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A Journey to the Ancient World: Athens, Greece

A Journey to the Ancient World: Athens, Greece

Athens is known for being the cradle of democracy of the ancient world. Naturally, millions of tourists visit the city every year to discover the ancient world whose stones rest amongst the modern stones of today’s Athens. Because it is a heavily visited city, it can be tricky to find a way to visit that doesn’t have you standing in massive lines or unable to see the sites because of the crowds. After several visits leading tour groups to Athens, I’m happy to say that I’ve found a great plan for getting the most out of the city, with some hidden treasures along the way.

Where to stay in Athens

While many visitors coming to Athens come through on cruise ships, you may (hopefully will) be planning an overnight visit to this city. Athens really deserves several days of exploration to fully understand the rhythm of the city alongside its ancient counterpart. I’ve stayed at a few hotels throughout Athens, and by far, A for Athens has been the best. It’s located right on Monastiraki Square with views of the Acropolis, Hadrian’s Library, Mt. Lycabettus, and most other important sites of Athens from its rooftop. Suites and rooms are available with stunning views of the Acropolis, but even the most basic rooms at this hotel will have you feeling like you’re in a Greek oasis.

Photo provided by A for Athens hotel

What to see and do in Athens

There are a million things to see in Athens, so you have plenty to keep you busy for several days! This is my list of some of the most important sites, and the best way to see them. As the opening hours of these sites change frequently, I encourage you to visit an official tourist information office at the beginning of your stay to get an updated list of opening days and hours for each site.

The Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens is certainly a highlight of a visit to this city. Sitting squarely in the middle of the old town of the city, it’s hard to miss from almost any angle of Athens, and it’s the perfect place to start your trip. I recommend getting to the Acropolis as soon as it opens in the morning to avoid some of the crowds, otherwise you’ll have to battle your way to the top of the rock. The Acropolis is one of the few archeological sites in Athens that’s open in the morning all the way through the afternoon, so it’s good to take advantage of its early hours.

Atop the Acropolis, you will find the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Temple of Erechtheion as the most important structures. Of course, because you’re on the top of one of the tallest hills in the city, you’ll also have panoramic views over the Athens metropolis until the city seems to touch the sea.

The Ancient Agora

Upon first glance, the Ancient Agora doesn’t seem like a place worth spending too much time aside from being a nice-looking garden. I actually find the Ancient Agora to be one of the most interesting and beautiful places in Athens, but you need to spend the time exploring it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an Agora was “a public open space used for assemblies and markets” in Ancient Greece. There were Agoras in most Greek city-states, and it can be compared to the Forums of ancient Rome.

The first stop on a visit to the Ancient Agora will likely be the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, which is now a museum. This is one of my favorite places in the Agora because, although it isn’t original, I think it’s incredible to see a structure reconstructed in such a way as to be able to imagine how the entire area would have looked and functioned. The Stoa of Attalos is a beautiful, columned building with large, open spaces that are easy to marvel at.

The other notable site of the Ancient Agora is the Temple of Hephaistos, which sits upon a hill within the Agora area. It’s incredibly well-preserved, especially compared to the Parthenon, so it’s really interesting to spend some time there to see how an ancient temple in this style would look in its (near) entirety.

The Roman Agora & Hadrian’s Library

These are two different sites, but they lie adjacent to each other and are easily visited in sequence. Rome gained control of the Greek peninsula in the 2nd century B.C. after the defeat of the Corinthians, so there are several Roman ruins to be found in Athens amongst the Ancient Greek ruins. Further, many of the Ancient Greek sites were repurposed as Roman sites which prevented the Romans from having to undergo significant construction work in Athens. For example, the Parthenon was changed from a temple dedicated to Athena to the Roman goddess, Minerva- a “rebranding” if you will!

