The awe-inspiring sunsets of Santorini, the history laden strolls through Athens, and the spirited parties on the island of Mykonos make Greece an ideal vacation spot for any type of traveler. With sun-glistening views of the Aegean and 4 millenia worth of history it is no wonder that Greece continues to rank on the top ten bucket list vacations on such sites as Pinterest and Instagram. It can be a romantic getaway for two, a great girls trip, or a history buff’s haven. Greece also offers a child friendly vacation itinerary.
Generally I like to go from big cities with a lot of cultural institutions to progressively smaller cities so when exhaustion sets in from sightseeing, the last few days are reserved for a more relaxed pace. For that reason this itinerary goes from Athens to Santorini to Mykonos. The reason for placing Mykonos last was because of its international airport.
Athens gets a bad rap. Many travelers suggest that you should get in do your thing and get out. I did exactly that but enjoyed my time. The vibrant city is a testament to the juxtaposition of modern and ancient; the layers of history surround you with every step. In anticipation of the 2004 Olympics, the City of Athens worked to clean up the congested concrete jungle. Post-Olympics, they have continued to clean up and to pedestrianise many shopping thoroughfares.
A couple of tips:
- Plan early and book ahead. By the time we were looking at accomodations, we realized the majority had already been reserved.
- Look up the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and see if you can attend an event in the “Odeon of Herodes Atticus.” We researched the festival and ended up traveling to Epidaurus for an ancient Greek play, which was cool to see but I would recommend not taking the day out there and seeing something you would enjoy either way.
Checkout World on a Whim’s blog post on Greece, written by a dear friend and inspiration for starting my blog, for where I got the backbones to this itinerary, before travelling myself!
You may also be interested in adding an additional two days to hike the iconic cliff hanging monasteries in Meteora, Greece.
Day 1 of 10
Fly into Athens. Housing: I recommend finding something in the Plaka region. We were able to find a great Airbnb apartment, right in the bustle of the city.
We pushed ourselves to go the the Acropolis Museum on Friday night [ Summer hours: 8am-8pm, 10pm on Friday nights, 4pm on Mondays; 5 euros.] Book this ahead of time to ensure that your preferred time slot is not sold out. The Acropolis Museum, built in 2009, is a magnificent testament to modern architecture. It looks like a half-turned concrete and glass illuminated Rubik’s Cube in the Athenian skyline. The best part for me was that it is completely dedicated to the Acropolis and you can dedicate only about an hour and half and be done. I would recommend going to the Museum first so that you know what you are looking at when you visit the Parthenon/Acropolis. As opposed to the National Archeological Museum in which the average traveller will feel the information overload, I appreciated a museum completely dedicated to one site. There is Friday night Jazz in the Acropolis Museum. Bruin on a Budget tip: Rick Steves has a free audio tour of it, a great one-hour walk-through. Try to get there 1-1.5 hours before sunset (it won’t be crowded and there is a nice view of the Acropolis from the Museum.)
Day 2 of 10
We had a quick breakfast of yogurt, muesli, and honey before taking the Free Walking Tour at 10:00 AM (ag. Asomaton 5, Athina 105 53), which we found to be a great foundation to the city. Our tour guide provided the history of many sights such as the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian’s Library, Theater of Dionysus, Ancient Agora Museum (Bruin on a Budget tip: Rick Steves has a free audio guide to the Ancient Agora Museum), Roman Agora, Kerameikos Cemetery. Our tour guide also spoke about different political movements she took part in as a young thirtysomething University educated Greek woman.
An optional add on to the day is the National Archeological Museum [summer hours: 8:00 AM-8:00 PM] which is expansive. Santorini/Mykonos/Naxos/ and/or Paros are all apart of the Cycladic Islands, which are known for their ancient skinny figurines in this museum. I generally like to see artwork from the places I am going to bring it all together.
Bruin on a Budget: Rick Steves free audio guide is great to preview the highlights. It also helps narrow down this extensive history into a two hour audio guide to prevent your brain from exploding from the information overload.
We ended up doing a night trip to the Epidaurus Festival for a play. Although I am glad I did this, a non-history buff may find that the ride was too long for the eventual entertainment. I would see if you can attend a concert or other event in the “Odeon of Herodes Atticus” or the theater actually on the slopes of the Acropolis. Festival dates and ticketing information can be found here. The website itself is not the most user-friendly, but getting to see a concert in an ancient theater is priceless, (please reach out to me if you have any questions.)
Day 3 of 10
Athens day trip to Hydra: if your itinerary can handle it, I would recommend staying overnight. The serenity of this small Sardonic Island of Hydra is a much needed day trip after the hustle and bustle of Athens. As you enter the harbor by ferry you are surrounded by the horseshoe of blanketed whitewashed houses and mansions surrounding the small harbor. There is no wonder this is the favorite day trip from Athens. This traffic-free island is as if time stood still to preserve a simpler way of life. Spend the day eating, sunbathing and lounging around Hydra.
