The Peloponnese conjures up images of ancient glories, epic struggles, valiant heroes and majestic vistas. The mere mention of names like Arcadia or Corinth, Sparta or Olympia, Nemea or Mycenae awakens our imagination, reminding us of fascinating legends and dramatic historical scenes reaching far across the ages.
The fame of this large peninsula that forms the southern part of the Greek Mainland rests on its long and often spectacular history, making it a veritable heartland of European and Western culture. From the first farmers of the Neolithic to the Bronze Age Mycenaeans, via the glories of Classical Greece and Rome and the splendours of the Byzantine Empire, all the way up to the Ottoman Empire and the Greek War of Independence, the Peloponnese has often been centre-stage to key historical events. The region is also central in Greek myth – home to the heroes of Homer’s Iliad like King Agamemnon and Nestor, the deeds of Herakles (Hercules) and a place often frequented by the Gods themselves, be it in love or wrath.
Join us in bringing these fascinating places and their history to life. You’ll journey through stunningly beautiful scenery, from small fertile plains to rough and rugged mountains and rocky peninsulas jutting out into the blue waters of the Mediterranean. You’ll discover many of the area’s most famous highlights, including no less than six UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as the gargantuan Bronze Age fortifications of Tiryns and Mycenae, the Classical splendours of Olympia, famous for the games that still bear its name, Epidaurus with its beautiful theatre and beautiful Byzantine Mystras.
You’ll also discover wonders off the beaten track, like mountainous Arcadia with its perched villages and gorge-side monasteries and the majestic Mani Peninsula, where a romantically wild landscape is perfectly matched by its traditional architecture. Naturally you’ll savour some of the region’s best traditional cuisine, sample many of the fine wines that have been cultivated here for millennia and stay in delightful accommodations and locations.
Led by a team of archaeologist guides with many years’ knowledge and experience of the region, this tour will introduce you to the splendours of one of the ancient Mediterranean’s most significant regions. As you explore its historical and cultural majesty as well as its natural beauty and living traditions you’ll gain a true and unforgettable sense and understanding of what the Peloponnese was and is.
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We continue to Ancient Nemea, set in a fertile upland valley in the north of the Argolid. Here, we visit the sanctuary of Zeus, where important panhellenic (all-Greek) athletic games were celebrated every other year, the fame of which made Nemea a bone of contention between Corinth and its powerful neighbour, Argos. We pass through the long-vaulted tunnel to the beautifully-positioned stadium, its walls covered in graffiti left by ancient competitors. In the sanctuary itself, we explore the splendid Temple of Zeus and the museum, filled with finds from Nemea, as well as the Mycenaean Aidonia Treasure. Looted from a cemetery nearby, this important Bronze Age material mysteriously surfaced in the New York auction circuit and was eventually returned to Greece in 1996.
Later, we enjoy lunch and a tasting at one of the many Nemea wineries: the region is the oldest established wine appellation in the country, based on the delicious Agiorgitiko grape, producing a dark red wine of great warmth and character. A fine day behind us, we make our way to Nafplio, one of Greece’s most attractive coastal towns for our first Peloponnesian night.
A scenic drive into the southern Peloponnese begins on the peninsula’s east coast, through the southern Argolid and then following the shore of what was once Kynouria, the buffer over which Argos and Sparta glowered at each other. We stop at Leonidio beneath towering bluffs and russet stone ramparts for a delicious rural lunch and then continue through the extraordinarily beautiful Tzakonian Mountains - ancient Parnon - to the village of Kosmas, a good 1,150m (3,770ft) above sea level, where we stop for coffee and traditional sweets.
Finally, we descend into the fertile hill country of Laconia, the historical territory of Sparta. Our destination is Monemvasia, a medieval fortified town set on a beautifully cragged quasi-island that juts into the Aegean Sea just off the eastern coast.
