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As the birthplace of democracy and vibrant capital of Greece, Athens is a world unto itself and probably the first place you’ll see on your trip. And you could easily spend all your time in Athens, but that would mean missing out on many other great things to see in the country. With just two or three days though you can take in the highlights such as the Acropolis, ancient Agora and National Archaeological Museum. That will also leave you with time to wander the colorful streets of the Plaka and Monastiraki neighborhoods, as well as soak up the atmosphere of the hilly district of Kolonaki and more.
Mysterious Lake Vouliagmeni is just 15 miles outside Athens but a world apart. Its name derives from the Greek word vouliiazo, which means “submerge” and indeed the mesmerizing lake formed when a huge underwater spring let loose and caused a massive cave roof to collapse. For anyone familiar with Yosemite’s El Capitan, add a pristine thermal spring-fed lake filled with healing waters and a breezy al fresco restaurant and you get an idea of the extraordinary natural setting.
Greece’s seaside second city was established in 316 BCE and was named after a half-sister of Alexander the Great. There is a mountain of history in this soulful metropolis: Roman and Byzantine ruins, Christian heritage (Apostle Paul brought the first message of Christianity here) and a rich and fascinating Jewish history, too. On a lighter note, there are so many good restaurants and cafes that putting Thessaloniki on your itinerary is almost an imperative. There are several flights a day between Athens and Thessaloniki; the flight time is about an hour.
Milos is most famous for something that isn’t even there—the Venus de Milo statue sits in the Louvre—but I’m going to tell you a secret: this Cycladic island stunner is where many Greeks go on their honeymoons or just to get away from it all for a few days. And with good reason: like the celebrated and in summer overcrowded island of Santorini, Milos is volcanic in origin. The unique geology has endowed the island with a wealth of gorgeous beaches, including Sarakiniko with its surreal white landscapes. Milos is about a three-hour ferry ride from Piraeus
If you’re looking for great beaches, good food, a hint of glamor and great value for money then look no further than the Greek island of Paros. It’s located south of the more famous (and much more expensive) Mykonos, but is a favorite vacation spot for the Greeks themselves. The cosmopolitan town of Naoussa has loads of great seafood restaurants and tavernas and is near an array of fine, uncrowded beaches. A quick ten-minute ferry takes you to tiny Antiparos, which has more great beaches (and where Tom Hanks has a house).
Long a popular destination for Europeans seeking beach weather for six months out of the year or more, Crete is not only the largest of the Greek islands but in many respects the most spectacular. Its mountainous terrain makes it a bit of a tough cookie to navigate on a short time frame, but if you think of it in terms of northern and southern sections it becomes easier. The north is where you’ll find some of the most interesting cities, such as Heraklion and the nearby Minoan ruins of Knossos as well as Rethymno and Chania. The latter two have retained many fine architectural details from Crete’s Venetian era.
The south side of Crete is far less developed than the north, which is good news for those who appreciate dramatic landscapes and beaches. I recommend starting out in Heraklion, the Cretan capital. Then take Route 97 due south, stopping to see the impressive Minoan ruins at Phaistos along the way. Follow the signs to Matala, once a hippie colony but nowadays a very lively beach town.
While Rhodes is the biggest and most popular of Greece’s Dodecanese Islands, it’s also the most touristy. Unless you’re a big fan of medieval history (its main town is exceptionally well-preserved), I would say skip it in favor of the second largest island of the Dodecanese, Karpathos. While Patmos, another island in this Aegean archipelago, has attained more of a following as an in spot in recent years, slender Karpathos is arguably more authentic and has better beaches, too.
I like to think of Corfu as Greece’s more northerly answer to Crete, because both islands have such rich histories and compelling geography. For the record, Corfu is one of the Ionian islands and is called Kerkyra in Greek. Unlike many islands in the Aegean, Corfu is very green. Its old town is one of the most picturesque in the Mediterranean.
Attica is the region that surrounds Athens and it would be a mistake to think that all it has to offer is the international airport. The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, for one, beckons in any season. The Attica peninsula is where Athenians go when they need a beach fix but don’t have time for the islands. There’s luscious swimming to be had at Limanakia and Varkiza and the entire coast is chiseled with inviting sea views and hidden coves. The best part? Even in the height of summer, with the exception of Sounion, it’s never very touristy here.