Ahh, Greece... a place where the ancient world lives parallel to the sea and all its beauty. There is such a disparity between the city of Athens and the thousands of Greek islands surrounding it, as if it is two different worlds. Experience both! You’ll feel as if you actually went on two vacations instead of one. Discover what both worlds have to offer. Regardless of where you are, you will be immersed in the Greek culture and its people.
Just a Little Background
The Greeks were very ahead of their time. They truly pioneered our knowledge of the world. They not only introduced the arts, architectural techniques, and many science and mathematical discoveries, but also were the forefathers of democracy. Much of which we still use today. What else are the Greeks famous for? Greek mythology. Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Athena and all their friends. That’s as many as I can remember haha. I think I need to brush up on my Hercules Disney movie.
What do people in Greece speak? Greek, go figure : ). No Bobby, they don’t speak Italian haha. But everyone speaks English as well. You will see the majority of signs, historical plaques, menus etc. in both languages. Honestly, seeing the Greek alphabet everywhere you go is very cool. It is truly unique to only them. No one else. It immediately makes you feel as if you are in their ancient world.
What currency is used in Greece? The Euro. Take a good bit of cash out for little things here and there as well as places that do not accept cards.
Eating Greek food at home will never be the same. Greek salads, Gyros, Kabobs, freshly caught and grilled seafood, Greek Yogurt, Tzatziki, Cappuccino Freddo (iced coffee), the list goes on and on. You also must try the Bougatsa for dessert. So freaking good! As I’ve preached again and again, eat at the local spots. It’s more authentic, usually larger portions, cheaper and better overall vibes. Greeks love their food and drinks. Dining is an event, focused around great company and great food. You are there to sit back, relax and enjoy. There is no rush, no place to be, nothing to do. Embrace it.
This is a place where you need to abide by the signs. That sign that says not to flush the toilet tissue, toilet paper, paper or anything else it may be called. Follow it. The sign that says not to climb on the churches and walls to get that Instagram photo. Really, it’s just disrespectful if you do. Just follow the signs and all will be fine.
I must say, all the locals that we met in Greece were very friendly and super helpful. They had great suggestions of where to go to get the best local food, things to see and do and to just chat. Tourism is a huge part of the Greek economy. It represents over 20% of the GDP. Locals welcome travelers and only want to provide the best experience. From our chats, we learned that many Greeks leave home in order to work in tourism. They spend the tourist season on the islands or in Athens in order to provide for their families. It is the most stable employment they can find and pays enough to make it worthwhile. Imagine, leaving your spouse and children for up to 8 months out of the year. You see them scarcely and just send money home. It’s not an easy life.
Athens is a much larger city than I originally expected. The city sits in a valley that surrounds the Acropolis site on all sides. The Acropolis is at the top of the tallest hill that looks down upon the city and has sight views to the sea in the distance. Like all big cities, Athens has nice areas as well as areas that are a little less desirable for tourists. Luckily, you will be spending most of your time around the ancient sites, right in the heart of Athens. This area is very beautiful and pretty clean, with more shops and restaurants than you could ever need. Stone walks with fruit trees line the streets. It is very walkable surrounding the must see locations, but make sure you wear good sneakers. You will be walking a lot both around the city and climbing old walkways/stairs around the sites.
There are high end shopping districts with all the latest luxury fashion (Louis Vuitton, Prada, Channel, you name it) as well as streets full of markets and bazaars. Whatever you are looking for, you can find. There are street vendors throughout the squares selling fresh fruit and authentic Greek food.
The city itself has a lot of different vibes going on all at once. You have the super posh areas with fancy restaurants and shops. The traditional Greek areas surrounding the acropolis that exudes the culture. The eclectic areas with a hodgepodge of everything and a hippy meets street artist vibe. And then there’s the remaining portion that is a typical city, giving off a feel of a small, but tropical, NYC.
When you are booking your hotel, I would suggest booking a boutique hotel near The Acropolis. It’s a beautiful area with front row views to the reason that brought you there in the first place. You can bar hop, eat at rooftop restaurants and just enjoy the European outdoor culture. Even though you are in a city, sitting off is very relaxing.
There are the chain hotels in Athens as well (Marriott, Intercontinental, Hilton etc.) but they are further away from where you will be spending your time. I used points, so we actually stayed at the Intercontinental. It was probably the biggest hotel I’ve ever been in. I might say though, their rooftop bar restaurant was spectacular. It had prime views of The Acropolis, which is also lit up at night. If I did it again, I would have stayed closer to the attractions. Yes, you can walk there (about a mile) but it is beside a main highway, which does have crosswalks and sidewalks. Go up a block to avoid the noise. That or you can take a Taxi. Side note, they do have Uber, but only on the mainland of Greece (Athens). Legally however, only a Taxi can drive you, so it’s actually an Uber Taxi. Being in the heart of everything is just overall more convenient, especially if you want to stay out late and enjoy.
