A Greek Odyssey
For many people, a trip to Greece is a lifetime goal. And nobody knows and loves Greece like we do. In the following pages, we present the areas we feel you should explore on your first trip. You’ll get the opportunity to view important antiquities from many periods of Greek history, to visit some of the best beaches in the world, and to play on the country’s finest islands.
The biggest city in Greece, Athens has a population of about four million...and a past dating back to at least 800 B.C. Named for Athena, the revered goddess of Greek mythology, the city is for the most part surrounded by mountains, though it has a port — Pireas — that is one of the largest in the Mediterranean Sea. Today’s Athens is considered one of the safest and least expensive capitals in Europe.
If you visit, you won’t, of course, want to miss the Acropolis. The natural fortress can be seen peeking through the modern downtown buildings. It’s amazing to think that the monument still stands after 2,500 years of weather, 400 years of Turkish occupation, Hitler, politics, and pollution. The statues and frescoes that have survived have been moved inside the Acropolis Museum. The views from the Acropolis are stunning and panoramic.
The Chapel of St. George
In downtown Athens, you also will not want to miss the chapel of St. George, which crowns Lycabettus Hill. Up on the hill, on a clear day, you can see all the way across the city to nearby Greek islands. But this is some hill — about 900 feet, to be exact! You need to be fairly fit to make the climb...or you can take the funicular railway.
The Kolonaki and Other Shopping Spots
Shoppers will want to look into one of Athen’s most popular areas — the Kolonaki, named for the small ancient column in its main square and located at the base of the railway that climbs Lycabettus Hill. This district contains not just some of the toniest boutiques in town, but many of Athens’ best restaurants, as well. Quaint coffee shops line two sides of the square, making this a great spot for people watching.
The most famous shopping street in Athens, however, is Ermou. Located off Syntagma (the main square) and opposite the Parliament building, Ermou is the place to go if you’re in search of clothes by the world’s top designers.
On Sunday, especially, take a jaunt to the Flea Market at Monastiraki square, where you’ll find everything from cheap souvenirs to old coins to neo-classic antiques.
Once outside the Monastiraki area, check out the Plaka, directly below the Acropolis. We recommend walking down to it. A fascinating, restored part of the ancient city, Plaka is distinctive for its extremely narrow winding streets. The pastel-painted architecture, which includes lots of small churches, taverns, and shops, makes for a charming afternoon. Climb higher in Plaka to Anafiotika, a whitewashed village built in the 1800s and clinging to the slopes of a rock. Anafiotika was built by two immigrants from the island of Anafi. They gouged their homes from the walls of the rock in a style similar to the homes they left behind on Anafi.
The Keramikos Cemetery
Take a stroll through the nearby Keramikos cemetery, so ancient that it contains funeral monuments of Athenian aristocrats dating back to the 5th Century B.C.
The National Archaeological Museum
If you have more time in Athens, there are 40-plus museums to choose from. The most renowned is the National Archaeological Museum. Like the Smithsonian, you could spend days in this museum, exploring the enormous collection of ancient artifacts.
The best place to stay while you’re in Athens is suburban Vouliagmeni, which is just 20 minutes from the Athens airport and has a variety of hotels in all price ranges. It’s just 10 minutes from the Glyfada, the best shopping district in Athens. Vouliagmeni has great beaches. For a fee, you can visit our favorite – Astir, which is right next to the Astir Hotel.
The Roman Agora and the Marble Olympic Stadium
Finally, two more stops you might want to make before you leave Athens are to the Roman Agora and the Marble Olympic Stadium. The former is believed to have been built in the early years A.D. and financed by Julius and Augustus Caesar. Once a covered market with colonnades, some still stand. The Marble Olympic Stadium was the site of the first Olympic Games of modern times in 1896.
The glorious Itea Bay is the port of entry if you’re headed for Delphi, at the foot of Mount Parnassus in central Greece. Here you’ll find one of the ancient wonders of classical Greece. Just a short drive away from the bay is the Sacred Way and the famous Shrine of Delphi, where the mythological Oracle was said to tell the future. Have a look at the Omphalos, “the belly button of the Earth,” as ancient Greeks believed (it’s pictured on the right). To them, Delphi was the center of the world. Do not miss a visit to the Delphi Museum where among other spectacles is an impressive bronze charioteer.
