Greece has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently, with the region’s debt crisis spiraling out of control and the question of the country’s EU membership hanging in the balance. While the uncertainty might encourage some tourists to head elsewhere, savvy travelers will be making the most of the rock-bottom prices and favorable exchange rates.
In fact, this year is likely to be one of the best times to visit the historical city of Athens, with great bargains on flights, hotels and transportation and if you’re lucky, a few less crowds at the many local sights. Just take a few precautions like carrying some extra cash and double-checking schedules and opening hours. While there’s plenty to keep you occupied in the center, with the money you’ll save you can afford to enjoy some day trips out of the city and explore the many sights a little further afield. Here a few to get you started:
One of Greece’s most impressive archaeological sites, located about 140km from the city center, Mycenae makes for a popular day trip. Once an important military stronghold dating back to 1600 BC, the ruins of Mycenae showcase what’s left of one the greatest Greek cities of the era. Check out the famous Lion Gate, the treasury of Atreus and the tomb of Agamemnon, then climb the hill to the Agamemnon palace and bask in the incredible views that stretch across the Argolid all the way to the Saronic Gulf. You can also take a combined Mycenae and Epidaurus tour so you’ll be able to visit two in one.
2. Island tour
You can’t come to Greece without paying a visit to its islands, and there are plenty of day cruises running to those closest if you’re short on time. A triple island cruise will take you on a tour of the islands of Hydra, Poros and Egina, with free time to explore each one and plenty of time on board to admire the views along the Peloponnesian coast and tuck into some Greek cuisine.
Visit the temple of Aphaia and the pistachio nut tree groves (the island is Greece’s number one grower of the nut) on Egina, take a stroll through the Lemon Forest or explore ancient Trizina on Poros and take a donkey ride around car-free Hydra before indulging in some souvenir shopping – the maze of cobblestone streets are packed with art boutiques and market stalls.
The world heritage listed city of Epidaurus lies within a 2-hour drive of Athens, famed as the birthplace of Asklepios, son of Apollo and the god of healing. Asklepion (the healing center) makes for a fascinating visit, where you can explore the sanctuary, temples and the Archeological Museum of Epidaurus, but the main point of interest is the city’s ancient theater. Famed both for its classical Greek architecture dating back to 4th Century BC and its specially designed acoustics, the theater is still in use today. Time your visit for late spring to catch the Epidaurus festival, where recreations of ancient Greek theater will dominate the bill, otherwise find out upcoming concert dates and book your tickets in advance.
4. Mount Hymettus
The closest mountain range to Athens, reaching a peak of 3,366 ft, Hymettus makes for a refreshing change of scenery from the inner city, with vast expanses of greenery and pine tree forests traversing the slopes.
Explore abandoned marble quarries, ancient tombs carved into the limestone and crumbling monasteries as you wind your way through the forested hillsides and valleys of the mountain known to locals as trellos (crazy mountain’). A wide network of well-marked hiking trails will take you where you want to go, but there are also plenty of routes for mountain biking or even rock climbing. Best of all, the view from the top – acclaimed by locals and tourists alike – spans almost the entire the city.
5. Temple of Poseidon
Set in a spectacular location sandwiched by sea on 3 sides, the ancient Temple of Poseidon, the god of the sea, makes another popular day trip and it’s less than an hour away from Athens. The ruins of the temple, dating back to 440BC, stand on the dramatic Cape Sounion overlooking the Aegean Sea, with 15 of the original 41 white marble columns still standing (one of which is famously engraved with the signature of British poet Lord Byron). The real draw card though, is the incredible view from the temple front, a spot crammed with onlookers come sunset.
6. Wine tours of Attika
Greece might be more famed for its cuisine than its wine but the Attika region is slowly earning itself a reputation for producing some quality grapes. There are over 30 vineyards in the area, most of them family operated and many of them open to the public for tastings and tours. Pay a visit to one of the region’s best wineries, Katogi-Strofilia in Anavissos or grab a list of wineries with open cellar doors from the tourist office and hire a car to get around. Better yet, book a wine tour from Athens.
7. Vouliagmeni Beach
The closest beach to the city center – just 20km or a short bus ride away – Vouliagmeni doesn’t have a great deal to offer in terms of sights, but what it lacks in historic significance it makes up for in long stretches of sand and cool, clear waters. This is the place to come if you want to get away from the urban sprawl and spend the day lounging in the sun. There are designated swimming areas, kid’s playgrounds, water slides and volleyball courts, plus plenty of beachfront restaurants where you can tuck into a selection of Mezes and a chilled cocktail. Umbrellas and sunbeds are provided so you all you need to bring is your sunblock.
Read more: Top 5 Beaches for Athens Travelers
There are few destinations so evocative of Greek mythology as Delphi, and the city’s ruins are one of Greece’s most visited attractions. History tells the legend of Zeus releasing two eagles that crashed into each other and plummeted to the ground at Delphi, which was then deemed the center of the earth and became home to the most famous oracle of ancient Greece.
Nestled in the valleys of Mount Parnassos, Delphi is as picturesque as it is historically significant, but to fully appreciate the area’s rich history, join one of the frequent guided tours where you’ll be able to match the myths to the architecture. If you do go it alone, make sure you don’t miss the reconstructed Doric Temple, the immaculately preserved 4thcentury theater and the rebuilt treasury of the Athenians.
– Zoë Smith