When it comes to Greece, most people think of just one thing: “islands”.
But did you know 80% of Greece is mountainous?
And that some of the most interesting sights are actually on the mainland?
Of course, I’m not going to say anything bad about the Greek islands, which are perfect for a beach-focused holiday. I once went island hopping in Greece and it was great!
But a trip through Greece gives a more complete experience, as I realized when I went on a road trip through the Peloponnese.
This region has its share of great coastlines and beaches to be sure, but the Peloponnese also has millenia of history to uncover and so many authentic towns to visit. Compared to the hit island destinations of Santorini or Mykonos, to me this part of Greece felt much more like a discovery.
Sometimes called the heart and soul of Greece, the Peloponnese was once home to the Mycenaean civilization and was later central to Ancient Greece. It’s here the first Olympics were held and where famed cities like Sparta and Corinth were once found.
A journey through Peloponnese is a journey through history. With a Greek history book in hand, traveling it will give you constant insights. I’d read of a particular episode, such as the Helot slave tribes in Kalamata that were subjugated by Sparta, and then realize, “hang on, that’s where we’re driving tomorrow!”.
But equally, I loved swimming in crystal clear waters with near-tropical temperatures, having scenic drives through windy mountain passes, and eating far too much Moussaka, Tzatziki, and other delightful dishes.
Some of the highlights included:
And much, much more. Follow along as I share all the best from my Peloponnese trip.
The Peloponnese is just one region of Greece, but it’s still quite a chunk to bite off. If you’re also including Athens or Delphi in your Peloponnese itinerary, you’ll be covering a surface area roughly the size of Belgium.
To cover the Peloponnese you need at least 2 weeks, but ideally 3 full weeks. If you have just one week, you might just want to focus on a single corner, like staying in Nafplio and visiting the sights around it.
Truly, you can travel through the Peloponnese in many different ways — this is just how I’ve done it! I skipped some places like Monemvasia only because of a lack of cheap accommodation at the time. Some seaside towns are vaguely similar (e.g. Monemvasia, Pilos, Methoni, Nafplio) so with limited time you can pick the ones that best fit your route.
The Peloponnese is an exciting part of Greece to discover on a road trip, but keep in mind it does involve covering a fair bit of ground. There are only some motorways, so often you’re driving on provincial roads. The route you see in the itinerary map above involved about 19 hours of driving.
As for travel costs, they depend much on when you’re visiting. In the July/August high season, accommodation and car rental prices can easily double or triple. During high season and as a couple, we spent about €72 per person per day, including the car rental. If you’re on a budget, consider other months like May, June, September, or October. You can read more in this Greece travel costs overview.
How to get around
Before I go through some of the top places to visit in the Peloponnese, let me tell you how you can reach this region and best travel through it.
My trip started and ended in the capital, as Athens International Airport simply had the best flight connections. Some seasonal charter flights also go from various European cities to Kalamata, which is at the heart of the Peloponnese peninsula, as well as Patras Araxos Airport, which is in the northwest corner. It’s likely that starting in Athens will be easiest.
I traveled through the Peloponnese by car, which felt like an ideal way to do it. It will give you easy access to more remote towns, scenic coastal roads, and hidden beaches. You’re also not limited by any timetables, so you can more easily make progress every day. The cost of a rental car varies greatly depending on the season.
By public transport
It’s possible to travel the Peloponnese by public transport. I’d suggest looking at trains first; you can view a map of the rail network here. The bus company KTEL can also be of help, though for certain key routes I could find only one weekly service, so using buses may be a little more adventurous or time-consuming than having your own car.
The Peloponnese is not strictly known for backpacking and doesn’t really have any hostels, so if you’re a budget traveler you’ll need to rely on rooms and B&Bs.
Peloponnese places to visit
Starting in Athens, we’ll follow roughly a circular clockwise route around the Peloponnese. These were my favorite stops along the way.
The Corinth Canal separates the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland, in a strict sense making the peninsula an island. Built in 1893, it’s too narrow to fit large modern ships, but its steep walls make it quite a sight to behold, especially if you’re lucky to see a ship passing through.
A few ruins of Ancient Corinth as well as the Acropolis of Corinth can also be visited about 15km (9 miles) further west.
Despite reputedly being the most touristy city in the Peloponnese (it’s a big hit with Athenians on the weekend), I’d say it’s also one of the most beautiful. Nafplio is the perfect starting point for a Peloponnese trip.
Hugging the slope of a peninsular mountain ridge crowned by a ruined Venetian fortress, this delightful town will quickly enchant you with its narrow streets, houses with flowery balconies, and glittering sea views from its harbor.
Interesting fact: the first capital of modern Greece wasn’t Athens or Thessaloniki… it was actually this small town called Nafplio.
There are several nice beaches nearby. Just behind the mountain, you can find the secluded Paralia Arvanitia beach with great views of the bay. A short drive away is the beach town of Tolo, which was decidedly less enchanting (a narrow strip overflowing with children, dogs, water scooters, etc.), but drive just 5 minutes further to Kokkinos Vrachos beach and you’ll have yourself a little slice of paradise.
