12-Day Greece Itinerary at a Glance

An introduction to our 12-day Greece itinerary

Athens, Santorini, and Crete — highlights and practical information

Planning this long-awaited trip to Greece, I found that the options for a 12-day itinerary were so many that I went back and forth on the specific locations where we’d spend our time. Ultimately, I decided to keep it simple and chose three locations that I felt would give us a great first look with an eye to future opportunities to explore more.

This 12-day Greece itinerary is a summary of our trip listing hotels where we stayed, restaurants where we ate, and some highlights of things to do. There will be more information and photos in future posts.

Catherine Sweeney on the caldera trail on the island of Santorini in Greece

Sweeney in Greece — on the caldera trail on Santorini

How we got around

We relied on walking and taxis for our stays in Athens and on Santorini. On Crete, we rented a car, but ended up using it only for our transportation from Heraklion Airport to our resort an hour away in Plaka near Elounda.

We flew Aegean Airlines from Athens to Santorini and Heraklion, Crete to Athens (each flight was less than an hour), and took a high-speed SeaJets Power Jet ferry from Santorini to Crete (under two hours).

Four days in Athens

We love visiting international cities and found Athens to have its own urban capital city character. Of course, there is also much of ancient Greece on display in archaeological and historical landmarks like the Acropolis. We found everything we wanted to do within walking distance in the city center and nearby neighborhoods.

View of Monastiraki Square and the Acropolis at night from A For Athens rooftop bar and restaurant in Athens, Greece

Monastiraki Square and the Acropolis

Where we stayed

Athens Capital Center Hotel MGallery — 4 Eleftheriou Venizelou Avenue and 2 Kriezotou Street, Syntagma Square

Athens highlights — more information to come in Athens post

  • Acropolis Hill and its landmarks — Of course, visiting the Acropolis is a must. Take an early morning guided tour to have the best experience and skip the lines.
  • Food tour — Savor samples of traditional Greek fare on a walking tour of Plaka and Psyrri districts. Our guided food experience directly followed our Acropolis tour.
  • Lycabettus Hill — Climb the highest hill in Athens on foot and ride the cable car to the top for panoramic views.
  • National Gardens — Take a break from sightseeing at this beautiful, serene respite from the bustling city at Syntagma Square.
  • Parliament and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — Make sure to catch the changing of the guard in front of the building at Syntagma Square. The ceremony takes place at the top of every hour.
  • Kolonaki district — Enjoy the ambiance of this upscale neighborhood with many bars, cafes, restaurants, and high-end shopping along its tree-lined streets.
  • Street art — The word “graffiti” itself comes from the Greek word “graphein” and you’ll find many examples of street art expressing cultural and political messages throughout the city.
  • Plaka, Psyrri, and Monastiraki districts — Roam around the narrow streets of these lively neighborhoods in the city center for dining, shopping, museum visits, and getting a feel of old Athens.
  • Day trip to Delphi — Take a 2-hour drive on a guided tour to Delphi and site of the famous Oracle. Along the way, there is beautiful scenery in this mountainous area of the peninsula north of Athens.
Catherine Sweeney at Delphi., Greece

Visiting Delphi

Where we ate

  • Stamatopoulos Taverna, Lysiou 26— music and traditional cuisine, traditional Greek atmosphere in Plaka neighborhood
  • Barbounaki Kolonaki, Charitos 39B — modern restaurant in Kolonaki specializing in fresh seafood
  • A For Athens, 2-4 Miaouli Street (Monastiraki) — very good food and service with spectacular views
  • Gregory’s! (look for this on the signs — Γρηγόρης!), Valaoritou 1 and many other locations in Athens — go-to spot for coffee and delicious pastries like traditional bougatsa sweet cream pie

Three days in Santorini

Santorini is famous for its picturesque towns above the volcano caldera and its romantic sunsets. It is certainly worth a visit for its beauty and we felt that three days was a good amount of time to spend. Santorini is a very busy island, especially in the town of Fira and Oia as it is very popular with cruise ship passengers. Although there are restrictions on the number of passengers who can visit per day, the towns get quite crowded when the ships are in.

Santorini -- white buildings against a backdrop of the Aegean Sea

Santorini

Where we stayed

Anteliz Suites, on the caldera path in Fira near Firastefani

Santorini highlights — more information to come in Santorini post

Sunset seen from a catamaran in the waters below Oia, Crete, Greece

Sunset in Santorini

  • Catamaran sunset cruise — Take a fun cruise around the volcano and enjoy a freshly-prepared Greek meal onboard as you cruise to Oia to watch the sunset from the waters below the town.
  • Perivolos Beach — Indulge in an afternoon of swimming in the Aegean and having drinks and lunch on a comfortable covered sunbed at Seaside restaurant at Perivolos Beach.  As with anything in Santorini, prices for daybeds (and daybed food and drink packages) were expensive, but worth it for a seaside relaxation treat.
  • Walk along the 6-mile mostly cobblestone trail between Fira and Oia. We took the path from Fira to Imerovigli, the town at the highest point of the island.
  • Browse the galleries and shops — Actually, this is not one of my personal highlights since I’m not much of a shopper, but many visitors do love strolling through the towns of Fira and Oia to shop for local crafts and souvenirs.

Where we ate

These are restaurants that we enjoyed along the pedestrian-only caldera trail. Each of these restaurants serve traditional Greek dishes with outdoor seating and views.