Word to the wise. We were warned multiple times to watch out for pick-pocketers. I guess it is very common in Athens. Keep your wallets in your front pocket and your cross-body bags zipped. Also, just say ‘no thank you’ to the people trying to sell you things on the street. Don’t engage.
You really do not need a lot of time in Athens unless you are hard core into culture and museums. Two days to see all the sites, learn their history and wander around was enough. I would also suggest visiting Athens first. Then move on to your next location.
Consists of The Entrance of Propylaea, The Parthenon, Odeon of Herodes Atticus Theater, Temple of Athena Nike, Temple of Athena Polias, Theater of Dionysus and more.
Be at the entrance at 8:00am for when it opens. There are no lines, less crowds and you can actually enjoy your time. Also, it gets effing hot up there. There is zero shade, no vegetation coverage and it is rather humid. When we were heading back down, I was already sweating and it was only mid morning. There is also the Acropolis Museum. We did not go, but heard great things. A good afternoon activity when it is too hot.
WITNESS THE ACROPOLIS
I would highly suggest hiking to the top of the neighboring hill to The Acropolis. It only takes approx 20 minutes to the top, and isn’t strenuous. There are paths everywhere that seem a bit confusing. Just go straight up. The peak itself looks right at the entire Acropolis, almost at eye level. You can see all the standing buildings at once which is pretty cool and is a totally different perspective than you will see anywhere else in the city. We enjoyed just sitting off for a moment and taking in the views.
WALK UP FILOPAPOU HILL
The Thissio area is a very large area that has many ruins as well as a smaller museum with artifacts and ancient statues. It is kind of split up throughout the heart of the city, so you will need to use the map to make sure you've gone into the multiple areas. These are all included in your multi-location ticket. Personally, I thought the Stoa of Attalos area was the better of the options. The structure has also been converted into a museum. Honestly, that fulfilled our need, which is why we didn’t go to the Acropolis Museum.
VISIT THE THISSIO AREA
Stroll through the National Gardens. They are very unexpected in the city. There are various pathways filled with flowers, trees and dense greenery. You won't spend much time there at all, but it is a nice little break from all the hustle and bustle. The Gardens are also free of charge.
EXPLORE EACH AREA
Monastiraki, Makrigiani and Aerides areas all contain the more traditional Athens feel. Vibrant streets with restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, bars, shops, bazaars and so much more. They are very lively and are where most tourists spend their time when not at the historical sites. Located just below The Acropolis, you will have constant views of the ruins.
If you want to check out a spot that is completely different than everything you've been seeing in Athens, head over to the Psiri township area. Again, its right near the main sites but has a very eclectic vibe. Tons of bars and restaurants line the streets for a casual bar hop. I would describe it as hippy meets street artist. Super unique, but very cool all the same. You won't see anything else like it in your travels through Greece.
You must get entrance tickets for all the historical sites. If you only intend to visit the Acropolis that is one ticket. If you would like to see multiple locations, inclusive of The Acropolis, there is a discounted ticket rate and it is valid for multiple days. Only one visit per site however, but you can split it within different days if you want.
You can also hire a tour guide, if you so choose. But honestly, the sites are documented extremely well with plaques explaining all the history. I personally wouldn’t waste my money here unless you are super hardcore into that. It did not see much value add in my opinion.
The best part of Greece is exploring a few of its thousands of island. Each island has something different to offer. Decide what vibe you are in the mood for. There is the one-of-a-kind volcanic island of Santorini. There are super low key islands that are amazing places to unwind like Milos. Party islands like Mikonos and parts of Crete. As well as many islands that are the best of both worlds, night life and beautiful beaches like Paros. You really can't go wrong.
Realistically, you will only have enough time for 2-3 islands depending on how long your vacation is. For a trip weekend to weekend, I would suggest only going to 2, if you plan to also go to Athens. You want time to explore as well as enjoy. You're on island time remember!
How do you get to the islands? You can get to the islands by ferry or by plane from Athens. Look into both options. Sometimes one is cheaper than the other or cuts off a lot of time. We ended up doing a plane to one island and a ferry to the next. If you choose to do a ferry, there are two companies to look into, Blue Star and Sea Jets. We had a terrible experience with Sea Jets. I would avoid them if possible and choose Blue Star. Blue Star was fantastic and was as if you were on a slightly smaller cruise ship.
Below are details about the two islands we decided to go to. Again, choose whichever suits you! We intend to go back and explore others in the future.
