Whether your tastes skew toward Homer or Hollywood (think of those sparring Spartans in 300), you’ve likely encountered the Peloponnese, the peninsula at the southernmost tip of Greece that was the heart of ancient Hellenic culture. A mythic land where gods and heroes walked, the Peloponnese still evokes epic qualities fit for laurels and lyrical poems. With a beguiling mix of classical ruins, wild landscapes, and some of the best culinary treasures the country has to offer, it’s an attractive alternative to well-trod tourist routes around Athens and the Greek islands.
Separated from mainland Greece by the Corinth canal, the Peloponnese has for centuries been a crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean, its landscape littered with the remains of ancient civilizations and would-be conquerors. Temples to the Greek gods still stand, as do palaces built by the powerful Spartan and Mycenaean empires, and fortresses that testify to the waves of invaders—Ottoman, Frank, Venetian—who across the centuries have staked their claim to the peninsula. (Discover underrated Mediterranean destinations to visit now.)
The modern-day hordes are thankfully kept at bay—the Peloponnese has largely been spared the overdevelopment of Greek tourist traps such as Mykonos and Santorini. The lovely Arcadia region, lush with cypress, poplar, and olive groves, bears traces of the virgin wilderness where nymphs, naiads, and the horned god Pan once frolicked. Spend a few days hiking the Lousios Gorge and you’re less likely to encounter tourists than monks cloistered in the area’s working monasteries, some of which date to the Middle Ages. (Speaking of olive groves, here’s another sun-soaked Greek island where you can eat like a god.)
The remote Mani region, at the southern end of the peninsula, has in recent years been made easily accessible to travelers. Famed for the ferocity of its inhabitants, the region maintains a rough, austere beauty. With its dramatic mountain passes and sheer cliffs plunging straight into the sea, the Mani holds much of the wild allure that seduced Paris and Helen of Troy. According to Homer, the star-crossed lovers spent the first night of their elopement here—before their ill-fated affair sparked the Trojan War.
History has a powerful hold on the Peloponnese, but part of the region’s appeal is the way that the past merges with the present. Visit the ancient site of Olympia and you can crouch in the same starting blocks as the athletes who raced in the first Olympic Games. Nemea, where Hercules performed his first labor by slaying the lion that was terrorizing the city, is at the heart of one of the most important wine regions driving the Greek wine renaissance today. (Visit the all-marble stadium that hosted the first modern Olympics.)
In Epidaurus, the majestic fourth-century theater isn’t just a throwback to the days of Aeschylus and Euripides: it’s the focal point for one of the highlights of the Greek cultural calendar, an annual arts festival (May to October) during which thousands pack into the amphitheater for performances. Ringed by hills and hidden by forests, the ancient site was excavated little more than a century ago—a hint, perhaps, of other undiscovered treasures awaiting Peloponnesian travelers.
Christopher Vourlias is a freelance journalist based in Athens, Greece. Follow him on Twitter @postcardjunky.