GREECE: a greatest hits guide for first time visitors

August

Greece lives up to every dream of sparkling blue water, whitewashed churches, and unbelievable food and wine. If you are travelling from somewhere other than Europe, you should try to come for a minimum of 10 days, two weeks being ideal. From within Europe, we try to dash back for long weekends at every opportunity.

Duration: 10 Days

There are plenty of long weekend destinations in Greece, but for first time visitors, here is our ‘greatest hits’ itinerary of the places everyone says you ‘have’ to go to. Athens, Hydra, Crete, Santorini, and Mykonos. It’s a nice mix for a ten day visit, and should leave you feeling like you’ve seen a lot of Greece by making use of the most efficient transportation possible. It’s important to plan your connections in advance (ferry schedules, etc.) because you don’t want to show up unprepared, only to discover that the ferry to the island you want to go to operates 2 days a week, which can happen. By mapping out our connections in advance, we were able to see as much of Greece as possible, and enjoy plenty of lazy beach time in each place. Ferry schedules governed much of our planning, and with more time, we would love to go back to visit some of the more off the beaten path islands, as well as the Peloponnesian peninsula. 

  • Sight Seeing 95% 95%
  • Food 100% 100%
  • Ease of Transportation 90% 90%
  • Activities 90% 90%

For a whirlwind trip where you’re trying to see as much as possible, there’s no reason to stay in Athens except to see the Parthenon and the Acropolis museum next to it. Get in and get out as fast as possible. As soon as you get to your first Greek beach, you’ll immediately regret every extra minute you wasted in Athens. On our first visit, we arrived Athens at 9pm, immediately went to our Airbnb to sleep, woke up early, walked all around the Parthenon and museum, had a nice lunch, stopped to buy famous bespoke Greek sandals from the ‘poet sandalmaker of Athens’, and then were island-bound on a ferry that very first evening by 6pm. (The Athens Metro takes you right to Piraeus, where all the ferries depart). It was aggressive but worked well for us. You could do something similar or add one night in Athens if you prefer to take your time and get acclimated, but I wouldn’t stay any more than one additional night. 

HYDRA: Our first stop was Hydra one of the closest islands to Athens (just over an hour by frequent ferry connection). It immediately feels like you are miles away from the traffic, and chaos of the mainland. The island is quite small, and cars are not allowed, so donkeys roam the streets laden with goods and luggage. It has a kind of mellow, calm hippy vibe as opposed to a luxury resort vibe (there are only small hotels here). Of course it’s a mellow hippy vibe punctuated by mega yachts like this one  with its Jeff Koons paint job, which is frequently seen around Hydra. Leonard Cohen famously had a house on the island for years and we immediately fantasized about staying put, becoming a writer, swimming in the sea by day and writing by candlelight in the evenings…Hydra is the perfect place to get on Greek time, slow down, and succumb to simple pleasures like sun, sea, and feta cheese. We’ve since returned for whirlwind long weekends from London as it’s so easy to get to relative to islands further afield.

There are beautiful hikes all around the island. Our favorite follows the dry coastline overlooking the sea to Vlychos Beach, which is only accessible by hiking or by boat… our idea of heaven. 

On our first visit, we stayed in the main town at Alkionides Pension. It was comfortable and convenient and just off the main port, if not particularly memorable. It had AC which is an absolute must in Greece in the summer, even if you’re looking for budget accommodations. It’s just too hot and uncomfortable otherwise, so sacrifice other hotel features, but believe us when we say, you’ll want AC. On later visits to Hydra, we stayed at Pension Zoe and loved it.  It’s located in a quieter part of the island overlooking the sea (about a 30 minute walk from where the ferry drops you off in the main port). We had a little patio with a beautiful view where we sipped wine in the quiet evenings as that perfect Aegean breeze fluttered by. These are both reasonably budget friendly accommodations, and we didn’t feel any need to splash out in Hydra. It’s one of the relaxed, less ‘resort’ islands there are other places in Greece where you’ll need to spend more on lodging (like Santorini). 

An ideal day in Hydra would involve breakfast at Papagalos right on the main harbour. You can people watch in the morning, watch the crews of the various yachts parked in the harbour go about their morning tasks, and feast on a long mezze board covered in cheeses, olives, bread, dips, yogurt, fruit, and eggs. An indulgent, fresh start to the day. 