Just wow. An entire culture built upon a dormant volcano nestled in the Aegean Sea. The crisp white structures, stone walkways, dome church cathedrals, vibrant blue accents and flora, all surround you. The picturesque city of Oia is a site to behold. Seeing the postcard or Instagram post doesn't do this place justice. It's something you need to see and embrace.
Santorini is a relatively small island. It has two main villages that are most common for tourists to stay in. Oia, the most renown, is the location of the Cyclades. Fira is also a very pretty village and is the largest on the island. Resting upon the cliff, this location is known for its nightlife, restaurants and shopping.
Although breathtaking, Santorini is the most expensive island in Greece. If you intend to visit this incredible place, plan far in advance. If you want to stay in the heart of Oia and wake up to the Cyclades, be ready to spend a good bit of money for your hotel. All hotels in Oia are boutique style and many are owned and run by families. Inventory is scarce and demand is high. Look into hotel sites that offer discounts and don't wait to book. They will be gone before you know it! If you want to save a little money, Fira and its neighboring village are cheaper options, still have incredible views and are a ton of fun. Again, these are small, quaint areas. The boutique hotels have small seating areas and have wading pools.
If you are looking more to feel pampered, there are also full resorts and apartment rentals throughout the island. They are much larger and are more similar to what is expected on vacation. Big pools with bars. Huge dining and seating areas. Yes, they are further away from the liveliness, but you can rent a car, taxi or use public transportation to explore the other areas of the island. Reminder, Uber does not exist on the island. Your hotel will gladly coordinate everything for you.
Again, Santorini is very expensive. Go to the Bodega and grab a bunch of local beer and wine, as well as snacks. If you want to save on another meal, also grab things for breakfast. Our hotel provided coffee and bottled water free of charge. You're there for the view and the ambiance. Sit off at your hotel and soak it up.
There are restaurants everywhere in Oia and Fira. It is obviously much more touristy than in other Greek locations. If there is a restaurant you really want to try, make a reservation. Sunset dining is a hot commodity. Fresh fish is the most sought out meal on the island. You will however, pay a pretty penny if you want to try it. The fish is freshly caught and you can select your fish. It is priced by the kilo and is very very costly. More cost effective dishes that are still seafood related, would be shellfish dishes. This is the route I went. Their specialty is actually Octopus. If you've never tried it, this would be the place. You'll see them freshly hung on a line to sun dry before eating.
I know you hear island and you think beaches. Yes, there are beaches in Santorini, but honestly, they aren't the best. They are very different though. There is the Red Beach, which is red from all the volcanic soil and rests up against a cliff. There is also the Black Beach in which the sand is blank. If you are going to other islands, save your beach time for there.
I would suggest only staying in Santorini for 3 days. It gets very very crowded and is expensive. You can do everything on your list and then move on to the next island, where you relax and unwind.
OIA TO FIRA HIKE
The Oia to Fira hike is one of the most common activities to do in Santorini. The hike goes from one village to the next with gorgeous sea views the entire way. Follow the red arrows and dots to find your way. It's not the best marked path, but you'll figure it out. It takes about 2:30 hours to go each way. The path itself covers all terrain. If you begin in Oia, it starts on a rocky path with volcanic gravel that almost feels like you are in Arizona. You go along the ocean and pop out here and there at the main road and behind some of the resorts. Eventually, you will make it to Fira. Grab an early lunch and some fresh juice and then head back the way you came. The more picturesque way was from Fira to Oia. If you do not want to go both ways, I suggest taking a bus or taxi to Fira and start on that end. Leave early, bring water and wear tons of sunscreen! It is very hot with no shade the entire way. Wear running gear, sneakers included. When you arrive back at your hotel, hop right in the pool. You'll need it.
GORGEOUS SUNRISES & SUNSETS
Santorini has the most epic sunrises and sunsets. The colors are magical and you can witness in awe the setting sun over the Cyclades. It will be like cotton candy one night and orange sorbet the next. It truly is beautiful. If your hotel is in Oia, you don't even need to leave your seating area if you don't want to. Just grab a cocktail and enjoy.
See the sunrise on the other side of the island. It's worth the early morning.
ATV THE ISLAND
Explore the entire island by ATV! You can also rent a car, but the ATV is so much more fun. The rentals are for 24 hours, so you have all day and night if you so choose. Your hotel can help coordinate, but reserve in advance. You can drive them them anywhere on the island, even if it feels like a main road. Loop from one end to the other and stop off in between. You can drive to the lighthouse, take a peek at each of the beaches, pit stop at vineyards, really do anything you want to do. You may get a little turned around, but you can't get lost on the island. There are only so many roads and most have signs with arrows to the main villages. ATV from Oia to Fira and stop off. Have a Gyro at Lucky's and walk around town for a while. Then continue on.
