A summer city break in Athens

Strolling through the Plaka district

After planning a summer island-hopping trip to Greece, we could see the only way of making our way between the Sporades islands we were starting at and the Cyclades islands where we would be spending most of our time in would involve passing through the country’s capital city, Athens. With it being a city neither of us had visited before and one that had long been on my ‘must-do’ list, it seemed silly not to extend our stay there to a few nights.

Crowds lining up to get ticlets for the Acropolis Museum

We both knew that temperature and crowds-wise, late July/early August was probably not the best time to visit this city but weren’t sure when else we’d get the opportunity so we planned in 4 nights there, staying in a budget hotel in the Omonia district – walkable from many of the main attractions and also near a metro line.

Taking a flight out of Skiathos to Athens at the break of dawn, we arrived in the city early and were surprised and extremely pleased to find that our room was ready for us to check in.

After freshening up and dropping our bags, we set straight out, walking towards the Plaka area stopping at a local cafe along the way for a pastry snack.

The narrow, bustling streets of the Plaka district were perfect for a spot of souvenir shopping and – with temperatures reaching their late 30s – grabbing an ice cream.

Passing by the Panthenaic Stadium on our evening segway tour of the city

We eventually found ourselves in the shadow of Athen’s most famous attraction, the Acropolis where we had our first glimpse of the Parthenon perched on top of the hill. Opposite, was the Acropolis Museum, a long queue of tourists winding its way out of the museum grounds and onto the main thoroughfare.

Luckily, we had pre-booked timed entry tickets to the museum and were able to waltz past the hoards of people waiting and straight through the main doors into the lovely, cool air-conditioned building.

The museum houses artefacts found on the archaeological site of the Acropolis as well as providing background information on the site making it well worthwhile visiting before heading up the Acropolis hill itself.

Views of both Mount Lycabettus and Acropolis Hill at sunset

After spending some time exploring, we exited the museum and walked down to the visit the ruins of a Roman village being excavated beneath the museum – something included in the museum ticket price.

Above, and below, exploring the ancient cemetery Kerameikos

That evening, we had a segway tour of the city booked which we hoped would help us to get our bearings and possibly give us some ideas on things to do and see in the city. Being unfamiliar with the city still and short on time before our tour, we opted to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe rather than hunt around for restaurants. Then we went to meet our segway tour guide.

Despite it being high season, we found ourselves to be the only people to have booked meaning we got a private tour. As it was just us, our guide asked us what we were interested in seeing, how long we’d spent in the city so far and tailored the tour to us rather than following the usual route.

The sprawling archaeological site of the Ancient Agora

Segways were a quick and easy way to get around the city and highlight of the extensive tour was riding uphill to a viewpoint over the Acropolis that we would never have found or thought of seeking out otherwise! Taking the tour in the evening meant we didn’t have the sun beating down on us although it was still uncomfortably hot at times.

Exhausted from a long day by the time the tour finished just after 10pm, we decided to head straight back to the hotel and continue our exploration of the city bright and early the next day.

In the museum of the Ancient Agora

Day 2 we ate breakfast at the hotel and caught the metro to the Monastiraki area of the city from where we would be spending most of the day visiting the city’s many archaeological sites. We had pre-purchased a combo-ticket giving us access to a variety of sites and we began with a visit to Kerameikos, the site of an ancient cemetery and well worth a visit if you have plenty of time in the city.

After spending some time exploring the ruins here, we walked the short distance to the Ancient Agora, one of the most important – and larger – archaeological sites in the city and a must see. The site includes a small – and thankfully air-conditioned – museum on its site and we spent a good few hours wandering through ruins of the old market area and up to the Temple of Hephaestus, one of the best preserved temples in the city, still with its roof intact.

The Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora

There was little shade from the midday sun at the Ancient Agora site so when we left, we decided it was time for an ice cream from one of the many cafes and stores lining the streets of the Monastiraki district.

Once we’d cooled down a bit, we walked to the third site on our combo ticket, Hadrian’s Library, the Roman ruins of a library created by Roman Emperor Hadrian. This was much smaller site than the Ancient Agora and didn’t take long to walk around. Close by was the site of the Roman Agora, another smaller but still interesting archaeological site.