The Roman Agora was a central meeting point for the Roman city, much the same way as the Ancient Agora was a meeting point. In the 3rd century A.D., the commercial center of Athens was transferred from the Ancient Agora to the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library, so these sites were the some of the most significant during the Roman period. While much smaller than their Ancient Greek counterparts, both sites are interesting and worth a visit during a trip to Athens. If not traveling there with a guide, it’s important to read the information boards, as few complete structures remain, so some imagination is important to piece together these areas today.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus

Started by the Ancient Greeks and completed by Hadrian during the Roman period, the Temple of Olympian Zeus differs in architecture from its peers across Athens. Instead of slender, elegant columns like those displayed on the Parthenon, the Temple of Olympian Zeus has thick and beautiful Corinthian columns. Most of the temple’s original 104 columns are no longer there, but 15 stunning columns remain that only hint at the temple’s original prominence.

Mount Lycabettus

The weather in Athens can make hiking sound too ambitious for some, but a hike up Mount Lycabettus, a hill standing 277 meters above sea level, is well worth the effort. This particular hill sits in the middle of the high-end neighborhood of Kolonaki, and is one of the best ways to get a bird’s eye view of the city. It’s the tallest hill in the city, so if a hike isn’t for you, you can also try the Lycabettus Cable Car. While this funicular is inside the mountain, so the ride doesn’t provide the same views that the hike would, it does cut out some of the hike up the hill so that you can enjoy the views at the top. Keep in mind, however, that Kolonaki is also located on a hill, so there is still some hill and stair climbing to get to the entrance to the cable car. Once at the top, there is a small church (St. George Church) and a look-out platform, as well as a cafe.

Photo provided royalty-free by Graham-H

Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis Museum, completed in 2007 is one of the newer exhibitions in Athens, and it shows when visiting. This particular museum does an excellent job of displaying a wide range of artifacts, particularly focusing on excavation of the Acropolis, while providing detailed and interesting information that moves visitors along in a logical path. I find that this museum is reasonably easy to visit without a guide, as it’s very well laid out with plenty of English-friendly information.

The National Archeological Museum

The National Archeological Museum of Athens is another interesting museum for those interested in ancient artifacts. Within this museums, visitors will find the golden Mask of Agamemnon, a Roman adaptation of the large statue of Athena once housed in the Parthenon, amongst many other unique and interesting items from throughout Greek and Athenian history.

This museum, however, is somewhat more difficult to manage without a guide as explanations about each item are relatively scarce. Guided tours are offered by licensed guides of the museum, and I highly recommend participating in one if you’re particularly interested in these artifacts. I often visit Athens, and I always hire Andromache as a guide- not only for this museum, but also for the ancient sites of Athens. You certainly can’t go wrong visiting with Andromache, she presents the best information about Athens and its history in an incredibly interesting way! I personally find this museum to be as interesting, if not more so, than others in Athens provided you have a good guide to lead the way.

Visit Anafiotika

Anafiotika is a very small neighborhood of Athens located just underneath the Acropolis in Plaka. The architecture here may look similar to photos you’ve seen of Greek islands, like Santorini, but in fact, you haven’t left the city center! Workers from the Cycladic Islands had come to Athens to help with construction at the start of King Otto’s reign in the mid-19th century, and built a cluster of buildings resembling those on the islands from which they came.

Anafiotika

It’s not a big neighborhood, but it is a beautiful little walk and an excellent way to escape the crowds, as almost no one knows this place exists!

Journey to the Southern Coast

A trip to Greece can’t possibly be complete without a trip to the coast. A little less than two hours south of the city is Sounio, and the Temple of Poseidon. This particular temple is my favorite (so far!) in all of Greece. It sits high on a bluff overlooking what is seemingly the end of the world, but in reality is the sparkling Aegean Sea. The Greeks built the Temple of Poseidon to placate the god Poseidon after it was decided that the Parthenon in Athens would be dedicated to the goddess Athena.

