I recently read several headlines that Greece will soon open its borders to vaccinated travelers, which couldn’t be more thrilling news for anyone wishing to rekindle their passion for international travel. More than once during the pandemic, I dreamed of the Greek isles and thought it would be the perfect destination to visit early when international travel becomes a ‘thing’ again because my last trip to Greece had us facing the same frustration over and over: crowds. Lots and lots of crowds. I’ll never forget the beautiful vistas of Santorini (the island seemingly made for Instagram) juxtaposed with the fact that the narrow alleyways were so crowded with day visitors that the place had the feel of a Wal-Mart on Black Friday. It certainly took away from the charm of the place, and the perils of overtourism were never more blatant.
However, the pandemic has provided a giant ‘reset’ switch on travel, and serves as a poignant reminder of the delicateness of the entire travel ecosystem. How, where and why we travel will continue to be greatly discussed and debated in the near future, as recently discussed in the New York Times.
While I could spend a while on that subject, however, I wanted to inspire future travels to the land of Homer now that it’s opening back up. We hopped around the Greek Isles on cross-generational family vacation back in 2019, and I wanted to share some insights and suggestions on how to hit some of the greatest highlights of this beautiful Mediterrean nation that combines the best of food, culture, history, and natural beauty.
The Cyclades: Santorini & Mykonos
The Cyclades islands conjure the most beautiful imagery of Greece in a mythological “this is so beautiful it can’t be real” kind of way. This is the land of azure seas and jaw-dropping views mixed with storybook architecture and topographical wonders. Each island has its own personality, and Santorini and Mykonos offer a good, varied perspective on how the islands can show up differently.
Santorini is the stuff dreams are made of. Winding cobblestone pathways open up to reveal stunning view after stunning view. Every corner you turn, you discover a new bar or café quietly tucked above what appears to be someone’s living quarters. Once you ascend the stairs, you’re smacked in the face with a view so beautiful you reach out to make sure it’s not just a beautiful photo on a transparent screen in front of you. The vistas will stay with you for a lifetime, and the charm of the architecture is a feeling to remember. You wind your way through the mountain-top village of Oia, taking in one breath-taking view after another. You can spend a few days here hiking, sunning on a black sand beach, or basking at a local café drinking wine made on one of the isaland’s wineries.
Why Go now:
The day we visited Santorini, there were 5 cruise ships in port that released 10,000 passengers into the tiny island of just over 13,000 permanent residents. Some of the charm gets lost when you’re fighting your way through crowds, competing for the same views. I suggest going before large cruise ships resume and the island becomes a mecca for tourists once again.
Mykonos has a reputation of being a party spot, at one point even home to a club owned by the notorious actress Lindsey Lohan (spoiler alert: her club didn’t last). At the grocery store, we found it amusing that there is even a DJ booth set up so you can keep the party going while you shop. However, there is so much more depth to his island than nightlife.
As a starting point, I suggest doing the “Discover Authentic Mykonos Tour” hosted by Mykonos Excursions. We did the day tour with Kalinka, and it was spectacular. We traveled through the beautiful Mykonian countryside, making stops along the way including a small private family church, the charming village of Ano Mera that is home to one of the island’s two monasteries, and stops at the beautiful beaches of Kalo Livadi and Kalafati. Of these two beaches, we thoroughly enjoyed Kalafati as it was quieter than the day clubs of Kalo Livadi.
In addition to the beautiful beaches, Mykonos has a beautiful unique countryside, filled with stone fence walls that separate family farms. A true highlight for us was a visit to Mykonian Spiti & Farm, a small family farm that preserves many of the Mykonian traditions. My children enjoyed playing with the farm animals, and the adults thoroughly enjoyed snacking on fresh feta made from the farm’s sheep, washed down with a cold shot of a tsipouro, or raki—a local cousin to the more famous ouzo Greek spirit.
Why go now:
Given the limited cruise ships and international travel, in the near term you should be able to enjoy a quieter side of this island without the usual nightlife-seeking crowds.
Athens is a unique city even by European standards, and has quirks that make it different than other historical capitals. While the Greek capital is dripping with ancient history, much like Rome, it doesn’t appear to revere its history or tourism industry in quite the polished manner as say, Italy. Most notable upon arrival is the omnipresent graffiti—EVERYWHERE. I’ve never been to a city that has every available square inch covered in spray paint. However, despite the lack of protection for public-facing surfaces, the city is so chock-full of historic sites that it’s easy to fill a day with some truly monumental sites. We did a tour through Hellenic Private Tours, and our guide Frank was outstanding. Here are some of our highlights.
The Acropolis is obviously the most famous site in Athens, and the city offers various vantage points to view it in all its glory. Make reservations early, and consider hiring a guide to have a better understanding of what you’re looking at. As crowds here can be overwhelming, I suggest you go early or late in the day.
Mount Lycabettus is the tallest hill in Athens, and has spectacular views of the broader cityscape. The Acropolis is easily viewed from here, as well as other ancient sites.
This was probably our favorite historic site in the city of Athens. Not crowded, lots of open space, and just as much ancient history. A beautiful park to explore.
More modern by Greek standards (e.g. 19th century neoclassical architecture, built in the 1843), this once housed the Greek royal family, and since 1929 has served as the country’s house of Parliament. However, the real highlights are the action in front, including the traditionally dressed guards protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as feeding the pigeons that inundate the square in front.
Why Go Now:
Same as for the Greek Isles, I suggest visiting Athens before the crowds return. A visit to the legendary Acropolis was actually not pleasant, as it was overrun with crowds.
Given that Greece just made announcements about their reopening, I suggest reading further on the nuances of visiting Greece in a post-pandemic environment. Here are some helpful articles to assist with planning a trip in 2021 and beyond.
Travel & Leisure