Intro to Greece
Greece holds a special place in both our hearts. We came here for our Honeymoon, first to Santorini then Hydra and finally Athens. Several years later we came back for a friend’s wedding in July in the Peloponnese. Images of Greece are the basis of so many travel dreams. The islands and beaches are simply beautiful. The lifestyle and food are impossible not to fall in love with. Come here and you will, within hours, understand why so many people call this place the vacation of a lifetime.
Greece is the cradle of western civilization. In the middle of Athens there is a rocky outcrop called the Acropolis, an ancient citadel whose most famous building is the Parthenon. Built 450 years before Christ it’s one of the most recognizable structures in the world. The civilization who built the Parthenon and Athens also helped foster our notion of democracy, philosophy, and science. Dressed in their finest togas Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates all lounged around here debating philosophy, logic, ethics, rhetoric, religion and mathematics. And yet, even thousands of years before those ancient Greeks, civilizations like the Minoans and Mycenaeans thrived in this part of the world.
The Mycenaeans inhabited the area known as the Peloponnese some 4000 years ago. The Peloponnese is the rough ancient land west of Athens that looks like it’s falling off mainland Europe. Hercules was sent here to do his “labors”, the legendary city of Sparta is here, Homer wrote about this land, and modern Greece began here too.
The Minoans lived mostly on the island of Crete and thrived around the same time as the Mycenaeans. Then one day they vanished. There are several thoughts on why and how ranging from war to natural disaster. One of those disasters could have been the massive volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, also known as Santorini. Today’s Santorini is a member of the Cyclades islands and the remnant of a volcanic caldera. Once a larger island it was literally blown apart in that eruption and later civilizations built their towns on the steep sides of what was once a mighty volcano.
Today’s Greece has fallen far from its ancient heyday. The country manipulated its way into the European Union by hiding the extent to which its governments were overspending. Unemployment is high, economic growth is flat, and the country sputters along only because of financial bailouts from the IMF and European Union. The good news is that none of this, outside of the occasional strike, will affect your vacation. Particularly in the islands where there economy survives on foreign tourists, the strife on mainland Greece is a distant thought.
Greece is about an eleven hour flight from the east coast of the United States. Despite the history, Athens is not worth 100% of your time here. Fly in, spend a night or two, then head out of the city for the real charms of Greece in the islands and the Peloponnese.
If you are coming to Greece you’ll need a week or more. You’re going to start in Athens because the country’s major airport is there. If you are going into Athens there is a handy train that will bring you right to Syntagma Square. The best islands (read: Santorini) are easy to reach via a short flight from Athens airport. If you are headed to the Peloponnese you can rent a car at the airport and return it later in the city.
When we went
Our honeymoon was mid October. The weather in the islands was still quite nice, too chilly for a swim but all the tourists had left. Our itinerary: flew to Santorini (3 nights) via a quick layover in Athens, flew back to Athens and took a high speed boat to Hydra (2 nights), boat back to Athens (2 nights).
When we came back for our friends’ wedding it was July 2014 and it was hot. Beach in the morning, afternoon nap, and a late Greek dinner. There are few things better than that. Our itinerary: flew into Athens where we rented a car and drove to Nafplion (1 night), drove to Kardamyli (2 nights), drove to Levidi for the wedding (1 night), drove back to Athens (1 night). Dreamt about going back ever since.
Places in Greece
On any trip to Greece you’re nearly required to spend some time in Athens, but make it only a night or two. Athens is full of history but it’s also full of heat, people, and concrete. The wonders of Greece are in the countryside and out at sea.
Of course the must see sight in Athens is the Acropolis. Go at sunset if possible. Not only are the views best but the heat isn’t nearly as bad as it is at mid day.
The Plaka is a labyrinthine of ancient streets and neoclassical architecture. When the ancient Greeks where done worshiping Apollo up on the Acropolis they came here to do some shopping and to eat a gyro. Today it’s pretty touristy but worth an hour or so to wander through.
