Plato (ironically) wrote that Socrates said “… for this discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” [The Phaedrus]
Writing cripples the memory. The same goes for pictures. They are lies. I have a friend who didn't get photographs on her wedding day because she wanted to hold the experience for herself and not remember it through what the camera saw. It’s not about how things looked, it’s about how they felt. Use your memory and remember of themself.
A few months ago I went to Greece, and knowing that I had to write this piece about it afterward has been haunting me ever since. I have so much to say, yet hardly any sentences. Of the 500 images on my photo roll, which few will adequately show what I actually saw? Who am I, so small, to attempt to wrap up a place that is more than a place, and so large? The fact that the ancient Greeks valued perfection as the ideal form also isn't doing me any favors.
Greece is a country I’ve always kept tucked in my back pocket thanks to the fond, formative years of my adolescence. A decade later, I still can’t separate my own coming of age from learning about the Greeks and their impact on the arts and humanities. (There’s nothing quite like being an angsty 17 year old and discussing huge things like logic, truth, and beauty in a classroom through the lens of the Greeks and their literature.)
There’s a spiritual quality of ancient places that is exotically familiar. That feeling of being nostalgic for something you've never met or even left. This trip was a pilgrimage to revisit the passionate curiosity and brilliance of my mythological youth. It brought on a dynamic mental shift to encounter these roots and land first-hand. In a full-circle way, it was a gentle reminder that “I change, I am the same.” A travel Saturn Return, if you will.
Enough of the bravado, let’s get to the guts. If you’re going to Greece, you probably will and definitely should fly into the capital, Athens. And you should also stay there for a couple of nights. There are sights to be seen— and yeah, they are unabashedly touristic, but with good reason. Athens is also a port city so if you’re planning to island-hop around the Aegean Sea by ferry, you’ll be all set. We ended up staying at an Airbnb near Monastiraki Station. It was the perfect location for us because my partner and I are avid walkers and eat a literal ton, so it was nice to balance constant feeding with meditative movement.
After you land in ATH you’ll feel a little jet laggy and could always opt for a personal driver, but we found taking the metro into the city to be easy peasy. You literally just exit the terminal and stroll over a skywalk and boom! You’re somehow already standing inside the metro station. Not intimidating at all. Be mindful of pickpockets and always keep your luggage in sight and nearby.
One of the most magical parts of staying near Monastiraki Square is its skyline flaunting the Acropolis. The juxtaposition of ancient humanity and modern tourism is completely mind-blowing. There were a few other places besides Airbnb’s that caught my eye while booking our stay. Ederlezi Boutique's great location of renovated rooms and apartments has a rooftop garden with views of the Acropolis. Its boho style infuses Scandinavian decor with neutral textiles. If you're looking for a quaint little villa near the city center, Athenian Residences can be found right next to the Ancient Agora. They boast traditional style housing that meets modern luxury, with a shared pool in the center. It’s also worth a mention that MET34 was awarded first place Travelers’ Choice for 2019.
For some reason, I expected there to be dozens of street food vendors dishing out Gyros and Baklava everywhere, which was not the case. Much Mediterranean cuisine does contain meat or fish, but you can certainly find multiple vegetarian options on every menu. Most ingredients used in Greece are naturally non-GMO. This place completely ruined Greek salads for me because they were so GOOD, every one I'll ever taste moving forward will pale in comparison. We basically ordered a Greek salad + Tzatziki to share at every meal along with an entree because the flavors were shockingly vibrant, and it never got old. Once we returned back to the states, we continued to make Greek salads at home for weeks later. The heart wants what it wants.
The Plaka Stairs are in Plaka, the oldest district in Athens. This picturesque neighborhood falls in the shadow of the Acropolis, and you should definitely mosey through it for a bite. We stopped for our first meal in Athens at Anafiotika Cafe, just as travel brain fog and it's accompanying indecisiveness began to seep in. It happened to be an incredible place to start a Mediterranean diet. Our server dropped off a dessert and a carafe of what he called “water” with our bill which we did not order— and which was not water. Mastiha: A light, herbaceous pine elixir that aids in digestion. It became part of our daily routine and developed into a post-dinner ritual.
Without a doubt, the most remarkable dining experience we had in all of Greece was at Diporto. There’s no sign, no menu, and no English spoken here- the food does all the talking. This basement level taverna first opened in 1887. They prepare only a few different dishes a day. You eat what they cook, and you will like it. Order by pointing at the pots on the stove in the open kitchen to your server. The perimeter of this cave-like dwelling is lined with functional wine barrels that store a traditional style white wine served in aluminum cups. The space has less than a dozen tables and caters to eccentric locals and tourists alike. You know a spot is legit when you see archaic natives eating there alone at lunchtime.
The closest to fast, traditional street food is a little hole in the wall called Lefteris (o Politis). They only sell one thing: the simplest Souvlaki. It's a beef kebab rolled in the plushest pita you’ll ever eat in your life, for 2 euro a pop. This place is basically the In-N-Out of Athens. There's only one location, and is a must-visit if you dabble with meat. We went on our last day and lamented not having gone sooner. Just sayin’.
