A few years ago, I determined that it was time my mom saw Europe, and that I was going to take her there as a gift. I spent months deliberating where to go for her first European adventure. Ultimately, I decided on Greece due to its unique mix of history, architecture, culture, mediterranean coastline, and (of course) the Greek Islands. When that next Mother’s Day rolled around, I found myself drinking copious amounts of wine while booking flights and hotels for 10 days of hopping around Athens, Mykonos and Santorini in July of that year. Not only was this my mom’s first trip abroad, but it’s what spurred the concept of TravelSages. So, after much delay, it seemed only fitting to write about our 10 day adventure through one of the most historically important and naturally beautiful places on earth.
We spent 3 days in Athens (2 at the start of the trip and 1 at the end). Overall, the city was incredible. You could hardly walk a half mile without coming upon ancient ruins and buildings that are studied in every literature and classics class that’s ever been offered. Transportation was simple, people were generally friendly, and the food was (shock) excellent. That said, it’s evident – in Athens, at least – that Greece has hit hard times. There is a lot of graffiti disappointingly close to historical ruins and buildings, and on nearly every building and wall that isn’t a classic. It’s also easy to be distracted and robbed by children in train stations, so we quickly learned to avoid and ignore all children that approached us.
Turkish Air – I’ll start by admitting that I don’t fly luxury airlines, or even first class. So when I say that Turkish Air felt like an (affordable) luxury experience, I don’t have much to base this on… However, that’s how it felt. The experience begins with the Turkish music that plays each time you board the plane, and then is carried throughout the flight as you’re pampered with excellent meals, a blanket, pillow, slippers, socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, and chapstick. It was the best international flight I’ve had. Another cool perq of flying Turkish Air is that, if you get a 6 hour or more layover in Istanbul, you can partake in a quick tour from the airport that takes you around the city’s main attractions. Unfortunately, our layover was 5.5 hours so we couldn’t take the tour. This was the first time that I’ve considered changing my flight to have a longer layover…
Hop-on-Hop-off Bus – I book the hop-on-hop-off bus whenever I’m visiting a large city that has a number of destinations I want to see in a couple of days. I know what you’re thinking: Yes, it’s a total dorky tourist move. But it’s smart if you use it the right way. My method is as follows: (1) Choose the 10ish main sites and areas you want to see, then be sure to stop and get off the bus at all of these; (2) Ride all the full circles you can to get your bearings around the city, and see the city from the top of a double-decker bus; (3) Pay attention to public transit stations and areas you want to return to spend more time in; and (4) Use it as your taxi for as long as you can. In Athens, we got off at the Acropolis, Parliament, Harbor, Temple of Zeus, and Meat Market, then rode around the loops and used it as a taxi for the rest of the 24 hours.
The Stanley Hotel – We were very happy with The Stanley. It’s a 4-star (yet quite affordable) hotel in the center of Athens near Syntagma Square. Although the free breakfast is very good, the best part of the hotel is the rooftop bar that overlooks the Acropolis.
Acropolis – If you go to Athens, you’re going to visit the Acropolis, so I won’t spend too much time on it despite it being one of the most historically significant sites for our modern culture. A few things to expect while on the Acropolis are that it’s probably going to be very windy, so you’ll be sandblasted, and it’s going to be crowded. Once you’re done checking it out, head directly below it for some fun, albeit touristy, cafes where you can grab wine, cheese, and olives with a view. There’s also a pretty interesting flea market right below it.
Syntagma Station with Ruins – Definitely pass through Syntagma Station and check out the ruins the city found when excavating the station for the 2004 Olympics. They’re currently on display, which makes it the most unique public transit station I’ve ever seen. This is also the station that’s by the Parliament, so you can kill 2 birds with 1 stone.
Voula Beach and Hiking – After we came back from the islands, we really just wanted more beach time. So we asked for a good beach near the harbor, and were sent to Voula. The beach itself was good, but wasn’t too exiting after spending 6 days in the islands. What was truly cool, though, was a hiking trail we found around the beach that wound us through miles of rocky coves around the harbor. It was very serene and natural. My mom said it reminded her of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Afterwards, we grabbed a drink and appetizers at the bar-restaurants around the harbor.
Local Cafe near Hotel Alexandros – On our last night in Athens, we made it to a local cafe near our hotel (unfortunately, it’s name escapes me…). We sat in a large room that looked like a garage, and was filled with many Greek men smoking and chatting. It was notable that there were almost no women in the cafe other than us, so it seemed that local cafes were more of a place for men to gather and chat than women (or perhaps we went to one that tended to be frequented by men). We ordered a Greek salad that had a literal 4 inch by 4 inch block of feta cheese on top of it. It was quite good, but not remotely healthy or lite.
Despotiko Hotel – We stayed in the lovely Hotel Despotiko on Mykonos, which is a 200-year old Bishop’s-house-turned-boutique-hotel. It was quite close to Mykonos Town, but not quite within in it, which was perfect for us because the nightlife fully lives up to its reputation. The hotel offered beautiful rooms, great (free) breakfast, affordable prices, and an excellent location.
Agios Ioannis Beach – This beautiful beach was far enough away from the main town to offer a break from the crowds in a serene, calm setting. We spent our time hiking from one isolated sunbathing cove to the next while enjoying an excellent view of Delos island with drinks in hand. This was easily my favorite beach on Mykonos. You could purchase drinks and use facilities at a nearby hotel, however it was easy to hike away from the populated area and spend the entire day amongst the coves gazing at nearby islands.
