim at Cape Tanar at the beginning of the road to the lighthouse.
After driving through the deep Mani, head north through Kardamili to the town of Kalamata, where you can have dinner and spend the night.
Where to eat: There are several good places for a scenic lunch in deep Mani, such as Café ManiBella on the beach in the village of Itilo, known for its maniote travihti cakes with cheese and honey. Excellent pizzas and tiramisu are available at the trendy Italian restaurant Matapan, while traditional maniote meat is grilled in all variations at the old-fashioned Ήταν Καιρός, which translates as “As never before,” and at the mountain taverna Drosopigi with breathtaking views of the coast. The best restaurant for freshly caught fish is Kourmas in Limeni, and traditional Maniot pastries made in a wood-fired oven can be purchased at the Το ΨΩμί της Μηλιάς bakery in Areopoli.
Where to stay: It is best to spend the night in the capital of the region, Kalamata, where it is cheap and cheerful to start tomorrow faster. But if you want to spend another night in the tranquility of Kardamili, you can be understood.
Day 9 – Kalamata – Ancient Messenia – Koroni – Metoni – Pylos
From Kalamata, you will first drive 30 km north to the ruins of ancient Messenia, once one of the largest cities of the ancient Peloponnese and capital of an independent ancient Greek state of the same name. Picturesquely situated on the hillside below the village of Mavromati, the ruins are among the most impressive and least visited sites in the Peloponnese. The nearly 10 km of preserved walls, with their massive gates and well-preserved defensive towers, are a fine example of Greek military architecture of the 4th century B.C. Also to be seen are the great theater, the agora, the huge sanctuary of Asclepius, and the impressive ancient Greek stadium. Don’t miss the equally grand Arcadian Gate, 800 meters away.
Then drive south for about 65 km along the coast of the fourth and last of the finger peninsulas jutting out of the Peloponnese to Koroni, a picturesque medieval seaside town. Once an important trading post of the Venetian Empire, it offers a splendid view of Messinian Bay and the silhouette of Mount Taighet on the other side. There are a few good cafes on the pretty seafront, and three kilometers south of Koroni is an excellent sandy beach.
The best-preserved Venetian fortress in the Peloponnese is Metoni, 30 km west of Koroni, in the spa town of the same name with a pretty little beach. If you have romantic fantasies about medieval castles, the Methoni fortress might well warrant a half-hour walk inside the fortifications.
Then drive 20 minutes north to the town of Pylos, considered the most beautiful in this part of the Peloponnese, with its seaside piazza, vaulted stairways and castle hidden in gardens. Once called Navarino, it witnessed a famous naval battle: in 1827, British, French and Russian naval forces destroyed the Ottoman fleet and wrested independence from the Sultan of the new Greek state. The best view of the naval battle of Navarino is from the castle above. There are several good cafes and restaurants in the beautiful central square, the Promenade of Pylos.
Where to eat: In Koroni, near the waterfront, you can eat gyros and other grilled meats at Gyrokomeio or have a beer and meze at Café Synantisi on the waterfront terrace.
From Koroni it is worth a short detour (4 km) to the tavern Foumaristis, where you can enjoy the excellent cuisine of Messena, such as wild boar stew with eggplant. In Methoni there are several good restaurants with traditional Greek cuisine, the most famous of which are Klēmatariá and Aléktōr. Fresh tuna and shrimp on the Pylos promenade should be tried at Aetos, and a selection of grilled meats at Γωνιά της Γεύσης in the nearby square.
Where to stay: The best but most expensive accommodation is in Pylos, but the plans for the next few days will be connected to its surroundings.
Day 10 – Pylos – Palace of Nestor – Voidokylia beach – Pylos
First thing in the morning you will drive to the second most important Bronze Age palace in Greece, Mycenae – the palace of King Nestor, one of Homer’s favorite characters who appear in both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”. The Palace of Nestor is the best preserved Mycenaean palace, with walls up to a meter high in some places. The magnificent frescoes on the walls of the ceremonial hall, which is over three thousand years old, can be seen in the archaeological museum in the nearby village of Chora. Many scholars today agree that these ruins were actually the palace of the garrulous old warrior Nestorius, a lover of the long, rambling memoirs that figure prominently in Homer’s poems. To bring the ruins to life, I suggest reading a short passage from the third book of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus’ son Telemachus arrives at Nestorius’ palace seeking news of his father. Homer shows us Telemachus’ arrival, his bath with his maids, and the lavish feast Nestorius gives in honor of his old friend’s son. Some of the locations are still there: A terracotta tub survives in one of the rooms adjacent to the main hall. Right next to it, archaeologists found small ceramic bowls that were used for bathing and for pouring scented oils.