Needing a break from exploring Greek and Roman ruins, we made our way back to the Plaka district where we came across the Church of Panagia Kapnikarea, one of the oldest churches in Athens. From here, we found ourselves in a more modern area of Athens, Ermou Street, a typical high street lined with all the usual stores. After visiting a few stores – mainly for the aircon! – and grabbing a drink from McDonalds, we found ourselves at the other end of Ermou Street in Syntagma Square.

Above, one of the oldest churches in Athens, and below, watching the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Passing the pretty square with its central fountain, we made our way towards the Old Royal Palace where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies. Traditionally-dressed palace guards constantly stand in front of the war memorial and on the hour, every hour, crowds gather as the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard takes place.

It was interesting to watch the solemn ceremony and as we wilted in our flimsy summer attire, I wondered how the soldiers coped stood in the summer heat in their heavy ceremonial garb.

Indulging in a peinirli at SMAK

After watching the Changing of the Guards ceremony, we wandered back through the Syntagma area towards Monastiraki stopping at SMAK cafe for a Peinirli or ‘pizza boat’ snack before heading back to our hotel for a few hours to rest our feet, cool down and freshen up.

Traditional entertainment at Greek night

That evening, we had booked a ‘Greek night’ – a dinner accompanied by traditional entertainment – in the Plaka district. Making our way back to Monastiraki, we wandered through the pretty, narrow streets of the Plaka and up a set of winding steps to the restaurant indicated on our dinner confirmation. Showing our confirmation to the host outside, there seemed to be some confusion after which we were eventually led up some stairs to a rooftop veranda where we were seated at a table with Acropolis views. It was not what we had expected – we had imagined the night to be some kind of group thing with everyone sat at group tables for the meal and entertainment – and when we were brought over our menus, we again showed our confirmation to check we were in the right place and to check what we could order.

Above, beginning our climb up Acropolis Hill, and below, visitng the site of the Acropolis

We were told what drinks we could have as included in our package and that we would be brought a selection of traditional starters then asked to order a main off the menu, both going with the pork souvlaki. The starters were all delicious but as our mains arrived, we could see into another part of the restaurant below where cheers and singing made us notice some kind of entertainment already going on.

Confused, we finished our mains before attracting the attention of a waiter and again questioning that we were in the right place for the package we had bought and specifically pointing out the ‘show’ part of our itinerary. After going to speak to someone, we were asked to move and lead back down the stairs and into the room where the dinner show we should have been in attendance at was in full swing! There was an empty table in the corner where we were told to sit but as we’d already eaten and food was just being served here and with everyone else at communal tables where they’d already had time to chat and get to know each other, we felt a bit out of it. We stayed for a while as traditional Greek songs were played and various dances including Zorba’s dance were performed with some audience participation (the one moment we were glad to be seated in the corner at the back out of the way!) and when we enquired about the dessert we had not yet had, we were bought a couple of baklava-style pastries on a plate but after a while, decided to leave feeling a bit like gate-crashers of a party we hadn’t been invited to!

Views from Acropolis Hill

An earlier night than planned did at least mean we were up bright and early again the next day and after another adequate hotel breakfast, we were up and out ready for a final day of sightseeing in the city. With it being early, we decided to head straight to the Acropolis thinking we might beat the crowds. We thought wrong as it turns out 9am is when most of the tour groups from the cruises come in and it was absolute mayhem!

A heavily scaffolded Temple of Olympian Zeus

Our archaeological sites combo ticket did at least mean we got to skip the lines and walk straight through the main entrance at the base of the hill and the walk up to the top wasn’t too crowded either but we soon reached the spot where the crowds entering at the ‘groups’ entrance merged with the rest of the visitors and the last few metres up to the Parthenon involved just being swept along in a throng of people while being barked at by the staff to ‘keep moving’ in a variety of languages.

Visiting the Panathenaic Stadium

The main site itself was at least large enough for the crowds to disperse across the space available so it was still easy enough to access the information boards available, get close to the ruins and take photos although there was a bit of a wait to find spaces at the viewpoints over the city below.

We then had to queue to exit the area and make our way back down the hill. It wasn’t quite what I expected and if I was to visit again I think I’d either aim for the very moment the site opens in the morning or at the very end of the day.

We still had a few archaeological sites to visit on our combo ticket so from the Acropolis we walked to the Olympieion or the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Unfortunately, the remains of the main temple here were under renovation and heavily scaffolded with just a few lone columns standing freely.