After a leisurely breakfast, we would hike to Vlychos Beach (about 45 minutes in the blazing sun, but it’s a beautiful walk. Don your bathing suit to tan while you walk and be sure to bring a bottle of water). Even little remote beaches like Vlychos have lounge chairs and umbrellas that you rent for the day, and cocktail/snack service at your lounge chair. It’s reasonably priced and feels like you’ve discovered a secret beach with views of the Aegean, and an unspoilt little island with a single church steeple in site. No buildings, very view yachts and boats visible, it’s a perfect quiet cove. You can order fresh fruit or Greek salads to your lawn chair, but save your real appetite for Taverna Marina, the fabulous little restaurant next to the beach. With fresh local seafood, mezzes, carafes of wine and olives and it’s nothing short of heaven. If you can’t manage the walk to Vlychos, Taverna Marina does operate their own boat from the harbor in Hydra to bring guests over for lunch. There is also a little church on the water next to Taverna Marina that is simple and beautiful.

Another must do is cocktail hour at Hydronetta. They play music, and there is even a little landing/sunbathing platform down at sea level with a ladder directly into the ocean. It instantly reminded us of one of our favorite bars in the world in Dubrovnik. You can sunbathe, swim, and sip cocktails from the bar, with calm euro beats in the background. It’s nothing short of paradise. Get here before sunset to claim a spot because there’s a big influx that arrives each evening for for prime sunset viewing. 

CRETE: From Hydra, we took a ferry back to Athens port and immediately connected to an overnight ferry to Chania, Crete. This was the most time efficient way to maximize our days (by getting our long voyage done at night) and the overnight ferry experience was more fun than expected. We had a private room with bunk beds to ourselves, which I would highly recommend. Plenty of budget travellers sleep in chairs on the ferry, but to arrive well rested and feeling like we actually got a night’s sleep, the private berth was the way to go. We bought a bottle of wine in the dining room, made ourselves a feast out of mezzes (olives, grapes, cheese and bread), and dined in style as other travellers stuck with sad sandwiches. This meal far exceeded our ferry expectations. Ward of advice:  be sure to set your alarm for before the arrival time (particularly if you’ve enjoyed a bottle of Greek wine); we were roused by a bang on our door that left us approximately 6 minutes to wake up, change, grab our bags, and get off the ferry as it arrived in Chania, Crete. 

Crete is fantastic. It feels different from the islands and other parts of Greece, and in some ways it felt like ‘real Greece’ with more down to earth people, relaxed towns, and serious hikes. Chania is a charming port town with quaint backstreets. The old Venetian harbour shows vestiges of when this was part of the Venetian rule (1252-1645), and the town has Ottoman and Turkish architectural elements dating to subsequent changes in power over the years. We like Chania more than Heraklion which has a larger city feel. However, if the goal of your trip to Greece is to absolutely maximize island and beach time, Crete might not be for you. We stayed in Chania at Pension Theresa which was centrally located, and we did a day trip to Elafonisi Beach which is very hyped on the internet with crystal clear waters luring instagrams a-plenty. Make sure you check the bus schedule ahead of time for when to go, I think there are only 2 departures there in the morning so you don’t want to miss them. Though beautiful, Elafonisi is also a massive beach, and it’s packed to the gills with people, so again it’s not a place I feel I must go back to – there are other better, more remote beaches in Greece. And don’t worry, that crystal clear water is not unique to Elafonisi.

We also hiked the Samaria Gorge which is one of the major natural attractions on Crete. Warning: THIS IS A SERIOUS Mother f*”&% HIKE. We were woefully unprepared for what we would now describe as a 7 hour strenuous European footrace. The first hour and a half is a steep descent that absolutely kills your knees, quads, ankles, and possibly your spirit, regardless of your level of fitness. Somehow, French women were skipping down this in Keds like it ain’t no thang, but we found to be way more than we bargained for at 16km / 9.94 miles. The hike does end at a beach, and we have never been so happy to see one in our lives. Actual tears of relief and exhaustion might have been shed. We soaked our battered and bruised feet in the water immediately, and drank all of the wine they would serve in a prone position on our lounge chairs before catching the ferry back to Chania. If you are planning to do this hike, prepare better than we did by reading something like this. That said, the gorge is beautiful, and alleviates any guilt you may feel for the duration of your trip regarding feta cheese and wine consumption. 

From Chania, we took a bus to Heraklion for one night in order to catch our morning ferry to Santorini (all these inter-island ferries seem to depart from Heraklion). We took a special trip outside Heraklion to see the famous Minoan Palace of Knossos – which are cool if ruins are a priority for your time in Greece, but didn’t feel like a ‘must do’ if that isn’t your thing. If you do end up in Heraklion, we loved this restaurant Peskesi and highly recommend it. 

SANTORINI: A short ferry ride later and we were in Santorini, perhaps Greece’s most famous destination. Honestly, Santorini is a tourist shitshow; there are Japanese girls with selfie sticks at every turn, every other person is on their honeymoon, and instagram has not helped curb the vainest impulses of human nature, but it’s also the most unbelievably breath-taking views we have ever seen. You can spend the day entire day mesmerized, staring into the distance, and doing little else. In fact, that’s all we would recommend doing in Santorini. Oio is the most popular and most touristy area of Santorini, perched high up on the top of a Caldera (former volcano). You are miles and miles above sea level so Santorini is not a Greek island where you swim in the ocean. (There are some exceptions to this of course, but on a typical itinerary, leave the beach for all the other islands, and make Santorini about a pool with views).

