The Greek Islands' sunny climate, great beaches, and relaxed culture attract travelers from all corners. Island-hopping on Aegean ferries, we visit touristy Santorini, ride a motorbike around Samos, and hang out on barely-known Lipsi. With tips from the tourist office, we find offbeat ways to enjoy the islands and our own picturesque places to stay.
Just before Santorini's massive c. 1630 B.C. eruption, its inhabitants fled the island, leaving behind a city that was soon buried (and preserved) in ash — much like Pompeii, just 1,700 years earlier. That city, near the modern-day town of Akrotiri, is still being dug up, with more than 30 buildings now excavated and viewable in a well-designed structure that makes it easy to explore the ruins. Ramps let you climb around and through the streets of the prehistoric city, where careful observers can pick out sidewalks, underground sewage systems, and some ceramic vases left behind. However, the most interesting items discovered here — wonderful wall frescoes, fancy furniture, painted ceramics — are on display elsewhere, mainly at Fira's Museum of Prehistoric Thira and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves. For 20 summers I've been exploring Europe with my travel writing and teaching in mind — making lots of mistakes and taking careful notes in the hopes you learn from my mistakes rather than your own. In this series we're exploring the best of Europe.
This time we're in Greece. We'll tour popular Santorini — an island on the lip of a still-active volcano. We'll enjoy its romantic whitewashed villages, visit an archaeological dig on one of its ancient cities, and swim on its black-sand beach. Then we'll cruise the Aegean to the island of Samos, where we'll tour its sights by moped, ponder the ruins of an ancient temple, and rest in a quiet fishing village. And finally we'll feast and frolic far from the crowds on tiny Lipsi.
Greece lies between Italy and Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea. Starting in Athens, we'll take an overnight ferry to the island of Santorini. Then we sail east to the island of Samos, and finish with a side-trip to obscure isle of Lipsi.
It's by ship that people have island-hopped the Aegean for centuries. This overnight boat from Athens to Santorini offers tickets in several classes. Deck class is cheapest, and can mean literally on the deck. For a few extra dollars an airplane-type seat can make life considerably more comfortable. And for even more comfort, try first class.
Along with soft chairs and tables, you can be assured of some sleep in a stateroom. Our cabin has a window and a private shower. Cheaper cabins offer a shower down the hall. By the way, even passengers without a stateroom can go down to the cheap cabin deck and grab a free hot shower.
Greek ferries are reasonably priced. In fact, this all-night cruise, including beds in a comfortable stateroom, is costing us less than what we paid for our hotel in Athens last night. While speedy travelers can fly from Athens to the major Greek isles, we're in the Aegean to relax, feel the breeze, and have a little adventure. For me, that's best done on the ferry boats.
Sunrise and our Greek-island dream come true — Santorini. Thousands of years ago this was one island, a volcano named Thira. Fifteen hundred years before Christ a huge eruption blew away most of the island, leaving a flooded crater surrounded by five small islands.
Today, Santorini — one of the remaining islands — is a lip of the crater, lined with tourists. For 3,500 years the volcano has destroyed a series of island settlements — the latest in 1956, when it toppled 2,000 houses. Yet, locals still build and tourists still come. Why? Those who visit will understand.
Luckily, we're arriving here in mid-September, just after the peak summer months. Although this looks pretty busy, most of the students have gone home.
And hungry local entrepreneurs are eager to talk us into following them to their beautiful little pension.
Looks like we have our rooms. With mini-buses and mini-pickups, pension operators shuttle new arrivals to their accommodations. Upscale travelers generally arrive by air and stay at one of the many rental villas or posh hotels.
Santorini's main town, Fira, is an exotic white-washed town offering the quintessential Greek-island experience.
Tourists come year after year to soak up the sun, and stroll the tiny lanes of this town perched 700 hundred feet above the sea. So what if Santorini's a little touristy? That's not necessarily bad. There's lots of shopping, English menus, fruity drinks, and plenty of British and Scandinavian fellow travelers. We all enjoy the spectacular physical setting and unmatched views ironically created by the volcano.
But don't let being a tourist get in the way of enjoying some authentic Greek treats…
Yogurt and honey is a wonderful local tradition. Greek yogurt comes plain and super creamy. Mix in a little honey…I'm one happy hedonist.
One of the advantages of a tourist hotspot can be the very convenient tours. Even for the most independent-minded travelers, there are times when an organized bus tour is a fine way to spend half a day.
At noon, our bus leaves for the five-hour tour of the highlights of Santorini.
Guide: Kalimara. Kalimara is the Greek word for good morning. This is your guide speaking and my name is Evi. Now let me tell you where we go and what we'll see today.
This tour includes a visit to the ancient ruins of Akrotiri, a little free time on one of the island's best black-sand beaches, plenty of information, and a ride to the summit of the island for a grand view.
Up here, beginning in the 18th century, the monks in the monastery preserved and taught the Greek language and culture during centuries of Turkish occupation.
