As you probably know, the Byzantine Empire (also called the Eastern Roman Empire) had Constantinople as its grand and powerful capital.
When the city (now known as Istanbul) was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1453, it marked the official end to more than a thousand years of the Byzantine Empire, the fall of one of the most important to ever rule over part of Europe.
But, although 1453 was the official end of the empire, there were a couple of provincial Byzantine capitals that held out for years to come. One of these was Mystras, the capital of Morea (a province which covered most of the modern-day Peloponnese in Greece), considered one of the empire’s most important cities.
And so, when the Ottomans finally came to the stone fortifications around the hill city of Mystras in 1460 (seven years after Constantinople fell), it was in some ways the last stand of the Byzantines.
Mystras didn’t really stand a chance, though, and the capital was taken by the Turks. But thankfully the new rulers of the lands didn’t destroy the city. In fact, Mystras continued to be inhabited for several more centuries until it came to a violent end (more on that soon).
It means that many of the buildings that made the city such a prominent and influential centre have survived – and exploring them is why visiting Mystras is such a fascinating experience.
Why is Mystras important?
Mystras was once one of the most important cities of the Byzantine Empire, not for its size but as a centre of power and intellectualism. The remains of the city show this in the grand architecture decorated with exquisite Byzantine art.
Why was Mystras abandoned?
Mystras was badly damaged in 1823 during the Greek Revolution. After the formation of the new Greek state, the king decided to found a new city nearby called Sparta, rather then rebuild Mystras, and most of the population was moved there.
Is Mystras worth visiting?
It is definitely worth visiting Mystras, to explore the large collection of historic buildings and see the beautiful artworks that have survived inside the churches and other monuments. Mystras has been listed as a World Heritage Site because of the significance of what has been protected.
Set atop a peak on the lower slopes of the imposing Taygetos Mountain, Mystras has an impressive backdrop, green forests and rocky outcrops leading up to patches of snow in the cooler months.
Beneath it, a large plain unfolds towards the modern city of Sparta, where the residents of Mystras were finally relocated.
As you walk through the historic site of Mystras these days, it feels a bit like a ghost town. Many buildings are in ruins, but there are enough that are intact… yet empty.
The great Byzantine capital has retained much of its shape, but none of its energy.
Still, you can get a sense of some of the city’s vibrancy in its collection of eight or so churches. These are the highlight for visitors to Mystras, particularly for the frescoes painted on their interior walls and the other stunning artworks decorating them.
If there’s a group of you planning to visit Mystras, then this private tour from Athens may be the easiest option.
Many of the World Heritage Sites in Greece are related to Ancient Greece, and they get much of the attention.
But considering the length and significance of the Byzantine Empire’s influence in the country, it’s no surprise several of the sites are also related to that period.
The artworks are a significant factor, but the site here is about more than just aesthetics. The city played a hugely important role in the cultural evolution of the Byzantine Empire and in its later history.
Visiting Mystras allows you to walk the same streets as the philosophers, artists, and rulers of one of Greece’s most important eras.
The history of Mystras
Although it is the Byzantine Empire that defines most of what we see at Mystras today, the city wasn’t actually founded by them.
It was the Franks who founded Mystras – or, more technically, it was the ruler of the province of Achaea in Frankish Greece, a man called Prince William II of Villehardouin.
After taking control of much of Morea, he wanted to build new fortifications, so he travelled around the Peloponnese looking for suitable spots. The peak he found here on the slope of Mount Taygetos caught his eye, so he built the first castle at the top.
It wasn’t too long, though, until the Byzantines came back and took control of the lands here, including Mystras in 1962 (just 13 years after it had been founded).
This was the beginning of a long period of Byzantine rule, during which Mystras flourished.
The city was a major centre of Byzantine culture and learning during this period, home to important scholars and artists, including the Neoplatonist philosopher Gemistos Plethon.
In 1349, the emperor, John VI Kantakouzenos, established Mystras as the capital of the Despotate of the Morea. Even more beautiful churches and monasteries were built as its importance grew.
Eventually, the Ottomans captured Mystras, seven years after the Byzantine Empire had officially ended with the fall of Constantinople.
But this wasn’t the end of the city. It remained an important cultural centre for the Greek Orthodox Church for hundreds more years, and was even under Venetian control for a period between 1687 and 1715.
It was the Greek Revolution in 1823 that was eventually the undoing for Mystras. After being badly destroyed, a new town called Sparta (Sparti) was built about nine kilometres away and most residents moved there.
A few families stayed at the foot of the historic city in what is now the town of Mystras. But the old buildings were neglected for a while, until an effort to restore them.
In 1989, Mystras was listed as a World Heritage Site and has been protected ever since.
Things to see at Mystras
It’s no surprise that, as a city that was once home to 20,000 people, Mystras is a large site full of different sections and important buildings.
But the most significant things to see at Mystras are concentrated along the slope of the hill that rolls down from the castle at the top to the modern town that has emerged at the bottom.
While I would recommend wandering through most of the archaeological site to get a sense of how the city would once have felt, there are certainly some landmarks that are particularly significant where you should focus your time.
I’ll go through each of these sights in the order you’ll see them if you start at the top of Mystras and walk downhill.
From the top entrance, there’s still a short hike uphill to get to Mystras Castle, but I highly recommend it.
The fortification was built in 1249 and was originally the core of the city. It looked out over the plain below and was designed to be both a watchtower and a place of refuge in case of an invasion.
