9 days in Greece

Alex and I spent 9 days in Greece earlier this month. We had a wonderful time but it was perhaps a little rushed because I wanted to squeeze in two islands: as well as visiting Athens we spent two days on Naxos and two on Santorini but it would have been great to draw it out and spent even up to a week on each. And to have seen more islands. :) Greece is such a great place for a relaxed, drawn out trip, you could easily spend a month or more travelling from place to place just taking it easy.

Staying in Athens

I highly recommend Athens Backpackers! The location is unbeatable – minutes walk from the Acropolis – the staff are friendly and helpful, they have a great rooftop bar with cheap drinks and a killer view of the Parthenon, wifi in the rooms, single beds instead of bunks (at least they did in our 4 bed dorm), air conditioning, and they run a fantastic walking tour for €6 per person. (Walking/cycling tours are my favourite thing to do on the first full day in a new city.)

The Acropolis

I’m not sure if this is always the case, but mid September around 6pm until 7:30pm closing seems like the perfect time to visit. We didn’t actually go up at that time – we were just wandering around the area – but there was hardly anyone about and the dusky light was beautiful. We went at 9am in the morning instead and it was packed – whoops.

Your €12 entry ticket comes with extra stubs to visit 5 other archaeological sites in addition to the Acropolis, including the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. You have 4 days to use up the stubs but because they are torn off I don’t think it allows multiple entry to the same site. (At least not into the Acropolis because that part of the ticket looks different. I guess theoretically you could enter the Agora twice, for example, but it would mean you’d miss out on one of the other 4 sites.)

Broken columns

By the way, I didn’t realise this until we got there because I didn’t know much about the history and I couldn’t find an exact answer online (probably because it’s obvious to everyone else) but in case you’re wondering, the Parthenon is on top of the hill that is the Acropolis – they’re not separate sites. Your entry ticket allows you access to the top of the hill with the Parthenon and other ancient temples on it but you can’t actually enter any of the buildings themselves, you just walk around them.

The nearby Acropolis Museum is a beautiful modern building which houses artefacts from the site with accompanying information about the history of the Parthenon and the other temples. It’s only €5 and it’s open 8am-8pm every day except Monday when it’s closed (and it stays open even later on a Friday) – recommended.

Great views

Two great places to look out over the city are Areopagus Hill (a huge lump of marble next to the Acropolis) and Lycabettus Hill. (Hill is bit of an understatement for Lycabettus.) It’s a very short climb (something like 10-15 steps) to the top of Areopagus but it’s a solid hike to the top of Lycabettus. If you’re not up for the hike you can take a funicular up and back, but they don’t sell one way tickets, which is a shame if you were thinking of compensating riding up by walking down. I think both are worth visiting but Lycabettus is particularly cool because it means you get to see the Acropolis from the above.

Athens from Lycabettus Hill

Great eats

Gyro and souvlaki places abound and generally cost about €2 for said gyro/souvlaki. There’s a great honey and yoghurt place near the Acropolis called Fresko which made me think of a Greek equivalent of trendy gelati bars in Melbourne (eg Trampoline) or frozen yoghurt shops in London (eg Snog). Probably the best restaurant we ate at in Athens was Scholarhio – they have a great set menu which costs €14 per person and for two people includes bread, mineral water, 5 meze dishes and dessert with an alcoholic drink each. When we went there were plenty of tourists but a decent amount of locals too, which is always a good sign.

For more places to eat and other Athens info and suggestions I highly recommend In Your Pocket’s latest guide which you can either download as a free PDF (to any portable device or to print) before you arrive, or find around town (such as in Athens Backpackers reception).

The islands

We weren’t interested in heavily touristy party islands. I picked Santorini for the famous blue domed white buildings and volcano cool-factor, and Naxos because it’s on the way and looked like it had some nice beaches. Having spoken to others we met along the way it sounds like Paros (also on the same route, before Naxos) would have been an even better pick for beaches – next time! You can search for and buy ferry tickets online and collect tickets at the port prior to departure.

Naxos

We got around Naxos using buses (you buy tickets at mini marts before you get on and the bus stops aren’t always marked) and visited Plaka beach and some beautiful little towns throughout the centre: Halki, Filoti and Koronos. Of course you could also hire quad bikes or scooters and see the island that way, which would be a great way to do it because the roads are quiet and the buses are not particularly frequent.

We ate at two great places on Naxos: Taverna Vasilis, tucked away in the rabbits’ warren of the main town’s little streets (beautiful to wander in the evening when all the trinket shops and restaurants are open), and a place with dolphins on the sign on the main street along the water. The dolphin place was run by a funny, very welcoming elderly couple who made eating there worthwhile just to meet them. (Plus the grilled seafood platter was fresh and delicious.)

Portara, Naxos

Santorini

We stayed a 20 min walk outside of the main town, Fira, in a tiny town (mainly just a street) called Karterados. Santorini has more frequent buses than Naxos (and you can buy the tickets on board) but we finally bit the bullet and hired a quad bike and drove down to Red Beach (stunning) and all the way up to Oia. Most pictures you’ve seen of Santorini were probably taken in Oia. It’s one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever seen.

