Greece With Kids
With a rich history of one of the biggest civilizations on earth and a Mediterranean coastline that could turn marble heads, Greece is a great destination for families. The capital city of Athens is is located on the south east coast of mainland Greece. To the west is the Peloponnese, which was home to an Aegean civilization in about 2000BC and became an important part of ancient Greece. To the north, the green hills hold ancient treasures of mythology like Delphi, but today are more focused on agriculture than tourism. Outside of Athens, with its immense historical attractions of ancient Greece, the main tourism draw for this country is the 6000 or so islands fanning out south and east of Athens in the Mediterranean Sea.
Located directly east of the Peloponnese and south of the rest of Greece, Athens has attracted visitors for thousands of the years. Known as the birthplace of Western civilization and democracy, Athens was a powerful city state in Ancient Greece. And with such famous residents as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Athens spread forth philosophy and writing, art and architecture. The legacy of this civilization can be seen in modern Athens at such famous landmarks as those found in The Acropolis. Originally a defensive structure built around a craggly hill, during the Golden Age of Athens (in the 5th century) most of the current structures were erected including The Parthenon, the Propylaea (massive entry way still used by tourists today), and many temples. The kids loved visiting the Acropolis. We went just before sunset and the colors on the buildings were amazing. The kids loved finding all the Greek writing and imagining what it was like when the ancient Greeks were walking around here. At sunset, we stood on nearby rocks and watched the shades of orange and yellow creep over the modern city of Athens, while the kids watched an ant try to carry a toothpick over the tumbled rock face. You never know what will catch their interest! At the base of the hill, the Acropolis Museumhouses sculptures and other items found at the Acropolis and gives visitors a good overview of Greek history. The kids liked looking through the glass floors at continuing archaeological excavations below. Another site the kids loved in Athens was the Ancient Olympic Stadium, known as the Panathenaic Stadium. This is where the ancient Olympics started. The first modern Olympic Games was also held here in 1896 and this was the site of the marathon finish line during the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. At the stadium visitors can climb the seats (it can hold 50,000 people), run the track, sit in the guest of honor thrones, and, the kids favorite, walk down the tunnel onto the field like real athletes. We all enjoyed watching the changing of the guard in front of the Greek Parliament building at Syntagma Square, strolling through the adjacent National Gardens and spending the evenings eating gyros and shopping on the narrow streets of Monastiraki (much more authentic than the Plaka, which has been overrun by high end jewelry stores and shops selling chachkies.
The Greek Islands are broken into seven different island groups: Argosaronic, Cyclades, Dodecanese and Crete (to the south), Sporades and Aegean (off the east coast) and Ionian (off the west coast). The most popular islands for tourists include Mykonos, Naxos and Santorini in the Cyclades, Corfu and Zakynthos in the Ionian, Rhodes in the Dodecanese and Crete. We have been to several of the islands including Naxos, Paros, Anitparos and Santorini. You can reach the islands by Greek Ferry or take a private charter (more information below). Naxos has a definite quirky backpacker feel with camping hostels and bars lining the beaches, although it is not to the point of Ios. There are some nice ruins, such as Apollo’s Temple, which affords excellent sunsets and a great place for the kids to explore. Paros is only separated by Naxos by five miles, but it has a much more authentic feel. The village of Parikia makes a great wandering spot for families with narrow cobbled alleys winding through white washed buildings dripping with bouganvilla plants. The town church, Ekatontapiliani, is a Byzantine affair with gold ceilings, intricate carvings and a rich tone. It’s definitely worth a visit. Next to Paros, Antiparos, and its neighboring island Despotiko, have a very slow pace of life. We chartered a catamaran with a captain for a few nights in Paros and it was one of the best ideas ever. The kids loved helping with the sailing through the cool, blue waters of the Mediterranean and we got to check out a few different Greek islands from a local’s point of view. We dropped anchor between the two for an exquisite night eating at local restaurant and watching the goats go by (literally hundreds of them stormed the hill at sunrise). Exploring the just recently uncovered Temple of Apollo on Despotiko was extremely cool. With its lack of tourism and all the hoopla that usually goes with ruins, you felt much closer to the history. The kids loved that our guide was a lonely donkey who befriended us and led us to the ruins and back.
