Capital of the Achaia prefecture, Patras has a heavenly setting on its namesake gulf at the very north of Peloponnese. Modern Patras by the water was rebuilt around impressive squares after the city was damaged Greek War of Independence in the 19th century.
But up the slope is the old city, where you’ll happen upon Roman buildings like the Odeon, Amphitheatre and the Castle of Patras, which was occupied by a military force for 15 centuries straight. There’s history of an even more ancient kind at Skioessa, which has 75 preserved tombs from a Mycenaean cemetery dating back 3,500 years. Life in ancient Patras is neatly summed up at the superb Archaeological Museum, which has one of Greece’s largest collections of mosaics.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Patras:
1. Archaeological Museum
Inaugurated in 2009, the Archaeological Museum is hard to miss from the road for its enormous metallic dome, looking a bit like a fat flying saucer.
When it opened the museum drew acclaim for the clever way it displays its artefacts, organising them in three large rooms (Private Life, Public Life and the Necropolis). Private Life has jewellery and everyday utensils from Mycenaean, Geometric, Archaic, Hellenistic and Roman Greece, a whopping collection of 14 Roman mosaics, as well as partial reconstructions of Roman houses from around the city.
Public Life is loaded with coins, statues, musical instruments, amphorae an yet more mosaics, all painting a clear picture of society in Ancient Patras.
The Necropolis deals with the tombs and the objects within them, found in Patras and around Achaia.
Three whole graves have been reconstructed, two Mycenaean from the Voundeni cemetery near Patras, and one Roman.
2. Roman Odeon
In Patras’ hilltop upper town, close to the castle is a Roman conservatory for musical performances, built during the rule of Emperor Augustus at the turn of the 1st century AD. With a brick facade on its south wall, the Odeon was connected to Patras’ Roman Forum and was actually built some time before the Odeon in Athens.
Successive earthquakes, wars and invasions took their toll, almost destroying it and burying it under the remnants of other buildings.
The Odeon was rediscovered by accident in 1889, and the restoration continued up to 1956. Now partially made with modern material the Odeon has a capacity of 2,300 and is used for music once more, notably at the Patras International Festival every summer.
3. Agios Andreas Cathedral
This vast basilica was started in 1908, but because of the tumultuous events of the 20th century wouldn’t be consecrated until 1974. The Agios Andreas Cathedral is the largest church in Greece and the third largest Orthodox edifice in the Balkans.
The church is a pilgrimage site for Christians the world over as it contains the purported relics of St Andrew, one of the 12 Apostles.
In a chapel to the rear on the right side are fragments of the cross on which he was martyred, as well as a finger and the top of his cranium.
The piece of skull has been at the Agios Andreas since 1964 when it was sent from Rome and received with great fanfare.
Also take in the sumptuous neo-Byzantine mosaics on every surface, admiring the Madonna with Child behind the iconostasis.
4. Castle of Patras
Also at the top of the city, one of the first things that will strike you about the castle is how far you can see over Patras and the channel.
The castle was built in the mid-500s AD on the ruins of the ancient acropolis.
From the time it was completed to the Second World War the Castle of Patras was constantly armed.
A long list of cultures and civilisations have either besieged or taken the castle, among them Slavs, Moors, Normans, Franks and Venetians.
The Ottomans were in charge from the middle of the 15th century and later in the 17th-century Morean War, the Venetians wrested it from them for almost two decades before the Turks regained control, in 1715. A remarkable thing about the castle is that all of those occupants left their mark, revealing the development of military technology over the course of 1,500 years.
5. Voundeni Mycenaean Cemetery
The Skioessa neighbourhood on the road northeast of Patras is an area with signs of habitation going back 3,500 years.
Remnants of a settlement and cemetery have been discovered, in use from 1500-1000 BC. The cemetery to the southeast is the most exciting part for visitors, covering 1.6 hectares with some 75 tombs of various sizes and designs that were first excavated in the 1920s.
You can enter about ten of the tombs, and each one is labelled with details about the items discovered during the digs.
The first tomb has been left undisturbed, so you can see the skeletons of three people, knowing that they have lain here for as long as 3,500 years.
Further up at the ruins of the settlement, the view over Patras and the gulf are unforgettable.
6. Agiou Nikolaou
If you’re in the mood for some shopping the lower end of this street in the centre of Patras has many of the big European chains.
On Agiou Nikolaou and the adjoining streets you’ll have H&M, Zara, Stradivarius, Sephora, Marks & Spencer, Pull & Bear, Pandora and Massimo Dutti, to name a few.
If you head southeast along the street, following the slope you’ll eventually come to the Church of the St Nicholas, next to the eponymous flight of stairs.
From here you can climb the 192 steps (take your time on a hot day) up to the castle and upper town, turning back occasionally to savour the mountains across the channel.
7. Rio-Antirrio Bridge
Spanning the western end of the Gulf of Corinth between Peloponnese and Western Mainland Greece , the Rio-Antirrio Bridge is, at 2,880 metres, among the world’s longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges.
It is also definitively the longest bridge of its kind in the world to be fully suspended.
