Monemvasia Castle town is a gorgeous gem that is unique in Europe in many ways. Not only is it the oldest castle-town that has been continuously inhabited in Europe, but it is one of the most important castles in Greece, and of the best preserved.
Graced with a stunning location, breathtaking views, and a rich history and heritage that blends with modernity without being erased, Monemvasia is a must-see revelation to anyone looking for an unparalleled, unique, unforgettable experience. Going to Monemvasia is like taking a trip through time while enjoying the present.
To make the most of your visit to Monemvasia, here is everything you need to know and more!
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Visiting Monemvasia Castle
How to Get to Monemvasia
Monemvasia castle town is in the Peloponnese, in the region of Laconia. It is on the east coast, barely connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. Thus, it has an island-like appearance, surrounded by the Aegean Sea.
The only way to reach Monemvasia is by car or bus. However, you do have options on how to do that. If you plan to go during the summer season, then you can bypass Athens’ airport and fly straight into the Peloponnese to Kalamata’s International Airport, which serves international and domestic flights throughout the high season.
Once you land in Kalamata, if you take the bus, take the KTEL Lakonias bus from Kalamata to Sparta. Then change buses and take KTEL Lakonias from Sparta to Monemvasia. The entire ride is roughly 3 hours if you don’t make a quick stop to admire Sparta (which you should!). The bus fare ranges from 5 to 10 euro for each bus.
If you take the car, drive straight to Monemvasia from Kalamata. The car ride is very picturesque and lasts roughly 2 ½ hours.
The best way to explore the area around Monemvasia is by having your own car. I recommend booking a car through Discover Cars where you can compare all rental car agencies’ prices, and you can cancel or modify your booking for free. They also guarantee the best price. Click here for more information and to check the latest prices.
You could also get a taxi to take you there, but the fares can be quite expensive, depending on the service. The cheapest option is to simply rent a car, which will also afford you greater freedom to roam and explore the area. If you opt for a taxi straight from Kalamata, estimate that the cheapest option will set you back around 150 euro.
You can also get the bus from Athens to Sparta. You will go to KTEL’s Kifissos Station and take KTEL Lakonias from Athens to Sparta, and from Sparta switch for the bus to Monemvasia. The fare from Athens to Sparta is around 20 euro depending on your preferences and the ride lasts roughly 2 hours. Add another hour from Sparta to Monemvasia and you still come to 3 hours worth of bus travel to get there, so it’s your choice which route to take!
Another option is to visit Monemvasia on an organized custom trip. We visited Monemvasia with Jayway Travel, a boutique tour operator specializing in custom tours to Europe for the US and Canadian markets. If you are interested in an organized trip to Greece or Europe for you, your family, or a group of friends you can request a trip plan here.
A brief history of Monemvasia
Monemvasia’s name comes from two Greek words, the word “moni” which means “just one” or “single” and “emvasis” which is an archaic word that means “way in”. So Monemvasia means “just one way in” or “single way in” and it’s a testament to how well-fortified the castle town’s location is.
Though there are theories that there was a Minoan trading post in the location of Monemvasia, and the ancient world was aware of its natural fortifications, there is no proof of consistent habitation until the 6th century AD.
Around that time, dwellers from Sparta had to flee due to a series of raids by Goths and Slavs that came after a devastating plague. They took refuge in Monemvasia under the leadership of their bishop.
The castle town of Monemvasia was founded by Emperor Justinian and according to some accounts had been already there to receive the Spartans, exactly because Sparta was considered too unprotected to efficiently fortify.
Monemvasia was the ideal location both in terms of fortifications and in terms of trade. Its location on the coast leading to Cape Maleas soon elevated Monemvasia into a hub of trade and commerce as the 7th century AD rolled in.
This economic growth continued during the following centuries, attracting the attention of pirates. There were quite a few raids by pirates, but it’s a testament to the town’s fortifications that they didn’t hinder the city from growing and becoming more and more affluent.
In 1222 the Latin Empire, which was a crusader state, tried to besiege Monemvasia but was unsuccessful. And it took William of Villehardouin, the Prince of Achaia, three years of relentless siege to finally manage to occupy Monemvasia in 1252.
