Travel Dreaming

Athens, A First Visit To An Icon

In ancient times, the goddess Athena looked after Athens as the patroness of the city. The small but mighty city crowned with the Acropolis has been the longest continuously inhabited capitol in Europe. It has seen its glory ebb and flow over not just centuries but millennia. So, what is it about this vacation magnet that keeps travelers coming back over and over again? What makes travel to Athens so appealing?

Greek church domes in blue.
Beautiful blue domes dot a mid century modern cityscape.

First Impressions

At first glance, Athens is not the prettiest city you’ve ever seen. With about half of Greece’s population residing in and around Athens, the overall urban sprawl of the place is staggering. Driving through the streets, I find myself asking why Athenians don’t see the overall decline of the area around them. Then, I realize, they are too busy living life. For Athens can be only defined by its people and they are- what’s the word I’m looking for? Kallos.

Greek Evzones, soldiers who ceremonially guard the tomb.
Iconic Evzones change the guard at Hellenic Republic’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Go on Sunday morning for the full ceremonial change.

Plan Strategically

Athens is big. So big, in fact, it’s hard to envision covering it all in one trip. Most visitors (Xenos) focus on the area in and around the Plaka or old town. Making your home base in this area makes the most geographical sense as it makes probably 80% of your itinerary walkable. While some may say that this is the most “touristy” area of the city, there are plenty of options for everyone’s taste. If you do choose another neighborhood, be sure that you have transportation options easily available.

A Greek orthodox church in the plaka.
One of the Plaka’s charming Orthodox churches.

Eat Absolutely Everything

If there is one thing that makes me look forward to Athens it’s knowing a fresh cucumber and tomato salad waiting for me. Let me be clear: my first meal in Greece will always be a salad with a fresh tomato that tastes like a tomato! In fact, the last time I was in Athens, I was reading an article at breakfast that was about GMO free regions within the EU. And who is on that list? Greece! No wonder the food still tastes like food! Just like any other country, there are familiar dishes like gyros and souvlaki as well as dishes you may not have heard of like keftedes and pilafi. Hear me now! Eat it all!!!!!

Food in the Plaka
A table full of meze.
Hermion in the Plaka
My mom at Hermion with our lifelong friend Costa.
Food in the Plaka
Summertime means zucchini!

I’d love to give you a perfectly vetted list of authentic restaurants but, in all honesty, I’ve never had a bad meal in The Plaka. Instead, try Hermion for a quiet meal and Kazakos Pantelis for the rooftop view that tucks you right in under the Acropolis.

RoofTop 360 Restaurant
RoofTop 360 with our good friend Stavros, the proprietor and lead jeweler at Dimos.
The Plaka Steps
The iconic Plaka steps that are full of amazing views and restaurants.

The Central Market

Getting your head around the food choices in Athens can be a bit overwhelming. There are distinct differences between the touristy menu and the typical Greek menu especially in the Plaka. A great way to learn more about Greek food is to visit the central market. With two distinct parts devoted to meat and seafood on one side and fresh produce on the other, you can get a true sense of what makes Greek cuisine so yummy. Getting there first thing in the morning gives you a sense of the energy that it takes to get Greece’s menus out to her customers every day.

Central market
Open arms from a local fish monger.
Central market
Olive-palooza!
Central market
All smiles at the butcher’s stall.

The Plaka’s Treasure

Browsing through the Plaka’s generous supply of stores will keep you busy for days. There are plenty of amazing shops to check out. While touristy t-shirt shops will always be a staple, there are plenty of gems to be found. Some of the legacies that you will find deep in the Plaka include Jewelry Stores that specialize in Byzantine styles. I highly recommend Dimos Jewelry You will find owner, Stavros, making great quality pieces that truly reflect that Byzantine style that made the Plaka’s first jewelers so famous. Another incredible jeweler named Tom (Thassos in Greek) can be found at Old Orient Jewelry. While the name is a bit deceiving, make no mistake, its history is well founded in the treasures you find down at the National Archaeological Museum.

Tom and my mom talk jewelry
Tom and my mom talk jewelry and catch up on their 35 year friendship.
Plaka jewelry
One of Tom’s new masterpieces.
A Greek Orthodox priest peers in to Dimos while my mom checks out Stavros’ new creations.