The Greeks subside on a healthy Mediterranean diet of grilled meats and fish, olive oil, fresh “Greek salad”, wine, and tzatziki (a garlic yogurt dip that is mandatory with every meal). Eating on your Greek vacation will be a highlight. There is no reason to seek out expensive restaurants here. Most menus are relatively the same and it’s almost hard to find a bad restaurant. That’s the beauty in the simplicity of the cuisine. No matter where you go, lunch or dinner, try the tzatziki. Every restaurant and region makes their own but each will have its own subtle differences.
Syntagma (or Constitution) Square is the center of Athens. Around here you’ll find some of the city’s best hotels and the old royal palace which is now the country’s Parliament. It was here in 1843 that the Greeks demanded a constitution from their King.
A short subway ride from central Athens is the port of Piraeus. From here you can take a long ferry ride to the outer islands of Crete, Santorini, or Mykonos. Or you can take a quick high speed ferry to the oh-so-charming island of Hydra.
Hydra is the most accessible of all the Greek islands, only 90 minutes from Athens via high speed ferry. The island itself is several miles long and has one town also called Hydra. There are no cars here. As you arrive into Hydra and step off your boat into the little harbor you’ll feel as though the modern was left behind.
Transportation consists of only donkeys and they carry everything from refrigerators to construction materials, to your luggage.
Outside of Hydra town there are a handful of resorts and lots of olive groves. If it’s not too hot, hike across the island and through the ancient groves and farms.
Hydra could be a day trip from Athens but you should try and spend the night. Eat a late dinner then stroll the harbor front and have a late night drink at one of the little cafes.
Hydra, like so much of Greece, has a tranquil atmosphere that forces even the busiest traveler to slow down and relax. But if it’s world class beaches you’re looking for you’ll need to head out further south into the Mediterranean. There are lots of Greek islands. Crete is the largest, it’s almost its own country, we’ve been told by locals that it’s like the Texas of Greece. Mikonos is known for its wild parties and never ending night life. Naxos and Paros are transport hubs which make them common ferry hopping stops. The list goes on. And while we haven’t been to all of them it seems unlikely that any could match the beauty and romance of Santorini.
Posters of Santorini’s white washed homes are the basis of so many travel dreams. At certain points in history it’s been an ancient civilization, a military stronghold, a collection of fishing villages, and the world’s most perfect honeymoon spot.
The main cities are Fira and Oia. Both are built overlooking the caldera. Every evening couples across the island stop what they are doing and watch the sun gently set into the mellow sea.
Fira is the better known and larger town. Cruise boats that sail through stop and unload here. If you come, stay in Oia, which is far more charming.
The island’s famous blue roofs came about from a surplus of blue paint the island’s fishermen used to paint their boat bottoms.
Eventually you’ll need a break from all the sunsets and the beaches. In Oia, climb down the little path against the caldera wall and towards the sea. Along the water you’ll find a row of restaurants pushed against the water.
When the romance of perfect sunsets gets old head back to the mainland and explore the Peloponnese.
Navplion (also spelled Nafplio) is less than two hours drive from Athens. Think mini-Athens along the water. It’s a popular weekend spot for wealthy Athenians who need a break from the city. Like everything else this is an old town. It was once Venetian, Ottoman, and Greek. There are three fortresses around the city, two in the hills and one in the harbor.
Navplion was the original capital of modern Greece following the Greek revolution in the 19th century, when the Greeks threw out their Ottoman overloads. The lower part of the town is laid out in a more modern European style, with straight lanes that lead to big open squares. The upper town retains its Ottoman layout, with narrow winding lanes and steep steps.
Nearby beaches are very nice and easily accessible. But for an even more quaint Peloponnese experience continue your drive west.
There are no sights in Kardamyli. No museums. No resorts. And no itineraries. Outside of a few German and Dutch tourists this place is yours. The little seaside town is one of the oldest settlements on the Peloponnese. It was even mentioned in works by Homer.
In the morning hike into the hills and explore the old walled settlement above the current town. In the middle ages this region was subject to attacks from pirates and robbers. Villagers could retreat into these fortified hilltop compounds to fend off an attack.
In the afternoon visit the local Ritsa beach. No sand, just millions of soft pebbles and the warm clear Mediterranean sea.
Many of the town’s hotels (more like b&b’s) have swimming access just out front, often via rocky outcrops.