Visiting the Lyceum of Aristotles

Nearby was the Panathenaic Olympic Stadium, not included on our combo ticket but somewhere we had passed on our segway tour a few days earlier which looked interesting and worth a visit. The entrance fee to the stadium included an audio guide and rather than follow the instructions to look around the stadium as we listened, we instead found some shade to site in at the very back of the stadium and listened to the guide in one go enjoying the views over the impressive structure, site of an ancient Greek race course and host to the first modern Olympic games. The ticket also included entrance to a small on-site museum containing paraphernalia from the modern Olympics.

The Alice in Wonderland themed Little Kook cafe

The final site on our combo ticket was the Lyceum of Aristoles, a site which although it has a lot of historic significance, did not have much to see! After a quick stroll around, we caught the metro back to the Monastiraki district and from here took the short walk to the neighbourhood of Psiri, where we wanted to visit another place that had caught our eye on our segway tour of the city, Little Kook cafe.

Tucked away up a back street, this cafe spread out over multiple buildings is covered in Alice in Wonderland decorations with staff dressed as either the Mad Hatter or Alice herself. It was not the kind of place we expected to come across in the historic centre of Athens but it looked a fun place for a sweet treat. With ice cream, waffles, crepes, American-style pancakes and various delicious looking cakes on offer, it took a while to decide what to order but eventually, I went for a crepe with hazelnut spread and strawberries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. What came when the order was served was that and so much more, marshmallows and colourful wafer pieces scattered over the creation.

Full of sugar, we waddled away from the cafe and back to Monastiraki. We had one more ‘must do’ sight on our list, a trip to the top of Mount Lycabettus, the summit of which is the highest point in the city. We had seen the hill from afar from various viewpoints around the city and now we wanted to see the city from here.

Above, the Mount Lycabettus funicular, and below, views from the top

Catching the metro to Evangelismos, the closest stop to Lycabettus, we then began our initial ascent uphill through a residential area of the city. We had no intention of hiking all the way to the top in the blistering heat but instead would be taking the funicular that ran at regular interval to the summit and back. Unfortunately, it was still quite a long, uphill walk to this point but we made it with plenty of rest stops along the way.

Once aboard the funicular railway, we were at the top in no time. It was relatively quiet at the summit and easy to find room to sit and admire the 360 degree views. Also at the top was a small church which we visited and a restaurant and bar for anyone that wanted to extend their stay.

Having taken all our photos of the city from above, we caught then funicular back down to the station and walked back downhill to the station, catching the metro back to our hotel for a well-deserved rest before heading back out for dinner in the Monastiriaki area.

The next day, although we would once again be staying in Athens, we would be taking an excursion out to the Saronic Islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina and the following day we had an early ferry out to our next stop, the island of Naxos so for now, our time in Athens had come to an end. Despite the often stifling heat, we had managed to cram a lot into our stay. I had really liked the city of Athens and would love to visit again some day.

A summer island-hopping adventure in Greece

My ‘big’ summer trip this year was supposed to be stateside to finally tick my final state of Hawaii off but it was something that needed to be planned and booked well in advance and when that point in time came, things were still very uncertain in the World as the pandemic continued to rumble on. Hawaii seemed a very big gamble when coming all the way from the UK – long haul flights, internal flights, car hire on multiple islands, hotels and condos all to book and while we could have gone through a specialist such as Trailfinders or Flight Centre to organise it all for us as a package giving us a bit more peace of mind should we have to cancel, we weren’t sure we’d get exactly what we wanted this way being so used to planning everything just how we liked it independently. It was a lot of money to lose should it all go wrong again.

Evening by Skiathos marina
Visiting Lalaria Beach on Skiathos

So we begrudgingly made the decision to put off the trip another year and swapped Hawaiian island-hopping for Greek island-hopping. We knew we wanted to get out of the UK this summer as much as we’d enjoyed our UK National Park trips of the last two summers and Europe felt less of a risk than the US, somewhere we could easily return from mid-trip if needed, somewhere we didn’t need to test to enter even at our point of booking quite early into the year.

Wanting to island hop meant we still couldn’t book as a package trip. With flying in and out of different islands, we’d even need to book our main flights as separate bookings as the (mainly) package holiday carriers that flew there didn’t allow for open jaw bookings but we decided to go for it and hope for the best.

