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After a week of touring the ruins of ancient and classical Greece, I was excited for a slight change of pace. Yes, Mystras is still technically ruins, but you can tell the well-preserved churches and buildings are from a completely different point in time. Located on the slopes of Taygetos Mountain, Mystras was a powerful capital during the time of the Byzantine Empire and was later abandoned in the 1800s as present-day Sparta was built. And while you might think Sparta is worth a visit, Mystras is really the main attraction of the area. Here’s what you need to know about visiting the ruins of Mystras, Greece.
A Brief History of Mystras
Mystras was first settled by the Franks in 1248 but later became the seat of the despot of the Byzantine territories in the Peloponnese. The city experienced its golden age during this time from 1348 until 1460. The city was surrendered to the Ottoman Turks in 1460 and was occupied by the Venetians for a brief period in the late 17th century before being recaptured by the Ottomans. Following the Greek War of Independence in the early 1800s, Mystras was abandoned for the newly built Sparta. As with many Greek archaeological sites, Mystras is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As I’ve said in my other Greece posts, the mainland is best explored by car. This provides you the freedom to visit multiple sites in a day and you don’t necessarily have to use Athens as your home base. While it’s possible to visit Mystras from Athens in a day, you will be driving for 5-6 hours total. Instead, Mystras is a great stop on the way back from southern parts of the Peloponnese like Monemvasia or the Mani peninsula.
Highlights of Mystras
Mystras is split into the lower and upper town. While it is possible to access the entire site on foot, you’ll find yourself walking quite a bit and with steep incline so I recommend driving between the two. We started at the lower town and followed the numbered map in a loop. My favorite part of the lower town was exploring the inside of the many churches. Some date back to the 1300s and the frescoes are still visible.
- Peribleptos Monastery: A domed church partially carved out of rock with 14th century frescoes
- Pantanassa Monastery: The only site at Mystras that is still inhabited by nuns
- Metropolis: The oldest church in Mystras, built in the late 13th century
Next, we drove to the upper town. There are fewer sites in the upper town, but you will spend the most time walking to reach the ruins of the Kastro at the very top!
- Kastro: The ruins of a castle built by the Franks in the 13th century providing the best views of Sparta
- Church of Hagia Sophia: A church dating back to 1350 which was converted to a mosque by the Turks
Mystras is a lesser known archaeological site but was one of my favorite stops on my trip to Greece. It’s a welcome break from the ruins of ancient and classical Greece and provides a bit more to look at with the well-preserved frescoes and churches.