Tucked away between the Ionian Sea and the Gulf of Patras in Western Greece, Messolongi is a lesser-known mainland gem with a fascinating story. Its history is filled with tales of heroes and revolutionaries (including the British Romantic poet Lord Byron). But the real magic happens in its patchwork of wetlands and lagoons, a paradise for birdwatchers and eco-adventurers and the source of some of the most distinctive tastes in Greek cuisine. Join us as we delve into the best things to do on your holidays in Messolongi.
Visit the Garden of Heroes
The first of your things to do in Messolongi is to visit the Garden of Heroes. But before that, a history lesson. Messolongi was the scene of one of the most dramatic and poignant episodes of the Greek War of Independence, known as the Exodus of Messolongi. A near one-year siege by Ottoman and Egyptian forces involved the residents barricading themselves within the town. Preferring death over surrender, they attempted a mass breakout on the night of 10 April 1826, with tragic consequences for much of the population. News spread within Europe and the massacre was seen as the ultimate symbol of sacrifice and liberty. It proved to be a turning point in Greece's struggle for independence.
The Garden of Heroes (created in 1830 by Ioannis Kapodistrias, the country’s first governor) contains almost 70 busts and statues of Greeks and philhellenes who sacrificed themselves for Messolongi and Greece. Highlights include the Monument of Markos Botsaris, who was given the title of General of Western Greece by the revolutionary Greek government, and a statue of Lord Byron, the great Romantic British poet who arrived in Messolongi in 1824 to support the Greek cause. Although Byron died in Messolongi during a previous Ottoman attack, his involvement helped rally international support for Greece after the siege.
Outside the garden is the Gate of Messolongi with the inscription: Every free man is a citizen of Messolongi. The gate was once attached to a bridge across a moat that was part of a fortification that no longer exists.
Eco-activities in Klisovas Lagoon
The Klisovas (or Kleisovas) lagoon is for many the biggest reason for choosing Messolongi for their holidays. It is the largest lagoon in Greece and is classified as an Environmental Park and part of the Ramsar Convention for wetlands. As well as containing a variety of fish, it attracts some 270 species of birds. Especially at sunset, when the priaria (flat-bottomed wooden boats used on the estuaries of Western Greece) and pelades (traditional stilted fishermen’s houses) are silhouetted against the orange-red sky, it’s a photographer’s dream. But the real draw here is birdwatching, one of the most popular nature activities in Messolongi.
Elsewhere, there are boat trips on a priari with a fisherman at the helm and an environmentalist on board to tell you all about traditional fishing on the lake and the birdlife. You visit the island of Klisova, scene of one of the most important battles in Greek history. Bird lovers will love the bike ride to the Observatory of Klisova on the eastern shore, where springs feed fresh water into the brackish lake. The greatest concentration of birdlife gathers here, including Dalmatian pelicans, herons and flamingoes, as well as smaller birds like waterfowl, purple sandpipers, reed warblers and nesting silverbirds.
At the Agia Triada thermal baths within Klisova Lagoon, you can experience the healing properties of the local clay
A tour of the museums of Messolongi
There are a several museums in Messolongi that each tell you something different about the town. The Salt Museum is an unexpected gem where you can learn all about lagoon’s salt, from the first time it was harvested to today. Salt has played a central role in Messolongi’s economy, agriculture, environment, tourism and even religion, with the local salt pans (especially in Tourlida) reaching their peak in the 1930s.
The Museum of Art and History, housed in the Old Town Hall building in the central Markos Botsaris Square, is a treasure of a different kind, with a collection of paintings by Greek and foreign painters inspired by the struggle of Messolongi as well as engravings, maps, coins, medals and traditional costumes. A short walk away, the Diexodos Centre of Literature and Arts is in the family home of the Commander of the Guard of Messolongi during the ill-fated exodus . It is one of the few pre-revolutionary buildings in the city and houses a collection historic artefacts from 1821.
And the Xenokrateion Archaeological Museum (in a 19th-century neoclassical building) has 1,200 objects from around the region, from prehistoric to late Roman times. Last but by no means least are the Trikoupi Museum (in the ancestral home of seven-time Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupis) and the Museum of Lord Byron and Philhellenism (established by the Byron Society of Messolongi) which hosts the Revolution ’21 exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of the revolution.
Visit the Trikene liquor store
The Trikene liquor store has been a Messolongi landmark since it opened its doors at the turn of the 20th century and it is tempting to think that little has changed since then. Entering is like stepping into a time capsule from when the Trikene family arrived from Kefalonia armed with a recipe for ouzo and little else.