Founded as a Byzantine stronghold, perhaps a refuge for Peloponnesians fleeing raiding Goths and Slavs further north, Monemvasia soon became one of the most important towns and hubs of maritime trade in the area, later serving as a vital stepping-stone on Venice’s route to the Eastern Mediterranean. We first explore the Lower Town with its characterful mansions, chapels, lanes and squares, nestling from the blue waters of the Aegean and the enemies they might bring within well-preserved medieval city walls. Next, we ascend the heavily fortified plateau above, crowned by the twelfth century Byzantine church of Agia Sophia, perched precipitously on a clifftop.
As Monemvasia gave its name to Malmsey Wine (also known as Malvasir or Malvasia), exported all over Europe in Venetian times, we visit an excellent local winery after lunch to taste the region’s produce, all based on native Greek grape varieties. This is followed by an easy-going free afternoon to enjoy the serenity of the place or go for a swim if the weather suits.
We first travel westwards through Laconia to reach the modern town of Sparti, beneath which lie the scant ruins of its ancient predecessor, Lakedaimon or Sparta, the dominant power of the Peloponnese for many centuries. Visiting Sparta gives us an opportunity to talk about the ancient Spartans’ unusual organisation of their state and its great emphasis on war, built on their oppression of their ‘helot’ neighbours. Their rejection of luxury and monumental architecture means we encounter the city’s peculiar character not in buildings but in the fine archaeological museum’s excellent finds, which take us on to the affluence it achieved during the Roman era.
The afternoon holds one of the greatest delights of the entire Peloponnese: Mystras. Founded by Latin crusaders (‘Franks’) after 1204 and the Fourth Crusade, Mystras is nevertheless a key Byzantine site, seat of an autonomously-run despotate within the Byzantine Empire between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. In those dying days of Byzantium, Mystras, with its direct connections to Constantinople, became a major centre of art and learning. Today, the town is abandoned, but its churches and monasteries still stand in great serenity and beauty on their lush green hillside overlooking Sparti below. High-quality frescoes decorate some of these monuments, opening great insights into an important and frequently overlooked part of European heritage, due to which Mystras is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
In the late afternoon, we carry on southwards to Areopoli in the Mani Peninsula.
Our first stop is at the spectacular caves of Diros, entered from a small cove and located just above sea level. Here, nature has spent the last few million years carving out a dazzlingly beautiful labyrinth of chambers and passages. Mostly flooded, they are accessible by boat and decorated with a stunning array of stalagmites, stalactites, draperies and other limestone concretions: a hidden world of dreamlike wonder.
From Diros, we follow the Mani’s coast southwards towards a cove near Cape Tainaron, the southern tip of the peninsula. In antiquity, the waters around here, unavoidable for those crossing from the Central into the Eastern Mediterranean, were among the most feared in the Mediterranean, making the nearby coves and bays welcome places of shelter, to wait out adverse conditions or to recover from harrowing trips. Perhaps as a result of its association with naval tragedies, Cape Tainaron was also believed to be an entrance to Hades, the place where Heracles descended to the Underworld to catch Cerberus, the triple-headed dog, as one of his Twelve Labours. The place operated as an Oracle of the Dead for centuries. We also cast an eye on the nearby ruins of the Temple to Poseidon, god of the sea.
On our return to Areopoli, we stop for a stroll in the famously picturesque village of Vathia.
Our next stop is Kardamyli, a lovely and very ancient settlement notable for being offered to Achilles by Agamemnon in the Iliad, but also for having been the base and retreat chosen by Patrick Leigh Fermor, the famous British adventurer and travel writer, from the 1950s until his death in 2011. We pay a brief visit to the rock-top hamlet of Old Kardamyli, clustered round the Mourtzinos Tower and exemplifying a typical Maniote settlement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Leaving Mani behind, we head for the mountainous interior of Messenia, to the picturesque village of Mavromati for a rustic lunch, before exploring the vast ancient city of Messene, a site that is still undergoing extensive excavation and reconstruction by the Archaeological Society of Athens and which will surely become a UNESCO World Heritage Site before long. Messene is an unusual site as the result of an unusual history: for centuries, the region was under Spartan control and its inhabitants were not permitted to dwell in cities, depriving them of the most defining feature of ancient Greek societies, namely the city-state. Only after Spartan dominance was broken by the Theban general Epaminondas at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC did Messenia gain independence. The new capital city was thus essentially a Theban gift, but what a gift!
