Getting Started in Greece
As one of the first European countries to re-open to American travelers this year, interest in visiting Greece is as high as we've seen in a long time.
Whether you come to Greece for the history, the culture, the food or the islands, your vacation will likely start in Athens—as most international flights arrive into the capital. You could easily spend a week in this sprawling ancient city alone and still just scratch the surface, so we've rounded up our tips of what you can't miss across your first few days, plus some of our favorite day trips from Athens.
Acropolis & Nearby
Yes, the Acropolis is the most-visited site in Athens (and one of the most recognizable in the world), but even if you avoid "touristy things", this UNESCO World Heritage Site should still be at the top of your list.
First, some practical advice: Bring your own water and wear comfortable walking shoes—it's not a strenuous hike, but it is uphill and the marble stones can be slippery. Arrive early (the gates open at 8 a.m.) for the smallest crowds or purchase a skip-the-line pass if you wish to visit later in the day. If you visit during the golden hour before the gates close at sunset, you'll be awed by the view of Athens bathed in honey hues all the way to the sea. Joining a tour can help you put historical context to the preserved ruins and the mythological footsteps you're retracing on this sacred rock. Self-guided audio tours are also available.
If you enter through the main western entrance, you'll walk through the restored Propylaea and quickly come upon the Temple of Athena Nike, towering down over the city. Once you climb the hill, the top of the Acropolis is dominated by the imposing (and impressive) Parthenon. All eyes will be on this impressive monument (as they should), but don't forget to turn around and take in the 360-degree views that made this one-time temple such a powerful statement of Athens' glory. Before leaving the summit, walk to the Acropolis' north side to see the Erechtheion, another impressive temple with quite the mythological back story.
Two more must-sees are on the southern slope of the Acropolis, the Theatre of Dionysus and the picturesque Odeon of Herodes Atticus amphitheater, a new addition when it was built in the 2nd-century AD by the Romans. The Herodeon, as its widely known, still hosts outdoor performances, including the Athens and Epidaurus Festival each summer, with ballets, arias and Greek tragedies performed in this one-of-a-kind setting.
It's worth making time for the nearby Acropolis Museum, a relative newcomer to the scene having opened in 2009, but an essential part of visiting this landmark to provide the mythology and history of the citadel. Built to the same size and orientation as the Parthenon, the museum houses more than 4,000 artifacts, including many of the statues, friezes and mosaics preserved for posterity from archaeological restorations of the Acropolis. The museum is open until 8 p.m. most nights, so make an evening of it—especially on Friday nights, when the museum cafe hosts live jazz against the backdrop of a gorgeous nighttime view of the Acropolis, with lights casting moody shadows across the millennia-old ruins.
Set up camp at an elegant boutique hotel in one of the neighborhoods that sit just beneath the Acropolis—Plaka, Thisio or Monstiraki. Within these walkable districts, you'll find friendly sidewalk cafes, family-owned restaurants (many with rooftop views of the Acropolis) and shops as you wander the narrow cobbled streets and alleys, using the Acropolis as your north star if your navigation skills ever fail you.
For an especially wonderful wander within the Plaka district, follow Thrasyllou Street uphill until you reach the Church of Aghios Georgios. From there, you're in the tiny neighborhood of Anafiotika, with its white-washed buildings and narrow walkways that feel more like a village on a Greek island than an enclave in one of Europe's biggest cities.
If you devote a day to the Acropolis, you'll need a few more to cover the rest of the city. As you walk through Athens' oldest neighborhoods that radiate out from the Acropolis, layers upon layers of historical and cultural influences permeate the streets and buildings of the Greek capital.
It's not uncommon to find an ancient Greek statue (like the Monument of Lysicrates in Plaka) just a short walk from a Roman ruin (Hadrian's Arch), a 9th-century Byzantine basilica (Agios Nikolaos Ragavas) and an 18th-century Ottoman mosque (Tzistarakis Mosque)—which was itself built using stone from one of the pillars of the ancient Temple to the Olympian Zeus. Simply put, the modern and monumental intermingle throughout the city, especially in the Monastiraki and Psirri neighborhoods that form the historic center of the city.
For a more curated (and climate-controlled) cultural experience, several museums should be on your itinerary. The National Archaeological Museum is the largest in Greece and houses more than 11,000 artifacts among collections from the Neolithic period, Bronze Age, Cycladic, Mycenaean and Roman eras. A trip over to the artsy Pangrati neighborhood will bring you forward a few millennia to the Goulandris Museum of Modern Art, which just opened in late 2019 to showcase one of the world's best private art collections. Works by Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Matisse, Pollock, Warhol and numerous Greek masters fill the 11-story building. The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture houses items from the Bronze Age to the 20th century, including Byzantine icons and Greek regional costumes.
In a city notably void of skyscrapers, you'll need to climb (or take the cable car) to the top of Lykavitos Hill, the tallest point in Athens, for the city's best panoramic perspective (and incredible sunsets). There is a beautiful church and cafe at the top of the hill, but you're up here for the unbeatable views of the Parthenon, and the cityscape that reaches out into the Saronic Gulf on a clear day. Once down from your trek, the Kolonaki neighborhood below Lykavitos offers upscale shopping and dining options.