We are all for budget accommodations, but if there is any place you’ll need to splash out while in Greece, Santorini is it. It sounds absurd to say but if you’re going to go through all the trouble of coming here, you really have to stay at a hotel with an infinity pool overlooking the Aegean. Plan to stay put in your pool all day long enjoying the view, and avoiding the pedestrian autobahn that is main street in Santorini (Epar. Od. Firon-las). You are here for the view and little else. Prices can be crazy for hotel rooms in this honeymoon mecca. We somehow found a good deal at the Nostos Apartments and it was perfect. This was way more than we spent anywhere else on the trip (around €400/night) but we would absolutely spend that money again. Save elsewhere on your trip, and spend on accommodation even for just two nights in Santorini. From what we saw when looking for a hotel in Oia with a pool, rooms could be well over €1,000/night so Nostos felt like a reasonable, well price option, while feeling utterly luxurious the entire time we were there. 

We didn’t have any memorable meals in Santorini. It’s mostly overpriced and restaurants make their money on the view as the main criteria, so just use this part of your trip as pool/recharge time, and don’t expect culinary greatness for this portion of the trip. Plus, given how much you’ve splashed out on a hotel, you can save on overpriced meals by skipping dining out here. Hot tip: if you do stay at Nostos, there is a grocery store right above the hotel. Assuming they’ve restocked their wine supply since we left in 2016, it’s a money move to buy all your provisions here and keep yourself stocked at the hotel, sipping chilled rose and eating olives and mezzes for far less money than you would spend on any restaurant meals.

Santorini is home to our favourite bookstore in the world (which is REALLY saying something – at some point we’ll get to a post on bookstores we love)  Atlantis Books. We know we know, the last thing you want to do is spend time in a bookstore when you’re in paradise, but it’s conveniently located on the main street in Oia, and it’s run by a bunch of American kids that came here on holiday and literally decided ‘let’s not leave.’ They are the best example we’ve ever seen of people not just talking about, but actually living the dream. Also, their book selection is actually good and they know their shit (sadly, there are too many instagram-baiting bookshops that are glorified giftstores and sorely disappoint serious booklovers). I’ve thought about this bookstore many times since I was last in Santorini, and if it captivates your imagination, and your fantasies about the type of life you could live, this is a fascinating article about the kids who opened it. 

MYKONOS: After 2 nights in Santorini, we took the ferry to Mykonos, the most famous of the Cyclades islands.(There are a bunch of different clusters in Greece but the Cyclades are probably the most popular and many argue the best – we are dying to get back to a few of the lesser known islands like Naxos, Paros, and Milos). Mykonos has a (well earned) reputation as the party party island, and you can definitely do this if you want. European jet setters cycle through here on the same party circuit as Ibiza, or San Tropez, but you don’t have to have this experience in Myknos. Our perfect day in Mykonos would be spent at a beach, including a long, boozy lunch, then returning to our hotel /Airbnb to shower and change before going to Mykonos town which is buzzy late into the evenings. Many people gather near the famous windmills to watch the sunset, all of the shops in town are still open, and it’s fun to browse before going to dinner, although the narrow alleyways do feel absolutely clogged with tourists. We’ve followed this recipe on subsequent long weekend visits to Mykonos. (As one of the few Greek islands with its own airport and direct flights from London, this is a very doable short getaway).

A perfect day in Mykonos would be spent at a beach, including a long lunch, then returning to our hotel /Airbnb in the evening to shower and change before going to Mykonos town which is buzzy late into the night. Many people gather near the famous windmills to watch the sunset, all of the shops in town are still open, and it’s fun to browse before going to dinner, although the narrow alleyways do feel absolutely clogged with tourists.

One major note about Mykonos is that there are beaches scattered everywhere but they are not connected by a single coastal road. Rather, like spokes of a bicycle wheel, you have to go down a long one way road to get out to each beach, then double back to the center, then down a long road to the next beach. This means you have to plan your beaches for each day and commit. You 100% need a vehicle on Mykonos. We rented an atv (note: if you don’t have a European drivers license you cannot rent scooters, so the atv is your only option)and it was terrifying but we lived to tell the tale. Check your pride at door, channel your inner Lloyd and Harry, and enjoy. The town of Mykonos is packed and buzzy in the evenings, even if you just wander the crowded alleyways, and find an outdoor place to dine. People rave about Jackie O as a crazy bar and dance scene in the center of town, but we never made it. 