If you do the 24 hour ATV, do yourself a favor and drive out to see the sunrise on the other side of the island. Leave no later than 5:00 am. This was the first time I've ever seen a completely unobstructed sunrise coming from the ocean.
HEAD TO SKAROS
Home to the Skaros Rock, Imerovigli village is worth a stop. We chose to do this the day we had the ATV rented. This lower key, but just as beautiful, village is in between Fira and Oia. You can choose to veer off and see the rock during your hike or visit on its own.
The rock itself is all that remains from a castle that used to reside there. It was sadly destroyed by an earthquake. This spot is a great look off point. You can see one end of the island to the next.
CATAMARAN ISLAND TOUR
If you have an extra in Santorini, you can do a catamaran tour. They have full day tours with a sunset cruise or a half day depending on availability. You cruise the whole island, drink all day, swim in the coves, pop off at a beach or two, have lunch etc. They get very crowded, but it's a great way to meet a group to go out with on a following night. If that isn't your cup of tea or if you've done these many times before, skip it.
We did see jet skis as well if that is your preference.
If you're super snazzy, you can also have a boat chartered.
PERFECT PHOTO OPPORTUNITY
Seeing Oia in its entirety, including the Ammoudi fishing side, is as picturesque as it gets. With that, expect tons of crowds trying to get the perfect shot of the Blue Church domes and the countless ally ways that exude Greek character. Go out early in the morning, before breakfast, to get your photos. Lighting is better, you won't feel rushed, there will be far less people. Most importantly, you will have time to take it all in! Greeks and Europeans aren't early risers. Beat the crowds!
We chose Paros as our second island because we were looking for the best of both worlds. A lively downtown area that has traditional Greek Island vibes as well as an island with countless beaches.
Paros has two main villages with lots of smaller quaint options surrounding. Parikia is the main hub. This is where the ferries come in and out. Taxis are right at the port. The town is pretty lively with lots of restaurants as well and is worth a visit. It is a little louder from a congestion standpoint. The other main village is Naousa, which is where we decided to stay. Naousa is very beautiful with downtown area which wraps around the harbor and the fort. The village is great for restaurants, bar hoping and just sitting off and relaxing. There is also a small beach right in the harbor if you don't want to go elsewhere.
Prices in Paros are much more reasonable. Hotels are more affordable and have typical outdoor pool areas. Many hotels also offer free breakfast with traditional Greek options as well as more universal options. Dining is more affordable than Santorini and also has brilliant sunset views. What I also found to be very nice, is every meal or cocktail hour comes with something extra. If you just order drinks, they will bring out complementary bar snacks in addition. If you order dinner, they either bring a complementary local drink or a dessert, as a thank you. The local drink, Ouzo, comes in shot form. They couldn't explain what type of alcohol it is... and it's a little rough for me haha.
All the locals are very friendly and kind. They embrace the island vibes and encourage you to do the same. Paros is all about relaxation and enjoyment. Bask in the sun, listen to the ocean splashing against the rocks, eat tons of Greek food. No rush, not a care in the world.
EXPLORE THE VILLAGES
Most likely, you will be staying in either Naousa or Parikai. Both villages should be explored. Tons of shops, super cool beach side/sea side restaurants, bars etc. The perfect places to sit off and chill. Both villages are relatively small, so it will not take all day. Naousa also holds the old Venetian Castle/Fort. Spend time exploring and then chill at the hotel pool or neighboring beach for the day. Just relax.
RENT A CAR FOR 1-3 DAYS
I would highly suggest renting a car for a day or two so you can explore the island. The island is larger in size and has various aesthetics throughout. You can stop off at more local villages, pull into a mom and pop restaurant, stop at the vineyard, visit multiple beaches and just explore. It's totally worth it. Car rental locations are everywhere. At the ports as well as in your hotel town. I would suggest renting ahead of time just in case. We did it on a whim, but again it was COVID times. Prices were very reasonable and they had automatic options.
BEACHES AND BOATING
There are soooo many beaches on Paros. Ones that are more quaint and off the beaten path. These give off a more local vibe. Others are sprawling beaches with popular day parties as far as the eye can see. Beaches with weathered granite rocks protruding from the ground. Pretty much any type of beach you could imagine.
We only visited a handful of the beaches, but my two favorites were Kolymbithres Beach and Cactus Beach. Kolymbithres Beach is only a 10 min drive from Naousa and has very unique rocks. You can rent an umbrellas and chairs. Cactus Beach is a more local beach. Very calm, but beautiful. It is small with 2 beachside restaurants. If you order drinks or food at the restaurants, you can use their lounge chairs and umbrellas for free for the day. Food was delicious too.
You can also take a cruise on one of the boats for charter in the Naousa Harbor. They do all day tours as well as sunset options.