When he was taken prisoner by Emperor Michael Palaiologos, he held out three years more before returning to Monemvasia to the Byzantine Empire in 1262.
From there, Monemvasia’s opulence and development really took off. The years that followed and up until the early 1400s are considered Monemvasia’s golden age. Its strategic importance as well as its commercial and trading post status made Monemvasia a Despotate, the Despotate of Morea, which was an important designation of the time.
A few years after the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453, in 1460, the Despotate was surrendered to the Ottomans, who didn’t besiege the city and withdrew. Then, the people offered the city to the Pope, who accepted it.
After that and until the 1800s, the castle city was yanked back and forth between the Venetians and the Ottomans which led to Monemvasia’s progressive weakening until finally in the late 1700s it was looted and abandoned by many of its inhabitants.
During the War of Greek Independence in 1821, it was the Greeks that besieged the castle town which was defended by the Ottomans. After a four-month siege, the city was relinquished to the Greeks.
However, during infighting and several violent attempts by one Greek captain to seize the town from the other’s control, Monemvasia was kept from playing an important role in the war. It also was unable to regain its former glory. It is only with the rise of tourism that Monemvasia is reviving into a gorgeous hub of history, heritage, culture, and high-quality vacations!
Is Monemvasia worth visiting?
The answer is, of course, a resounding “Yes!”
Monemvasia is also called “the Gibraltar of the East” because the rock it’s built on juts out into the sea and looks exactly like Gibraltar. It’s a unique natural formation that’s gorgeous in its own right. But that isn’t the only thing Monemvasia has going for itself.
Monemvasia Castle is one of the best-preserved medieval fortresses and settlements in all of Greece. Beyond the Main Gate, the entire fortress and village are pedestrian-only, which adds to the immersion of traveling back in time to the era of knights and citadels.
The views are breathtaking, sweeping the sea from various vantage points. The moment you step into Monemvasia and its castle, you will be surrounded by natural and cultural beauty through the ages: from the high walls protecting the fortress that take you back to the time of pirates and raids from the enemy to the bust of Giannis Ritsos, one of Greece’s most celebrated poets and lyricists, who was born there.
If you’re looking for a flexible vacation where you can have everything- adventure, history, culture, nature, luxury, and the feeling of discovering a gem off the beaten path, Monemvasia is where you want to go.
When is the best time to visit Monemvasia?
Monemvasia is a great destination around the year, offering great experiences in the winter as well as summer. The answer, therefore, is somewhat up to personal taste.
In general, Monemvasia hasn’t yet been discovered by the bulk of tourists around the world. That means you are likely to enjoy the medieval city without teeming masses of other tourists obstructing your views or crowding the good spots like you often do in famous vacation spots such as Santorini. That said, July and August are the peaks of the high season, so expect the biggest crowds then.
If you’re considering Monemvasia as a summer destination, June and early July are the best. The weather is comfortably hot, with temperatures reaching up to 30 degrees Celsius and the chance for heat waves being relatively low. The crowds haven’t yet arrived, but since it’s high season, you will have all the amenities and venues available to you.
If you’re considering Monemvasia as a winter destination, consider visiting during the Christmas season. Monemvasia is a popular winter destination with the locals, and you will get a lot of special events and folklore magic in what is already a magical destination! Winters in Greece and especially in the Peloponnese are mild, with temperatures averaging from 10 to 15 degrees Celsius during December, so you’ll be comfortable then, too!
Spring and Autumn are when Monemvasia is the quietest, and when you’re likely to have a more limited selection of amenities and venues when you visit. Still, if you’re looking for that absolute authentic, wild experience, visiting then maybe for you as you still have full access to the fortress and the village, and there’s available accommodation and other services.
How many days to spend in Monemvasia
The more you spend in a place as rich in sights and heritage as Monemvasia, the better! However, affording three full days for your first visit there is going to be sufficient. You will have enough time to explore the area, discover nooks and corners that you will like, enjoy the village, the fortress, and the seaside, and fall in love with it so you come back.
Things to do in Monemvasia
There are many things to do and see in Monemvasia, but here is a list of must-see and must-do things to start you off!
