Athens is a fascinating mix of ancient history, contemporary art and culture, buzzing restaurants, hip cafes, shopping rivalling any European capital, and nightlife that lasts until the early hours. It also makes an excellent jump-off point for a day trip to UNESCO World Heritage-listed archeological sites like Meteora, the nearby Saronic island group, and the capital’s gorgeous coastline, known as the Athens Riviera. Here’s a rundown on how you can get out of town for the day.
Cape Sounion: Sunset Over Poseidon's Temple
Cape Sounion, at the southeastern tip of greater Athens, served as a strategic outpost in 5th-century B.C. Athens, when the city-state was a formidable power. Standing atop a sheer cliff looking over the Saronic Sea is the Temple of Poseidon, the latest version of which was built around 444 B.C. in honor of the god of the sea. Time your visit for sunset, when the marble Doric columns can be seen in their best light.
Getting There: KTEL Attikis runs a regular coach service between Athens and Sounion, as well as Sounion and the picturesque town of Lavrion. It takes about 90 minutes to drive from Athens’ city center along the coastal route to the temple, though avoid visiting on a summer weekend when traffic is hectic.
Travel Tip: In summer, make a day of it and go swimming at one of the nearby beaches, like Harakas, on the Athens Riviera. Head to the old silver mining town of Lavrion for lunch at one of the portside fish tavernas.
Delphi: A Mysterious Oracle
In antiquity, devotees from throughout the Mediterranean would make the pilgrimage to the Oracle of sacred Delphi, a location considered to be the navel of the Earth. There they would seek divine guidance from Apollo, the god of light, as communicated via the ramblings of high priestess Pythia. Standing amid the ruins of the Temple of Apollo (which dates to 330 B.C.), the Treasury of the Athenians, an amphitheater, and the well-preserved stadium that hosted the Pythian Games, the aura of magic is certainly palpable. Don’t miss the artefact-rich Archaeological Museum of Delphi.
Getting There: There are numerous companies offering guided day trips, which is the most comfortable and informative way to experience this must-see historical site. If you hire a car, it will take about 2 hours and 20 minutes to travel from Athens to Delphi. Alternatively, KTEL Fokidas offers a coach service.
Travel Tip: Spring is a wise time to explore Delphi, when temperatures are lower, there are fewer fellow visitors and the surrounding olive tree-filled hills are dotted with wildflowers.
Argolis: Must-See Mycenae and Ancient Epidaurus
In the eastern Peloponnese lies Argolis, a land of myths, heroes, and warriors. In Argolis you will find Mycenae, Greece’s most significant Late Bronze Age citadel, where royalty mingled with the military and clergy, and the Acropolis of Tyrins. From there, head south to the port town of Nafplio for a walk through winding alleyways graced with neoclassical mansions. Hike the 857 steps up to the Venetian-built Palamidi fortress for spectacular views of the Argolic Gulf. Finally, test the acoustics at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed open-air Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus.
Getting There: Hire a car to tour Argolis. Athens Insiders offers a guided tour.
Around the 11th century, hermits first settled in caves amid the towering perpendicular pillars of sandstone known as Meteora that rise up from the Thessaly plain high into the sky. A UNESCO World Heritage site today, it is home to six Byzantine monasteries built atop the mysterious columns of rock that make up the geological phenomenon. Dating to the 16th century, the Holy Monastery of St. Stephen is the easiest to access, while the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, erected in 1475, is the most challenging. Dress modestly and wear trainers or hiking shoes.
Getting There: Your best option is a day trip tour by train from Athens or one of numerous guided tours by coach. KTEL Trikala offers a coach service (5 hours each way) between the capital and the town of Kalambaka, from where local buses depart for the monasteries.
Travel Tip: Visit Meteora organizes hiking tours led by experienced locals along secret trails to hermitages and small, lesser-known monasteries in September or October when the light is soft and foliage a mix of burnished orange and vivid green.
Aegina: Laidback Island Living
When the weather starts to warm up and time is of the essence, Athenians like to hop on a ferry to Aegina, one of the Saronic Islands. While a favored day trip destination for a leisurely lunch at a waterfront fish taverna in Aegina town, the small, unassuming island is also worth visiting for its 6th-century B.C. Temple of Aphaia. While you’re on the island, pick up a bag of the local pistachios.
Fun fact: If you draw a line on the map between Aphaia, the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, and the Parthenon, you'll see an isosceles triangle.
Getting There: Hellenic Seaways hydrofoils depart from Piraeus port and take 40 minutes to reach Aegina town. ANES-operated ferries cost less, however travel time is 75 minutes. Athens One Day Cruise offers a tour stopping in at the islands of Aegina, Poros and Hydra.
Travel Tip: Board an Agistri Express boat and in 15 minutes, you will be at the tiny, pine-studded isle of Agistri, where you can swim in aquamarine waters at the beach in Skala town.