Santorini is by far the most popular island and the scenes here epitomize Greek Islands. White wash, flat top villages cling to the sides of red stone cliffs over the sparkling blue waters which match the shutters and domes. There are two sides to Santorini tourism, the west side, which has soaring cliffs balancing thriving villages along the interior cone of the dormant volcano and the east side, whose flat shores offer smooth beaches that gradually fade into the Mediterranean Sea. Although most hotel owners advised us not to stay in Thira (on the west coast) with kids because of all the stairs and cliffs, we gave it a go anyway. And, boy were we glad we did. Although it is very touristy, the scenery in Thira is amazing…narrow cobble streets lined with shops and restaurants winding up and down the cliff sides and through the tiny white buildings. Donkeys sharing the path with tourists (and yes, we let the boys go for a ride through town, which they loved!) and locals in this hive of activity. The nice thing about staying in Thira is that when the crowds left for the day (daytrippers from other parts of the island and cruise ship passnegers), the village has a totally different feel. And the kids loved exploring the streets…it felt very adventure-y for such a touristy island. One of the days we took a gondola down to the harbor and a boat ride to Nea Kameni, a small island in the bay, which would have been the top of the old volcano before it collapsed. Visitors can hike to the top and feel volcanic steam puffing from cracks. Be warned it’s a long and hot hike though, so bring plenty of water. The boys likes our second stop better. We were allowed to jump ship and swim to nearby hot springs. For the second half of our stay in Santorini, we stayed on the east side of the island. While it was nice to hang on the beach with the kids and wander down the boardwalk to beachfront restaurants and shops, it didn’t have the same character as Thira. The kids did meet lots of local kids though and had lots of fun playing in the waves. One attraction that was surprisingly fun for the kids was the Santorini Wine Museum. Owned by the Koutsogiannopoulos family, the vineyard hosts a museum tucked into a natural cave ten feet below ground. The kids loved running through the cave looking at all the different still life scenes and all of us enjoyed joining the traditional Greek dancing (including plate breaking) in the evening there.
Family-Friendly Places to Stay in Greece
Athens: We stayed at Hotel Grand Bretagne in Athens. Located right on Syntagma Square, just a short walk from the National Gardens, this hotel was luxury at its best. We had a spacious suite with a separate room for the kids with a great view of the Greek Parliament building. The rooftop pool had amazing views as well as did the included breakfast buffet with its view of the Acropolis.
Paros/Anitparos: We chartered a boat, with captain, from Archipel Club in Paros for a local’s tour of the best of the Greek Islands. The sailing was fantastic and the kids really got into learning the trade. The captain was nice enough to give them a knot-tying course. He knew all the best places to swim and eat and even accompanied us to dinner and ordered local foods and wines for us to try. The accommodation set-up was nice, with the kids and us in two cabins, each with private bathroom in one hull and the captain on the other, providing us with plenty of privacy below decks. But, we spent most of our time lounging in the net at the bow of the boat watching the Greek islands go by and pointing out stars at night.
Santorini: In Thira (also known as Fira), we stayed at Santorini Reflexions Volcano. It has a great location, far enough off the path to be quiet, but close enough to the action to take advantage of the evening strolls. Our room was spacious, with a queen bed for us and two twins, in a separated alcove, for the kids. We had a private entrance to an indoor pool, which as great for a hot afternoon break. On the east side of the island, we stayed at the sister hotel Santorini Reflexions Sea, which is on the black sand beach of Kamari. Our room here was even bigger, with two separate bedrooms as well as a full kitchen. The kids loved playing in the waterfall at the pool, body surfing on the beach and strolling down the boardwalk in front of the hotel.
Getting to and Around Greece
Most visitors arriving by air to Greece arrive in Athens, although nowadays international flights also arrive on several of the Greek Islands, including Santorini and Rhodes. Check easyJet for cheap flights from the rest of Europe. The other popular way to arrive in Greece is by Greek Ferry. The most traveled route is the Bari-Patra route from Italy to Greece. This route stops at Corfu along the way and there is continuing bus and train service from Patra to Athens. Trains also run to the north of Athens, continuing into Eastern Europe and Turkey. Since, most of the tourist locations in Greece are on Greek Islands, the most popular way to get around is by ferry. Piraeus is the ferry terminal for Athens (it’s about twenty minutes from the city). Ferries leave from there to all over Greece, Italy, Albania, Cypurs, Israel and more.