Explore the upper town
Monemvasia is divided into the upper and lower town. The lower town is inhabited, while the upper town is uninhabited. The upper town is where the oldest structures and buildings will be found.
Walk up to the top of the citadel via the Voltes winding path. As you do, watch the sweeping view of the world change. Seek out the stunning church of Aghia Sofia, the only completely intact building in the upper town, and take in the breathtaking panoramic views of the entire castle town from every angle.
There are many pathways to take, so take your time to investigate! Just do it very early in the morning or in the afternoon to avoid the relentless sun if you go in the summer.
Lose yourself in the charm of the lower town
Though the lower town of Monemvasia is relatively small and clustered together, it’s brimming with beauty and history. Walk down its medieval pathways and streets, taking your time in each one to discover the beautiful mansions, the age-old churches, and the perfectly preserved archways.
All the hotels, cafés and restaurants are located in the lower town. All the streets are cobbled or paved, and there are many narrow alleys and byways that wait for you to discover them.
Go shopping on the main street
The moment you pass the Main Gate, you will find yourself walking on Giannis Ritsos Street, also called “Kalderimi” (i.e. “cobbled path”) by the locals. It’s a wide cobbled street that has remained unchanged since medieval times when it was first made. Just like then, today Kalderimi is Monemvasia’s main trade and commerce street: it’s where you’ll find the most shops, bars, cafés, and restaurants.
What better way to connect with the past than do some shopping? Browse all the souvenirs, jewelry, and traditional items and foods on sale at Kalderimi, and be part of the trading hub that is now buzzing again.
Stop at Giannis Ritsos’ residence
Just 150 meters inside the Main Gate you will also see Giannis Ritsos’ house. Ritsos (1909-1990) is one of Greece’s most prominent poets and lyricists. He’s renowned for his participation in the Greek Resistance during WWII and for his fiery sentiments for human rights and has been called “the great poet of the Greek left”.
While you can’t go inside the house, you can enjoy the yard and the bust of the poet. In the cemetery of the town, you can also find his grave. The house will soon be open to the public as a museum.
Visit the many churches
A testament to Monemvasia’s history and Byzantine origin, it is home to not one or two, but twelve churches! Some of them are several centuries old, and each one is worth visiting. Here are the most important ones:
Aghia Sofia: This beautiful church was built in the 12th century and features a gorgeous interior. Originally, this church was adorned with many frescoes. But when during the Ottoman occupation it was used as a mosque, they were whitewashed.
They have now been restored enough for you to enjoy them, but it was impossible to completely restore the church to what it had been. While you’re there, don’t forget to take in the amazing view.
Christos Elkomenos: This church is located in the main square of Monemvasia. It was built in the 6th century and has some elements that date from the early Christian era, marking this church as unique. It underwent a lot of additions and changes as the centuries rolled on, but the structure remains and so do the frescoes and other inscriptions inside.
Look out for the inscriptions of when extra construction work took place, such as the one from 1538 or the one from 1637. Christos Elkomenos is the church where Easter celebrations take place each year in Monemvasia.
Panagia Chrysafitissa: This church boasts a gorgeous dome and even more beautiful iconostasis. It was built in the 11th century during the first Ottoman occupation, which shows in its architectural blend of Byzantine and Islamic features. It overlooks the sea and has a beautiful yard so make sure you enjoy the view!
Panagia Myrtidiotissa: This church was built in the 17th century during the second Venetian period and you will see its distinct Western style influence on the classic Byzantine architecture. Inside, you will see a gorgeous iconostasis of gilded, heavily sculpted wood that originally belonged to Christos Elkomenos.
Check out Monemvasia’s archeological collection
Opposite the church of Christos Elkomenos, housed in an old mosque, you will find Monemvasia’s remarkable archeological collection. It’s not very big, but each artifact and exhibit is a distinct, unique, or important illustration of daily life throughout Monvemvasia’s long history.
Inside you will see sculptures dating from as early as the 4th century AD, ceramics, daily life objects and tools, and more. All of the sculptures and other architectural elements that couldn’t be directly restored in the fortress or castle town, or in the various churches, were transferred for exhibition there.