  • Naoussa, next to the Orthodox Cathedral in Fira
  • Remvi, Firastefani
  • Mama Thira, Firastefani
  • Volkan on the Rocks, Firastefani

Five days in Crete

Almost everything I read about Crete said that this island, the largest of the Greek islands, should be visited for much longer than we would have time for. Acknowledging that there would be no way we could even scratch the surface of Crete, we decided to put it on our itinerary to get a glimpse and also spend some time on the quieter side of the island for a contrasting experience from the urban center of Athens and the busy island of Santorini. It worked out perfectly.

Gulf of Mirabello in the Sea of Crete -- photo taken from Spinalonga, Crete

Gulf of Mirabello in the Sea of Crete

Where we stayed

Blue Palace Elounda, a Luxury Collection Resort, Plaka

Crete highlights — more information to come in Crete post

Crete wine country -- Lyrarakis Winery

Lyrarakis Winery in Crete wine country

  • Wine country day trip — Savor a day of wining and dining in the beautiful Heraklion wine country. We had a great day at two wineries and a restaurant in a small village with our guide Petros of Made in Crete.
  • Beach time — Pamper yourself by soaking up the sun and taking a dip in the clear waters of the sea, like we did at the private beach of our hotel.
  • Spinalonga Island — Just a five minute boat ride from the Blue Palace dock is this landmark island with centuries of history including that as a Venetian fortress, Muslim settlement, and a leper colony in the first half of the 20th century.
  • Plaka — Embrace the ambiance of this small fishing village for dining and shopping. We walked the short distance from our hotel on three nights for dinner and once for lunch. The setting on the water is lovely.

Where we ate

These restaurants in Plaka are located along the waterfront on the main pedestrian street in Plaka. The first three restaurants listed are right next to each other and had similar menus focusing extensively on fresh seafood. At each, we sat at excellent outside tables and relished the breezes and romantic ambiance.

  • Captain Nikolas Fish Tavern — probably our favorite of the Plaka restaurants
  • Paliria
  • Taverna Giorgos/Giovanni’s
  • Isla Bistrot & Cocktail Bar (had lunch here) — lively spot for drinks, snacks, and meals right on the beach

Cretan culture tip: Sip and enjoy raki, a clear liquor that represents the hospitality of Cretan culture. It will often be brought to your table after dinner.

Crete rental car tips:

If you rent a car/return a car at Heraklion Airport, be prepared for the dozens of rental car agency pickup/drop-off locations crammed closely together outside of the terminal. When we picked up our car at the ferry port, there was a Rental Center Crete (Just Rentals) representative waiting for us with our car which was very convenient. Returning the car to the airport was a little more complicated as we looked for our drop-off point along the narrow, busy road. Just give yourself plenty of time. The terminal is just a few minutes walk from the car return.

General Greece itinerary tips:

Mediterranean diet tip: You will indulge in many dishes prepared with the wonderful olive oils of Greece. (We’re convinced that our skin felt softer while there because the oil.) If you like seafood, make sure you eat grilled octopus. It’s a specialty that was always highly recommended. Fresh sea bass, sea bream, cod, and shrimp are also easily found. If you’re not a seafood fan, there are plenty of chicken, lamb, beef, and vegetarian options to choose for souvlaki (skewered meat and vegetables) and other traditional dishes.

Dining reservations tip: If visiting during high season (June to August) make reservations for the best seating in the best places. On this trip, we did not use any booking apps on our phones, but relied on our hotel concierge for recommendations and reservations.

Language tip: Learn a few phrases, but don’t worry about getting around without knowing Greek. Most of the people that we interacted with (in areas where tourism is common) spoke very good English. We didn’t get beyond a few phrases like kaliméra (good morning), efcharistó (thank you), and toualétes? (toilets?), and managed just fine. Most highway signs were in both Greek and English. Restaurant and shop receipts were mainly in Greek, but we just made sure the totals were what we expected.

Transportation tips: You don’t need a car in Athens or Santorini for just a few days. During peak season (June – August) be sure to make reservations for ferries and flights as much in advance as possible. I booked online through Ferryhopper and Aegean Airlines.

Ferry tip: Upgrade to business class when it’s available. On the Power Jet, it didn’t provide us with priority boarding, so we were part of the large crowd of all passengers boarding. But once in business class (which has fewer and roomier reserved seats) we were quite comfortable. Also, our ride on the Power Jet was very smooth.

Last day tip: We flew from Heraklion, Crete to Athens in the early evening of the day before our flight home. We spent the night at the Sofitel Athens Airport, just a short walk from the terminal to the hotel lobby. It was a perfect way to end the trip without rushing around, worrying about connecting flights, etc. Instead, we had a leisurely dinner in the restaurant at the hotel and were refreshed for heading back home the next day.

So how should you spend your time on a first visit to Greece? We feel that we spent our time very well and have no regrets, only a desire to return to explore more. Our 12-day Greece itinerary is definitely a great option with a mix of history, culture, food, wine, and beach time, but there are many more variations and options. Basically, I don’t think you can go wrong, especially if you’ll be able to plan more visits.

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4 thoughts on “12-Day Greece Itinerary at a Glance

  1. Michele Peterson

    Thanks so much for this itinerary! We’re planning to do 12 days in Greece ourselves so this will be a huge help. It looks as though you found a few nice spots for swimming as well.

  2. N. Ross

    Thanks for the very detailed yet insightful post. Do you mind giving a ballpark figure on the cost (hotel, food, and transportation)? 6K to 7K?

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      There are so many variables, but this itinerary and general activities can be accomplished at 6k – 7k. But it would be easy to see move that budget up or down. Much also depends on hotel rates and transportation costs at the time of your stay.

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