Gathering for the sunset

It’s The Done Thing to gather in Oia for the sunset. However, the owner of the pension we stayed at in Karterados gave us a fantastic tip about watching the sunset over a tasting selection of wines at Santowines Winery. You can get there quite easily by bus (advisable if you’re going to sample lots of wine!) and the view is truly spectacular. It’s the highest point of the island and it looks out over the caldera and personally I think it’s even better than the view from Oia.

The other things we did on Santorini were go to Kamari, one of the black sand beaches (which might not look very pretty in photos but the water is beautiful – if I go back to Greece I’ll definitely take a snorkel), and a half day tour of the volcano and hot springs which Matador specifically recommends avoiding but I actually really enjoyed.

Back to Athens

We couldn’t find a direct flight back to London from Santorini so we took the ferry back to Athens and spent one last night and day there before flying home. The one thing we did on our last day was visit a hammam, which might not have been full-on as an actual Turkish bathhouse but was very enjoyable!

[more photos]

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My 10 favourite European hostels

(And other budget accommodation.)

Where you stay in a town or city has a huge impact on your enjoyment of that destination. I loved the top three places on this list so much I’d recommend visiting just so you can stay there!

10. Hostel Room, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
(Availability and prices at Hostel World or Hostel Bookers)

The best part of Hostel Room is its colourful and relaxed common area which doubles as a cafe/bar also open to the public. They run different theme nights most nights of the week, the staff are friendly and helpful, and they have a cool resident dog called Lexie. :)

9. Residence Rooms, Sarajevo, Bosnia
(Availability and prices at Hostel World or Hostel Bookers)

Cheap rooms in a beautiful, grand building. The communal lounge area is spacious with high ceilings and is filled with big couches and even a grand piano! I believe it’s family run, but either way you end up feeling like a welcome guest in someone’s plush home.

8. Hotel Des Abassadeurs, Toulouse, France
(Availability and prices at Hostel World or Hostel Bookers)

Ambassadeurs is definitely family run, and it’s the best thing about this little budget hotel. The staff are welcoming, funny and incredibly helpful. We didn’t know what to expect from Toulouse but we left wanting more thanks to the excellent recommendations given to us during our stay.

7. Seven Hostel, Sant’Agnello, Italy
(Availability and prices at Hostel World or Hostel Bookers)

Seven Hostel feels like someone just finished building a fancy hotel then decided to fill it with bunk beds. The rooms are clean and airy and the hostel has its own bar/restaurant attached which serves great food (with a discount for guests). We used it as a base to visit Sorrento (within walking distance) and Pompeii (accessible by train).

6. Old Town Hostel, Split, Croatia
(Availability and prices at Hostel World or Hostel Bookers)

Located right in the heart of Split’s old town we had a really lovely time at this hostel. It has a colourful little common room with couches and a big TV hooked up to a stack of movies and it just had a really nice, relaxed vibe, we enjoyed just hanging out. It’s also a stone’s throw away from a wonderful little restaurant (we loved it so much we ate there twice).

5. Kolega Guesthouse, Zadar, Croatia
(Availability and prices at Hostel World)

A beautiful little guesthouse with just three bedrooms run by a nice and helpful guy called Marin. The shared kitchen/lounge area is lovely and we were sad that we were only staying for one night. I think we’ll be back!

4. Het Colettientje B&B, Bruges, Belgium
(Availability and prices at Hostel World)

While a B&B Het Colettientje is cheaper than some of the hostels we stayed in (hello Amsterdam, hello Rome) and Maria is one of the most fantastic B&B hosts we’ve ever had. She prepared fabulous breakfasts for us and and we had a lot of fun brushing up on our patchy Italian in conversation. (Maria was born in The Netherlands but spent much of her life in Italy.) She also gave us lots of great recommendations about what to do and see in town and where to eat delicious food sans tourist prices. Also: incredibly comfortable beds!

3. Lavender Circus, Budapest, Hungary
(Availability and prices at Hostel World or Hostel Bookers)

A great place and a fantastic atmosphere for a super cheap. The hostel sprawls across the top floor of a fabulous old building and the walls, ceiling and shelves are covered in paintings, pictures and knick-knacks. The staff are very friendly and helpful and on arrival they make sure you are armed with a map covered in dozens of recommendations for things to do in town. It might not be for everyone because it feels a little bit like living in a cool share house, but we loved it. The area is quite cool too and the main street nearby has some very cool arty shops.

2. Yes! Hostel, Lisbon, Portugal
(Availability and prices at Hostel World)

Until we stayed at hostel number 1 on this list this was the BEST hostel we’d ever stayed at. Great location, very cool design, excellent facilities, super friendly staff and lovely rooms with big beds including every possible convenience: a sink in the corner, big lockers for your luggage, a privacy curtain around each bunk, a reading light and powerpoint for every bed, even a little shelf to rest your phone/camera on while it’s charging. To top it all off, they host a fantastic €8 home cooked dinner every night. This is a great way to meet other travellers and you get incredible value for money: it includes soup, bread, a main, dessert and three alcoholic drinks. For 8 euro!

