The Peloponnese is a peninsula of myths and legends, ancient sights and civilisations that pre-date written history. It’s a land that covers over 21,000 square kilometres (8,000 sqm) and is located on the southwest tip of mainland Greece.
Home to Olympia, Delphi, and the Corinth Canal, and a short distance from Athens, it’s a destination that should not be passed over. Yet so many of us do in our haste to get to the Greek Islands. This time in Greece I didn’t fly by. I stopped and sailed. Boarding the luxury yacht, Running on Waves, and under the power of the wind, we navigated south around the Peloponnese peninsula, exploring the ancient sights along the way.
In this guide, I’ll share the highlights of this cruise, including the bonus stops at the nearby Greek islands of Kefalonia and Aegina. At the end, I’ve included a map of the places featured in this post.
Athens – The Acropolis
Athens was the starting point of our cruise and a fitting introduction to the ancient sights that lay ahead.
As Europe’s oldest capital city, Athens is a hotchpotch of history. Sure, some parts can feel grubby and crumbly but look up, look left, look right, look almost anywhere in Athens and it won’t be long before you see the ancient Acropolis towering over you.
It’s believed that Neolithic settlers (around 4,000 BC to 2,000 BC) were drawn to the site thanks to nearby fresh springs. Later, the hilltop location became the city’s major advantage when war broke out across the region.
Today, you can visit the well-maintained site of the Acropolis and the famous Parthenon temple, which dates to 438 BC. If you do only one thing in Athens, visit the Acropolis. Visit early morning or late evening for cooler temperatures and fewer crowds. Book your Acropolis tickets in advance to speed up entry.
Monemvasia – Medieval Castle Town
Overlooking the Myrtoan Sea, Monemvasia is a remarkable 6th-century settlement that was built on a rock. Attached to the Peloponnese peninsula by a 200-metre causeway, the town is riddled with winding streets and alleys that cling to the rock-face location. You will find Medieval as well as Byzantine architecture.
With a walled fortification surrounding the town, you can climb ever upwards from the Old Town (Kastro) to Upper Town for spectacular views out to sea. Otherwise, you can simply sit and enjoy a glass of local Monemvasia wine and saitia, Monemvasia’s deep-fried spinach and cheese pie. (Read more about the best things to eat in Greece).
I did make it to the top but it’s a hot hike in summer, so pack sunscreen and water. To cool off, there are plenty of swimming locations near the shore. You can swim directly off the rocks (with steps) or there is a pretty beach nearby – pack your swimmers and a lightweight travel towel.
Pylos – Kingdom of Nestor
There are two sides to Pylos – the ancient history and the seaside.
According to Greek legend, Pylos was the Kingdom of Nestor, the place where King Pylos ruled in Homer’s books Illiad and Odyssey. And it is from the Bay of Navarino in Pylos that, according to Homer, ships gathered to form part of the Trojan War. Pylos is home to one of the best preserved Mycean palaces in Greece, dating from around 1300 BC, which you can visit.
If you prefer to get lost in the area’s natural beauty, you can visit Giolova Lagoon, wetlands with an abundance of birdlife. Nearby, on the other side of the lake, you’ll find the beautifully curving half-omega-shaped white sand beach of Voidokillia.
For those who want a hike through jungle-esque terrain, there is Kalamaris waterfall. However, be prepared for a proper hike (walking boots and mosquito repellent). Also, check the water is flowing well – it is most dramatic after rainfall.
The more relaxed option is to simply enjoy modern-day Pylos town with its many sea-front cafes, bars, restaurants and access to the Ionian sea. Pylos is also known as Pilos and Navarino (the Italian translation).
Olympia – The Olympic Games
Olympia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that started life as a holy place of worship for the God Zeus; dating as far back as 1500 BC. However, Olympia is most globally recognised as home to the first Olympic Games, which were held there between the 8th century BC and the 4th century AD.
The site is scattered with both religious and ‘games-related’ sights. Although many of the structures are in ruins and some are still being excavated, there is much to see. One of the most iconic sights is The Temple of Zeus which once housed the Statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (sadly now destroyed). Meanwhile, the Temple of Hera is Olympia’s oldest temple.
My favourite spots were the location of the lighting of the Olympic torch, which still takes place here at the start of each Olympic games; and the original Olympic stadium.
While the ancient stadium isn’t the most photo-worthy sight – it’s a stretch of dirt with a start line – it is mind-blowing knowing the games started here thousands of years ago. Unlike many heritage sites, the stadium isn’t cordoned off. You can run on the same track as the ancient Greeks. Pre-plan your outfit if you want to run at the stadium. Running shoes and shorts (with a sports bra?!) will be better than sandals and a strapless dress!
Katakolon – Port for Olympia
I visited Olympia from Katakalon, a port town that is around 35-45 minutes by car from Olympia. The town is a pretty mix of candy-coloured houses and is worth a wander. However, it is quite tiny so you don’t need much time to explore.
Head to Pevata beach if you want a quick swim – come out of Katakalon port and turn left (or see my map below). The beach is protected by a rock wall which was great as there were lots of jellyfish floating around on the other side.
I also stopped in the local town of Pyrgos on the way back to the port from Olympia. While it’s nice enough for a coffee stop, there are no major tourist sights.