Platis Gialos and the Hiking Path – Platis Gialos is one of the most popular beaches on the island, and is adorned by numerous bars, restaurants, hotels and other facilities. I recommend checking it out since it’s where you can pick up the hiking path between the main Mykonos beaches. Hiking this path was one of my favorite parts of the trip, and definitely my favorite part of Mykonos. The path winds up hills and through valleys along the island coastline. You can take it from Platis Gialos to Psarou, then on to Paradise and Super Paradise (although we weren’t able to find Super Paradise on the path). A note of forewarning – It’s difficult to find the hiking path, and many will say it doesn’t exist (or is too far to walk) if you ask . We found it by walking along the beach in the general direction of Psarou until we picked it up.
Psarou Beach – Psarou is a tranquil, VIP-style beach that boasts luxurious sun beds, a nice restaurant, and is surrounded by private yachts. To give you a sense of the luxury, a James Bond scene was allegedly filmed there. We swam and lounged at Psarou for a few hours before hiking on to the famed Paradise Beach.
Paradise Beach – Paradise beach is famous for Tropicana beach club, which covers a good portion of the shore. Paradise is exactly what you would expect, or – as my mom described it – a real ‘shit show.’ There’s a good bit of open sex, heavy alcohol and drug consumption, and a number of scooter and other vehicle mini accidents on the road leading up to the beach. The bus to and from Paradise is an adventure in itself, especially during peak partying hours. The driver packs the bus full of irrationally drunk EU young adults, and zooms up and down small, rocky mountains while dodging people puking in the road, and falling off their scooters.
Mykonos Town – We stayed in Mykonos town, which is a beautiful white-washed village. One area, called Little Venice, is flush against the water and very near Mykonos’ iconic windmills. We frequently hiked back and forth between the windmills, which are on a hill overlooking the village, and the village to grab a bite or drink. During one of our hikes, we came upon a white-washed church that jutted from a platform over the water. We spent one evening there drinking wine and watching the sunset.
Fira and Superjet – Fira is the capital of Santorini, and the port of entry if you arrive by water transport (which I highly recommend). The Superjet passes directly beside the volcano, and heads up to the caldera cliffs with the white-washed villages of Fira and Oia hanging off as if they’re about to fall into the Mediterranean. The Superjet drops you at a bus, which drives you up the caldera switchbacks to Fira. We watched the famed Santorini sunset over the volcano from Fira, and it did not disappoint.
Oia – Oia is gorgeous, but a bit touristy. We spent part of one day there, and our favorite part was hiking down the 300 steps to the tiny port of Amoudi Bay. Surrounded by the steep caldera cliffs and the Mediterranean, the area features a semi-demolished hiking path and a few tavernas serving the catch of the day. There isn’t a beach or swimming area in the bay, but the hike and views are stunning.
Kamari – We stayed at Hotel Orion Star in Kamari since it was centrally-located and affordable. Kamari boasts one of the black sand beaches of Santorini. The beach has a long boardwalk that reminded me of Myrtle Beach, which is why we spent very little time there.
Red Beach – Exploring Red Beach and nearby White Beach was my favorite part of the trip. One should plan to spend a few days here since it encompasses a number of areas. First, there’s Akrotiri Village, an indoor excavation site for one of the most important Aegean prehistoric settlements, which is right off the bus stop. Near the entrance for Akrotiri is a cove that houses a few cafes, restaurants, and other small shops. We had dinner at a restaurant in this cove one evening. We were fortunate enough to land the lone table at the end of a pier, where we had wine and Mediterranean cuisine while watching the sunset.
To get to Red Beach, you hike up and over a smallish rocky cliff. Before you descend, you capture the first glimpse of the massive red cliffs, steeply jutting into the blue-green Mediterranean to create a small, rocky beach dotted by tiny beachgoers. We swam and took in the sites at Red Beach for hours. One thing to remember is that Red Beach is completely covered in volcanic rock. I would be sure to bring water shoes, and arrive in the morning to increase your chances of being able to rent a chair. The water at Red Beach is warmer than at most other beaches, so we enjoyed swimming here.
There are orange water taxis that float up every fifteen minutes and offer to take beachgoers to White Beach. It’s a short, picturesque ride to White Beach, which can only be reached by boat or foot. White Beach is tiny, covered in smooth, reflective lava rocks, and surrounded by white cliffs. The water is very warm (the warmest of all the beaches) and clear. We spent a lot of time swimming out and around the white cliffs before taking the water taxi back to Red Beach.
Perivolos Beach and Perissa – These are the best black sand beaches on the island. Located on the southern end, they are within 3 kilometers of one another, and easily within walking distance. Perivolos has a number of bars and restaurants, yet is tranquil and picturesque. We watched a sunset there, and caught a cab back to our hotel since buses stop running in the early evening.
Santorini Wine – I have to close this piece out by discussing Santorini wine. Not only is it excellent, but it is very cheap, and readily available. Most grocery stores have barrels of wine outside and allow you to fill water bottles of varying sizes for 1.20 Euro. I took a bottle with me everywhere, and am still lobbying US groceries to jump on this bandwagon.