248km (153 miles) SW of Athens; 58km (36 miles) S of Tripolis
Sparta always perks me up. It's an energetic town, with lively street markets and a broad main square flanked by restaurants, cafes, and shops where locals congregate and engage in the unofficial Greek national sport: talking politics, telling jokes, and trading tidbits of gossip. In short, it's an ideal spot for people-watching.
Few sights in the Peloponnese are more imposing than the immense bulk of Mount Taygetos towering above Sparta along the western horizon. There's often snow on Taygetos until well into the summer, and when the sun sinks behind the mountain, the temperature seems to plummet instantly. To the east, the more gentle Parnon range brackets the Spartan plain. The ancient Spartans boasted that they didn't need fortifications because the Taygetos and Parnon mountains acted as their defense walls. Today, all around Sparta, lush olive and citrus groves spread across the rich plain watered by the bottle-green Eurotas River. The ornamental orange trees planted along Sparta's main avenues bring the country right into town.
The ancient Spartans were as famous for courage as the Athenians were for intellectual bravado. Little Spartan boys were told to "come back with your shield, or on it" -- that is, victorious or dead. The Spartans first earned their reputation for courage and military heroism in 580 B.C., when the Spartan general Leonidas and a band of only 300 soldiers faced down the invading Persian army at Thermopylae -- an event featured in the 2007 blockbuster film 300. From 431 to 404 B.C., Sparta and Athens fought the Peloponnesian War; Sparta finally won, but was exhausted by the effort. From then on, Sparta was a sleepy provincial town with its future behind it. Greece's first king, young Otto of Bavaria, paid tribute to Sparta's past by redesigning the city with the wide boulevards and a central square that still make it charming today.
In a famously accurate prediction, the 5th-century-B.C. Athenian historian Thucydides wrote that if Sparta were ever "to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, no one in future times would believe that this had been one of the preeminent cities of Greece." With the exception of the beautifully situated Menelaion, outside town, the ancient remains here are not memorable. Not to worry. There's plenty to do: enjoy Spartan street life, eat Spartan loukoumades (hot honey-drenched doughnuts), take in the small archaeological museum and the new Museum of the Olive, and then head 8km (5 miles) down the road to the more impressive remains of the Byzantine city of Mistra. If you're here in summer, try to get to Mistra early; climbing up and down the steep slope is not fun at high noon. As for Sparta, you'll want to spend no more than an hour at each of the sights -- which is to say, a day here can pass pleasantly (especially with a break for loukoumades).