Monemvasia | Greece’s most stunning (and charming) town?

by Fabian Jürgens
Published: Last Updated on

Overtourism can destroy every destination.

Once consumed by the arriving masses, the most magical place transforms into a grotesque caricature of its former magnificence, and becomes a lifeless husk deprived of its soul.

And yet, there are places that somehow manage to withstand the relentless onslaught of the global tourism industry and successfully preserve the unique charm that constitutes their exceptionalism.

Monemvasia is such a place.

Hidden away behind a gigantic rock off the Laconian shore in Greece’s far south, this utterly picture-perfect Byzantine town seems to possess an extraordinary endowment to resist outside influence. Nearly 400 years of foreign rule (Venetian, then Ottoman) barely left a mark, and it feels as if Monemvasia will repel this next “siege” as effortlessly as its walls have repelled the crushing waves of the Mediterranean Sea for over a millennium.

stone wall seperating the town of Monemvasia from the ocean on the left, Greece

Don’t get me wrong, Monemvasia is far from being off the beaten path. It is one of the first places locals will recommend you visit, cruise ships anker in the surrounding waters, and there is even a direct bus route from Athens (that should say it all). 

Truth be told, if I had visited during high season, the message of this blogpost might have been vastly different.

However, if you make the journey down south in the shoulder (or even off) season, you would be absolutely delighted by the city’s off the grid feel, its complete absence of the typical Disneyland appearance so many popular destinations nowadays degenerate into, and the overall lack of touristic hecticness.

There are so many warning signs hinting at the masses that will most likely descend on (what might possibly be) Greece’s most stunning and charming municipality, still, once you lose yourself in the labyrinthian maze of Monemvasia’s Lower Town, only disturbed by the distant mew of a kitten, or wander through the Upper Town’s crumbling ruins in solitude, the idea of tour buses loading off their human cargo appears totally ludicrous. 

When you rest atop the rocky outcrop, that dominates the islands silhouette, and gaze upon the ultramarine ocean 300 feet below you, all your worries will fade, and this place will appear like the end of the world.  

Monemvasia is honestly an oxymoron to me.

If I had to describe it, I would call it the least touristy, touristy place I have ever been to.


Monemvasia’s history beginns in the 6th century CE, when Slavic tribes crossed the Danube and penetrated far into Byzantine heartland reaching the southern parts of the Peloponnese peninsula. Upon hearing of the invasion, the hardy people inhabiting the Eastern shores of Laconia feared for their lives and retreated to an inhospitable island, where they sought refuge from the “barbarians”.

In 583 CE, they erected the first settlement on top of the imposing rock, which provided excellent, natural protection for its new inhabitants. The Byzantine rulers quickly understood the strategic importance and the town became the administrative centre of the region, as well as a military outpost and safe haven for the fleet during their operations against the expanding Arabs.

Economic growth led to the construction of the lower city in the 10th century and the town established itself as an important trade hub. Attracted by Monemvasia’s wealth, Arabs and Normans alike tried to seize the city but to no avail. A three-year siege, conducted by William II of Villehardouin in 1248, however, proofed too much for the gallantly defending garrison and the city fell into the hands of the Frankish crusaders. After his imprisonment by Byzantine forces, Monemvasia was returned to the empire 14 years later, commencing the town’s golden age.

cluster of houses in front of a looming rock surrounded by the ocean, Greece


Laconia is a historic, as well as a contemporary administrative region on Greece's Peloponnese peninsula, located in the far south of the country. It consists of Cape Maleas, large parts of the Mani peninsula, and the small island of Elafonisos. The word "laconic" is actually derived from the region's name, as its inhabitants, the Spartans, were infamous for their unvarnished statements.

Following the sack of Constantinople in 1453 and the fall of Byzantium’s last de facto capital Mystras in 1460, Monemvasia received the unflattering honour of becoming the final stronghold of the fallen superpower. Thomas Palaiologos, last claimant to the Byzantine throne, ultimately sold the city to the Pope, seeking divine protection. However, this liaison was soon shunned by the town’s folk and Venice seized the opportunity to fill the power vacuum, eager to strengthen its influence in Southern Greece.

