A trulli, a cave, and a masseria oh my!

View from the courtyard of our stay in Masseria Santa Lucia.

Your first question is probably: what’s with all these weird words in the title? The answer: they are different types of accommodations that we tried while in the Puglia and Basilicata (the heel and instep) regions of Italy. My main reason for travelling to these destinations were a) I kept seeing cool instagram photos from Matera, and b) my friend Jen from World On A Whim mentioned that the city of Matera is the 2019 Cultural Capital of Europe.  So we set a date (really it’s all around my school schedule) and booked our flights. Here is a brief list of the accommodations that we stayed in:

What is a Trulli?

Photogenic Tullis. Alberobello is filled with camera-carrying tourists taking pictures of the trullis, some of which have been converted to use by the tourism industry as gift shops, museums and high end restaurants.

A Trulli is a small hut-like building with a conical roof which gives it the appearance of a hobbit or troll house.  The uniformly white bases of these iconic structures are constructed from limestone masonry and are topped off with a wheat-colored dome-like roof.  Theses idiosyncratic homes are plentiful in the Puglia region of Italy. The largest collection are located in the town of Alberobello, which is well- known for their signature Trulli houses. The region’s abundance of limestone, karst and calcareous sedimentary was utilized to create the mortarless houses. Why mortarless? As the 18th century population increased, people created the commune of Alberobello.  The local Count didn’t want to pay taxes for a new development to the Spanish Viceroyal of Bourbon and therefore requested his citizens to create housing that was easy to dismantle and fool the tax assessors.

If staying overnight, I would recommend either staying in the new part of Alberobello or outside in the countryside. While we really enjoyed walking around and seeing the trullis you could enjoy a day-trip here and move on.

What is it like staying in a cave?

While other cliffside towns are built on top of the deep ravine, the houses and entire sassi are built into and complementary to the preexisting caves.  With hundreds of years of layers placed in one building it is hard to differentiate when different additions were added.

Tragically beautiful Matera has gone from obscurity to fame over the past century.  Evacuated in the 1950’s for rampant poverty and disease, Matera was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1993 and 2019 European Capital of Culture recognition.

View of the room does not give it justice. Definitely great sleep was had here, staying in a cave provides that not much natural light will wake you up in the morning.

Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic time. In ancient times, cave-dwelling settlers moved into the tofu rock caverns of the steep ravine. Eventually more people moved in and the community of cave-like dwellings became known as the Sassi (Italian for “the stones”). We stayed in a carefully renovated, beautiful cave hotel. I would recommend this unique experience.

If you are looking for a more in depth weekend itinerary for Matera, please find it here: A weekend in Matera, Italy.

What is a masseria?

A “masseria” is an Italian version of a plantation or hacienda. The name masseria is known mostly in the Puglia region of Italy. From the 16th to18th century,  masserias were the farmhouses in which workers and “pedrones” (English: master/boss) would reside while harvesting large farms. Italy has a number of farmhouses which are still on functioning farms and which are available as lodging alternatives. We stayed at a converted 16th century farmhouse. The owners made the best meal of our vacation, with fresh ingredients from their gardens. For a uniquely satisfying experience, I would recommend staying in a farmhouse in any region of Italy for one or two days . Research agriturismo.it or bookings.com for farmhouse lodging options.

Ten Days in Italy: Rome, Florence and Venice

Imagine a burnt-orange sunset over the Tuscan capital of Florence, a romantic, moonlit glide in a gondola along the winding canals of Venice, or the buzzing Vespa traffic past three thousand years of urban development in Rome. Italy offers adventures for any type of traveller with any company: whether it be a honeymoon, a group tour, or a family vacation. With a  gelato shop at the corner of every fountain laden piazza, there is no wonder Italy was the setting for the movie “La Dolce Vita.” Do I even have to mention the birthplace of pizza? Italy is at the top of the “must-see” list for just about every traveler.

This is a simple ten day guide to Italy which should be especially helpful to first time visitors, starting with what I consider to be the big three: Rome, Florence, and Venice. Italy has an abundance of  cultural and historical sights to visit with gourmet food and fine wine to enjoy between tours. I enjoy travelling from big cities with a lot of cultural institutions to progressively smaller cities so that when fatigue sets in from sightseeing, the last few days are reserved for a more relaxed pace. For that reason this itinerary goes from Rome north to Florence and then ends in Venice with its international airport.

Gondoliers on a break in Venice, Italy.

