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While cruising around Greece with Silversea Cruises, we anchored close to Monemvasia, an island just off the east coast off the Peloponnese peninsula. I’d never heard of this island before, so I was curious to take the tender to shore and check it out.
Monemvasia is connected to the mainland by a 200 meter-long strip of land called a tombolo and is surrounded by the Myrtoan Sea. The island is quite a sight to behold – it features a large plateau that towers around 100m (330ft) above the sea, measuring up to 300 m (980 ft) wide and 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) long.
Often referred to as the “Gibraltar of the east” Monemvasia was founded all the way back in the 6th century, making it one of the oldest continually-inhabited fortified towns in Europe. If you find yourself on a Greek cruise or visiting the Peloponnese, it’s definitely worth a day trip to this romantic and magical place.
In this Monemvasia travel guide I’ll show you how to get there, and what there is to do on your visit.
Where is Monemvasia, Greece?
Monemvasia is located in the south of Greece, just off the mainland. More specifically, the island is located in the municipality of Laconia, just east of the Peloponnese peninsula.
Monemvasia is what’s known as a “tied island”, and is linked to the mainland via a causeway. Cars can cross this causeway via the Monemvasia Bridge.
How to Get to Monemvasia
As I mentioned previously, my cruise ship included Monemvasia as one of the ports of call. All I had to do was hop on a tender and I was whisked straight to shore. This was my first and only time cruising, but I would happily do it again, especially in a place like Greece. It was nice to wake up in a new place every day and see a bunch of different islands without having to worry about transportation.
If you’re visiting Monemvasia from the mainland, you’ll need to fly into Athens and then travel by bus or car. There’s no airport in Monemvasia.
Use Rentalcars.com or Discover Cars to find and book a car rental in Athens. Once you’ve picked up your car, drive along the Greek National Road that goes to Tripolis. Once you reach Tripolis, follow the route to Sparti and Gythio. Before reaching Gythio, you’ll see signs to Monemvasia. The distance between Athens and Monemvasia is about 320 km and takes roughly 4 hours.
Cars can’t enter the Castle Town, but they can drive up to the main gate to drop visitors off.
If you’re arriving by car, you’ll need to park your vehicle in the main parking lot, which is located in the modern town of Gefyra on the mainland. You’ll see it to the right hand side of the causeway as you approach.
In summertime there’s a regular shuttle bus that takes visitors from the start of the causeway to the main gate, and it should cost around €1.10. Alternatively you can cross the causeway on foot – the walk takes about 20 minutes.
If you don’t want to rent a car, there are daily KTEL buses from Athens that go to Monemvasia via Sparta or Molai. Buses depart from Kifissos KTEL Bus Station and the journey takes around 5 hours – a bit longer than the car journey.
Check the following website for schedules: www.ktel-lakonias.gr.
What is the Meaning of Monemvasia?
The town’s name derives from two Greek words, moni (μόνη, ‘single’) and emvasis (έμβασις, ‘approach’), and together they mean “city of single passage”.
A Brief History of Monemvasia
Monemvasia was founded by the Byzantines in the 6th century, from the relocation of the inhabitants of Ancient Sparta, who abandoned their city after a Slav raid. The town was carved entirely out of the backside of a sea rock, and was invisible from the mainland, which protected it from enemy attacks. Originally the only way to reach the island was by boat, but eventually a pathway was created to connect it to the mainland. This is how Monemvasia gets its name.
Due to its strategic location on important sea routes, Monemvasia eventually developed into an important commercial and cultural center. Over the years, the island became the target of many raids from pirates and Western rulers, but it has remained continuously inhabited until today.
The settlement experienced significant growth during the 11th and 12th centuries, and during that time important monuments were built, including the Church of Agia Sophia, and the Church of Elkomenos Christos.
Over the centuries Monemvasia was captured by the Venetians, the Crusaders and the Ottomans, who left their own influences on the island. It was eventually surrendered to the Greeks in 1821 during the War of Independence, after a four-month siege called the Siege of Monemvasia.
Today, Monemvasia feels like an open-air museum, filled with traces of Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian history.
Things to Do in Monemvasia
Monemvasia is a small island, so it’s easy to get around on foot. The main attraction here is the castle town, which is divided into two halves – the “lower town” and the “upper town”. There’s also a new, modern town called Gefyra, which has been constructed opposite the rock, but there isn’t much to see there.
Walk through Monemvasia’s main gate and you’ll arrive in the lower town – a very quaint place with cobbled streets, Byzantine churches, pretty flowers and narrow alleyways.
Many of the buildings have been converted into boutiques, cafes, hotels, guesthouses and restaurants. While you can walk around Monemvasia in just a few minutes, it’s easy to spend hours here just drinking coffee and admiring its beauty.
The upper town lies mostly in ruin, but was once home to grand palaces, mosques and churches. Today it is uninhabited, and the only building that lies mostly intact is the Agia Sophia Church. Still, the upper town is worth visiting for its panoramic views of the sea and the entire settlement.
Here are some of the best things to do in Monemvasia:
Plateia Dsami is Monemvasia’s main square, and features two of Monemvasia’s most notable buildings – the Muslim Mosque and Elkomenos Christos Church. The square is surrounded by cafes and restaurants, and is the perfect place to while away an afternoon.
