With the mythological region of Arcadia sitting at its heart, the Peloponnese is a sprawling mountainous peninsula in the south of Greece. Home to the Greek god of nature, Pan, Arcadia has long been celebrated for its unspoiled wilderness, and its beautiful mountainous landscape became commonly thought of as the idyllic land among painters during the Renaissance. While in real life there may not be any nymphs frolicking in the forest, there is no questioning the beauty of not only Arcadia but the whole Peloponnese region, and a visit provides the chance to discover pine-covered mountains peppered with traditional stone villages, lush forests filled with azure waterfalls, and a sprawling coastline dotted with white sandy beaches.
The Peloponnese is also significant in both Greek mythology and ancient history with prominent sites such as Mycenae, Nemea, Olympia and Messini intertwined in both legend and reality. From retracing the steps of Hercules in the spot where he defeated the Nemean lion to walking in the footsteps of Olympians at the birthplace of the Olympic games, the region offers countless opportunities to visit the location of history’s most legendary moments.
Read on to discover why you should consider swapping the islands for the Peloponnese on your next Greek getaway.
- Historical sites in the Peloponnese
- Best beaches in the Peloponnese
- Most beautiful coastal towns in the Peloponnese
- Prettiest mountain villages in the Peloponnese
- Best hiking routes in the Peloponnese
- Best waterfalls in the Peloponnese
- How to get to the Peloponnese
- Where to stay in the Peloponnese
Historical sites in the Peloponnese:
Having been the hub of Greek civilisation for four centuries during the late Bronze Age – long before the rise of the Athenian city state – Mycenae is a significant historical site and a visit will place you at the heart of what was once the most powerful kingdom in Greece. Like many Greek sites, the history of the ancient city sees fact and myth merge with legend stating that the city’s king, Agamemnon, led the expedition against Troy in the Trojan War. Upon entering through the grand Lion’s Gate – build with stones so big it’s thought only Cyclopes could lift them – there’s no doubting, however, the accuracy of Homer’s description of Mycenae as being ‘well-built’ and ‘rich in gold’.
A visit to Mycenae will also place you between the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus and the legendary town of Nemea. The latter is where Hercules embarked on the first of his great labours – slaying the monstrous Nemean lion sent by the goddess Hera to destroy the city. Nemea also played host to the ancient Nemean Games, held in honour of Zeus, and today three columns of a temple built as a dedication to the mighty Greek god still stand. A visit provides the chance to retrace the steps of the athletes through the entrance tunnel into the stadium and to line up at the starting line, which remains in place to this day. Another marvellously well preserved structure, the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus is widely regarded as the best and most intact example of an ancient theatre in Greece. Dating back to the 4th century BC, the colossal theatre can seat more than 12,000 spectators and boasts exceptional acoustics. As a result, it is still used for live music and theatre shows to this day and each year it welcomes thousands of spectators to enjoy al fresco performances in the exact spot where the ancient Athenians would have done the same.
Sitting further west in the Peloponnese, the towns of Olympia and Messini are ones to consider if you have more time in the region. The former provides the chance to bear witness to the spot where the Olympic Games were born, and while the ancient sites aren’t as well preserved as the ones located in Nemea, it can be a thrilling experience to consider the influence that a tradition born in that very spot 2800 years ago still holds on society today. Ancient Messini, meanwhile, is where the Messinians were freed from almost 350 years of Spartan rule. Lesser visited than the likes of Olympia and Mycenae, the site provides a more peaceful alternative and the chance to explore a large ancient theatre, an agora and an impressive stadium that went on to become a gladiator arena.
The best beaches in the Peloponnese:
While the vast Peloponnese coastline is home to a large number of inviting sandy beaches, one of the most unique is the striking Voidokilia Beach. Shaped like the Greek letter omega (Ω), the beach boasts a calm lagoon of sheltered water making it a pleasant spot for a relaxing swim while the lack of surrounding infrastructure and far-reaching views out to the ocean make for a wonderfully wild experience. A strip of bright white sand hugs the edge of the turquoise shallows while rolling sand dunes and towering rocky outcrops complete the unique setting.
Offering more facilities than Voidokilia, Mavrovouni Beach is a long stretch of sand where a small number of sunbeds and a handful of rustic beachside restaurants can be found. It’s very low-key and not too crowded, and provides the chance to witness where the Greeks themselves go on holiday.
The most beautiful coastal towns in the Peloponnese:
Sitting nearby to Mavrovouni Beach, Gythio offers another glimpse into authentic Greek life. Overlooked by many foreign tourists, the town is instead filled with local teenagers and Greek holidaymakers who gather in the charming, colourful harbour for al fresco dining and open air concerts. Pastel coloured neoclassical buildings line the promenade, creating a picturesque backdrop for daily activities such as local fishermen hanging their catch of the day and seafront restaurants serving fresh seafood and traditional gyros.
Set on a tiny island off the southeastern coast of the Peloponnese, the medieval town of Monemvasia is one of the most picturesque spots in the region. With a name that translates to ‘single entry’, the town is accessed via a single causeway that connects the island with the modern village of Gefyra. Such isolation allows for a natural, impregnable fortress and throughout history the village has been occupied by everyone from the Byzantines and the Franks to the Venetians and the Ottomans. As a result, the village is a marvellous blend of intricate Byzantine churches and colourful Venetian mansions, all of which sit on a dramatic cliffside in the shadow of a crumbling medieval castle. Entered through the old castle gate, the town is atmospheric from the offset with uneven cobblestone paths lined with bustling restaurants, bars and cafes. The main throughways can get rather crowded but if you venture into the labyrinth of tiny alleyways you’ll soon discover a peaceful village with hidden doorways, colourful facades and picturesque squares.