Timing: The weather is most comfortable from April until October, and I personally prefer travelling on the “shoulder” seasons, meaning May/June or September/October, to alleviate  the long lines, congestion and heat. My two exceptions to this plan could include the Carnival in Venice, which is usually in February and during Holy Week (Italian: “settimana Santa,” the week leading up to easter).

You may also be interested in visiting the southern countryside. I wrote about the unique accommodations in the Puglia region.

Day 1 of 10: Rome

Fly into Rome.

Roma Caput Mundi is a Latin phrase meaning “Rome capital of the world” and it conjures up an image of the  historical significance of Rome.  The steeple loaded skyline reminds visitors that Rome is the capital of the Catholic Church and the seat of the Papacy. The layers of over 4 millenia worth of history interwoven into a modern city attest to the vitality and vibrancy of a city still buzzing with life (and Vespas). Simply walking the streets of Rome, sometimes referred to as “the open air museum,” opens up the famous sights including artistic masterpieces from every century of European history. While exploring without a plan will provide a treasure chest worth of sights, I would recommend sticking to a more concrete itinerary if this is your first time in Rome, or lest you miss the major sights. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it cannot be described in one paragraph nor seen in four days.

I would suggest reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, which is set in Rome. I would also recommend seeing some movies set in Rome, such as Eat, Pray, Love and the gore and glory of Gladiator to prepare you for the colosseum, or flash back to your tween years and watch the Olsen twins movie, When in Rome, for the sights of the city. Don’t forget Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday.

Bruin on a Budget tip: I put out a travel alert on the Google search engine. This should enable you to receive email alerts regarding cheap flights from your home city to Rome. I work in education, so I have flexibility during the summer as to when I can book flights, and I have the patience to wait for a good deal. There are many different housing options, and one interesting and less expensive option is to stay at a converted convent. While it will not be luxurious, it will reduce costs, it may be memorable, and you may meet some interesting fellow travelers.

Get settled into your hotel and put your stuff away. Get a recommendation from the hotel as to where to dine.

Day 2 of 10: Catholic Rome

The interior of St. Peter’s Basilica

Prepare to spend the entire morning and afternoon at the awe-inspiring but crowded Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St Peter’s Basilica. Make sure to pre-book these tickets online to save time.  Some people have had the feeling of being herded through the exhibits, so you should plan for rest, food and water breaks. The sights are wonderful: The Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s masterful ceiling. The Matisse Chapel featuring 16 foot paper cutouts for a stained glass design of a French Chapel is featured within the Modern Religious Art at the Vatican Museums.  Raphael Rooms (Italian: Stanze di Raffaello) within the Vatican Palace, considered the eponym’s masterpiece. This over-500 year old palace is all encompassing in its number of European masterpieces.

Matisse’s colorful cassocks (robes worn by priests) within the Modern Religious Art at the Vatican Museums

Bruin on a Budget tip: Rick Steves has a free audio guide in which he offers a splendid narration of the highlights of the tour.

Have lunch near the Vatican, where there are many good places to re-fuel for the rest of the day, then take a walk by Cast D’Angelo at the Tiber River.  At some point in the afternoon, do yourself a favor and have a well-deserved nap.

There is a bustling Tiber riverside market (more info can be found here) which is open from 6 pm – midnight every night in the summer.

In the evening walk around the Tiber River at dusk.   This is a great location to enjoy a sunset cocktail. End your evening walking through Trastevere’s charming streets to a dinner destination. We had a delightful dinner at Grazia and Graziella in Trastevere. The Italians eat late, so prepare to begin dinner around 9:00 pm, unless you want to be the only diners. Back over the bridge in Campo de Fiore is buzzing with nightlife and is the perfect place for a nightcap or an evening stroll.

Before dinner, try to make it for the Call to Vespers at St Cecilia’s church in Trastevere.  

Day 3 of 10: Ancient Rome

The grandiose Colosseum is an icon of Imperial Rome with all of its ancient glory. This Flavian amphitheatre could seat 87,000 people in it’s day; just for reference the New England Patriot’s NFL stadium seats 66,829 and the Rose Bowl can seat 90,888.

Enjoy the morning filled with sights from the Roman Empire: the Colosseum, Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum.

View of Constantine’s Arch from the Colosseum.

Stroll through the Campo de’ Fiori to see the locals and the tourists shopping at the farmers’ markets, and find a place to eat a leisurely lunch.

The Parthenon.

After lunch take a walk through a much-filmed route from Piazza Navona, Parthenon, Galleria Alberto Sorti, Trevi Fountain, and end at the Spanish steps. Make sure to stop for gelato as needed!