I’m Worried Someone’s Watching Me

It’s not your imagination! You are being watched by thousands upon thousands of evil eyes. Don’t let the name fool you, evil eyes are an old superstition meant to keep evil away. You’ll find them on absolutely everything from soap to pillows. Join in the fun, everyone buys them and has them in their house. I always look for the most creative ones to enjoy. If you are still worried, check out the beads that are strung to look like over sized bracelets. These worry beads are another Greek staple that’s well worth the enjoyment.

Evil Eyes
Pillows with the Evil Eye motif in a store on Adrianou Street.
Evil Eyes
Helen’s store is full of Evil Eye jewelry to ward off any evil spirits.
Adrianou Street
Adrianou Street holds store after store of Greek souvenirs.

The best place to get your evil eye swag is at Helen’s which is just in front of Hermion. Check out this old school shop for all kinds of fun stuff to bring home and share. I’ve gone year after year and always have a great time visiting the owner. For more modern inceptions of the evil eye, check out the shops along Adrianou Street.

Plaka shopping
Our great friend Helen in her flagship store.

The Acropolis

While not the crowning achievement of the Ancient Greeks, the Acropolis is certainly the most famous of all the marble piles. Tackling a visit to the City on the Hill can be quite daunting without a little preparation. There are three distinct places to visit to take in the whole story: The Acropolis, The Agora, and The New Museum.

Parthenon
In front of the Parthenon (that’s the building) at the Acropolis (that’s the hill top complex) as it continues its never ending restoration.

Honestly, I don’t think that there is any right way or correct order in which to visit the sites. The museum does a great job telling the age old story. Then again, the Agora does a fabulous job of explaining ancient daily life. Of course, the climb is so iconic that you may not want to wait. See what I mean?

Know the Controversy

If there was one thing to make sure you know before going to Acropolis, it would be the story of the Parthenon Marbles. Known also as the Elgin Marbles, this group of friezes from the Acropolis. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Way back in 1801, Lord Elgin asked the ruling Ottoman government if he could have his pick of the ruins on top of the Acropolis. The government said okay and he took what he wanted including 75 meters of the frieze. That seemed to be the end of it. Fast forward to post WWII Greece.

The Acropolis Museum
Sitting on the overlay at the entrance of the museum where ancient ruins continue to be discovered.
Acropolis Museum
An active archaeological site, the museum continues to learn about the daily lives of ancient ancestors.

The modern and current government feels that the marbles were taken under incorrect circumstances and would like them returned. England is not a fan of this idea since the marbles take center stage in London. There are many twists and turns in this story and it is well worth researching. It will also explain the empty floor at the Acropolis Museum.

Night time with the Acropolis
Night time falls over the Plaka and the Acropolis.

Make The Climb

It’s hot and dry in Athens during the Summer but don’t let that deter you from planting your feet high above the modern skyline. Here, at the top of one of the seven hills (just like Rome) that surround Athens. Stop. Take it all in. Take in this crowning glory of ancient times. Walk around the Parthenon and examine the massive columns. Envision that great goddess Athena in all her glory filling the space inside. Study the intricate copies of the Caryatids that have held up the porch of the Erechtheion opposite the temple. Check in with the restoration projects to see how they are holding back the erosion of time. It’s an overwhelming moment for any traveler.

Acropolis gate
Climbing up through the gates of the Acropolis.

Last, walk out to the Greek flag. Here, learn the story of Konstantinos Koukidis and why he is so important to modern Greece. Be sure to also view the amphitheater and the main gate to get a full feel of what this hilltop must have been like in its prime. I would say that climbing to the top is a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s the Summer heat that will do you in more than the hike.

Caryatids
The graceful Caryatids. and yes, even with all of the visitors, you can still get moments to take amazing pictures.

On your way down, be sure to seek out a moment to climb the stairs to the rock where St. Paul talked to the Athenians. As in “a letter from St. Paul to the Athenians”. Yes, those passages in the Bible happen right at the foot of Athena’s home turf. Whether you are interested in religion or not, the stop is an interesting one to pause and think of time in terms centuries and millenia. It’s just astounding.

St. Paul's site
Standing in the Saint’s footsteps…I am humbled.

Get Out Of Town!

Athens is full of amazing sites and treasures. Just ride the subway to see that even when you are getting from point A to point B, you will run in to museum quality antiquities. Between the Evzones and stunning churches, and even a hilltop observatory, Athens has plenty to keep any traveler busy. I know it’s tempting to check as many museums as possible off your list and if that’s your thing, check away! But, if you are like most, you are probably wanting to balance ancient ruins with bougainvillea covered tavernas that overlook dreamy sea views.