Tips: I would book my ticket in advance, especially if going on the weekend because this seems to be a popular weekend getaway for the Athenians. Since we wanted to see Santorini and Mykonos, we took the 1.5 hour ferry there and back in one day.
Day 4 of 10
Parthenon/Acropolis [8:00AM – 5:00 PM] 20 euro. The line to buy tickets was huge on Saturday morning probably because cruise ships stop on Saturdays in Athens. We saved this until Monday morning (buy them online or at another site). I would recommend hiring a guide to give you the background on the sights. Bruin on a Budget tip: Again there is a Rick Steves free audio tour (download while you have wifi) which provides lots of information.
Late afternoon flight to Santorini: We flew from Athens to Santorini, as my friend and I had gotten seasick and the thought of remaining in a boat for 8+ hours seemed miserable. Check in to your hotel and relax for a little. We spent three nights in Santorini and each night we tried to get a different island sunset view.
The island of Thira (“Santorini”) was made by a volcanic eruption in the Bronze era, and is believed to be the origin of the legend of Atlantis. The cliff clinging whitewashed cave dwellings contrast with the blue domes and reflect the sunset hues of yellow, orange and pink. They create the awe-inspiring aesthetics for which Greece is known. Many photos you take on this island will be postcard-worthy. Santorini reminds me of Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and Mama Mia!, both of which were much of my inspiration for wanting to travel to Greece.
Tip: Reserve your housing ahead of time. We stayed in the main village of Fira, and travelled to Oia when we wanted, but even with 4 months advanced planning we had limited options within our budget. Make sure to make reservations early (even as early as a year) to ensure that you are getting the best deal possible. Be prepared to pay high prices (which are worth it to see this beautiful island.)
Caldera Sunset Cruise: Enjoy a beautiful sailboat with stately woodwork. Learn from our mistakes: We did the Volcano and Caldera tour, which allowed us to hike the (still active, eek!) volcano (the caldera) and swim in the springs. The “springs” are more like lukewarm rust-colored water on the coast (I personally found the springs underwhelming). When I envisioned springs I was thinking of the blue lagoon of Iceland. It was interested to have a geological understanding of Santorini, but we did not find that it was worth the trip. Obviously you can decide. The boat ride surpassed the sights on the enjoyment scale.
Day 5 of 10
If you feel up to it hike to Oia. The adventure can take anywhere from three to five hours depending on fitness level, but is well worth it for the tantalizing views of white splashed, blue capped villages cascading down the mountain. Pack a hat, sun protection, and bottle of water because the hike is unshaded.
There is a supermarket and also Lolita’s gelato by the bus stop. Treat yourself to some well deserved ice cream. Spend some time window shopping around the picturesque village of Oia.
We continued our walk and ate at Restaurant Katina, which is located down in Oia’s port. There are no donkeys here to take you up and down the stairs, but the view of the cave dwelling luxury hotels are well worth it. This may have been our best meal of the vacation, and was reasonably priced compared to everything up in the city. I like fish, and you are asked to literally pick a fresh fish (head and eyes intact) from the window. (We asked them for help!) Our stomachs full of wine and fish we sauntered all the way back up those stairs. I have also heard good things about Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna, which has a similar ambiance to Katina.
Leave plenty of time to get a good spot for viewing the sunset, as the whole village seems to move to the west side to watch the setting-sun. After sunset, the camera-laden tourists disperse to their different evening plans.
Day 6 of 10
Rent a car and hit up all the towns and beaches. The rental company dropped the car off at the hotel in the morning, and then we dropped it off at the port the next morning (before our ferry to Mykonos.) Unlike in the United States, this rental car came nearly empty and one of the first things we needed to do was fill up on gas. The rugged, windswept island terrain is interesting to see and compare to the touristy and whitewashed villages of Oia and Fira. Here is where we went:
- First stop: Vathonas (every building is cut into the mountain) Literally just parked for 5 minutes to look at the town then went on to →
- Pyrgos. We walked up to the monastery at the top of the hill for a good view of the island. We went to Kantouni Cafe for coffee and snacks and some people watching. Seemed to cater mostly to locals. →
- The nerd in me wanted to see the ancient town of Akrotiri, similar to Pompeii (but on a smaller scale). This town went under ash when the Theran Volcano erupted (and yes that is the active volcano that created Santorini!) I recommend waiting for a guided tour; its $100 but they wait for ten people so it’s 10 each. You can have your hotel call and ask when the guided tours are scheduled. There is free parking across the street, which we utilized to walk to lunch and Red Beach→
- We walked to lunch at Dolphins Fish Tavern down the road and from there walked to Red Beach →
- Afterwards, we drove to Kamari Beach which was our favorite and where we relaxed and unwound for a while. It is a black sand beach and the most beautiful one we found →
- After a few hours of soaking up the sunshine and the Aegean sea, we stopped for sunset at the lighthouse (which is more or less inaccessible without a car.)