Refresh yourself with an early afternoon riposo (siesta), and before sunset, make your way to Piazza Venezia and atop the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument (Italian: Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II) for a panoramic view of Rome. Saunter over to dinner at the popular Ai Tre Scalini in the Monti section of Rome, with its Bohemian style. If there is a line grab a beer at Barzilai across the street, as they have 6 beers on tap which is plentiful for Italy.

Day 4 of 10: Rome to Florence

If you are an architecture nerd like me, you will love spending the morning looking around the Art Nouveau neighborhood called “Quartiere Coppedè,” designed by early 20th century architect Gino Coppedè. Visit the nearby La Casina delle Civette, the fairy-tale like former home of the Torlonia family with its exquisite and creative details. Typically, it’s not crowded.  Grab a coffee and snack here before heading out on an early afternoon train to Florence (the high speed train takes about an hour and a half). Be mindful of which train station you are leaving from, as there are a few.

Florence:

Idyllically charming Florence (Italian: Firenze) may be my favorite place in Italy. Known as “the cradle of the Renaissance,” Florence came to prominence during the 14th century and hit its peak in the 16th century as an economic and artistic center of the Mediterranean. A turbulent political history provides many stories shrouded in secrecy and scandals mostly surrounding the powerful Medici family. The Medicis were patrons to much of the development of the City of Masterpieces, having provided  financial support for works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli. This city is best explored on foot, walking down the cobblestoned streets while admiring the Renaissance art and architecture and the frescoe-filled churches. The capital of the Tuscany region of Italy, Florence also has much to be indulged in the food and wine scene.

Arrive from the train station and settle into your hotel. Enjoy a delicious dinner and good service at Il Vezzo.

5 of 10: Renaissance Florence

Start your day at the Accademia Gallery (Italian: Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze), where you can see magnificent artwork including Michelangelo’s masterpiece of white marble, David among other sculptures.

Mercato Centrale Firenze

Enjoy breakfast or a  snack at the Mercato Centrale Firenze. The two story cast-iron and glass-vaulted building opened its doors in 1874, and it is still offering fresh produce today. Walk around the artisan San Lorenzo Market, which is outside the central market. Don’t hesitate to join in the fun of bartering before you buy.  

A clock with the Duomo in the background.

Weave your way through the pedestrian streets towards the Duomo (full name: Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore) with its garnd bell tower.  Check out the Duomo itself, the bell tower and the Duomo Museum.

Walk across the plaza to the octagonal Baptistery of St. John (Italian: Battistero di San Giovanni), which was built between 1059 and 1128, and don’t overlook its bronze doors with “The Gates of Paradise,” which took the artist 27 years to create.

While you’re in the area, you have to give I Fratellini a try. It’s a hole in the wall food shop where you can grab a quick and delicious panini and a glass of Italian wine and blend in with the locals who make the place popular.

Saunter down to the Piazza Della Repubblica to the 1551 “New” Market (Italian: Mercato Nuevo) and rub the nose of the wild boar at the Fontana del Porcellino, which, legend says, ensures a return to Florence. Stop in the Oranmichelle Church (former granary), and down Via Calzaiuoli (pedestrian road) to Piazza della Signoria. Take in the sights of Palazzo Vecchio (or City Hall). For those who are geographically inclined, venture into the Medici wall of maps. From the Piazza make your way to Basilica Santa Croce to see the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo. Enjoy gelato as needed, a few favorites are grom and gelateria dei neri.

Enjoy a siesta before an Italian-style long meal at Aqua al II.  I would recommend getting the pasta and meat sampler which includes five different pastas and 3 different steaks.

6 of 10: Oltrarno

Start your morning off with a tour of the Uffizi Gallery, which consists of 45 rooms stocked with 1500 works of art including Renaissance masterpieces by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. This was once the workplace of the wealthy, powerful and controversial Medici family. The nouveau riche family were generous patrons of the arts, but they were often enmeshed in scandal, backstabbing, and ambitious social climbing to the fascination of the greater population.  Catherine Medici became the Queen of France and brought onion soup, the fork and gelato to the French, in addition to her rumored poisons. As one Medici became the pope, he created the title “Duke of Florence” and subsequently “Grand Duke of Tuscany” and crowned various family members, elevating the family legacy into royalty.

At the Arno River, the landmark Vasari Corridor,  an enclosed, elevated “secret” passageway built in 1564 is worth noting.  Unfortunately, it has been closed for construction since 2016, with a reopening planned for 2021. Georgio Vasari, an artist, architect and writer who is often called the first art historian for his writing of “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptures, and Architects,” built the Vasari Corridor for Cosmos I de Medici so that he could travel safely from his residence to the government palace without interacting with any of the townspeople.

