The Peloponnese Peninsula, a few hours' drive west from Athens, is undiscovered Greece at its best. There are quiet mountaintop towns, historic cities, ancient ruins, soft sand beaches, and a growing wine scene. The two things it lacks: tourist crowds an exorbitant prices.
The Peloponnese figures prominently in Greek mythology. It’s here that Hercules fought the Nemean lion, where Paris of Troy eloped with Helen, where the mythical son of Zeus, Taenarus, built a town named after himself, and where a cave leads to the entrance to Hades, the gate to the Underworld. It’s larger than life, but still manageable to explore some of the highlights in a week.
As an added bonus, it’s one of the more affordable regions of the country, and costs about half of what you’d spend on touristy islands like Santorini and Mykonos. Whether you want to retreat to the mountains, hit the beach, jump off seaside cliffs, or visit ancient ruins, the Peloponnese has something for everyone—and at a bargain price.
From the green mountains of Arcadia to the lush vineyards of Nemea to the arid semi-desert of the Deep Mani, the topography of the Peloponnese ranges widely. Modern workaday cities like Tripoli rub elbows with the charming Greek towns of your imagination, like bougainvillea-drenched Nafplio, the first capital of Greece, and the all-but-abandoned hilltop fortress of Vathia, where the last census counted a population of just 33 people. There are beautiful beaches, rocky cliffs, snowcapped peaks, and vast gorges. Just about every vista you could hope to see in Greece is here, tucked into a peninsula about the size of Connecticut.
Depending on where you go in the Peloponnese, you’ll only be 90 minutes to four hours from Athens by car. While many people visit some of the regions more famous sites on a day trip from Athens, it’s worth slowing down and taking your time at the many centuries-old ruins that dot the peninsula. There’s Mystras, a fortified town built in the 13th century; the archaeological site of Mycenae, a major center of Greek civilization which at its peak in 1350 BC had a population of 30,000; and the ancient theatre of Epidaurus, built in the in the 4th century BC. Perhaps the region’s most famous site is Olympia, host of the original Olympic Games, founded in the 8th century BC. Dozens of smaller archaeological sites, ancient temple ruins, and Byzantine churches remain throughout the area.
While parts of the Peloponnese see few American tourists, there’s plenty of tourism infrastructure, including luxurious hotels at every price point. Located in the Deep Mani, one of the three small fingers of land that reach into the Aegean from the southern half of the peninsula, the Kyrimai Hotel offers unparalleled luxury in the region, at a price that’s about half of what you’d pay on Santorini. Set in an old stone fortress that dates back to the 1870s, the hotel’s restaurant and 22 guest rooms, which start at $130 per night, are spread among several levels, all with a view of the sea that laps at the hotel’s back door.
Farther inland, in the town of Levidi in the Arcadian mountains, Villa Vager is another great value. For around $150 per night, guests sleep in antique beds with goose-down duvets. Rooms have fireplaces and mountain views, breakfast is included, and guests can add on activities like cooking classes and ATV rides through the surrounding mountains and valleys.
It would be easy to argue that the Peloponnese has some of the best food in Greece. Between the wildflower honey of the mountains and the fresh fish of the surrounding sea, there are the seemingly endless acres of olive trees and vineyards. Throughout the region, the food is simple but fresh and delicious. Stop at just about any taverna in the northern half of the Peloponnese and you’ll likely find chicken souvlaki and pork—often roasted right out front—on the menu. Farther south, look for grilled octopus, fresh fish, and the local favorite dish of lobster linguine.
In Sparta, don’t miss a visit to the Museum of Olive Oil. In the town of Nemea, where the red agiorgitiko grape has been grown for 4,000 years, head for Danaos Anastassis, a small tavern with no menu, where heaping platters of tender souvlaki, potatoes, Greek salad, tzatziki, and a few beers will set you back less than $25.