If you’re looking to enchant the kiddos stop by the fairy tale inspired cafe, Little Kook. It’s known for whimsical pastries and its ‘grammable interior. The decor theme changes with each new season.
Yay! Drinking. My partner was in the specialty cocktail scene for about a decade, so we’re always on the hunt for innovative libation establishments. Monastiraki Square is saturated with bars and nightlife, so we never had to walk too far to get back to our bed after a nightcap. Rooftop bars are all the rage, as they should be when you have the Acropolis all aglow as the backdrop. Hit up A for Athens for a flight of wine, or visit 360 cocktail bar for cocktails and a pour of something that can't be found in the USA, like 15 year Havana Club. Couleur Locale is another place with a panoramic rooftop we really enjoyed. All of these places also serve food, and some are located inside hotels. Every bar brings out a dish of spicy, crunchy snacks with any drink order.
If you’re into spirits, you need to stop by Bretto’s Distillery and bar. This distillery was founded in 1909 and they claim their story is still being written today. It’s a mainstay of the Plaka neighborhood with it’s laid-back, welcoming atmosphere. It’s a little retreat from the pushy tourist shops surrounding the district. (Don’t get me wrong, Bretto's is touristy, too! Folks were constantly wandering in to take pictures of the bottles and barrels- myself included.) The back bar is a rainbow showcasing the 50 + different liqueurs they distill in house. Order the black label Ouzo and Masticha. Bretto’s is also a nice place to pick up gifts and they sell 200mL bottles which are great for carry-on luggage.
The Clumsies was our favorite cocktail stop because of the ambient, cozy vibe and menu of both food and drink. They serve elevated fare with flair, without being stuck-up or stuffy. I’m a total sucker for novelty menus. When we were there, the physical menu was blank until we were given a blacklight flashlight to read it with. These details created an experience of wonder that lasted far longer than the libations.
Six d.o.g.s has a beautiful outdoor space that extends from its underground bar. They serve an extensive menu of classics, twists, and takes.
Need a splash of coffee to jumpstart your day? Athens has a hip coffee culture and plenty of third wave roasters throughout the city. Taf coffee is a legendary local staple. Check out Tailor Made or The Underdog for a cup, brunch, or even cocktails. Mr. Bean Coffee Brewers, Peek-A-Bloom, and Mind The Cup are also not to be missed.
Get the Athens 5 day city pass. The great thing about this bundle is that it is in and of itself a travel itinerary. You save both time and money (It’s 30 euro) with this thing because you don’t have to wait in line at the mouth of every destination to buy tickets each time to enter. The one we purchased allowed entrance to The Acropolis, The Ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Library, Karameikos, Artistotle’s School (Lykeion), The Olympieion, and The Roman Agora. We got our pass from a little window stand outside of The Roman Agora, but I have a feeling all of the places listed sell it.
It goes without saying, you have to go to the Acropolis. And go early. I mean, maybe even before-it-opens early. There will be a line then, too. It’s just that the Acropolis is a popular field trip destination for swarms of elementary school children. Which is cute. But there were like, a lot of kids and I think they even pushed me and I might’ve stepped on one and had a complete panic attack shutdown moment which honestly was to be expected but I would even go back in a heartbeat with all of the children there, too. I’m just saying maybe go right when it opens or even an hour before close when the army of shutter happy tourists begin to teeter onward.
If you’re going to go to Greece, you’ve got to carve time out to visit a few of her 227 inhabited islands. (There are about 6,000 Greek islands in the Aegan and Ionian seas!) Mainland cities are a great place to tap for urban culture, but island living is a lifestyle that I’m pretty sure we are all here for.
ISLAND HOP: THE GREEK CYCLADES
In a way, the Greeks invented tourism by setting sail in unknown directions. Inter-Island travel was unexpectedly tricky for us to nail down because there is an abundance of transit options. I was really set on taking a ferry because I wanted to feel like a Greek Goddess voyaging on to discover new lands and waters while the wind blew through my hair to the sound of the nine muses singing… I could go on. But the reality is that the ferry situation can be terribly unreliable depending on weather, the ship line or fleet, and intensity of waves. I also found it takes 7-14 hours to get to Santorini via ferry, lots of people get seasick, the wind can be aggressively oppressive, and that the food isn’t worth writing home about. We settled on the 40-minute flight. Time was a luxury we just didn’t have on our side this trip. (Don’t get me wrong, if we had a week or so to dedicate to islands we would have taken at least one short ferry ride, simply to ride for the feeling.)
THERA // SANTORINI
To understand Santorini, you have to understand Thera. Thera is the ancient name for both the island of Santorini and also the name of the volcano that famously erupted on the island in 1610 BC. Its eruption had the energy of several hundred atomic bombs in a fraction of a second. Geologists think it could be the strongest explosion ever witnessed by mankind. This outburst ultimately led to the destruction of the Minoan civilization and culture, which had settled on the island prior to the volcanic flare-up. The aftermath of the explosion was radical: Tsunamis formed and wiped out the land, the temperature declined, and massive amounts of sulfur dioxide were released into the atmosphere which changed the climate forever. A giant caldera formed at the base of where the volcano had been. The Greeks sailed on over and began calling this mystical ground their own around the 9th century BC.