Grab some sandwiches-to-go from All’Antico Vinao (get anything with cream di pecorino, artichoke spread, or truffle spread on a large focaccia.) Save these for lunch at Boboli Gardens.  Along the way, take a brief passiegiata (or stroll) on Lungarno Generale Diaz, parallel to the leisurely flowing Arno River as it provides a beautiful vantage point of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge.

The Arno River reflects the blush, amber, and apricot hues of the much-photographed medieval bridge at sunset. Window shop through the kiosks along the bridge.

Now in Oltrarno, make your way north to the Boboli Gardens, a beautiful public park located behind the Pitti Palace.  Enjoy the fountain of Neptune, and various other sculptures dating between the 16th-18th century. Pick a spot to sit back and enjoy your sandwich while soaking in the beauty of the park, which closes at 6:30 pm.

Take a leisurely walk over to the Basilica San Miniato Del Monte. It’s about thirty minutes, or more if you factor in stopping for photos. You can walk along the medieval walls on Via di Belvedere, opening up to the Porta San Miniato.  Be prepared for an uphill walk with some stair-climbing as the church is located at one of the highest points in Florence. Monks perform a Gregorian Chant at the church daily at 5:30 PM. You can find more information here. The church itself closes at 7:00 PM.  

Sunset from Piazzale Michaelangelo.

Take the five minute walk down hill to Piazzale Michelangelo for a romantic sunset over the breathtaking city. From this viewpoint the varied colors of the sunset are illuminated by the Florentine skyline consisting of a palette of red tile roofs, yellow and salmon-colored buildings, and the commanding presence of Brunelleschi’s burnt orange dome.

To cap off your day in Oltrarno, take a taxi to Trattoria 4 Leoni for a snack; you can’t go wrong with the pumpkin ravioli.

7 of 10:

Morning Train to Venice

Gondola’s in the Venetian Lagoon. Venice consists of 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon.

The historic and still  vibrant city of Venice, famous for gondolas gently floating along winding canals, deserves a spot on your must-visit list. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Italian people fled the mainland in fear of Barbarian invasion. They found refuge in the marshy lagoons mostly occupied by fishermen. With more refugees finding safety in the islands, there was a need for more infrastructure. Therefore, the people created hundreds of canals and packed wooden stakes into the bottom of the lagoon.They  topped the wooden stakes with wooden platforms as the base on which to construct buildings and bridges. Most of the wood for this undertaking was imported by water from Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro. Venice is an engineering marvel, as the sediment consisting of silt and soil was absorbed into the oak or larch wood pilings and the mixture petrified the wood into a stone-like substance.

Walking through the narrow streets, you will be impressed by the marble palazzi (palaces), fine restaurants and cultural sites located within the compact area around the square.   Depending on when you visit, you may be able to witness religious traditions such as the Carnival of Venice which is famous for its elaborate masks. Venice was home to Renaissance artist Titian, Baroque Musician Vivaldi, playwright Galdoni, and original philanderer Casanova. A sultry and sometimes scandalous history makes Venice or La Serenissima (“The Most Serene” Republic of Venice)  truly one of a kind.

From the train station take a vaporetto #1 to St. Mark’s Square and settle into your hotel. Meander through the streets before ending your night with a bellini from Cafe Florian (boasting the oldest cafe in Europe which was the first to allow women in, placing the cafe on the frequent-must-visit list for Casanova) and take in the grandiosity of St. Mark’s Square in the evening. Enjoy the music of the dueling orchestras from Caffè Florian and Ristorante Quadri.

8 of 10

Campanile and St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Start your morning on the top of the Campanile. Take in all the sights of St. Mark’s Square and meander your way to the Rialto Bridge, window shop the many jewelry stores and tourist shops. Over the bridge make your way to Mercato di Rialto selling artisan products and fresh food. Buy some fruit for the day.

Don’t miss a peak at Albert Sarria’s paper-mâché masks.  

Weave your way back over the Rialto Bridge to lunch at the no-frills Rosticceria Gislon (recommended SEPA – calle della bisse, Farini). You can order at the counter or go upstairs for the full-service restaurant. We opted for the counter service to save time.

After lunch, stop at the much-instagrammed Librería Alta Acqua, which was cute but overrun with tourists (myself included) when we visited.

We went to the Museo Correr, but if you have already seen the Vatican and Uffizi Gallery, this is far less exciting and can be skipped in deference to other sights and experiences, or for a more leisurely pace.