We spend the afternoon admiring this glorious site at the foot of Mount Ithome. We explore its theatre, agora, council chamber, column-lined avenues, gymnasia and stadium, surrounded by the most stupendous Late Classical city walls in all of Greece. In the evening, we descend to the shore and the city of Kalamata, famous for the olives and oil from the surrounding plain.
In the morning, we travel to the southwestern tip of the Peloponnese, to Methoni, Venetian Modon, facing the Ionian Sea. It was here that Geoffroy I of Villehardouin, one of the most fascinating characters in the complex history of Frankish Greece first made landfall in 1204, following the Fourth Crusade and the dismemberment of Byzantium. A few years later, Methoni fell to Venice, and later see-sawed in control between Venice and the Ottomans until 1715. We engage with this turbulent history by visiting the stupendous Venetian fortifications, built upon the remains of Byzantine and earlier predecessors and once encompassing a large castle-town. The peninsular setting of the complex, lapped by deep blue waters, makes the visit unforgettable.
We then continue northwards along the coast, stopping at Pylos, an attractive Neoclassical town set upon its famous nearly fully-enclosed Bay. This was the site of two important battles during vastly different eras: the Battle of Sphacteria in 425 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, remembered as the first time that Spartan warriors surrendered alive, and the 1827 naval Battle of Navarino, during which an Allied fleet of the ‘Great Powers’ (British, French and Russian) virtually destroyed an Ottoman-Egyptian one, thus enabling the Greek revolutionary troops to strengthen their hold on the Peloponnese.
Soon, we reach the site of Ano Englianos, a hilltop surrounded by windswept olive groves, where excavations have revealed an important Late Bronze Age Mycenaean ‘Palace’. The well-preserved structure, protected by a modern shelter, is surprisingly well-preserved, making it one of the most revealing buildings of its kind, the centre of the Mycenaean state. Ano Englianos, usually identified as Homer’s Pylos and thus as the ‘Palace of Nestor’ has yielded extensive Linear B archives, providing ample evidence of the Mycenaean ‘palace economy’, a theme we begin to explore here. We also cast a glance at the fine tholos tomb, a ‘royal’ burial monument of the fourteenth century BC close to the palace. Near here, the celebrated fifteenth century Tomb of the Griffin Warrior was discovered in 2015.
Continuing northwards, we leave Messenia and enter Ilia, ancient Elis, the western region of the Peloponnese, heading for the town of Olimbia (Ancient Olympia).
In the morning, we drive to Cape Kyllini, the western tip of the peninsula, to visit the mighty castle of Chlemoutsi (originally named Clairmont). This strikingly dominant edifice was constructed by Geoffroy I Villehardouin in the 1220s to strengthen his control over his Principality of Achaea. Unlike Methoni, it was never actually besieged, but came under Byzantine control in 1427, only to be surrendered to the Ottomans in 1460. The impressive complex, with an outer enceinte overlooked by a hexagonal keep comprised of tall Gothic-style halls, is one of the most significant monuments of western-style medieval architecture in Greece. It now houses an excellent new museum devoted to what is known in Greece as the Frankokratia, the period of Western rule following 1204.
