From ancient history to beaches with brightly colored tavernas at water’s edge and whitewashed houses, it’s easy to see why Greece tops bucket lists ‘round the world. A cuisine with more feta cheese, olives and pita bread than one could dream up doesn’t hurt either.
Louis Cruises recently invited me to join a sailing of the 7-day Idyllic Aegean cruise to Greece and Turkey, which visits 12 ports of call: Athens (Piraeus & Lavrion), Mykonos, Kusadasi (Turkey), Samos, Milos, Syros, Cesme (Turkey), Bodrum (Turkey), Kos, Ios and Santorini. I sailed on the Louis Cristal—soon to be sailing under a new subsidiary brand of Louis Cruises called Celestyal Cruises starting in 2015—and I was amazed that the land excursion options offered such a great mix of culture, iconic hot spots and hidden-gem islands. I still can’t believe how much of Greek paradise I saw in just seven days.
Here are 10 of my favorite Greece moments and tips—a list filled with well-known historical spots and off-the-beaten-path gems—which you absolutely cannot miss when visiting Greece:
1. Kleftiko with the locals — Milos
Milos has some of the prettiest beaches in Greece, so you must sail around this island. I adored my day with local Greek fishermen who owned the yacht Aphrodite. The cruise ship docked at Milos in the morning and Aphrodite set sail around the west coast of the island to experience the beaches, caves and stunning rock formations. It stopped at Kleftiko, a famous cove that was an old pirates’ hideout, with just enough time to jump in the ocean to snorkel.
Tip: The fishermen will take care of you with homemade tomato spread, olives, fresh bread, Mythos Greek beer, and their Greek hospitality (which is to feed you until you are full)!
2. Alefkandra & sunset — Mykonos
As I walked through the tiny, narrow streets of Mykonos town to Alefkandra (“Little Venice”) I could see windmills on the hill, churches on every corner and whitewashed houses that look like they were floating on water. When the weather gets rough here, the waves splash up to the building walls. Imagine that for a wake-up call! If you continue uphill along the coast, it leads to the sandy beach of Alefkandra, a great spot to watch the sunset.
Tip: Escape the crowds by heading to Mykonos Theoxenia Boutique Hotel for a drink at sunset. The hotel was a favorite of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Not only did I enjoy the sunset but also the thought of using the hotel’s fancy underwater workout equipment.
3. Zia & loukoumades — Kos
In the mountain village of Zia, I climbed the whole way to the top (it’s actually a short trek up) to the Cathedral and took a pit stop at Sunset Balcony Taverna for a picturesque view. On this island, I sampled some of the best loukoumades, my newfound dessert weakness. I don’t know why or how these warm honey donut balls are so good…but they are. I promise.
Tip: If you have time to stop in Kefalos, check out the local beekeepers at Melissa and see how they make traditional Greek thyme and pine honey. You can try some delicious loukoumades there!
4. Ermoupoli & Kini Beach — Syros
The port of Ermoupoli (meaning “The City of Hermes”) is the island’s capital town as well as capital of all the Cyclades. The town is full of neoclassical buildings and has a marble-paved central square worthy of a visit. One of the best meals I had off of the ship was at Allou Yialou restaurant in Kini, located on the west side of Syros, a short drive over the mountains from Ermoupoli. The sunset view over Kini Beach, the ambiance, wine pairings, and everything I had to eat was fabulous.
Tip: If you love beets, you have to try the beetroot cake with garlic yogurt at Allou Yialou. The table favorite was the fresh seafood spaghetti with sea urchin, lobster, mussels, and prawns. You will not be disappointed!
5. Cape Sounion & Greek frappé — Cape Sounion
Cape Sounion is notable as the site of the ruins of an ancient Greek temple of Poseidon, the god of the sea in classical mythology. I reached the top of the hill and was blown away by not only the ancient ruins but the view of the Aegean from that vantage point. I stopped here when the cruise ship docked in the port city of Lavrion. If you’re staying in Athens, Cape Sounion is also only a 45-minute drive south.
Tip: After visiting Poseidon, cool down from the hot day with a cold Greek frappé at the café next to the hill.
6. Kokkari tavernas — Samos
Throughout my entire Greek journey, this was the one place where I wanted to simply stop time and just stroll down through the town. Kokkari is a quiet little town by the water with unspoiled beauty. I wanted to sit in each and every one of the colorful tavernas with the matching tables and chairs and listen to the waves roll right up to the foot of the table. Samos is a real gem. If only there’d been more time to enjoy ouzo by the water!
Tip: Stop at Tarsanas for a drink and afterwards wander around the corner to the western part of town and a pretty pebble stone beach.
7. Manganari Beach & meze — Ios
The bus took me on a scenic drive to Manganari Beach, up and down hills with endless views of the water and land. This had to be the most memorable drive for me while in the Greek Isles. (I convinced myself to take many pictures even though I knew most wouldn’t turn out. I had to capture that moment!) I enjoyed a lazy lunch meze at Venus Restaurant and Bar once I reached Manganari. It was the tastiest Greek lunch I had off the ship! Try the eggplant patties and the fresh goat cheese and honey.
Tip: The large bay at Manganari is one of the most famous in the Cyclades. This is one beach you not only want to relax at but explore as well. Check out both sides of the beach and climb the rocks into the water.
8. Fira & Santo Wines — Santorini
The well-known town of Fira is a must-do while in Santorini. Do some shopping, sit in a cafe and then ride the cable car down 200 meters to the port toward the waters of the caldera. I also adored Santo Wines, a 10-minute drive from Fira, for their famous Assyrtiko wine and the view away from the crowds.
Tip: Since the island is known to be the single most spectacular site in Greece, get to Fira early to avoid massive crowds then explore the other parts of the island.
9. The Acropolis — Athens
There’s nothing that quite describes the feeling of walking on the sacred rock of the Acropolis and seeing the monuments. In Mycenaean times (1200-1100 BC) it was the seat of the king, whose palace stood roughly where the Erechtheion was built. The Erechtheion is the second largest temple on the hill and also contains a roof supported by six figures of maidens, the famous Caryatids. The Parthenon, the largest temple on the Acropolis, is dedicated to the goddess Athena. The columns of the Parthenon lean slightly inward so that if they carried on, they would meet almost exactly a mile above the center of the Parthenon! The columns were also built with a slight bulge in the middle, to make them appear “straight.”
10. New Acropolis Museum — Athens
The Acropolis gets two moments because it’s just that worth it. The New Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 and after visiting the Acropolis, the artifacts up close are a sight to see. The Parthenon frieze contains bronzed original sculptures as well as some reproductions of the part of the frieze that is displayed in the British Museum. My favorite part was seeing the original statues of the Caryatids and the detail of the maidens’ hair and clothes.
Tip: Before you enter the museum, be sure to look down at the glass-enclosed sections under your feet that are currently being excavated. You’ll get an interesting look at excavations currently in progress.
This is part 1 in Caitlin Martin’s recap of her 7-day Aegean adventure with Louis Cruises. Tune in next week for part 2!