Last updated on March 31st, 2021 at 10:05 am
We often use the word unique to describe places we’ve been to and loved but, in the case of Monemvasia Castle, the word takes on its literal meaning.
This enchanting fortress town in Southern Greece is a fine, if not the only, example of a superbly preserved medieval settlement that has remained untouched by time and thoughtless human interventions that could have easily altered its character. In fact, nowhere in Greece have we seen anything remotely as perfect as Monemvasia Castle, thanks to the Greek Archaeological Service.
The latter makes sure there are strict regulations in place when it comes to the construction or reconstruction of buildings inside the Castle, in an effort to preserve Monemvasia’s special architecture. Combine this to the fact that no vehicles are allowed within the Castle walls and it’s easy to understand why Monemvasia is so unique.
Some call it Gibraltar of the East while Yiannis Ritsos, one of the greatest Greek poets (THE greatest if you ask us), used to refer to his hometown Monemvasia as a stone ship. We think this nickname couldn’t be more accurate. Monemvasia Castle does indeed feel like a stranded ship that timelessly takes its visitors on a magical journey without even moving.
So, let us now take you on a journey to Monemvasia Castle, this tiny piece of rocky land we hold close to our hearts and will forever call our favourite part of mainland Greece.
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Monemvasia Castle Travel Guide
Location & History
Monemvasia is situated in the region of Lakonia in Southern Peloponnese. The Castle of Monemvasia is built on a tiny rocky island linked to the mainland by a 200m long bridge, which is the only way to get to the Castle. That explains the name Monemvasia which derives from the Greek words moni and emvasis, meaning single entrance. Monemvasia Castle is divided into three parts: the Lower Town, the Upper Town and the Acropolis.
The name Monemvasia refers to both the old medieval settlement (Monemvasia Castle) and the modern town that spreads along the coast facing the Castle. This article is about Monemvasia Castle alone.
The medieval fortress town was founded in 583 AD and has been continuously inhabited since then. Due to its strategic position, the medieval Castle played a significant role throughout history as a major trade and maritime centre, claimed by many a conqueror. Nowadays, although visited by many Greek and foreign travellers, Monemvasia Castle remains one of the country’s best-kept secrets.
Best Time To Visit Monemvasia Castle
Monemvasia Castle is a stunning destination all year long, as the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful regardless of the season. Autumn and spring are probably the best seasons to visit Monemvasia, while winter is fascinating for a chance to enjoy solitude and mingle with locals. Avoid July and, most of all, August, when the heat and the crowds tend to get unbearable.
Speaking of Monemvasia’s heat, another thing to keep in mind is that the Castle’s cobbled streets can get very slippery under the scorching sun. Avoid stepping on the shiny black cobbles, as those are the most slippery of all. Strangely enough, these same cobbles aren’t as slippery outside the summer months.
How Many Days in Monemvasia Greece
Every time we visit Monemvasia Castle, we make sure we spend at least four days there. Still, it hurts when we leave. But we know we are partial to this place; we simply adore it. If you’re visiting for the first time, three full days are enough to enjoy Monemvasia’s special vibes. You’ll go back at some point anyway. This medieval gem will have you hooked for life.
How To Get To Monemvasia Castle
Driving is the best way to get from Athens to Monemvasia. The journey takes about four hours. If driving is not an option, there’s always the Athens to Monemvasia bus.
There’s ample parking space available for free by the bridge that connects Monemvasia Castle to the mainland. From there, you need to walk the slightly uphill road to the Castle’s main gate (15-20 minutes). Alternatively, there is a minibus from the bridge to the main gate, which is very frequent during the summer months.
You can drive to the main gate and make a brief stop to unload luggage and passengers, but under no circumstances should you park your car there. Outside the high season, you can also park along the main road. However, check with your hotel that it’s indeed OK to park there as these things change quite often in Greece.
Where To Stay in Monemvasia
Some travellers choose to stay in the modern part of the town rather than within the Castle walls. The reason is simple: Monemvasia hotels in the modern town are more affordable than hotels inside Monemvasia Castle. For a reason.
Staying in the heart of Monemvasia Old Town, within the Castle walls that is, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience in its own right. Sleeping inside a century-old renovated mansion in a dimly lit fortress town that’s lost in time doesn’t happen every day. That’s why you should indulge in this fantastic experience even if that means staying for fewer days or cutting down on other travel expenses. Believe us, it’s absolutely worth it.
If possible, choose a room with a vaulted ceiling and traditional furniture for an unforgettable time-travel experience.