In the evening have dinner overlooking the sea and enjoy some of the freshest seafood anywhere — be sure to try the octopus. After dinner stroll down the town’s lone main street and have a beer in a side courtyard.
Kardamyli is the kind of place where you go to a restaurant and eat what they just caught.
If you have two weeks do it all. If you have only a week do Athens + the Peloponnese or Athens + the islands. Starting your trip in Athens gives a good perspective of Greece; see the Acropolis and appreciate how much this country has given to western civilization. Then leave the city and discover the true beauty of Greece.
If you’re doing the islands and Athens fly into Athens and stay for two nights. Then catch a plane out to Santorini or go to Piraeus and start the long ferry journey. Hop from island to island. End in Santorini because that is the highlight. Fly back home via Athens.
If you do the Peloponnese you can easily squeeze in Hydra as well. Fly to Athens, stay two nights, take a high speed ferry to Hydra and stay two nights there. Return to Athens, rent a car and drive west into the Peloponnese. A one night stop in Napflion is a good way to break up the drive. Spend at least two nights in a place like Kardamyli. Return back to Athens, drop your car at the airport and head home.
A couple location notes. Kalamata is famous for its olives and you’ll drive through it on your way to Kardamyli but it’s not worth a stop. It’s fairly industrial and not all that charming. Sparta makes for a great story and movie but the town is a non-sight. There is nothing old there and no reason to stop. Our friends’ wedding was in Levidi, which was in the Alpine region of Greece. It’s cute but you can probably find a better vacation spot. While we’ve never been to Delphi, it’s famous for its oracle and worth a stop if you’re into that kind of thing.
Museums and sights in Athens
The Acropolis is the one ‘must see’ sight. As mentioned earlier, try to go later to see the sunset. Your ticket here includes entry to many other ancient sites including the Agora, the heart of ancient Athens.
The New Acropolis Museum – The best pieces of art that could be removed from the Acropolis were taken to the British Museum in London. It’s still a point of contention between the two countries. But this fairly new museum still does a great job showing off what they do have.
National Archaeological Museum – The British couldn’t loot all of Greece’s art and this museum has a fine collection of it.
Trips to Greece should be about the food as much as anything else. The beauty of Greek food is in it’s simplicity. This means there are a lot of great restaurants. We’ll list some we like below but here are a few general tips:
In towns like Hydra, Nafplion, and Kardamyli the restaurants cater to repeat customers so it’s hard to go wrong. Find something you like on a menu and sit down. Chances are you’ll be eating whatever the local fisherman caught that day.
In Santorini most things will cater to tourists but we didn’t have a single bad meal.
Gyros. It’s grilled meat on a warm pita stuffed with tzatiki and fries. You can’t go wrong with Gyros no matter where you are. The only real difference could be the price.
In Athens avoid the very congested areas of the Plaka. But many places just off the main roads are great. Check out Mnisikleous Street in Athens, a stepped lane leading up to the Acropolis. There are lots of good options here.
Actual specific suggestion:
Spondi – supposedly the best restaurant in Greece. It’s expensive. If you really want a slow romantic upscale meal with modern Greek food this is a good bet.
Places to stay
Art Maison in the town of Oia on Santorini. Stayed here on our honeymoon. The hotel is made up of several large old homes that were connected. Each room has either a view of the sea or a view into the caldera. The layout is very non-traditional, no box rooms here, more like little cottages. Our room had a deck with a jacuzzi, I think most other rooms did as well.
Hotel Grande Bretagne in Syntagma square is the place to stay in Athens…particularly if you’re European royalty. The rooms are very luxurious and they have an awesome rooftop bar/pool with great views of Acropolis.
Electra Palace Hotel in Athens. A business hotel just a couple minutes from Syntagma.
Hotel Phaedra on Hydra. Good location (but everything is a good location), very helpful staff, and well appointed simple rooms.
Pension Marianna in Nafplion. At the top of Nafplion with amazing views over the town and out to sea.
Hotel Anniska in Kardamyli. There are no traditional hotels in Kardamyli, mostly just bed and breakfasts and rooms to let. This place is more for long term stays but it works for a weekend.