The town of Arahova, minutes from Delphi, has several hotels that offer wonderful views of the valley. It’s fun to walk around and visit the gift shops and there are several restaurants. It’s hard to believe but Arahova in the winter is a popular ski resort.
Also not to be missed in central Greece is Osios Loukas. This Greek Orthodox Byzantine monastery was founded in about 1011 and dedicated to a local Greek holy man, also known as “Luke.” It was built on the slopes of Mt. Helikon, an area of great pastoral beauty. Luke, who later was considered to be blessed with the gift of prophecy, had suffered much at the hands of the Moors and Sarcens and chose to make his home in this remote area, building on the foundations of an earlier religious structure. Osios Loukas is on your way from Athens to Delphi. It is 19 miles southeast of Delphi.
Greece’s Meteora monasteries rest on giant gray stalagmites, rising hundreds of feet above the plain, seemingly gifts from heaven for those seeking solitude in order to devote their lives to worship. For the rest of us, these heavenly hermitages make for one of the most breathtaking sites on earth. Located in the northwest corner of the region of Greece known as Thessaly, the area originally was settled during the 11th century by Greek Orthodox monks who believed the spectacular rocks, sculpted by wind and water over thousands of years, were holy. For centuries, the peaks were accessible only by a system of baskets and ropes.
Of the 24 original monasteries, only six are still in operation. Each of these is open to the public. The monasteries are connected by a smooth paved road, and it’s possible to see all of them in one day if you start early enough and have a lot of energy for climbing steps. Be sure to spend a night at one of the hotels in the valley – a window view of Meteora is very memorable.
With its pristine aquamarine seas, friendly locals, an average 315 days of sunshine per year, and a 9,000-year history, Crete is an ideal place to visit. This largest of the Greek Islands separates the Aegean from the Libyan Sea and is the boundary between the continents of Europe and Africa.
A must-see: the ruins of Knossos, the most important palace of Minoan civilization. Located about three miles from the town center of Iraklio, the capital of Crete, the palace was the seat of the legendary King Minos. Built about 7000 B.C., the palace boasted sophisticated air venting, sewer, and water systems, and was adorned with drawings of, among other things, unusual fashions for women that displayed their bare breasts, as you can see in the picture.
The majority of visitors to Knossos stay in Iraklio, Greece’s fifth-largest city. Most of the business activity of the island is concentrated here, and it is the main port of entry — by boat or via its international airport — for tourists. Perhaps the best thing about Iraklio is its wide variety of charming cafes and restaurants.
This lovely city lies on the northwest coastline of Crete, between the Aegean and the majestic White Mountains. It’s the second-largest city on Crete; 70,000 people call Xania home, and that number swells significantly during the summer tourist months. Because of its tactically favorable location, Xania has been inhabited as far back as the Neolithic Period by a variety of empires and the architecture reflects that.
Xania is a haven for beach lovers. Sandy beach after sandy beach stretch 13 miles from Xania west to the town of Tavronitis.
This island is located west of Greece’s mainland in the Ionian Sea. There is no airport; it’s best to take a ferry from Patra or a bus from Athens that also will ferry across to Ithaca.
Among the loveliest things about this small island, one of the seven that make up the Ionian Islands, is that it doesn’t attract the hordes of tourists the more well-known Greek Islands do. This is an island of calm, the perfect place for relaxation and reflection, for enchanting walks amid verdant scenery, and for swimming in some of the clearest emerald waters in Greece. Ithaca attracts celebrities who vacation here on their yachts or in their second homes.
A Poem: ITHACA
As you set out to Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery,
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body....
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time....
Keep Ithaca always on your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now...
— By Constantin Kavafis,
who was a famous Greek poet
Many of us are fascinated by the legend of the lost city of Atlantis, and while archeologists have never found evidence that a city with that name ever existed, this island caldera in the eastern Mediterranean Sea hews to the legend in many respects. Santorini was a major Minoan seaport that was decimated completely by an immense volcanic eruption somewhere between 1650 and 1500 B.C. Santorini is the site of one of the world’s best archaeological digs. The volcanic ash of Akrotiri, which lies near the southern tip of the island, has produced the remains of the Minoan city. The site has been called a prehistoric version of Pompeii.
