We all crave a bit of sunshine when it’s dreary, so Athens looks like the perfect holiday destination for any season. The capital of Greece prides itself on a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage sites, remnants of Ancient Greece scattered across the streets and, of course, excellent, hearty Greek food. So in a way, visiting Athens is fulfilling enough on its own.
But its gorgeous weather and beautiful sights attract many visitors from around the world, so it’s quite easy to feel overwhelmed in a city as big as this. If you find yourself longing for a retreat from the hustle and bustle of Athens, here are 15 places to consider when planning your big mad Greek holiday.
About a two-hour drive from Athens lies the beautiful unspoilt town of Nafplio. The drive there is a sight to behold in itself, offering beautiful landscapes and gorgeous views of the sea. Mythology claims that the Poseidon, the ruler of the seas, created Nafplio along with the daughter of Danaus. Over its rich history, Nafplio has been under the rule of Rome, the Byzantine Empire, Venetians and the Ottoman Empire. Because of this rich heritage, modern-day Nafplio offers a beautiful picturesque Old Town, with pieces of its history scattered everywhere. Don’t miss Syntagma Square, a square surrounded by gorgeous Venetian buildings, as well as the impressive Palamidi Castle. If you’re feeling adventurous, hop by the nearby Argos with its extensive archaeological museum.
A short drive from Nafplio and about 1.5 hours from Athens, Epidavros boasts a rich archaeological heritage. Walking through the old streets among the temples of various Greek Gods and make sure to have a look at the old Roman baths as well – it’ll truly make you feel like you’ve gone back in time. A landmark in Epidavros is the old Theater, dating back to fourth century BC. Over two thousand years ago, hundreds of plays would have been performed there – and the site is so well preserved that visitors can even sit where the ancient audience would have been. Make sure to pay a visit to the archaeological museum as well for all the fascinating items that have been excavated from the site.
Going to Dafní is probably one of the easiest day trips you can take from Athens, as it is situated about 10 km southeast of the city center. A quick hop on the bus can take you there in an instant. While there’s a lot to see in Dafní itself, the main highlight of the city is by far the Monastery. It stands on the site of the ancient Temple of Apollo, which was replaced by an early Christian monastery, then converted to its current look in 1080. The Monastery of Dafní is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and it boasts exquisite 11th century mosaics, as well as an impressive courtyard. With all its beauty, the Monastery is rightly considered one of the most impressive Byzantine churches in all of Greece.
4. The Athenian Riviera
Also known as the Coast of Apollo, the Athenian Riviera is a beautiful stretch of land between Athens and Cape Soúnion. If you’re looking for the legendary Greek beaches with beautiful blue water and golden sands, you don’t have to go very far to find them. The Attic Riviera also has fantastic golf courses, sailing clubs and yacht marinas. The cape is only an hour’s drive away from Athens and it’ll give you an opportunity to enjoy the finer things in life, as well as a plethora of archaeological treasures. The Temple of Poseidon is a sight to behold and you can climb up the hill to the cape and enjoy the beautiful nautical landscape opening up in front of you – it was even referenced by Homer in the Odyssey.
5. Kaisariani Monastery
This monastery is another very easy road trip from Athens, as it’s only 8km away from the city center, so a very short drive will easily take you there. It benefits from being surrounded by the serene Forest Park, full with cypress trees and gorgeous forest plants from all over Greece. It’s ideal for romantic nature walks and while there, make sure to go to the botanical gardens as well for more amazing examples of Greek flora. After the walk, you’ll reach the monastery. It’s said that the Kaisariani waters have healing powers, especially for women who want children. Those spring waters can still be found in the monastery’s courtyard. Take a moment to appreciate the atmosphere of this mysterious beautiful place.
6. Lake Marathon
If you’re tired of ancient buildings and tourists, why not take a relaxing nature walk over to Lake Marathon? It’s only about 40km away from Athens and less than an hour’s drive away. It’s the city’s main water supply, so boating and bathing are not allowed in the lake. However, the area makes up for this with gorgeous footpaths that extend all the way around the lake and are ideal if you’re looking to take a long walk. If the weather permits it, make sure to bring a picnic basket with you and enjoy some great Greek food in the gorgeous surroundings. Feeling adventurous? Head over to nearby Marathon village to explore fascinating myths from ancient Greece.
7. Mount Parnis
A few kilometers up a gorgeous scenic road will take you to Mount Parnis, an idyllic area that looks like it’s jumped out of a fairytale. Drive for about 12 km from Achárnes and enjoy the winding little road taking you to Mount Parnis. In the foot of the mountain, you’ll be greeted by the Parnis Palace Hotel, where you can take some rest before conquering the mount. There are well labelled footpaths for the most ambitious hikers that you can follow all the way to the top. Mount Parnis boasts a lot of beautiful gorges, dramatic caves and breathtaking waterfalls and the view from above opens up a gorgeous panorama of the whole area. It’s definitely the go-to place for nature lovers!
