Looking at the Peloponnese Peninsula on a map, gracefully fanning out across the Aegean, it’s hard to decide whether it looks more like an enormous leaf or a hand, with the thumb tucked in.
Make your mind up later, all you really need to know for now is that it’s one of the most breathtakingly lovely and accessible areas in Greece and fast becoming first choice for family holidays in a part of the world where choice is never in short supply.
In fact there’s even choosing to be done on the Peninsula itself: it’s incredibly diverse and not even slightly tiny. Fortunately local experts at Visit Greece have done most of the legwork for you and come up with two beautifully balanced regions for families. Have a look, compare and contrast or just do both – it’s as easy to get around the Peloponnese as it is to get there in the first place.
Messinia sits south west in the Peloponnese, less than two hours drive from Athens and no distance at all from Kalamata Airport, where direct UK flights come in at just over three hours.
If the name of the airport nudges a taste-memory you may be fondly recalling Kalamata Olives which are indeed produced in Messinia and have been since 3600BC. Not least of all because the weather in this part of the Peloponnese is particularly warm and sunny – perfect for olive farming and family holidays.
Hours of sunshine along with sandy coves and clear, clear seas make Messinia a bit of a natural for beachy holidays. But bear in mind this is the area with so much fascinating ancient history they had to create underwater archaeological parks. It’s also home to the western slopes of Mount Taýgetos, the Peloponnese’ highest peak and hiking heaven for families. Myth-mad kids will love exploring the mysterious and legend-laden Messinian Mani Peninsula famous for seaside villages, fortified towns and hardy inhabitants said to descend from the ancient Spartans. The historic city of Kalamata itself is the place for enthralling museums and exquisite palaces, streets lined with cafés, and intriguing shops. And you don’t have to dive to discover ancient ruins, plenty of the most fascinating are above ground and demand nothing more strenuous than awestruck staring.
You’ve probably noticed by now that there’s more than enough to fill a lifetime of holidays in Messinia. But if you’re only planning one at the moment, here are some of the true highlights for families:
Kalamata, the capital of Messinia. The old town is a graceful mix of eras tucked at the foot of the magnificent Castle of Isabeau. Benakeion Archaeological Museum gives you a clue as to how truly ancient the past is in this part of Greece. And the Folklore and History Museum tells slightly more recent, but no less exciting, local stories.
Kalamata’s Aristomenous Street: a pedestrianised paradise with cute cafés and great shops.
The city’s four kilometre long Seaside Road for sandy beaches blessed with both Blue Flags and brilliant water sports.
Nestor’s Palace at Pylos, a well-preserved Mycenean palace dating back to 1300BC, with no less than 105 ground floor rooms.
Voidokoilia, the sensational beach which defies description, just west of Pylos. Think of a perfectly symmetrical curve of sugary sand, neatly bookended by spectacular rock formations, on the edge of the Aegean at its bluest, and then start multiplying the loveliness.
Castle of Methoni, one of the largest in the Mediterranean, built by the Venetians in the 13th century and connected to the mainland by a 14-arch stone bridge. Kids with a passion for gory lore will like the castle’s nearest neighbour, Bourtzi: a tiny, fortified island and place of execution during the 1500s. Less morbid by far is the lovely local swimming beach close to the castle, and the pretty nearby town of Methoni itself.
Koroni Castle for its mix of Venetian and Ottoman architecture, plus spectacular views over the Messinian Gulf from its pole position on Cape Akritas.
Hiking with older kids in the stunning Gorges of Messinian Mani. If you only bag one, make it Vyros AKA The Royal Way: the ancient through-route from historic Sparta to Kardamyli Harbour.
The recently excavated Theatre of Thouria on the outskirts of Kamalata. It’s a work in progress which only makes it more interesting, and keen-eyed kids will easily identify the orchestra pit and several rows of uncomfortable looking stone seats – no dozing off during performances back in 400BC.
The Messinian Mani Peninsula, a mountainous and otherworldly region packed with incredible myths and legends. It’s said the people here are descended from Spartans. True or not? The style of their historic towns seem to bear out stories of ancient blood feuds and warrior ways, though they’re better known for extraordinary architecture and amazing views these days.
Seaside villages like pretty Kardamyli, the more tranquil and beachy side of the Messinian Mani Peninsula.
Glass bottom boat tours of the recently opened Underwater Archaeological Parks at Sapientza Islet and Navarino Bay. Scuba enthusiasts can also dive to see the ancient treasures, but young sailors are more likely to spot dolphins as well as antiquities.