It sold ouzo and cognac accompanied by meze that included avgotaraho (which you’ll hear more about in a bit) to people on their way home from work (from doctors and lawyers to fishermen and dock workers). A member of the Trikenes family (Pantelis) still runs the shop, which still sells ouzo but stopped serving food in the 1970s. It is like a living museum, with wooden shelves full of books on the history of Messolongi, old calendars, 70-year-old bottles of cognac and the marble tabletop on which the meze was served.
Sample the local cuisine in a taverna
If you like fish and seafood, you’ll love Messolongi. The lagoon is the source for many of the ingredients at the heart of the local cuisine. Avgotaraho (or bottarga) is synonymous with Messolongi and has become a Protected Designation of Origin product. It is made from grey mullet roe, cured, salted and sun-dried to concentrate the flavour before being covered in beeswax to help preserve it. The texture is smooth and velvety and the taste is unique. It has become a favourite ingredient of creative chefs, thinly
Classic Messolongi dishes include Petalia, which are fish (bream, grey mullet or more rarely eel) that are butterflied and generously salted before being left for a few hours and then washed and dried. They can be kept for up to three days before being quickly grilled on each side. Meanwhile, Pasta (or alipasta) is fish preserved in a thick layer of salt and enjoyed with ouzo or tsipouro. And finally, havaras are clam-like shellfish with juicy flesh and a delicious taste. They are often eaten raw with a squeeze of lemon but you can also find them steamed, fried or boiled and served with red sauce, or in spaghetti or risotto dishes.
A sunset walk on Plostenas lagoon
After a long taverna lunch, what could be better than a leisurely stroll, especially at sunset when the lagoon is as smooth as glass? The entire Messolongi waterfront is made for walking, with the colours changing hourly. And for perhaps the best sunset experience, visit Plostenas Lagoon, just north of Messolongi. You’ll be stopping continuously to take photos (the little wooden Plostainas Bridge is a favourite) and don’t forget your binoculars if you have them. Just after the bridge, there’s a birdwatching observatory (this time at sea level) from which you can enjoy more winged magic.
A stroll around Aitoliko
Around 10km northwest of Messolongi, Aitoliko is a small island within the mouth of a bay that is connected to the mainland by a pair of bridges. The entire island constitutes a settlement of some 4,000 people and has been called Little Venice because (especially in the north) the foundations of houses were built in the water and canal-like channels were once created inland. Strolling along the island’s picturesque alleys is like stepping back in time.
You can visit the Church of Panagia, famous for hosting the trial of revolutionary hero Georgios Karaiskakis in April 1824 and for having an icon that (according to tradition) was created by the Apostle Luke. Elsewhere, there is a Folklore Museum in a renovated stone building that was once an olive press, including rooms recreating a scene of everyday life of an old Aitoliko house and featuring tools of fishermen and traditional costumes. And at the Centre for Engraving Arts - Vasso Katraki Museum, you can admire the work of distinguished engraver Vasso Katraki (1914-1988), who was born and raised in Aitoliko before becoming internationally renowned for her sandstone creations. Finally, Limanaki Park is home to waterfowl that are resident in the lagoon.
Hiking in the Arakynthos mountains
While Messolongi is largely flat (making it comfortable for walking and cycling) it also boasts the Arakynthos Mountains just to the north, which are part of the Natura 2000 environmental network and are ideal for hikes. It is a low mountain range with a decent road network, making it easy to access, and offers beautiful nature and views over the lagoons. At the chapel of Agios Georgios Hounistas (which you can reach by car), you can enjoy a picnic with a view.
Another highlight is the Agrilias Waterfalls, where you can have a refreshing dip. And the most dramatic scenery in Arakynthos is in the limestone-rich northwest, especially the Klisouras Gorge connecting Messolongi to neighbouring Agrinio.
You’ll be discovering a little-visited part of Greece, so it is definitely worth hiking with a guide.
Visit the remains of the ancient cities near Messolongi
Messolongi has remnants of no fewer than four ancient cities around it. Dating to the Classical and Hellenistic periods, Ancient Kalydon is 11km east of Messolongi with a collection of remains that were excavated just a few decades ago by a Danish-Greek collaboration, including a rare square (rather than the typical semi-circular) theatre. On the way back to Messolongi, you can also pop into the much smaller site of Ancient Alikyrna.
