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A sample family travel itinerary for Greece for about 15 days. We took this journey with kids through mainland Greece and 2 islands out of the 3000+ that Greece has. The primary purpose was to delve systematically through Greece’s 4000+ year old history and see the significant sights in that timeline.
Over 15 days in June we drove through mainland Greece; covering ground from Athens, through Sounio, the Peloponnese (Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio, Mystras, Olympia), driving through Patras to Delphi, deep north towards Meteora and ending up at the Macedonia airport in Thessaloniki. A quick flight over to Santorini (Imerovigli and Oia), and a luxurious boat ride to Crete (Heraklion, Rethymnon, Chania and Elafonisi) concluded our trip.
It is well regarded that Greece is the cradle of western civilization, and for our visit to Greece, we wanted to trace its 4000 year old history all the way to the modern age. Well, that was an impossible task in 16 days, so we had to concentrate on the highlights. 2 weeks is just about right, and anywhere between 15 days to 21 days would give you a good sense of the place, it’s people and cultures. It also allowed us to spend sufficient time in mainland Greece and hit two of it’s islands.
To trace back it’s history and Greece’s impact on Western civilization, we wanted to start at the beginning – at the Knossos Palace in Crete, which was built circa 2000 BC, but had been settled all the way back in 7000 BC. Plus Crete boasted of the prettiest town in Greece, so that island definitely made our list. From then on, the Mycenaeans and their settlements around Corinth, Mycenae and Nafplio dating back to 1800 BC (Bronze Age), the pre-Greek and Greek era around Athens, Delphi, Sparta and Olympia; the age of Alexander near Vergina and Thessaloniki in Northern Greece near Macedonia, and finally, the Byzantine Empire around Mystras and Meteora. For good measure, and to counter the “what? you didn’t go there?” ridiculousness of friendly banter, we squeezed Santorini into the mix as well.
Early June. We went in the first and second week of June. It was not quite tourist season and not unbearably hot initially, but by the time we landed in Santorini around mid-June, I was running for shade. Still, we were told, this was emptier and cooler than we could imagine. From what I have been told, May through October is tourist season, with July-August being sheer madness (heat and crowds). Winter is stormy and wet and unpredictable.
As with every place we visit, we drove. Driving allows you to see the country more intimately, and in our opinion, is the most convenient, comfortable, intimate and safe way to travel as a family. No stress of getting ready on time to catch a train, no complications around whether baggage will fit, or packing oh-so tightly every day as you train travel from one place to another wasting precious hours going to and from the station, and complete freedom on where to go, how late to stay back, and when to stop.
We rented a car for mainland Greece, took cabs (and foot) in Santorini and rented again in the large island of Crete. Mainland Greece to Santorini was by plane, and Santorini to Crete was via the luxurious and fun high-speed ferry.
We landed late at night (10.30 pm after some storm related delays at Munich) in Athens and took a taxi to our hotel and hit the bed. Perhaps the best way to kill jet-lag especially with kids is to land at night and go to sleep. The reverse (landing in the morning) is very painful and could take days for kids to recover from.
Our hotel, Crowne Plaza Athens City Centre, Athens, was decent for the money. Good rooms, great breakfast with a good view, but slightly further out from the Plaka and Acropolis areas – not walkable, but 5 minutes by cab.>
Hitting the most important sights – we first took a cab to the Ancient Agora. We spent all morning wandering around the Agora and the nearby Monastiraki Square and the alleys and bylanes around it. We had a quick lunch and then headed back to the hotel for a quick jet-lag nap as well as to escape from the afternoon heat.
The evening was spent wandering Plaka, a dinner at Daphne’s Restaurant, and a hike up Filopappou Hill for the most glorious views of the Acropolis and the city. A night drive out towards Lycabettus Hill resulted in a drunk taxi driver dropping us a mile away from the hilltop and an aborted mission. We were too tired to go further, and the views from Filopappou were better.
Took a bus tour of the city, that included a guided tour of the Acropolis. Unlike most of our other guided tours, this one told us no more than Wikipedia did (no side stories or interesting tales). We could have it done it ourselves. A quick stop at the hotel to gather our belongings, and then to the Hertz rental car station close to Plaka. Picking up our Prius, we headed down the streets of Athens, very carefully, towards Sounion.
The Cape Sounio, Grecotel Exclusive Resort was an absolutely amazing resort overlooking the stunning Temple of Poseidon, and I would recommend everyone visiting Sounion to stay there for the night, and not drive back to Athens. We could stay as long as possible at the Temple complex (they do kick you out near dark, and visitors very reluctantly inch out), and a dinner and the subsequent morning breakfast in this luxurious resort, overlooking that Temple was unbeatable.
Our drive to Corinth was a race against clouds and a little bit of a breeze – which in hindsight, was a welcome contrast to the potential heat. Acrocorinth was magnificent, and desolate. There were barely any visitors, and there were no tickets to go in (the guard had left). We were left to explore this medieval fort on our own.
