Balkanization travel tips!
May 13, 2009 5:18 PM   Subscribe

Travel recommendations please! Tirana - Ohrid - Bitola - Thessaloniki - Athens - Santorini.

I've booked places to stay in all of these fabulous-looking towns but would love any personal recommendations for restaurants, tourist sites, travel tips (ferry riding in Greece, for example) or things I shouldn't miss. (Yes, I've read the Greece Askme threads.) Thanks!
posted by meerkatty to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Santorini: Loved it. Make sure you catch the sunset in Ia (sometimes spelled Oia, I think). Rent a scooter for a day or two and drive around the island (it's easy to go from one end of the island to the other in a few hours); start early in the day. The beach is neat, because it's black sand, but as beaches go, it's not that great. You're better off at your hotel's pool (if it has one).

Athens: Awesome, especially if you don't mind crowds. Besides the usual tourist attractions (recommended, despite the huge crowds), set aside some time to just hang out in the Plaka (market). A greek friend of mine told me before I went: Don't trust the taxi drivers.

Ferries: This is the worst part, honestly. If you can, pay for a faster boat; we took a slow overnight from Athens to Santorini, and it was a very bad experience -- imagine trying to sleep in cramped airline-style seats while the boat is vibrating like crazy from the motors. Or get a cabin (with beds) to sleep in. The daytime ride back was tolerable, but very boring. At least make sure you've got a lot of entertainment.

Also, keep in mind that the port of Athens (Pireaus, IIRC) is a substantial distance from the city proper, but it's on the subway line, which is easy to use. The airport is accessible by bus, and it's also easy to do.

Memail me if you want more info about Santorini or Athens.
posted by Simon Barclay at 5:53 PM on May 13, 2009

In Santorini, you HAVE to do the Donkey rides either up from the old port or down.

You will be in fear for your life but it's something you will never forget.

I also recommend scooters on any of the islands but in Santorini, be VERY careful of slippery roads. They use a lot of marble in the road base and it gets polished and very slippery.
posted by Man_in_staysis at 5:56 PM on May 13, 2009

Oh, if it's still there (I went in 2005) there's a hotel in Santorini (city of Perissa) called the Santa Irini which is run by a couple of greek guys who moved back there after having grown up in Toronto. Anyways, there's a bakery attached (run by the same family), and mmmm..... anything you get there will be delicious. Droooool. If you don't have somewhere to stay, the hotel is really nice (at least it was in 2005), inexpensive, and had a beatiful pool. For a small room with a/c, it cost us 30 Euros per night, I think.
posted by Simon Barclay at 6:03 PM on May 13, 2009

Not on your list, but I'll add the island of Crete.

Fly into Hania, spend a day or two enjoying the sleepy harbor town, then drive down to Chora Sfakion. It's a great place to enjoy the rocky (craggy-rocky, and smooth-rocky, they have both, as I remember) beaches, then the fresh fish at a local taverna.

Depending on your time/interest, you can drive on to Heraklion and visit Knossos (the Minoan ruins are beautiful), or just head back to Hania.

Beautiful country, excellent food. Fresh fish, calamari, and lamb are definite highlights.
posted by Seeba at 6:50 PM on May 13, 2009

Simon Barclay recommended a fast boat from Athens to Santorini. If you do this, bring some pills to help with the motion sickness. I am not prone to it myself, but this trip was an exception. All the bathrooms and garbage cans were occupied with people throwing up. Luckily a stranger helped me out with some dramamine.

Everyone recommends sunset in Oia. As a result, it's a zoo. I didn't enjoy it. In general, I didn't love Santorini. It is gorgeous, but felt very touristy to me, much more so than Athens or Crete (my only other two experiences with Greece).

I agree with Seeba that Crete is great. I love Knossos. If you are considering going, I would take the tour. It's hard to tell what's what just walking around by yourself. The Gorge of Samaria is also a nice hike.
posted by pizzazz at 7:07 PM on May 13, 2009

If you're taking the train between Thessaloniki and Athens you must, must, must stop and see the meteora monasteries at Kalambaka.
posted by ook at 7:13 PM on May 13, 2009

I went to Mykonos & Santorini on my honeymoon. We loved both and had an absolutely amazing time. Santorini didn't feel touristy to me, but then again, we spent most of our days hanging out at the hotel pool (we were in Oia, which is on the very tip of the island). We didn't do the black sand beaches or the donkey ride. The caldera is really spellbinding, though. We could hear a lone clarinet rise each evening from a boat which sailed across the sea, perhaps half a mile away. Truly magical.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:34 PM on May 13, 2009

Also not on your list, but I'd add Rhodes if you have any flexibility. Its got a great castle/old city to explore, and definitely rent a scooter to drive up to the acropolis there, and spend some time exploring the new city - hardly any tourists there and a very cool little town. We also drove up the coast a bit and had some good times on the pebble beaches. Definitely my favorite of the islands.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:46 PM on May 13, 2009

Thessaloniki: we really enjoyed taking the self-guided Lonely Planet Greece walking tour through the city. You can also buy individual chapters from their website.

We stayed at Le Palace, got a reasonably good deal, and were walking distance from the waterfront boulevard. Don't hesitate to take cabs to go to any other place of interest, they are ridiculously cheap. As in, neither I (U.S. resident) not my sister (Bulgarian resident) could believe just how little money they cost.

