Do you love traipsing around some great castle ruins? How about a fantastic springtime hike up in the beautiful mountains of Greece? We do, and we really enjoyed our visit to Mystras, especially our scramble up to the castle.
Continuing on our Peloponnese Road Trip through some amazing historical sites, such as the archaeological sites of Mycenae and Olympia, and imposing castles like Methoni, Pylos, and Palamidi, we pulled into the Sparta area to explore Mystras and learn about the amazing Kalamata olive.
For me, late springtime conjures up images of brilliant wildflowers, leafy verdant greens, ladybugs, and bumble bees buzzing all around. This is exactly what we found on the bright May morning we visited Mystras.
As we climbed to the castle, we enjoyed the flowery spring morning, the warm clean air, and the incredible views of the Greek countryside. Luckily we got there early enough not to have to contend with the multitudes of people that surely came later.
In this article:
- What is Mystras and Why Should I go?
- Short History
- What to Expect
- Mystras Castle
- Upper Mystras
- Getting to Mystras
- Opening Hours
- Things to do Nearby
- Where to Eat
- Where to Stay
What is Mystras
Mystras, a world heritage site, is a sprawling ancient hillside city with an upper and lower portion to explore. A vast site with amazing fortifications, the site is educational, fun, and really worth visiting, especially in spring at the height of the wildflower bloom.
We mostly visited the upper area, because that is where a Byzantine castle is perched at the zenith of the mountain ready to protect all its inhabitants. Aside from the fortress ruins, one of the many reasons to visit this amazing place is the Byzantine churches and monasteries, many of which sport colorful frescoes from the era.
Short History of Mystras
Built by the Franks in the 13th century, Mystras was one of the final holdouts against the Byzantine empire. However, the Franks were defeated in 1262, and Mystras became the seat of Byzantine power in southern Greece. In fact, it became the capital of the Despotate of Morea.
The hill city did not capitulate until 1460 when it became part of the Ottoman Empire. Afterward, it was controlled first by the Venetians before the Egyptians came in and massacred the populace and sacked the city. It fell into disrepair as the nearby city of Sparta grew in power and influence.
What to Expect at Mystras
As we pulled up into the upper parking lot, there were only a few cars there. We’d gotten to the site before 9:00, which I think was key. There was a parking attendant, but he didn’t even get out of his car as we parked and started looking for the path to the castle area.
We were a little confused about which way to go, because you cannot see any of the fortress or rest of the upper site from the parking lot. We noticed a narrow, somewhat muddy, path heading a bit downward and figured it was in the right direction, so that’s what we took.
Thankfully, we were correct and in just about five minutes came to the fortress gate. We had to scramble up a steep, uneven ramp to get inside the ruins and buy our tickets. It was a good thing that it was a bit difficult, because it made it easier for us to decide how to proceed.
We were heading up, and we knew there would be lots of climbing, so we parted with Ginny at the entrance where she took the lower path more suitable for her.
The Byzantines really knew how to build, and that is why Mystras Castle was our ultimate destination. We’d read lots about it and were excited since we found the entrance to the larger area was well fortified already.
Jim and I started climbing and were surprised at the condition of the path. It started out being very well constructed, with even stairs and walls to hold onto as you ascended, but it degraded pretty quickly.
Within minutes, we found ourselves on a “walkway” that was all stones, piled on top of each other willy-nilly. We had to scramble to climb it, but that too didn’t last.
Our reward was another flat path, dirt and with a small wall to sit on or hold onto as we continued to climb. This good to bad type of pathway continued all the way up to the castle.
We weren’t sure what to expect at the top of the hill. None of the site has been restored, and all the buildings are just ruins, albeit with tall and imposing rock walls. It was fun to wander around discovering rooms, doorways, arches, and all the while enjoying the spring flowers, and of course, the view was stunning over the Sparta countryside.
As I mentioned, Ginny explored this part of the fortress without us, and by the time we headed down, she was resting outside the gate.
We continued on and enjoyed the flatter area which had some interesting buildings. We especially enjoyed the cistern and palace church. The frescoes were brightly painted with rich blues and reds, and of course, there are plenty of rules about taking photos in the church. This is why a “watcher” was stationed there, to make sure you complied. The main rule, of course, is no flash photography.
The monasteries of Mystras are well worth visiting, most of which you access by going through the lower gate to the ancient city.
Getting to Mystras
As we were on our road trip, we just headed to Sparta on Greek National Road 8a, then followed the blue directional signs to the site. It was very easy, but you notice right away that you are climbing a mountain, with its many turns.
From Sparta it’s only about a ten minute drive to Mystras lower portion, and another 5 minutes to the upper portion where Mystras Castle is located.
From Athens to Mystras
If you are coming from Athens, you can get to Sparta by car or bus. Then you must hire an Uber or taxi to do the final nine kilometers to the ancient site.
From Athens to Sparta it will take about 2.5 hours. Could you do it in a day trip? Sure, but you would want to get up super early in the morning, and you’ll be completely exhausted by the time you returned. If this is your idea, you might want to think about taking this private tour from Athens to Sparta.
From Kalamata to Mystras
Our travel conference was in Kalamata, so we were stopping there. Luckily, Kalamata is right on the Greek National Road 8a as well, so it’s just a quick hop to Sparta. In fact, Kalamata to Sparta, by car, takes a little over one hour and, of course, you must add the eight or so minutes to the site.
Mystras Opening Hours and Tickets
The site is open from 8:00 until 20:00 every day. Adult tickets cost 12 Euros, which entitles you to visit the upper and lower portions of the site, as well as the museum.
The site is open from 8:00 until 15:30 each day, and adult tickets only cost 6 Euros. This is because the paths can be very treacherous during the winter, and may be closed.
Things to Do Nearby
Sparta is only about 8 kilometers away, and our favorite thing to do there was visit the superb Olive Museum.
Other things to do within about about an hour or an hour and a half’s drive include:
Where to Eat
Even though there are a few restaurants right near the lower portion of the site, we recommend you go into Sparta for lunch. We ate a fantastic pork gyros at a small take away called Paronas Grill House.
Where to Stay
Depending on what you are doing, you can stay in Sparta, Kalamata, or even down on the peninsula. Everything is relatively close. The night we visited Mystras and Sparta, we stayed in a beautiful hotel in Areopoli called Mani Hotel. We loved it. The town is cute and easily walkable and the breakfast was amazing.
Things to Do Nearby
We love traveling all over Greece but were especially blown away at the number and quality of sites on the Peloponnese Peninsula. We loved kayaking near Epidaurus, riding horses and fishing in the sea near Kalamata, learning about olives in Sparta, and visiting sites like: Palamidi Fortress, Nestor’s Palace, the Ottoman city of Mystras, and of course, the Corinth Canal.
No matter your reason for traipsing around the Peloponnese Peninsula, don’t miss Mystras. It has a completely different feel and allure than many of the sites we visited on our Greek road trip, and we really enjoyed the climb to the castle.
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.