How to Admire Athens’s Natural Beauty

From forested mountains to Mediterranean coasts.

By Stav Dimitropoulos

The Acropolis and Parthenon may top your sightseeing list—and with good reason—but if you go beyond Athens’s central basin you’ll discover a collection of natural wonders that can enrich your visit by providing a counterpoint to these man-made treasures. The ancient city is fringed by a glistening sea to the south and a string of mountains to the north. Here’s how to explore each, starting with some of the best beaches in the Athenian Riviera and working north to Mount Parnitha, whose forested slopes can be summitted year-round.

Looking South: The Athenian Riviera

The stretch of Mediterranean coastline lying to the south of Athens’s nucleus offers palm-tree-laden esplanades, sandy beaches, and azure seas of the mildest demeanor—just a few reasons it’s being hailed as the Athenian Riviera.

About six miles south of the heart of Athens, you can take a leisurely stroll along the pedestrian promenade at Flisvos Marina (17561 Paleo Faliro; 011-30-2109871000) while absorbing the elegant yachts that dock there. The nearby suburb of Glyfada is surrounded by translucent waters just right for a dip. You can swim at the various public beaches or head to the Asteras Glyfadas Complex (58 Poseidonos Ave.; 011-30-2108941620; admission, $7*), which includes a private beach and pool. By the beach, Balux Café the House Project (dinner for two, $35) offers food as well as a library, living room, and playroom, while by the pool, Balux Seaside Escape (dinner for two, $80) turns out a Polynesian menu.

Next to Glyfada lies the district of Voula, whose clear waters have made it the proud owner of a Blue Flag, which is a European award for beaches that meet certain cleanliness and safety standards. About three miles farther south you’ll find Vouliagmeni Lake (16671 Vouliagmeni; 011-30-2108962237; admission, $14), a natural mineral spa constantly replenished by the hot springs beneath it. Or, if you prefer to stay active, spend the day at Varkiza Resort Yabanaki Beach (16672 Akti Varkizas; 011-30-2104511888; admission, $6) on the central bay of neighboring Varkiza. This beach park is equipped with facilities for windsurfing, beach volleyball, beach tennis, and much more.

In Sounio, about 40 miles southeast of Athens’s buzzing city center, the coast starts shedding its crowds. You can swim in one of Sounio’s many coves or admire the view from between the Doric columns of the Temple of Poseidon (19500 Cape Sounio; 011-30-2292039363; admission, $9 April 1–Oct. 31, $5 Nov. 1–March 31). This sacred temple was built the same year as the Parthenon, in the fifth century B.C. After sunset, you can try stargazing: The sight of the stars sparkling against Sounio’s night dome has been described as supernatural.

To the North: Mount Parnitha

Reaching almost a mile into the sky, Mount Parnitha is brimming with wildlife and wilderness. Among its fir and pine trees, you can spot rabbits, deer, and hawfinches. An impressive 800 different herb and plant species, 130 types of birds, and 30 different kinds of mammals can be found along its slopes. It’s no wonder that most of Parnitha has been designated a national park or that it’s home to two nature refuges. And most impressive? This flora-and-fauna haven—along with its 75 miles of trails—is less than 20 miles north of Athens’s bustle.

Refuges Mpafi (Parnitha; 011-30-2102469050; three- to four-hour hikes, $68 for two people) and Flabouri (Parnitha; 011-30-2102464666; two- to three-and-a-half-hour hikes, $19 a person) both organize outdoor activities such as mountain biking, hikes (day or night), canyoning, orienteering, and even ski touring come winter. In the self-service kitchen, you can help yourself to delicacies such as halva and the almighty Greek salad.

Like the Athenian Riviera, Mount Parnitha bridges Greece’s present with its past. There’s Pan’s Cave, named for the mischievous half-man, half-goat god—myth has it that Pan’s a regular on the mountain. And then there are the resplendent Byzantine churches and monasteries, such as Agia Triada and the Monastery of Kleiston. You could walk up Mount Parnitha or take a more modern route: the cable car (13672 Acharnai, Parnitha; 011-2102421234; cable-car rides, free), which will fly you over the slopes for seven minutes then set you down among its peaks.

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: September 2018