May 25 , 2023

Greece Unfiltered

Immersive Local Encounters from Athens to the Islands

Greece Unfiltered

Everybody knows you haven’t seen Greece until you’ve stood in front of the Parthenon on Acropolis Hill, watched the sun fall below the Santorini caldera, and had a taste of the nightlife in Mykonos. These stunning scenes have earned their influencer hype, but there’s nothing wrong with adding a little more spice to your average Greek getaway.


How do the locals live, and how can you infuse some of that authentic Greek lifestyle into your own trip? From neighborhood hangouts to personal tour guides to home-spun cooking classes, making connections with people is where the real travel magic happens.


This alternative guide is a supplement to the classic tourist route – Athens, Crete, Santorini, Mykonos – taking you deeper within these regions to discover a more authentic side of each area, away from the major sites. Lose the crowds and let your idyllic Grecian getaway begin.


Like most Greek adventures, we begin with Athens…


1. Caffeinate in the Capital


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Coffee is a strong contender for Greece’s favorite beverage. The nation’s love affair with coffee started with the influence of the Ottoman Empire, which led to the era of the kafenio beginning in the 19th century. Much like in Turkish culture, Greece’s traditional coffee houses served up shots of coffee along with an invitation to discuss social and political issues. Long the smoke-filled territory of men, today the kafenia invite everyone to get a taste of the community ambiance at the oldest cafes in Athens – Oraia Ellas, Mouria, Dexameni, To Kafeneio and Captain Michalis. The kafenio remains the place to be for a genuine local hangout where you can also get a tasty, fair-priced meal.


These days the specialty roasters of Athens have taken Greece’s coffee habits beyond the iced Greek frappe and freddo espresso that many of us have encountered on our travels. Experience this new wave of coffee shops in the center of Athens at places like The Underdog, Anana Coffee Food, Dope Roasting Co. and Redd Coffee.


2. Meze Night in Athens


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As coffee and cheese pie are to the perfect Athens day, raki and meze are to the night. After trodding the capital’s ancient grounds, you’ll find yourself wandering the cobbled streets down below the Acropolis. This includes the old town lanes of Monastiraki, which brush up against Ermou Street and lead into the picturesque old Plaka district. These are the most common areas for visitors to spend the evening shopping then enjoying a meal entertained by live music and dancing. But not just any meal – do as the Greeks do and fill your table with a variety of meze (small plates), a great way to try multiple dishes! Complement your meal with Greek wine, or try any variation of the throat-burning distillations (ouzo, tsipouro, raki, etc.).


The absolute best way to have a genuine meze night experience in Athens is to go with a local on a private or small-group tour. The classic establishments tend to hold true, but in a city like Athens, there is a chance to discover revitalized urban centers and hip new hangouts, like Exarchia, Kypseli, Koukaki. A local guide will know the secrets of each up-and-coming district, in a city that never settles on its status quo.


3. Aegina Island Surprises


Photo credit: Dimitris Vlaikos


A day trip to Aegina is easily managed with a ferry ride of just 40 minutes from the Athens port of Piraeus. A day on this Saronic Gulf outpost will give you a taste of the Greek isles, especially if you venture down to the whitewashed fishing village of Perdika in the southwest (a nice bike ride if you have rented one at Piraeus to bring over with you). Aegina also has its own striking ancient ruins, the Temple of Aphaia, whose position mysteriously forms two isosceles triangles in relationship to the ancient temples at Cape Sounion, Athens and Delphi.


Aegina was the temporary first capital of Greece, so there’s plenty of Venetian and Neoclassical architecture to admire in the old town by the port. The island is also famous for its pistachio groves, so you’ll have to stop in at the historic cafe-patisserie Aiakeion to sample its pistachio creations. End your island excursion at Skotadis Ouzeri, where you can enjoy expertly-prepared seafood with wine, or something a bit stronger. There are regular daily ferries to Aegina, but make sure to check the schedule before you make dinner reservations.


4. Athens Riviera Beach Day


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If you want to enjoy a summer day like an Athenian, you need to visit the Athens Riviera, a 40-mile strip of shoreline from the Alimos district down to Cape Sounion, which has been presided over for centuries by the Temple of Poseidon. There are a variety of both serviced and unserviced beaches to choose from. Astir Beach in Vouliagmeni is a nice option if you want a beach club with all the amenities. Mavro Lithari and Thymari are good options with beach bars. More adventurous beach-goers can check out Katafygi, or KAPE Beach, which is very popular but requires a long walk down a staircase to access.


After sunning on the beaches of Attica, it’s time for your next authentic experience – a meal of fresh fish by the sea. Again, the choices are numerous. Try Blue Fish, Krabo, Akti or Sardelaki Me Thea at Vouliagmeni, or Akrogiali taverna with a romantic view of Poseidon’s Temple.


5. A Land of Gods and Kings


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The Peloponnese is a vast mountainous territory to the west of Athens, connected to the mainland via the isthmus of Corinth. This glove-shaped peninsula encompasses a treasure trove of history and legend – land of the mighty Spartans, birthplace of the Olympic Games, home to the great rulers of Homeric verse, and the setting for the heroic deeds of Hercules.


