Discover the top 10 cultural sites in the Peloponnese
If you love immersing yourself in the history of a new place, you’re in for a treat. You could make a bucket list of archaeological sites in the Peloponnese and not come close to ticking them all off. So we’ve gathered the highlights to help you cherry-pick, including some of the leading cultural sites in Greece. We explore the birthplace of the Olympic Games, Late Bronze Age settlements, famous medieval castle towns and ancient theatres that still resonate with the sound of applause. Five are UNESCO World Heritage Sites (of the 18 in Greece) and, everywhere we go, we look for the nuggets that only a local guide could reveal.
Visit the ancient world’s holistic healing centre
It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to top cultural sites in the Peloponnese. So how about we tempt you with one of the best-preserved ancient theatres in the world? The Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus continues to entertain spectators (just as it did when it was built in the 4th century BC) as one of the principal venues for the annual Athens & Epidaurus Festival. What you’re less likely to know is that the theatre was just a part of a healing centre dedicated to Asclepius (the god of medicine). People came from all over Greece (and beyond) for the Epidaurus healing experience that mixed medicine, religious rituals, sport and drama – a complete, holistic treatment of body, mind and soul. A final tip is to test the acoustics of the ancient theatre. You’ll be amazed.
- Northeastern Peloponnese, 27km (30min by car) from Nafplio
- UNESCO World Heritage Site
Complete a rite of passage at the venue of the ancient Olympics
It’s astonishing to think that more than 2,500 years after the ancient Olympic Games took place every four years at this very site, we still cheer the world’s best athletes in the event that continues to carry its name. In this way, the story of Ancient Olympia is central to the history of Greece. Much has changed since (the athletes wear clothes for starters and women are allowed to compete) but the kudos of being crowned with an olive wreath is as great as ever and the Olympic Flame is still lit here in the traditional way before every Games. You can line up on the running track like an ancient Olympian and you’ll learn how the sanctuary also had enormous religious significance, with temples and sacrificial altars dedicated to Zeus and Hera. A 12.4m ivory-and-gold statue of Zeus once stood here, one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. You will find the remains of gymnasia and other sporting facilities. And your experience is completed at the on-site Museum of the History of the Olympic Games of Antiquity, which gathers many artefacts and reveals more about the history of the Olympics. Ancient Olympia is without doubt one of the most iconic archaeological sites in the Peloponnese.
- Western Peloponnese, 300km (3hr40min from Athens)
- UNESCO World Heritage Site
Mycenae & Tiryns
Feel the weight of history in the City of Gold
Travelling to the depths of European history now, we head to the Late Bronze Age settlement of Mycenae (1250 BC), home of the legendary Trojan War hero, King Agamemnon. Known as the City of Gold, this is amongst the most memorable cultural sites in the Peloponnese. Entering the citadel of Mycenae through the Lion Gate (above you, two stone-carved lionesses watch your every move), you will stand amazed by the size of the Cyclopean Walls – so-called because they could only have been built by the mythical one-eyed giants of Greek mythology. The most famous monument here is the Tomb of Clytemnestra, one of the most impressive tholos tombs of Mycenae. With even taller Cyclopean Walls (as written about by Homer, no less), Tiryns is a lesser-known ancient gem 20 minutes away by road. It reached its peak in 1400-1200 BC when it was one of the most important centres of Mycenaean culture, with palatial architecture characteristic of the time.
- Eastern Peloponnese, 23km (25min) from Nafplio
- UNESCO World Heritage Site
Discover the mystical aura of Byzantine Mystras
Culture in the Peloponnese goes far beyond the glories of antiquity. The remains of the hilltop fortress of Mystras are amongst Greece’s greatest Byzantine legacies, dating from 1249. Under the Palaiologos dynasty in the 14th and 15th centuries, Mystras was one of the foremost seats of the Byzantine Empire outside Constantinople, later to be occupied by the Venetians and Ottomans. Many of the palaces, churches (with frescoes) and other buildings spread amongst three interconnected sections of the town are from the earliest years, with the only inhabitants today being the nuns in the Convent of Pantanassa. Most of all, you’ll remember the view of the orange and olive groves of the Laconia valley and the same aura that inspired the Late Byzantine-era scholar Gemistus Pletho to found a school of humanistic philosophy here in around 1410, teaching the works of (amongst others) Plato and Pythagoras. And a bonus for nature lovers: The E4 pan-European hiking trail runs through this part of the Peloponnese on the slopes of Mt Taygetos.
- Southwestern Peloponnese, 5km (8min) from Sparta
- UNESCO World Heritage Site
Temple of Apollo Epicurius
Explore an architectural wonder in Bassae
The first ancient Greek temple to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site (in 1986), the Temple of Apollo Epicurius has a unique archaeological design. It is the only Greek temple to feature three architectural orders – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. We have Ictinus (one of the architects of the Parthenon in the Acropolis of Athens) to thank for the 5th-century BC temple, which was so admired in antiquity, not least because of its location at 1,131m on the slopes of Mt Kotilion. It is part of Bassae (meaning ‘little vale in the rocks’), one of the most important archaeological sites in the Peloponnese. The historian Pausanias considered the temple one of Greece’s most impressive when he visited. Bring a picnic. The hillside setting is magical.
