Abstract Aim The aims of this study were to assess the distribution of putative Mediterranean refugia of plants, to compare the locations of refugia and those of regional hotspots of plant biodiversity, and to provide a critical analysis of the Mediterranean refugium paradigm. Furthermore, we consider how biogeographical and genetic results can be combined to guide global conservation strategies. Location The Mediterranean region. Methods We started from a detailed analysis of the scientific literature (1993–2007) in order to identify refugia in the Mediterranean region, based on intra-specific phylogeographical studies of plant species. We used population locations together with gene-pool identity to establish the database, comparing patterns of phylogeographical concordance with the locations of Mediterranean refugia. We then tested the biogeographical congruence between two biodiversity components, namely phylogeographical refugia and regional hotspots. Results We identified 52 refugia in the Mediterranean bioclimatic region and confirmed the role played by the three major peninsulas, with a shared total of 25 refugia. We emphasize the importance of areas that have previously been attributed a lesser role (large Mediterranean islands, North Africa, Turkey, Catalonia). Of the 52 refugia identified, 33 are situated in the western Mediterranean Basin and 19 in the eastern part. The locations of the phylogeographically defined refugia are significantly associated with the 10 regional hotspots of plant biodiversity, with 26 of these refugia (i.e. 50%) occurring within the hotspots. Main conclusions The locations of refugia are determined by complex historical and environmental factors, the cumulative effects of which need to be considered because they have occurred since the Tertiary, rather than solely during the last glacial period. Refugia represent climatically stable areas and constitute a high conservation priority as key areas for the long-term persistence of species and genetic diversity, especially given the threat posed by the extensive environmental change processes operating in the Mediterranean region. The refugia defined here represent ‘phylogeographical hotspots’; that is, significant reservoirs of unique genetic diversity favourable to the evolutionary processes of Mediterranean plant species.