Have you ever had a random, rather meaningless childhood memory that has stayed with you a lot longer than expected? I must have been about 10 years old when a wine commercial on TV literally haunted me. It was about a young couple reminiscing their summer vacation in Monemvasia Castle. The story followed the two lovebirds as they ran about the narrow cobbled streets trying to find refuge from a sudden summer shower. Once the fortress town appeared on my TV screen, I was doomed. I knew I had to visit.
A little more than 25 years later it was time for Katerina and me to finally plan a trip to one of the most enchanting medieval castles in Europe. The countless photos we had looked at throughout the years did nothing to prepare us for the absolute beauty we witnessed as soon as we passed the main gate to Monemvasia Castle. In fact, once we stepped into the fairytale that is Monemvasia, it felt as if we literally stepped into the past.
The total absence of vehicles combined with the strict regulations set by the Archaeology Services concerning the construction and reconstruction of buildings inside the Castle, render Monemvasia a fine example of an exquisitely preserved medieval settlement. Monemvasia Castle is lucky enough to have remained untouched by time and thoughtless interventions that could have easily altered its character, the way they have in numerous other places across the country. In fact, nowhere in Greece have we seen anything remotely as perfect as this enchanting fortress town. It seems that even Time itself stood still to marvel at its beauty.
Our complete Monemvasia Castle Travel Guide
Location and History
Monemvasia is situated in the southern Peloponnese, in the prefecture of Laconia. The Castle of Monemvasia is built on a tiny island linked to the mainland by a 200m long causeway. That explains its name which derives from the Greek words moni and emvasis, meaning single entrance. It’s also called Gibraltar of the East due to its resemblance to its larger counterpart.
Monemvasia Castle never ceased to be inhabited throughout the centuries. Due to its strategic position, the medieval castle played an important role throughout history as a major trade and maritime center, claimed by many a conqueror. Nowadays, its former glory is omnipresent both in the Lower Town where the heart of the modern town beats and in the Upper Town whose relics have fascinating stories to tell.
How many days in Monemvasia
We arrived at Monemvasia on 16th August in the evening and we left on 20th August at about 10:00 am. During our stay, we did two day trips: one to Kyparissi and Gerakas Port and the other to Plytra. Our trip to Monemvasia Castle was part of our summer holidays, so we wanted to take our time, relax and enjoy it. If your time is limited though, an overnight stay will suffice, as long as you get to see the Castle both during the day and at nighttime. In daylight, the deep blue sea surrounding you will fascinate you whereas in the evening the romantic atmosphere the low lighting of the medieval town creates will hold you under its spell.
What to see in Monemvasia Castle
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 for his participation in the Greek Resistance movement during WW II. His house is in Monemvasia Castle, very close to the main gate. From there, the first narrow street to our left took us to the residence’s front yard. And that’s as far as we went actually as it’s not possible to visit the interior of the house. Needless to say that the views from up there are spectacular though.
Kalderimi and the main square
The main cobbled street, Kalderimi as the locals call it, looks exactly the way it did during the Byzantine Times, when it served as the trade center of Monemvasia Castle. Not much has changed since then as all the shops and the majority of restaurants, hotels and bars are located along the Kalderimi.
Nowadays, its official name is Yianni Ritsou Street, in honour of the great Greek poet. We strolled along the charming medieval street more times than we can count, soaking in the beauty surrounding us. The street is quite slippery and stepping on the shiny black cobbles must be avoided. Towards the end of the street lies Monemvasia Castle’s main square. Views from its low stone wall are simply breathtaking.
They say that there used to be forty churches inside the Castle of Monemvasia. Not all of them have survived the relentless passing of time, but those that have are worth a visit, especially Christ Elkomenos Church on the main square, Agia Sofia Church, the only almost intact building in the Upper Town and the Church of Panagia on magnificent Chrysafitissa square. The latter is adjacent to the southern fortification of Monemvasia Castle, right above the crashing waves.
What to do in Monemvasia Castle
The Castle of Monemvasia, albeit small, offers wonderful walking opportunities.
Inside the Castle and Portello
Just wandering around the romantic alleys of one of the most stunning medieval castles in Europe while marvelling at the byzantine mansions is an unforgettable walk.