Having never been to Greece before, it was hard to know where to start. Who knew there were so many islands to choose from?! My friend who had been many years ago suggested Santorini and with this being an island in the Cyclades, we decided to concentrate on this area. After some googling, we saw lots of suggestions of mixing Santorini with a less ‘touristy’, more traditional island. Milos, Paros, Naxos and a few other islands I’d never heard of before all came up as recommended in various searches and we eventually settled on the much-praised Naxos island.

Athens
Historic Athens

With those two islands only taking up a week of our 2-3 weeks available, my friends suggested looking into going to the ‘Mamma Mia’ island. She was a big fan of the film and wanted to visit some of the locations if we could. A bit more research lead us to find out this was filmed in Skopelos, one of the Sporades Islands and not really anywhere near the Cyclades! However, the neighbouring Sporades island of Skiathos was somewhere you could fly to directly from the UK and from here it was possible to do a ‘Mamma Mia’ boat trip to Skopelos. To get to the Cyclades from here, we’d have to fly via Athens and as neither of us had visited Greece’s capital city before, it seemed silly not to add a stop here into the mix!

Our trip was finally coming together – we’d fly to Skiathos for a few nights, fly to Athens and spend a few days there and then on to Naxos and Santorini by either plane or ferry – whichever worked out cheapest/least time-consuming.

Sunset on Naxos

With a few days still to fill, we looked at adding one more island. Wanting somewhere with plenty to do and some history behind it, I suggested the largest of the Greek islands, Crete. Being the most southerly of the Cyclades, it fitted perfectly into our into our itinerary as our last stop and with it being a popular package holiday destination from the UK, there was plenty of direct flights back to regional airports in the UK available, even one direct to Norwich, the closest airport to my friend!

Santorini

Researching what we wanted to do at each of our stops, we carefully worked out how much time we’d need at each destination settling on a 2 night stop in Skiathos (just enough time to use our full day there on the Mamma Mia tour), 4 nights in Athens, 3 in Naxos, 3 in Santorini and 4 nights in Crete – a 16 night stay in total. After booking our main flights, we debated internal flights over ferries deciding by the time we added in time to get to the airport, checking in, collecting luggage after landing etc etc, a 4 hour ferry ride would be just as quick as a flight. For the most part, the ferries were cheaper too especially as we didn’t have to pay to take our luggage on board and it seemed like a more authentic option if we were island-hopping!

So, other than Skiathos-Athens where a flight was really the only viable option, we opted for ferries between the islands.

Chania, Crete

Accommodation-wise, we tried to stick with budget options, mainly using guesthouses or, with Athens, hotels in less touristy and therefore cheaper areas. Other than that, free cancellation was our non-negotiable and where possible, we tried to get some kind of breakfast included. Santorini was the main challenge here with many places being either already booked up for the summer or super expensive meaning we had to go above our £100 per night budget despite staying a 15 minute walk out of Fira town centre but we did at least have a hotel with a pool for that and we managed to save elsewhere.

Goats in Crete

Flights, ferries and accommodation sorted, we moved on to activities. With it being the height of summer, we knew Greece would be busy and wanted to save time by pre-booking tickets to museums and archaeological sites allowing us to skip the lines. We both decided that driving Greece would not be something we’d be confident with, especially with the language barrier, so instead we booked some organised tours on the various islands so we could still see as much of them as possible making sure, like we had with our hotel choices, that everything was cancellable until the last minute just in case.

Spinalonga Island

In the run up to our trip, we began to wonder if we’d done the right thing booking such a short stay in Skiathos, mainly because of the airport disruption with airline delays and cancellations constantly in the news. Our flight already arrived relatively late into Skiathos, just after 7pm, and with just one full day there followed by a very early morning flight out to Athens the following day, any delays or worse, cancellations, would make our stay there pointless and possibly have a knock on effect on our transfer to Athens from there.

As it turned out, we were worrying over nothing. Flying out of the relatively small and quiet East Midlands Airport and with Jet2, possibly the least disrupted UK airlines this summer, was a good decision. Everything ran smoothly with our departure and before we knew it, we were arriving into Skiathos ready to begin our summer island-hopping adventure in Greece!