Greek vacation ideas
March 9, 2017 12:47 PM   Subscribe

I will have a week and a bit in Greece - where should I go, what should I do? Snowflakes inside.

I’m going to Greece for a work meeting in June. I’ll have two days in Athens before the meeting to recover from jet lag (will be a 20 hour trip from Seattle!) and do a bit of sight-seeing, and then a week after as well. I’m having trouble deciding what to do with my week after - there’s so much to see and do and I’m having the hardest time narrowing it down! I’d like to do a good mix of mountains, villages, a ruin or two, eating Greek food, and some time on an island.

I put together an itinerary of Delphi-Meteora-Lefkada for a mix of ruins, mountains, and island, but that seems like it might be a lot of time on a bus. I’m also intrigued by Crete, where it seems like I can get a little bit of everything I’m looking for on one (large) island, but it sort of seems like Crete needs more than a week to do it justice.

Specific things I'd love:

- I really want to be somewhere with that amazingly, eye-poppingly clear Agean sea, though I'm not really looking for a beach vacation. I would love to spend a day on a boat, visiting various swimming spots around an island.

- I'd like to spend a day or two in a pretty village with interesting things to do in the area.

- I'd love recommendations for small hotels or pensions to stay in, the kind of place with a common area where fellow guests chat in the morning or evening.

- I have colleagues in Athens so I will ask them for Athens recs though if there's something you loved, please share.

I'm not super-concerned about budget, since most places that aren't Santorini seem pretty inexpensive, but I'd like to keep my hotel costs under $100/night. Willing to do domestic flights and/or rent cars where that makes sense. I'll be alone but I'm not super-worried about that, though of course it's always nice to meet other people (locals or tourists) when traveling alone!

Oh, and speaking of Santorini, I'm not keen on something so touristy and expensive, but is it one of those places where I should just go anyway because it's so special and memorable?
posted by lunasol to Travel & Transportation around Greece (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I spent 5 days in Santorini a few years ago, in the middle of a few days in Athens and 4 days in Crete. I found it to be super special and memorable, yes. I stayed at the appropriately-named Volcano View hotel, which is near Vothonas. I got the impression it was a bit more reasonably-priced than staying closer to Fira or Oia. There were common areas where people chatted. Oia is definitely a pretty village, and there are a couple great wineries nearby, as well as some very interesting ruins to explore. Some great hikes and amazing views. I took a day-long excursion on a catamaran around Santorini that I don't think I'll ever forget.

Crete wasn't as eye-catchingly beautiful or memorable as Santorini, but it was definitely worthwhile in its own right. I wouldn't choose to stay in any of the larger metro areas like Heraklion. Chania was a great place to stay if you're looking for an older port town with charm - cobblestone streets, lots of history, plenty of walkable village with nightlife. But if you're allergic to cats, be careful, there are a lot of strays hanging around.

Happy to give you more detailed advice if you like, just PM me.
posted by hootenatty at 1:06 PM on March 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

We went to Syros and Naxos and enjoyed them both. Town-wise, Ermoupolis on Syros was very nice.
posted by Beardman at 1:41 PM on March 9, 2017

I just went to Greece in October.

The Athenian ruins are very do-able in a day, as they are all in the same general area. It's worth staying near the Acropolis so you can see it lit up at night. Also, great views of the Acropolis and the sunset from the nearby Areopagus Hill.

We spent 2 days in Santorini, which I found overly touristy for the most part although Oia has those classic blue-and-white buildings and the sunset views are, again, phenomenal. It will definitely hit your "pretty villages on the Aegean" buttons. We stayed at an Airbnb just outside Oia, but we did have a car. If you are relying on transit, Fira is a bigger town and might have more options.

We also did a driving tour, of which the highlight was definitely Meteora. I think that was the best part of the whole week, just because the landscape is so other-worldly -- it looks like something out of a fantasy novel. Delphi was very good, and I liked Nafpaktos as well.
posted by basalganglia at 2:34 PM on March 9, 2017

I would stay in Athens and make that your base of operations. There is a lot to do in Athens--the flea market at Monastiraki, the Parthenon and the Agora, the unbelievable Archaeological Museum up by Exarcheia, Exarcheia itself, the Byzantine Museum, the souvlaki spots. It's a surprisingly nice walking city, though of course you need to be aware of your surroundings.

