Descending from the mountains that surround Sparta on three sides, you get a sense of how strategic was the location of the ancient city-state of Sparta. The ancient "capital" occupied more or less the site of today's town, though it was in fact less a city than a grouping of villages, commanding the Laconian plain and fertile Eurotas valley from a series of low hills to the west of the river.
Places of ancient Spartan glory are in short supply, but there are some ruins to be seen to the north of the city (daily 8.30am-3pm; free): from the bold Statue of Leonidas at the top of Paleol gou, follow the track around and behind the football stadium towards the old Acropolis, tallest of the Spartan hills. An immense theatre here, erected into the side of the hill, can be quite clearly traced, even though today most of its masonry has gone - hurriedly adapted for fortification when the Spartans' power declined and, later still, used in the building of Byzantine Mystra. Above the theatre a sign marks a fragment of the Temple of Athina Halkiakou , while at the top of the acropolis sit the knee-high ruins of the tenth-century Byzantine church and monastery of Os os N kon.
Statue of Leonidas
About 500m along the Tripoli road, a path descends to the remains of the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia , where Spartan boys underwent endurance tests by flogging. The Roman geographer and travel writer Pausanias records that young men often expired under the lash, adding that the altar had to be splashed with blood before the goddess was satisfied. Perhaps it was the audience potential of such a gory spectacle that led the Romans to revive the custom - the main ruins here are of the spectators' grandstand they built. They also added shops to supply the audiences at performances. Both of these sites are mostly unenclosed, and you can explore them along pleasant walkways. Further out is the Menelaion (Tues-Sun 8.30am-3pm; free), a late Mycenaean settlement and a sanctuary of Menelaus and Helen, about 5km to the southeast of town, on the far side of the river. At the modern village of Amykles, 7km south of Sparta on the road to Y thio, is the Amyklaion acropolis and sanctuary of Apollo Amyklaios (same hours), which until the Roman period was the most important Spartan site after the city itself and location for the Hyacinthia festival which celebrated the reconciliation of the Dorians and the Achaians.
Sanctuary of Apollo
All moveable artefacts and mosaics have been transferred to the town's small Archeological Museum (Mon-Sat 8.30am-3pm, Sun 9.30am-2.30pm) back in town, on Ayios Nikonos. Amongst its more remarkable exhibits are a number of votive offerings found on the sanctuary site - sickles set in stone that were presented as prizes to the Spartan youths and solemnly rededicated to the goddess - and a marble bust of a running Spartan hoplite, found on the acropolis and said to be Leonidas, the hero of Thermopylae. There are fragments of Hellenistic and Roman mosaics, and numerous small lead figurines from the Artemis Orthia site.