Thanks to the records on the clay tablets found in the palace, we know that the level of material culture achieved in this bronze-beta version of Greek civilization (for example, they had a throne carved from a single piece of rock crystal) was not surpassed for a whole millennium until the incredibly lucrative campaigns of Alexander the Great.
You can spend the afternoon at one of the most famous beaches in Greece, Voidokilia, known for its perfect semicircle shape and soft, light sand.
On a hill south of the beach is an ancient castle built by the Franks in the 13th century, which you can climb to enjoy a magnificent view. There are also several hiking trails down to the lagoon.
Where to eat: In the town of Gialova, between Voidokylia beach and Pylos, there is the incredibly popular modern gourmet Greek restaurant Elia, with the most delicious moussaka on the peninsula. When all the tables are taken, there is a good Italian restaurant nearby, La Cucina Italiana, with pasta, tiramisu and beautiful views over Navarino Bay.
Where to stay: Stay another night in Pylos.
Day 11 – Pylos – Bassai – Likosoura – Arcadian villages – Dimitsana
Today the region of Arcadia is on the program, whose name has become the epitome of an untouched nature with grassy meadows and wooded mountains, with carefree (in the imagination of the urban poets of antiquity and the Renaissance, of course) shepherds and shepherdesses, lustful satyrs and white-robed nymphs. The herds and shepherds are still there, as are the beautiful mountain villages, the remote monasteries, the Frankish castles and the many opportunities for hiking through picturesque gorges.
From Pylos, we first head 125 km northeast to the next UNESCO World Heritage site, already the fifth on the route, the Temple of Apollo at Bassas. It is dramatically located in the remote mountains and is therefore quite well preserved. Its importance is also due to the original architecture of one of the creators of the Athenian Parthenon, Ictinus, who combined the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders here.
If you like ancient ruins as much as I do, you can take a detour 50 kilometers east of Bassa to Likosoura to visit the ruins of the ancient sanctuary of the local goddess Despina; the nearby museum houses copies of the sanctuary’s statues (the originals are in the Athens National Museum), an impressive example of 2nd-century “baroque” art. Another 15 km to the east are the ruins of ancient Megalopolis, the largest city in Arcadia in antiquity, with the remains of a theater, an agora, and sanctuaries.
When you have had enough of the ruins, drive north from the Temple of Apollo in Bassos through some of the most beautiful mountain villages in Arcadia. They are not well known to foreign tourists, but many urban Greeks from Athens and Thessaloniki come here to show their children and grandchildren how their ancestors lived: when Greece became an independent state in the 19th century, most people lived in such villages and hamlets, and the nostalgic memories of simple life away from the cities are part of the Greek national identity.
The first mountain village worth stopping in for a short walk is Andritsana: old stone houses with wooden balconies line the narrow cobblestone streets, and a stream runs through the picture-postcard square in the center. Thirty kilometers up in the Arcadian hills is the equally atmospheric village of Karitaina, with the ruins of a medieval castle perched above Byzantine churches, worth the climb for the view alone. The next village is Elliniko, 10 km north, on the edge of the picturesque Lousios Gorge, the main hiking route of Arcadia, where I recommend going tomorrow. 10 minutes north of Elliniko is one of the two most famous villages of Arcadia, Stemnica, or as it is also called, Tricolona. It is beautiful both for its architecture and its picturesque location in the mountains, and is protected by the state – nothing may be built or rebuilt in this historic village, which, according to unironically patriotic Greeks, represents the civilization code of the young Greek nation in the 19th century. Stemnica looks freshly restored, well-kept and prosperous, with a trendy cafe, stores selling local meat specialties and a good traditional taverna – the area’s popularity with Greek tourists is making itself felt. However, the most famous village in the area is Dimitsana, located 10 km north of Stemnica.
Dimitsana was built as an amphitheater in a deep cleft between two steep hills above the Lucios River. As you approach, you can already see the bell towers of the churches and the old stone houses, some of them medieval, with narrow windows and red tiled roofs, which stretch picturesquely down the green slopes of the mountain. From the village’s cobbled squares there are magnificent views of the surrounding mountains, forests and gorges, and it is worth watching the sunset and, if you are lucky and there is a room available, staying overnight.
