Sparta isn’t pretty. Sparta isn’t luxury. Sparta wears its violent history of wars and fearlessness, leaving few traces behind because they built no walls. Also known as the home of Greece’s most legendary warriors and a brave force during the Peloponnesian Wars, this city is a remarkable chapter in Greek history. To help you wade through the impressive myths and legends to single out truth from fiction, we’ve put together a list of the top 12 best things to do in Sparta.
- From Athens to Sparta: Delphi and Meteora
Perhaps you’ll start your Greek journey as far back as Athens, passing through Thebes and Delphi to pay your respects at the Temple of Apollo. It is from here that the Oracle of Delphi points you towards the cliff-hanging monasteries of Meteora. After all, the legend of Sparta begins away from the city itself – called to arms against Persian invaders, a legion of 300 Spartans took their stand at the Battle of Thermopylae.
Meteora’s cliffs loom at an average height of 1,000 feet. The sheer scale made it the ideal place for monks to set down roots, the first inhabitants having built rock towers in the 9th century. By the 14th century, the great monastery of Meteoron was constructed and later, Meteora became the ideal defense against Turkish forces.
Once you’ve had your fill of this impressive and defensive destination, break from the tour and head into Sparta.
- Explore the Archaeological Museum of Sparta
Composed of more park space than your modern museum hall, the Archaeological Museum of Sparta is nonetheless a great source of history. As you swan past the extensive collection, pause to inspect each artefact. Imbued in every item are forgotten customs and rich rituals; in votive sickles are the echoes of prayers Spartan boys once dedicated to the goddess Artemis, in reliefs we learn about Helen and Menelaus. Bronze and lead figurines all depict deities of the old while terracotta masks hint toward past-times and old story-telling traditions. Truly one of the 12 best things to do in Sparta, it belongs on every bucket list. Ask questions if you see staff hanging around; you’ll leave with all the knowledge you can ever ask for.
- Marvel at the ancient Mystras
Nestled within the mountains is the heart of ancient Sparta, the archaeological site of Mystras. What are now breathtaking medieval ruins was once a fortress that survived several reins and masters. First erected by the prince of Achaia, it was later conquered by the Byzantines. The Turks and Venetians took turns occupying the strategic space until it was abandoned in the 1800s. The modern town of Sparta took on Mystras’ population. A fascinating look into Spartan history, we highly recommend a tour of the proud remnants.
- Museum of the Olive & Greek Olive Oil
Olives are a recurring motif in Greek myths and legends but how many of us know of its origins? Do we stop to think of how this delicious and essential ingredient came to be? Sparta’s Museum of the Olive & Greek Olive Oil delivers all the answers in a beautifully designed package, starting from its first appearance in the Mediterranean.
Study the timeline of olive from 60,000 BC to present day and learn how its usage has evolved. From ritual to fuel to perfume and cooking must-have, olive oil has undergone much iteration. Marvel at the reconstructed olive presses, some based off prehistoric instruments, and the sleek technology we use in the production process today.
- Visit the Acropolis of Sparta
In Greece, the site of any acropolis is an open-air museum – foundational rocks and structural remnants of what used to be a revered place of worship and activity. The Acropolis of Sparta is no different, encompassing the Temple of Athena Chalkioikos, an ancient theater, merchant stalls and the Circular Building of Unknown Destination and is therefore one of the top 12 best things to do in Sparta. Relics found within the temple indicate copper accents while the theater retains a wall with engraved inscriptions. Gaze down at the ruins from hilltop to the depression it is set in and imagine what once was – merchants selling wares, kids running towards performances, fire-lit torches and the chants of prayers filling the air.
- Delve into The Diros Caves
No matter how many caves you may visit, the vast underground networks never lose their mystery. Dedicate some time to touring the Diros Caves via a 30 to 45 minute boat ride through its narrow passages. The water is so calm you could hear a pin drop – or every drip of water from the hanging rock formations. With the caves mostly flooded, the oarsman expertly navigates around the rugged stalactites and stalagmites with minimal commentary. In the hushed silence, admire the spellbinding natural structures, highlighted by cleverly placed lighting.
Those intending on taking pictures should be warned that the boat never stops moving. Prepare for motion blur or save your photography attempts for after you disembark. There will be extra cave space to explore as you make your way outside.
- Tour around the Koumantareios Art Gallery
Acting as an extension of the National Art Gallery in Athens, the Koumantareios Art Gallery features rotating exhibitions from the national archives and is one of the top 12 best things to do in Sparta! You’ll find a permanent collection as well, comprised of 40 paintings and iconography. The gallery itself is tucked along the main road leading into the city, housed within an early 20th-century neoclassical mansion. Overlooked by most people, it remains an intimate glance at Greek art and its development. It’s also free, perfect for budget travellers
- Hunt down the King Leonidas Statue
Anyone with passing interesting in Greek mythology would have heard of King Leonidas, warrior king of Sparta. Believed to be a descendant of the demigod Heracles, he lived up to his name (meaning ‘son of the lion’) by leading a last stand against the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae. Although he died in the ensuing battle, he was forever immortalized alongside the legendary band of 300 Spartans. Placed in front of a football stadium, the Statue of Leonidas encourages fierce fighting spirit. To quote his response when asked to surrender his weapon, “Molon labe – come and get them”.
- Wander through the remains of the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia
The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia is numbered among the best things to do in Sparta because it was closely tied to religious education and traditional worship. Where better to understand Sparta’s rich history? Built by the banks of Evrotas River and the ancient town of Limnon, it was a significant sanctuary where people worshipped for good fertility, healthy vegetation and salvation. Later, it became a center of religious education for the Spartan cult. The temple was first excavated in 1906-1910 by the British Archaeological School of Athens, who distinguished the Roman amphitheater, the central altar and temple to the west. To better understand the importance of this place, brush up on the myths related to Artemis before visiting.
- Day trip: make mosaic art at Xirokambi Village
Sparta itself may be sparse on culturally immersive experiences, but look beyond city borders and you’ll find villages where certain crafts still persist. Nearby Xirokambi Village houses a self-taught mosaic artist who is happy to share the secrets behind this ancient art. Each section of the glass is unique as they carve every piece by hand; claim this opportunity to learn a new skill and bring home a meaningful memento. You simply have to sign up, show up and spare four hours to learning the craft. This truly is one of the top 12 best things to do in Sparta.
- Scale up Mount Taygetos
Boasting a height of 2404 meters, Mount Taygetos towers over Sparta with a coat of thick oaks and wild olives. Where gorges and ravines have carved their marks into the bedrock of the mountain, fragrant phrygana shrubs give way to Mediterranean thickets, scented fir and pines. Presenting a stunning range of florals and fauna that differ from zone to zone, it’s no wonder hikers and trailblazers find themselves returning again and again. Alongside wild-growing nature are dated villages and monasteries, offering sprinkles of culture and religion. Whether you’re an avid trekker or landscape photographer, or someone more interested in local living, Mount Taygetos is a chest full of surprises.
- Challenge yourself at the Spartathlon
If you’ve always looked up to the fierce Spartan warriors, here’s the perfect chance for you to test your mettle: the annual Spartathlon. An important event attended by visitors and participants from all over the world, it is described as one of the most challenging long-distance races. This marathon was created in commemoration of Phidippides’ legendary run from Athens to Sparta; a call to arms during the Persian invasion of 490 BC.
Participants run for over 20 hours, the 246-kilometer route bookended by the Acropolis to the Statue of Leonidas. First attempted by a British RAF Wing Commander, it’s now open to every brave athlete. It is traditionally held at the end of September. These are our recommendations of the 12 best things to do in Sparta – Greece.