After lunch make your way over to St. Mark’s. Spend some time in the church. Do not miss the ornate Pala D’Oro (or golden enamel high altar). 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts.

Doge Palace: With day trippers gone and the locals enjoying the early evening, we enjoyed some respite from overdone tourism.

Top the day off with an evening at Doge Palace (Italian: Palazzo Ducale) its open until 7:00 PM. We had the place almost to ourselves.  

Don’t miss the Bridge of Sighs next door.

Meander through the narrow winding streets of Venice along canals, shops and houses for less than a mile to find a hidden gem of a restaurant: Al Timon.   Al Timon has the occasional tourist venture to this restaurant, and the engaging owner and the staff are very welcoming, but this I am happy to report that this place is quintessentially Venetian. Enjoy a glass of regional wine and/or Italian beer with a small cichetti while waiting for a table. We chose to eat at a table outside, along the canal, next to a small boat permanently docked at the edge of the water for additional seating.

We shared a large platter featuring the house specialty of Italian steak, potato wedges and an array of vegetables. Highly recommended restaurant for a memorable meal.

9of 10

Start your morning off at Museum Accademia.

Colorful streets in Burano

Take a Venetian Lagoon boat tour to the glassblowing island of Murano, stop for lunch at the colorful fisherman’s island of Burano, and step into the Basilica on the island of Torcello.

End your evening back in Venice with panoramic views from the rooftop of the upscale T Fondaco dei Tedeschi mall.

10 of 10 Fly home

Ten Day Itinerary in Greece: Athens, Santorini, Mykonos

Sunset in Santorini

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.

Greek Flag

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:

  1. Plan early and book ahead. By the time we were looking at accomodations, we realized the majority had already been reserved.
  2. 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

Nightime views on the Acropolis Museum

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.)

While the sunset and nighttime views of the Acropolis are magnificent from the restaurant, the food itself leaves customers wanting more. Instead get a glass of wine, take in the sights and then get a bite to eat in the surrounding neighborhood.

Day 2 of 10

Monastiraki square in Athens. You can try the battle for the best gyro between Savvas and touristy O Thanasis.

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.

Mask of Agamemnon on display at the National Archeological Museum.
This is believed to be the burial mask of the Mycenean king Agamemmon, leader of the Achaeans the Trojan War.

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.

Epidaurus Theater

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

Enjoying some afternoon drinks while watching the world go by in Hydra.

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.

Once off the ferry you will notice the fleet of donkeys with decorative beads on their heads ready to transport you to anywhere you want to go. For better smelling means of transportation, you can always take a water taxi. Or for travellers like myself you can just walk around getting lost on the side streets until you come to a quaint restaurant that is serving scrumptious sousaka.

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.

We ended our night back in Athens with a nightcap at the Anglais, a rooftop bar in Monastiraki with views of the Acropolis.

Day 4 of 10

FYI: the Acropolis is the hill and the Parthenon (in the photo) is the temple on top.

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.

Sunset in Thira, Santorini

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.)

On top of the “caldera”

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.

The nerd in me cannot resist a browse through a bookstore. If you feel similarly, take a few minutes to check out the cavernous Atlantis Books. Then find a cafe with a good view for an iced coffee or aperol spritz. Photo taken from the Atlantis website.

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.

Transportation: If spending the day and evening in Oia, I would recommend double checking the bus schedules and take the second to last bus back to Fira. They sometimes leave early and you don’t want to get stranded. The public bus is actually a coach and they fill it beyond capacity, with passengers are standing in the aisles. It was a not-so-enjoyable ride while being one of the people standing in the aisle, but it was definitely memorable! Taxicabs can cost up to 100 euros.

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→
Red Beach (named after the red rocks behind it.)
  • 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 →
This placed this in third place in our rankings of the sunset, (Oia #1, Fira #2 and the lighthouse #3) but still worth the drive.
  • 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:

View from our BnB in 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.

Mr. Brainwash on display at Kapopoulos Fine Arts hall. This summer was the first ever Mykonos Arts Festival, which showcases art from around the country. The tourism board is hoping that Mykonos will become a cultural center in addition to a party hub.

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.

Turning around was a lot harder than it looks.

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.

The path for “hiking.” As you can see hiking attire unneccessary.

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.

Terrace of the Lions in Delos. This Pagan religious Mecca is believed to be where Apollo and Artemis were born.

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.

Make sure to make it back in time for sunset in “Little Venice”.

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

Goodbye Mykonos!
Cheers to a wonderful vacation!

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.