Welcome to the Peloponnese
Few areas of Greece are as interesting as the Peloponnese. Geographically, a narrow isthmus separates this large peninsula from Athens, and the Corinth Canal runs right through it. Historically, for more than 3,000 years, it has been at the heart of Greek antiquity. This is evidenced in the Mycenae stones that harken back to the Bronze Age, or the stone columns at Ancient Corinth.
Interestingly, many of the peninsula’s historic sites are little visited. In the past, poor infrastructure made the Peloponnese difficult to get to; today, thanks to investment in Greece's highways, you can get there and around with ease. You can even make it a day trip from Athens, though an extended road trip (like this 10-day example) is even better.
No matter your taste, the Peloponnese will deliver, whether you're on a culinary adventure or active excursion. The archeological sites will particularly appeal to history buffs. Consider Ancient Olympia, where the original Olympic Games took place. Beyond that, you can count on white-sand beaches unrivaled in beauty anywhere else in Greece. We've detailed these highlights and more below.
Ancient Corinth is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece (although most of its remains are Roman). Located amid farmland on the southern outskirts of modern Corinth, crumbling columns and foundation stones stand as memorials to the city’s erstwhile importance.
Most impressive is the 5th-century-BCE Doric Greek Temple of Apollo, still partially erect, with fluted columns; and Peribolos of Apollo, a courtyard flanked by Ionic columns. There are ancient fountains, an agora (market), a half-moon theater with seating for 15,000 spectators, and even Roman-era latrines with stone seats. It’s best to begin or end at the splendid on-site Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth, which puts everything into context with its statues, mosaic friezes, and many artifacts.
A mountain peak to the south forms a dramatic background to Ancient Corinth. You can drive to the summit (1,886 feet) to explore the remains of the Acrocorinth—a massive medieval fortress built atop a predecessor from Macedonian times. Needless to say, the views stagger. Only a 90-minute drive from Athens, it’s possible to visit Corinth on a day trip from the capital.
Carved into rock, the ruler-straight Corinth Canal spans the isthmus, severing the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland as surely as if cleft by a thunderbolt from Zeus. The engineering marvel was first conceived in the 7th century BCE by Corinthian ruler Periander; when the task proved impossible, he had a paved slipway built across the isthmus upon which small ships could be hauled over on rollers.
It wasn’t until 1893 that the four-mile-long passage finally opened, its sheer rock walls plunging 300 feet to the dark blue water below. Today, the canal is mostly used by small cruise ships. You can admire the canal from a footbridge (near the mid-point), or from the banks of the submersible bridge, at Isthmia. And adrenalin-junkies can even bungee jump over it.
Every four years the world tunes in to the Olympic Games, which begin when the torch is lit in front of the Temple of Hera at Olympia. Consider that 3,000 years ago the ancient world did the same thing at this sacred site in tribute to Zeus. The huge complex, in the western Peloponnese, included a stadium and hippodrome (for chariot races), gymnasium, palaestra (wrestling school), and more—plus temples and hostels for the thousands of spectators.
Enough remains of this UNESCO World Heritage Site to give you a sense of its early grandeur. All that's left of the 200-yard stadium is a dirt field (the seats were long ago hauled off as trophies), but the judges’ seats remain. The most important temple is the Temple of Zeus, which was home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a gold-and-ivory statue of its namesake deity. Today, there isn't much to see, though the smaller Temple of Hera still has four thick columns standing.
There are plenty more sites to view, and to get your bearings, start at the Archaeological Museum. It displays an astonishing collection of finds, including bronzes and statuary from the temple pediments.
There’s a good reason Epidavros, located 18 miles east of Nafplio, is one of the most visited sites in Greece. This enormous half-moon theater—built in the 4th century BCE to accommodate 14,000 people—is almost perfectly intact. Constructed of limestone, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a visual stunner, made more remarkable for its near-perfect acoustics. It was a marvel of ancient engineering.