We then return to Olimbia to visit the most famous archaeological site in the entire Peloponnese: Ancient Olympia. Set on the confluence of two rivers, the Alpheios and the Kladeos, the great sanctuary of Zeus has been attracting visitors since antiquity, when it was the venue of the famous athletic contents in honour of Zeus that took place every four years, the Olympic Games, supposedly founded in 776 BC. A panhellenic event, they were an occasion for individuals from all over the Greek World as far as southern France, Asia Minor, the Black Sea and North Africa, to meet in friendly competition, maintain contacts and exchange ideas. They were therefore not just a defining aspect of Greek culture, but one of the ways it was transmitted, expressed and reformulated over time.
We do justice to this UNESCO World Heritage Site with a thorough tour. It takes in the training grounds and a hostelry outside the sanctuary proper, and the shrines and altars within. Special highlights are the Temple of Zeus, once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the huge gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus, the Workshop of Pheidias where it was crafted, the Temple of Hera, perhaps the oldest standing Greek Temple, and the stadium said to have been set up by Heracles himself. We also visit the superb site museum, containing one of the finest collections of Greek art anywhere in the world, including the breath-taking pediments of the Temple of Zeus, the stunning Nike of Paionios, and the extraordinarily beautiful Hermes of Praxiteles, a rare example of a surviving masterpiece by one of ancient Greece’s most famous sculptors.
We then follow the poets in turning our attention from victors to the ethereal heartland of the Peloponnese: Arcadia. We travel eastwards, climbing into the Arcadian mountains, a landscape of rugged beauty, of seemingly untouched forests and of small villages perched on steep slopes. Our first destination is the famous Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, another UNESCO-listed monument. Standing in a remote mountain setting, 1,130m (3,700ft) above sea level, it is the second-best-preserved Classical Temple in Greece, with all four colonnades and the sanctuary walls mostly in place. We examine the temple’s many unusual features, establishing its exceptional nature and the peculiarities of Arcadian architecture, and see at first hand the challenge of maintaining the now-fragile structure and the ambitious ongoing project to preserve it for the future.
We continue, via the attractive mountain town of Andritsaina, through more stupendous countryside, to our hotel in the historic town of Dimitsana, set high upon the slopes of a deep valley, with the Lousios River rushing far below.
Returning to Dimitsana, we stop by one of the most unusual exhibits in the Peloponnese, the Museum of Water Power. Beautifully presented, its restored watermills remind us of the role of water power in the pre-industrial and early industrial economy of the region not just for grinding grain, but also for fulling and the production of gunpowder. The latter was an important industry in Dimitsana, making the place an important centre of the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s.
The rest of the afternoon is free, allowing you to enjoy the lovely setting, to explore the lanes of Dimitsana or just to relax.
In the morning, we descend from Dimitsana to visit the important ancient city of Mantineia, astride the age-old land road linking Sparta with Corinth and Central Greece. Surrounded by its beautiful remains, we learn of Mantineia’s turbulent history, and of the two great Battles of Mantineia, in 418 and 362 BC. The former saw a crushing Spartan victory over Athens, the latter a victory of newly-dominant Thebes over the Spartans but the death of the victorious commander Epaminondas.
We move on to Mantineia’s neighbour and great enemy, Tegea and its new archaeological museum. The highlight is the sculpture from the Temple of Athena Alea. Designed by the renowned fourth century BC sculptor Skopas, they are of extraordinary quality. After the museum, we visit one of the famous Mantineia wineries for a tasting and lunch.
In the afternoon, we return to Nafplio and the Argolid. Our final stop is at the great Mycenaean citadel of Tiryns, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, whose vast Late Bronze Age fortifications crown a limestone outcrop that has been a centre of human activity for millennia. We explore the sophisticated defensive architecture of the site, with its complex gate structure, chambers embedded in the incredibly thick walls, sally ports and extensions, and the remains of the Mycenaean Palace and its throne room whose power they symbolised.