Cocktails are pretty expensive: more expensive than in New York (but not quite as much as in Paris), so be prepared to spend a lot of money on a night out. Expect to get complimentary snacks/desserts at every bar/restaurant you attend; if you go to smaller family taverns, everyone will be so excited to have a foreigner visiting, that people will buy you drinks. Don't reject them, it's rude: we learned that the hard way (accept, then just take a sip if you are already feeling too drunk at 2 pm)!

The food was truly great at all the places we went to (we made note of all the restaurants that were too full to accommodate us on our first night, then made a point to visit them on subsequent days), so you pretty much can't go wrong there.
posted by halogen at 12:57 AM on May 14, 2009

here are my off the beaten path Athens recommendations. depending on when you are going (any time not in june/july/august) athens is really not that crowded at all.

kerameikos -- the old outer wall and road of ancient athens, so they buried everyone out here. really interesting statues, way less crowded than the main drag (acropolis/agora)


Hill of the Muses (Filopapou Hill) -- offers amazing views of the acropolis, athens in general, and piraeus. the hill is covered with meandering paths, olive trees and relatively few tourists. it is west of the acropolis.

The Old Olympic Stadium -- definitely cool to look at from the front with all the other tourists. but what they don't know is that you can go around the back and get inside! While standing on Vassileios Konstandinou and facing the stadium walk to the left and then turn right staying as close as you can to the right side of the stadium. there are a few stairways back here, but sometimes they are locked. if they are, keep walking until you get to Agras -- you can follow Agras up to Archimidous and then turn right. On Archimidous, right at the apex of the stadium, you find a big gate that is open almost all the time -- even close to dusk. follow one of the greeks who will be running along the top of the track that runs along the top of the stadium. you can even sit inside the stadium and laugh at all tourist groups standing outside at the bottom of the stadium! You can also walk around the little park on the west side of the stadium.


Virinis (my FAVORITE restaurant) -- this is where sneaking around to the back of the stadium really pays off. Virinis is across the street from the back entrance of the Old Olympic Stadium and and is a favorite with the locals. Easily the best food i ate in greece. it has big windows and icicle lights that hang in the windows. As you walk west on Archimidous it will be on your left hand side. order EVERYTHING.

Address: Archimidous 11, Phone: (+30 210 701 1101) It's at the intersection of Agras and Archimidous.

Kallimarmaron -- Serves food based on ancient Byzantine recipes. Different from normal greek food and also very good. It's a little hard to locate though, we got lost trying to find it. but if you wander around in the area long enough (or ask your hotel to call and get better directions) you'll find it. Eforionos is close to the northwest edge of the Olympic Stadium
Address: Eforionos 13, Phone: (+30 210 701 9727).

things to buy at the bakery:
ask your hotel to recommend a good bakery (a non-chain! stay away from Everest if you can -- it's basically a Greek Mcdonalds)
boughatsa (sweet pastry) -- i still don't know what they put in here, but it's heavenly.
spanikopita -- you can get spanikopita almost anywhere in greece, but it's best fresh from the bakery.
filopita -- similar to spanikopita, but without the spinach

Melissinos Sandals -- the son of the original owner now perfectly fits sandals to you feet. He is almost always stoned and/or genuinely crazy/nice. don't go here if you have some place to hurry off to -- there are usually a fair amount of people in here and he goes off on lots of tangents. buy at least two pairs of these things -- somehow you can wear them forever and never get blisters.
here is his website: (sorry, the hyperlink wouldn't work?)

Parade -- there is a military-ish parade every Saturday morning in front of the parliament building. you can see lots of Greek soldiers in their crazy official pom-pom get-ups.

Flea market-- there is a flea market in the Monastiraki Plaza every Sunday morning. old men bring your normal weird flea market fare to sell. definitely good people watching -- and some very cool antiques.


Aegina -- an island located 45 min from Piraeus by ferry. This is a great little day trip from Athens. You get dropped off at the town center -- you can wander around for awhile, but i highly suggest renting a moped. there is very little traffic on Aegina and you really get to see the whole island that way, especially the Temple of Aphaea on the Northeast side of the island. you can also take a bus to the temple from the town center. Or you could ask a local where a good beach is!

stay away from the beaches in athens -- don't let anyone convince you it is a good idea to go to Glyfada -- the beach is really gross there.

On Santorini, a good way to see the whole island is by rent-a-car, if you can drive stick. Go to Mama's cafe for breakfast in Thira.
posted by nanhey at 5:19 AM on May 14, 2009

There's a catamaran between Athens and Santorini that's a great way to travel between the two destinations (more information here). You can reserve tickets online from the site I linked to and pick them up in the Athens airport.

Although the catamaran is quick, be prepared for a bumpy ride--be sure to take some motion sickness pills. If you forget to bring some with you (as I did), stop in to one of the countless Athens pharmacies where you can pick some up cheaply.

I found Santorini underwhelming. It's extremely touristy, and the crowds can make it difficult to get around the island. On the positive side, the view over the caldera is stunning. If you've got a hotel with views, bring some good books, sit by the pool, and relax. You won't be missing much by staying put--the scenery is far and away the best part of visiting the island.

I know it's not on your itinerary, but I'd like to second the recommendations for Crete. If you've got some flexibility, definitely consider making a visit. Although you'll still find plenty of crowds in the larger cities, it's easy to get off the beaten path.
posted by frogpondian at 6:25 AM on May 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations so far! The itinerary is pretty set in stone, so I won't be visiting elsewhere on this particular trip. Though Meteora might be an option if I head to Athens not on the overnight train from Thessaloniki,

Surely someone on Metafilter has been to Albania or Macedonia....!
posted by meerkatty at 6:57 AM on May 14, 2009

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