The temple itself is impressive, but the surrounding scenery is what makes it worth an entire trip outside of Athens. I recommend a late-afternoon trip to the Temple of Poseidon so that you can catch one of the most spectacular sunsets from the temple at the end of your visit- there is no better way to end a day while visiting the Greek capital! There is a public bus that goes from central Athens to Sounio, but be sure to check the schedule just before your visit in case there are any changes. Rome2Rio is a great site for checking local bus routes! In case you don’t want to catch the public bus, there are plenty of tour companies throughout Athens offering trips to this site.

Where to eat in Athens

Athens, like other international cities, is full of interesting and varied cuisines to try. Of course, Greek food in Athens is plentiful, and delicious! As in any other city, I recommend staying far away from restaurants that 1. have photos on the menu, 2. have staff outside coaxing you to come inside, and 3. have menus displayed only in languages other than Greek. You want to go where the Greeks go!

Aiolou Street, just off of Monastiraki Square, is an excellent pedestrian street full of great choices for food. If you walk around 15 minutes away from the Square through the pedestrian area, you’ll come to a part of the road that has several great options in one relative place that are clearly frequented by young locals.

  • Sq. Bar is a local bar/cafe/restaurant with low-cost food and drinks in a great atmosphere. They have a ton of outdoor seating, as well as indoor seating with large windows letting in the cool Greek breeze for you to enjoy.
  • Odori Vermuteria Di Atene is an Italian restaurant with excellent, fresh food.
  • Harvest Coffee & Wine is a great cafe/wine bar

Aside from my suggestions, there are loads more to try in the area, so it’s worth exploring at dinner-time!

On Monastiraki Square, the A for Athens Cocktail Bar & Restaurant is an excellent choice if you’re looking for great views of Plaka and the Acropolis. This bar overlooks Monastiraki Square, and is on the rooftop of the hotel that I recommend. The food is a little pricey, but it’s very good, as are the cocktails and wine. This place gets extremely busy in the evenings, so reservations are recommended- particularly for larger groups or if you want a coveted spot on the top-most terrace for unobstructed views.

 

Athens is such an incredible city to visit; it’s ideal for a relaxing holiday, an action-packed trip, or a deep dive into history. The city itself has certainly been affected by the country’s recent and ongoing economic crisis, but the spirit of Athens lives on as I’m sure it has for hundreds of years. The kindness and optimism of the Greek people at large never ceases to amaze me.

 

Visit Athens, Greece, one of the most beautiful and ancient cities in Europe. Interested in ruins, history, and excellent foodie travel? Head to Athens to explore one of the most ancient cities in Europe! #athens #greece #travel

 

If you’re interested in visiting Athens, and would like my expert advice to plan your trip, please book a travel consultation with me! I can help you plan your trip from A to Z to ensure you get those most there is to see and do in Athens.

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Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience.

 

Discovering the Hidden Treasures of Santorini

Discovering the Hidden Treasures of Santorini

Santorini has become an increasingly popular destination in Greece, and for good reason! It’s insta-worthy for sure, it has gorgeous architecture, beautiful sea views, and fantastic weather for most of the year. Most cruise lines that sail in the region include Santorini in their itineraries, so visitors from all over the world are shuttled there daily to absorb a little bit of the magic. I went to Santorini having been there once before for just one day, but not really knowing what exactly to expect or what there was to do. After having spent just over a week on the island, I can safely say that Santorini is far more than the beautiful white buildings and expansive sea views. I hardly ever returned to the same spot twice throughout my stay, and discovered that Santorini is really the best of all Greek worlds.

Santorini

Where to stay in Santorini:

When I began planning my trip, I had a really hard time deciding where to stay. After I arrived, I realized that was for good reason! It seems like there’s a hotel, apartment complex, or resort every 5 minutes across the island, and when you’re so swamped for options, how can you possibly narrow it down? I ended up staying in Akrotiri (or just outside of it) at the Aura Marina Apartments. Akrotiri was a great place to stay because it’s a much more laid-back part of the island with the same amazing caldera views. It’s also close to some other great towns and beaches that are on the other side of the island, giving you access to basically everything that Santorini has to offer.