Yet another fascinating walking route is the one running along the sea fortifications. Starting from the main gate, any narrow street to the right leads to the outside walls of Monemvasia Castle. Turning left, this walk continues up to Chrysafitissa square. We made a tiny detour and followed the signs to Portello. This used to be the gate for those entering the castle from sea. The views and the feeling of calmness mingled with awe that we got once we passed this small gate are hard to describe. It felt as though there was nothing else in the world but the black rocks, the sea and ourselves. Back to Chrysafitissa square, we walked past it, exited the Castle walls and finished our walk near the lighthouse.
Walking the perimeter of Monemvasia Castle
From the lighthouse onwards begins a path for the most adventurous. It goes all around the Castle of Monemvasia up to the bridge that connects it to the mainland. The path is signalled all along its 2 km length but it is steep at times. Unfortunately, we didn’t walk this path ourselves. At least, not this time.
The Upper Town
The Upper Town is also worth a visit and although it is uphill and tiring, the views are more than rewarding. It is uninhabited yet very interesting. We didn’t visit on our own but joined a guided tour operated by Monemvasia Tours. It cost about 20€ per person and it was worth every cent. The tour started at the main gate and we then went all the way up to the Upper Town via the fortified street called Voltes.
Then we headed back to the Lower Town and the main square to conclude to a mini local products tasting after 2-2,5h. Not only did our guide provide us with invaluable information and wonderful stories about Monemvasia, but she was actually one of the archeologists that had participated in the excavations in the Upper Town. As such, she acquainted us with a wealth of information to which we wouldn’t have access otherwise.
If the weather is warm there are a few options for a swim inside or near Monemvasia Castle. The obvious option is the not-so-attractive beach near the bridge. Then, about halfway from the bridge to the main gate, there is a tiny jetty from where you can dive into deep crystal blue waters. For the brave, Portello is also an option. The sea is deep, the waves crash onto the rocks but the view to the Castle of Monemvasia must be one of a kind. We wouldn’t know for sure as we don’t fall into the brave category.
What to eat and drink
Saiti or Tsaiti is a fried pie typical of the Laconia region with local goat’s cheese and fresh herbs. They serve it in each and every restaurant in the region. Although there are a number of variations as to the amount and kind of herbs used, it’s always delicious.
PDO Monemvassia-Malvasia is a sweet wine produced in Monemvasia since the Middle Ages. Malvasia wine used to be the most famous variety back in the medieval times. Nowadays, you can have a glass of PDO Monemvassia-Malvasia at any bar or restaurant in the Castle of Monemvasia. If you like it, you can even take a bottle or two back home.
Where to eat and drink in Monemvasia Castle
To Kanoni is a traditional Greek tavern with a wonderful terrace, excellent service and good house wine. We had pasta dishes and saiti and the portions were more than generous at reasonable prices.
At Peinakothiki we enjoyed some of the best crepes we have ever had in Greece, both sweet and savoury. The staff are super kind with the warmest of smiles. If you want to eat on a budget, look no further.
Not many of its tables enjoy spectacular views but what Oinomelo lacks in view, it makes up in quantity, quality and, above all, taste. Delicious Greek food bites (meze) and excellent value for money.
Café Byzantino enjoys one of the best spots at Monemvasia Castle. It overlooks the main square and the blue sea beyond. It’s a good choice for any time of the day. Either for its popular buffet breakfast in the morning for 10€ per person, a glass of wine in the afternoon or a nightcap.
Emvasis Café – Cocktail bar boasts a lovely terrace with fantastic view and a wide selection of impressive cocktails.
Last but not least, Café Malvasia also enjoys an amazing location. It’s marvellous at any time of day. We saw the sun rise from one of its tables and we sipped a glass of wine or three at dusk.
Where to stay in Monemvasia Castle
The Castle of Monemvasia offers the unique opportunity to stay in the heart of an actual medieval settlement and this is an experience not to be missed. There are cheaper accommodation options outside the walls of the Castle, in the mainland across the bridge. Yet, although we are budget conscious travellers, we would never consider staying outside the walls of Monemvasia Castle. If on a tight budget, it’s better to stay for less days than miss the chance to sleep inside one of the most well-preserved inhabited medieval castles in Europe.
