In April, I had the opportunity to attend a travel conference in Greece sponsored by the Athens Tourist Office. It would include meetings with new and existing partners, presentations about the city, entertainment, touring and, of course, food. I had been to Greece many years ago as a backpacking college student, but now my memory is a bit fuzzy so I was really looking forward to my return!

I arrived a day early to get my bearings and have some time to adjust to the time zone before I hit the ground running with the events. I dropped my luggage off at my centrally located hotel and started walking. It was a beautiful, warm Saturday, and a busy day in the city center.

Athens

Athens is a lively, cosmopolitan city with an amazing mixture of ancient and modern architecture, which are literally side by side or over and under each other. I saw families shopping and out for a stroll, people at the numerous outdoor cafes having lunch, coffee and other refreshments, street musicians delighting the crowds, and food carts selling roasted corn, chestnuts and baked goods. I wandered about on the narrow pedestrian streets, happily getting lost, but referred to Google Maps when it was time to head back to the hotel.

The next morning, I went to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant for breakfast. It was another gorgeous day, and I was offered a table outside on the terrace. As I stepped out, I had my first glimpse of the Acropolis with the Parthenon perched on its hilltop pedestal in the center of the city. I was taken aback for a moment by the jaw-dropping view.

I admired the view while enjoying my delicious breakfast, but I couldn’t wait to go sightseeing! I caught the first departure of the hop-on/hop-off tour* since this was my only day to independently sightsee, and I wanted to make the most of it. The included headset provided pre-recorded tour highlights and history, which was well timed with the sights on the route. My first stop was the Acropolis. I was aware that as the day goes on it gets very crowded and wait times can be long, so I arrived 30 minutes after its 8:00 am opening time and the line was fairly short. Visiting the Acropolis in the morning is recommended to avoid the heat of the day. There isn’t any shade, and it can be very hot.

*Travel Tip: Hop-on/hop-off bus tours are available in many cities all over the world, and are perfect for those who want to independently sightsee. Taking you between points, you can stay at a location for as long as you like, and hop on another bus passing by to your next stop.

As I mentioned, the Acropolis is on a hilltop, so to get there involves an uphill walk with many steps (and no railings)*. It’s a balance of walking and watching your step, then stopping to admire the unbelievable architecture and work that went into creating this masterpiece. (I advise not to look up and admire WHILE walking to avoid a fall!) With each of my slow steps, I was completely in awe of my surroundings. Just think — for thousands of years, this was the focal point of societies and served as a fortress, place of worship and symbol of political power. The Parthenon was simply breathtaking. I considered the intricate planning and manual labor that was necessary, and marveled at the chiseled writing on some of the pillars. There are other monuments to admire at the Acropolis, including the Temple of Athena Nike, the goddess of victory. The magnitude of the history is incomprehensible. 

*There is an elevator for visitors with physical disabilities, however it must be pre-booked. 

Nearby is the Acropolis museum, which is definitely worth a visit. It was built to keep and display all of the artifacts that have been recovered from the archaeological site and surroundings, numbering more than 3,000!

I hopped back on the bus and since it was a gorgeous day, I continued to the Riviera region just south of the city. There are several beaches, one after another, all of which would be very busy during the summer months. A couple of days in the Riviera region would be an excellent addition to a Greece itinerary to experience another aspect of the country.

Back in the city center, I hopped off and began wandering again. The lively Plaka neighborhood just below the Acropolis is filled with cafes, shops, trinket stores, a flea market during the weekends, and many people. There are many rooftop restaurants in Athens, which provide sweeping views of the city — with the Acropolis taking center stage. A rooftop restaurant is the ideal location to watch the sunset, bursting with color above the low lying city, as the bright orange ball falls below the mountains on the horizon.

Food-themed walking tours have gained popularity throughout the world, and I had the opportunity to join one to learn about the Athens food culture and sample Greek delicacies. Just in time for lunch, we met the guide and received headsets so we wouldn’t miss a thing. She skillfully navigated the city streets, pedestrians and traffic as we followed closely behind. Our first stop was at a bakery to learn the history of Baklava, which of course included samples. Next, we stopped by a bread bakery, the “best in Athens”, with various sized loaves lining the shelves, a huge tray of sesame bread rings (Koulouri Thessalonikis), and a display case of decadent pastries. We enjoyed Greek coffee and rose flavored candy, then Souvlaki from a food truck whose history dated back to the 1940s! A stop at a specialty shop gave us the chance to sample three varieties of olive oil, cheese, jam and ham, and try a Greek liquor from the island of Crete (no, not ouzo!) called Tsikoudia (Raki). It was a delightful, educational experience that I highly recommend. Of course, I picked up some items to take home!