The Italians were able to fend of the advancing Turkish forces for nearly a century, but in 1540 Monemvasia was captured by the Ottomans at last. Beside a short reoccupation by the Venetians (1690-1715), the city remained part of their empire until its liberation by Greek forces in the early stages of the Greek War for Independence. After the war, Monemvasia completely lost its significance, and the city was plagued by massive depopulation throughout the 19th and 20th century.

Change finally came in the latter decades of the last century, when affluent Athenians rediscovered this Byzantine gem and began to rebuild its crumbling remnants, revitalizing the city and the neighbouring harbour of Gefira. 

Now, Monemvasia attracts visitors from all over the world, who flock to her cobblestone streets mesmerized by the town’s unique charm and medieval flair.

Here are five wonderful activities you should definitely consider when visiting this Byzantine stronghold.


Monemvasia’s main gate might as well be a time portal.

Hidden behind its crenelated walls, lies a medieval revelation brought back from the depths of oblivion. Labyrinthian in its appearance and primal in its character, Monemvasia’s Lower Town will manifest itself as a fairyland for those willing to lose themselves within its boundaries. Roam through her narrow alleyways, wander up and down her crooked stairways, and turn around after reaching a dead end, yet again.

small cobble stone square surrounded by stone buildings, a bell tower, and a whitewashed church, Monemvasia, Greece

Your head will twist and turn, while your eyes fixate on a weathered, grey wine jug, a white blossom, or a blue window frame popping up in the corner of your eye. Spurred by your curiosity, you will convince yourself to enter little courtyards and peak into open doorways, unveiling further worlds. You might find yourself in the crumbling remains of a Byzantine church, or perhaps you followed the waves’ soothing sound to a stony pier.

In any way, for those choosing to get lost in its nooks and crannies, Monemvasia holds an unsuspected surprise behind (almost) every corner.

big ceramic pots with plants in them lining a stone wall in a narrow alley in front of an arched thouroughfare, Monemvasia, Greece
tree with purple and white blossoms hanging over a stone wall into a narrow cobble stone alleyway, Greece
arched doorway surrounded by a vine boasting white blossoms, Greece


Originally a promontory linked to the Peloponnese via an extremely narrow land bridge, the rock (the city is located on) was separated from the mainland following a huge earthquake in 375 CE. When the island was settled by Greek refugees in the 6th century, an early bridge was built, reconnecting the two landmasses.

Interestingly, the town only received its current name centuries after its inception when Venetian merchants arrived in the area. Recognizing that the only way to reach the town was via an arched stone bridge they had constructed, they named it Monemvasia or "single passage" (moni = single; emvasia = passage).


Clinging to the awing cliffside that looms above Monemvasia’s rubicund roof tiles, a steep cobblestone path zigzags up the rocky surface to the island’s former acropolis. Scattered across the brushy plateau lie the ruins of the Upper Town, a wonderful architectural assembly of Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman remains that brave the harsh conditions of the island and stand testament to the city’s eventful history. Cisterns, civil buildings, a Turkish hamam (bathhouse), and fortifications from numerous periods, brave the elements of this inhospitable place.  

old stone houses on a slope in front of a steep cliff next to the ocean, Greece

Wandering along the edge, it quickly becomes apparent why the first settlers chose to take refuge on this windswept rock. Hazardous cliffs fall off on all sides and create an impenetrable, natural fortress, few were able to conquer. In the past two paths lead to the top, however, the northern entrance was walled off during the Ottoman era, following an unsuccessful invasion by the Knights of Malta in 1546.

Serving as the administrative and military centre for the Byzantine nobility, the Upper Town faced signs of abandonment under the Venetians before it became the exclusive residence of the Turkish officials and dignitaries under Ottoman rule.  