The archaeological collection is the perfect complement to your forays in the fortress itself and the castle town in general.
The Eastern Wall and the Lighthouse
Walk past the square at the church of Panagia Chrysafiotissa, along the path to find the breathtaking Eastern Wall of Monemvasia. It’s part of the medieval fortifications, a massive wall that has been completely restored to how it was when the Byzantines completed it.
As you walk up to it, feel the sheer imposing size, and look for the small door that can let you through to the other side, and the beautiful lighthouse.
The lighthouse was built in the late 1800s and is still operating today. Enjoy the pretty surroundings and the expanse of the sea, then go inside to visit its tiny but significant museum that will fill you in on its history and how it was restored after being destroyed during WWII.
Hike around Monemvasia castle
You can hike around the entire almost-island of Monemvasia! All you need to do is follow the red arrows starting from the lighthouse and taking you all the way around the imposing rock. Make sure to pay attention at the beginning of the trail, just when you leave the lighthouse because it starts off rocky and uneven.
After you are past that point, however, it’s all smooth! You will walk roughly half an hour to 45 minutes depending on your pace, all around the walls and the rockface. There are clear marks all throughout the trail and some points of information.
It’s a very scenic route with the expanse of the sea on one side and the steep cliffs or walls on the other. Don’t miss out on the experience! In the end, the trail takes you back to the town, so you can immediately grab a refreshment!
Swim or watch the waves at Portello
From the Main Gate, turn right at any point to walk towards the outer tier of the castle town. There you will find signs to guide you to the fantastic Portello. Once the spot where arrivals from the sea would dock to gain access to Monemvasia, Portello is now a popular swimming spot where the waves crash in mesmerizing, fantastic patterns.
Take a dive in the deep waters (there is no beach) and swim with the unique view of the massive town walls that those in Byzantine times would also have seen. If it’s too windy for that, prepare yourself for a powerful show of wild beauty as the waves crash against the rocks.
Do some wine tasting
During Medieval times, one of the most popular and renowned wines was the Malvasia. You’re in luck because you can still taste it today! Malvasia remains the traditional, sweet wine with an amber or caramel color, depending on the year. While you can get Malvasia in any of the bars in Monemvasia, why not make an event of it?
Go for some exquisite wine tasting that includes a sampling of other local products or accompaniments at Byron’s Wine Tasting Bar. You won’t simply get wines to taste, but great stories and background history to go with them. Even if you’re not a wine expert, you will be introduced to the fascinating world of choice wines and pure, home-cooked side dishes to appreciate them with.
Or you can go to Tsimbidi Monemvasia Winery, where the interest and revival of Malvasia happened! There you will taste not only Malvasia but several other uniquely Greek wine varieties that have won several international awards of excellence. You will get a tour of the winery’s premises, how the wines are made, and of course a wonderful session of wine tasting.
Take a cooking class for traditional Amygdalota
Amygdalota means “sweet made of almond” and they are one of the staple traditional sweets of Monemvasia. They were traditionally made by all the ladies, married and unmarried, who would offer the snowy dessert at weddings or big celebrations. These sweets are made with powdered sugar, rose water, and ground almonds, usually shaped into little pears.
While you can get sweets everywhere in Monemvasia these days, why not learn to make them yourself whenever you want?
Try sea kayaking
We usually associate kayaking with rivers, but in Monemvasia, you can try your hand doing some kayaking in the sea! You will have a guide and you will be in groups, so you don’t need to worry about your skill.
Besides the adventure, your bonus will be to enjoy stunning views of the castle and the cliffs from the sea, which aren’t otherwise visible. See what the ancient mariners would have while you engage in a unique and fun activity at sea!
Things to do near Monemvasia
Visit the Liotrivi Estate
If you are looking to immerse yourself in the local traditions that come from even before the medieval age of Greece, then you want to visit the Liotrivi Estate.
A gorgeous estate with olive orchards and even available accommodation, it offers several activities and tours that you will love: from olive oil and wine tasting to a Greek cuisine cooking class and bread baking or soap making workshop, all of the experiences provided will make you leave with a smile on your face and new skills under your belt.
Goes without saying that you can have very tasty food there, whether you learned how to prepare it or not!
