We all know Sparta for the glorious battles won and for those lost by valiant warriors who, over the centuries, have made the city a great military power, leaving behind memories that allow us to rebuild the past and to immerse ourselves in a country full of history and myths. The Italian Eye takes you on a journey into ancient and modern Sparta, among the places – and flavors – of a legend.
Formerly called Lacedemone, along with Athens Sparta was the largest Greek polys, ever-hostile, in a constant struggle to contend for the title of the primary city of the Hellenic peninsula.
Located in the southern Peloponnese, today Sparta is a small town in the Laconia region, little known for mass tourism. This may be due to the former Spartan society, devoted to military education and unattractive to the exercise of figurative and architectural art. There are, in fact, few monuments dating back to the Hellenistic period, but that still constitute a compulsory stop for Greek history lovers and archaeologists.
Archeological sites in Sparta
Among the various sites of artistic and cultural interest, there certainly is the statue of Leonida, king of Sparta, built in his honor after the Battle of Thermopiles on August 19th, 480 BC. Against the Persians led by Xerxes I. This war was made famous by the comic and movie 300, equivalent to the number of Spartans who took part in the conflict.
The archaeological museum of the city, divided into seven rooms, presents exhibits from prehistoric times up to the Roman period; in particular, it is possible to admire here sculptures, sarcophagi, mosaics and remains of the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. This was one of Sparta’s most important temples.
Built around 700 BC along the river Eurota, which still crosses the city, it was dedicated to Artemis, the virgin hunting goddess, and it was repeatedly rebuilt and enlarged due to the growing importance that Sparta was gaining. It is said that this sanctuary was used to pursue cruel rituals of atonement to demonstrate the physical strength of the Spartan boys; death was the consequence of a negative outcome of the trial.
Also interesting is the Menelaion, an archaeological site on a hill from which you can enjoy an exceptional panoramic view. The site was devoted entirely to the famous king of Sparta Menelao and his beautiful wife Elena, as described by Homer in the Iliad.
archeological sites in Sparta
Walking on the cobbled streets of the city you are faced with the remains of ancient Sparta, the Acropolis, whose monuments were discovered by the English Archaeological School in over 80 years of study. At the top of the Acropolis, there is the temple of Athena Chalkioikos, designed by the architect Vathykli around the 6th century BC, and whose walls are entirely made of bronze.
In the south rises the ancient theater, where are reported the names of all the tyrants who ruled the city during the Roman period; at its side, there are many remains of ancient shops.
Of course, as in every Greek city, there is also the Agora, the main square and landmark, as well as a religious and administrative center, overlooking a terrace on the Palaiokastro Hill. On the south side begins the oldest street in Sparta, the Apethais, where it is said that Penelope’s pretenders ran a bridal race and Ulysses turned out to be a winner.
Along the roadside was located the Hellenion, where Spartans regularly held the most important assemblies, such as the one that declared the intervention in the Troy War after Elena’s abduction.
Finally, you can also visit the Olive and olive oil museum, where experts will fully explain the whole processing of olives to obtain the final product, but also how this fruit appeared in the territory; the tour ends with the visit of the actual mills and the explanation of how the processing techniques evolved over time.
At the end of the visit to the main monuments of Sparta, you will experience a slight hunger, increased by a large number of dining places along the streets.
Of these, three types can be distinguished: Taberna is the typical Greek tavern, Psarotaverna is a tavern that offers fish dishes, Estuary is the restaurant, Psystaria is a kind of fast food. They all propose their dishes out on a blackboard or on the menu translated into three languages.
In Sparta, you can sample a wide variety of local delicacies, such as Moussaka, a kind of parmigiana with eggplant, minced meat, and potatoes, all covered with a large layer of béchamel and cooked in the oven.
There are also many varieties of meatballs, such as Soutzoukákia, made of beef with tomato sauce; Keftes, made of fried meat or legumes; Biftekia, crushed and grilled, with or without cheese; and Dolmàdes, made of chilled or fried meat or only rice, crushed and grilled, often encased in vine or rowan leaves.
The Mediterranean diet also includes salads like the most famous Choriatiki, the classic Greek rustic salad, with cucumber, capers, onion, feta, tomatoes, green peppers and Kalamata olives.
If you opt for street food, you can taste the souvlaki, grilled meat skewers, served in the dish with the classic French fries or in the Pita, another classic dish typical of Greek cuisine, which reminds of a square piadina filled with Gyros, a kind of chicken, lamb or pork kebab, flavored with fresh tomatoes, lots of onions and Tzatziki sauce based on cucumber, Greek yogurt, garlic, and oil.
As in every Mediterranean island, fish is at the base of most menus; among the specialties, it is worth trying Kalamarakia (fried squid), Gavros (anchovies) and Chtapodi (octopus); the latter is drenched in the sun outside the taverns and grilled with the addition of salt and oregano at the end.
To worthily conclude a meal, you can’t skip desserts. A traditional delight is the Baklava, pasta fillets enriched with almonds, honey, and nuts; other delicacies include the Kataifi, sweet pasta with chopped nuts and wet with syrup; and the Loukoumades, little zeppole with honey and cinnamon.
For wine lovers, you will definitely enjoy the retzina, renown white wine, and the ouzo, a dry distillate of high alcohol content.
Where to eat in Sparta
To experience all these excellences of Greek cuisine, here is a selection of Spartan restaurants.
It serves a Mediterranean menu of meat to fish. Prices from 10 euros.
77 Gortsologou Ilia, Old Town Hall, Sparta 231 00, Greece
+30 2731 300520
As a stylish restaurant, Loucoulos offers a modern review of classic Greek local dishes. Prices from 15 euros.
140 Konstantinou Paleologou, Sparta 231 00, Greece
+30 2731 020777
For those who want to enjoy the 360-degree experience and want to try real local cuisine, YaYa’s Kitchen is your perfect choice. Prices from 15 euros.
69 Palaiologou, Central Square of Sparta, Sparta 231 00, Greece
+30 2731 072200
To enjoy a dinner in an exquisite and genuine Greek environment. Prices from 10 euros.
38 Kleomvrotou, corner of Kleomvrotou & Gkortsologou, Sparta 231 00, Greece
+30 2731 081678
Where to sleep in Sparta
Located in the historic center, the modern Maniatis Hotel features a fully marble lobby, an elegant breakfast room, and an à la carte restaurant.
72 Paleologou, Sparta 231 00, Greece
+30 2731 022665
If you love the classic style, the Menelaion Hotel is right for you. It is housed in a completely refurbished 1935 building and it features a spacious swimming pool and a restaurant serving Greek and Mediterranean cuisine.
Kon/nou Palaiologou 91, Sparti 231 00, Greece
+30 2731 022161
A night out in Sparta
Local pubs are called Kafenion, and they’re perfect to drink good authentic Greek beer such as Alpha or Mithos, maybe accompanied by tapa-like small portions of food, namely Mezde or Orektika.
And to complete the evening, there is always the good company of the locals.