If you have only one extra day (but more is recommended) for this region, one popular outing from Athens is dedicated to the enchanting site of ancient Delphi high up on Mt. Parnassus. Another favorite day trip follows the historic Argolis trail, which includes the stalwart ruins of Mycenae and the charming town of Nafplion, one of our all-time favorite spots. A town without airs, this is an ideal place to immerse yourself in daily Greek life, where the locals are year-round residents and the mix of architectural styles and a hilltop fortress add to the romance. Other Peloponnese locations we must mention include Monemvasia, Olympia, Mystras, Methoni, Kalamata, and Messinia.


6. An Island Without Conceit


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Crete is particularly alive with authentic moments – the country’s largest island, it withstands the buffeting forces of tourism while retaining its own deep-rooted traditions. No matter where you look, the sleepy hilltop villages, picturesque monasteries and Minoan-era ruins commune with the land and its patient human stewards, who coax magic out of the local ingredients to produce Greece’s most exalted cuisine. By far the best way to experience Crete as a local is to join a cooking class or a tour of the island’s producers – wines, olive oils, honey, cheeses and lamb.


Even if you don’t stray far from the main port at Heraklion, this small slice of surrounding countryside is brimming with enough vineyards and traditional villages for an illuminating tour of Crete’s gastronomic milieu. A favorite day trip navigates the villages of Skalani, Archanes, Katalagari, Houdetsi and Peza, stopping along the way for incredible tavern dishes and traditional live music. Wineries in this part of the Heraklion Valley include Boutaris, Lyrarakis and Domaine Paterianakis.


7. Santorini’s Storied Vines


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You can’t understand the spirit of Santorini without getting to know its unique terroir. Santorini has virtually no sources of fresh water, so the island’s plants and people have had to make necessary adaptations to thrive in sparse conditions – a resilience that emboldens characters and concentrates botanical flavors. This has led to renowned dessert wines produced from the sun-dried Assyrtiko grape, tomatoes rich in cancer-fighting lycopene, and another Santorini staple, the somehow sweet and creamy Fava bean.


The island’s inhabitants have been cultivating vines on this harsh landscape since prehistoric times (as historians can see from the excavations at Akrotiri), and the saying goes that there were once more churches than houses, and more wine than water. The ambelia, or vineyards, here don’t look the same as other fields of grapes you’ve encountered. Join a guided wine tasting to learn about the special way that winegrowers weave the vines into protective basket shapes, and get an explanation of the different notes and minerality of the wines. A day tour will give you the opportunity to visit a few local producers, such as Sigalas, Anhydrous and Vassaltis.


8. Santorini’s Alternate Islands


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Santorini is itself a good base for discovering nearby islands where you can be well away from the regular crowds. Just 15 minutes away by ferry is tiny Thirasia, on the opposite side of the legendary caldera (formed around 1600 BC by what may have been the largest volcanic eruption ever witnessed). Wander the island’s main settlement of Manolas, unspoiled by modern tourism with views across the caldera. Elsewhere, the island reveals itself through rural hiking trails and carefree tavernas by the sea.


You could also use the ferry to reach the island of Ios in about 40 minutes, giving yourself a half day to explore before turning back. Ios offers beautiful sandy beaches, picturesque cliffs and a youthful vibe. Just an hour away by ferry, the island of Anafi inhabits another time. It’s probably best reached with a hired boat as ferries run less frequently. If you want a taste of unfiltered Greece without outside influence, then save a day for Anafi.


9. A Quieter Side of Mykonos


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Of all the country’s destinations, Mykonos is where ‘authentic Greece’ becomes as elusive as a nymph, where it’s easy to get carried away in endless summer nights that blend into incandescent days. What is the ‘real’ Mykonos? This will be answered by each visitor for themselves, and it might just be the perfect place to succumb to ever-blowing winds and booming DJ beats, expecting nothing more than a good time. But, for those seeking something away from the island’s rolling loop of summer parties, you can head inland to Ano Mera, a typical village square. Meet a home cook and try your hand at some traditional recipes. Go high up into the hills above Agios Stefanos and enjoy a meal with local wine and music at Limnios Tavern. In the northeast, Agios Sostis is one of the island’s quietest beaches, and a meal at cozy Kiki’s Tavern is an uncontrived version of Mykonos chic.


10. A Poetic Island Paradise


Photo credit: Perikles Merakos


The island of Rinia, just next to Mykonos, is the dream-state version of the Cycladic islands, uninhabited and serene, with wildflower fields, roaming goats, slumbering stones and emerald waters. Many Mykonos visitors know about the island of Delos, the sacred sanctuary of Apollo and Artemis, but most people have never heard of neighboring Rinia. Actually larger than Delos, Rinia became the center of birth and death for members of this ancient community, who were not allowed to give birth or be buried on the sanctified soil of Delos. Today one can easily imagine the island as the meadow of Elysium, the eternal paradise for all the souls who once met its soil. You can reach Rinia by boat with a private or organized day trip and immerse yourself in its rejuvenating energy among the abandoned ruins and pristine beaches.


From the streets of Greece’s capital to the quieter corners of the country’s most touristic places, we hope this inspires you to seek out more unique sites and activities on your journey to discover ancient and modern ‘Hellas’.