Ever since I was a schoolgirl I’ve been entranced by Ancient Greek history. Seeing Athens and the Acropolis is one of the few historical destinations that has topped my travel wish-list.
But I never realized that Greece was also the land of olives, of archeological sites and of sunsets and sand.
I combined a trip to Athens with a sampling of Greek Isles. The absolute perfect trip.
The Greek Isles were so stunningly beautiful. Up to this trip, my only experience with beaches were Florida, the Caribbean and Central America. Greece’s islands are dotted around the Aegean Sea. I don’t know if I imagined it but I seemed to float easier in this water than other oceans. The best part is that it almost never rains there. Endless sun and blue skies, day after day after day. No chance of weather ruining your beach time.
You’ve seen the island of Santorini in pictures. It really is that beautiful, but even more so when your eyes can take in an entire panorama at once. Its like sex for the eyes. You just can’t stop looking. As of this point in my life, Santorini remains the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in the world.
When To Go
I traveled to Greece in late September/early October. This is off season for the islands so prices are much more competitive and crowds much less. Perfect weather.
This overview is based on a trip I took in 2014.
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Fly into Athens. For some reason, this is not a major destination from the U.S. and therefore usually requires a connection from somewhere else in Europe. No problem! Good excuse to see another destination even if only for two nights.
Once you are in Athens, you can connect to the islands via commuter planes or ferries. As with trains, there are lots of apps available to help you with ferry schedules and tickets.
I did Greece backwards and went to the islands first. When I do it again I’ll start in Athens and then move on to the islands. On the other hand, since you’ll have to fly out of Athens it might work better to finish there.
I stayed at the luxury King George hotel. You’ll want somewhere in Athens Centre so you can easily walk to all the sites. The main attraction of this hotel was the rooftop restaurant which not only was romantic and absolutely spectacular (ate there both nights) but boasts an unobstructed view of the Acropolis lit up at night. I’d stay somewhere cheaper next time and just eat there -you’ll need reservations.
So you are here in this historic city where ancient ruins are preserved amongst the urban sprawl of a major city. There is a lot to take in, a lot of walking (comfortable shoes absolutely critical). You came this far – don’t just browse.
How will you see it all? How will you know what you’re looking at? Researching, planning tours, the expense…the thought could be enough to make you rethink this trip.
Meet Rick Steves Audio Europe. Don’t know about Rick? Click the image below to learn. I can’t imagine doing this trip without the FREE audio walking tours on Rick’s app. Game changer. Keep reading.
Here’s a perfect example of how this app will enrich your trip – try it and you’ll be sold forever like I was.
Touring the Acropolis is an obvious must for this trip. The Acropolis allows 2000 people per day to visit the site (be sure to check up-to-date info as construction can change, limit or close the site completely). You’ll see two types of tourists at the Acropolis – those walking around with a book trying to read the history as they go and those in groups of 20+ people on a guided tour, struggling to hear what their guide is saying over the general noise of the crowds and not being able to get great photos because you must keep moving. Tours also cost roughly $100 per person.
I discovered Rick Steves Audio Europe on my trip to Germany and quickly realized this was the ticket to getting the most from Europe and the cheapest, easiest, at-your-own pace way to do it. I planned in advance and bought my ticket for the Acropolis. A put on my earbuds, walked up the stairs and started Ricks FREE audio walking tour. It was all the history I needed to know – not too little, not too much. When I got distracted, I stopped and rewound the audio. When I wanted to wait for the crowd to clear to get a picture, I paused it. It was a 55-minute audio tour and I probably spent another hour just enjoying and hanging around. After doing a few of Rick’s tours you get more and more familiar with his format and his quirkiness. I now lovingly refer to him as Uncle Rick.
Note: For the Greek Isles, Rick doesn’t have audio walking tours but he does has some audio discussions to listen to. It is so worth it to buy his travel book on the Greece as a companion to your app. I found some great sites and restaurants by using it. Click here to buy “Rick Steves Greece” on Amazon.
Providing a list of the major sites you may be planning to see and those you’ve never heard of. Rick’s audio tours cover them all and then some.
- The Acropolis – This includes the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike, Temple of Erechtheion and the Propylaea (gate to the Parthenon)
- Temple of Olympian Zeus – double the size of the Parthenon but only 15 of the original 104 corinthian columns remain
- Arch of Hadrian – inscription of the founders of Greece
- Theatre of Dionysus – birthplace of Greek tragedy, Dionysus is the God of wine
- Temple of Asclepsius – Temple to the God of Medicine
- The Odeon of Herodes Atticus – Theature built it 161 A.D.
