In July, my husband and I took a trip to Athens and Santorini. This was a bucket list trip for me and also a last minute one, as we traveled to Greece right after Covid restrictions had been lifted for tourists.
In this article, I will highlight our trip experience and provide some helpful tips for planning your next vacation to Athens and Santorini. (Please check the Covid restrictions prior to visiting as they have likely changed from our trip in July.)
We flew into Athens and had reservations to stay at the Athens Gate Hotel, very near the Plaka. Our hotel was within walking distance to the Acropolis with spectacular rooftop views of the Parthenon. For those of you not familiar with the Plaka, it a vibrant, neighborhood at the base of the Acropolis with many restaurants, shops, and coffee bars. This is the place to be at night! Everyone was out, grabbing a drink or having dinner at one of the many tavernas in the area. We thoroughly enjoyed staying so close to the area. It was easy to grab a coffee, lunch, do some shopping, and just hang out and relax at night. It was also the central meeting location for our tour of the Acropolis and the museum.
We booked a tour with an experienced guide who provided highlights of Greek history and mythology for our tour of the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the museum. Note: Bring lots of water and good walking shoes! It was very hot in July and standing on top of that rock, in the sun and heat, was not easy.
Following our tour of the Acropolis, we explored the museum located a short walk away. This museum houses artifacts recovered from the plethora of history in the surrounding area. This should definitely be a stop on your Athens journey.
After lunch, we decided to explore the area further. Other stops during our trek included the Mitropoleos Church, Areopagus Hill, and Hadrian’s Gate. These sites are all within walking distance of the Acropolis.
Our evening ended with dinner in the Plaka at a restaurant, complete with outdoor seating, white lights in trees, and excellent food and drink. It is nice to sit and watch the activity on the street and pet the random street cat who quietly appears at your feet.
Tips for exploring Athens:
- Brush up on your Greek history before your trip. You will want to have some working knowledge of what you are looking at and why it’s important.
- Stay in a hotel near the Plaka. There is so much to do and see in this area that it’s worth the extra money. Try to get a hotel with a rooftop restaurant/bar for the beautiful, panoramic views.
- If you are in Athens in the summer, schedule your tour of the Acropolis during the morning or early afternoon to beat the heat.
- Try the Greek coffee and the Ouzo.
- Athenians eat outside. It does not matter that it’s hot. You will end up eating outside. Period.
- There are lots of alley cats, even walking around the outdoor seating areas of the restaurants. (I loved it. They seemed very happy and content.)
Exploring outside of Athens is a must do as there is just as much to see outside of the city center as in it. There are numerous 1/2 day or full day tours available that you can book through your hotel. Our choice: Delphi and the Temple of Apollo. This was a full day trip and 3 hour ride from Athens. Our guide, who had been an archeologist at Delphi, was a wealth of information and his knowledge of Greek history, and Delphi in particular, was impressive. Delphi is actually located in a very mountainous area of Greece (did you know Greece was the 3rd most mountainous country in Europe?). The tour included access to the Temple of Apollo and ancient sites as well as the museum. Our tour concluded with a lovely lunch at a local resort in the mountains, complete with ocean view.
Tips for exploring Delphi:
- If you do go on a tour that includes lunch, please note that a lot of Greeks eat later in the day. I was starving by the time we actually ate lunch so pack a snack and some water if you eat at noon or before.
- Pick a tour away from the city. The Greek countryside is beautiful and I enjoyed the ride to our destination.
Our next stop in Greece was the picturesque island of Santorini.
A big decision is how to get from the Greek mainland (Port of Piraeus) to Santorini, or any Greek island for that matter. You can fly, take the ferry, or take the hydrofoil. What is a hydrofoil? The best way that I can describe it is that is resembles a VERY large catamaran with many seats inside and it goes fast. It is meant to be the fastest water transport to the Greek islands. The ferry could take around 6-8 hours whereas the hyrdrofoil takes about 4. Keep in mind that the ferry/hydrofoil option is cheaper than flying but it does take up 1/2 a day of your trip. We chose to take the hydrofoil and it was very comfortable but in hind site, I think we would have opted to fly to save time. We did hit some waves along the way so if you get seasick, you will feel it on the hydrofoil.
You may or may not realize when you are in Santorini that you are perched on top of a volcano. The island of Santorini, and those surrounding it, are part of the Cyclades islands chain. Santorini was formed during a 1650 BC volcanic eruption which devastated the islands and but left the crescent moon shaped Santorini in its wake. This eruption resulted in a submerged caldera which is the only one in the world. The island itself is made up of black volcanic rock with stunning sunsets and beautiful, black sand beaches.
All ferries arrive in the tiny port at Santorini and there are plenty of buses taking visitors up the very steep side of the island to the towns scattered throughout the island. The two main cities are Oia and Thira (aka Fira). We stayed in Fira at the Aressana Hotel and Suites on the south end of Fira. This is a beautiful hotel located close to shops, restaurants, and of course, scenic overlooks. The staff are very helpful, and the food, delicious. Every detail here was perfected, (they even packed us a brown bag breakfast for our ride to the airport) and I highly recommend this hotel for your stay in Santorini.