Largely because of the spectacular scenery etched by its geological past, Santorini is a major tourist draw, so popular that hotels and restaurants sometimes cannot accommodate all comers.
With its abundant pine trees and olive groves, Corfu is the greenest of the more than 2,000 Greek islands, inspiring the nickname the “Emerald Island.” But there’s more to Corfu than the splendid greenery. It is surrounded by miles and miles of beaches – some rocky and rugged, but most covered with smooth creamy sand. The crystal-blue waters make the island a favorite among tourists with a passion for swimming and water sports. The island, which is 35 miles long and 11 miles wide, also boasts impressive historical architecture, festive nightlife, and fine cuisine and accommodations.
Corfu has an important place in Greek mythology. According to those ancient tales, it was named Corcyra, after the nymph-like daughter of the Asopos river and mistress of sea god Poseidon. But its real-life history is every bit as colorful as any Greek myth. A few of the famous who fought over the island’s position include Alexander the Great, Dimitrios the Besieger, the Roman emperors Brutus and Claudius, Napolean, and the pirate Barbarossa.
Today, Corfu’s most visible historical influence dates back to the period of Venetian rule, 1386-1797. Today’s Corfu Town, a principal port, is filled with impressive samples of Venetian architecture. You’ll see that the town was built between two Venetian castles. Corfu’s numerous arches, sea walls, and narrow, flagstoned streets also attest to the Venetians’ long-running rule. However, the building pictured at upper right was designed by an architect who designed similar buildings in Paris, giving Corfu an even more sophisticated feel.
In planning a trip to Corfu, keep in mind that Greece is too cold in the winter months for a beach vacation. In July and August you may have more fellow tourists than you bargained for, because that’s when Europeans typically take their long annual “holidays.” You can partake of Corfu on an organized tour, but we recommend that you rent a car so that you can discover on your own the island’s beaches, diverse topography, and historical treasures.
TRAVELING IN GREECE
The best time to visit Greece is between May 15th and July 15th and between August 20th and October 15th. These periods have the best weather – not too hot or cold – the least amount of rain, and fewer tourists than mid-summer. Don’t make it a cruise line vacation – sample real Greek life by staying in local accommodations and dining in local restaurants. All Greeks serving the tourist trade speak English.
Americans should never drive in Athens. Normally friendly, slow-paced Greeks turn into Mario Andrettis while driving in Athens. It is also virtually impossible to find an open parking space. The city was not built with cars in mind! Take taxies and/or bus tours or simply walk. However, we encourage you to drive outside of Athens and on any of the larger Greek Islands.
If at all possible, your first trip should be at least two weeks to take in enough of the sights so that you have a feeling for the country and the culture. You’ll need at least two days to get over the seven to 10-hour time difference – try to spend the first day or two on the beach to help your body adjust. We recommend you spend two or three days in Athens. Early in the morning, take a taxi or rental to see Osios Loukas, Delphi, and Patra. From Patra, take the 8 p.m. ferry to Ithaca. You’ll arrive at midnight. Spend two or three days on Ithaca. Return to Athens and fly to two of the three islands – Crete, Santorini, and Corfu – and spend three days at each. If you want to see Meteora, it’s a two-day bus trip from Athens.
KALO TAXIDI (Bon Voyage!)
Story by Jacqueline Shannon
Photography by Michael Blassis
DINING AND ACCOMMODATIONS RECOMMENDATIONS:
The Margi, 11, Litous Str., 16671, Vouliagmeni, Athens; phone: +30-21089-29000.
As an urbane hotel right next to the sea but far away from the city center’s hectic noise, The Margi charms its guests with its high-quality aesthetics and its warm and stylish Mediterranean ethnic ambiance and decor. The hotel consists of 81 standard and executive rooms and suites overlooking the sea or the pine-tree forest of Vouliagmeni. Just 12 ½ miles from the international airport and the center of Athens, it’s also just 10 minutes from Glyfada, the best shopping district in Athens. The area also includes great beaches, dining, and dancing at trendy nightclubs of the coastline.
Rates: If you book a couple of months in advance on the hotel’s website, you can get great Internet rates. For example, in September, rooms range from 230€ to 1,400€.