Plaka shopping.
My mom and I shop in an olive wood store in the Plaka. Check out the clear floor which enables you to see ancient ruins.

If that’s your idea of fun, head south to catch the ferry to Hydra. This little, traffic free island has all the charm you can take. Enjoy the people watching and browse the little shops. Greece will not leave you wanting in the souvenir department. Most of all, pull up a chair. Order a drink and something delicious. Relax. Enjoy. You’re in Greece!

Donkeys on Hydra
Rush hour on Hydra.

Another amazing side trip is to set your sights north toward a town called Meteora. World renown for it’s monasteries that are sky high, this little corner of the world is quite magical. Tour one of the monasteries and then enjoy the little downtown tavernas in the evening. This is a side of Greece that rarely get seen by the first time visitor.

offering candles
Offer up a candle anywhere in Greece.

If you plan to include the Greek Islands in your travels, check out our amazing post about seeing them here!

Where We Went: Travel To Athens

Greek interactive map
Travel Dreaming

Island Hopping, Greek Style

If I asked you to name some Greek Islands, I bet most of you would kick off your list with the hall of famers. Mykonos. Santorini. Crete. But did you know that there are 227 inhabited islands in Greece? So why does it seem like 95% of vacationers only go to these 3 biggies? Perhaps it’s because that’s where most cruise lines and tour groups decide to stop. Perhaps they get the most press. Maybe they are thought of as the A team. Don’t get me wrong, each of these Grecian gems are well worth the visit but what about the other 224?!

Views like this wait for you at every island
Greek Islands: A bucket list moment for so many!

Getting Our Bearings

Greek Islands are connected by ferry and knowing how the ferry system works can be the key to unlocking other, less touristy islands. These ferries will sure get you to whatever island you are interested in. However, they can be a bit of a time eater. Between boarding schedules and tickets, ferries do the job for the day tripper but might not cut it for the traveler looking to really get away. Good thing there is another choice!

Here’s my thought:

For a true Greek Island experience, may I suggest renting a catamaran with some friends and family? I bet you think that it’s way too much of a splurge to really justify it. Consider this: Let’s say a catamaran costs $12,000 to rent for 7 days. Oosh! That’s way too steep! But what happens if 6 friends can share the cost? Well, your part is now $2,000 inclusive. Better? Now, add in the fact that 2 of your meals and your alcohol tab are included with your room and transportation! Well, well, well. Things are looking up!

Eat, drink, be on island time!
Boat life: Enjoying a drink and a view!

So, you’ve committed to a little island hopping. Exactly which islands will you see? You will quickly find out that islands are grouped together with names like The Cyclades, The Sporades, The Ionian, and more. Focusing on one of these clusters would definitely help. For our purposes, let’s focus on the Cyclades.

Catamarans at Kolona Beach
Famous Kolona Beach

Recalibrate Your Traveling Mind

Sometimes when we travel, we do so to enlighten ourselves; to learn more about another culture. While there are moments that cater to this all over the islands, don’t expect cultural understanding to be the focus. Instead, set your course toward relaxation, food experiences, and local village life. Because that’s what the Greek Islands are made for!

Fresh Food
Locally sourced, super fresh homemade food is on the table every day.

Launching into island mode started in the old port of Lavrion which is opposite the main port of Pireas. Our boat had three staterooms and was manned by a captain, Vasilis, and a host slash chef named Leoni. Once settled, Leoni turned on the music, poured the wine and made us feel right at home in true Greek style.

All aboard!
Our Catamaran!
Our amazing guide!
Leoni from South Africa, our host and chef
Our Captain!
Vasilis from Northern Greece, taking a well deserved break from captain’s duties!

Each day, we would sail to a different island, stopping in small coves along the way, and stay the night in a new port of call. It becomes very easy to get into an island rhythm: breakfast, sail, swim, lunch, swim. dine, repeat. It’s that easy. Have I convinced you yet? Are you ready to go?

Sails up!