Where To Eat & Drink in Monemvasia Castle
You can’t go wrong with any of the restaurants, bars and cafés inside the Castle, as they’re all top-quality and staff are super sweet and polite everywhere. Here’s a list of the places we tried and loved.
- Voltes is one of the best Monemvasia restaurants, serving exquisite Greek food with a twist in a friendly environment. Try to catch a table in the room with the vaulted ceiling and don’t miss the rose house wine.
- Matoula is one of the oldest traditional restaurants in Monemvasia Castle, serving superb Greek dishes since 1950. When weather permits, sit at the gorgeous terrace. Remember to leave room for dessert: a piece or three of the divine portokalopita (orange-pie).
- To Kanoni is a traditional Greek restaurant with a wonderful terrace, excellent service and good house wine. If you’re tired of Greek food (is that even possible?), that’s the best place in Monemvasia Castle to fill up on pizza and pasta.
- Oinomelo is another meze restaurant serving fantastic dishes.
- Peinakothiki prepares the most delicious crepes (sweet and savoury). Even if it didn’t, we’d still go to hang out with the super cute cats that adorn the shopfront.
- Emvasis Café – Cocktail bar has a lovely terrace with a fantastic view and a wide selection of impressive cocktails.
- Enetiko Café & Cocktail Bar is the perfect place to enjoy an afternoon drink or dessert.
- Byron’s Wine Tasting Bar boasts a jaw-droppingly beautiful location, resembling a real-life movie set, and a large variety of wines. You can also enjoy a wine tasting experience there.
- Malvasia Café is one of the prettiest cafés we’ve seen in our lives, with incredible views of the Old Town and the sea beyond. We love it any time of day; either for a cup of tea in the sunshine or a drink when the night falls.
- Café Byzantino enjoys one of the best spots in Monemvasia Castle. It overlooks the main square and the blue sea beyond. It’s super popular for its breakfast buffet.
Top Things To Do in Monemvasia Castle
1. Wander Around The Lower Town
The Lower Town is the inhabited part of Monemvasia Castle. It’s where all hotels, bars, restaurants and shops are situated. The Lower Town is very compact; you can see all of it in a matter of minutes. Yet you’ll end up spending countless hours taking in its beauty, unable to stop strolling around these fairytale-like streets, lined with dreamy mansions, century-old byzantine churches and picturesque cafés.
There is a main cobbled street that starts at the main gate and ends near Malvasia Café. Locals call this street Kalderimi but its official name is Yiannis Ritsos Street, in honour of the famous Greek poet. Around Kalderimi, there is a maze of charming narrow alleys waiting to be discovered.
Kalderimi looks exactly the way it did during the Byzantine Times when it served as the trade centre of Monemvasia Castle. Not much has changed since then as all shops and most restaurants, hotels and bars are located along the Kalderimi.
Yiannis Ritsos’ Residence
Monemvasia is the hometown of famous Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos (1909-1990). Ritsos is known and loved both for his excellent work and his participation in the Greek Resistance movement during WWII.
One of the best things to see in Monemvasia Castle is Yiannis Ritsos’ Residence, which is very close to the main gate. The house itself is not open for visits but you can hang out at the lovely terrace in front of the building and take in the incredible views.
There are two squares in the Lower Town: the main square and Chrysafitissa Square. The main square is a sight for sore eyes any time of day or night. Home to the impressive Christ Elkomenos Church and the old mosque that houses the Monemvasia Archaeological Collection, the main square is the ultimate meeting point for locals and visitors alike.
Chrysafitissa Square is dominated by the Church of Panagia. It is a gorgeous open space, adjacent to the southern fortifications of Monemvasia Castle, right above the crashing waves.
Walking past Chrysafitissa Square, your feet will take you to the magnificent Eastern Wall which has been restored to its former glory. Through a small gate on the Eastern Wall, you can visit the beautiful Monemvasia Lighthouse.
2. Tame The Waves At Portello
Starting from the main gate, you can follow a different walking route rather than continue on the main cobbled street. Take any alley to your right that leads to the outside walls of Monemvasia Castle. Soon, you will stumble upon a wooden sign that shows the way to Portello.
In medieval times, Portello was the entry point for those coming to the Castle from the sea. Nowadays, Portello is an unreal spot where you can sit on the black rocks staring at the sea for hours on end. When it’s windy, which it often is, this experience becomes almost surreal.