We spent our arrival day walking through the town of Fira, enjoying the shops, admiring the stunning views, relaxing by the pool, and enjoying dinner with a front row seat to the “sunset show”. Watching the sunset is a must when you are here. Grab a drink or dinner at one of the many restaurants to enjoy the sun slowly setting beyond the horizon.
- Watching the sunset is the show. It’s beautiful here and not to be missed.
- This island is very popular for honeymooners so be prepared.
- Splurge on the hotel and get the upgrade. You want to be near the main towns for easy access to shops and restaurants at night. Parking is almost non-existent if you are driving over from another spot on the island.
The next day we booked a half day sail which included a hike to the top of Nea Kameni, a swim in the hot springs, and lunch on the island of Therasia. This was a busy day and a packed boat. Our trip started with the hike to the top of Nea Kameni which was a bit unnerving as it is still an active volcano. There was a hiking trail to the top and the hike itself was not overly strenuous. I was glad that I brought hiking shoes that could stand up to the hike itself and not rely on flip flops, as some others had.
After that hike, we boarded the boat and headed to a tiny, uninhabited islet known for its hot springs. The water itself is warm and made up of sulfur giving it a reddish tint. Many believe that these springs have healing benefits. To jump into the silky, blue Aegean water one minute and swim 50 yards only to be enveloped by the hot springs was refreshing, yet unique. I wanted to stay longer but the boat was leaving soon for our next stop.
Therasia is another island, like Santorini, formed by the volcano caldera. The town sits at the top of the rather steep climb and was just too much for most folks who had already hiked Nea Kameni. We opted to stay by the tiny seaside port and have lunch on the water. What a picturesque spot! This is exactly what you think of when you imagine a Greek fishing village with the colorful, wooden boats and turquoise water. After lunch, we sat by the water, enjoyed our ice cream, and took in the scenery.
The ride back to port took us past the towns of Oia and Fira and offered views of these quintessential Greek towns from a different perspective… looking up from the water. Such a beautiful site to see the whitewashed buildings and blue domed churches.
- When booking a volcano boat tour, be aware that some of the finer details may be left out. We were only told that we would visit the volcano, optional swim to the hot spring, then to Therasia. My advice is to pack a bag with hiking shoes/sandals and a set of dry clothes to change into after your swim. There were some hiking to the top of the volcano in flip flops (not ideal). Keep in mind, you will have to wait your turn to change out of your swimsuit on the boat as it was crowded.
- Pack water and a snack. Drinks were sold on the boat but it was a bit pricey.
- Sunscreen! You may be sitting in the sun on the top deck of the boat and you will get lots of sun exposure.
- Wear a hat
- Try the local specialty for lunch
The mode of transport in Santorini is not a rental car. Don’t even bother. Like everyone else, rent the vespa or four-wheeler. The island is small enough to be able to enjoy the sites that you want to see, while still having fun on a scooter. Our next day plans consisted of a ride to Oia to enjoy the sites and shops there, then a wine tasting at Santo Wines, a stop at the beach, and a relaxing dinner at our hotel that evening. Oia was very crowded and parking, even for a four wheeler, was scarce.
After Oia, we headed to a wine tasting at Santo Wines which is located just south of Fira. We sat outside, overlooking the beautiful water and enjoyed sampling six, local wines along with a cheese plate and dessert. I could have stayed all day but Perissa beach was calling my name.
- Santo Wines: Book the tasting in advance and get the cheese plate. Sit outside and overlook that gorgeous view. You can buy bottles here and have them shipped home.
- Make sure that your scooter or four wheeler is gassed up. There were no places to get gas in Oia on our route and we thought we were about to run out.
- Oia is crowded and the streets, narrow. Plan accordingly.
- The “peanuts” are actually roasted chickpeas. Pick up a bag and try a few different flavors. Delish!
The beaches at Santorini usually consist of black “sand” given the island’s volcanic history. There is a red sand beach as well which we did not visit. While I do like to relax at the beach, I am one to get in the water and enjoy a swim and the Aegean water felt like silk to me. I stayed in it for an hour. It was surprising, given how hot Santorini is, that the water was so cool and refreshing. I didn’t want to leave.
- Black sand beaches are HOT on the feet. You can either do a dance all the way across the sand to the water or wear a pair of flip flops to keep on the sand to wear when you get out. Protect your feet.
- Enjoy some time by the pool in the morning. Poolsides are more crowded in the middle of the day.
- If you are interested in more Archeological sites while in Santorini, check out Akrotiri on the southside of the island. This buried city (Greece’s Pompei) was buried during the volcanic eruption.
That evening, our last, was capped off with a massage and a romantic dinner at our hotel.
Our trip to Greece was all that I had imagined it to be. I am happy that we chose the tour and itinerary that we did and hope to go back one day to enjoy more of this beautiful country.
2 thoughts on “It’s all Greek to Me: Our Trip to Athens and Santorini”
Amazing post regarding my country! I am Greek and you have visited the most beautiful places!
Thank you. It’s such a beautiful country!!