We stayed at Byzantino Boutique Hotel and we loved its old-fashioned charm. The reception is on the main cobbled street just a few meters from the main gate. The rooms, however, are scattered everywhere inside Monemvasia Castle and they vary in type and price. The staff were super polite and ready to tend to our every need. Not to mention the superb breakfast served at Café Byzantino, which was remarkable in terms of both quantity and variety and was freshly prepared with local products. We spent 244€ for 4 nights with breakfast in a traditional budget double room in mid-August, which is peak season in Greece. So, sleeping within the walls of Monemvasia Castle is priceless but also quite affordable. We always check Booking.com for the best deals available.
Monemvasia can serve as the perfect base to explore the beautiful region of Laconia. Here are a few day trip ideas. These day trips should be considered only if you are driving though. Public transport is not an option. There are no direct buses from Monemvasia to the destinations in question and trying to figure out connecting services will only be a waste of precious time. The only exception is Elafonisos. A direct bus service connects it to Monemvasia during summer months.
Kyparissi is a breathtakingly beautiful village in the Laconia region. It is as remote as can be, hidden from the rest of the world by enormous rocks and deep gorges. It’s about one hour and a half north of Monemvasia and the drive is not an easy one. The road is narrow at some points while giant rocks block your view at others. Needless to say, the route is absolutely stunning of course. However, once there, the sea and the quaint little taverns are rewarding and offer a bit of much needed rest before heading back to Monemvasia. To fully experience the tranquil atmosphere of an authentic Greek seaside village, spending the night in Kyparissi would also be a great idea.
Limin Ieraka or Gerakas Port
Limin Ieraka is a quaint, quiet seaside village with a few taverns and laid back feeling. The highlight of our trip there was that we swam in the deep blue waters of what may be the only existing fjord in Greece. It lies about 24 km north of Monemvasia and it is very easily accessible by car. We actually visited Gerakas Port on our way back from Kyparissi.
Plytra is a beautiful beach with crystal clear and shallow blue sea. What’s more important about this beach though, is that, when most of the others are awfully windy during summer months, especially August, Plytra is totally calm. Right on the beach, lie the ruins of the first house ever built in the town. Near Plytra beach, in the area called “Kokkines”, the ruins of the ancient town of Asopos can be seen at the bottom of the sea and along the coast as well. Plytra is a 40-minute drive from Monemvasia, on the older route that connects Monemvasia to Elafonisos.
Elafonisos is a destination on its own. However, if on a tight schedule, travellers should at least spend a full day enjoying Simos beach. Its turquoise waters and endless stretches of white sand have earned Simos a place among the best beaches in Greece. A day trip to Elafonisos from Monemvasia is now remarkably easy thanks to a brand new highway that opened recently and boasts spectacular views to the sea and the Castle of Monemvasia. It only takes 30′ to drive from Monemvasia Castle to Pounta. From there, it’s a 7′ journey by ferry to Elafonisos.
When to go to Monemvasia Castle
We stayed at Monemvasia Castle in mid-August as part of our summer vacation. This allowed us to make the most of our time there by staying outdoors the longest possible. However, we’re sure that it must be lovely all year round, especially during Easter and springtime in general.
How to get to Monemvasia Castle
We travelled from Athens to the Castle of Monemvasia by car. The journey took us about four hours. Driving is by far the best way to explore this region as it offers the freedom to stop whenever, wherever and for as long as you want.
Free parking is available by the bridge that connects Monemvasia Castle to the mainland. Then, it’s a pleasant 15 to 20-minute walk up to the main gate. Alternatively, there is a minibus connecting the mainland to the main gate of Monemvasia Castle which is very frequent during summer months.
If driving is not an option, Monemvasia Castle is also accessible by public transport. For more information check out the Laconia buses website.
From the moment we set foot inside Monemvasia Castle, Katerina, who is a living and breathing GPS of sorts, pointed out that the sunrise from the main square must be spectacular. So, on what would be our last day in this gorgeous medieval castle, we woke up at the crack of dawn and ran like mad to the square in our pyjamas so as not to miss the spectacle. Yes, it was absolutely amazing and yes, it’s totally worth a couple of hours of lost sleep.
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