Our favourite beach / beach bar is Alemagou. It’s filled with the most beautiful, cool, hip, Europeans you’ve ever seen in your life, there’s a little shack boutique attached that sells €300 string bikinis sold by actual Greek Goddess shopgirls (and boys), but it also is just a fun scene in the daytime. Go for lunch, and spend the entire afternoon sipping wine, eating delicious food, people watching, and going for a swim.

Another nice beach, and a much chiller option than most of Mykonos (as in, bring your own towel instead of renting chairs), is Agios Sostis. You MUST try to have lunch at Kiki’s Tavern which is super, super popular but delicious and an island institution. It feels very remote, and is run by Kiki, who is welcoming, charming, and makes you feel happy to wait an hour to be seated. You will have to queue for ages but they serve free iced box wine while you wait (we would never drink boxed wine but somehow, here in Greece, it’s amazing), and you can take turns swimming in the beach and standing in line with whoever you go with. It feels very local, even though everyone from all around the world seems to know about it.

Another fantastic, relaxed lunch option with its own beach is Nikolas tavern at Agia Anna beach. Family owned and operated, they serve the freshest fish caught daily, with beautifully simple preparations of grilled vegetables and Greek salad, with outdoor tables on a quiet beach away from the ‘nce ‘nce day clubs in other parts of Mykonos. We love it here. 

For a see and be seen, more expensive and flash lunch scene, Hippie Fish  fits the bill. The food is good, but expensive, the restaurant is beautiful and located on a quieter part of the island at Agios Ioannis, and they too have a boutique selling a beautiful curation of €300 kaftans. Come for a relaxed, but luxurious scene when you’re willing to spend more. 

We also went to Elia beach, which was ok, but too big and not particularly memorable. We went to Paradise beach and would say AVOID this at all costs. We found it touristy, somewhat trashy, not Greek at all, they served 2 for 1 slushy drinks and busloads of cruise ship passengers were being deposited in the parking lot. This might as well have been Spring Break ’99 in Florida. Not our vibe. 

Other recommendations from friends that we didn’t get to but are more party party include:

Restaurants: Nammos, Scorpios, Solymar, Nobu.

Clubs/bars: Hakkasan, Guzel, Buddha Bar, Rocknroll, Skandinavian Club, and Panoramos beach. We also went to this place on the beach

DELOS: We took the ferry 30 mins to Delos, the little island just off Mykonos that has the ruins of an entire ancient city. The terrace of lions and visible mosaics are spectacular, and we enjoyed this far more than the Palace of Knosses in Crete. If you can spare a half day away from the beach, Delos is worth the cultural outing. The ferry here departs daily from the port in Mykonos. 

Lodging and getting around in Mykonos: We still don’t have a great handle on where you should stay to be best situated in Mykonos. Since you need a vehicle to get around the beaches (taxis are too expensive if you want to go to more than one beach), it doesn’t really matter where you stay because you end up all over the island. Your hotel or Airbnb will recommend the closest atv rental. We have spent time at an Airbnb that we wouldn’t particularly recommend near Ornos, and have also stayed at Margie Mykonos Hotel, which we really enjoyed. The rates can change dramatically depending on high season, but we were lucky enough to stay here just on the cusp of peak season and paid €83/night for a comfortable, air conditioned room that included an indulgent Greek breakfast buffet every morning. When in Mykonos, we prefer to spend our time at beaches and swimming in the Aegean, but the beautiful swimming pool at Margie makes a great case for a day lounging by the pool.

At the end of our time in Mykonos, we flew directly from Mykonos Airport to Athens (an easy 30 minute flight) and then connected to our International flight home a few hours later without needing to drive back into the center of Athens. 

Our trip checked all the boxes we wanted for our first visit to Greece; islands, beaches, ruins, and plenty of unbelievable meals. Now that we’ve seen the most touristy destinations,  we are keen to explore more off the beaten path destinations including Milos, Folegandros, and the Peloponnese. 

A few final Greece travel tips, and notes on ferries: 

As mentioned, the most important part of planning your Greece itinerary, is mapping everything out using the online ferry schedules (paying particular attention to which days of the week certain ferries run) and buying your ferry tickets in advance. Arriving in Greece with printed email confirmations for all of our ferries eliminated a lot of unnecessary stress, and wasted time, and allowed us to spend most of our time sightseeing and on beaches, not waiting around ports and terminals. We had heard various stories about cancellations and late ferries, but on multiple visits, every ferry  has run perfectly on time and on schedule. The main ferry companies are Hellenic Seaways, Seajets, and Bluestar. They aren’t glamorous, and there doesn’t seem to be much difference between them, so always opt for high speed wherever possible. 

One other note, most Greek beaches are stone (not sand) so you may want some water shoes or flip flops that you’re happy to use wading into the water. There’s a bit of discomfort to overcome en route to the sparkling Aegean. 

 

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