Aura Marina Apartments
One of the apartments at Aura Marina, a truly idyllic location

This hotel/apartment has the best of both worlds; it has the luxury of some of the high-class villas in Santorini, but without the price tag. I rented one of the 2+1 person apartments, and it was absolutely perfect for us as a couple. There was a kitchen, which was admittedly not as outfitted as we were hopping with a stove/oven, but it had plenty for us to prepare our breakfasts and some lunches. The best part, though, was definitely the two terraces and the private dip swimming pool. We spent almost every afternoon sunbathing at our hotel and taking a swim; it was the perfect way to escape some of the tourists in the busier parts of the island, but more importantly, to escape the heat. We definitely would have regretted not getting a place with a pool.

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Not a bad way to start a holiday 🇬🇷🍉☀️

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Because there is so much to see and do across all of Santorini, I recommend renting a car while you visit. Many tourists rent quads or mopeds, and I think that a quad could also be a good option, although it certainly wouldn’t be as convenient as an actual car. I would recommend against a moped unless you have significant motorcycle experience, as the roads in Santorini are very curvy, sometimes uneven, and sometimes crowded. They’re also usually full of people who don’t know how to drive mopeds, so the possibility of an accident can be pretty high.

What to do in Santorini:

Most visitors, especially those coming off of cruise ships, see mostly Fira or Oia, but they often don’t have time or don’t know to explore the rest of the island! While I was in Santorini, I found some great alternatives to these very crowded and hectic places to explore that made me feel much more connected to the culture on the island.

Explore Santorini from below! Santorini, in its current form, was created by a volcanic eruption several thousand years ago. The caldera that was created is now the center piece of Santorini, and it’s now an absolutely magical place to explore from above, but also from below. I went diving with the Santorini Dive Center on their Discover Scuba Diving program.

Diving in Santorini

They first sat us down at their station on the beach to teach us the in’s and out’s of diving, breathing underwater, and how our experience would go. This took longer than I expected, probably about 40 minutes, but it was absolutely essential. I had never really gone diving before, and I felt so much more comfortable once I really fully understood all of the equipment, hand signals, and air pressure under water. Afterwards, we got suited up, and into the water. We began by swimming in shallow water holding the hand of our guide (we were paired two beginner divers to a guide), and were eventually brought into water that was about 6 or 7 meters (approx. 20 ft.) deep. The sea floor and rock formations in this area were really stunning, and we were able to swim alongside some incredible schools of fish. I loved taking this opportunity to see some of the wildlife that Santorini has to offer, because you won’t really see too much of it without diving down. The Santorini Dive Center did a fantastic job guiding us and making sure that our diving experience was safe and beautiful, I’d highly recommend checking them out!

Catch the best sunset in Santorini. I know exactly what you’re thinking- I’ll go to see the sun set behind the white houses in Oia, I’ve heard that it’s stunning! Well. I have some bad news for you. This is the reality of sunsets in Oia from the town:

Reality of a Santorini Sunset
The unfortunate reality of a sunset in Oia

I was pretty disappointed by my sunset experience in Oia, but I was lucky because I had also booked to take a sunset sailing cruise during my visit that made up for my disappointing experience in every way. Sunset Sailing Oia has a ton of different options for sunset sailing cruises, so they can cover most price points while still providing a certain level of relaxation and luxury. I took the Lagoon 500 sunset cruise because I was there for a special event and wanted a more private experience. This cruise has a maximum capacity of 16 people, so there’s plenty of space on the boat for everyone to claim their own spot. My particular cruise had a big family booked on it, and we didn’t really feel impeded upon in any way. From my perspective, having this much smaller boat was worth the higher price tag. We passed by some other boats run by other companies with well over 100 people, and honestly, everyone looked totally miserable while we were all happily sunbathing and relaxing.