Epidavros was considered to be the birthplace of Asclepius, son of Apollo and the god of medicine. The site was revered throughout the ancient world as a center for early medicinal arts (even surgeries were performed here). Every four years a festival honored Asclepius with athletic competitions and dramas, which was the reason for the theater’s construction. The theater is still used for plays and other performances, especially for the Greek Festival, in July. Check the calendar and try to catch a performance.
The Mani Peninsula—a mountainous strip of land at the southern tip of the Peloponnese—is one of those rugged corners of the country that still deserves the moniker “hidden gem.” It's also home to one of the best coastal drives in the country.
If driving, make the coastal village of Kardamyli your gateway and base. Follow the coastal corniche south as it snakes past tiny coves and, on your left, imposing mountains with high rock walls. The weathered hamlets (famous for their defensive towers) that dot Mani’s rugged spine grow fewer as the land narrows towards Cape Matapan—the southern tip of the Greek mainland. The road north along the eastern shore shrinks to a single lane, and goats often block the way. It curves past surging peninsulas and picture-postcard beaches with Caribbean-blue seas and soft sands.
Monemvasia is an ancient fortified stone village built against cliffs and fronting the Aegean. This castle-town occupies a soaring rocky outcrop tethered to the mainland by a thin causeway, and the perimeter walls plunge sharply to the sea. Many of the atmospheric old homes are today romantic boutique hotels and guest houses. There are no roads here, and thus no vehicles.
Within the village, bougainvillea flowers spill over stone lanes lined with shops, Byzantine and Orthodox churches, and little patios with Instagram-ready ocean views. The best view of all is from the Kastro Castle and adjacent Aga Sofia church atop the rock; they're reached by a snaking staircase.
Even after seeing the ancient sites at Corinth and Olympia, the ruins at somber Mycenae (30 miles south of Corinth) will impress. This ancient acropolis—the royal palace of the murderous Agamemnon, of Trojan War fame—dates back 4,000 years and was once the most powerful of Grecian city-states. Constructed of enormous stone blocks (some 20 feet thick) on the craggy slopes of Mount Agios Ilias and Mount Zara, the mighty citadel is said to have been built with the help of a giant, one-eyed Cyclops.
You’ll enter through the massive Lion’s Gate, topped by two rearing lionesses. Interpretive signs help make sense of the huge site, which includes the royal cemetery. Look out for Agamemnon’s palace, the royal apartments, the huge cistern that supplied water, plus various tombs, including that of Agamemnon.
Many of the best artifacts from Mycenae are now in the National Archaeological Museum, in Athens. But the Mycenae Archaeology Museum on site has three halls stuffed with fine exhibits.
A colorful, vibrant port town with an impeccable setting on the Argolic Gulf, Nafplio exudes Mediterranean style. Poised on a rocky peninsula, this town of narrow winding streets offers sweeping ocean vistas.
For 360° views, head to the 400-year-old Palamidi Fortress, which towers over the south of town from atop a craggy rock. A masterpiece of military architecture, it was built by the Venetians between 1711 and 1714. Below, the waterfront promenade and tiny plazas are lined with chic boutiques and sidewalk cafés, ablaze with bougainvillea hanging over wrought-iron balconies.
You can also visit the former Venetian headquarters—located off Syntagma Square, it now houses the city’s Archaeological Museum. It profiles Argolic history including a display of Mycenean bronze armor with a boar-tusk helmet.
If you like the sound of Nafplio, consider making it part of a grand seven-day mainland Greece adventure.
You can’t depart the Peloponnese without at least viewing Simos Beach—but we recommend bringing a towel and make the day of it. This stretch of white sand is the peninsula’s most alluring beach, curling around the south side of Elafoniso at the southeast tip of the Peloponnese and tapering to a narrow tombolo that connects to a tiny islet. Ferries run to and from between the mainland hamlet of Vigklafia to Elafoniso. From there, it’s a three-mile drive to the beach, where you'll find a couple of simple tavernas, and lots of impossibly blue ocean to play in.