In our week, we spent time on the following islands~

  • Kythnos- has plenty of charm and was perfect for a daytime hike up to the top for fabulous views. Stay down by the water for famous Kolona Beach.
Kolona Beach
crystal blue!
  • Syros- home to Ermoupolis, Syros offers a great harbor with plenty of outdoor cafes and bars. The streets are literally paved in marble from Florentine times.
Ermoupolis
Ermoupolis
The Cathedral
Ermoupolis Cathedral
  • Paros- grab a blue chair at a white table and enjoy island life without the over indulgence of cruise ships.
Beach side everything
Beach side everything is ready and waiting!
  • Mykonos- home to those famous white washed winding streets full of bougainvillea and shops. Known for being a party island, it can be overcrowded by day but super fun at night.
Fishing boats in Mykonos
Mykonos Harbor
Lighting a candle at the chapel in Mykonos
Lighting a candle at the harbor side chapel in Mykonos
launches on Mykonos Island
Plenty of launches are ready to help you explore the islands
  • Sifnos- a small but fun spot to enjoy some down time, drink some local wine and take in the salty breeze.
Mykonos
Quiet moments
  • Serifos- with a great harbor, the food here is wonderful and the calm island had plenty of charm.
beach dining
When you sit down with your toes in the water!
  • Sounion Bay- home to Posiedon’s famous temple, there’s a small beach with choppy water but the hike up to the top is bucket list worthy.
The Bay of Sounion
Sounion Bay at the tip of the mainland
Posiedon's Temple
The Temple of Posiedon
  • Athens- We started and ended our trip with a few days in Athens. There we enjoyed the Plaka and climbed up to the top of the Acropolis.
The Acropolis Flag
The national flag waves proudly at the Acropolis
Plaka
Plaka Vibes
Eat, Drink, love life
Greek Food done perfectly…

9 Tips To Make Your Greek Island Adventure Perfect!

  • Be flexible! Our captain did a great job of bringing us to islands where the weather was great. He was able to skirt around storms to keep our sailing smooth. In other words, you may not get to 6 islands in a specific order. Instead, expect to jump in to a group of islands and let your skipper lead the way.
sunset
Sunsets
  • Pack wisely! You won’t need much! A few pairs of tops and shorts, good sandals, your swimsuit, and two or three sundresses or skirts to throw on top of your bathing suit. That’s it!
  • Prepare for chilly water! Contrary to what you may think, some waters are a bit colder than you may expect. Don’t get me wrong, you will still adore it!
perfect water
Crystal blue water waits!
  • Timing is everything! Check the average temperatures before you book so that you will have sunny, warm days and cooler nights to sleep. Most boats don’t have AC.
  • Get sick, fast! This may be a bit gross but the quicker you get over your inevitable sea sickness, the quicker you can get on with your holiday.
hiking in the greek islands
Hiking up to the top!
  • Know your islands! When you book, be sure to ask about the possible islands that you may visit. You can then research each and find your favorite thing to do on each island regardless of where you go.
sunset, greek island style
Sunset moments of a lifetime!
  • Go big! And go small. When you book be sure to let them know that you would like to enjoy all kinds of islands. Cosmopolitan, quaint, Euro-friendly, family-friendly, historic, the list keeps going. Be sure to let your agent know what you want- and that should include at least a day at an icon like Mykonos or Santorini depending on your timing.
Front of the catamaran
Sailing on to the next port of call!
  • Get to Athens! Don’t come this far and not check in with Athens to see this great city!

And Lastly…

  • Leave the kids! While there is no where in the world that you can’t take your kids, some places lend themselves far better to the pint sized set than others. Greece is not one of those places. Yes, there is a ton from the Bible and a ton from ancient times. Yes, you could make an amazing trip to the islands with the kids, I just think there are better places to take them than here. Enjoy yourself as an adult for a while, the kids will be fine!
Travel Dreaming

Travel To Bruges

So very many people ask me about travel. And, I have to say, probably the most common question I get is “where should I go first?” I always answer with “the place you are hoping I will say!” More often than not, when prospective travelers really, truly think about it, they know what they want to do before they even ask. However, my inner traveler wants to scream “travel to Bruges!” Why? It’s very simple, Bruges is the perfect example of everything that travelers are looking for in Europe.

Europe 101.

If someone were to make a checklist for the beginning traveler, Bruges would encompass the entire thing. Looking for charming streets? Got it! Interested in regional cuisine? Yup! Obsessed with art and history? Bruges delivers! While there may be no royals in residence, there are even castles to stay in. It literally has a little sprinkling of every fairy tale aspect that we work to discover as we travel throughout Europe. Quite simply, it’s the perfect first steps into global literacy.

It smells like chocolate and waffles here.

