Mention the name “Kalamata,” and most people will immediately think of the deliciously briny black olives that are common offerings at olive bars, on Greek salads, and at fancy delis around the world. Far fewer people are likely to conjure up the lovely city in Greece where the Kalamata olive originated.
For me, the chance to take in the birthplace of the Kalamata olive was the impetus for my recent visit to Greece. When I learned that a travel-writers’ conference would take place in the mid-sized city located in the vast Peloponnese region in southern mainland Greece, I jumped at the chance to plan my trip around a visit to Kalamata.
It turns out that Kalamata not only offers a unique peek into the culinary phenomenon that is the Kalamata olive, but it is also a great base for soaking up ancient history, seaside atmosphere, and Greek art and culture. Here are 5 reasons why Kalamata, Greece, is both an olive-lover’s paradise and a great off-the-beaten-path Greek destination.
Some of my experiences were sponsored by the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX), but all views are my own.
1. Castle Of Androusa Olive Routes
As a lifelong olive-lover, I immediately gravitated to a tour called The Olive Routes, which included a visit to the Castle of Androusa. It’s a 13th-century rock structure located in the Messinia (also known as Messenia) region about a half-hour northwest of Kalamata.
The tour also featured a taste of the olives and olive oil produced at the family-owned olive mill located near the castle grounds, as well as a deep dive into Kalamata’s place in the world of olive and olive-oil production. Led by co-founder and certified olive taster Dimitra Mathiopoulou, the tour touched on a number of fascinating topics.
Olive Oil History
Even though Kalamata is known mostly for its table olives, the oil from the olives is actually a much more common product of the region. In fact, Mathiopoulou said the Kalamata area produces about 10 times more volume in olive oil than in olives.
“The olive oil for the Greeks is a really important thing,” she said, noting that even people who have emigrated from the region to other parts of the world hold onto the olive trees they inherit from their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. “You don’t sell them; you keep them, and you come 1 week every year to harvest your olive oil. We are very proud of our land; we are very proud of our olives.”
My tour in early May coincided with the 10 days or so each year of the olive-tree bloom, so we had a chance to see the beautiful little flowers up close. Mathiopoulou told us that the olive trees that appear silvery in the light are Kalamata olive trees, while those that are predominantly green are likely to be Koroneiki olive trees (the most common variety for oil production). The Koroneiki harvest typically takes place each year from late October through February.
Along with having a silvery appearance, the Kalamata olive trees also have larger leaves. “Kalamata olives are big olives and we pick them dark-purple to black,” Mathiopoulou told us. “That’s why Kalamata olives are black, because we pick them like this. All olives start green, and while they mature, they become black.”
Many of the olives that are marketed around the world as Kalamata varieties are imitations of the real thing, Mathiopoulou told us, noting that some of those olives are even dyed black to give them the Kalamata appearance.
The tour included tastes of both the olives produced at the grove and the different varieties of olive oil. We learned that the earlier in the season the olives are picked, the spicier the oil will taste. Mid-harvest is slightly sweeter and olives picked very late in the season tend to produce oil that is less desirable.
Located about a 25-minute drive north of The Olive Routes is the Ancient Messene archeological site — a somewhat under-the-radar ancient treasure that is definitely worth a visit. The site features ruins of a classical city-state that dates back to 396 BC. Fortified walls, towers, gates, and a stadium have been preserved and are on display.
2. Ben Olive Mill
The Kalamata area features a number of opportunities for olive tours and tastings. About a half-hour’s drive northwest of Kalamata, in the village of Parapougki, is Ben Olive Mill — a fourth-generation, family-owned organic estate that features a grove of Koroneiki olive trees planted in 1890.
Ben Olive Mill emphasizes that Greek olive oil is a family affair, with families producing the olive oil they will consume for the year on their own olive groves. “This tradition remains unchanged through generations,” says the Ben Olive Mill website.
3. Kalamata Historic City Center
For classic Greek street scenes, great shopping for local products, and a host of bars and cozy tavernas, the Historic Center offers a treasure trove of opportunities.
Located north of the city’s main shopping district, around the Holy Apostles Church, and south of the Castle of Kalamata, the Historic Center features narrow alleys bordered by historic mansions, stone-built churches, and museums.
Countless opportunities are available for sampling olives in the historic area — as a part of a small-plate meze dinner or in the neighborhood shops that sell olive oil and olives. For one of the best views of the medieval Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles in the Historic Center area, check out the colorful open-air tables at the Kalamaki Meze restaurant. Try the wrapped pita with lamb kebab accompanied by a Greek beer or a dessert of crispy feta served with honey and walnuts.
Castle Of Kalamata
Just a short walk uphill from the Church of the Holy Apostles in the Historic Center is the Castle of Kalamata, where Pharis of Greek mythology is said to have built the Acropolis of Pharae. The history of the site dates back centuries, and today, it still consists of ruins that date back to the 13th century. Along with a walk through history, the hilltop site offers wonderful views of the surrounding city.
Victoria Karelias Collection Of Traditional Greek Costumes
Also near the Kalamata Historic Center is the Victoria Karelias Collection of Traditional Greek Costumes. It is a beautiful museum that features a multi-floor exhibit that runs the gamut from the wool overcoats worn by the rural population of mainland Greece to fancy dresses and gold-embroidered overcoats of the western Balkans.
4. The Kalamata Port Area
The highlight of Kalamata’s port area is the nearly 2-mile-long boardwalk that stretches along the sea and takes in a row of sleek resort-like hotels. There’s also a business area that offers numerous cafés and tavernas with oceanfront views, ice cream shops selling gelato, and tourist shops selling Greek souvenirs and fashionable beachwear.
During my visit, I spent several nights at Horizon Blu, which has a beautiful pool and a great onsite restaurant and bar where I had my first taste of true Kalamata olives, served as an accompaniment to traditional Greek bread. I also spent a night at Elite City Resort, another oceanside hotel with great service and modern rooms with balconies. Both hotels offered breakfast buffets that — along with the usual pastries, eggs, breads, and orange juice — served wonderful varieties of Greek olives.
5. Downtown Kalamata
Along with its historic area, Kalamata has a bustling downtown known as Vasileos Georgiou II Square. The central square features a wide, car-free walking area bordered by cafés and patisseries that seemed to be packed day and night.
Exuding a modern vibe, the square is bracketed by lovely fountains and imposing statues. For modern Greek cuisine and a fun outdoor atmosphere, check out Bodega Bistro and try the cheese croquettes with feta, sesame, and olives, or the chicken souvlaki served with peppers, fresh thyme, and lemon sauce.
Pro Tip: Kalamata is located about 150 miles southwest of Athens and is easily accessible either by rental car or bus. I took the express bus, a ride of just over three hours, starting from the Kifissos bus station in Athens. Information on the bus, called KTEL, is available here.