All of this discovery will build up an appetite, and you're in luck, as you'll eat well in Athens, whether it's at one of the city's Michelin-starred restaurants or an unpretentious neighborhood taverna. Let's tackle the basics first: The portions are typically very large (if you don't finish your plate, they'll ask if you didn't like it) and the flavors are vibrant. Expect to eat your fill of feta, along with plenty of fresh vegetables (such as cucumbers, tomatoes, aubergine and onions), generous helpings of olives and the best olive oil you've ever had, fish prepared simply (often lightly fried with that amazing olive oil) and red meats from the grill (beef and lamb) served with sauces on the side, including the ever-present tzatziki.
For breakfast, you may choose to pair your strong Greek coffee with a tiropita (cheese pie) or loukoumades (doughnuts topped with honey & cinnamon) at a local kafenion (traditional Greek cafe). While wandering the city, give into the temptation to try Athens' ultimate street food -- souvlaki -- small pieces of grilled meat wrapped in a pita with tomatoes, onions and a yogurt sauce, with shops as ubiquitous as pizza parlors are in New York City. And don't skip dessert, especially if galaktoboureko—a syrupy, buttery custard pie—is on the menu.
Day Trips from Athens
Once you've had your fill of Athens, there are day trip options in every direction within a reasonable drive. Here are a few of our favorites.
On the outskirts of Athens' eastern border is Mount Ymittos, with tree-covered slopes that separate the city from a protected nature reserve perfect for off-the-grid hikes to the Kesariani and Asteriou monasteries, and a great view of Athens from the Chapel of Taxiarches. Venturing further east from Ymittos, you'll start to see more vineyards and wineries dot the landscape of Attica. This area of Greece is home to some of the world's oldest vineyards, growing Savvatiano and Roditis grapes. The area is best known for its white retsina and rose kokkineli vintages that pair well with seafood.
Also close to the city (26.2 miles to be exact) is Marathon, the site of the ancient battle between the outnumbered Athenians and the invading Persians in 490 BC. A museum and several landmarks are dedicated to the battle, as well as the original route of the run that followed the Athenian victory, inspiring the modern-day marathon.
If you're up for venturing a little farther from the city, the drive down the coast of the so-called Athenian Riviera is stunning. Get an early start so you can stop for a swim at Vouliagmeni Lake, an inland salt-water lake fed by thermal springs popular with Greeks for a swim almost year-round. You may also be inspired to stop at any number of the small seaside villages along the way to Cape Sounion, but make sure to leave enough time to explore the Temple of Poseidon, standing tall on a peninsula overlooking the Aegean Sea. The sunsets here are especially memorable, and a fitting way to end your day trip.
A drive west from Athens will take you along the coastline to the Peloponnese, and toward three memorable spots all within a two hours' drive of the city.
Epidaurus is one of the most dramatic places in all of Greece, thanks in part to its Ancient Theatre. Built in the 4th century BC and perhaps the best preserved structure of its kind, the theater continues to host performances every summer, drawing thousands of guests, thanks to its incredible acoustics. The seaside village is also home to the Sanctuary of Asklepios, one of the first healing centers in the ancient world.
A short drive away is the ruins of Mycenae, once the most powerful kingdom in Greece for nearly four centuries and home of the legendary King Agamemnon. Homer's epic poems "Iliad" and "Odyssey" told tales of Mycenae's wealth and might and its long-standing feud with Troy, once thought to be myths until archaeological discoveries backed up the legends. The Ancient Mycenae Museum can put it all in perspective before you explore. The ancient hilltop citadel was built with massive stones (legend has it Cyclops helped in the construction, hence the term Cyclopean Walls) that are still standing more than 2,000 years later.
The final stop on your Peloponnesian pilgrimage takes you to the seaside village of Nafplio, considered one of the most romantic spots in all of Greece with its medieval Old Town, neoclassical mansions, cobbled alleyways and Ottoman fountains. A popular weekend getaway for Greeks, you'll find smaller crowds if you visit midweek. You'll have your pick of fortresses to photograph—the Bourtzi, which is located on an islet in the harbor, or the Palamidi Castle, which looms high above the town with a commanding view of the surrounding sea. The view from the castle is worth the reported 999 step climb to the top.
One final day-trip option from Athens starts at its nearby port city of Piraeus, which is one of the busiest ports in the world, both for commercial and passenger traffic. Many ferries and hydrofoils to the Greek islands leave from Piraeus, including boats that sail to nearby islands in the Saronic Gulf.
The closest island is Aegina, very popular with Athenians escaping the city on the weekends for the island's sandy beaches. The Temple of Aphea and its commanding view of the surrounding sea is worth the trip alone, but don't miss the chance to wander through the narrow streets of Aegina Town. Grab a bag (or two) of the island's pistachio nuts, considered some of the world's best.
Another short boat ride away from the mainland is Hydra, once an island escape for some of Greece's wealthiest families and the birthplace of five Greek prime ministers. The city is built on a slope overlooking the sea and its yacht-filled marina, with winding cobblestoned streets that take you past old mansions, churches, shops and cafes. One thing you won't find on the island—cars—the locals use donkeys to get around.