First, we traverse the Argolic Plain to reach Mycenae, a place whose name rings through the centuries, its Bronze Age greatness inspiring Greek mythology and especially the Homeric epics. The enormous citadel would be an impressive site even if it had been left half-buried, but 140 years of scrutiny since Schliemann’s discoveries in the 1870s, have added many layers of fascination to this incredible place. Every part of this site has a name that resounds in archaeological history - the Lion Gate, the two Grave Circles that yielded one of the richest treasures in all of European prehistory, the upper citadel with the remains of the Palace, and the extension added to the citadel shortly before its violent destruction in the early twelfth century BC. Outside the imposing cyclopean walls, we admire some of the enormous domed tholos or ‘beehive’ tombs, including the most famous of all, the Treasury of Atreus, with its huge dome, the largest span from its erection in the thirteenth century BC to that of the Roman Pantheon fourteen centuries later. Our visit is capped with a visit to the local archaeological museum, where a wealth of material illustrates all aspects of Mycenaean life.
We cross to the Argolid’s Saronic Gulf coast for a pleasant seaside lunch before visiting our second major archaeological site today: the great sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus. This was the most famous shrine to the god of healing in Greece, and it is from here that his cult spread across the country. Lying in an enchantingly beautiful spot among pine-shaded hills, it was a major centre of faith healing in antiquity, becoming a veritable spa by Roman times. Among the surviving structures serving the cult of Asklepios is the abaton, where the faithful received healing visions in their sleep. The most celebrated aspect, however, is the enormous theatre, praised for the beauty of its proportions already in antiquity. Surprisingly well-preserved, it seats over 13,000 spectators and has remarkable acoustic properties.
On the way back to Nafplio, we stop near Kazarma to see its Mycenaean road bridge. Estimated to belong to the thirteenth century BC, it is the oldest standing viaduct on Earth.
Next, we visit the heart of the ancient city itself, discovering both its Greek and its Roman past, by examining the many layers of architectural remains lying under, in and around the Roman forum. A very early Archaic temple and a series of Roman shrines, grand colonnades, a huge fountain house, shops and marble-paved streets give life to the city, along with the bema or speaking platform from which Saint Paul spoke to the Corinthians, all overlooked by the mighty citadel of Acrocorinth.
In the afternoon, we return to Athens, where our final visit is to the National Archaeological Museum, whose collections are among the finest and most extensive in the world. We begin with the prehistoric material, where we admire the treasures discovered in the Mycenaean shaft graves, including the so-called Mask of Agamemnon and an array of gold objects, weaponry, personal ornaments, vessels made from rock crystal and ostrich eggs, so vast that it’s hard to believe they’re from one time and place. We also seek out frescoes and other finds from Mycenae and Tiryns and the Linear B writing that opens up their world.
Afterwards, we stroll through the museum’s unique collection of Greek sculpture, highlighting the development of this singular expression of Ancient Greek creativity with pieces that remind us in particular of our Peloponnesian odyssey.
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Arrival and Departure Information
Arrival Airport – Athens International (Eleftherios Venizelos)
Departure Airport – Athens International (Eleftherios Venizelos)
Check in time at your hotel in Athens is after 14:00 so we recommend choosing a flight that arrives in the afternoon/early evening. Check out time is 12:00pm. We will arrange local transfers from Athens Airport and to Athens Airport on the first and last day of the tour.
Booking Flights The cheapest way to book flights for our Exploring Athens tour is directly with the airline online.
If you prefer to book with a travel agent, we are happy to recommend specialists in a number of countries around the world, please contact our office for more details.
Travel Insurance Travel insurance is a requirement of our booking conditions and we recommend you investigate the options thoroughly to make sure that your trip is properly covered. Please be advised some insurers may require you to take out a policy within 15-20 days of booking your holiday to receive all of their insurance benefits.
For UK Nationals, travel to the EU will change from 1 January 2021. Please check the current situation regarding visa requirements before you travel. You can find more information online here.
Citizens of European Union member states, the United States, Canada and Australia do not need to apply for a visa to visit Greece for trips of less than 90 days duration.
Athens If you are planning to stay in Athens before or after your tour we have included below links to more information and things to see and do.