The Archaeological Museum of Monemvasia
The Archeological Museum is housed inside the well-preserved 16th century Muslim Mosque. It features a large array of artefacts that have been gathered from Monemvasia and the surrounding area. On display you’ll see door frames and parts of the town’s crumbled buildings, as well as ceramics and pottery.
Elkomenos Christos (Church of Christ in Chains)
A highlight of the lower town is Elkomenos Christos – a small Byzantine church constructed in 1697. The church is dedicated to Jesus Christ, who was lead chained to Crucifixion. Notable features are the beautiful bell tower, which was constructed in the 18th century, and the marble iconostasis, which was created in 1801 by the Tinian artist Yorgios Kaparias.
Over the years Elkomenos Christos was frequently damaged and raided during invasions. Many of the icons inside the church were stolen or moved somewhere else, although you can still see several rare icons on display.
Hike to the Upper Town & Acropolis of Monemvasia
If you don’t mind the exercise, climb up the steep, zigzag walkway to reach the uninhabited upper part of town. This part was once home to Venetian aristocracy and hundreds of beautiful mansions. Today they’re in ruins, but it’s still worth visiting for the beautiful panoramic views of Monemvasia and the Myrtoan Sea.
Church of Agia Sophia
A highlight of the upper town is the Church of Agia Sophia, a Byzantine church that was originally dedicated to Panagia Hodegetria. The church occupies a breathtaking location on the edge of a sheer cliff, and is one of the most photographed spots in Monemvasia.
The Venetians used it as a Catholic church dedicated to Madonna, while the Ottomans converted it into a mosque. It was restored to a Christian place of worship in the 1930s after Greece gained independence.
Portello Beach Swimming Area
Greek summers can get pretty hot, so if you fancy a dip, pay a visit to the Portobello Beach swimming area. It’s not technically a beach – more of a bathing platform – but there’s a set of stairs that lead into the ocean. You’ll often see locals and tourists swimming here to cool off in the midday sun.
A second square – Chrysafitissa Square – is dominated by the Church of Panagia, which was built in the 17th century during the first Turkish occupation. This whitewashed church has a dome-shaped roof and is still in operation to this day.
The Lighthouse of Monemvasia can be reached through a small passageway at the far end of the square. The views from here are breathtaking and it’s a good spot to watch the sunset or sunrise. Built in 1896, the lighthouse measures 6.5 meters in height and features a square stone tower with a lantern attached to a 1-story stone keeper’s house. It was briefly damaged during World War II, but was eventually restored and resumed operation in 1945. If you want to learn more about Monemvasia Lighthouse, there’s a small exhibition in the house opposite the lighthouse featuring photographs and information.
Yiannis Ritsos House
Yiannis Ritsos was a famous Greek poet and an active member of the Greek Resistance during World War II. His house, which is located in Monemvasia, is being turned into a municipal museum focused on his life story and his connection with Monemvasia.
Drink Malvasia Wine
During the Byzantine and Venetian periods, one of Monemvasia’s most famous commodities was wine, or ‘oino’ in Greek. The vineyards were located on the mainland, while fermentation and storage was handled on the island. The Venetian’s often referred to Monemvasia as “Malvasia” on maps, which is how Malvasia wine got its name.
Wine production on the island started around the 13th century and continued for about 300 years until Turks invaded and banned the tradition. However, the Venetians loved this sweet wine so much that they began producing it in other regions, and malvasia wine production spread to a number of places across the continent, including Crete, Italy, Spain and the Canary Islands.
In 1997 a gentleman called George Tsibidis established Monemvasia Wines with the aim of restoring the production of Malvasia wine at its birthplace. The winery is located around 10 Km away from the Castle of Monemvasia and features a tasting room where visitors can try a glass of Malvasia wine. If you don’t manage to make it to the winery, you can also try malvasia at Byron’s Wine Tasting Bar in the castle town.
I’d definitely recommend booking a stay in the old castle town if you can afford it. The lower town is incredibly pretty with historic churches, cute cafes and beautiful sea views. Here are some good options for your stay:
- Moni Emvasis Luxury Suites
- Likinia Hotel
- Lazareto Hotel
- Hotel Byzantino Monemvasia
- Malvasia Traditional Hotel
- House in the Castle
If you’re traveling on a budget , you’ll find more affordable accommodation options in the new town. Check out these hotels:
- Aktaion Hotel
- Filoxenia Hotel Monemvasia
- The Flower of Monemvasia
Where to Eat in Monemvasia Greece
Enetiko Cafe & Cocktail Bar –
Chrisovuolo Cafe Restaurant Bar
How Many Days do You Need in Monemvasia
Monemvasia is small, and you can easily explore both the upper and lower towns of Monemvasia in one day. However, the sheer beauty and romantic nature of this place means you may want to spend a night or two here.
Is Monemvasia, Greece, Worth Visiting?
Yes, Monemvasia is gorgeous! It takes a while to get there though from Athens, so I’d suggest you plan to stay there for the night, or explore more of the Laconia region. If you happen to be taking a Greek cruise that stops at Monemvasia, definitely take the tender to Monemvasia and spend a day wandering around the old Castle Town. It’s incredibly pretty and picturesque, and would be perfect for a honeymoon or romantic getaway.