Attached to the rest of Greece by the Isthmus of Corinth, the Peloponnese is a peninsula with ancient cities and natural sights that are ingrained in the world’s shared memory.
The region has one UNESCO World Heritage Site after another, from the Bronze Age tombs of Ancient Mycenae to the Great Theatre of Epidaurus, in immaculate condition at 2,300 years young.
It’s a sign of the abundance of ancient wonders in Peloponnese that you can follow in the footsteps of the traveller and writer Pausanias, who visited many of the locations on this list almost 1,900 years ago.
Medieval history is also everywhere in the Peloponnese, at places where natural and man-made beauty merge, like the Byzantine city of Mystras, the fortified island of Monemvasia and rock-hewn monasteries in the Lousia Gorge.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Peloponnese:
1. Great Theatre of Epidaurus
In the ancient city of Epidaurus the monument you have to see is the theatre, built in the 4th century BC and designed by architect and sculptor Polykleitos the Younger.
The Theatre of Epidaurus is often cited as one of, if not the finest ancient theatre, and in the 2nd century AD it was lauded by Pausanias for its symmetry and beauty.
At that time it could hold 16,000 spectators.
Apart from the skene (the structure behind the orchestra), which has been lost, the structure is much like how it would have appeared in 2,300 years ago thanks to restorations in the 1900s and 1950s-60s.
The acoustics are so good that from the top row of the upper theatre you can hear a person talking at normal volume in the orchestra.
Come for a performance during the Epidaurus Festival in June and July.
In the 2nd millennium BC, Mycenae was one of the main centres of Greek civilisation, holding sway over most of southern Greece and chunks of Anatolia.
At its apogee between the 17th and 12th centuries BC, the city on a hilltop in a mountainous landscape near modern day Mikines had a population of 30,000. Using the description of the Lion Gate by Pausanius in the 2nd century AD, the Venetian Proveditor General Francesco Grimani was able to locate Mycenae at the start of the 18th century.
That image, with a pair of lionesses flanking a column, is the only piece of monumental sculpture to survive from Bronze Age Greece.
The Tholos tombs at the site are nothing short of epic, like the Treasury of Atreus (Tomb of Agamemnon), possessing what was the largest dome in the ancient world for 1,000 years and with a lintel stone weighing 120 tons alone.
Another UNESCO site, Mystras is a Byzantine fortified town posted on Mount Taygetos, above the Evrotas river valley near ancient Sparta.
The town was founded by William II of Vilehardouin, the Prince of Achaea in 1249. Mystras would be the capital of the Byzantine Despotate of Morea in the 1300s and 1400s, when it became a centre for the arts and philosophy as the cradle of the Palaeologan Renaissance.
As an archaeological site it’s the most complete example of a Medieval walled town in Greece and has a palace complex, castle, grand private residences still standing.
The churches, like the marvellous Panagia Odigitria, still have vivid frescoes from the town’s heyday.
4. Ancient Corinth
The ancient city of Corinth was established in the 8th century BC at a strategic location on the famous Isthmus, and by the 5th century BC it was home to 90,000 inhabitants.
On the main east-west trade route, the city wielded vast power and wealth in the Classical and Hellenistic periods.
The Romans dismantled Corinth in the 2nd century BC and rebuilt it was Greece’s provincial capital.
The site has been continuously excavated since the end of the 19th century, and you’ll get to see the Temple of Apollo and the impressive Fountain of Peirene, the agora, the vestiges of ancient streets and the foundations of the theatre, all well labelled.
The museum is also a must for its statues, mosaics and frescoes, and to get a feel for the site’s dense history.
For Christians, Corinth will also have special meaning as the destination for St Paul’s mission around AD 50.
5. Corinth Canal
A long, straight fissure in the isthmus, the Corinth Canal was mooted in ancient times.
The Tyrant Perlander was the first to draw up a plan in the 7th century BC, but the idea was abandoned repeatedly, and the canal wouldn’t be started until 1881. The channel is 6.4 kilometres long, but because it’s little more than 20 metres wide at water level it was quickly obsolete for modern container traffic.
As a tourist attraction the Corinth Canal is a marvel, with bare limestone walls rising to 90 metres.
Near the mid-way point is a footbridge where you can see to the end of the man-made canyon in both directions, while a boat cruise is another way to gauge the dimensions of this work.
In an isolated spot among forbidding mountains and ravines, Bassae is often neglected as a tourist destination.
But if you do make the journey you’ll have a UNESCO site almost to yourself.
The thing to see in Bassae is the astoundingly well-preserved Temple of Apollo Epicurius, which was erected between 450 BC and 400 BC. Bassae’s far-flung location is what helped to keep this monument intact as its stone was too far from any settlement to be quarried.
For the last few years the temple has been under a tent for restoration, so you can’t get a photo of it from outside.
But everything is in place under the canopy: The Doric columns on the outer peristyle, and Ionic and Corinthian (the oldest in Ancient Greece) columns supporting the body of the temple.
Near the northernmost pocket of the Argolic Golf is the endearing port city of Nafplio, in the shadow of its Palamidi fortress, which we’ll cover next.
Nafplio goes back to prehistoric times, and after a fallow period in the Roman era, was a busy harbour for the Byzantines, Franks, Venetians and finally the Ottomans.
Immediately after Greek independence in the 1820s Nafplio was the nation’s capital.
Some things to take in are the Acronauplia, the oldest part of the city, on a fortified spur on the south side of Nafplio’s peninsula.