During the cruise, the crew makes a delicious Greek barbecue dinner, and they provide guests with an open bar, which was very much appreciated. The sunset from the cruise was absolutely the best part, and was really worth the entire experience. We “parked” our yacht just off the shore of Oia just before sunset and bobbed up and down while watching the famous Santorini sunset. The best part? I didn’t have to yell at some annoying tourist for standing literally in front of my face while in a crowd of hundreds of other people.

Santorini Sunset

Soak up some history. When I first suggested that our holiday be in Santorini this year, my initial thought was not because it was such an interesting historical location. In fact, I actually had no idea whether or not there were ancient settlements on the island at all. For that reason, we had discussed going elsewhere, like Crete, for example, but I am SO glad that we didn’t. Akrotiri is home to an ancient settlement that was part of the Minoan civilization. They’ve been excavating the site since the mid-20th century, and it’s now presented in an absolutely incredible way! The site is actually in a covered structure, so it’s a great activity to do mid-day to escape the heat. You can walk around the entire settlement, and also through it along some of its ancient streets. The amazing thing about the Akrotiri settlement is that it was incredibly advanced when compared to other similar civilizations. They has a full sewage drainage system in the town, as well as two and three-storied homes.

Site of Ancient Minoan Civilization

Much of the town is still intact as the volcano preserved it, similarly to the way that Pompeii was preserved. The difference between Akrotiri and Pompeii is that the inhabitants of this settlement had already left the island before the volcanic eruption, so no bodies or valuables were found, only the remains of the abandoned city. This is absolutely worth a visit when you’re in Santorini! We went without a guide, and there are some informational signs throughout the exhibit. If you’re more interested in the history or would like additional information, I would recommend taking a guided tour, as I’m sure there is a lot that we missed since we were guide-less.

Explore the vineyards. Santorini is famous for its very dry white white, which is very delicious. They also produce a wine called Vinsanto (translated from French to “wine from Santorini”), which is a sweet, dessert wine that’s somewhat similar to Port. Because of the very specific, volcanic climate and soil of Santorini, the vineyards there have developed unique techniques in order to produce wine. You’ll find wineries all over the island, as well as wine tours and other wine-related excursions. I opted to go straight to a local winery to learn about their specific processes and to taste-test their wines. I visited the Argyros Estate and had a great time! The winery has been recently renovated, and is a gorgeous place to spend a late afternoon or early evening.

Vineyards in Santorini

We stopped by and asked for a tour and tasting, which they provided for us on the spot, privately, for €15 per person. The tasting included two white wines, a rosé wine, and two Vinsanto wines, plus some snacks and Vinsanto chocolates. We happened to visit during the harvest season (in mid-August), so while on our tour, we were able to see the grapes being prepared for fermentation. Walking around the vineyard and processing facilities with our own guide was super interesting, and it was the perfect way to learn a little bit about why Santorini wine is so unique. The tour took around 20 minutes, and our tasting was about a half-hour, although we were welcomed to stay as long as we’d like and so we took the opportunity to drink an extra glass before dinner!

Check out the cities. Santorini has a couple of main cities or towns, which are then filled in by smaller villages across the island. Each town has its own unique flair, and each are worth a visit for different reasons:

  • Oia is probably the most famous of the towns in Santorini, and that’s probably because of it’s unmatched beauty. Walking around Oia gives you a sense of regal-ness that is hard to find anywhere else. Keep in mind that this magic disappears about an hour before sunset when every tourist in Santorini descends upon the city and lines the streets to get a glimpse of the view. I recommend a visit during the morning or afternoon so that you have the streets, shops, and restaurants to yourself, and can actually enjoy your time in this beautiful place.
  • Fira is the capital city of Santorini, and is definitely where the hustle and bustle is located. It’s a little grungier than other towns in Santorini, but it’s also much more crowded with locals and tourists alike. If you visit Santorini on a cruise ship, this is likely where you’ll be dropped off, and it is a nice place to explore for an hour or so. The restaurants here are much pricier than in other parts of the island, so it’s worth getting out of Fira to explore a little bit after you’ve had your fill of donkey photos. Note: please do not ride the donkeys. They are not treated well, are working long hours in very hot conditions, and there are other options available to you that do not involve climbing up the mountain (the Santorini Cable Car).
  • Akrotiri is a small town just off of the Caldera at the other end of the island from Oia (about a 40-minute drive). There isn’t too much to see in Akrotiri specifically, but there is a ton in the area. The Akrotiri excavation is nearby, as is the Santorini Dive Center and some other beaches. I recommend staying in this area, as it’s much less touristy, much less expensive, and it gives you great access to the rest of the island. The famous Red Beach is also nearby, but it has been closed due to landslides occurring, so it’s dangerous to visit.
  • Kamari was one of my favorite places to explore in the evening. It’s on the opposite side of the island from the caldera, and it’s much less crowded than any of the other cities. It has a long seafront area with tons of seaside restaurants, lounge chairs on the beach, and plenty of shops and things to keep you occupied. I ended up coming here several nights for dinner, getting to explore many of the restaurants, and really enjoyed it.

    Lounge chairs at Kamari beach
    The perfect spot for sunbathing in Santorini at Kamari Beach
  • Perissa is another cool seaside town on the opposite side from the caldera. It’s similar to Kamari, although with fewer restaurants, but for a day at the beach, it’s the ideal location. Most of the bars and restaurants have lush sun beds available for customers, and there is plenty of relatively sandy beach to go around.

Where to eat in Santorini:

I spent a lot of my time restaurant-hopping in Santorini, as I was on a mission to try all of the Moussaka on the island. Well, okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I did eat at a LOT of restaurants during my stay, and definitely found some to recommend:

Asterias Waterfront Restaurant– If you’re looking for a hidden restaurant with a killer ocean atmosphere, this is definitely your place! It’s close to the Akrotiri excavation, so it’d make a good lunch or dinner spot from there. They have gorgeous tables along a short dock over the sea, so you really feel like you’re floating while eating some yummy local food.

Athermi Restaurant– This restaurant is located along the caldera cliff between Fira and Akrotiri, and it’s a great spot for a delicious meal with a view. They have a good menu, not overly expensive, and because it’s a bit out of the way, it’s a calmer and more relaxing experience than you might get at a similar place in Fira or Oia.

Melitis Restaurant– One of the many restaurants on the Kamari waterfront, and one not to be missed! Melitis Restaurant has gorgeous decor, and an even better menu. It felt like a very high-end, yet relaxed dining experience, the perfect spot for vacation.

Mesogaia– By far my favorite place in Santorini. This is a restaurant and wine bar (they’re separate, but located next to each other), and it is a culinary experience. The wine bar is small, but lavishly decorated, and the staff are on hand to offer expert advice about the local wines on offer. The restaurant has an excellent menu, great ambiance, and the perfect view. If you have to pick one in Kamari, I recommend Mesogaia!

Petros– This is one of the two restaurants that we ate at in Oia, and I would definitely recommend it. There are some really high-end restaurants in Oia, but you have to book most of them in advance, and we did not. We popped in to Petros for lunch, and really enjoyed it!

Oia Cityscape

Santorini surpassed my expectations, and continued to surprise me throughout my time on the island. When I originally planned my holiday, I expected a lot of relaxing, enjoying beautiful sea views, drinking lots of local wine, and eating great food. While I did all of those things, I also learned about the history of the island, the culture of the people, and came to appreciate how truly friendly and incredible many Greek people are. We felt welcomed everywhere we went, and found that exploring the not-so-touristy ends of Santorini proved to make our experience much more rich than it would have been otherwise.

Discover the Hidden Treasures of Santorini

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Please note that some activities in this post were sponsored. Additionally, some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience.