Her Life in Ruins Guide to Greece: Mainland and the Cyclades
Three years ago (!!!), I was in the middle of the greatest experience of my life: studying abroad in Greece. During my time in this breathtaking country, I explored the countryside, the cities, and the Aegean islands. Right now, Greece is the ideal destination for the budget traveler, as flights are cheap (check Momondo for your ideal dates!) and the dollar is fairly even with the euro. Keep reading to discover the best places to sleep, eat, and play in various parts of this classic destination.
Before You Go
Greece is a Mediterranean country that has a large variety of cultures. Before you go, I suggest learning at least the basics of the language! While many people in the larger Greek cities will speak English, most people in the smaller towns will not. I think it’s polite to at least attempt speaking to someone in their native tongue when you’re in their country, rather than just walking up and assuming that they speak English. Also, you should learn how to convert the English alphabet to Greek and vice-versa before going. This will help you navigate the signs posted around the country.
Obviously, I love archaeology, so I’ll be mentioning a lot of archaeological sites in this guide. If you’re going to be visiting a lot of the ancient archaeological sites, you might want to do some basic background research before going. The museums in each city do a fantastic job of explaining the myths behind what you see, but the actual sites do not offer up a ton of information. I’d take a classical guide or at least the English version of Pausania’s Guide to Greece (which was written a long, long time ago).
Finally, pack as light as possible! If you’re doing Greece on a budget, you’ll probably be doing a lot of walking between transit stations, ports, and to sites. Packing light makes the whole process easier. If you go in the spring, you will need to wear layers. It’s super cold in the mornings and hot by mid-afternoon everywhere in the country. Keep in mind that Greece has a ton of mountains, so practical shoes are a necessity – I only took tennis shoes, a pair of sandals, and chacos with me for my lengthy trip.
Ok, enough with the boring stuff, let’s talk about the different places I went in Greece!
Athens is one of the most popular places for tourists in Greece, as it is home to the Acropolis, National Museum, was the stomping grounds for Plato, and is one of the best places to party in the world.
While I was in Athens, I stayed at Hotel Attalos. Hotel Attalos was in the perfect location, was budget friendly, had an amazing staff, and great breakfast. The hotel features a rooftop bar that overlooks the Acropolis that is worth booking a room for. who wouldn’t want to enjoy a drink while gazing upon the Parthenon, thinking of the innumerable people who have worshiped, pillaged, and visited there over the years? Rooms start around $128 USD per night. To book your stay at Hotel Attalos, go here.
Aside from the iconic Acropolis, make sure to visit the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The National Archaeological Museum of Athens features artifacts from the Mycenaean period, amazing Bronze statues, and even some mummies – in case you need to check “see a mummy” off your bucket list anytime soon. I’ve been to countless museums in my life and this one is easily my favorite. Get tickets here.
If you’re in the mood to see the sculptures pulled from the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum is a can’t miss. When you walk in, be sure to look down at the glass floor to see the remains of an ancient temple and an amazing mosaic. Book tickets here.
While in Athens, buy a gyro off the street if you’re in the mood for a quick snack. If you’re in the mood for something heartier, stop by the Anafiotika Cafe and enjoy a nice meal while sitting on the patio with 30 something new friends. If you choose to eat here, I recommend the kabobs. Finish your meal with a shot of ouzo, an aperitif that is uniquely Greek. If you’re in the mood for something vegetarian, check out Xenios Zeus. Make sure to get some of Xenios Zeus’ olives, as they are absolutely delicious.
After dinner, grab drinks at Thea Terrace Bar near the Acropolis. The cocktails are fantastic, the views are incredible, and the atmosphere is unbeatable. If you are wanting a seat, make sure to call ahead, as the bar tends to fill up quickly.
The nightlife in Athens is a bit different from the nightlife here in America. Typically, you go out to the bar and then head to the nightclubs sometime between 2 and 4 A.M., with most clubs staying open until 6 or 7 A.M. It’s takes some serious stamina to stay out all night and I don’t know how the Greeks do it every weekend! If you’re looking to party like a Greek in Athens, I recommend checking out 7 Times Live Music and Dance Club, which is a hookah and dancing spot, or Lohan Nightclub, which is the only mega-club in Athens.
Nafplio is a seaport town in the Peloponnese that has been an important site since classical times. On the top of one of the hills in Nafplio, there is a huge fortress that has been used various times throughout history and offers some of the best views in Greece. The proximity to Mycenae makes Nafplio a must visit for any lover of classics. Unfortunately, I don’t have any suggestions as to where to stay in Nafplio, as the hotel that I stayed in has since closed.
One of my proudest moments in my life has been climbing to the top of the Palamidi Fortress in Nafplio. This climb is over 1,000 steps and is taxing, but so worth it due to the views along the way. You can take a taxi to the top, but, trust me, the experience of the climb is something you’ll treasure forever. Admission to the fortress ranges from free to 4-8€, depending on when you go; you can view the calendar of prices here. The preservation of the Palamidi Fortress is amazing, the views from the top are indescribable, and the overall presentation of the site makes for an intriguing morning or afternoon.
One of the best things about Nafplio is its proximity to the ancient city of Mycenae. Historically, Mycenae was one of the major cities of Greek civilization and dominated southern Greece. The Lions Gate entrance to the Mycenae palace complex is one of the most well-known classical sculptures in the world. This UNESCO archaeological site is massive and incredibly well-preserved. It is worth a day trip from Nafplio to see the remains of this former military stronghold. You can book a guided tour, which includes transportation to Mycenae, for around $108 USD.
Nafplio is also within driving distance of Corinth, which you probably know of due to the Corinthians chapters in the Holy Bible. Corinth is about an hours drive from Nafplio and you will pass over the Corinth Canal along the way, which is an amazing view! Most of the ruins in Corinth are from Roman occupation and are located around 2 miles outside of the modern city of Corinth. For info on the bus from Nafplio to Corinth, go here.
If you’re looking for an incredible meal, check out Ta Fanaria in Nafplio! It’s been run by the same family for a couple of decades now, has amazing baked vegetable dishes, and offers a large variety of meats. The interior of the restaurant is very laid back and cozy while the outside alley seating is bustling and the neighborhood cats might join you for your meal. The food is inexpensive and the house wine is delicious. Be sure to visit Ta Fanaria while in Nafplio; it’s located right off of Syntagma Square.
About two blocks back from the seafront, you will find Taverna Byzantio, a relaxed restaurant that often hosts local musicians. The food is incredible and the atmosphere of the patio makes for an enjoyable dinner. When I visited, the flowers on the patio were in full bloom, their vibrant colors beautifully contrasting with the white washed buildings surrounding them. In addition to traditional Greek food, you also find a welcome mix of other European staples, such as snitzels. There isn’t a huge nightlife scene in Nafplio, but the live music here every Saturday is good for entertainment.
When thinking of Greece, your mind tends to wander to Sparta, especially after the movie 300 came out and thrilled audiences. To classics connoisseurs, Sparta is a place of great interest, as it was the home of Helen of Troy and was a key player during the Peloponnesian War. Now, the city is small, especially compared to the bustling city of Athens, but the archaeological sites are well worth coming to visit for a day or two. Unfortunately, I was here during a national holiday and all the restaurants were closed, so I don’t have any food recommendations for you.
While in Sparta, I stayed at the Lakonia Hotel. We chose this location due to the fact that it is in easy walking distance to the Spartan Acropolis and statues located around the city paying tribute to famous warriors. The rooms are fairly spacious and the location can’t be beat. Rooms start around $50 USD per night. Book here.
While in Sparta, be sure to visit what remains of the Acropolis and the various statues of military leaders around town. The most beautiful place in this area is Mystras, a small church located around 4 miles from Sparta that was built in the 1200s CE. Here, you will find beautiful flowers, traditional frescos, and a ton of stray cats. This UNESCO World Heritage Center is a must visit when you’re in the area. Get more information on the site here.
Olympia, Greece was home to the original Olympic games. The “Valley of the Gods” was one of the most important sanctuary sites in the ancient world and was home to the Temple of Zeus, which is one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. There isn’t a ton of stuff to do in Olympia besides visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Olympic site, but that will easily fill an entire day.
While in Olympia, I recommend staying in Hotel Ilis. The rooms were some of the cleanest I stayed at while in the Peloponnese, the staff was friendly, and breakfast was great. It is less than half a mile from the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Olympia and less than a mile from the Olympic site. Rooms start around $39 a night and can be booked here.
The Archaeological Museum of Ancient Olympia is home to many of the sculptures recovered from the temples and their pediments of the Olympic site. I recommend visiting the museum in the morning to learn some background on the Olympics and the religious connection to the games and site before visiting the Olympic site in the afternoon. Tickets to the museum cost 6€, but you can get a package for entrance to both the museum and site for 9€. Purchase tickets here.
The archaeological site of ancient Olympia is massive and will take several hours to get through. Here, you can visit the Workshop of Pheidias, Temple of Hera, Temple of Zeus, Stadium, Gym, and various other buildings on the site. Ancient games were much different from their modern counterparts, with athletes competing in the nude and games having religious implications. The site was in use beginning around 2000 BCE, with games occurring from 776 BCE until 393 CE. While here, be sure to run the Olympic track!
There are not a ton of restaurants in Olympia, but one I know to be reliable is Aegean. Aegean uses local ingredients and makes everything fresh on site. When you arrive, you will be greeted by the owner, George, and he will tell you what to order and what wine goes with it. Tell George what kinds of flavors you like and he will hook you up with one of the best meals you will eat in your life. There aren’t a ton of things to do at night in Olympia, but the wine at Aegean is a good and the vibe is enjoyable for late night drinks. You can get directions to Aegean from any hotel manager in the city.
In the ancient world, Delphi was known as “the navel of the world”. Today, locals still refer to Delphi in this manner and they take great pride in their city. In Delphi, you will find the ruins of one of the largest ancient banks, the ruins of the temple of the oracle, and see the sites where some of the wildest parties of the ancient world took place.
The Acropole Hotel is Delphi is located within easy walking distance of the archaeological sites, offers free WiFi, and is owned and operated by an incredibly kind family. The space is decked out in oranges and reds, giving off an inviting vibe and breakfast is included with the room. Single rooms start at 49€ per night and can be booked here.
Here in Delphi, you will find the Sanctuary of Delphi UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site lies on a mountain and is massive! Here, you will find the Temple of Apollo, where the oracle of Delphi, who was always a young, attractive woman who would inhale ethylene gas and have “visions”, received visitors. You will also find the Siphnian Treasury, the largest bank of the ancient world, and the Theatre of Dionysus on the very top of the mountain. Admission is between 6-12€, depending on the time of year you go. You can find ticket information here.
In Delphi, the best place to eat is a place called “In Delphi”. In Delphi is a small restaurant with decor that makes you feel as if you’re in the middle of the family’s kitchen and dining room. The walls are lined with jars of olives and cupboards full of various spices and knickknacks. They have traditional greek foods, as well as pasta and pizza dishes. The tables are located fairly close to each other, so it’s easy for large parties to talk table to table or to start talking with your neighbor. It’s a little pricey, but so worth it. I recommend the veal! If you are wanting to eat at In Delphi, just ask your hotel concierge for directions to the restaurant, it’s not very hard to find.
Sifnos is a small, Cycladic island that is super low-key compared to the other Cycladic islands. There isn’t a lot of tourism happening in Sifnos, but the hiking, beaches, and ancient gold mines make it a must visit! In Sifnos, you will find tons of artisans making pottery down by the port and smiles everywhere you turn. Not a lot of people in Sifnos speak English, so be ready to try to speak some Greek.
The Myrto Hotel is the perfect place to stay in Sifnos due to its proximity to the port and the fact that there aren’t a ton of other options in Sifnos! It’s a pretty small town. Rooms start at 35€ per night and can be booked here.
My favorite place to visit in Sifnos are the Mines of Agios Sostis. It’s about a two-hour hike to get out to, but the views of the Aegean make the hike worth it. There are only a few steep inclines along the way, making it a fairly easy hike. Once there, you will be able to climb into some of the entrances of the ancient gold mines (but don’t go too far in, as it’s super dangerous) and relax by the beach. To learn more about visiting, check out my guide to the mines here.
If you’re looking to buy pottery in Greece, Sifnos is the place to go! While I was here, I got a piece for each member of my family that they still treasure today. You’ll find several shops around the port, but I recommend Peristeronia Ceramics, a small, family owned and operated shop that make stunning art! Be sure to speak with the artisans working so that you can know the inspiration behind your piece, as some of the stories will shock you.
Like with hotel options, there are not a lot of dining options in Sifnos. What you find is absolutely delicious. If you’re staying by the port, be sure to try Restorante Italiano “Da Claudio” for some of the best mushroom dishes you’ll ever taste. They also have pastas and pizzas that are made from scratch in-house. If you’re wanting to eat here, just walk towards the port and look for a white sign with two pigs dressed as chefs on it.
Sifnos has a small beach bar called Isalos All Day Bar, if you’re looking for after dinner drinks. Here, you will find typical staples, such as mojitos and pina coladas, along with interesting Greek twists on traditional cocktails. They also have some small dishes if you’re looking to nibble on something. They’re located directly on the water beside the port.
Milos is a volcanic island in the Aegean Sea and is the most southwestern island of the Cycladic group. Most famously known for the Venus de Milo statue discovered on the island, Milos offers a rich cultural history, stunning beaches, and breathtaking hikes.
While visiting Milos, I recommend either staying in the Dionysis Studios Hotel or Hotel Semiramis. The Dionysis Studios Hotel is a short walk from the village center and beach. They offer breakfast each morning and have spacious rooms. Rates for the Dionysis Studios Hotel start at 38€ per night and can be booked here. Hotel Semiramis is a small, family run hotel located across the street from the Dionysis Studios Hotel. Rooms start at 36€ per night and can be booked here.
While in Milos, you absolutely have to hike up to the Venus de Milo site and nearby amphitheater. It’s an easy hike and you’ll get to see lush parts of the island along the way. Keep in mind that you will not see the actual Venus de Milo, as it’s housed in the Lourve. Information on the theater where Venus de Milo was found and a map can be found here.
Milos is also home to a large system of Christian catacombs that are incredibly cool! The catacombs have largely been looted, but the structure and artistry left are worth the visit. The catacombs are 3€ to visit and directions and ticketing can be found here.
For traditional Greek meals in a homey atmosphere, check out O Hamos Tavern. Located on a large plot of land about a 20 minute walk from the city, O Hamos Tavern offers a unique dining experience in which you are served family style portions of classic Greek meals. O Hamos Tavern is in a farmhouse, with tables and chairs scattered within the front room and yard. Here, you will dine on impeccably cooked meats, creamy vegetables, and fantastic desserts. Make sure to sign the guestbook, which is the back of your chair, and collect recipes from the posted area in the yard before you leave! Information on O Hamos Tavern can be found here.
Santorini is probably the most well-known Cycladic Island, due to the miles of white buildings with blue roofs. In the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie, this is the island where Lena met Kostos. Santorini is a popular tourist destination, as there is a huge cruise ship port in the middle of the island. The island is a crescent shape and has two main cities, Oia and Fira. Oia and Fire are on cliffsides overlooking a crater that was left by a volcanic eruption centuries ago. Here, you can climb up a volcano, visit the archaeological site of Akrotiri, and swim at some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Out of all the places I stayed at in Greece, Hotel Katerina’s Castle in Santorini was by far my favorite. Built into the side of a cave, Hotel Katerina’s Castle offers a memorable experience, breathtaking views of the sea, and friendly staff who will keep in touch with you for years to come. While here, be sure to check out the patio area atop the hotel, which offers fresh breakfast every morning while watching the sun rise over the sea. The main lure of this hotel is that it is located right outside the main tourist hub of the island. The hotel is within walking distance of the shopping centers and bars of the island. Rooms start at 110€ during the low season and can be booked here.
If you’re looking for an ancient site in Santorini, be sure to visit the archaeological site of Akrotiri. Akrotiri is a Minoan Bronze Age settlement that was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of 1627 BCE. You can find information on the site, such as open hours, here.
Down the mountain from the Akrotiri site is the Red Sand Beach (pictured above). At a glance, you’d think the waters are shallow, but they’re around 30 ft deep with crystal clear water. The beach gets its red coloring from deposits left by volcanic eruption and the water is warm year round. Access to the beach is easy, but requires a bit of hiking to get to. The beach is small and can get crowded during the summer months, but is worth the visit. Directions to the beach can be found here and a map can be found here.
Santorini is also home to a larger, black sand beach that is as beautiful. It’s on the far south end of the island. Directions to the Perissa black sand beach can be found here.
While in Santorini, be sure to look at the various jewelers on the island. You will find some artesian jewelry and beautiful gem stones here. You can find the shops around the cruise ship ports in Fira on Gold Street. Here is a handy guide to the shops.
Finally, check out the vineyards in Santorini! The island makes a very specific type of wine that requires the grapes to be grown near the ground and coiled. It’s incredibly fascinating and creates a unique taste and allows you to explore some of the oldest vineyards in Europe. I recommend the Santorini Wine Adventure tour, which includes tours of 3 vineyards, tastings of 12 wines, lasts half a day, and costs 100€ per person. Book your tour here.
Food in Santorini can get real expensive real quick if you aren’t careful. Santorini has some of the best fine dining options in all of Greece, but the restaurants that are fine dining don’t always look it. Be sure to check the posted menus before committing to a meal somewhere.
If you’re looking for a quick bite with a local brew, check out Lucky’s Souvlakis. You order your dish at the cashier, then place your receipt on the bar to get your food and drink. This will be the best gyro you eat in Santorini. You can find their location and specials on their Facebook page here.
If you’re looking for a larger meal in Fira, check out Ouzeri. It’s fairly expensive and looks super touristy, but the food is awesome. Here, you will find traditional dishes, some interesting twists of classics, and ouzo from some of the local taverns. Trust me, eat here! It also over looks the sea. Reservations are usually required for dinner, but not lunch. Make your reservations and get directions to Ouzeri here.
Fira is home to some incredibly fun bars. Unfortunately, we went to Santorini during the off-season. The bars closed earlier in the night than usual and the clubs on the island weren’t open. Nevertheless, we had a great time.
The first bar that I’m going to suggest is 2 Brothers Bar in Fira. This place lets you take a shot while wearing a helmet and getting whacked on the head with a bat, which takes getting smashed to a whole new level. 2 Brothers also plays classic rock music and will let you dance on a bar. It’s a good time. Check out their website here.
If you’re looking for a classier bar option, be sure to visit V-Longe and Cocktail Bar. Located on the rooftop of a hotel, V-Lounge gives you great views of the sea and delicious cocktails. You can find information on V-Lounge here.
Honestly, the bars in Fira change so often that the others I went to are now closed. The main thing about going out in Santorini is avoiding bars that say “all day happy hour” or have pushy doormen, as they’re just going to rip you off. You can hop around streets of Fira and do a ton of bars in one night. It’s always a good time and you’re going to love it. If the bar scene in Fira isn’t your thing, head up to the Oia end of the island and check out the bars there.
Naxos is the largest island of the Cycladic group. Here, you will find ancient sites, mountains, and beautiful beaches. Naxos has largely been ignored by the tourist industry, making it an ideal destination for someone trying to experience authentic Greek island living.
The best place to stay in Naxos is Hotel Anatoli. It’s located near the beach, is pet friendly, and has a pretty nice pool. The decor is a little outdated, but the location and friendly staff make up for the decor. You can also send your laundry out for 10€ a bag. Rooms start around 40€ per night and can be booked here.
During your visit to Naxos, take a bus or drive to the marble quarries of Kouros, home to one of the most famous marble statues in the world. The quarries are free to visit and you can sit beside this massive statue, which is over 10m high. Directions to the quarries can be found by plugging Ancient Quarries Flerio into your GPS.
While in Naxos, visit Portara, which is a huge unfinished temple. Access Portara via a short walk from the port. This landmark overlooks the sea and is the best place to watch the sunset in the city.
The only place to eat in Naxos that you need to know about is the Del Mar Cafe. It’s AMAZING. The family that owns Del Mar Cafe is from Italy. Everything is made from scratch and the house flavored moscato is what dreams are made of. Del Mar Cafe is under-priced for how delicious the food is. It’s located right across from the beach in Naxos and honestly I’d go back to Naxos just to eat here. You can check out their site here.
Mykonos has been nicknamed “the party island” of the Cycladic group. This island is home to some of the best clubs in the world and is a LGBTQ+ haven. Every year, tourists flock from all over the world to party on this picturesque island.
In Mykonos, the best place to stay is the Sophia Village Hotel. The hotel has an amazing pool, beautiful gardens, and friendly pups roaming the property. Each room is in its own building around the pool area, offering tons of privacy. The hotel is located a short walk from town. Rooms start around 50€ during the low season and can be booked here.
While in Mykonos, be sure to take a ferry over to Delos. In mythology, Delos is where Apollo was born, giving it the name “the Birthplace of the Immortals”. The entire island of Delos is an archaeological site and is, in my opinion, the coolest site in all of Greece. Delos is one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Greece. Here, you’ll find the remains of temples, houses, markets, theaters, the iconic Terrace of Lions, and fertility statues. A guided tour will run you $50 or more, but the brochure gives you enough information to guide yourself. I suggest going to the docks at Mykonos the night before to see ferry departure times. You can also talk to your concierge to find additional options for visiting Delos. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on Delos!
Mykonos is home to some of the worlds best beaches. You can always spend a day (or more!) lounging by the beach or a pool and catch some rays.
Be sure to eat somewhere overlooking the sea while in Mykonos. The shellfish and fish at all the restaurants in Mykonos are super fresh. For seafood, I recommend Alegro restaurant, which is located by the Old Town Port. To make reservations, see the menu, and get directions, check out their website here. If you’re wanting to eat in town, I recommend Casa Di Giorgio, an Italian restaurant with an amazing wine selection. You can find them here.
Between dinner and the nightclubs, head for drinks at Kastros. Kastros is in the Little Venice area of Mykonos Town and hangs over the sea. During your visit, try their fruit infused cocktails. You can find them here.
Check out Astra if you’re looking for a place to dance between dinner and clubbing. Astra combines lounge with club early in the night, making it ideal for pre-club shenanigans. You can find Astra here.
My favorite place to club in Mykonos is the Skandinavian Bar, a nightclub with white walls, a stunning entrance, and fantastic music and drinks. Even people who don’t like dancing won’t be able to resist dancing here. You can check out their Facebook page here.
Another popular club in Mykonos is Cavo Paradise. Located on the top of a hill, this club gives you some of the best views of the city. Getting up to Cavo Paradise is a bit of a process and the building is made of plain stone. The trek uphill is well worth the incredible time you’ll have once inside. Cavo Paradise has hosted world-class DJs over the years and has a massive pool on site. You can find Cavo Paradise here.
If you’re still with me after this long read, congratulations! Hopefully, you understand why you should visit Greece ASAP. I have been missing it ever since I left and can’t wait to return in the future. Go forth and plan your Grecian adventure! You will not regret it.
September 19, 2018 at 5:41 pm
Thanks for the great guide! I’m just in the beginning stages of planning to visit Greece with my dad and my daughter. I know we’ll be going to Kefalonia, since our family is from there, but looking forward to exploring as much as we can. Delphos looks amazing!
September 19, 2018 at 11:07 pm
You’re absolutely going to adore Greece!