1. Hostel Majdas, Mostar, Bosnia
(Availability and prices at Hostel World or Hostel Bookers)

Quite simply The. Best. Hostel. you will ever stay at. Majda is wonderfully welcoming from the moment she picks you up from the station, to offering you coffee and treats while recommending the best things to do in Mostar, to the amazing home cooked breakfasts we didn’t even expect. Her brother Bata is crazy and heaps of fun: his world famous tour is as life changing as all the reviews say. DO IT! Plan to spend much longer than you expect here because you’ll find yourself not wanting to leave. The walls are plastered with letters and drawings from previous guests proclaiming their love for Majda’s and my favourite was one that had a ticket stuck to it with a message that said something like: “This is the ticket I originally had to leave Mostar. Here I am 31 32 33 days later, definitely leaving this time, but I wish I could stay longer!”

A special mention goes to Montenegro Hostel, Kotor, Montenegro. (Availability and prices at Hostel World or Hostel Bookers.) There’s not much choice for hostels in Kotor and to be honest this place probably had the dirtiest shower I’ve ever seen, but it’s right in the heart of the old town, super cheap, and it seemed to be really conducive to making new friends: we travelled on with some of the people we met at Montenegro Hostel and we’re still friends with them now. They also have a great deal with a local cafe for cheap eats and they run a fantastic all day tour of Montenegro which I highly recommend. They have lots of other tour options too (including a day trip to Albania) but if you can only pick one do the Montenegro one: you’ll see the best of the whole country in a single (very full) day.

Packing for long term travel

I didn’t really consider myself a backpacker before we set out on a 5 month trip around Europe, but in the end I chose a backpack over a suitcase for three reasons:

  1. Rolling suitcases are great for floors that are nice and smooth, such as airports. They aren’t so great over the rough surfaces and cobblestone streets you’ll spend most of your time transporting your luggage across.
  2. It’s easier to walk up a flight of stairs with your luggage on your back than it is to lug up a suitcase.
  3. Backpacks are easier to store on luggage racks on trains and buses.

A fourth reason which didn’t become apparent until we were on the road is some hostel rooms have nice big lockers for storing luggage, but even the biggest ones are unlikely to fit suitcases.

At the airport

My travel bags

KATHMANDU INTERLOPER X-PAC V3 (65L)

I bought mine for something like AU$350, about 50% off at one of Kathmandu’s famous (bi-yearly?) sales. It doesn’t look like they sell this particular model any more but they’ve likely replaced it with a newer version. The 65L was the smallest option and it was plenty of space for me. Alex got the 70 or 75L because the 65L didn’t fit his back and I think it was too big; too easy to let it get too heavy – you want to travel as lightly as you can.

The great thing about Kathmandu is it was the only shop I found that had a professional fitting service where someone adjusts all the straps to make sure weight distribution is optimal to protect your back. You can even go home, pack your bag and bring it back in and they’ll readjust everything if necessary. This service is free. You could come back in 3 years time and they’d still do it for you – you can even lend your bag to a friend and they’ll readjust it to fit them.

Whatever you choose, make sure it opens from the long side as well as the top. The long side opening the main one you want (normally a big flap you can unzip and pull back) because it allows access to all parts of your bag in one go. If you only have a top opening (common to hiking packs) you’ll have to pull everything out to get to something you’ve stored at the bottom.

My large pack had three compartments: one in the lid/hood, the main one, and one at the base which I could have unzipped to combine with the main compartment. It was handy to have the base compartment separate though because I used it to keep my shoes and dirty clothes separate from my clean clothes.

SMALL KATHMANDU DAY PACK

This came with the larger pack but I wore it on my front in true backpacker style. (I tried it snapped onto the main pack once and it was way too unbalanced.) I used it to carry any stuff I wanted to access easily (eg book on the bus, chargers/adapters) but left it at the hostel with the main pack whenever we went out. (In the picture above this bag is inside my larger one – I left the one on front with a friend in the UK. Our plan was to settle in the UK after travelling around Europe and I knew this third, inbetween-sized bag would be useful for shorter trips such as weekends away.)

SMALL BLACK ACROSS-THE-BODY BAG

Also from Kathmandu. Lots of pockets, zips and flaps to hide away essentials. I took this bag with me wherever I went and never let it out of my sight (except perhaps when I was showering and Alex looked after it for me). I much prefer across-the-body bags because they keep your arms free and they’re harder for someone to snatch than a shoulder bag. I usually wore mine at the front so I could keep a hand across it, which is daggy but significantly less daggy than walking around with a single small backpack on your front or, worst of all, wearing a bumbag. :P

ZOU-BAG/BAG-BAG (FOLDABLE SHOPPING BAG)

This came in very handy for buying groceries or carrying water/snacks during the day. It’s one of those ubiquitous shopping bags that folds up into a little pouch, however this particular brand is incredibly strong (it can hold up to 30kg weight), it’s machine washable, and it can be worn over the shoulder or carried as a shopping bag (the strap is clever enough that if you want to use it as the latter it won’t hang low to the ground). I bought mine from a stall at Spitalfield Market.

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