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If you decide to become a little more adventurous in your vacations to Greece, you should get off the beaten path: instead of the gorgeous yet typical foray into the Greek islands, visit the Mani Peninsula. You will be greatly rewarded!
Mani is a land of mystery, of feudal fortresses, national and local flags, pride, tradition, and surprising variety in the natural and folklore beauties to be seen. You will need a car to drive in its meandering roads as well as willingness to walk in your journey of discovery of this land which retains its off-standish, awe-inspiring atmosphere even in this modern time of connectivity and high pace.
In return, you will walk the land of the Ancient Spartans, see beautiful rolling hills, striking medieval fortresses and towers, and gorgeous hidden beaches. You will encounter and enjoy the hospitality of the proud Maniots, the legendary people that claim to be the Ancient Spartans’ direct descendants- and with good reason, since the Maniots were pivotal in the Revolution of 1821 which liberated the Greeks from the Ottoman rule and eventually founded modern-day Greece.
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A Guide to Mani, Peloponnese
Where is Mani?
The Mani Peninsula is located in the Peloponnese, in Southern Greece. Up until relatively recently, the area was so rough and mountainous that certain villages were completely inaccessible by car and could only be reached by boat!
The Peninsula has the Laconian Gulf on the east side and the Messinian Gulf on the west side. The mountain ridge of Taygetos tapers off into Mani and is responsible for the inaccessibility just mentioned.
Nowadays, there is a road connection to most of the villages and a Piraeus-Mani route used by bus lines.
Mani is divided into two prefectures, of Laconia and Messinia. As such, there is the Laconian Mani and the Messinian Mani to explore!
Kalamata, the way to Messinian Mani
You get to the Messinian part of Mani driving through the city of Kalamata. Kalamata itself is an interesting city, renowned for its olives, its endless olive groves, its gorgeous beach, and its castle. Kalamata’s medieval castle is situated right above the city, granting you a great panoramic view of the city and the area. It is where the July dance festival is held- another event to keep in mind when you organize your vacation- and where several theater and performing arts events are held as it has an amphitheater.
Kalamata’s beach is enormous, very clean, with sand and small pebbles in intervals to please everyone. There are rows of tavernas and cafes as well as a pier to enjoy it to the fullest, so definitely consider stopping by on your way to Messinian Mani!
The Best Places to See in Messinian Mani
The Messinian Mani is also called “Aposkieri” (stress on the ‘ri’) or Outer Mani. Aposkieri means “the one who is shaded”. True to its name, Messinian Mani is full of cool shades and green hospitable canopies to hide from the relentless Mediterranean sun.
Driving from Kalamata, about thirty-five kilometers in the Messinian Mani, you will come upon the beautiful village of Kardamyli. Kardamyli is so ancient that its name, intact as it is used now, is mentioned in Homer! In Book 9 of the Iliad, Agamemnon tries to entice Achilles to rejoin the Trojan War by offering him Kardamyli and six more cities in the area.
Kardamyli is not only gorgeous, but it boasts six beautiful beaches to enjoy, and several sites to see all clustered together in its region!
Before you leave Kardamyli, make sure to visit Mourzinos Castle. This is the old complex of an old Maniot family descended from an old noble Byzantine line, and the place where Theodoros Kolokotronis, one of the captains of the Greek Revolution of 1821, arrived on that year to organize the revolution in the area. Walk through its many narrow pathways, see its various houses and structures, and experience how it was to be a Maniot in those times and earlier!
Kardamyli’s beaches are several (more than six) but the best of them are the following:
Ritsa: A gorgeous, clean beach with crystal clear waters and large pebbles throughout, Ritsa is one of the first beaches you will encounter in Kardamyli. You will find free sunbeds and several canteens and kiosks selling refreshments.
Foneas (aka Faraggi tou Fonea): Foneas is another breathtakingly beautiful pebble beach, which is lesser known, but worth to seek out. It is a small cove of white pebbles with stark light blue waters and characteristic crag-like rock formations including a tall, big one right in the middle. It is quiet and non-organized, so be prepared for that. There may be a canteen for the occasional coffee or souvlaki, but count on your own resources just in case.
Delfinia: Delfinia beach is a sandy beach with waters protected from the wind. Just like every beach in Kardamyli, this one too is extremely beautiful and popular. It is non-organized, so no sunbeds, but you will find a shower and a canteen for the basics! Delfinia’s waters are warm and transparent, reflecting the sky and inviting. It’s perfect for families, so give it a visit!
