Sitting on a headland in the northwest Peloponnese, the pretty port town of Katakolon could be one of Greece’s best-kept secrets.
A visit here acts as a gateway to both the largely agricultural province of Ilia (also known as Eleia) and the ancient site of Olympia that gave rise to the modern Olympics.
Despite the popularity of Olympia, the town itself and the surrounding countryside remain delightfully untouched, meaning many elements of a visit will be familiar—long, sandy beaches, rolling hills, great food, incredible wines and the warmest of welcomes.
Why Visit Katakolon
With a permanent population of around 600 and just three main streets, you could well blink and miss Katakolon, which would do the town a disservice.
Set on a wide, arching bay that makes for a perfect port setting, both here and the satellite village of Agios Andreas on the opposite side of the headland have been used as harbors for millennia.
Today, the modern harborfront of the main town is lined with pastel-colored neoclassical buildings that host tavernas and coffee shops, all backed by verdant forests of Mediterranean pines and cypress trees.
Beyond the brightly painted traditional fishing boats docked here and the mega yachts and cruise ships beyond them, the Gulf of Kyparissia and the Ionian Sea sparkle in the distance—a view as rewarding as any other in the country.
What lies beyond the town itself is equally impressive. Many come here to pay homage to the athletes of the original Olympic Games at the ancient site of Olympia which is just a 30-minute drive away but there is much to see and do beyond that too.
The beaches in this part of Greece are excellent, while the rolling surrounding countryside is reminiscent of Tuscany and dotted with smallholdings, wineries, and olive farms.
The city of Pyrgo, just 15 minutes away, is also worthy of a visit, whether to sit in its magnificent central paved square or to visit some of the many boutiques that line its streets. Pyrgo is not only the regional capital of Ilia but also the fashion capital of the Peloponnese.
History & Culture
Thanks to its proximity to Olympia, Katakolon has a long and varied history. Alongside neighboring Agios Andreas it provided a port to the ancient site, chosen not only for its proximity to Olympia but also its natural bay and strategic location as a gateway to the wider Mediterranean.
That strategic importance saw it feature in the writings of ancient Athenian historian and general Thucydides in his 5th century BC tome about a long-standing conflict between Sparta and Athens, The History of the Peloponnesian War.
Katakolon retained its fame beyond the ancient era into the middle ages when a stronghold was built on the site of the 700BC Acropolis of Ancient Pheia to protect both Katakolon and Agios Andreas.
The Pontikon (or Pontikokastro) fortress is one of the oldest surviving Byzantine castles in Greece, dating from the early 12th century BC and changing hands several times over the years until it was burned down by invading Ottoman armies in 470.
The town’s next period of success came at the end of the 19th century when its status as a port was revived.
The opening of a lighthouse in 1865, the building of one of Greece’s first railways in 1881, and the establishment of cargo routes carrying raisins, olive oil and other bounties from the Peloponnese to the rest of Europe all played a part.
By the middle of the 20th century, some of that trade began to slow. The first cruise ships started to arrive in the 1940s, but it was a 2003 donation from shipping tycoon John Latsis that made the town what it is today.
Probably the town’s most famous son, Latsis renovated the port facilities to allow for the visits of larger ships, making Katakolon a tourism success story.
Wildlife & Nature
Katakolon sits at the northern tip of around 50 miles of seemingly endless beach that stretches as far south as Kyparissia in the neighboring province of Messinia.
This vast stretch of coastline is backed by rolling green hills and pastures of olives, grapes, and pistachios in the surrounding farmlands.
Donning a snorkel and mask on the rocks around the region’s beaches may reveal numerous fish, including mullet, damselfish and, if lucky, the occasional octopus, while there are thermal springs in the beachside town of Kaiafas, a 40-minute drive away.
South of Pyrgos, the Alfeios, one of the longest rivers in the Peloponnese empties into the sea, some 70 miles on from its source near Megalopoli in the highlands around Arcadia, providing a habitat for bird species such as the European roller and the Eurasian hoopoe.
Tips for Visiting Katakolon, Greece
The town center of Katakolon is small and easy to navigate given it consists of just a couple of blocks (albeit laid out somewhat haphazardly).
The main road into the town is the Pyrgos-Katakolon Regional Road which arcs around the back of the town before heading to the regional capital of Pyrgos around eight miles away.
Parallel to this are a couple of residential streets before the main waterfront strip around the port with its bars, cafés and tavernas. A number of tourist shops sell Greek souvenirs.
Navigating the surrounding area is simple enough. A tourist “fun train” does short trips around the immediate countryside, while getting to Olympia couldn’t be easier thanks to an efficient local train service that takes just 45 minutes. Alternatives include taxis or buses to the ancient site.