For the brave among us, Portello is also a popular swimming spot. The sea is deep, and the waves crash incessantly onto the rocks. Yet the view to the Castle of Monemvasia from the water must be really something. We wouldn’t know as we don’t fall into the brave category.
If you’re looking for less adrenaline-filled beaches near Monemvasia Castle, there is a long beach near the bridge and a small jetty at the side of the road that leads to the main gate.
3. Climb Up Voltes Street To The Upper Town
The Upper Town is the uninhabited part of Monemvasia Castle. It’s home to many charming ruins and offers spectacular panoramic views to the entire medieval settlement. The only almost intact building in the Upper Town is the impressive Agia Sophia Church.
To get to the Upper Town, you must walk along Voltes, a winding fortified path that connects the Lower Town to the Upper Town. The walk to the Upper Town’s gate is quite steep but the views and the vibes that await are more than rewarding. Visit the Upper Town in the afternoon rather than in the morning to avoid the excessive sun.
Once in the Upper Town, take your time wandering around the charming overgrown paths and let the mystical ruins whisper their deepest secrets to your ears.
4. Visit The Castle’s Acropolis
If you’re already in the Upper Town, don’t miss the chance to walk a bit further uphill until you reach the fortified town’s Acropolis. The unobstructed views you will enjoy from up there aren’t easy to put into words.
5. Hike The Perimeter of Monemvasia Castle
When the opportunity to walk the full circle of an entire island presents itself to us, we never let it go to waste. We did so in Ioannina, we were determined to do it again in Monemvasia. Technically, Monemvasia Castle stopped being an island in 1971 when the bridge connecting it to the mainland was built. However, this didn’t make us any less excited about walking around the gorgeous rock.
To hike the perimeter of Monemvasia Castle, you must wear hiking shoes or trainers and start early in the morning to avoid excessive exposure to the sun and heat. Our advice is to start your hike from the lighthouse just outside the Castle walls. The only tricky part on this hiking route is near the lighthouse. Therefore, you’ll want to be done with it in the beginning and then enjoy the rest of your hike.
The hiking trail is signposted all along the way. Follow the red arrows starting from the lighthouse and in about an hour or so you will be at the bridge. From there, you can continue on the main road until you reach the main gate to the Lower Town. Alternatively, follow the sign that leads to the Upper Town via yet another splendid hiking path.
We can’t even begin to describe how much we enjoyed this hike. It’s one of our favourite activities in Monemvasia Castle and we can’t recommend it enough.
If we managed to complete this hike, we’re assuming that anyone can. That said, the hiking path does look scary near the lighthouse, as you have to walk on rather slippery stones along the edge of the rock. If you feel that you can’t or don’t want to do it, just don’t. There’s no reason why you should feel scared, uncomfortable, or worse. Monemvasia Castle offers many fabulous walking opportunities besides this one.
6. Watch Both Sunset & Sunrise in Monemvasia Castle
Since we’re talking about one of the most gorgeous places to visit in Greece, imagine what it’s like to enjoy the golden hour there. Sunset is utterly beautiful to watch from the Upper Town while you should sacrifice a few hours of sleep to watch the sunrise from the main square at least once.
7. Drink a Glass Or Two of Sweet Malvasia Wine
PDO Monemvasia-Malvasia is a sweet wine produced in Monemvasia since the Middle Ages. Malvasia wine used to be the most famous variety back in medieval times. Nowadays, you can have a glass of sweet Monemvasia wine at any bar or restaurant in the Castle of Monemvasia. If you like it, you can even buy a bottle or two to enjoy back home.
Why Visit Monemvasia Castle
It should be clear by now that there are many reasons to visit Monemvasia Castle. First and foremost, planning a trip there offers the unique opportunity to stay within the walls of a genuine medieval settlement which has never ceased to be inhabited throughout the centuries.
Secondly, Monemvasia Castle is the perfect base from where to explore the authentic region of Lakonia in Southern Greece. World-renowned destinations, such as Simos Beach in Elafonisos, or more under-the-radar ones like Kyparissi and Gerakas Port, are within easy driving distance from Monemvasia.
However, what draws us to Monemvasia Castle is a special connection we seem to have with this rock in the middle of the sea, this stranded stone ship that cast its spell on us right from the very first moment we walked through its main gate years ago. It’s the same kind of connection that made us fall desperately in love with yet another blessed rock, this time in the Cyclades.
Amorgos Island and Monemvasia Castle are the two places in our home country we love the most. We hope you’ll also love them through our eyes and we can’t wait to hear your thoughts once you visit them!
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