READ: THIS PLACE IS FULL OF ENERGY
Have you ever fallen in love with someone so hard that you wanted to run for the hills directly away from them? I’m talking the appetite-altering, probably should see a therapist, “why am I feeling this physically?” kinda love. That’s what Santorini felt like to me. I loved it so much I’m afraid to ever go back. We almost extended our stay but I knew if we did that, we might not ever leave.
Planning a trip is almost as fun as taking a trip. We went in May, and it was the perfect time of year. Shoulder season in Europe is much more appealing than the high summer holiday months when tourists crawl out of the woodwork. I have a feeling I wouldn't have enjoyed Santorini if we went in the jam-packed months of June-August. Most of the islands are seasonal hot spots, and many restaurants and resort towns shut down from Oct-March.
The accommodations in Santorini are some kind of magic. If a heroic-journey like this is on your calendar, I urge you to do your own research because some of the places you'll come across are so stunning that you have to see them to believe them. There are a few labyrinthine villages you’ll undoubtedly be navigating through: Fira, Firostephani, Finikia, and the Aegan’s most photographed town, Oia.
I’m a fan of finding a suitable place just on the cusp of where the action is. Since I knew we had to see Oia but not necessarily sleep there, we stayed in a small traditional village named Finikia that's a 10-minute walk from all the hubbub. This whitewashed rustic wonderland was completely tucked away from crowds of Oia. We lucked out and found a honeymoon villa complete with an outdoor jacuzzi and oceanview at Fava Eco Suites. We'd stay at this hidden gem again in a heartbeat. The manager was impressively hospitable during check-in and offered to arrange our airport transfer. They even have a section about sustainability on their website which means a lot considering the island is blatantly laden with wasteful consumerism.
We were delightfully surprised that our accommodations came with an organic, locally-grown breakfast each morning. We didn't venture too far beyond our village to eat, probably because we were feelin' pretty languid on island time. Lefkes was the culinary highlight. Make a reservation. The place is super intimate and has outstanding service paired with memorable fare. Mezze Mezze also has gorgeous food with a patio ideal for catching the sunset. If you're walking through Oia, grab some Baklava from Melenio's underground to-go counter to eat later while naked in your outdoor hot tub.
Wineries on an island? Yes, please. Remember that big volcano eruption? All of its ash changed the terroir in a way that makes wine from Santorini distinctive. The native Assyrtiko varietal is grown all throughout the isle and has started to gain worldwide recognition within the past decade. If you're near Oia or Finikia, stop off at Domaine Sigalas for a tasting and small plates. They are just a stone's throw from the sea and have a quaint patio surrounded by vineyards. Be sure to snag a bottle to drink later with Baklava while naked in your outdoor hot tub.
There are too many ways to spend your days in Santorini. Our most unforgettable adventure was the 7-mile hike from the village of Fira over to the village of Oia around sunset. It wasn't a strenuous hike at all and only took about 4 hours. The thing that slowed us down most was stopping often in ineffable disbelief to take it all in. It's hard not to see the entire island through your viewfinder; around each new bend is another picture-perfect scene. If you're interested in doing the hike, check out this article that lays out the route.
Santorini is known for its sunsets. The island's entire population seems to migrate over to Oia around dusk. This is just about as panic-inducing as visiting the Acropolis in July around high noon, especially because the walkways are so winding and narrow. Beware. Instead, get up at dawn and watch the sun break like a yolk over the village. There's a certain magic in witnessing a place waking up and by telling time through domes drenched in light.
Sailing day trips are quite popular, but they sell out quickly. We were unable to book one during our trip due to availability. If you're interested in spending a little time eating, drinking, and swimming in the sea, book a 5-hour excursion with Sunset Oia. There are also black pumice stone beaches and thermal zones in the water to explore.
Island transportation is pretty straight forward: there is one bus that stops through a few of the villages. Or, you could rent an ATV. Driving around Santorini is not for the faint of heart. It's a true cluster. A few places might ask for an international drivers license to book your ATV rental. Donkey rides are also a popular method for trekking up hills and carrying luggage, though we opted out for personal reasons.
If you're an information buff, you're in luck. Visiting a few of the key museums in Santorini will allow you to dig deep into it's loaded geological and archeological history. Here’s a link to some of the best exhibits the island has to offer.
Revel in your hotel accommodations. Our favorite day was when we planned to not have a plan. What unfolded was so simple: a stroll around a winery and the beach, a drink around sunset, dinner at Lefkes, and a midnight jacuzzi nightcap.
If you have time, visit other islands! Santorini, Crete, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Milos, and Corfu are the most visited in all of Greece. There are also a few off the beaten strait that seem to be even more low-key, like Lesvos, Chios, Ithaca, and Ikaria.
This trip both opened and closed me up in ways that still aren’t easy to file in my mind, let alone put into words. I don't have the vocabulary for it. Attempting to get some of it on the page has made an entirely new memory of my experience in and of itself. Yes, I travel the world— but the most valuable trips are always the ones that take me deeper into my own thoughts, dreams, and even fears. Greece made me remember I've always been rich.