In the afternoon, we drove down the hill to the Temple of Apollo at Corinth (10 mins away from the fort) for some dramatic views of the pillars against an angry sky. The rain started pouring in right after, as we drove along the plains towards Mycenae.
There were countless signs of Mycenaean excavations along the way, but we drove on to the tombs and the Lions Gate, which as some claim, represent the ties that the Mycenaeans had with Egypt, and the wealth that they had accumulated being warriors for hire for the Egyptians. The claim goes further to state that because of this outsourcing of war-power, Egypt lost it’s ability to stand strong, and the dawn of the pre-Greek/Mycenaean Empire came into existence.
In an adjacent lot (not the same parking, but a few minutes down the road) is the alleged Tomb of Agamemnon, or the Treasury of Mycenae – depending upon which legend you believe in. Regardless, this is the most stunning architecture you will see from this Bronze Age era, and a spooky one to boot. It was the world’s largest (documented) free-standing dome till the Pantheon appeared in Rome, centuries later.
We subsequently headed to the very charming town of Nafplio, and stayed in the especially charming Ilion Hotel, Nafplio – small, but with a very unique character that grew on us. You could spend hours wandering the streets of Nafplio’s old town and hopping in and out of it’s bars and restaurants.
The breakfast next morning at the Ilion was as quaint and charming as the hotel, with the sweetest oranges we have ever tasted in our lives.
Driving out of Nafplio, we wanted to hit the local medieval castle for it’s expansive views of the Aegean, but decided that the Byzantine empire was calling us. Heading through some fascinating landscape and scattered monasteries on hillsides, and winding through centuries-old olive groves with tree-trunks wider than anything we had seen in Spain or Italy, we arrived at grand Mystras overlooking the mythological town of Sparta.
There are more than 20 churches, a palace and a fort in Mystras, all guarded by city walls and cascading steeply down the hillside. Our suggestion is to go and park near the top of the hillside and cover the few monasteries on the top, then drive down to cover the remainder. Unfortunately, the most fabulous ones are squarely in the middle of the hillside, so either way, it’s a little bit of a hike. If you are short on time, just start at the bottom and ignore the top.
For the night, we stayed at the absolutely gorgeous and impeccably placed Mazaraki Guesthouse, with a fabulous view of Sparta sprawling below it. Highly recommended.
Spent wandering the olive groves around Mystras and then a drive to Olympia to the historic site of the first Olympic games, starting circa 700 BC. Legend has it that both Alexander and Nero competed in these games in their respective eras, and both lost. Alexander honorably congratulated the winner, while Nero declared his winning competitor a disgrace and had the wreath placed on his head.
No visit to Olympia could be complete without running the 100m race on your own at the first ever 100m stadium in the world.
In the evening, we drove to fascinating Patras for the night. Patras is a town which is as un-touristy as it gets, and we loved that about it. We had our best roadside meal here, walking into a roadside restaurant based on how crowded it was. Fresh sardines caught right off the sea, sauteed in olive oil with a dash of lemon, was a taste I can never forget. People heading for groceries, old men chatting on park benches, and children having fun on metal swings and slides – life as normal as it could get. Maison Grecque, Patras was adequately comfortable for a hotel in the middle of the city, but parking was limited to 1 spot – so call ahead if you are driving. The next morning, driving through downtown Patras was worse than going through downtown Mumbai, and yes, we loved it.
The drive to Delphi included a crossover on the fabulous Rio-Anton Bridge, and then snugged the expansive Greek coastline with it’s pristine aquamarine pigments saturating our retinas, with medieval towns and Byzantine churches drifting past us. The site of Delphi is split across two locations, a few minutes from each other, just like Mycenae. Both are worth visiting, armed with $6 sandwiches from downtown Delphi.
We spent the evening and night in the ski-resort (in winter) town of Arachova in the quaint Xenonas Iresioni, Distomo-Arachova-Antikyra. Dinner at the #1 Tripadvisor rated Ffterolakka was surprisingly good, followed by Greek coffee at a local cafe where we were only accompanied by a group of 5 locals playing poker.
Debating whether we should make a stop at the Hosias Loukas monastery or continue straight to Meteora to reach by sunset, we decided to hit Hosias. An extremely good call, as Loukas was a fabulously preserved Byzantine church that, for a change, allowed you to take pictures inside it. Moreover, we managed to make the drive to Meteora pretty safely and arrived well before sunset.
There was a quick stop near the town of Lamia, at the site of the Battle of Thermopylae (depicted in the movie 300) between the Spartans and the Persians, where the surrounding hills plummeted towards the Aegean Sea. Today, a freeway hugs the mountains and the coastline has receded by about a mile. From there on, it was quite mundane till the town of Kalambaka and the sudden precipitous rise of the Meteora rock formations in front of us.
A quick stop to check-in at the incredibly fabulous (our room had the most stunning view imaginable) Doupiani House Hotel, Kalambaka, and we were off up through the winding road and numerous monasteries to catch the fabulous sunsets of Meteora.
The morning was first spent in eating breakfast with the view of the Meteora mountains at Doupiani, and then spent in a guided tour through 3 monasteries and a 150,000 year old excavation site. Lunch was in downtown Kalambaka at the decent Meteora Restaurant.