Getting the lay of the land in Bruges is quite simple. The entire city center revolves around the main square with the bell tower. It’s an easy enough landmark that allows you to wander then simply walk back toward this tallest structure in town to meander your way back. While strolling along the cobble stoned streets is lovely, I suggest arranging for bicycles to really enjoy all that Bruges has to offer.

Probably the most telling sign that you are close to the city center though is the smell. And what a smell it is! It seems as if the entire town smells just like the two local favorites: waffles and chocolate! I love a city that literally comes with a daily reminder to dig in to the local food scene.

Is that music I hear?

Right in the middle of all of these quintessentially Belgian treasures, stands the town’s bell tower. Bruges’ bell tower hold a unique musical instrument called a carillon. Basically, a carillon allows a musician to “play” the tower’s bells like a piano. By striking the keys, the player rings a connected bell and adds to its tune. There are two ways to enjoy the concert of the carillon. The first is to enter the courtyard of the bell tower and listen at the posted times from benches provided. The second, and by far my favorite, is to find out when the bells will play and listen to the concert while enjoying a meal at one of the many restaurants that ring this lovely square.

And they got it back.

One of the most interesting and fascination objects in Bruges is Michaelangelo’s Virgin and Child. More famously know as the Bruges Madonna. Located in __ church, this was the only work the great master allowed to leave his beloved Italy during his lifetime. It’s certainly a masterpiece. However, much like the Mona Lisa, the Bruges Madonna, found itself far more famous after it was essentially kidnapped.

You may have seen the story of the Bruges Madonna in the great movie, Monuments Men. Basically, the Nazi’s were after all of the art they could get their hands on. That included the beautiful Madonna. Thanks to some brave military men, the masterpiece is right back where it belongs for all of us to enjoy. Find the Virgin and Child inside The Church of Our Lady. It happens to hold more art and history along with the sculpture. A Bruges must.

No, wait! That’s even prettier!

Sometimes the prerequisite boat tour of a town is far more underwhelming than it is helpful and charming. I can think of so many towns where a canal boat ride is such a waste of time. Bruges is not one of them. The medieval town has preserved its canal system and has taken it from industrial waterway to a dreamy movie set complete with weeping willows and majestic swans. Boat rides pick up at various points around the city center and are narrated in a few different languages. Have your camera ready! You need to be prepared because around every corner is yet another postcard perfect shot.

Bruges canals
Bruges canals
An eco sculpture of a whale on the canal
Swans on the Bruges Canals
On the Bruges canals

Deep in Bruges history…

Tucked into the corner of the Burg Square, The Basilica of The Holy Blood is a different kind of church experience. This dark and small Romanesque church is a refreshing change from the airy Gothic churches that dot Europe. With two chapels to explore and a connection to The Crusades, it’s well worth the stop.

Originally named St. Basil’s, the church was renamed due to its holy relic, a piece from the Crown of Thorns. Enjoy the tapestries, carvings, and well restored paintings that are found in both chapels.

Basilica of the Holy Blood
The upper chapel

A walk through history.

Back out on the main square is a very interesting attraction called the Historium. Here, you can immerse yourself back in time as you discover the history of a famous painting by local legend, Jan van Eyck. The audio guide takes you through room after room as the story unfolds and you learn more about Bruges and art.

I’m not normally a fan of these kinds of attractions but this one is worth it. It’s an interesting way to get kids to look at art as more than old stuff. Additionally, It gives a good overview to why Bruges was so important and why it seems to be stuck in time.

Playing dress up at the historium
One of the many lovely buildings on Market square in Bruges

Blowing in the wind.

Much like its neighbor, The Netherlands, Belgium has long relied on the windmill to accomplish tasks in daily life. The best way to get out and see the 23 remaining windmills in Bruges is to get those bikes out. Start at the St. Janshuys Windmill to get a good understanding of the mechanics then enjoy the others that dot the town’s old moat.

A typical windmill of the region.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s SO much more!

Travel to Bruges is filled with interesting moments around every single bend. From the lace making to the chocolate making, there is something for everyone. Eat fries and chocolate and waffles and mussels and… well you get the picture. There are plenty of good art museums as well as ruins to explore and Belgian beer to drink. Expect Bruges to please every finicky traveler on your manifest!

Enchanting signs hang all over Bruges.
Mussels are a popular dish served in Belgium.
Lace was a powerful industry here and part of the town's history.
At Blind Donkey Alley