Where to eat: Almost all the food options in Arcadia are traditional, even over-the-top tavernas – every village has one. They all try to surprise the Greek city dweller with the antiquity of their recipes and the grandmotherly way of preparing various meats.
In Adritsana, the most popular taverna is Cooking Recipes with goat stew made according to the great-grandmother’s recipe, while in Karitain there is Arktos, which serves local peasant sausages, burgers and traditional desserts. Perhaps the best restaurant in Arcadia is Zérzoba, in the mountains west of Lusios Gorge. It focuses on organic salads from its own garden, wild boar dishes, and the obligatory nostalgic ambience of a Greek house. There’s a lovely café in Stemnica’s main square where you can sit with a cup of good coffee from an Italian coffee maker and admire the traditional Greek grandfathers in their village clothes. Another local favorite for ribs and steaks is Ού Μπλέξεις. The owner sometimes cooks a bit slowly (you have to be patient), but he is very friendly.
Day 12 – Dimitsana – Lousios Gorge – Olympia
In the morning, leave your car and take a 12 km hike along one of the best hiking routes in the Peloponnese, the Lousios Gorge. On the way from Stemnitza to Dimitsana you will come across ancient ruins, several mountain monasteries dramatically perched above the gorge, a swift river with an ancient stone bridge and incredible views of the mountains and valleys of Arcadia.
Start from Stemnica – the route is popular with hikers from different countries, safe, marked along the way so you don’t get lost, and the paths are even marked on Google Maps (if you don’t want to take the whole route, see how you can shorten faster).
When you reach Dimitsana, take a cheap cab (5-7 €) at the main square of the village to the place where you parked your car. Before you reach the village, you can turn at the old restored water mill, which has been turned into an informative museum of water energy (sounds boring, but it’s amazingly popular), and ask for a cab. If you plan to enter the monasteries, be sure to bring clothes that cover your shoulders and legs. The monasteries are active and lively, and it is very interesting to see the churches, frescoes and the life of the monastic community.
In the afternoon, drive 70 kilometers west to the ruins of ancient Olympia, the site of the legendary Olympic Games and another UNESCO cultural site on your route. Olympia, the Hellenic powerhouse to which Greeks traveled by the thousands from all parts of the inhabited world, is first and foremost the sanctuary of Zeus, with temple, altar and all. The famous sporting events were held as a religious ritual in honor of Zeus. You can walk through the remains of the original Olympic stadium and visit the ruins of the old hotels and training grounds.
But first you should visit the Archaeological Museum, one of the finest in Greece, with everything the excavations at ancient Olympia have to offer, including the real helmet of Miltiades, with which he defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (and then personally brought it here to Zeus), and the impressive statues and reliefs from the pediments of the Temple of Zeus, which are amazingly well preserved. If you can’t make it in time, it’s better to go to the museum in the evening to see the floor plans of Olympia and understand what everything looked like in its original form before going to the ruins themselves in the morning, which can otherwise be boring.
Where to eat: It is better to eat in Arcadia, because in Olympia there are mostly gloomy restaurants that serve buses with tourists.
Where to stay: There are many cheap accommodation options in a rather boring but conveniently located town near the ruins of Olympia.
Day 13 – Olympia – Patras – Nafpaktos – Galaxidi
This is where the Peloponnese route ends, and if you’ve had enough, you can drive the 300 km to Athens and return the car, but I suggest taking a short detour through central Greece to see more beautiful beaches, rugged sea-view fortresses, and even two UNESCO heritage sites.
From Olympia, drive 20 km west and take the E55 highway toward Patras. On the way, you can turn off at the medieval French-Venetian castle, which offers a view of the islands of Zakynthos and Kefalonia in fine weather. A little further on, you can turn off at another great secluded beach where the ruins of a prehistoric fortress are located.
The city of Patras itself, the largest city in the Peloponnese and the third largest in Greece, usually doesn’t seem to appeal to travelers, seems gloomy and ugly, but you can have a quick and delicious snack there or go to an excellent modern archaeological museum, one of the largest in Greece.
From Patras, head north to the famous bridge over the Gulf of Corinth, the longest cable-stayed bridge in Europe (it costs €13.5 to cross). After the bridge, drive 80 km east along the Gulf of Corinth on the E65, which offers incredibly beautiful views in places. The destination is the resort town of Galaxidi. If castles and fortresses are not enough for you, in the town of Nafpaktos, 15 km from the bridge to Galaxidi, you can visit the historic Venetian fortifications, once called Lepanto and the most legendary naval battle of the early modern period, when the ships of Spain and Venice destroyed almost the entire Ottoman fleet.
