Sun-drenched beaches, delicious food, fascinating history, captivating culture: who wouldn’t want to visit Greece? Greece is full of gorgeous vacation spots, making it tough to choose. But if you have to choose between Athens and Santorini, which is the better spot?
Athens is the better vacation spot if you want to experience everything that Greece has to offer. Athens is historically and culturally unique, and day trips from Athens are easy to make. Santorini is wonderful for those who have already seen Athens, but it doesn’t offer the range that Athens does.
Discover some of the historical and cultural experiences you can have in and around Athens and learn why Santorini is only a runner-up to this amazing Greek city.
History Comes Alive in Athens
Athens, the center of Ancient Greek civilization, is one of the oldest cities in the world. In Athens today, traces of this ancient world can still be seen. There are dozens of significant archaeological and historical sites in Athens. Here are just a few:
- The Acropolis: The Acropolis is the complete Ancient Greek complex still standing. Its fortification walls were begun in the 13th century B.C.E.. It was completed in the 5th century B.C.E. On this legendary hilltop stand, several buildings were noted for their architecture and their role in history.
- The Parthenon: The Parthenon is a temple to Athena on the Acropolis. Some call it the most important of the Classical Greek monuments because of its stunning art and architecture.
- The Agora: The Agora is the community gathering place where Socrates taught. The Agora was the home of temples, statues, a library, and various monuments, many of which, like the Temple of Hephaestus, can still be seen.
- The Temple of Zeus: The Temple of Zeus stands at the center of Athens. Several key events in Greek history are linked to its construction and repeated destruction.
As you might expect, Athens is the home of several notable history museums:
- The Acropolis Museum
- Museum of the Ancient Agora of Athens
- National Historical Museum
- National Archeological Museum of Athens
Athens Is Bursting with Culture
No one list could do justice to the opportunities for experiencing Greek culture in Athens. But here are a few to get you started:
- Syntagma Square: Syntagma Square is the center and the heart of Athens. The Greek Parliament is located here, and you can watch the guards changing each hour at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s also where the high-end shopping district along Ermou Street begins.
- The National Garden: Although it’s also a historical interest site, the National Garden is a beautiful place just to take an afternoon stroll. But you do want to find out about the monkey that bit a king here.
- Monastiraki Flea Market: If the upscale shopping on Ermou Street isn’t for you, give Monastiraki Flea Market a try. You’ll be elbow-to-elbow with Athens natives as you comb through the treasures here.
- Plaka: The oldest residential neighborhood in Athens, Plaka’s winding little streets, are filled with shops, restaurants, and Neoclassical architecture.
- Alatsi: if you’re looking for one of the best Greek restaurants in Athens, try Alatsi. However, be prepared for a little sticker-shock because it’s pricey.
- Papadakis: A more casual choice is Papadakis. This is the place for fresh Greek seafood and people-watching.
History isn’t the only thing on display at the museums of Athens:
- The Museum of Cycladic Art
- The Museum of Modern Greek Culture
- Greek Folk Art Museum
- The Benaki Museum
- The National Museum of Contemporary Art
Athens Is Centrally Located
Because Athens is on the Greek mainland, it’s easy to make day trips around Greece from Athens. Among the many possibilities are:
- Beaches: The southern suburbs of Athens lie on the Aegean Sea, and the stretch of coastline from these suburbs to the southern tip of the peninsula is called the Athens Riviera because of its excellent beaches.
- Islands: Just off of the coast are the Argosaronic Islands, a popular tourist destination. Hop a ferry from Piraeus’s suburb and explore quaint villages, sandy beaches, historical sites, and striking views.
- From Athens, Delphi is an easy 2-hour excursion and an unforgettable one. Delphi was known as the “navel of the world” in Ancient Greece and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While you’re there, stop in at the celebrated Delphi Archaeological Museum.
- If you’re up for a longer day trip, Meteora is about 4 hours away from Athens. This complex of Eastern Orthodox monasteries perched precariously in the air atop boulders and pillars is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- A few hours away, there’s Mycenae, an archeological site where one of the most important Greek civilization centers once stood.
Santorini: Idyllic but Limited
If you’ve already spent time in Athens and are looking for another amazing Greek adventure, you can’t do better than Santorini. Santorini is a group of Greek islands, located 186 miles (300 km) from Athens. Santorini is famous for its beauty and its high prices.
Santorini is one of the top island destinations in the world for a reason. Its volcanic history has given it breathtaking beaches, natural wonders like the Santorini Caldera, and unique soil for wine production. Its iconic blue and white buildings and gorgeous views make it one of the most Instagram-friendly spots on earth. Santorini even has its archeological sites: Thira and Akrotiri.
Although Santorini is beautiful and offers plenty to see and do, Santorini’s charms come at a price, often a steep one, and are about twice as expensive as Athens. And if you find that after a few days you’re eager to explore beyond Santorini’s shores, getting to other destinations in Greece means buying a plane or ferry ticket.
For this reason alone, Santorini is probably a better choice for those who have already explored everything that Athens has to offer.
Planning Your Trip
- Fodor’s Essential Greece: For an expert overview of Greece in general, you can’t do better than Fodor’s. This thorough guide also includes sections on both Athens and Santorini. It’s the best of both worlds.
- Lonely Planet Pocket Athens: You’ll be able to find the top destinations in Athens as well as enjoy little-known insider experiences when you’re carrying this guide from Lonely Planet. Despite its small size, it has a wealth of features, including brief histories, key Greek phrases, maps, and more.
- Santorini Marco Polo Travel Guide: Carry a guide to Santorini in your pocket! Whether you’re looking for a boutique travel experience or seeking out the best spots to relax and have fun with the family, this pocket-sized guide has you covered.
Check out this video by YouTube travel experts Samuel and Audrey:
Or this one, from YouTube food expert Mark Wiens:
Do you want to get up to speed on Ancient Greece before you go? Here’s a National Geographic video with the key information:
Athens is a travel destination with something for everyone. In Athens, you can see ancient temples in the morning, go to the beach or go shopping in the afternoon, and have fresh seafood in the mountains’ foothills in the evening.
You can visit world-class museums and take a day trip to scenic coastal islands. Although Santorini is a beautiful island destination, Santorini’s options are limited in a way that makes Athens the better choice for a Greek vacation.