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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.
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!