- The Ancient Agora – ancient marketplace
- Panathenaic Stadium – original Olympic stadium
- Syntagma Square – government center
Rick’s Athens Tours
- The Acropolis – 55 minute audio tour, leave an extra hour just to take it all in
- Ancient Agora – 47 min walking tour around the old marketplace (includes Panathenaic Stadium)
- Athens City Walk – 71 mins but this will take the majority of a day as you stop to take pictures, eat and rest. Check the map and consider breaking it up over 2 days. **His optional diversion into the neighborhood of Anofiotika was an absolute highlight of the trip.
- Athens Archaeological Museum – 62 min – I love audio guided museum tours. Drowns out crowd noise and ensures you get the highlights. I recommend the Anofiotika section of the City Walk tour after spending a morning in the museum.
I flew straight into Mykonos after arriving in Athens. Easy short flight. The other option is to arrive by ferry, see tips on “Getting There” above about ferry schedules.
I stayed at the Mykonian Ambassador on Platos Gialos, a beach about 20 minutes ride outside of Mykonos Town. It was simply stunning. No other words. A sensational breakfast buffet to rival that of the Platzl Hotel in Munich. The hotel was ideally located across the street from a perfect little beach that had chairs for rent, or sand for free. Ate the most exquisite octopus at Yialo Yialo, literally right on the beach, and was forever changed.
Mykonos is considered a party island, so if you are for the wild nightlife, stay in Mykonos town. If you prefer quiet nights, this location is for you. There was a little bus stop just off the property where you could get a ride into town for dinner.
Things To Do
Sleep late, eat an overwhelmingly large breakfast and head to the beach. Float in the Aegean, walk the beach. Decompress. Nap, if you can close your eyes long enough from the gorgeous scenery. Then get a beach front table at Yialo Yialo and eat octopus.
A short walk down the beach will bring you to Nicholas’s Fish House. I had an amazing shrimp pasta in ouzo sauce here and decided to try the sardines.
A Word on Octopus
If you are put off by the idea of eating octopus, I’d like to make a case for re-thinking it.
Most people have either had really badly prepared octopus, or are thinking of calamari (which is good when made properly but is usually a fried mess smothered in marinara sauce). Maybe you’ve been adventurous at the sushi bar and tried theirs. Tough, rubbery, flavorless.
Now forget all that. That is not octopus. Come to Greece and let these people show you how it’s done.
It’s a labor of love to prepare octopus properly. Fortunately in Greece literally every restaurant makes it daily so you don’t have to worry about it.
But know this – it is boiled, tenderized, marinated and then grilled. THAT is proper octopus. Or it is served as ceviche, which again only works with the freshest octopus and when the chef knows what to marinade it in and for how long.
Trust me. Open you mind and your mouth. There is nothing like it on earth, and despite many attempts I’ve never been able to recreate it at home. So I’ll just keep going back to Greece. Don’t let the chance to experience this pass you by.
After treating yourself like a Greek goddess with a massage and nap, clean up and put on your cutest Mediterranean dinner outfit. Time to explore Mykonos town. Definitely go during daylight so you can see the colors and also so you can see sunset. Plan to stay for dinner. Make note of the time of the last bus heading back to your village 🙂 Leave 20 minutes for the pastry shops tempting you at that bus stop.
Mykonos town is the stuff vacation dream towns are made of. White-washed buildings arranged intentionally in an impossible maze, with one fabulous boutique after another and the smell of garlic and butter in the air everywhere. Hidden courtyards, bougainvillea, tiny chapels.
Browse the shops, get lost. Menu shop all the restaurants…so many to choose from and so little time!
TIP: Pull out your Rick Steves app and search Greece for his audio overviews of the islands. He does not have a walking tour, but still captures the essence and history you need to know. Great for listening while you take a break and sip an ouzo and nibble your baklava.
You can’t possibly have a bad meal in Mykonos. Both of my meals were standouts so I have to mention.
- Kounelas – Went here on recommendation of the bellboy at the hotel. Locals always know! You’ll see the outdoor grill before you realize you’re at the restaurant. Courtyard dining under a tree, romantic and lively.
- Maeryo – People were waiting outside this tiny spot. With all the restaurants to choose from in a 5 minute radius, this tells you something. Turns out Rick Steve recommends it though I didn’t realize that at the time. Special place.