Widely regarded as the prettiest town in the Peloponnese, Nafplio places colourful Venetian houses, grand neoclassical mansions and three distinctive fortresses in a spectacular seafront setting. Busy tavernas, trendy bars and upmarket boutiques, as well as its proximity to Athens and countless neighbouring beaches, make it a popular holiday spot and weekend getaway among Athenians.
The prettiest mountain villages in the Peloponnese:
Hundreds of tiny villages pepper the vast mountain range of the Peloponnese. Some have been abandoned with residents flocking to nearby towns and cities while others are flourishing and paving the way for new generations. One of the most picturesque is the sleepy village of Polydroso, where well-maintained stone buildings sit in a valley surrounded by pine-covered mountains. Some of the buildings extend outside of the valley with terracotta topped churches and houses hugging tightly to the mountainside – look carefully and you’ll see the tiny St. John Prodromos church carved into the neighbouring mountain.
While Polydroso is certainly beautiful, it’s also very sleepy with a vast number of buildings acting as holiday homes. For an insight into more traditional village life, pay a visit to nearby Vasaras. Unspoilt by tourism, the tiny village sits around a pretty tree-lined main square where locals regularly gather for the evening. Large groups of women fill the tables for a night of gossiping, clusters of men prop up the bar at the local tavern, and lively children run around playing. Bassarógampros is a basic restaurant that serves cheap and tasty local dishes while the tavern across the square provides a charming backdrop with locals drinking and chattering in front of a pretty stone building.
One of the most unique spots in the Peloponnese is the village of Vamvakou in the Laconian region. It’s here that a group of five young friends are striving to resurrect rural life in a remote village that had been near enough abandoned by the early 2000s. Having moved back from their cosmopolitan lives in Athens, the friends are striving to rebuild a bustling new community that offers hope for all generations, with the particular aim of hearing the school bell ringing once again. Through the help of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation – founded by shipping tycoon and former Vamvakou resident Stavros Niarchos – the revival project has been steadily building new village hubs and opportunities, and so far new hiking and cycling routes have been created along with a trendy restaurant and a school that plays host to weekend and summer activities. Visit the village on a Sunday and you will no doubt find the restaurant full of diners that span all generations with a busy kitchen team serving steaming plates of local food on the ground floor and youthful bar staff serving cocktails and coffee on the rooftop.
Two more beautiful villages can be found along the epic Menalon Trail (see more below) with Stemnitsa and Dimitsana forming the beginning and conclusion of the first section of the route. While both villages offer an idyllic backdrop of traditional stone houses and local tavernas, it’s Dimitsana that’s the real standout. Set high in the mountains of Arcadia, the village boasts unrivalled views across the surrounding landscape while the village itself has retained much of its local charm despite its growing links to tourism. Expect to see clusters of local men eagerly hunched over a backgammon board as well as groups of mothers and children chatting away in the local restaurants and cafes.
The best hiking routes in the Peloponnese:
If you’re staying at a guesthouse in the Peloponnese mountains, you will no doubt be surrounded by hiking options with the chance to wander through peaceful patches of forest discovering hidden mountainside churches and fresh springs along the way. If you only do one hike, however, make it the Menalon Trail. Spread across 75km of the picturesque Arcadia region, the trail passes through nine villages and is split into eight different sections so you can opt to do just one or two of them rather than the full thing. If, however, you do opt to do the whole trail, you will need between five and eight days to complete it, staying at guesthouses in the villages located along the way.
The most popular and arguably the most impressive section is the first one: Stemnitsa to Dimitsana. This spectacular route takes hikers past the awe-inspiring Prodromos Monastery, which clings to the side of a mountain and remains active today, through the majestic Lousios Gorge and into the ancient Old Philosphou Monastery that dates back to 963. It then concludes in the traditional village of Dimitsana where you can enjoy a well-earned beer while taking in the panoramic mountain views. Section four, meanwhile, offers a shorter, easier alternative through some of the prettiest landscape on the trail.
The best waterfalls in the Peloponnese:
The dense forests of the Peloponnese are home to several magnificent waterfalls, and a hike through the trees will bring the reward of seeing glistening showers of water plunge down emerald green surfaces into the azure waters that sit below.
Some of the prettiest waterfalls in the Peloponnese can be found hidden within the Polylimnio Gorge where a series of rock pools, lakes and waterfalls are dotted along a striking turquoise river. A narrow, rocky pathway runs along the riverbed with several picturesque spots for swimming and relaxing located along the way, and the crowning glory is a 30-metre waterfall at the top of the gorge where you can dive into deep blue waters and swim right to the base of the cascade. The tallest waterfall is accessed by turning right when you enter the gorge and following the path up over steep rocky surfaces while the other end of the gorge is home to less dramatic but more peaceful beauty spots with mini waterfalls trickling into bright turquoise lakes.
How to get to the Peloponnese:
A vast peninsula that sits to the southwest of Athens, the Peloponnese is part of mainland Greece and as such can be reached by car from Athens. The drive from Athens takes around two hours to get to the heart of the Peloponnese and there are several rental companies offering hire cars at Athens International Airport.
If you’re not travelling from Athens to the Peloponnese, you can fly directly into Kalamata International Airport, which can be reached on direct flights from a number of international cities including London, Paris, Frankfurt and Stockholm.
Where to stay in the Peloponnese:
For a rural mountain escape in the heart of the Peloponnese, book a room at the Pritanio Guesthouse. Sitting at the highest point of the remote village of Polydroso, the secluded guesthouse is surrounded by pine-covered mountains and boasts spectacular views across the striking landscape. The charming alpine design runs throughout the property with sandstone walls, exposed wood beams and large open fireplaces, and the beautiful bar features a huge terrace that’s perfect for early evening sundowners.