Day 7 of 10
Take the ferry to Mykonos:
Check into your hotel and get acclimated to Mykonos. Walk around Old Town, Windmills (the sunset is beautiful here, too). We loved high-end window shopping at night and then checking out all the galleries. Most of the artists and gallery workers were friendly and happy to show us around and talk about their art work. Our favorite was the three story Dio Horio: they do art residencies for newer or lesser known contemporary artists. They also have a rooftop bar which is a great spot to enjoy a drink. All of the galleries close for “siesta” but reopen and remain open until midnight or after.
We loved and had our best (and longest) meal at Kounelas Fish Tavern. To order your fish meal: you have to go to the kitchen and they literally have fresh fish (head and eyes intact) in 6 metal drawers which they display. I consider myself a fish lover but was taken aback having to decide which one to order; obviously we asked for help! If the food had not been so delicious, I would have nightmares of fish in all my shelves at home.
Day 8 of 10
We rented an ATV and drove over to the beaches. Our first stop was on the West Coast to Agio Ioannis (secluded beach) for lunch. You can use this nice lunch restaurant as your home base if you want to go in the water; otherwise the umbrella and chairs are 40 euros). We drove through Kapari which was super-secluded, just around the corner from Ioannis, then back to Ornos beach which seemed family-friendly and quieter.
Funny story: while driving the said ATV my friend and I got stuck on a hill. Like the kind friend I am, I told her to get off that she was too much weight. The ATV was still stalling in the middle of a giant hill…So, both of us had to get off and push the ATV up the hill. All of this was while still pressing on the gas button and keeping the steering wheel straight…we must have been quite a scene to look at! Schlepping up that hill was not exactly the hair flowing, ATV driving Mama Mia! moment I had envisioned as I planned my trip to Greece!
Then we drove over to Psarou which was densely developed with ritzy shopping and nice public bathrooms at the beach side “mall.” We parked near the top of the hill because we were worried that our ATV wouldn’t make it back up (we saw a smart car get stuck, eek!) There were lines of parked luxury cars to impress. We found this beautiful, sandy beach to be the best for people-watching.
From Psarou there is a beachside path for hiking between all the beaches and you can compare and contrast. You can obviously stop along the way to grab a drink or relax on the beach. The hike was a highlight of our trip. There is also a bus that you can take back if you get too tired. On your way back the rocky area by the campground between Parada and Paradise is a great spot for seeing the sunset.
- We went to Psarou, which seemed to be the most chic; it had the most high-end restaurants and shopping→
- Platis gialos: This is an incredibly clean beach. The vibe was more of a relaxing beach day instead of a seaside party. This beach also was family friendly. The beds were more affordable at 2 for 20 euros. Really nice restaurants. The beach itself is the attraction.→
- Agia Anna: This beach was very low key. Good for a more secluded, romantic couples beach day→
- Parada Beach: The two clubs on this beach had unexpected surprises: one had a large pool party and the other had a sax player standing on the bar itself and festive champagne bottles with sparklers. The sand of the beach itself seemed grittier and the party was the attraction here.→
- Kalamopodi or ”Paradise”: The crowd seemed a little younger than the last few. Reminded me a bit of a college party. When we were there people were dressed for theme days (togas and spartan outfits). The attraction is singing, dancing and mingling at the club.→
- Plintri or “Super paradise”: We never made it here, but we were told that it provided the largest party.
Day 9 of 10
Relax and walk around Old Town which is small and walkable. Enjoy a pastry from Psillos, an unmarked, no frills family-run bakery or from Il Forno, a bakery with seating and ambiance.
Mykonos Excursion to Delos: Half day boat trip to uninhabited Delos. There are day trips twice daily, from a small kiosk at the old port of Mykonos. If the weather is foreboding the trip will be cancelled. The original excavations were done by the French School of Athens and therefore the museum offers Greek and French tags for all the items.
Other restaurants: we went to Pasta Fresca, just for a little change of pace from Greek food. It was intimate and had a buzz, but can’t compare to a Fish Taverna with Greek authenticity.
Sakis is the most popular gyro spot, and seems to be most popular with the late night crowd.
Day 10 of 10
Mykonos has an international airport (although there were lots of delays…) You can either connect in Athens or fly out to another airport.
You may also be interested in adding an additional two days to hike the iconic cliff hanging monasteries in Meteora, Greece.