Kalamitsi: A stunning pond-like beach with crystal clear waters and beautiful rough craggy rock formations and trees, which you should definitely put on your itinerary! Kalamitsi’s waters are bluish green and reflective, and though you will find it rocky on the outside, there’s soft sand once you wade in its waters. Swim and enjoy the view of the beautiful mountains and great skyline!
Leaving Kardamyli and driving further south, at 44 kilometers from Kalamata, you will come upon Stoupa village.
Stoupa has developed into a veritable tourist resort. Originally called Potamos, which means ‘river’, Stoupa was renamed such from the word ‘stoupi’ which means ‘wad’ or ‘lint’, from the materials the locals would soak in the sea to prepare them for processing.
Stoupa is located between two gorgeous sandy beaches with clear, shallow, warm blue waters that are amazingly transparent. Just for these, tourists seek out Stoupa, but there is a lot more to experience there: from small rivers and caves to explore, to the fortress (Kastro) built on the ruins of the ancient Acropolis of Stoupa (then called Leuktra and described to us by Pausanias).
Stoupa’s attractions are many, but the jewel in its crown is the beautiful beach of Kalogria. Not only because Kalogria beach is notoriously gorgeous, but also because that is where the author Kazantzakis met with Alexis Zorbas in 1917 and their friendship bloomed, inspiring Kazantzakis later to write his masterpiece Life of Alexis Zorbas, on which the movie Zorba the Greek is based. A lot of Greece’s high-profile artists, authors, poets, actors and creators of the era were invited there by Kazantzakis.
Kalogria beach is huge, sandy, and looks almost tropical with its contrast of gold vs turquoise blue, with a backdrop of dark green from the sheer forest of hardy trees of all types. Parts of it are organized, but others aren’t, so you can pick and choose how to best enjoy this truly magical seaside.
Stoupa beach is the other must-see, must-visit beach. Just like Kalogria, it is sandy. It has deep blue, super clean waters with gorgeous underwater vistas and a wide range of fish, so if you are a snorkelling fan, this beach is made for you! It is quite organized with several sunbeds everywhere, but be advised that it gets crowded pretty quickly, and that includes the parking lot.
You might also be interested in this Stoupa Guide for families.
Aghios Nikolaos is a small fishing village, also called Selinitsa, which means “small moon”, from a local saying that at the sound of Selinitsa, the moon shivers as Paris strokes, Helen.
Aghios Nikolaos is very picturesque, with a small harbor that is extremely instagrammable. You will be able to enjoy your morning coffee there, see beautiful old structures blend in with newly built villas. You can also fish and cycle.
Aghios Nikolaos is very near Pefnos, which boasts yet another beautiful sandy beach at the outfall of Milia river (also known as Pemisos river), where myth has it that the Dioskouroi were born, Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers of Helen of Troy.
The Best Places to Visit in Laconian Mani
Three words describe the Laconian Mani: Sun, Rock, and Sea. Unlike Messinian Mani, Laconian or Inner Mani is not giving you any shade easily. It is doused in the harsh Mediterranean sun, and the rock in nature and the buildings reflects it relentlessly- so make sure you have sunglasses!
Driving through the Laconian Mani can feel like entering a time capsule back to the Byzantine and later Medieval times. You will find imposing stone towers and castles everywhere, surrounded by low brush and prickly pears. Castle cities and fortified villages are the norm here. Impressive Byzantine churches, hard stone and rock, and gorgeous beaches are the staple of the Laconian Mani, and these are the best places to visit and explore:
Areopoli is the capital city of the Laconic Mani. With its paved streets and stunning towers, Areopoli is a historical town, and the moment you set foot it in, you will feel it.
Areopolis means ‘the town of Ares’, the god of war. The town features prominently not only in antiquity, as it is truly an ancient city, but also in Greece’s modern history, as it was the seat of one of the top chieftains of the Greek War of Independence, Petrombeis Mavromichalis, the statue of whom you will see at the town’s central square.
While you are in Areopolis, you must visit the famed tower houses that were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some have been turned into hotels, so you can have the experience of staying in one! Do not miss out on its churches, such as the Taxiarchos Church with its stunning belltower. And of course, you must try the food. Areopolis is famous for its pork dishes and local type of pasta, so make sure to sample both.
Areopolis also has Karavostasi beach, which is a beautiful pebble beach with places from which you can dive in its clear, clean blue waters.
Going past Areopolis, you will come upon Limeni, Areopolis’ port town just 1.5 kilometers away. It too gives the feeling of a fortified front towards the sea, with several tower houses and imposing stone buildings overlooking the shore.
Limeni is one of the most picturesque locations in all of Greece, with the deep blue of the sea contrasting with the bleached cream color of the stone of the village. You will be treated to fresh fish in the various fish taverns by the sea, with a backdrop of the tower house of the Mavromihalis historical family.