Today, it presents itself as an extensive open air museum (with epic views), only waiting to be explored! 

Roman ruins scattered across a plateau on a rocky island, Greece
rocky outcrop covered in shrubs surrounded by ocean and fog, Greece


Just a short walk away from the gatehouse of the Upper Town, the church of Agia Sophia sits precariously close to the cliffside.

Constructed in the 12th century CE, the church was originally dedicated to Panagia Hodegetria (the Virgin Mary who leads the way), before it became a Catholic church under Venetian rule, as well as a mosque during the Ottoman occupation. Following Greek independence, the church was once again rededicated (this time to God’s wisdom = Sophia) and named Agia Sophia in the process.  

Byzantine era monastery with a red roofed dome sitting precariously close to the edge of a cliff surrounded by ruines, Monemvasia, Greece

Not only is it one of Greece’s oldest and most important ecclesiastical buildings from the Byzantine era, but also the best-preserved structure of Monemvasia’s acropolis. Although its walls are decorated with colourful frescos dating back to the 13th century, the beautifully sculpted adornments are the church’s real architectural highlight (unfortunately I couldn’t see the interior, as the church was closed).

Opening hours | 8:30-15:30 (Friday-Monday)

Closed | every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday

close up view of an arched window and dome of a Byzantine monastery, Monemvasia, Greece
intricate adornment carved into a stoen wall showing two birds and cows, Greece
old stone wall on top of a giant rock above the Mediterranean Sea, Greece


Most visitors to Monemvasia will simply follow the paved road and enter the town through its Western gate. However, unbeknownst to many, one may first lay his eyes on the city from the East also (which I highly recommend you do!).

Hidden behind a cluster of houses facing the bridge that connects Monemvasia to the mainland, an unremarkable trail leads away from the buildings and along the island’s northern shore. In fact, this lovely coastal path encircles the entire rock, creating a wonderful alternative route for those willing to walk the extra mile.

aerial view of a coastline covered in shrubs, Monemvasia, Greece
aerial view of a hiking trail running along a coastline covered in shrubs, Monemvasia, Greece

The undemanding walk runs in the shade of the towering cliffside, which now and then teases the unsuspecting hiker with glimpses of the manmade structures enthroned on top. After passing shrubs, alien looking trees, and the ruins of what might have been a warehouse, the last part will require a short scramble across perforated rocks, before the walk ends at a tiny lighthouse that prevents cruise ships from getting to know the island too close and personally. Once you round the lighthouse, you will already be able to spot the tawny walls of Monemvasia.  

white-barked tree below a towering cliff, Monemvasia, Greece
white-barked tree surrounded by green shrubs in front of a cliffside, Monemvasia, Greece


Long before the Venetians took control over Monemvasia in the 16th century, the port was already an established regional centre of trade. One of its main goods was a special sort of wine, cultivated on the slopes and plains of the southern Peloponnese, which the Italian traders named Malvasia, after the town’s Latin name. In fact, so much of it was bought by merchantmen that Malmsey wine emerged as one of the three major Greek wine exports, and wine shops in Venice were soon dubbed malvasie. The demise of Monemvasia’s luxury commodity arrived with the Turks who, opposed to any intoxicating beverage, saw to the utterly demolishment of the town’s vineyards.

Malmsey’s fame even reached far-flung England and attracted the attention of the dramaturgical maestro Shakespeare himself who mentioned the alcohol in no less than three of his plays, most notably in King Richard III, where the Duke of Clarence gets drowned in a “malmsey-butt”, an innuendo on the execution of George Plantagenet, brother of King Henry IV.

For a few decades now, the wine has enjoyed a quiet renaissance in the area. Therefore, in order to get a real taste of Monemvasia (unlike me, I was sipping on a cheap lager like the pleb I am), lean back and gaze out to the sea, while you indulge in the sweet aroma of Malmsey wine teasing your tastebuds and slowly sliding down your throat.

weathered, grey wine jug lying on a stone wall sprouting green plants, Greece
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