There are also lots of things to see on a day trip starting from Athens: Ydra is a two-hour ferry-ride, and is a beautiful island town where there are no cars allowed; vacation homes and picturesque streets, surrounded by high mountains with some very nice hiking paths. Egina has some very pretty old ruins and is a very short ferry-ride from Athens, as well. Sounio is a beautiful old temple to Poseidon, where you can see graffiti left by Lord Byron (!); it's a very picturesque 90-minute bus-ride from Athens, down the coast along the Saronic Gulf, though to be fair there isn't much to see there; best to time it so that you can catch the sunset, which is really spectacular, and then leave. The Temple to Artemis at Braurona is also impressive and not too far from Athens, though its hours can be extremely erratic and it's hard to reach without a car. There is also Nauplio, the old capital of Greece, which has a stupendous old Ottoman castle and lovely shops and streets, about 120 minutes from Athens, and Poros, which has much in common with Ydra.

Crete is spectacular, especially if you can rent a car. Stay in Chania or Rethymno in the East, or Agios Nikolaos on the west. Chania, in particular, has a wonderful old Venetian / Ottoman old town, with narrow stone streets and charming little restaurants, and a beautiful waterfront. Rethymno is faster-paced, more touristy, and younger, with a lot of bars and a big beach. Agios Nikolaos is rich and fancy, with a lagoon, bizarrely, in the middle of town, and lots of nice shops.

Avoid Iraklio, which is sort of gritty and industrial, though it does have the archaeological museum with some really great Minoan artifacts, and it's very close to Knossos (very overbuilt and artificial, but still worth seeing). There are lots of really unusual and beautiful beaches--Elafonisi (large, undeveloped white-sand island that you can wade to from the beach), Preveli (cold mountain river meets the sea at a pretty sand-spit; palm trees, cliffs, incredible views)--as well as really astonishing mountain valleys, all of which you will need a car to see, unfortunately. Crete can definitely be done in a week, though there is a lot there to see if you want to spend more time.

Meteora, and northern Greece in general, is also very much worth seeing. Meteora is amazing, though there will be lots of walking and hiking involved. You can get there by bus or train, and you won't need a car once you are there. The monasteries must be seen to be believed. There are lots of nice little hotels in Kastraki and Kalampaka to stay in. Unfortunately, Meteora is too far away from Athens to be a day trip, but there really isn't enough to do if you're going for more than two days, and it's terribly far away from everything else.
posted by Oxydude at 3:16 PM on March 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

I went to Greece in September of last year with 3 friends: 1 day in Athens, 3 days on Santorini, 4 days on Naxos, and spent the night in Athens again before leaving. We traveled by ferry between the islands and rented cars on Santorini and Naxos.

Santorini is very, very touristy. The views of the sea are spectacular, and Oia is pretty though reminiscent of one giant hotel and outdoor shopping arcade. We stayed in an airbnb in Vourvoulos, a village on the less-expensive (i.e. non-sunset) side of the island, which I found more charming than Oia and far more charming than Fira, the main town. This was in part due to the bread van that drove by every morning, allowing us to select fresh pastries from our doorstep. We avoided the famous red and white beaches, and instead drove to Vlichada beach on the southern end of the island--nice sand, dramatic cliffs, more space, nudists, and an excellent fish taverna called To Psaraki.

Naxos is larger and not completely tourism-fueled. (American travelers are rare but it is apparently beloved of Italians.) Naxos was lovely and I could have easily enjoyed 3 more days there. We visited a variety of beaches, mountain villages (Filoti, Melanes), and walked a lot.
posted by esoterrica at 3:38 PM on March 9, 2017

Seconding basalganglia's recommendation of Meteora, if you can work out the logistics. Last summer my partner and I spent a week in northern Greece with an expat friend, and Meteora was absolutely worth the long drive we took to get there.