Limeni’s beach is sandy, with warm clear and transparent waters. There are points from where you can dive, and it is non-organized. Limeni’s beach is magical, surrounded by beauty while also being gorgeous on its own.
Oitylo is an ancient city. Homer mentions Oitylo as part of the kingdom of King Menelaus (the husband of Helen). It is 80 kilometers south of Sparta. It became one of the most important cities of the area in the Middle Ages. Oitylo boasts a stunning beach of wild beauty, more than 67 stone-built complexes of traditional, picturesque houses and other structures, and several byzantine and medieval churches with impressive frescoes that you shouldn’t miss.
Surrounding all of them is the characteristic beauty of nature, but also several caves and cave structures.
The caves of Diros have been called “nature’s underground cathedral”, and for good reason. They are considered one of the world’s most imposing and stunningly beautiful cave complexes. The complex is vast, spreading for more than 15 kilometers, with 2800 waterways, and it is still being explored.
Make sure that when you go to the Diros Caves you carry a cardigan or a light jacket, because the temperature will drop drastically as you descend into the cavern. It is worth it though! The stalagmites and stalactites you immediately encounter are a prelude to this journey back to Prehistoric times which you are about to embark on, on foot and by boat, as you hear about the exciting new discoveries of one of the largest and most complete Neolithic burial sites in Europe, with skeletons more than 5000 years old!
Tickets cost: Full: 12€ and Reduced: 8€
Driving further south, you will come upon Gerolimenas village, situated near Cape Cavo Grosso, which means ‘great cape’. Gerolimenas’ name comes from the Greek words for ‘sacred harbor’ and in the past it was the most important port in the area.
Gerolimenas is renowned for its breathtaking wild beauty, both natural and folklore with the trademark stone houses, the culturally rich cafes and restaurants, and the delectable fresh fish you will be able to treat yourself to. Gerolimenas also has a beautiful beach for you to enjoy.
Alypa beach is a real secret beach, located in Nymph Bay in the Laconic Mani. A unique, spectacular beach that looks to have been lifted from a remote exotic island, Alypa beach will stun you even after you have seen the photos, when you experience it yourself.
Surrounded by white, brilliant rock, with deep turquoise waters that are extremely transparent, Alypa beach is unknown enough for you to have a chance to swim there by yourself, as if it were your own private beach.
If Santorini is the poster island for all the Greek islands, Vatheia is the poster village for all of the Laconic Mani’s villages: Vatheia is simply spectacular, with every element that you can find in most of the other villages even more beautifully arranged here, as if intended for a photoshoot.
Vatheia village is built on top of a hill and the road goes around it, so you can admire it from all angles. It is a fortified village and you will have the chance to admire the defensive architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the tower houses are renovated and you can enjoy a stay there. Vatheia also has a couple of sandy beaches for you to enjoy in Marmari and Porto Cayo, with trademark clear waters.
Cape Tenaro is located at the end of Mani. It is also known as Cape Matapan and is the southernmost point of mainland Greece and the whole of the Balkan Peninsula.
Cape Tenaro has always been important through history. Myth has it that the gates of the underworld could be found there, in a small cave that was considered the entry to the kingdom of the god Hades.
Walk on foot from the small chapel of Aghion Asomaton, down the path that leads to the cave that would grant you entrance to the underworld and through which Heracles passed to get Cerberus. Continue on to find the remains of an ancient Roman settlement, and then the Akrotenaro lighthouse, the point where the Aegean Sea meets the Ionian Sea! The walk is easy, atmospheric, and very picturesque, perfect for inspiration of all kinds.
Best places to see near Mani
Mani is spectacular, but the great places to see don’t stop there! Here are some picks of what to see near Mani:
Gytheio is a beautiful harbor town in the center of the Laconic Gulf. With beautiful neoclassical houses huddled together against the slopes of Mt. Koumaros, Gytheio is a sharp contrast with its curated beauty vs. Mani’s wild one.
Gytheio’s port is protected from the elements by a lovely, picturesque island you can walk or drive to thanks to a dam, called Kranai. Kranai is mentioned in Homer as the first refuge Paris and Helen took as they escaped Sparta.
Gytheio is a relaxed provincial town to enjoy with a beautiful harbor and beaches as well as great food and nightlife to enjoy.