Kefalonia is a Greek Island that sits west of the Peloponnese peninsula. Unlike many Greek islands, it has a green mountainous interior, packed with pine forest. However, it still boasts a coastline rich with some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen in Greece (Milos has some of my other favourite Greek beaches).
We took a tour of the island with Daily Tours Kefalonia hitting the major sights.
Our first stop was Drogarati Cave, a vast cavern of stalagmites and stalactites with acoustics so powerful that Pavarotti once sang there. But our second cave, Melissani Cave, was enough to make you wow out loud. Accessed from Melissani Lake via boat, that first sight of the light streaming through the open cave roof onto the turquoise water was nothing short of magical.
As well as the caves, we packed in two spectacular beaches.
The first, Antisamos is the kind of beach where you can stay for the day. It’s well organised with plenty of loungers, umbrellas, and toilets. The is also a chilled restaurant and bar with shade and a beach-club vibe.
However, the real show-stopper was Myrtos Beach. This white crescent beach will take your breath away. There is a great viewpoint at the top of the steep road down to the beach.
While you’re in Kefalonia, try Robola, a dry white wine that is made on the island. And to get you in the mood, read or watch Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières, which is set in Kefalonia. I saw a lady sitting in the cafe at Myrtos beach reading the book which made me think: that’s the way to do it!
One of the greatest challenges of a tall mast ship is the height of the mast and it takes a skilled captain to sail through the tight spaces we faced on our cruise. Fortunately, our captain was up for the challenge.
Consequently, at 7:30 a.m. we stood on deck watching as our 45.5-metre ship sailed under the 45-metre Rion-Antirion Bridge. Was it limbo or clever use of the tides? I would like to believe the former but suspect the latter. Either way, it was a breath-holding, eye-squinting moment as we passed beneath the bridge. I’m relieved I wasn’t at the helm (though the captain, Sergey, seemed to be loving every minute of it).
Itea – Delphi
Like Katakolon, Itea is a jumping-off point for another ancient sight of the Peloponnese – Delphi.
Delphi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to 1500 BC; a place the ancient Greeks once believed to be the centre of the world. Pythia was Delphi’s ancient Oracle who would read the fortune of those who visited her. Since our cruise was also a yoga cruise, it was a poignant spot on our itinerary.
Many of the ruins are intact with the treasury, stadium, gymnasium and theatre being the real highlights. The uphill slog is worth it to see the circular theatre from above. I recommend going later in the day if you’re there during summer. That way, you’ll have slightly cooler temperatures, fewer crowds and splendid views during golden hour (perfect light for photos).
The views over the valley below are as much of a treat as the ancient site of Delphi. Pop into the museum for more history and some lovely air conditioning (who doesn’t love mod cons at ancient sites?).
Geographically, the Corinth Canal is a 6.3-kilometre (3.9-mile) channel that was carved out of the Corinth Isthmus to allow ships to pass through the Peloponnese peninsula. Work was started on the canal in 1881. When it was finished, it brought to fruition the 2,000-year-old dream to help traders avoid the 700-kilometre journey around the bottom of the peninsula.
For me, it was a 20-year-old dream come true to finally sail through the canal. And, if you’re going to do it, do it in style. With the sails billowing (though travelling under the power of the engine because…rules), we took a smooth and graceful journey through the channel. I hope the picture above captures how narrow the canal is. In parts, it feels close enough that you could touch the sides (it’s not).
On this occasion, thanks to the beautiful vessel we sailed in, our ship was as much of an attraction as the Corinth Canal itself. I couldn’t help but wonder what those ancient sailors who first dreamt of the canal would think if they saw our traditional-style ship passing through.
Check out the Corinth Canal on my map below. At first, you can’t see this tiny slash in the rock. Zoom in. Zoom in again. Keep going until you find it. Then you’ll realise how narrow it is!
Aegina Island – Sacred Triangle
Another day, another stretch of water, this time the Saronic Gulf. Aegina is an island centred between the mainland to the northwest and the Peloponnese peninsula to the southwest. Pulling into port, it was obvious from the red brick roofs and white villas that the area had once been influenced by the Italians. However, the history of the island goes back many centuries before that.
The ancient Temple of Athena Aphaia is the island’s major historic site (from the 6th century BC). Fun fact: if you’re visiting other ancient sites in Greece, the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, together with the Temple of Athena Aphaia, form the points of an isosceles triangle and have become known as the ‘sacred triangle’. Don’t try binoculars – you can’t see from one to the others, but it’s mystical to visit all three.
Beyond the temples, Aegina is known as the island of pistachios and is thought to produce some of the best quality pistachios in the world. So, if you’re stocking up, do it in Aegina.
After Aegina, we sailed overnight back to Athens, ending another splendid itinerary aboard Running on Waves.
Special items to pack for this trip:
- Swimming shoes (lots of pebble beaches)
- Quick dry towel (for beach trips)
- Packable day pack (small, lightweight and waterproof for beach days)
- Reusable water bottle (good for day trips and helping the planet)
You’ll find my favourite travel kit on my Amazon Travel Store.
You can find my full packing lists here:
How to book this cruise
You can find full details, prices and book online at Running on Waves. Use the code IndianaJoRunningOnWaves for an exclusive 5% discount.
Map of Peloponnese Cruise
You can find the full itinerary on my map of this Peloponnese cruise.
In partnership with Running on Waves.