Take a day trip to Elafonissos island
Drive to Pounta Port and take the ferry for a short trip to the nearby islet of Elafonisos (or Elafonisi) if you’re craving a little touch of paradise. Elafonisi is like a secret you have to be let in on!
With gorgeous sandy sapphire and emerald beaches and a small fishing village where you can have fresh fish in one of the taverns, Elafonisi is where you will find the best beaches while still enjoying Monemvasia!
Explore the Cave of Kastania
You need to take a scenic drive through verdant streets and gorgeous valleys to reach the Cave of Kastania, but it’ll be worth it! The cave is considered one of the most important caves of its type in all of Europe. Visit it for the unexpectedly colorful and awe-inspiring stalagmites and stalactites, among other unusual formations that took millions of years to be created.
Walk through the different chambers that nature created through eternity, ending with what is called the Large Balcony and the Spiral Staircase, which offer you a view of the entire cave and its chambers. It’s an unforgettable experience of beauty you won’t easily get to see elsewhere.
Visit Gerakas lagoon
Just 20 km from Monemvasia, you will find the unique Gerakas lagoon. It’s also known as the most southern fjord in Europe! It is a deep and narrow islet that is surrounded by high, steep cliffs and swathed in lush greenery.
The waters are always calm in the lagoon, of a deep sapphire and slightly emerald color. Having a swim there is an experience, even more so if you can take a boat ride to dive in the deepest part of the lagoon.
There are some houses and some taverns that offer fresh fish and seafood. Of those, make sure to try Diamantis’ Tavern, which is the most popular for a reason! Besides the fresh fish and seafood that Diamantis himself catches, there is a rich menu of traditional Greek cuisine to enjoy.
Hit the beaches
Pori Monemvasias Beach: This is a well-organized, beautiful beach just 2 km from Monemvasia. It’s one of the largest and most impressive beaches with silky sand and azure waters.
Bozas Beach: This pretty beach offers itself for some seaside sports as it has a vast sandy expanse laced by deep blue waters. There is a beach volley court and it’s well organized with a café and bar.
Xifias Beach: Yet another gorgeous, huge beach that seems to stretch forever. It’s partly sandy and partly pebbly, but the sandy part has the bonus of trees lining it and offering shade. It’s not organized so be prepared!
Where to eat in Monemvasia
To Kanoni restaurant: Its name means “the cannon” and it is located in the center of Monemvasia’s castle town, near the church of Christos Elkomenos. It offers high-quality traditional Greek cuisine, with locally produced fresh ingredients. Enjoy home-cooked meals on the terrace, with stunning views of the fortress overhead.
Voltes: In the castle town, look for Voltes if you want a spin of modernity without abandoning tradition. This elegant restaurant seems to have grown out of the rock, celebrating tradition in its décor as well as the menu. The menu has traditional and modern Greek cuisine, as well as vegan options. Make sure you book in advance as it’s small and fills up easily.
Matoula: This is the oldest restaurant in Monemvasia and has some of the tastiest dishes you will try. Enjoy the gorgeous view of the sea from the yard or the terrace, eat traditional dishes cooked slowly in the traditional way, and consider that you’re eating from the recipes and hands of Giannis Ritsos’ close relatives.
Where to stay in Monemvasia
You have options to stay within the castle walls or outside. Here are our picks for each!
Theofano Art Hotel: This unique hotel is housed in five different stone buildings in the center of Monemvasia’s castle town. Its main common areas have a gorgeous, commanding view of the sea so make sure you have breakfast there!
Everything is restored to historical precision and decorations are done with antics and natural marble and stone as was done in the castle since medieval times. The rooms have all the necessary amenities and you have access to all of Monemvasia with just a few steps.
Kinsterna: If you want to stay outside the castle walls, then Kinsterna will offer you a unique view of it against the dramatic blue of the Aegean. The hotel is housed in a renovated medieval Byzantine mansion, offering many services beyond the standard amenities, such as a swimming pool with water from a spring in the underground of the hotel, and spa services.
Don’t miss out on trying Kinsterna’s fine dining restaurant and its rich Greek breakfast in the morning!