Highlights of Mytilene town in Lesvos
A stroll along the harbour
Every walk in Mytilene should start in the harbour. This is where Lesvos gets its rhythm, with action day and night and historic buildings that include the old Town Hall, built in 1900 and one of the many gems of distinguished German architect Ernst Ziller blending European classicism with Ancient Greek art. Strolling along the waterfront, you pass many neoclassical buildings, as well as cafes and shops – eventually reaching Sappho Square, where the ancient Greek poet was born. It’s the perfect spot to sit for a while and take in the atmosphere. From here, you can meander into the backstreets of Mytilene, past the little shops and cafes. The Matis Distillery, established by the Matthaiou family more than 150 years ago, offers the perfect introduction to Lesvos’ ouzo tradition. Or you could do it the old fashioned way and stop at an ouzerie for a seafood meze.
The Archaeological Museum
Around 10min walk from Sappho Square, Mytilene’s new Archaeological Museum is found in the Kioski area of town at the foot of Tsamakia Park below the castle. It’s the best way to get a crash course in the ancient history of Lesvos, with a permanent exhibition that includes floor mosaics and frescos from Hellenistic and Roman villas, as well as sculptures and tombstones and a small but interesting selection of clay artefacts, jewellery, coins and other everyday items from the 3rd to the 4th centuries AD that bring ancient Mytilene to life.
With the castle just above you, you’ll be tempted to head straight up to Mytilene’s crown jewel. But it’s worth first making a small detour to Mikras Asias (Asia Minor) Street to feast your eyes on a couple of buildings from Lesvos’ Ottoman occupation. The first is the island’s Law Courts (a school in the 19th century) whose grand design follows in the neoclassical/Anatolian style of Ottoman provincial public buildings. The next building is the Halim Bey mansion (the home of a wealthy Ottoman merchant whose descendants erected several buildings in Mytilene, including the Yeni Mosque and the Çarşi Hamam). Constructed in 1880, the Halim Bey mansion was a family home until 1923 when the crumbling Ottoman Empire triggered a population exchange between Greece and Turkey and the building was used to receive Greek refugees. Nowadays, it houses the Municipal Art Gallery.
The time has come to head up to one of the biggest medieval castles in the Mediterranean. Your first impression of Mytilene Castle (said to date from the 6th century AD, during the Roman Emperor Justinian’s rule) will be the tree-filled six-hectare expanse of green that spreads down from its walls. Once within the castle, you’ll understand its value as a fortification to the Venetians and Ottomans and its significance when Lesvos was reunited with Greece in 1912. Despite going through many changes, and being damaged by wars and earthquakes, it was inhabited until after 1945. These days, you can wander freely inside and around the main West Gate where you’ll find more Ottoman-era buildings. Leaving the castle, you can walk back down to the coast and continue around perimeter road, admiring the views of the Aegean. Arriving at the northern end of the peninsula, you reach Epano Skala where Greek refugees from Asia Minor were settled on arrival. Look for the statue of the Asia Minor Mother of Lesvos, depicting a mother cradling a baby while a young boy and girl hug her legs. It represents the hardships and courage of the many widowed mothers who arrived on this island in the 1920s. It’s also an area with plenty of tavernas and cafes.
Right across from the Asia Minor Mother of Lesvos statue is Mytilene’s main shopping street, which runs all the way back to the harbour. Ermou Street is the artery through which Mytilene’s lifeblood flows, filled with locals going about their daily lives. You’ll find bars, bakeries, confectionery stores, delis and ouzeries as well as plenty of shops (from clothes shops to ceramic workshops and jewellery stores). Look for the 16th-century Metropolitan Church of Agios Athanasios, which has a neo-gothic style bell tower and whose building blocks were carted from quarries in Asia Minor. Pop in to admire some of the finest post-Byzantine woodcarvings in Lesvos.
The Church of Agios Therapontas
Reaching the end of Ermou St (back the harbour), you’ll arrive at another Mytilene landmark, the Church of Agios Therapontos. Designed by one of Ernst Ziller’s local assistants, it was built from the early 19th century and completed in 1935 and its standout feature is its impressive dome. Even though the temple follows the Byzantine style, you’ll also be able to make out other modern architectural influences (including Baroque and neoclassical) as well as more gothic elements. Overall all, it’s unlike any other church in Greece. In the courtyard is Lesvos’ Byzantine Museum, containing collections of icons and ecclesiastical artefacts.
* See the When to go section for more information about museums and cultural sites in Mytilene