- Western Peloponnese, 67km (1hr20min) from Ancient Olympia
- UNESCO World Heritage Site
Follow in the footsteps of Pausanias to a complete archaeological site
Until this lush valley was excavated in the late 1980s, we only had the writings of the historian Pausanias (who visited in 155-160 AD) to go by as the main reference to Ancient Messene. Now we can see for ourselves what he witnessed of the city, which was at its peak in the 4th century BC when Spartan rule ended. The fact that no subsequent city was built over its remains means that we can now enjoy one of the most complete archaeological sites in Greece, including a 10,000-capacity theatre, a stadium, a gymnasium, gates, temples and buildings designed in a Hippodamian (grid) plan. The walls you can see leading towards Mt Ithome were originally 9km long.
- Southern Peloponnese, 32 km (40min) from Kalamata
Be treated like royalty in the town of kings and knights
You are transported to another time (and another part of Greek heritage) the moment you step foot into this extraordinary medieval castle town at the very tip of the Peloponnese. You half expect a knight on horseback to come clopping past, given the Byzantine aura of stone walls and vaulted alleys. Exploring the Lower Town and castle – with cobblestone streets that unexpectedly gift you a view of the sea – is one of life’s special treats. Indeed, there was a time, in the Middle Ages, when Monemvasia’s sweet Malvasia wine was one of the prized exports in Europe, featured at the tables of kings and knights. Now you can enjoy an evening glass of the very same wine (today given PDO status) from the privileged position of your taverna table as the stone around you turns the colour of the setting sun.
- Southeastern Peloponnese
The castles of Messinia
Go castle-hopping in Koroni, Methoni and Pylos
Castles in Greece? You’d better believe it. We have the Franks and Venetians to thank for most of the castles dotted around the Greek mainland and islands but the Peloponnese takes the country’s castle legacy to another level. Within three easy strides in Western Messinia (they are within 41km of each other), you can hop between some of the finest 13th-17th century fortifications. Arriving at Koroni, you’ll understand the defensive significance of this castle town and its importance for merchant ships heading east. There are still some inhabitants within the citadel, including the nuns in the Monastery of Timios Prodromos. Meanwhile, Methoni’s castle is amongst the most impressive in Greece, especially the octagonal Bourtzi, almost surrounded by the sea. Within the nine-hectare complex are Ottoman baths. Finally, in Pylos, Neokastro (New Castle) is an amazingly preserved Ottoman-era fortress that played a key role in the 1827 Battle of Navarino (the last great naval battle fought exclusively with sailing ships). There are tavernas and swimming spots in or near all three castle towns but a beach you simply can’t ignore is the horseshoe-shaped Voidokilia (near Pylos). Above you is – what else! – the Frankish Paleokastro (Old Castle).
- Southwestern, 51-62km (1hr-1hr15min) from Kalamata
Ancient Corinth & Acrocorinth
Delve into the culture of Corinth, from canal-level to hillside fortress
Just a few kilometres from the Corinth Canal (marking your entry into southern Greece), Ancient Corinth could well be your first cultural stop in the Peloponnese. The city dates to the Neolithic Period and competed with the other Greek city-states (it is halfway between Athens and Sparta). As you explore the Temple of Apollo (as well as later monuments and relics such as the Roman Forum, fountains, porticoes, baths and latrines) consider that 90,000 people lived here in 400 BC and that the Isthmian Games competed with the Olympic Games for importance. Some centuries later, Apostle Paul also lived and preached in Corinth. Around 3km to the south, Acrocorinth (Upper Corinth) is one of Greece’s most impressive fortresses, blending architectural elements from Mycenaean, Classical, Byzantine and Medieval times. It served as the last line of defence between the Peloponnese and the isthmus separating it from the mainland. Perched high up on a hill, with epic views to the sea and inland, you’ll understand why it remained strategically important for centuries, with many of today’s walls dating to the Venetian era.
- Northern Peloponnese, 7km (12min) from Corinth
Recreate the spirit of Hercules in the land of red wine
Just down the road from Corinth, Ancient Nemea was once known as Iraklion because it was in these parts that Hercules performed the first (and best-known) of his 12 labours, killing the lion terrorising the Nemean countryside. Combining bravery and cunning, Hercules achieved his goal (with his bare hands) and, to celebrate, established the Nemean Games (another to rival the Olympic Games), held at the very same 40,000-capacity stadium within the archaeological site. As in Olympia, the event was held in honour of Zeus, and the Temple of Nemean Zeus (from the 4th-century BC) was built alongside the running track. The prize for winning athletes here was a wreath of celery leaves. You’ll find information on Ancient Nemea in the on-site Archaeological Museum, containing artefacts including the Aidonia Treasure, a collection of Mycenaean gold. And if you want to finish your experience in real style, go wine-tasting at one of Nemea’s many vineyards, where you’ll learn all about the region’s famous reds – a gift from the god Dionysus, no less.
- Northern Peloponnese, 30km (27min) from Corinth
Start planning your mythical holidays in the Peloponnese
So there we go … our top 10 cultural sites in the Peloponnese. The truth is that this is just the start of what the Peloponnese offers when it comes to culture. So, the more you search, the more you’ll find. But if we’ve got you tempted, we’ve got a great road trip itinerary for you.