Santorini

After a couple of days, I left Athens by express boat bound for the island of Santorini, which was to make a few stops at other islands along the way. The modern, fast boat was clean and comfortable with airline-type seats, and many refreshment options. At each port of call, it was fun to go on deck and watch the passengers come and go. The stops were quick, and then we were off again! But once the boat hit full speed, it was difficult to be on deck — it WAS an express boat, after all.

I was excited to see Santorini again. Certain aspects were etched in my mind from my visit many years ago. Back then, the island was rather undiscovered by tourists, donkeys were an authentic means of transportation, and meat and fish were hanging outside storefronts. All that has changed, however, not the steep, jagged cliffside with white buildings seemingly hanging on for dear life or the breathtaking caldera with its mysterious volcano, the violent source of this dramatic landscape. Those are still picture perfect. 

I grabbed my luggage and disembarked the ferry onto the pier of the old harbor. After a minute of searching the many names on signs, I located mine and my driver. As we drove up the serpentine road, I marveled at the geology of the mountainside, with layers and layers of colorful sediment exposed. 

Santorini’s stunning cliffside creates a unique challenge for visitors — there are hills, and many, many steps. Throughout the main towns of Fira and Oia, with lots of restaurants, hotels, and shops, the steps go up, down, and around. The hotels along the caldera are accessible only by steps, which may prove difficult for some people to navigate. However, there are other several hotels not on the caldera where steps are not an issue. Most of the steps in town are not steep, so they can be manageable by taking it slow. 

My hotel was in the town of Imerovigli, just a few minutes’ walk from the capital, Fira. It was an amazing structure on the cliffside with, you guessed it, lots of steps. Thankfully, the hotel staff nimbly navigated them with my luggage and delivered it to my room. My spacious terrace had a table and chairs which provided a lovely space to lounge and admire the panorama view of the caldera and beyond.

Although a small island of only 10 miles long and 3 miles wide, Santorini offers an astonishing variety of things to do. Of course, just marveling at the breathtaking ocean views is a wonderful way to spend time, but there are options to tour the island with a private guide or small group, or explore it on foot. A walking trail along the caldera rim connects the towns of Fira, Imerovigli and Oia, which can be experienced independently or with a guide. 

A boat trip will allow you to see the massive cliffs from another perspective. The ever-popular sunset cruise features a sumptuous dinner on board, and an afternoon catamaran cruise gives you an opportunity to visit the volcano, and may include a stop at a secluded beach. Speaking of beaches, there are many, with unique characteristics such as black volcanic sand, red volcanic sand and white sand. Some have tavernas, beach bars, shops and water sports, while others are more quiet and secluded. 

Another aspect of the volcanic history of Santorini is Akrotiri, an ancient Minoan settlement which was buried under volcanic ash centuries ago, similar to Pompeii. The well-preserved ruins is now an archaeological site open to visitors, and is a peek into the fascinating history of the island.

I was really looking forward to my Wine Roads tour to learn all about Santorini’s winemaking tradition, which dates back thousands of years. The island currently boasts more than 20 wineries that produce high-quality wines, which is quite remarkable for such a small island. The “special” ingredient that sets their wine apart are the minerals in the volcanic soil that influence the grapes, making the wine truly unique. Another interesting aspect is the grape growing process. The vines aren’t set up as we usually think of grape vines, in long rows, but are formed into a small circle, or “basket.” This allows the leaves to shield the grapes from the hot sun, and allows the dew from the night to drip down to water the vine. It isn’t permitted to water the vines since there isn’t a fresh water source on the island. With our knowledgeable guide, Hercules, at the helm we visited 3 vineyards, learned about the wine culture, the winemaking process, and sampled more than 9 wines while noshing on delightful Greek tapas. A wine tour is highly recommended and will fit into any length of stay in Santorini!

My morning departure flight was a short hop to Athens to connect to the US, and although I was only able to check my luggage from Santorini to Athens, it arrived quickly and I had plenty of time to check in for my return flight to the US.  

My short stay was just a “taste of Greece,” so I am planning to return. With so much to offer from the mainland and islands, history, beaches, water and scenery, excellent food and wine, friendly locals and outdoor activities, it’s the ideal destination for anyone. It’s romantic, family-friendly, educational, relaxing, and stunningly beautiful!

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