As one of the world’s greatest cities, Athens is crammed with attractions and entertainment that can pleasantly fill weeks of any visitor’s time. However, a number of outstanding destinations are located within easy reach – whether you travel by boat, public transport or with your own wheels. From ancient ruins to island beaches, a day excursion from the Greek capital is well worth considering.
Escape the city heat on Aegina
A trip to Aegina is the quickest way to find yourself on an island if you’re staying in Athens. The Saronic Gulf island boasts a perfect combination of important ancient ruins, attractive sandy beaches, charming neoclassical architecture and local delicacies like the internationally renowned local pistachio variety. Outside the picturesque Aegina Town, the Temple of Aphaia, which is among the country’s top ancient sites, and the villages of Agia Marina and Perdika are also worth a visit. The huge Orthodox church of Agios Nektarios is a popular pilgrimage destination among both Greek and foreign visitors. Avoid the summer weekends if you can, as the island gets packed with Athenians escaping the city heat.
Getting there: Take the ferry (one hour and 15 minutes) or the hydrofoil (40 minutes) from the harbour of Piraeus. There’s no need to book in advance as departures are frequent.
Explore pretty Nafplio and the ancient Argolis region
One of the longest-inhabited regions in Greece, the Argolis peninsula also has the country’s highest concentration of major ancient sites, like the mythical fortress of Agamemnon at Mycenae or the spectacular Theatre of Epidavros, still in use every summer weekend. Nafplio, the first capital of modern Greece, is one of the prettiest towns in the country, with splendid Venetian and neoclassical architecture and fortresses like the hilltop Palamidi (a famous 999-steps climb) or Bourtzi (a small fortified islet in the harbour). Plenty of elegant boutique hotels, tasteful shops and small restaurants hidden in narrow alleys make Nafplio a hugely popular destination for a day hop or a longer stay. Further south is the posh resort of Porto Heli, where Greek and international jetsetters own luxurious villas and mansions. The region also has some agreeable sandy beaches and numerous local wineries, many open to the public.
Visit the Navel of the World at Delphi
Myths, history and spectacular mountains meet at Delphi – just like in Greek mythology the two eagles released by Zeus met there, determining the Navel (or centre) of the World. The Sanctuary of Apollo, built in the 7th century BC, was a revered ancient oracle and home to Pythia, the priestess who mumbled her notoriously ambiguous answers on important or everyday matters to visitors from every walk of life. A stadium high on the hill, an ancient theatre and Tholos (a circular temple, probably the most photographed landmark of the site) together with a small but significant museum, keep attracting the modern-day crowds. The idyllic clifftop village on the slopes of Mt Parnassos, overlooking the endless olive groves that surround the sanctuary, is buzzing with taverns and souvenir shops catering to day trippers.
Go for long strolls on stunning Hydra
Gorgeous Hydra is a rocky island with a rich history and spectacular, well-preserved stone mansions that once belonged to great naval families and captains of the Greek Revolution. The town is built on the hillside around a stunning harbour; it has a tranquil allure like no other Greek island as it’s completely car-free, with local transport duties performed by donkeys and small boats. Numerous small museums, art galleries and boutique hotels, together with the ever-present yachts docked in the harbour, contribute to its classy aura and more than make up for the lack of beaches.
Taste Greek small-town life in Halkida
Build on the channel that separates the island of Evia from the mainland, and famous for the six-hourly change in the direction of the water’s flow, Halkida can’t claim the title of tourist magnet by any means. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant seaside town worth visiting if only for a relaxing break from a hectic city-sightseeing itinerary and for a taste of Greek small-town life. There are also plenty of nice and clean beaches nearby, as well as countless seaside restaurants where you’ll enjoy extremely fresh seafood, with far more variety than you’ll see in Athens.
Enjoy a Sounion sunset and visit the Marathon battlefield
You can easily spend a whole day at either of these close-by destinations but if your schedule is tight, they both make perfect half-day trips. Cape Sounion, at the southernmost tip of Attica, is where the splendid Temple of Poseidon is located – this is one of the best spots around Athens to savour a gorgeous sunset. It can be combined with lunch or dinner at one of the many fish taverns in the nearby working-class town of Lavrio. Northeast of Athens, Marathon is the site of one of the greatest battles in history and the place where the modern Athens Marathon commences, following the steps of Pheidippides, the legendary ancient courier who first ran the glorious route. The archaeological museum, the tomb of Athenians fallen in the battle, and the lake with its dam are the main attractions of the area.