We drove out of Kalambaka to the gorgeous foothills of the Pindos Range and a Roman era arch bridge (Pyli Bridge, GPS: 39°27’38” N 21°36’2″ E) to spend the afternoon, and had some snacks at the very relaxing nearby cafe. We reached Meteora back by evening, dropped the kids at the hotel, and spent the rest of our stay in Meteora witnessing the most stunning sunset I have seen in my life.
Drove down the backyard of Alexander – Macedonia – and the vast wheat fields to Vergina, where the tombs of his father, mother and brother are located. The gold-leaf crowns of Philip are a sight to behold. Caught the flight to Santorini out of Thessaloniki and reached Thira by evening.
Taking a cab to our hotel in Imerovigli, we entered our room just in time to catch the fabulous stormy sunset across the volcano with the glittering Oia in the distance. The hotel – Heliotopos Hotel, Santorini – is highly recommended for it’s views from the room, the rooms themselves and the fantastic service.
Day 11, 12, 13
A quick trip to Fira, and then almost 2 full days in Oia, walking up and down the marble alleys in the now, beating sun, while soaking in the fabulous cliched sunsets of Santorini. Our hotel, Alexander’s Boutique Hotel, Santorini and the suite we took was a collector’s paradise and meticulously decorated. It was super duper expensive, but so is everything else in Oia.
The third day was spent in some shopping and roasting in the heat, before taking the ferry out to Crete.
Two quick location tips –
- if you want to see the sunset from the Oia castle (the place to be at sunset), you need to reach almost 2 hours before sunset and even then it is packed. Otherwise your views will be suboptimal. Or, you can wait for sunset to get done from anywhere, and right after the sun goes down, head over to the castle to get the classic Santorini shots of the windmills.
- The blue domes of Santorini, a coveted shot by most photographers, and a stunning view to watch against the deep blue waters of the volcano, is also a difficult place to find. There are two views – one from directly above, and there is a blog post talking about walking down from the Minerali jewelry store which takes you on the other side of the view your see on the web. The better view, in our opinion, is at GPS 36.461561, 25.375811 and taking the alley that goes towards the water at these coordinates. The easiest way to identify it is by walking past the yellow church when walking west and this alley is right after the yellow church.
Four planning tips –
- In hindsight, 3 days is just too much for Santorini. I would rather land in the afternoon, spend one full day next day, and leave the third. You could even compress it to one evening and one full day, but keeping two evenings gives you an extra backup for their stunning sunsets in case something goes wrong the previous night.
- Stay in Oia. You will pay more, and you can decide for fewer nights, but stay in Oia.
- On the ferries in or out of Santorini, book the high-speed ferries well in advance, and pick the VIP or VVIP tickets as they are nominally more than the regular class, but extremely luxurious in practice.
- The sea in Santorini is rougher (calm by all other standards) than the see in Crete. So if you are all for beach life, Santorini is not the place for it.
Days 13, 14, 15
Reaching Heraklion on our 13th evening, we drove to Rethymnon and stayed the night at Veneto Boutique Hotel, Rethymnon
Unfortunately, it is a very long drive from Heraklion to Rethymnon and we weren’t able to see the town at all. Plus, the Veneto in spite of being a nice hotel (and they were very nice to us with our booking plans), is somewhat internally located and impossible to reach by car – so you do need to plan for parking out of the city center and walking in with your luggage.
The next morning, we headed out early and drove to the Elafonisi beach. Beautifully pink sands, a sea that is calmer than your local swimming pool, and a virtual sense of the Libyan shores across the sea, all made this beach magical for us. Plus, the drive through the mountains with it’s local raki stalls and local Cretan cuisine is definitely worth it.
Driving back to Chania, we checked in for the evening and drove to harbor of the prettiest town in Greece. If you have visited Greece and haven’t visited Meteora or Chania, need to redo their trips. Walking down the Venetian harbor at sunset, the views of the Ottoman mosque against the Chania lighthouse, and dinner at Salis was simply magical.
The next morning, we drove back through the pretty coastline of Crete to Heraklion and visited the 4000 year old Minoan Palace at Knossos. On the way, we stopped for the beautiful church at Georgioupolis (St. Nicholas Church in the sea), and the gorgeous Tzagaroli Monastery in Akrotiri.
Planning tips –
- Crete is big. Big. Driving around also takes time, so plan your itineraries well.
- Crete is unique and a must visit. From Elafonisi, to Chania, to Knossos, to the fabulous resorts on the eastern side of the island, you have a long history, luxury and a sea calmer than your local swimming pool to enjoy.
- Plan on seeing Knossos in the late afternoon/evening. We reached at 4, and it was an amazing choice, as the crowds had completely dissipated and we had the location to us, and cooler temperatures.
Our hotel in Heraklion, Vergis Epavlis, was stunning. A little out of the way, but luxurious with the owners who went out of their way to make us feel at home, being especially caring with our children. We even got some home-made knick-knacks for our flight back to Munich, just like a family member would.