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The blue dome roofs of Santorini, the crystal clear waters of the Aegean Sea, the breathtaking scenic landscape marked by ancient monuments, and of course the food is what makes Greece one of those dream destinations that you hope to experience in your lifetime. But when you actually see and experience it for yourself, it’s the culture, people, and the expansive list of things to do that makes this a bucket list destination that you must visit.
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I had the chance to check Greece off of my travel bucket list in a weeklong trip in September for an ultimate experience of island hopping between Athens, the romantic city of Santorini, the famous party town of Mykonos, and the quaint island of Paros that usually flies off the radar but is a gem of culture and authentic Greek hospitality. To say the least, one week was not nearly enough time to really immerse myself in all that Greece has to offer without being in a harried pace. Part 2 of my visit would definitely include the island of Crete, which I’ve been told would require a week just to get a full experience.
Of course, you don’t visit Greece without reveling in the marvel of Athens and the charm of an old city before the island hopping begins. You’ll first notice that Athens appears to be gritty in a New York type of way, and every so often you’ll pass by vacant storefronts littered with graffiti. However, Athens has resurrected from the turmoil of the global recession and is once again bustling with local and tourist activity.
As a walkable city, a typical day’s itinerary includes visiting the ancient monuments and stopping to visit the major arts and cultural institutions along the way. Hiking to the top of the legendary 2,500 year-old Acropolis is an absolute must and is actually much easier than it looks, and while up top, the dramatic columns of the Parthenon provides the perfect backdrop for the best selfies. The view of the entire city is absolutely breathtaking and leaves you speechless. Athens is worth it just for this experience alone. The Temple of Olympian Zeus is across the street from the Acropolis, and Mount Lycabettus, the Acropolis Museum, National Archaeological Museum, Benaki Museum, and the Byzantine and Christian Museum are all within a mile distance and offers a historical perspective of this legendary city.
Besides the ancient monument, an authentic experience in Athens includes strolling through the popular neighborhoods of Plaka, Syntagma Square, Thissio, and Psyrri for dining, shopping, and a Greek nightlife experience. Greek food by far is among the best, and you can never get enough of the gyros, moussaka, and other popular dishes. For a deeper local experience, venture away from the tourist areas and into the local neighborhoods.
Staying at a hotel in the heart of the city and near the main attractions is convenient for walking to the attractions, hanging out in the tourist areas, and getting a rooftop view of the ancient monuments. I stayed at Hotel Novotel which offered a great view of the top of the Acropolis and is blocks away from some of the museums and two and a half miles from the Acropolis. Although it’s part of the international Accor hotel brands, Hotel Novotel maintains its charming boutique feel with what tastes like a home cooked cuisine.
Santorini is spectacular with its countryside appeal sparkling with romance from the breathtaking hillside sunset to the quaint cobblestone streets and the picturesque iconic blue dome roofs. It’s a small island where the pace is slightly more relaxed and can be experienced from one end to the other by car or ATV. Unlike Athens, Santorini doesn’t have major attractions; the scenery and the view is its main attraction.
Tourists typically hang out in the downtown areas of Imerovigli (the capital of Santorini) and Fira, which is the shopping district. Of course the black sand and Red Beach is a main attraction, but you’ll want to do more than just lay on the beach. Start with breakfast at one of the hillside restaurants in Imerovigli where your backdrop is pure white Cycladic architectural style boutique hotels, restaurants, and churchs. Wine is everything in Greece, and you must visit The Wine Museum at Koutsoyannopoulous Winery, which is an impressive underground cave that recreates traditional winemaking process in the past and ends with wine tasting of arguably some of the best wine on the island. There are also other wineries to visit, but this one gives you a comprehensive experience. For the best views and a local experience, you can take a catamaran tour of the volcano and hot springs; walk between the towns of Fira, Firostefani, and Imerovigli, and catch the sunset in Oia. Doing a food tour is also a great way to experience Greek cuisine.
Everything you heard about Mykonos is true – it’s where all of the real fun happens. And it’s absolutely beautiful especially if you stop long enough to watch the sun set. A three hour ferry ride from Athens on the fast ferry and about two and a half hours from Santorini, Mykonos is the South Beach of Greece, and everything happens in the downtown of Chora where it’s bustling with shoppers, diners, and partygoers. If there’s even any space in between partying and shopping, you can catch a 40 minute boat ride to Delos, which is famous for its ancient ruins, history, and archeology.
The best hotel by far on the island is Rocabella Mykonos Art Hotel, a family owned boutique 5-star pristine white hotel with top of the line luxuries and an impressive architectural design. Most impressive is how everyone from the greeter to the reception to the concierge and even the owner herself caters to their guests and goes above and beyond to personalize your service experience. They even offer a complimentary spa session and free shuttle service to downtown Mykonos (since cabs run sparingly at night). The food is amazing and you will definitely over indulge in the best brunch prepared by their award winning brunch chef.
A three to four hour ferry ride from Athens and two and a half hours from Santorini (on the fast ferry), Paros is an island not on the top of the typical itinerary of island hopping but should be for two very simple reasons – it’s ultra peaceful and relaxing, which comes in handy for a quick break in between the island hopping, and the people cater to you and show you so much love with the best hospitality. That was my experience staying at the family run Stella Mare Hotel. It was cozy, charming, and comfortable and the hotel staff and the owners personally treat you like a part of the family. Service is attentive to detail and they take pride in catering to you. There’s a variety of breakfast options to choose from and the dinner menu is authentic Greek cuisine.
Small towns like Paros allow you to truly experience the people since there’s more opportunity to interact on a personal level without the h
ustle and bustle of the larger towns. While Paros may not be as touristy as the other more popular islands, there is a local bar scene and lots of seafood restaurants and an interesting history that can be experienced through a walking tour. There’s also a short 30 minute ferry ride to the Cave of Antiparos which is quite impressive and about 100 feet deep.