More impressive is Ancient Plevrona (or Pleuron), 9km north of Messolongi, which flourished in the 2nd century BC and was one of the most important fortified cities of Aetolia, high above the Messolongi lagoon. Remains include a huge stone tank and a theatre with a fantastic view. Finally, the archaeological site of Oeniades lies on the banks of the Acheloos River, 28km outside Messolongi. There are precious few remains of what was once the second-largest city of Akarnania, apart from the theatre and one of the inland shipyards for which the city was renowned.
An excursion to the Botanical Gardens
The next excursion on your list of things to do in Messolongi is to an oasis of greenery spread over 100 acres that boasts no fewer than 3,500 species of plants and six themed gardens. The Zelios Gi Botanical Garden is a short drive away (22km) and includes vegetable and herb gardens and a vineyard. Whatever your age, you’ll enjoy learning the skills of gardening (when and where to plant seeds, how to tend the plants etc). In the herb garden, you’ll learn about the healing properties of herbs known to the ancient Greeks, as well as the secrets of the aromas and flavours that give Greek food its distinctive taste). In August, guests can take part in the grape harvesting in the vineyard (including treading the grapes in barrels with bare feet). And a final bonus is the community of 60 deer that roam freely in a special enclosure.
Take part in the Festival of the locals
You can enjoy the above things to do in Messolongi at pretty much any time of year under your own steam. But if you visit during the last weekend of August, there’s a big bonus. The Festival of the Locals has become an annual institution with a range of activities related to Messolongi’s cultural and natural identity. Guided by locals, you can participate in tours of the lagoon, taste local products, and visit the museums and ancient cities. There are exhibitions and presentations, as well as hands-on workshops and events as varied as stargazing and attending musical nights under the summer sky.
Spend the day at the beach
Just because you’re discovering one of Greece’s lesser-known mainland gems doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some beach time. There are a number of beaches near Messolongi, mostly off the coastal road towards the Rio-Antiro Bridge that you cross to reach the Peloponnese. The closest is Kavourotrypa, 20km east of Messolongi, which is a mix of sand and small pebbles and is organised with umbrellas & sunbeds and facilities for the whole family. Around 5km further down the coast are the more remote and unorganised Limnopoula and the long and sandy Kalamaki beach.
Heading in the opposite direction (37km west of Messolongi) is Louros beach, a whopping 17km of mostly sand and shallow water. Backed by wetlands, it is also protected by the Ramsar Convention. And a final bonus for adventure-seekers is remote Dioni beach (or Tsimari, named after a shipwreck there) at the mouth of the nearby Acheoloos River. It is a beacon for kitesurfers, especially during the annual kitesurfing festival in August.
* Messolongi by Locals (authors of this article) have an Information kiosk in the city and a Local Hub on the corner of El. Venizelou St & Kosta Katsi St, which hosts events & activities and where you can get more info on the spot.
12 best things to do in Messolongi
So what grabbed your attention with our things to do and activities in Messolongi? Was it the birdwatching and boat trips on the lagoon? Or was it the tales of heroes or the unique flavours?
FAQs about Mesolonghi
- Stin Agora: Family taverna with fresh fish and local products. A great place to try grey mullet petali
- Dimitroukas: Family taverna with fresh seafood and local dishes, located in one of the narrow streets of Messolongi
- Alidoro: A sandwich bar where sandwiches are named after places in Messolonghi
- Ola Xyma: A mezedopolio (restaurant specialising in meze) with a good choice of dishes and a great atmosphere.
- Kyraoulia: Traditional kafeneion in the town centre, with an aesthetic that takes you back in time
- Sousouro: An ideal place for ouzo and meze in the town centre, with a lovely, warm atmosphere.
- Cave Malaveta: Family kafeneion in the centre, where you can enjoy a traditional Greek coffee or a tsipouro
- Marea All Day Restaurant: All-day restaurant and grill with quality food and a view of Messolongi harbour
- Tourlida Fish Taverna: The only taverna in Tourlida village, worth visiting at sunset
- BistrΩ: Cocktail-bar, with a modern aesthetic, which you’ll especially love if you’re a jazz fan
- Boulevard: Café-bar in the centre of town, ideal for a weekend cocktail
- Alatiera: Bar-restaurant with a view of Messolongi harbour, perfect for enjoying a sunset glass of wine or beer
- Dasaki: All-day café-bar-restaurant with a view of Messolongi harbour
- Réplika: Nice place for cocktails while you’re wondering around town
- Eleven: Good choice in the town centre for food, drink or a coffee, with live music events