Ancient Messene, 40 minutes north of Kalamata, a vast and meticulously restored archaeological site with a wonderful amphitheatre, Arcadian Gate, and excellent museum.
Navarino Bay for the astonishing 13th century Pelaiokastro Fortress and Gialova Lagoon.
Lakonia is Messinia’s closest neighbour to the east: just on the other side of Mount Taýgetus. It’s the most southerly region in the Peloponnese and if you don’t want to climb a mountain right at the start of your holiday, Kalamata Airport is just over an hour’s drive from its capital, the legendary city of Sparta: you can always spend the journey sharing myths about ancient Spartan childcare with your own kids. Most of the more torrid tales have now been disproved by archaeologists, but don’t let that stop you.
Back in 1100BC, Sparta was one of the most powerful city states in Greece, second only to Athens, so you won’t be too surprised to discover Lakonia is a fascinating region for budding historians. Happily it’s also known for delightful seaside villages and lovely beaches, so there’s plenty of playful space to balance the learning moments.
Outdoorsy kids feel right at home in Lakonia. It’s the region with remarkable, natural climbing walls at Lagada. Some of the finest Greek show caves are right here too, along with most of the iconic Lakoniki Mani Peninsula. And if no holiday in Greece is complete without a bit of island-hopping in the mix, the thrilling Lakoniki coastline has that adventure completely covered as well.
Sparta, the ancient Kingdom of Menelaus and his Queen, later known as Helen of Troy: the most beautiful of all mortal women. The city’s fine Archaeological Museum lets you dig even deeper into the past. And the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive brings you right up to the present on one of the country’s most famous exports.
The spellbinding tower town of Mystras, just outside Sparta. Constantine XI, the last of the Byzantine emperors, was crowned here in 1448, and the mountain landscape is nothing short of magical.
The subterranean splendour of the Cave of Vlychada. Part of the phenomenal Diros Caves’ network, it’s open to the public and you can explore on foot or better still take one of the guided boat trips: top Lakonia experience for kids.
Gytheio for an in-depth look at local life past and present, carefully curated at The Centre of Culture of Eastern Lakoniki Mani. The interactive touch screens take you on a virtual journey round the Mani Peninsula so it’s a great place to start your ‘real’ tour of the area.
Kastania’s Cave in the far south is another underground marvel where you can walk through no less than 10 caverns, including one known simply as the Chocolate Chamber.
Sport climbing at Lagada on natural climbing walls fitted with steel bolts. There are over 60 routes and more than enough challenge for the most experienced rock climbers.
Trypi, close to Lagada climbing park, where kids can gaze into the abyss at Kaiadas Pit. This is the spot where it was once said the ancient Spartans disposed of any sub-standard offspring – a myth debunked by modern archaeologists.
Island-hopping to Elafonisos just off the dramatic Cape Maleas coast. Spartans and Athenians once waged war here, but peace-loving families will be pleased to find the island’s also home to Simos: one of the best beaches in Greece.
Exploring the Cape Maleas’ area to see the petrified palm forest at Agios Nikolaos; shipwrecks and ancient temples along the coast; characterful traditional villages.
Lakoniki Mani, the mysterious and enchanting peninsula at Lakonia’s southernmost point.
The atmospheric town of Monemvasiá sits on its own island just off the south east coast of Lakonia. Kids particularly like walking there across the short ‘causeway’ bridge from the mainland. Strolling around skinny, cobbled streets between historic mansions and imposing medieval towers is another treat. Always make sure to see the sensational panoramic view from the upper castle, as well as the island’s remarkable hanging Cathedral of Agia Sofia.
Seaside villages in Lakoniki Mani such as Limeni, Gerolimena and Porto Kagio.
The cobbled alleyways and quaint towers, punctuated by local cafés and taverna, around the lovely town of Areopoli.
Trojan War sagas at Oitylo: a tranquil seaside village these days, but said to have sent many ships sailing to the aid of King Menelaos in more embattled times.
Tainaro Cape. It’s the southernmost point on mainland Greece and marked by the impressive Akrotainaro Lighthouse. If that isn’t dramatic enough; according to legend Hercules fought it out with Cerberus, AKA The Hound of Hades, round these parts, and you can still visit the sea cave where the action took place.
How to get to Lakonia
Direct flights from London to Kalamata Airport take three hours, 35 minutes.
Sparta is one hour and 15 minutes’ drive from Kalamata.
Discover more unmissable adventures in Lakonia with Visit Greece
Persuaded by the Peloponnese or want to discover more Greek wonders? Take a closer look at the peninsula and find out where else Visit Greece highly recommend for family holidays.