The Shipwreck of Dimitrios
Near Gytheio, you can make a stop to visit the shipwreck of the ship Dimitrios. Dimitrios was a 65-meter cargo ship that was shipwrecked and abandoned in Valtaki beach in 1981. There are many stories about how that happened, from ghost stories to smuggling stories that forced the ship to be burned and abandoned until she beached at Valtaki. The true story is probably more mundane having to do with debt and firing the crew, leaving the ship to her fate.
Valtaki is a beautiful beach, with a unique artifact, so don’t miss out!
Closer to Sparta, you will find Mystras, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and “the wonder of Morea”. Mystras is a castle town built in the 11th century AD. During Byzantine times, Mystras was always one of the most important cities of the empire, and towards its later era, it became second only to Constantinople itself.
As a castle town, Mystras is surrounded by fortifications and a wall, with an imposing palace at the top of the hill, now in ruins. There are many famous Byzantine churches, including Aghios Dimitrios, where the Emperor Constantinos Palaiologos was crowned. Several have beautiful frescoes you must experience. You can stay in the old castle town or in the new Mystras village right below it.
Tickets: Full: 12 €, Reduced 6 €.
Monemvasia is a beautiful castle town in the southeastern side of the Peloponnese. Monemvasia is an extremely well-preserved medieval castle town that is still fully inhabited, and quite popular with Greeks at winter!
Monemvasia’s name means “only one pathway” and it is an allusion to the way it was built. Like with all castle towns in the area, it is a fortified city. It was carved out of a huge sea rock which shielded the town from view from the mainland to avoid attacks, leaving only one way to access it.
Monemvasia is extremely picturesque, with beautiful stone mansions, romantic winding stone paths and great Byzantine churches. It a wonderful place to visit all year round. Monemvasia’s beaches are clean, beautiful, and calm. You will enjoy good food, and a great combination of the mountain and the seaside.
Where to eat in Mani Peloponnese:
Kyria Lela A taverna I have eaten a couple of times located in Kardamili. It is located in a courtyard under vine leaves and overlooking the sea. It has excellent Greek traditional cooked ( mageirefta) food. Don’t forget to try the Politiki salad.
Kariovouni or Arachova:
It’s a village in the mountains near Stoupa. In the square of the village and under the plane trees you will have the most amazing souvlaki (skewered pork). We have been going there for years. If you visit at night, take a jacket with you as it gets chilly.
To Magazaki tis Thodoras: Located on the bay of Limeni with tables overlooking the sea and tower houses is among my favorites. The owner Thodora is super friendly and polite. We had some fantastic fresh fish and salad. You can also taste a variety of dishes based on the local cuisine of Mani. Here you can also sit for a coffee or an ouzo while you swim in Limeni.
Barba Petros: You will find it in the alleyways of Areopoli, It has a beautiful yard for lunch and tables on the alley at night. I recommend Siglino ( a traditional food of the area made of smoked pork), fresh salad, and mpiftekia. We didn’t like the lamp it was full of fat.
Where to stay in Mani:
I have stayed in many places in Mani mostly in friend’s houses. I recently spent a weekend in Petra & Fos hotel in the area of Oitilo near Limeni. You can read all about it in my post: Petra & Fos Boutique Hotel in Mani. Apart from the beautiful rooms with the traditional architecture, the friendly staff and the most incredible swimming pool with views of the whole bay, I recommend the hotel if you want to explore the places I mentioned above. The hotel is situated exactly in the middle of everything.
Now if you don’t want to explore the area ( I don’t recommend it) and you only want to spend the day on the beach and have everything within walking distance I recommend that you stay either in Stoupa or Kardamili.
Another nice hotel that I stayed near Stoupa is Anaxo Resort, but you still need a car. This hotel is perfect for families as it has a fully equipped kitchen.
How to get to Mani Peloponnese
By air: The closest airport to Mani is the one in Kalamata town. There are a couple of international flights operating this year.
By car: If you are going to Messiniaki Mani (Stoupa Kardamili) then from Athens you take the road towards Kalamata. After Kalamata, the road is a bit curvy. You need around 3 to 3 and a half hours to get to Stoupa.
If you are going to Lakoniki Mani (Oitilo, Areopoli) then from Athens, you take the road towards Sparti. In around 3 and a half hours, you will be in Areopoli.
The good news is that both the roads to Kalamata and Sparti are new but with a lot of tolls (expect to pay around 20 euros each way).
If you truly want to experience Mani, renting a car to drive to all the places worth visiting is a must. Alternatively, you can try a cruise around Mani, getting to some of the villages by sea, which is also a great alternative, but you will probably miss out on the full experience that Mani can offer you.
Mani is a unique place in Greece with dramatic scenery, steep mountains, olive trees, and tower built villages scattered around.
Have you been to Mani?
What did you like the most?