Modern Sparta is a quaint, provincial town which lies between the Eurotas river and the breath-taking Taygetos mountain range. Nestled in the southern Peloponnese, about a three hour drive from Athens, the town and its environs are well worth a two or three day visit. The drive there, particularly south of Corinth, passes through an impressive mountain landscape, and timeless, green hillsides covered in olive groves. Truly, one seems to be looking upon the same vistas that the ancient Spartans and their contemporaries gazed upon.
The town of Sparta itself is well-designed in a grid pattern with quiet and clean neighborhoods. The main boulevards are lined with shops, restaurants and coffee shops, and they are a pleasure to stroll; visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to indulging in the local fare. The townsfolk are helpful and hospitable, and the town seems quite safe.
Walking the streets of Sparta, one cannot help but be struck by the natural beauty of the Taygetos mountains whose steep sides plummet to the valley floor like veritable walls. Whether cloaked in mist and cloud, or radiating in the sun, the Taygetos are imposing, and dominant. Their strength evokes the spirit of those Dorians who settled below them, and who built a proud warrior-state there millennia ago.
Sparta’s main square is centrally located, and it is a useful refueling stop as one crisscrosses the town to see the sites. Nearly all of Sparta’s sites are within walking distance, and they are easily found using google maps. At a leisurely pace, it takes but a day or two to take them all in. From time to time the main square will serve as the public venue for popular cultural or sporting events such as the Spartathlon and The Spartan Race World Championships, so it is worth checking to see what’s going on before planning a visit.
No visit to Sparta would be complete without seeing its many historical and cultural sites. A full list is available at the tourism website Explore Sparta along with important tips and information on the different seasonal events which take place in the town. For fans of classical Sparta, there are a few sites which are ‘must-see’ if you have the chance.
Just beyond the Stadium and the statue to Leonidas at the northern edge of town, lies the ancient acropolis of Sparta. Surrounded by gloves of olive trees and overgrown with grass, the ruins have a quiet solemnity about them. On this hillside the center of Spartan society could be found – official buildings, the amphitheater, merchant stalls and temples. All are explained and signposted clearly to inform visitors. While the excavations lack the grandeur of say the Athenian acropolis, one can, with a little imagination, envision ancient Spartans and helots going about their daily lives there; war, after all, was the exception and not the norm, and it bears to reflect on the fact that life in Sparta had its own peaceful rhythm and mundanities.
Just a block or so away from Sparta’s main square, you’ll find the Archaeological Museum. It lies in quiet gardens, and has an admittedly small collection of antiquities. The lady curators are happy to answer the odd question, but to gain full benefit of the exhibition, one should obtain the services of a professional guide. Here you’ll find the famous ‘Leonidas’ bust, the marble sculpture of a fifth century hoplite.
On the banks of the Eurotas river on the north eastern outskirts of town, the famous temple to Artemis Orthia is located. Renowned for the rite of passage which the Spartan youth of the agoge had to endure there, the ruins of the temple are unfortunately ring fenced. As of 2019, the persistence of pickpockets in that particular area have discouraged visitors, so it is worth consulting with locals to ascertain the current situation.
The Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil lies in the southwest corner of town. One of Sparta’s best museums, the highly-rated exhibition underscores the many uses and importance of the olives in a region so abundant with them. The museum showcases both modern and ancient methods and technologies for pressing the golden olive oil, and explains the role of the product as staple of life and the economy then and now. Well worth a visit!
While not associated with classical Sparta, the last ‘must-see’ site is definitely one for the history buffs, or really anyone who enjoys the majesty of well-preserved historical architecture. Mystras lies in the foothills of Taygetos just a short drive (6 km) to the west of Sparti, and can be easily reached. The medieval castle was built in 1249 by the French, but was soon thereafter included in the Byzantine empire. The ruins on site comprise fortifications, several churches, a cathedral and a palace. Pack a lunch or snack, and enjoy a great day out.