Exploring Greece — on our own and on a budget

This article appears on page 48 of the November 2011 issue.
Acrocorinth, the acropolis of the ancient city of Corinth.

by Harriet Hughes; Alexandria, VA

In spring 2011, a friend and I spent two weeks touring mainland Greece on a budget of $2,900 per person, including airfare, rental car, hotels, food and other costs. We would begin in Athens, but, because we would be there over Good Friday, we had to work around various closings.

We flew Turkish Airlines from Washington, DC. Not only was Turkish the least-expensive option, the food was actually very good, the staff was pleasant and the seats in economy had footrests and reclined nicely.


Our first task was getting to the hotel from the Athens airport at midnight, which we accomplished on the X95 express bus to Syntagma Square. This bus runs two to five times an hour, 24 hours a day, and costs €5 ($7) per person. (The metro didn’t run at the hour we needed it, plus it cost more and was no faster, according to the Athenians we asked.) There were taxis waiting for the bus on arrival; however, we walked the four blocks to our hotel.

The Acropolis Myrto Hotel (phone +30 210 3227237) was clean and had WiFi in the lobby and a very nice, helpful staff. It wasn’t fancy nor did it have large rooms, but we spent little time in the hotel and the location was perfect for walking to almost everything. We paid €280 ($375) for four nights for two.

Mostly, we stayed at two-star hotels, all of which had free WiFi or Internet access and most of which were family run. I booked almost all hotels directly rather than going through a booking site.

After a few hours’ sleep, we walked to the Acropolis and began three days of touring Athens.

For information on the city’s attractions, we studied the Ministry of Culture’s website, which was reasonably accurate though some of the information ignored the official holiday schedule. You might want to call (using Skype to avoid long-distance charges) the places you’re interested in visiting to confirm opening times. We did notice that many sites actually closed 30 minutes before their posted closing times.

Do not miss the Benaki Museum (Vassilisis Sofias Ave. and Koumbari St.), between Kolonaki Square and the National Gardens, by far the best museum in terms of artifacts and ancient gold. Around the corner at Le Café (Kolonaki Square No. 21), you can find excellent pastry, coffee and tea. We had spinach-and-cheese and sausage-and-cheese pastries plus cappuccino, tea and dessert pastries for a light lunch (€12 for two).

We ate at a number of excellent restaurants in Athens. Veranda (4 Panos St., Plaka) had a grilled platter (€13) for one that was too much for two when combined with a salad (€5) and a pumpkin fritter appetizer (€6).

At Vyzantino (18 Kidathineon St., Plaka) we shared an excellent lamb dish with spinach (€9), artichokes (€7) and fried cheese (€5) and were offered free wine. On the same block we had a meal at Taverna Mpakaliarakia Damigos, where the octopus (€8) was a little tough but the pork, vegetables, salad and other food were excellent.

We also ate at Dia Tafta (37 Adrianou, Plaka), where a meal of shared meat, salad and wine cost €25.

The Greeks have supersized their portions like those in American restaurants. The tomato-and-cucumber salads were excellent everywhere.

Hitting the road

On Easter Sunday we went to the airport to pick up our rental car ($1,084 for 10 days, including insurance with no deductible). We had waited too long to make the arrangements with Avis to pick the car up a few blocks from our hotel; city rental locations have limited space. If you want to pick up a car in the city, make the arrangements a month or more in advance.

Changing of the Guard at Athens’ Syntagma Square.

We brought with us a GPS with European maps and printed Google maps for all of our intercity trips. We had an AAA map of Greece, but it was almost useless. I’d recommend getting a current map after you arrive because road construction is extensive.

Leaving Athens, we drove to the Orthodox monastery complex of Metéora. In the nearby town of Kalambaka, we spent two nights at Hotel Rex (phone 30 2432022042) at a total cost of €98. We ate dinner both nights at Panellion, just down the street; because of the holiday, there were only a few restaurants open. One night we spent €26 and the other, €36, for dinner, including wine, for two. The baklava was excellent, as was the yogurt with honey.

The next day we drove to Vergina to see the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, then returned to Metéora to tour the Holy Monastery of Rousanou (actually, a nunnery). Both Vergina and Metéora are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The tombs at Vergina were surrounded by a lovely, solemn museum. I found the artifacts there very interesting, but if I were to plan this trip again I would spend the time hiking around Metéora and save Vergina for a later trip.

My traveling companion thought the many hours of driving to see Vergina were justified because he doesn’t believe he will get back to Greece, but I thought seeing the inside of more of the monasteries and doing less driving would have been better.

The next day we were off to Delphi, another World Heritage Site. We stayed at the Pitho Hotel (phone +30 22650 82850), a short walk from the archaeological site. The Pitho Hotel had only a few rooms (€55 per night), but the family that owns it is wonderful. We had a great breakfast and enjoyed talking to them.