Hermion Restaurant, 15 Pandrosou Str.& 7 Mnisikleous Str., Plaka, Athens; phone +30-210-3246725.
Located in a secluded garden in the Plaka within the Arcade near the Mitropolis Cathedral, Hermion is just a five-minute walk from Constitution Square in the heart of the shopping area of Monastiraki and the Flea Market. The restaurant offers exquisite Greek and international cuisine as well as gentle music. You can choose what you want to eat through a window next to the entrance of the kitchen.
Moorings Piano Restaurant, Marina Vouliagmenis, 16 6 71 Vouliagmeni, Athens, Greece; phone: +30-896-1310.
Enjoy Greek and international cuisine alongside one of the most prestigious marinas in Greece. The terraces of this restaurant overlook Vouliagmeni Bay.
Delphi Palace Hotel (formerly Xenia Hotel), 69, Apollonos Str., Arahova; phone: +30-22650-82151.
This magnificent five-star hotel is set amidst secluded gardens and affords stunning views of the Corinthian Gulf, the valley, and mountains. Easy access (about five miles) to the spectacular Delphi, one of the ancient wonders of classical Greece and the Delphi Museum. The Delphi Palace Hotel is also just about 15 ½ miles from a popular ski resort. The hotel features a pool, health and beauty club, tennis court, ancient-style theater, a good restaurant, and a relaxing bar with fireplace.
Rates: 40€ to 95€ per person, per night. The hotel is open year-round.
Byzantino Hotel, R. Fereou 106 & Asklipiou, Patra; phone: +30-210-32-325891.
Built in the lates 1890s, the Byzantino reproduces the charm of the city’s early years. Fully renovated in 2002, the hotel ideally combines classic beauty with modern travel needs. The luxurious establishment, which has 25 spacious rooms and suites, is convenient to the City Hall, local authorities and corporations, restaurants and shopping facilities.
Rates: From 110€ to 193€ per room, per night, year-round.
Primarolia Art Hotel 33, Othonos Amalias Str., Patra; phone: +30-2610-624900.
Overlooking the busting port of Patra, in the vibrant and sophisticated town center, the atmosphere of the hotel is one of elegant, funky, tranquil luxury. Both up-and-coming and internationally renowned Greek artists adorn the lobby and guest rooms with their modern artwork. Each of the 14 rooms is unique in design. Views are of the city or the sea.
Rates: From 124€ to 209€ per room, per night, year-round.
Casa Delfino Suites: 9 Theofanous Str. 731 00 Xania; phone +30 821-87400-9308.
Situated in the Old Venetian Harbor on Crete’s northwest coast, Casa Delfino is an elegant 17th century Venetian mansion that has been restored carefully and attractively to become an exclusive hotel of just 20 suites. Each suite has been individually designed and has been furnished stylishly and comfortably with air conditioning throughout, modern bathrooms, Satellite TV, and mini bars.
Rates: In late spring/early summer and in late summer to early fall, nightly rates range from 167.50€ to 312€.
Creta Maris Hotel: 70014 Limin-Hersonissos, Crete; phone: +30-897-27000.
This resort is situated on the beach of the Cretan Sea. Creta Maris is a unique combination of Aegean architecture and luxurious facilities. It’s close to the fishing village of Hersonissos, a long sweeping bay of sandy beach and crystal-clear water. The resort was created with loving care and attention to detail, characterizing one of the many thousands of villages on the Aegean Islands. It’s 547 room include bungalows and main building rooms.
Rates: In late spring, rates range from 101€ to 767€. Not open in fall or winter.
Grecotel Rithymna Beach: GR – 741 00 Reththymno, Crete; phone: +30-0831-29-491-71-002.
Ancient Rithymna was founded by the Minoans, glorified by the Venetians, and enriched by art and literature. In the heart of this history, Rithymna Beach hotel offers renowned standards for a memorable Mediterranean holiday. On a lovely soft-sand beach and in a village-like setting, the resort offers 520 rooms and bungalows along with wonderful views out across the Aegean Sea.
Rates: In mid-June, nightly rates range from 236€ to 2,037€.