Photographs really don't do it justice at all...seeing a photo of a single monastery on a huge stone pillar doesn't prepare you for the experience of being inside a monastery on a huge stone pillar while looking across the valley towards the others.

To be fair, we had a week, a car, and a semi-local guide. Partner and I are both nature-y people who particularly like cliffs and mountains, and we combined Meteora with hiking in the Pindos mountains, seeing Vikos Gorge and staying in Vitsa at a really lovely inn.

As a side note, Greek freddo cappuccino converted my partner into a coffee drinker, albeit one who is now very disappointed by American attempts at coffee + ice.
posted by brackish.line at 4:02 PM on March 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

I went to Greece last year. I spent six days on Crete and three on Santorini. I'm kind of glad I went to Santorini, but mostly because it was this weird Greek Disneyland style experience. I swear I hardly saw any Greeks the whole time I was there, and the ones I did were not from Santorini. It was basically rich kids and hotels, as far as the eye could see. I would recommend just sticking with Crete, which definitely has everything you want, and a week is about right. I felt like my six days was enough to feel like I had fully explored the west side of the island, and I could have seen the east too if I'd been willing to hire a car for the whole time.

Chania was amazing (but you probably only need two days there), and if you go you should stay at the Madonna studio B&B if you choose to go. Best place I've ever stayed, lovely landlady who knew everyone and everything about Crete and cooked the best food.

You'll get that amazing beach experience at Elafonisi or any number of other Cretan beaches. You've got ruins and mountain villages, and amazing food. Apparently there are some lovely monasteries in the east where you can stay overnight and really experience how the monks go about their daily life, making honey, cheese, etc, although I didn't do that myself. The only thing you won't get is the white cliff-top houses, but if you really want that, I'd suggest looking into one of the smaller less touristy islands than Santorini.
posted by lollusc at 4:40 PM on March 9, 2017

Please, meet Matt Barrett, Carrboro's Greece Travel guy. He has made a gazillion old-school (but somewhat updated) pages full of micro and macro greece travel information.

Disclaimer: I did some web programming for him once.
posted by amtho at 4:44 PM on March 9, 2017

Here's a link to my Crete photos if that helps convince you that Crete has everything you need :)

(Santorini pics here, but they pretty much look like every tourist's photos of Santorini ever.)
posted by lollusc at 4:46 PM on March 9, 2017

Delphi was my favorite site in Greece -- loved the setting, the ruins, and the museum.

Santorini was like a postcard -- pretty but not a lot of depth. In an odd way it reminded me of my current home, which is a very dissimilar island town in a completely different part of the world but which is also full, in season, of cruise ship tourists walking around goggling at the scenery and buying trinkets. I'm sure there's more to it than that if you know where to look; I can only say I didn't find it. I don't regret going but if I were planning another trip to Greece I would certainly add a different destination rather than revisit Santorini. But I'd go out of my way to visit Delphi again.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:54 AM on March 10, 2017

Sounds like a lot of us have had a similar itinerary. My wife and I did Athens (2d) -> Naxos (3d) -> Santorini (2d) -> Crete (2d). I wish we would have only spent 1 day in Athens; it's hot and sticky in July and you can do the postcard highlights in a day. Naxos and Crete were both great; if I were to do it again I would have spent much more time in Crete. Like some of the others here, I'm glad we did Santorini just to have seen it, but a day and one sunset would have been enough to get the gist.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:24 AM on March 10, 2017

Thanks all! This is very helpful. Right now I'm leaning towards more time in Crete but Syros and Naxos are also calling me.
posted by lunasol at 10:00 AM on March 10, 2017

Also be aware that if you really truly do want to see Santorini, there are ferry day trips from Crete during high season. It does mean you have to spend a couple of nights near Heraklion, though, which is not so awesome. If you had a hire car, you could probably stay out of town a ways and still get to the port in time for the ferry.
posted by lollusc at 3:30 PM on March 10, 2017

Update: I decided on Naxos (4 nights) --> Santorini (2 sunsets nights) --> Delphi (1 night) --> Athens (2 nights, plus another night at the end). I leave in two days! Can't wait!!! Thanks so much for all the advice.
posted by lunasol at 1:29 PM on May 24, 2017

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