The bridge opened in August 2004 and crosses not far from Patras to the town of Antirrio on the mainland, overcoming both the gulf’s deep water and the constant seismic activity in the region.
The bridge has more than 100 sensors, measuring anything from seismic tremors to the deck’s thermal expansion.
Before this structure was completed the only way across was by ferry, and by road the Isthmus of Corinth 130 kilometres to the east added hours to journey times.
Only two bridges in the world have longer cable-stayed decks: China’s Jiaxing-Shaoxing Sea Bridge and the Millau Viaduct in France.
8. Faros Patras (Patras Lighthouse)
On a headland a brief walk from Agios Andreas Cathedral is the city’s lighthouse.
You may be able to tell that the faros doesn’t have a maritime role, but instead has more of a symbolic meaning , replacing a lighthouse from 1878 that was pulled down when the port was modernised in 1972. This current building is from 1999 and has a blue glow at night.
At the base of the lighthouse is a cafe and the area around it is a waterfront park, facing west and a great place to watch the sunset.
9. Spinney of Patras
East of the centre of the city is a steep, pine-covered hill known as the Spinney of Patras.
The hill is loved by walkers and joggers for the ample shade offered by its pines planted in 1916 by an Austrian expert in forest management.
The view of the city, port and gulf is so impressive that the Spinney is often described as “Patras’ Veranda”, and there are a couple of spots to stop and take it all in.
One is the cafe terrace at the fork in the road, and another is a municipal tourist kiosk.
10. Plateia Yioryiou (Georgiou I Square)
The recent story of Patras is one of destruction, either at the hands of the Turks in the War of Independence or frequent earthquakes.
So it’s no mystery why only scraps of Patras’ old signature Neoclassical architecture has made it to the 21st century.
Some of the few exceptions await you on Georgiou I Square, and the most eye-catching of all is the Apollon Theatre on the northeast side of the square dating to 1872. Take a seat at a shaded cafe table next to the theatre’s arcades, look over the fountains and give yourself a few minutes to see the people of Patras coming and going.
11. Roman Amphitheatre
Next to the Roman Odeon are the partially excavated ruins of Patras’ amphitheatre, raised during the time of Emperor Domitian at the end of the 1st century AD. The amphitheatre was first identified in the 1870s, but archaeological surveys weren’t made until the 1990s, a job made difficult by the amount of modern development on the site.
It is believed that the amphitheatre was a gift to the city on the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Roman colony here.
The eastern side, which is the most intact, is built into the slope, and the edifice measures a total of 200 by 90 metres.
In its day the amphitheatre was known all over Greece for the Caesarea, games in which athletes from far and wide competed in a range of events like racing, pentathlon, boxing and wrestling.
12. House of Kostis Palamas
A sight to keep on your radar as you navigate the centre of Patras is the Neoclassical house at 241 Korinthou Street.
In 1859 this was the birthplace of the poet Kostis Palamas.
He was one of the luminaries of the Greek “1880s Generation” literary movement, helping to found the New Athenian School together with other eminent writers of the day Ionnis Polemis and Georgios Drosinis.
But to you and me, Kostis Palamas will be remembered as the man who wrote the lyrics to the official Olympic Anthem, performed for the first time to music by Spyridon Samaras at the Athens Olympics in 1896.
13. Patras Hammam
Although now a private business, these baths also have real historical value.
They were built in the 15th century by the Venetians and later adapted by the Ottomans who turned them into a hammam.
The baths have been in continuous use since that time, putting them among the oldest surviving Turkish baths in Europe.
You can use the baths as they were intended and stop here to recuperate after a day of climbing up and down the steps to the upper town.
14. Achaia Clauss Winery
Established by the Bavarian Gustav Clauss in 1861, Achaia Clauss is the second oldest business operating in Greece after the National Bank.
One reason the winery was able to flourish was because of the Clauss’ connections to the Bavarian-born king, Otto of Greece.
The winery is built like a castle on a picturesque hillside at Glafkos about 15 kilometres from Patras.
You’ll be given an enthusiastic tour of the vineyard and the buildings, learning about the dense history of the winery and checking out giant old barrels, some of which have wine going back to 1889. You’ll get to pose in an old-time cooper’s apron, while there’s a generous array of wines available to taste, including red, white, rose and the trademark sweet red fortified wine Mavrodafni.
15. Patras Carnival
Between 17 January and Clean Monday, the first day of Great Lent (48 days before Easter) on the Orthodox calendar, you can catch one of Greece’s most famous street spectacles.
The Patras Carnival is unique in the country, and is one of the largest in Europe with a riot of masked balls, games and parades attended by tens of thousands of people, as well as all manner of unofficial side events.
The things you have to see are the opening ceremony on 17 January, the Children’s Carnival with 5,000 participants on the penultimate weekend, the Saturday night parade, the Grand Parade with satirical floats on the final Sunday and the closing ceremony, illuminated by fireworks.
Also on the final weekend there’s a treasure hunt, in which the various groups taking part in the parades compete with each other, solving riddles and questions to find clues around the city.