The town of Galaxidi, the most beautiful resort in the Gulf of Corinth, is situated on a hill by the sea and is connected by narrow, cobbled streets with well-protected harbors on both sides. The old port was an important center for shipbuilding in the 19th century, a time of prosperity when the town was built up with beautiful stone houses, most of which are still standing. The other harbor to the south is full of bars, cafes and fish restaurants. On a wooded cape opposite the waterfront, hiking trails lead to pebble coves where you can swim.
Where to eat: Patras is full of good, reasonably priced places like trendy burger joint Square 16, Italian restaurant Salumeria with fresh homemade pasta, or mega-traditional family tavern Labyrinth, whose specialty is gardumba – roasted lamb intestines that, contrary to first impressions, are delicious.
In Nafpaktos you can have a pizza at Hot & Krispy, a popular and reasonably priced pizzeria. Seafood and fish in a creative variation are worth having dinner at Skeletovrachos restaurant overlooking the port of Galaxidi, and everything else at Bebelis tavern in the city center.
Where to stay: It is best to try to find a room or apartment directly in Galaxidi, but if everything is too expensive, the pretty mountain town of Amfissa 30 kilometers north is a cheaper alternative.
Day 14 – Delphi – Arachova – Osios Lucas – Athens
After a morning swim in Galaxidi, drive to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the excavations of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, or more simply, Delphi.
Delphi is probably the most important point of the ancient Greek world, its center, the navel of the earth, the most important sanctuary – the place of direct communication with God. Here was located the greatest authority of the ancient world, the oracle, an institution of priests and priestesses who predicted the future and gave instructions based on their declared direct communication with Apollo. Physically, it was a special room in the temple complex at Delphi where the priestess Apollos Pythia went into ecstasy and delivered messages and advice from above to suffering people from all over the inhabited world. Pulitzer Prize winner William Brod’s remarkable book “The Oracle of Delphi” tells how geologists discovered a fissure under the temple through which gas containing mind-altering substances flowed directly into the room where Pythia used it to tune in and communicate with Apollo. There is not a single great Greek who has not been to Delphi, who has not thought about Delphi, who has not mentioned Delphi – all of them have been here. The influence of this place and its oracle on history is enormous.
On the picturesque slopes of Mount Parnassus today stand the ruins of this ancient temple, which ceased to exist with the advent of Christianity, and the ruins of a number of associated ancient buildings. The view from the temple in Delphi is the most important landscape in the world for the ancient Greeks.
The excellent museum of the archaeological park displays the most interesting excavated pieces, including the famous Delphic Charioteer, one of the few surviving ancient Greek bronze statues from the 5th century BC.
From Delphi, drive about 36 kilometers east to the Monastery of Osios Lucas, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as the Monastery of Daphne, which you passed on the first day of the route. It is known for its preserved Byzantine mosaics from the 10th to 12th centuries and its architecture from the heyday of the Orthodox Roman Empire.
On the mountain road from Delphi towards the monastery, you pass the town of Arachova, the glamorous ski resort of Greece, where wealthy Athenians ski from December to April and hike in the summer. It is a good place for a lunch break.
From Osios Lukas Monastery, drive about 170 kilometers to Athens to park the car – our road trip is over. The Greek capital not only offers the most important archaeological sites and cool modern museums, but is also an amazing, vibrant and bustling metropolis. Be sure to make time for it. For more things to do in Athens, check out our travel guide (coming soon here).
Budget and itinerary
For food, you should budget from 100€ for two people per day if you want to eat in restaurants and fast food places, and from 30€ if you cook yourself and buy exclusively in supermarkets. Calculate your budget in this range. If you want to save money on accommodation, book apartments and rooms in advance: The cheapest deals book up faster than others, sometimes as early as half a year in advance. If you book one or two months in advance, you can expect to pay 60-80€ per night in summer and early autumn, and from 35€ per night in the off-season.
The total mileage of the trip will be more than 2000 kilometers, the price of gasoline in Greece is 2€ per liter: expect to spend at least 260€ on gas stations.
Approximate cost for two people:
- Car rental and gasoline – 25-35€ per day depending on the brand and season;
- Food – 15-50€ per person per day;
- Accommodation – 25-50€ per person per day;
- Entrance fees to excavations and museums – 3€ to 10€ per person.
Total: from 70€ per person per day if you save and book everything in advance, and up to 150€ per day.