Kariatis Italian Restaurant, 12 Katehaki Square, Old Harbor, Xania, Crete; phone: +30-282-10-55600.
Nestled in the beautiful ruins of Xania’s Old Harbor, Kariatis offers fine dining surrounded by ancient décor plus evocative music. Besides Crete and Greek wines, the selection includes wines from all over the world. The a la carte menu offers a wide variety of contemporary Italian dishes, including filleto al carapaccio, rocket and parmesan salad, salmon and avocado, Italian prosciutto, chicken mozzarella, and lasagna al forno. There is also a selection of fresh desserts and Italian coffees.
Taverna Vassilis: 10, Nearchou, Venetian Harbor, Rethymno, Crete; phone +30-0831-22-967.
Located in Fratzeskiana Metohia, your can sit indoors or outdoors under the pergola at this treasured restaurant. Vassilis offers traditional Cretan delicacies. Favorite menu items include cheese pies, dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves), saligaria (snails) plus all kinds of grilled meat made from homemade ingredients. The prices are friendly and the homemade wine is excellent.
Tholos Restaurant: 36 Agion Deka Str., Old Town, Xania; phone: +30-282-10-46725.
This restaurant, with 360-degree views, is rated among the Top 10 on Crete by travel-to-Crete.com. Tholos offers a special menu based on the “Creta Diet,” that is, traditional Crete and Greek meals. The wine selection includes wines from all over Crete and Greece. Musical entertainment, offered till the early-morning hours, ranges from traditional Cretan music to tzaz and classic. Built on two levels on the ruins of an Enetian building, Tholos is decorated in the traditional style.
Omirikon Hotel: Vathy, Ithaca; phone: +30-26740-33596.
Situated in a lush green area on the waterfront, this pretty, newly built residence is just an easy 10 to 15-minute stroll along the seafront promenade from the bustling center of Vathy. The location enables you to enjoy the island capital’s charming atmosphere to the full, but the building is far enough from the center to be peaceful, and thorough ensures that even the odd stray moped will not disturb a good night’s sleep. While still delightfully low key and authentic, Vathy feels rather sophisticated compared to the rest of the island, and an air of sophistication also defines the Omirikon. Each of the 10 suites and apartment has a sea view.
Rates: May and June/September and October, nightly rates are 80€ to 135€. The hotel is closed November through March.
Perantzada 1811 Art Hotel: Odysseus Androutsos St. 821, Vathy, Ithaca; phone: +30-26740-33496.
This is a newly opened Art Hotel located at the picturesque port of Vathy. The hotel is housed in a light-blue, neo-classical mansion designed by the 19th century German architect Ernst Schiller. The traditional design of the building is combined innovatively with modern elements, while a slight ethnic touch and selected works of art by prominent artist create a unique atmosphere. Each of the 12 comfortable sea-view suites has its own style and character, decorated with exclusive art objects and paintings.
Rates: May/June and September, 195€ to 643€ per night. The hotel is closed in the late fall and through April.
Kalkanis Restaurant Grill, and Taverna, Vathy, Ithaca; phone: +30-26740-32959.
Located behind the Town Square, Kalkanis has been family owned and operated for 45 years. The restaurant offers traditional Greek dishes, fresh seafood, and local wines.
Mylos Creperie and Bar, Vathy, Ithaca; phone: +30-697-292-8917.
Enjoy that views of Vathy Bay as you watch the sun set into the Ionian Sea. Specializing in sweet crepes, Mylos also offers more than 15 different coffees plus hot sandwiches, fruit salad, and sundaes.
Taverna Drosia, Vathy, Ithaca; phone: +30-26740-32959.
Perched on a hillside with a wonderful view of Vathy Bay, the family-friendly Drosia offers traditional Greek food with a little Venezuelan thrown in.
Louis Grand Hotel Glyfada Corfu: phone: +30-26610-94140.
This luxury four-star hotel is on the beautiful Glyfada Beach overlooking the crystal-clear Mediterranean waters. The Louis Grand Hotel has 247 units and its elegance is highlighted by the rich collection of antique furniture and other valuable collector items that decorate all of the public areas. Recently renovated, the hotel is amidst extensive wild and unspoiled landscapes.
Rates: May and June rates range between 45€ and 67€ per person per night.