Just down the block is Epikouros Restaurant (phone +30 22650 83250), where we had an excellent meal (€36 for two), including wild boar, salad, fried cheese, wine, coffee and tea. As usual, we split all the dishes and went away too full for dessert. We went around 7 p.m. and were ahead of the large crowds of people. (The Greeks eat lunch around 2 p.m. and dinner around 9.)

Delphi was wonderful, but don’t forget to check out the parts of the ancient town that are not within the area that requires an admission ticket. Some of them are a long walk or a short drive away from the main site.

On to Olympia

The church of St. Sophia at Mystras.

On the way to our next stop, Olympia, we toured the Castle of Chlemoutsi, the best-preserved Frankish castle of the Peloponnese. Situated on a hill in the Kastro Kyllini region of the Peloponnese, the castle was initially built during ancient times and has been renovated repeatedly. Anyone who is fond of architecture, design and history should not miss this very well-preserved castle and the amazing view it offers.

We then headed for our next hotel, passing several restaurants along the highway. The few times on our trip that we stopped at the fast-food places along the highway, we found food that was better than one would find in similar types of places in the US and at reasonable prices. Goody’s is a chain that seemed to have good food for a quick bite.

In Olympia, we stayed at Hotel Inomaos (phone +30 26240 22056) for two nights (€90 total). The hotel was walking distance from the archaeological site of Olympia, but it wasn’t in our GPS. I would suggest obtaining good driving instructions and/or GPS coordinates from each hotel before you depart.

We arrived in Olympia in the late afternoon and spent the entire next day touring the site and three excellent museums.

We ate twice at Taverna Melathron (3 Georgiou Douma), a couple of blocks from the archaeological site and our hotel. The owners also own a winery, so the house wine was excellent. Shared veal, Greek salad, homemade zucchini balls and wine cost us €24 one night, and adding a few euros more provided another excellent meal with dessert on the other night.

An impressive day

Next we were off to Sparta. On the way, we stopped to see the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, another World Heritage Site, located near the town of Nea Figalia. It is one of the best-preserved ancient temples to be found anywhere in Greece.

This magnificent temple was built in approximately 420 BC by the famous architect Iktinos, who also designed the Parthenon. The temple was under tenting and is being stabilized; nevertheless, we were very glad that we took the time to visit it. However, if you don’t like mountain driving, skip this.

In the center of Sparta we stayed at Hotel Lakonia (phone +30 27310 28951) for one night (€50). This is a renovated, family-owned business hotel. Don’t let yourself be talked into a room in the front. Even though they have double-paned windows, it was still very noisy.

We splurged on an outstanding dinner at the four-star Hotel Menelaion next door (€45 for lamb, grilled shrimp, shared salad, a bottle of wine and dessert) — definitely worth the cost! We didn’t have any bad meals in Greece, but this one was complete with white tablecloth, beautiful presentation and excellent service as opposed to the less formal restaurants in which we generally ate.

The next morning we went to tour the medieval ruins of the city of Mystras. Take snacks and water with you when you walk this site. It takes more than four hours to see, and it’s perched on the side of a steep hill. Then we departed for the beach.

Easy exit

We stayed near Nafplio at Hotel Christina (phone +30 27520 59 001), located on the beach. Again, this family-owned hotel was not in the GPS. (Do not confuse it with Villa Christina, which is a mile or so away from the beach.)

The owners were friendly and helpful, and the hotel’s location made it convenient to drive to the sites of Epidaurus, Tiryns and Mycenae. Our three nights there cost €155. Nafplio is a really cute town with great shopping and several fortresses.

On our way back to Athens, we stopped for a tour of Corinth. We were able to see only Acrocorinth, the spectacular castle complex on the hill above the city, but it was worth the detour. Arriving after our very late lunch at the nearby Gemelos Tavern, the lower archaeological site was closed, but from the fence it looked like it would have been interesting to tour.

Back in Athens, we turned in the rental car after dropping our stuff at the Sofitel Athens Airport Hotel (phone +30 210 3544000). Spending €163 for one night at this hotel, just a 50-meter walk from the airport check-in counter, made our early-morning departure easier. The truly budget-minded traveler might prefer to stay a few miles away, getting up early to turn in the car at 5 a.m., before checking in for a flight.

I’d be happy to answer any questions emailed c/o ITN.

Online resources

When planning the trip, I found the following websites to be useful:

Greek National Tourism Organization — www.visitgreece.gr

Athens Survival Guide — www.athensguide.com

Guide to Greek Food — www.greecefoods.com

Language — Visit www.greeklandscapes.com/travel/alphabet.html to hear the sound of each letter in the Greek alphabet. (However, we were able to use English everywhere.)