Just when you thought you’d never see a more beautiful place on earth than Mykonos, a ferry ride brings you to Santorini.
Arriving by boat means you get the full experience of being in the caldera, the bay of water that is actually a sunken crater from a collapsed volcano. Santorini’s towns are built on the ledges of that volcano that are leftover. Your transportation will meet you at the boat landing and transport you up the hill..thank god.
I chose to stay in Oia (pronounced “ee-yah”) and so will you. Built high atop the northernmost edge of the remaining volcanic ledge, Oia nestles itself in with blazing white-washed boutique hotels with cave rooms, cobblestone streets and walkways (no cars, just donkeys) and shop after gallery after restaurant.
Oia is famous for its sunsets. Small warning – Oia gets a bit overrun by tourists during the days when cruise ships are in port. They crowd every available walkway until sun sets and then they disappear and it feels very intimate.
Art Maison Oia Castle
I don’t usually get detailed about describing accommodations as that is a personal preference. However, the place I stayed in Oia is by far the most incredible accommodations I’ve ever had on a vacation. Pricey, ideal for a honeymoon if someone else is paying. Find the money if not.
Art Maisons Oia Castle has only a few suites, all totally unique. They have limited online pictures which is smart because why spoil the surprise by giving it all away online?
My 2 bedroom villa was on the walkway that heads down to Amoudi (the fishing village below Oia). Unbeatable location. It had a private sundeck above the entrance that is a dead-on view of sunset over the caldera so even with throngs of tourists, I always had a perfect, unobstructed view. It had a small kitchen that the hotel restocked with fabulous coffees and teas daily. You get a spectacular Greek breakfast delivered daily too, make your choices the day before and try everything. But get the greek yogurt with the candied raisins every day.
It gets better. The decor was gorgeous in a relaxed way. Plenty of space to spread out.
It gets WAY better.
Cave Pool. In your room. Your own indoor heated pool built into a cave inside the room. No words.
Things To Do
You can either hire a donkey to take you or you can work up your appetite by walking the 200 stairs from Oia down to Amoudi Bay. This little fishing village has several waterfront restaurants. Get a mix of seafood and meat everywhere you go. There are shops to wander around in here as well. This is also popular for sunset so plan accordingly.
I rented a car for one day to explore the island. They will meet you at the same place your bus dropped you off outside of Oia.
I headed to Red Beach on the southwest side of the island. Parked the car and took the short downhill hike to see this interesting beach emerging from the red rocks. You can swim if you like, just something different as beaches go. Bought a great CD from a local musician that was blasting traditional music from an amp.
Akrotiri of Thera
This was a highlight of the trip. So cool I kept doubting it was real, but it is. Akrotiri is a real archeological excavation site. They are uncovering a Minoan city that was buried in ash from a volcano eruption. There is evidence of habitation from the Late Neolithic period (6000 years ago) but most of the village is Bronze Age (4000 years ago). They have built a climate controlled building with suspended walkways above the dig site. Super cool. You must do the guided tour, not an option to just wander. It wasn’t that long and very interesting. Leave your camera in the car – no photos allowed.
After leaving Akrotiri I drove to the east side of the island and spent a little time at Perissa Beach. This is a black sand beach so another interesting stop. There was a little beach town feel here, with some shops and restaurants. A nice side trip for the drive. I grabbed a chair and hung out long enough to get a Mythos beer and a gyro.
As if Santorini wasn’t perfect enough, they have wineries!! I stopped at Boutan Winery and then made my way to Santos. Wow.
Greek wines are very light. Try the assyrtiko. Perfect on a hot day (goes perfect with octopus!). Available at your local wine store, you just never knew to look.
The best part of Santorini is just wandering the village of Oia. Winding cobblestone pathways leading from one boutique to the next. So many wonderful finds. Get lost. Hotel shop..every one is so unique. Linger and listen to the local people, eat and drink as much as you can. Retire to your cave room for a nap. Watch the sunset and count your blessings.
Eat as much as you can!
- Amoudi Restaurant – at the foot of the stairs leading down to Oia. The tables literally line up right at the edge of the concrete over the water.
- Floga – a sweet spot along the shopping path in Oia, another clutch Rick recommendation
- Karma – ecclectic, romantic
- Petros – on the walking path in Oia, delicious grilled food and friendly service
- Cafe Flora – a casual lunch spot, another Rick rec
- Kypidra – a Croatian family restaurant – loved it, excellent service