Greece can get incredibly hot in summer, and sites such as Olympia do not have much shade. A hat, water and sunscreen are always recommended for excursions.
There are also several monasteries and religious sites worth visiting in the area. Long pants for men, and covered shoulders and knees for women show an appropriate amount of respect.
Things to Do & Attractions
There are few places in the world where you can actually run in the footsteps of athletes from thousands of years ago, but Ancient Olympia is one of them.
This birthplace of the Olympic Games (not to be confused with northern Greece’s Mount Olympus, where the 12 Greek Gods were said to reside) was one of the most important cities of antiquity, with more than 760 significant buildings at its zenith.
The ruins of many of those remain today, including temples dedicated to Zeus and Hera and, of course, the athletics stadium.
The associated Archaeological Museum of Olympia displays important works from the site and was the first museum in the country to be established outside Athens.
Highlights include the magnificent central hall with sculptures from the Temple of Zeus, as well as the renowned Nike of Paionios and the world-famous Hermes, thought to be the only surviving work by famed sculptor Praxiteles.
Kostas Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology
Katakolon is home to one of four annexes of this fascinating museum that takes a look at the technology employed by the ancient Greeks.
Housed in the former home of shipping magnate John Latsis, it features hundreds of working models, all constructed by founder Kostas Kotsanas over a period of just 22 years.
Visitors can see how the ancients not only constructed nuts, bolts, gears and pulleys that helped them erect structures much larger than previously possible, but also envisaged the first movie houses, cars and robots, thousands of years before they became reality.
The Lighthouse of Katakolon
A short hike up the hill known as Mount Katakolon that rises behind the port reveals this still-working lighthouse built in 1865 and protecting ships ever since thanks to its range of 19 nautical miles.
The 30-foot tower sits in a verdant landscape on top of the hill and has incredible views over the ocean.
There’s a shingle beach just a few hundred yards from the main port which may be called Plakes, Renata or Katakolon beach depending on the person who’s asked.
With a laid-back beach bar, it’s perfect for those with just a few hours to spare, but anyone staying longer can head both north and south of the main town for better options.
Agios Andreas is less than two miles north on the opposite side of the Katakolon headland and has fine sand, a grassy area and two relaxed bars.
A 25-minute drive north, Kourouta Beach is one of Greece’s best beaches and features more fine sand, umbrellas and sun loungers.
The long stretch of beach to the south of Katakolon seemingly goes on forever and there are a number of fine options here too, including Spiantza and Epitaliou, both within a 30-minute drive.
St. Nicholas Church
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Katakolon and is celebrated every December 12 by the locals. This small church in his honor sits between the port and the town’s train station, its distinctive white and blue walls standing out in the bright sun.
Visitors are treated to some fine examples of Greek Orthodox icons that adorn the walls. Using a few coins to purchase a candle at the entrance and lighting it in front of the altar shows an appropriate amount of respect.
Seemingly miraculously hanging from the edge of a cliff some 1,000 feet high, this Orthodox monastery dates back to the 17th century.
Local legend says a group of shepherds noticed a shining light in the rock and lowered a volunteer down by rope to see where it was coming from. His return with an icon of the Virgin Mary prompted the building of Kremasti (which means “hanging”) in her honor.
In the 1930s, the monastery was converted to a nunnery and guests are welcome to visit in the morning hours, marvel at the architecture and incredible views, and purchase trinkets handmade by the nuns.
Katakolon Fun Train
This small tourist train takes riders on a guided 30-minute tour of the surrounding countryside, offering two stops.
One stop is at the Mercouri Winery, and the other is at Agios Andreas Beach. Those disembarking can explore around their stop before picking up the next train 30 minutes later.
Food & Drink
Given Ilia’s status as an agricultural province and the mile upon mile of coastline, it’s not surprising that Greek food in the region is especially good, with fresh vegetables, fruit, seafood, and local olive oil featuring highly on most menus.
More can be learned about olive oil at the Karambelas Olive Oil Factory, established in 2020 and located close to Ancient Olympia.
Set amid woodlands, the family-run factory offers olive oil tours with tastings of local extra virgin varieties and small meze-style dishes.
North of Katakolon and set on 180 acres of vineyards is the Mercouri Estate. One of Greece’s oldest wineries, it was founded by Theodoros Merkouris in 1864 when he planted grapes imported from northern Italy.
Tours and tastings of the estate’s award-winning wines and olive oils are available, which is a lovely way to spend an afternoon in this tranquil setting.
Best Time to Visit Katakolon, Greece
You can visit Katakolon year-round, but the best times are in spring and fall. Food lovers might prefer the fall given it’s both olive and grape harvest season when many of the smallholdings host special events.
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