On the road again, on our way to Akrotiri.
Without wheels we'd still be back in Fira. A tour gives the island an air-conditioned once-over-lightly and gets us home in time for dinner.
And there it is: Akrotiri, the highlight of this tour. Akrotiri is the most impressive dig I've seen in the entire Aegean — including anything on Crete. This was a large city. With only about one thirtieth of the city unearthed, much archeological work remains.
An advanced civilization thrived here from 2,000 B.C. until about 1,500 B.C., when the island exploded in one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the history of our planet. The boom from the eruption was heard in Scandinavia…and was followed by months of darkness.
The city revealed beneath the thick layers of ash and pumice shows a plan not too different from the present-day villages on Santorini. Narrow streets widen here and there into squares. Houses line the streets, some three, possibly four stories high.
Guide: There is no doubt that this was a public building. In fact some archaeologists are convinced that this was the administration center of the town. On the ground floor there are some 20 rooms, not all of them investigated.
A wealth of pottery continues to be unearthed. And most exciting, perhaps, has been the discovery of beautifully painted walls. The frescoes, now removed to the National [Archaeological] Museum in Athens, tell us much about the life of these ancient people.
To date, the only intact room to be uncovered contained this fresco of lilies, or papyrus, and swallows. It's an idyllic spring scene of flirting birds and spring blossoms explained by the guide with the help of color photos of the originals.
One mural details a great sea battle. These young boxers evidently shaved their heads and sported long locks of curls.
Guide: It seems that shaved heads was an indication of youth. Young people of both sexes, they used to have that haircut.
And the fishing must have been pretty good.
Guide: He's naked; he's a fisherman carrying his fish — they look to be tuna fish.
Some believe this may have been the lost civilization of Atlantis. And many figure it was a tidal wave created by this eruption that swept away the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, just 75 miles south of here. Probably the tidal wave disrupted their merchant fleet and with it the Minoan economy.
Carbon dating shows the Minoans survived the tidal wave but steadily declined over the next several centuries. Since archeologists found no bones and no jewelry, they figured that the inhabitants of Akrotiri expected the volcanic eruption, and fled the island before it blew. The ash- and the mud-covered remains of a once-busy community are all that's left.
Our last stop is the beach.
A reminder of its volcanic past, Santorini has a great black-sand beach — one of the best swimming spots on the island.
You can get good swimming and sunbathing weather on the Greek isles through October. That gives us about…seven more weeks.
But we won't spend it all here. Tempting as it might be to become a runaway beach bum, we've got other fish to fry, and other islands to hop.
Tourist money keeps the Greek islands afloat. Greek-island travel agencies are eager to help you with tours, moped rentals, boat tickets, and flights.
We need to line up our boat ride to Samos. Since there are many competing boat companies, agencies selling one line can't give us all our options. For all the information under one roof, we're going to the port authority.
The man in the port office has all the schedules — that's his job. He tells me the best boat for us leaves tomorrow at four.
Rick: Hello. Tomorrow I'd like to buy a ticket from Santorini to Paros to Samos. I think we want to leave at 4:00 in the afternoon.
OK! Our travel chores are finished; now we can relax.
On Santorini, itineraries are tossed into the sea and couples have only one appointment to keep:the sun's daily reminder that the Greek islands are a place for romance.
Your experience in Greece is shaped by when you visit. Summer break is one long college party: crowded, expensive, and hot.
A cruise today cuts through the same waters that great galleys patrolled during Greece's Golden Age.
In the fifth century B.C., Athens expanded its control throughout the Aegean, uniting cities and islands into the short-lived Delian League. At its peak, 300 war ships, manned by 60,000 oarsmen plied these waters, taking slaves, and collecting taxes throughout the island-dotted Aegean.
Since there's no direct connection from Santorini to Samos, we're sailing from Santorini to Paros, a hub in the Greek-island ferry system, and connecting to Samos. From Samos we'll side trip to the tiny island of Lipsi, which doesn't even show on most maps.
Any time of year, island-hopping is easiest if you stick to a series of islands served daily from Athens. Going against the flow — like connecting Santorini and Samos — can cause needless frustrations.
We have a few hours to kill here on Paros before catching our night boat to Samos. It's morning and we've arrived on Samos, one of the larger Greek islands. By Aegean standards, it's lush, historic, and not too touristy.
The island a short hop to the Turkish mainland. Samos town, the main city, is easy. Several decent hotels line the harbor front.
From here it's easy to plan a variety of island excursions and activities.
And a public phone makes it easy to take care of some travel details. While cell phones are becoming popular with travelers, those watching their Euros manage just fine with payphones. Like all of Europe, Greece is phasing out the old fashioned coin-operated public telephones in favor of vandal-resistant card operated booths.
These cards have nothing to do with the various American phone cards. You buy these locally, usually at a kiosk or the post office. Smart travelers do lots of chores by telephone.
Rick: Alright: The Temple of Faros is open until 3:00.
