We love old stones (not you, Mick, calm down). We love old stones so much that we decided to drive halfway across Greece and back again to take in some of the most famous sites of the ancient world: Athens, Mycenae, Delphi. For those of a certain persuasion, this is like a highbrow version of Disneyland.
This itinerary takes in a few of the best-known mainland sites from the Classical and Mycenean eras, and starts and ends in Athens. We spent 6 days on the road and found that this was about the right ratio of driving to sight-seeing, although you could spend a lot longer and still not run out of places to see, especially in the charming Eastern and Southern Peloponnese.
It’s useful to take a Sat Nav as, despite road signs being generally quite good, navigating town centres can be tricky. Likewise, it was a relief to have a little help getting into and out of Athens.
Day 1: Athens – Corinth – Epidaurus – Nafplio
Head West out of Athens. First stop is the impressive Corinth Canal, a man-made waterway cutting right through the Peloponnese Peninsula. If you have plenty of time, there are companies that run boat trips through the canal, worth a ride just for the sheer scale of the thing.
Next stop is the stunning archaeological site at Epidaurus. Here is one of the best-preserved amphitheatres in the Ancient World and the remains of a town and temple complex that grew up around the cult of Asclepius, the healer.
At the end of today’s journey is the pretty, well-to-do seaside town on Nafplio. Enjoy the town’s bustling bars, waterfront restaurants and upmarket boutiques.
Day 2: Nafplio – Mycenae – Sparti
The world-famous archaeological site of Mycenae, the citadel at the heart of a Bronze Age culture that came to define much of the Eastern Mediterranean, lies just a short drive from Nafplio among the fields and orange groves of the Eastern Peloponnese. Arrive early to beat the crowds.
From Mycenae, it’s an hour and a half’s easy drive (highways are quiet and wide, and signposts in English and Greek) to Sparti – the city formerly known as Sparta. Little remains of the great Sparta of ancient times, but it is worth taking a look at the old citadel just outside of town (currently being restored thanks to a grant from the EU). The town itself is quiet and provincial but there are some excellent restaurants and a few popular bars.
Day 3: Sparta – Mystras – Olympia
A couple of miles outside Sparta is the UNESCO world heritage site of Mystras. This abandoned city was once one of the most important in the Byzantine world. Set over a steep slope (there are two car parks – one at the top and another at the bottom), the city is a demanding visit but well worthwhile. Views from the citadel at the top are not to be missed.
From Mystras, it’s a steep drive up and over the mountains of the Taygetus. The roads are steep and winding, but generally quite good, especially in summer. However, if you are travelling in winter, be sure to check the weather forecast before you set out and ensure that your car is appropriately equipped for icy conditions. This area is popular among hikers, and simple hotels are available if you would like to explore the area in further depth.
Once over the mountains, the road eventually winds down into Kalamata – head for the Palia Poli (Old Town) for a walk and a spot of lunch. From Kalamata, it’s a 90 minute drive to Olympia, where a small town has grown up around the famous ancient ruins. Despite the large number of tourists, there are a few decent restaurants and tavernas where you can linger over dinner and late into the night.
Day 4: Olympia – Nafpaktos – Galaxidi – Delphi
Spend the morning at the famous archaeological site of Olympia, where the first Olympic Games were held in 776BC. The site museum holds a fantastic collection of artefacts found on the site and some from a little further afield.
From here our road trip continues North towards Patras. Take the elegant Rio-Antirrio Bridge across to the Greek Mainland and call in at the little fishing town of Nafpaktos for lunch – we recommend trying one of the traditional tavernas on the town square. A little further along the coast, Galaxidi is a quaint village with lots of harbourside dining options.
Delphi, up in the hills of the Mount Parnassos National Park, is out stop for the night. Thanks to the fame of its archaeological site, there are plenty of bars and (decent) restaurants catering to tourists, although things tend to be quiet in the low season.
Day 5: Delphi and Arachova
Spend the morning visiting the archaeological site and stunning museum. This was the best-known oracle in the ancient world, and grew up around the cult of Apollo. The remains and artifacts on display pay testament to the wealth that was brought here, even despite much of it being plundered by the Romans in later years.
For lunch, we recommend driving up to the lovely village of Arachova, known as an upmarket mountain and ski resort for wealthy Greeks. There are some great delicatessens and boutiques here, and several good restaurants serving hearty local cuisine.
Day 6: Delphi – Athens
Drive back to Athens. If you have time, it’s possible to make a detour North to see Thermopylae, scene of the famous battle between just three hundred Spartan warriors and the entire might of the Persian army.