Down on the water there’s an graceful palm-edged promenade where you can gaze out towards the Bourtzi, the city’s Venetian sea fort from the 15th century.
And a couple of blocks behind is the top-notch archaeological museum, in a Venetian barracks and with Mycenaean armour from Denrdra among its exhibits.
East of the Acronauplia in Nafplio is the Venetian Palamidi fortress, cresting a rock more than 200 metres in height.
Designed by the engineers Giaxich and Laselle, it’s a massive system of eight self-contained bastions linked by a wall.
One of many remarkable things about Palamidi, is that it was completed in just three years up to 1714. The climb from the centre of Nafplio is no joke, as it’s 999 steps to the top of the fortress.
Keep an eye out for the cisterns that are still used to collect rainwater, and the Chapel of Agios Andreas in the central bastion.
This monument is at the centre of Nafplio’s independence celebrations on 30 November.
On that day in 1822 a service was held in the chapel after it was liberated from the Ottomans.
9. Diros Cave (Vlychada)
One of three caves at Diros in the southern region of Laconia, a visit to the Vlychada Cave is like a trip to Hades, in the best possible sense.
The journey begins on a slow-moving subterranean river 1,600 metres long and where stalactites formed over hundreds of thousands of years drop down to just a metre or so above the water.
You’ll don a lifejacket and traverse the river on a guided trip in a rowboat for half an hour having to duck occasionally to avoid the pink and red formations.
The second half of the visit is on foot, through 300 metres of chambers festooned with yet more otherworldly concretions.
At peak time in summer you’ll be given a slot and may have to wait for 90 minutes, but this isn’t such a problem as there’s a dreamy beach a few steps from the entrance.
10. Heraion of Perachora
The ruins of this sanctuary by a beach on the Perachora Peninsula were also mentioned by Pausanias 1,900 years ago.
This dramatic spot had been venerated since the 9th century BC, while the temple dates from 6th century and was destroyed about 200 years later.
The Heraion of Perachora is in a glorious setting, at the base of scrub-flecked bluffs a short way from the lighthouse on the cape.
Allow a moment or two to peruse fragments of columns and the cistern, before clambering up to the lighthouse for a spectacular view and bathing in the light blue waters at the beach in front.
The island of Monemvasia is a colossal plateau on sheer cliffs that broke away from the mainland after an earthquake in 375 AD. Crossing the bridge is a stirring experience as you’re faced with bluffs 300 metres high like the bow of a huge ship.
This small but mighty island held firm during a three-year siege by William of Villehardouin in the 13th century and has a lot of architecture from Medieval times.
There are Byzantine churches like Christos Elkomenos and Agia Sofia, and Frankish defensive walls.
Pass through the main gate and you’re in a bewildering, Escher-esque labyrinth of stairways, portals and ruins.
Nearly all these archaeological sites up the slopes have information boards, and when you’ve done enough exploring you can dine at a taverna in the tourist-friendly lower town.
12. Simos Beach
If you had to come up with the archetypal Greek beach, Simos Beach on Elafonisos would come close.
In truth the island off Cape Malea isn’t part of the Peloponnese, but is only 100 metres and a quick ferry crossing from Pounta.
And at any rate Elafonisos was a peninsula on the mainland in the days of Pausanias.
Simos is the best of four paradisiacal beaches on Elafonisos, and you’ll get there via a raised wooden footpath over dunes.
What you’ll find is both a cove and sandbar leading to a rocky promontory.
The beach is a dreamlike horseshoe of soft, pale sand, pitching gently into aquamarine waters that barely reach above the knee, even 20 metres out.
13. Ancient Messene
Pausanias came to Messene sometime around the 150s and his description of the ancient city is still the main guide for historians.
Once again, Messene doesn’t get a lot of traffic, and you may have the ruins to yourself.
But Messene is much more than just a muddle of stones; the city has been painstakingly pieced together to give a firm idea of how it looked in antiquity.
Messene was founded in the 4th century BC by the Theban statesman, Epaminondas.
It was built on the foundations of Ithome, a city that had been demolished by the Spartans and abandoned for a century.
Just a few of the best sights are the near-complete odeon, stadion and theatre, as well as houses with mosaics, a gymnasium, asclepeion and traces of a defensive wall built to keep those Spartans out.
14. Lousios Gorge
In Arcadia the Louisos Gorge is 15-kilometre cleft in a forested landscape, hollowed out by its namesake river.
You can begin your journey through the gorge at Dimitsana, negotiating a path through home oaks, maple trees and sages, below gnawed limestone walls that have been shaped by human hands.
There’s a long monastic tradition in the Lousios Gorge, and the isolated man-made cave hermitages were the forerunners to the monasteries of Aimyalon, Philosophou, Timiou Prordomou and Panagias Palamiou, These are also partially cut into the rock and corbelled with wooden posts.
The Lousios River is said to be where Zeus used to bathe and has appropriately tempestuous waters for white-water rafters.
15. Agios Patapios Monastery
On the first ridge of the Geraneia range is a female monastery founded beside a cave in 1952. The story of this place, 650 metres over the town of Loutraki, goes back centuries before.
The cave had already been a hermitage since the 12th century when in the 15th century it was chosen to keep the relics of St Patapios (alive around 300 AD) and St Hypomone (d.
1450). Their remains were brought from Constantinople after the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
Far up the mountain, the cave was forgotten over time, and was only rediscovered by a priest in 1904. Their relics have pride of place in the convent’s church and you’ll be led around by helpful nuns.
The view from the terrace is what makes the trip, and you can buy homemade beauty products and honey from the shop.