Nafplio is a great base for a day trip to Mycenae, the once-capital of the civilization preceding the Ancient Greeks. If you have some appreciation of history, you’ll be amazed at the structures they were able to build as far back as 1600 BC; walk through the Lion Gate and you can imagine other tribes being overwhelmed with awe. The indoor museum will show you early works of pottery that are the clear forebearers of later artifacts from the ancient era.
Coastal drive via Leonidio
Leaving Nafplio, most Peloponnese travel routes seem to follow the E65 and E961 down the center of the peninsula. But what fun is it to travel only by motorway? Driving down the coast of the Argolic Gulf will take twice as long, but it’s also twice as scenic.
This delightful drive gives you gorgeous sea views all the way until Leonidio, a traditional Greek village situated at the base of two epic mountain ridges. A snaking mountain road then leads you from Leonidio towards Sparta.
About halfway through you will see an old monastery built into the side of a rock cliff high above (seen top-left in the above photo). The mountain village of Kosmas is worth stopping for lunch, so you can enjoy its lively and adorable main square.
If you don’t mind a few twisty and turny roads, then this is really a must-drive.
Sparta & Mystras
Athens’ infamous rival of ancient times is today a modern provincial city, though I much liked Sparta’s low-key and non-touristy atmosphere.
Casually hidden behind a local football stadium you can in fact find some ruins belonging to the ancient city. Admittedly, not much is left, but it’s nice to have at least a little wander here. Perhaps, like me, you can’t resist exclaiming “this… WAS… Sparta!” while standing among the ruins.
There is no need to look for the pit into which Leonidas threw a Persian messenger in 300, as this was merely a fictional invention (as is most of that film). Nevertheless, I learned they did in fact throw unwanted people into a chasm somewhere in the Taygetos mountain range. Gotta love those Spartans.
While the ruins of Sparta are small, you’ll be surely much impressed with the remains of the Medieval fortified city of Mystras. It’s about a 15-minute drive outside of Sparta on the slopes on the Taygetos mountain.
With all the attention usually on the ancient period, you might easily forget that Greek history continued for nearly another two millennia after. While not of the classical times, you still really must see Mystras.
This incredible late Byzantine city (in other words, a remnant of the Roman Empire) will take at least two hours to explore. Since cities had a habit of being built on mountains to defend against artillery during this age, expect to have to climb about 350 meters to get from the top to the bottom or vice versa.
Gytheio day trip
For an optional side-trip, consider going to the historical seaside town of Gytheio, as well as the nearby Dimitrios shipwreck beach.
This cargo ship got stranded here in 1981, with rumors saying it was smuggling cigarettes between Turkey and Italy. It makes for a pretty cool backdrop while spending an afternoon at the beach.
Mountain drive via Kalamata
From Sparta, it’s another highly scenic drive through the mountains following the EO82 road. Your GPS will surely recommend driving all the way around via highways, but this mountain route seemed much more fun.
We stopped for a quick dip in the sea in the city of Kalamata, then proceeded along the coast to the small town of Koroni, which ended up being my favorite stop in the Peloponnese.
The coastline southeast of Kalamata is meant to be amazing to drive as well. It’s worth considering this route if you’re going to the Mani peninsula.
The only reason we ended up in Koroni was we couldn’t find any reasonably priced accommodation in nearby Methoni — and what a happy accident this was. It was by far my favorite stop on this trip, though admittedly I’m a sucker for low-key and charming places like this.
This seaside town has a small harbor with fishing boats, a string of waterfront tavernas and restaurants, and a little twine of narrow streets where you can take your pick of some lovely B&Bs. We visited during a quiet time, which probably lent Koroni some extra charm, though it struck me as quaint and authentic either way.
Koroni has three beaches within easy walking distance, which means you can leave your car alone for a while (if you’re on a road trip, that is) and simply enjoy the town and nearby beaches for a few days.
There is also a great castle ruin overlooking the town. It was once built in the Byzantine Era and further developed by the Venetians in the 13th century, a time during which the Republic of Venice had numerous outposts along the Balkan and Greek coasts.
The small city of Pylos is protected from the seas by a limestone ridge, which forms a beautiful bay. It seems many travelers go to Methoni further south, a similarly sized seaside town with an old Byzantine fortification; however, since we found a nicer place to stay in Pylos, this is where we ended up being based.
In Pylos, you can enjoy gorgeous sunset views of the bay, visit the crescent-shaped beach of Voidokilia Bay, and check out the Venetian castle.
The next obvious stop is to go to the ancient city of Olympia, which is about a 2-hour drive north. However, as we’d already booked a ferry, we made our way straight to Zakynthos.
While not strictly part of the Peloponnese region, you may be tempted to add in this island to your itinerary. It’s actually sort-of on the way; the ferry to Zakynthos takes just over an hour and departs from Kyllini in the northwest of Peloponnese.
Zakynthos is mainly known for two things: its famed shipwreck beach, and the fact that you can easily spot loggerhead sea turtles in some locations. I did encounter one of these caretta carettas while snorkeling and it made for a magical highlight of this trip. You can read more in my Zakynthos travel guide.