We’re probably cheating to put this down as a day trip, because it is quite far away from Athens – it takes about 2 hours to drive there. But if you do decide to take the trip down to Mystras, it’s definitely worth every minute. The medieval city lies just on the edge of Sparta and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has some lovely examples of Byzantine architecture and beautiful churches to marvel at. A must-see in Mystras is the impressive hilltop fortress, where you can open up gorgeous views to the countryside. Other highlights include the Palace of the Despot and lots of churches and monasteries to explore at your leisure.
9. The Temple of Apollo
This is another trip that will likely take up the majority of your day, as the Temple of Apollo is about 300 km away from Athens. However, if you are even mildly interested in Archaeology, then this temple is a must-see. The temple is in Thérmos, on the northern shore of Lake Trikhonis. The ruins still left standing will give you an idea of the grandeur of the temple that once oversaw the lake – and they date back all the way to 625 BC. If you want to find out more about the ruins of the temple and other excavations in the area, then the archaeological museum in Agrínion is definitely worth the visit.
If you don’t want a long day trip but still want to see something modern and historical at the same time, then the port of Piraeus might just be perfect for you. Situated just 12 km from Athens city center, Piraeus is Greece’s largest port and combines modern architecture with over 2 millennia of history. Piraeus is also the place to go if you’re looking to take a ferry to any of the neighboring Greek islands as all major ferry routes operate from there. Take a romantic walk past the marina and marvel at the variety of ships, boats and other vessels. Afterwards, make sure to check out the few ancient harbors around as well and, if you have the time, have a relaxing lunch in one of Piraeus’ many enchanting restaurants.
After spending so much time in Greece, you might be wondering where all the ancient mystery sites are hiding. Well, Eleusis would be the answer to that question – it’s one of the few places still standing where visitors can discover the history of an ancient cult. Only a 40-minute drive from Athens, Eleusis is the home of the famous Eleusinian Mystery – a cult formed around the goddess Demeter, who, according to legend, gave her daughter Persephone to Hades, the god of the underworld. Eleusis was the place where Demeter allegedly saw Persephone again – and is now considered a place of magical healing and fertility. The ritual of the Mysteries included ritual baths, fasting, and countless recitations. Visitors today can see many of the sanctuaries associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, including the Sanctuary of Demeter, dating back to 14th century BC.
Located about 120 km from Athens, or an hour and a half’s drive, Mycenae is the site of famous archaeological ruins, left behind from the Mycenaean civilization. It’s a good idea to combine this trip with the trip to and from Nafplio, as it’s very close to it. Mycenae offers a unique look into the archaeological treasures of Greece, especially ones heavily prominent in Greek mythology. This was known as the city of Agamemnon and was often mentioned in works by Homer and other ancient Greek authors. Witness the beautiful remains of ancient palaces, baths, and the famous Tomb of Agamemnon, all dating back to the prehistoric era of the seventh millennium BC.
Just about an hours’ drive from Athens lies the still active archaeological site of Corinth. Excavations in Corinth have been ongoing since the 1800s. This ancient Greek city thrived for a thousand years before the Romans destroyed it in 146 BC. However, they would have seen its worth too, as it was rebuilt later, by orders of Julius Caesar himself. Corinth’s location as well is also quite unique on its own, as its situated just between Peloponnesus and mainland Greece, so it acts almost as a gateway from one part of Greece to another. Visitors can enjoy the impressive Temple of Apollo as well as a plethora of gorgeous architecture from both the Greek and Roman periods of the city.
If you want to explore more of Greece’s history, then hop on a quick ferry from Piraeus and head over to the island of Aegina. It’s very close to Athens, so it is a very popular choice for tourists for a relaxing day trip. The island boasts gorgeous ruins from the 7th and 6th centuries BC, most famously the Temple of Aphaea, a distinct favorite among Neoclassical and Romantic artists in the 19th century who compared it to the Parthenon. If you’re after a more relaxing time, then head over to the picturesque beaches and enjoy the postcard-worthy pistachio orchards. Aegina used to be a maritime authority back in the day and the ruins left standing today still reflect its former glory.
15. Hydra Island
Another island you can take a very short ferry ride to is Hydra, which is particularly beloved by both tourists and locals alike for its unspoilt character. Famously, cars are banned on Hydra, which makes it the ideal place for some rest and relaxation during your Greek adventure. You can either walk around its beautiful streets or, if you’re feeling adventurous, perhaps take a donkey ride around to see the sights. Its beautiful 18th century waterfront architecture is a wonderful sight to behold during a leisurely stroll. Hydra also has a very big artist community, so a walk down any cobbled street will take you either to a gallery, a studio, a craft shop, or an independent bar with the best food and drink Greece can offer.