Hydra: An Island of Artists
Neoclassical, stone, sea captain’s mansions huddle around the slopes of the main town of cosmopolitan Hydra. Cars are prohibited on the island, which has drawn artists such as Henry Miller, Leonard Cohen, and Greek painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas since the '50s. Hydra also appeared on film in the 1956 movie "Boy on a Dolphin," which was partly filmed there. Take a refreshing dip off the rocks at Spilia or Hydronetta into azure waters then sate your hunger at one of the tavernas hidden in the backstreets. Relics from the 1821 Greek War of Independence, examples of traditional local costume, and navigational tools are among the items on display at the Historical Archives Museum of Hydra.
Getting There: A fast catamaran trip with Hellenic Seaways from Piraeus to Hydra takes about 90 minutes.
Travel Tip: Contemporary art aficionados visiting between June and September should check out the annual exhibition at the DESTE Slaughterhouse Project Space.
Marathon: A Legendary Battlefield
This is where the fierce Battle of Marathon took place in 490 B.C. between some 25,000 Persian warriors, who arrived aboard 600 ships, and 9,000 Athenian soldiers, aided by 1,000 Plataeans from ancient Boeotia. Greek forces triumphed, losing 192 Athenians and 11 Plataeans, who were laid to rest beneath burial mounds at Marathon. Remnants of a 33-foot (10 meter) tall marble column erected in celebration of the conquest count are among the highlights of the Archeological Museum of Marathon. An Athenian foot soldier who ran the 26 miles (42 kilometers) to the capital to relay news of the victory inspired the marathon race. Each November, tens of thousands of people run the Athens Marathon, competing in the challenging original course or one of five other races.
Getting there: Marathon is an hour’s drive from Athens’ city center. Rent a car or arrange for a driver or a taxi to take you there.
Travel Tip: Discover Greek Culture runs a Marathon tour offering a rare opportunity for participants to learn the basics of archeological excavation.
Ancient Olympia: Home of the Original Olympics
Not to be confused with Mount Olympus, Ancient Olympia is situated at the foot of Mount Kronios in the western Peloponnese and is famous for hosting the original Olympic Games. The country’s most significant ancient sanctuary consists of ruins ranging from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine era. Among the key monuments is the Temple of Hera, where the Olympic Flame is lit. Go for a run in the ancient stadium and make sure you visit the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, which hosts an extensive collection of artifacts, including impressive bronze sculptures.
Getting There: The best way to get here is on one of the numerous group day trips. You'll save time and learn more than you would on your own.
Travel Tip: One ticket allows admission to the archaeological site, the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, the Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games, and the Museum of the History of the Excavations in Olympia.
Nemea: Hercules and Wineries
Located in the northeast Peloponnese, Nemea has two major drawcards: its place in ancient history and a handful of exceptional wineries. It's one of the country’s prime wine-producing regions and the queen of the vine here is the Agiorgitiko grape variety, which delivers a complex, fruity, and age-worthy red. According to lore, wine here was known as Hercules’ blood, a reference to the hero’s slaying of the Nemean lion. Ancient Nemea features a sanctuary dedicated to Nemean Zeus, an archeological museum, and a late 4th-century B.C. stadium where a 40,000-strong crowd observed the biannual pan-Hellenic Nemean Games.
Getting There: Hire a car for maximum freedom, or join a tour. It takes about one hour and 35 minutes to drive to Nemea from Athens.
Travel Tip: Beyond Athens offers a tour that combines wine-tasting and ancient attractions. You’ll meet local representatives of a new generation of visionary vintners elevating the quality and status of Greek wine.
Vravrona: A Sanctuary for Women
Pay your respects to Artemis, worshipped as a protectress of women during pregnancy and after childbirth, at a sanctuary created in her honour at Vravrona (or Brauron), east of the capital. In classical Athens, daughters aged 7 to 10 would be sent there for a year to serve the goddess, dressing as she-bears in a rite of passage marking their transition to puberty. A partly restored Doric stoa, dating to about 420 B.C., and a bridge once used by pedestrians and wheeled vehicles can be still be seen. Votives including bronze mirrors, rings, and spindle whorls are exhibited at the Archeological Museum of Brauron. Rare and endangered birds and other species can be spotted at the Vravrona wetlands.
Getting There: It takes about an hour to reach Vravrona by car or taxi.
Travel Tip: Wine expert Eleni Kefalopoulou offers fascinating tours of the ancient site and the area’s formidable wineries, where you’ll learn about the area’s long history of winemaking.
Mount Parnitha: Hiking and Deer-Spotting
Go for a hike on Mount Parnitha, a fir- and pine-covered national park spread across 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) north of Athens. In spring, the slopes explode in a riot of color as 1,100 floral species and subspecies, 92 of which are endemic, unfurl their beauty. Caves can be found on the southern slopes, including one named after Pan, the half-human, half-goat deity of the wild and cheeky companion of nymphs. Keep an eye out for shy red deer, as Mount Parnitha is one of only two habitats in Greece where they can be seen. In the northeast, the ancient fortress of Loimiko offers spectacular views. Dress warmly as the temperature is cooler than in urban Athens and make sure you take a printed map as cell phone coverage is limited in parts.
Getting There: Hire a car or take a taxi. It takes about 40 minutes to reach Mount Parnitha by car.
Travel Tip: Go wandering in the sprawling grounds of the former royal estate of Tatoi, the focus of much controversy in Greece’s modern history, a 30-minute drive from Parnitha.