And with a phone call, we lined up our transportation for today: mopeds. If you can ride this is a cheap and breezy — if a bit dangerous — way to explore Samos.
You'll find mopeds for rent on nearly every Greek island. My wife and I usually share one, but with these gutless wonders, our producer John and I each got one.
We'll be checking a monastery, an ancient temple, and a great beach town, before returning to Samos town. That's about 25 miles.
With the moped we can get a feel for life outside the town. These mopeds are like bikes with a motor. They seem simple, but take it easy — travelers take a lot of spills.
Helmets aren't required in this country — they're not even available. So we're being extra careful on these bikes.
By the side of the road, this tiny family chapel reminds us how religion permeates the Greek culture. In the Greek Orthodox religion, all members of the church — laymen, priests, bishops — are considered equal in importance.
The family chapel is a sanctuary where God's love of man and man's love of God can be expressed on a daily basis. As you ride, you'll notice your map lists as many monasteries as towns — like the Spiliani monastery, which welcomes guests.
The original monastery, in a cave at this site, dates to the 11th century. The cave is cool and quiet — refreshing after the hot and noisy road. Life in a Greek Orthodox monastery is simple and ascetic. The monks are mostly laymen, not clerics, who devote themselves to meditation and prayer to achieve a union with Christ.
Monasteries dot the island landscapes. In a cave much like this on the next island, Patmos, the evangelist John wrote the book of Revelations, the last book in the Bible.
Below the monastery lies the town of Pythagorio, which sits on top of the ancient capital of the island. This was called "Tigani" until 1956, when the name was changed to honor the island's most famous son: the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras.
Best remembered today for his contribution to mathematics, his disciples spread beliefs that also treated slaves humanely, the sexes as equal, and animals with respect. Samos was one of the most important islands in the ancient world — a center of learning. But only a few remnants of past greatness remain.
Outside of Pythagorio is the Temple of Hera. Not much is left. Originally a large temple with two rows of columns — 133 in all — only one still stands.
Early Greeks believed that Hera, queen of the gods and wife and sister to Zeus, was born near here. Twice a year in ancient times, large numbers of celebrants came from the sea by the Sacred Way, passing huge statues, as they came to worship the powerful goddess.
On to the beach! The town of Kokkari is ideal for two saddle-sore easy riders…or any weary traveler. This laid-back beach almost requires relaxation.
The town is a great place to settle in, plenty of dhomatia — that's Greek for "bed and breakfast" — the best skipping rocks I've seen in ages, and no shortage of fisherman, who've graduated from mending nets to flipping worry beads. What a fine place to end our exploration of Samos.
Dawn and we're really heading off the beaten path. We're on a hydrofoil to Lipsi. Lately, hydrofoils are offering a speedy alternative for island hopping. They're half as relaxing, twice as fast, and double the cost.
When it comes to finding an un-touristy island, the trick is to find one just big enough to have regular boat service, but not big enough to have a promotional budget. Lipsi fills the bill.
Most visitors don't spend the night, but Lipsi has just enough commerce to keep us fed and watered. And there's our island home.
Rick: Hello. Kalimara.
Woman: Kalimara. Thank you.
Rick: Good to see you. Hello, how are you?
My best Greek memories are in towns with no hotels. No hotels? That's okay; we're staying in an extra room at Anna's house, sort of a Greek B&B. This dhomatio is simple, cheap, and very real.
Entrepreneurial enterprise reaches even the small islands. Day-trippers from a tour boat bring out the local dancers.
In a place like Lipsi, you won't find a menu. This is a fun opportunity to take advantage of the friendly Greek tradition of welcoming customers into the kitchen to see what's cooking.
Have some fun. Sample what you like. Ordering this way, you know exactly what you're getting.
Tzatziki is a refreshing cucumber, garlic, yogurt dip for your bread. This could be a meal in itself. But with so much looking so good, let's call that an appetizer.
Greek cooking has changed little since the time of Plato, who gravely discussed such questions as what kinds of fish should be baked and what kinds boiled. Other classical writers describe the addition of herbs like oregano, basil, dill, and mint to lamb and vegetable dishes still popular today. Then as now, a meal was a social occasion — eating alone only to be tolerated if no other option existed.
Residents like to relax on the small, private town square. You'll find a sleepy taverna and a local partner ready and willing to play you a game of backgammon — the national pastime.
Lipsi's more remote beaches are an hour's hike away. Normally, these pickups are happy to be your taxi. Local legend has it that this island is where Calypso held Odysseus as a love captive for seven years. Hmmm. I suppose these romantic beaches establish the right atmosphere for the legend. This is pure Greek paradise.
Well, we've seen a lot of the Greek isles. From the romantic white-washed villages of Santorini, to the inviting fishing villages of Samos, to the remote beaches of Lipsi, and with some of the most relaxing cruising in between, we've seen why these "jewels of the Aegean" are so popular.
I'm Rick Steves and this is happy travels.