Keep in mind Zakynthos is a rather commercial holiday island, at least compared to the mainland Peloponnese. There are lots of people driving around on quad bikes, crowds in summer, and a big party hotspot at Laganas. If you’re on a purely cultural trip, not everything on Zakynthos may be fully to your taste. However, it does have plenty of charm away from the main commercial beach.
While you’re in the neighborhood, it’d be a shame not to spend at least a few days on the island for the amazing cliff views and the chance to swim with sea turtles.
Located in the north of the Peloponesse, this was a surprise highlight of my trip and well worth the minor detour en-route to Delphi. The Diakofto-Kalavrita line is a single-track mountain railway that runs through the Vouraikas Gorge, passing by wondrous scenery including waterfalls, caves, and a river winding its way through a densely forested valley.
The train is a tourist attraction, but it’s also genuinely used by commuters. The train travels at a speed of just 30-40km/h, with a toothed track pulling it up some of the steeper slopes. Sometimes you’ll see people walking in the middle of the railway tracks, as it doubles as a hiking trail. The route takes just over an hour by train and 7 hours by foot, with the trail passing through narrow tunnels, old metal bridges, and other fun elements. This blog tells you more about the hike.
The train leaves from the town of Diakopto, though I stayed in the nearby Elaionas. I loved this authentic and simple town, which has a small beach that seemed to be used more by local Greeks than international tourists. Behind you, a big mountain ridge serves as a backdrop, while in front of you there is the Gulf of Corinth with the Greek mainland behind it.
The train’s final stop in Kalavrita is worth staying at least a couple of hours. Its Municipal Museum gives insight into a horrific Nazi massacre that took place there, as well as giving context to World War 2 and German occupation in Greece more generally. I was unaware of the Kalavryta Holocaust and found this museum very educational.
I highly recommend visiting Delphi, but do yourself a favor by reading about it beforehand (at least, if you’re not already familiar with this UNESCO-listed site). I’m glad I researched Delphi in advance on Wikipedia and read my Greek history guide, or I might not have appreciated it nearly as much.
During ancient times, the site of Delphi was thought to be a portal that would let you communicate with the Gods. People came to Delphi from all over Greece and beyond to be told their future by the Oracle. Before the Greeks went to war, they’d go to Delphi to hear their prophecy. Equally, a farmer might go to Delphi to learn if the harvests will be any good the next year. Huge lines would form outside whenever the Oracle was in session.
Some scientists now believe that cracks in the rocks released ethylene gas at the time, which made the priests high and gave them visions. Crazy!
Many ruins can be seen at the site, including the base and columns of the Temple of Apollo, where the prophecies were delivered. Since Delphi held such religious importance, numerous monuments dedicated to Greek factions or commemorating victories were placed on site. There is also a large theatre and a mountain-top stadium, the ruins of which survived.
It boggles my mind that none of this is actually told within the archeological complex, which merely offers some plaques with dates and general descriptions. Over 500 prophecies actually survived, which you’d think could be woven into an interactive or narrative display that truly speaks to the imagination. Alas, Delphi was not deemed worthy of a more educational museum. (Sorry, getting a bit ranty here… it just seemed like such a missed opportunity!)
The archeological site will take several hours to see, so it can potentially be done on a stopover or even as a day trip from Athens. If you’re not in a rush, you can stay in the town of Delphi, where most of the hotels offer gorgeous views of the valley below. Fun fact: the views from Delphi are all protected and have to be kept totally pristine. Even electricity pylons are rerouted around the valley so as to not cut through it.
If you’re not staying in Delphi, then the nearby seaside town of Galaxidi also makes for a beautiful (albeit pricey) place to stay.
Monastery of Hosios
With Delphi ticked off the list, my Peloponnese itinerary was nearing its end, with just the drive back to Athens remaining. But as luck would have it, I saw a monastery marked on Google Maps while searching for directions.
It turned out to be the UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site of Hosios Loukas Holy Monastery. It is not just a great example of 11th century Byzantine architecture, but also features a lovely garden overlooking a beautiful valley with cypresses and olive trees, where you can sip a coffee or shop for some traditional local products.
I’m glad to have stopped here to see the buildings and their Byzantine wall paintings and mosaics. The monastery is still in use, so you may see monks wearing black robes still going about their business.
Finally, it’s back to Athens to catch the flight back home. Although Athens may not live up to everyone’s imagination — it is largely a modern city dominated by 1970s apartment blocks — it is nevertheless an essential stop on any trip to Greece. The Acropolis and the history museums are incredible.
Elsewhere, I’ve written about what to expect from Athens and how to spend two days in the Greek capital.
To end your trip on a high note, grab a cocktail or two at one of the rooftop bars around Monastiraki Square, or climb Mount Lycabettus from where you can enjoy sunset views of the Acropolis and the city all around it. As you watch the sun dip behind the horizon, you can reflect on an amazing road trip that’s shown you authentic mainland Greece and taken you through the heart of the ancient world.
Got any questions? There is loads more I could have covered, but I wanted to give just the most essential tips and impressions here. If you have any questions about traveling the Peloponnese, feel free to drop a comment below.
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