Built at the top of the peak, Mystras Castle uses steep slopes on most sides as part of its defences, and from the top of the walls you get stunning views today. Other layers of walls protect it on the side that you’ll walk up.
Church of Agia Sophia
Built in the 14th century, the Church of Hagia Sophia was part of the palace complex and would’ve been used as the royal palace church for the period until the Ottoman conquest.
The architecture of the church uses a relatively common style for the time, with a two-style cruciform shape and a dome on the top. The bell tower to its west was built at the same time.
The decorations inside the Church of Hagia Sophia are the highlight and there are parts of some frescoes dating back to about 1350.
The representation of Christ (known as the Pantocrator) in the alcove of the church is particularly well preserved, but there are also impressive painted decorations in the eastern chapels.
Church of Saint Nicholas
Continue down the stairs and pathway and you’ll reach the Church of Saint Nicholas, which was built much later, around the 17th century.
The layout of the church makes it feel much lighter, with a series of windows around the base of the dome allowing the sunlight in.
Although the frescoes here aren’t considered to be as significant as those in some of the other churches, parts have been well preserved and they show the vibrancy of the colours used.
It’s said that the Church of Saint Nicholas was the burial place of the last Byzantine Despot of the Morea, Constantine XI Palaiologos.
Palace of the Despots
Across to the left of the site (if you’re looking downhill) is the hulking Palace of the Despots, which got its name because it was the residence of the Byzantine Despots of the Morea. (It was also the home of the governor before that.)
The building is L-shaped and has sections of slightly different architectural styles because it was built in four phases between the 13th and 15th centuries. The last phase, the long three-story building on the northwest, had a magnificent throne room overlooking the square.
Unfortunately it’s not accessible to the public so you can’t go inside and see any of the rooms yourself, but you get a good view of the exterior from different parts of the Upper Town, which it dominates.
Monastery of Pantanassa
The Monastery of Pantanassa is the most famous church at Mystras. Decorated with stunning frescoes, it has some of the finest examples of Byzantine art in Greece.
It was built in 1428 and is the only monastery in the historic site that is still permanently inhabited. That’s why you’ll find dormitories and other residential-style buildings around the main church (as well as lots of cats, who clearly know the best place in Mystras to get fed!).
The monastery’s church is stunning and there are so many details to examine. The exterior shows the usual Byzantine style of the time, although there are some Western decorations. Inside, the wall paintings are traditionally Orthodox, referencing the classical past with some experimentation influenced by the Renaissance.
Church of Saint Demetrios
Before you leave the historic site through the bottom gate, make sure to pop into the Church of Saint Demetrios, the oldest of the surviving churches in Mystras.
It was built towards the end of the 13th century as a three-naved basilica but was later turned into a cross-in-square church. The walls are decorated with rich depictions of the Passion of Christ and the story of his resurrection. There are also images of some of the rulers of the city.
Because it’s still a working church, you’ll also find symbols of the modern Orthodox ceremonies, which fit seamlessly with the historic design of the building.
Part of the landmark is also used as the Museum of Mystras, which has a collection of religious objects from the city’s churches.
Search for Mystras on a map, and it may be the town that you’re shown. But Mystras town is not what you are visiting. (Although it has a few places to eat, you don’t need to stop here, and most people skip it completely).
It’s the heritage site of Mystras that is the attraction here, and you can see its medieval ruins on the slope above town.
Because it’s built on a steep hill, a visit to Mystras can be a hard climb if you start at the bottom. However, there is also an entrance at the top. There’s parking at both (although a lot more at the bottom).
If you’re driving yourself, you’ll have to walk up and down regardless, so you can choose which way you prefer to do it. But if you’re coming by a taxi, for example, it may make sense to be dropped at the top.
It’s possible to get to Mystras by public transport, although taking a taxi the last bit from Sparta may make more sense if there’s no local bus leaving soon.
With lots of things to see at Mystras, I would recommend about two hours to see the site – although you could probably spend even longer. Remember, it was once a city of 20,000 people, so it’s quite a large area.
Where is Mystras?
Mystras is in the southern part of the Peloponnese, about 220 kilometres from Athens and 50 kilometres from Kalamata (although the faster drive that avoids the mountains is about 100 kilometres).
How do you get to Mystras?
The easiest way to reach Mystras is by car. From Athens it takes about 2h 30m, or from Kalamata it takes about 1h 10m. (If you need to rent a car, I recommend DiscoverCars in Greece.)
By public transport from Athens, you can catch the KTEL bus from the main Kifissos bus station to Sparta (Sparti), which takes about 3h 30m. (See timetable here.)
From Sparta, Mystras is about six kilometres away. There are occasional local buses to Mystras, or a taxi will cost about €8 (ask them to drop you at the top so you don’t have to walk uphill!)
When is Mystras open?
Mystras is open at the following times during the year:
1 November – 31 March: 08:30 – 15:30
1 April – 31 August: 08:00 – 20:00
1 September – 15 September: 08:00 – 19:30
16 September – 30 September: 08:00 – 19:00
1 October – 15 October: 08:00 – 18:30
16 October – 31 October: 08:00 – 18:00
What is the Mystras entry fee?
Standard admission to Mystras is €12. A reduced ticket is €6.
Standard admission is reduced to €6 from 1 November to 31 March.
As I mentioned, there are a few places to get food in Mystras, although Sparta has a lot more options.
If you’ve got a car (or taxi), there’s a wonderful restaurant called Chromata in the hills nearby with a gorgeous view across the plains. An old tavern has been revived to create a beautiful and relaxing modern menu.