Ancient Greece in your own time
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Road Trip, Budget
Taking coach tours to visit three of the greatest sights of ancient Greece is too much of a rush - better to travel at your own pace, for more time to see the sights and soak up the atmosphere
Coach tours whizz you from Athens to Delphi and Olympia without pausing to soak up the atmosphere of Greece’s most evocative archaeological sites. But if you travel independently, you can cover the same route more cheaply, see much more – and have a lot more fun.
After the Acropolis, sacred Delphi, Olympia (birthplace of the Games) and ancient Corinth are the big three archaeological sites on the mainland. To see them at their best, visit first thing in the morning, before the tour coaches arrive. Better yet, visit out of season, in late September or early October, when the crowds are gone and the temperature is warm enough for swimming or sitting in the sun, but not too hot for clambering over ancient ruins.
Even if you're on a budget, consider using taxis on shorter journeys where you may have to wait ages for public transport. Doing this trip by bus costs about €60, so for four people travelling together, renting a car can work out cheaper (with car hire from as little as £175 a week for a compact, or £400 for an eight-seater people carrier). It’s more convenient and flexible and solves the problem of what to do with your luggage while you explore. Downside: whoever’s driving misses the scenery, and has to deal with Athens traffic and navigation.
Delphi buses leave Athens bus terminal B, at Odos Liossion 260, six times a day (first departure 7.30am, last one 8pm; fare €13). It’s a three-hour trip, and - once you’re out of the Athens urban sprawl - a spectacular one, passing through Thivai, Livadia and the picturesque hill village of Arachova, then winding down the flanks of Mount Parnassos to Delphi.
Travelling by bus, aim to arrive in Delphi late afternoon or early evening. Stay overnight, get up early and hit the archaeological site as soon as it opens (usually 8am), leaving your luggage at your hotel - pick a place to stay that will look after your luggage after you check out, such as the Hotel Acropole. With loft-style bedrooms (doubles from €72; four-person suites €132), the Acropole stands out from a slew of dull and overpriced hotels here. The rooms are bright, the staff are very helpful, and its Epikouros tavern has the best Greek grub in Delphi. It also has million-dollar views across the ‘sea of olives’ below Delphi and the misty blue Gulf of Corinth.
Outside the village, the Apollon campsite was, when I last visited, one of the best in Greece, with a pool, pitches shaded by plenty of trees, an on-site restaurant and a laundry with washers, dryers and even ironing kit. If you don’t have a tent, there are well-appointed mobile homes and pre-pitched tents. It’s just under a mile downhill on the main road from modern Delphi, with free transfers to and from the ancient site.
Most people bypass Galaxidi, 15 miles from Delphi. You shouldn’t – it’s one of my favourite places on the Greek mainland, with loads of charm and some great places to eat and stay. Plus, it’s the only place on this route where you can dive into the calm waters of the Gulf.
Galaxidi sits on an almost circular peninsula, connected to the main coast road by a narrow isthmus. In its 19th-century heyday it was a famous trading port. Its schooner captains built substantial family mansions here, and many of their old houses are now attractive small hotels. My favourite is the Hotel Galaxa, with its blue shutters, rooms with platform beds (doubles from €70), stripy rugs and wooden floors, and terrace overlooking the village. There’s strong competition from the Ganimede Hotel, in the middle of the village, where the best rooms have gallery beds. A night here starts at €60 for a double. The cheapest option in Galaxidi is the Hotel Argo, where a double costs around €40.
Picking a place for lunch is a no-brainer – Omilos, on the western harbour, has its own private bathing pier, with sun loungers and umbrellas and tables under an awning on a jetty jutting into the pier (fish splash underneath while you eat their less fortunate relatives); the seafood here is fresh and simply grilled. For dinner, there are a dozen more excellent fish restaurants and grill-tavernas along the harbour.
Travelling on, it takes six to seven hours to get from Delphi or Galaxidi to Olympia, changing buses in Patras. There are up to six buses daily from Delphi and Galaxidi to Patras, and you may have to change at Navpaktos. This is no hardship – it’s a compact little town, with a picturesque harbour ringed by 16th-century battlements and overlooked by the massive walls of a Venetian castle, and there are plenty of pleasant café-restaurants by the harbour for a cold drink between buses.
It’s almost worth taking this trip just to see the Rio-Antirio bridge, a 21st-century swoop of pylons and cables poised across the narrows of the Gulf. But Patras, although it’s Greece’s third city, isn’t somewhere that you’ll want to hang around for longer than it takes to change buses. If you do have to kill time, Plateia Agios Nikolaos is the hub of the city’s café society.
Like modern Delphi, modern Olympia is a tail-wagging-the-dog place, existing entirely to service visitors to the ancient birthplace of the Olympic Games. But it’s cooler, greener and more convivial. The Pelops Hotel is the place to stay if your budget will stretch to it; doubles cost €60, but a suite for four is only €100, and you won’t find a better bargain in town than this bright, simple, friendly little hotel. Alternatives for campers include Camping Olympia and Camping Diana, both next to the ancient site, and each with a pool.
Travelling on to Corinth may involve catching a local bus to Pirgos, which you bypassed on the way to Olympia (a 20-minute ride), then catching a long-distance bus to Tripoli for a connection to Corinth. Allow up to five hours, depending on connections.
The ruins of ancient Corinth - including the seven remaining columns of the 6th-century BC Temple of Apollo and the agora and theatres that testify to its later role as a hub of the Roman Empire – are just north of the E65 highway, almost six miles from the humdrum modern town. Take the time to visit Acrocorinth too, where the massive fortress walls built by Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian and Turkish conquerors surround a 1,868 ft crag above the ancient site. You can drive most of the way to the top, and the view is amazing, with range after range of blue mountains marching off to the southwest.
It makes you want to travel on, into the heart of the Peloponnese, but if you have to head for home there are at least eight trains between Corinth and Athens, plus hourly buses (5.30am-9pm), either of which options gets you back to the capital in less than 90 minutes (crossing a 19th-century engineering marvel, the Corinth Canal, on the way).
Alternatively, a 30-minute bus ride takes you to Navplion, one of the prettiest little harbour towns in Greece. There are some great places to stay here, including the dreamy Amymone Pension and the pretty-in-pink Hotel Byron. Neither is dirt cheap, but the Amymome has a four-person suite for €120 and the Byron’s cheapest double is €50. After all this hard travelling you’ve earned a bit of luxury. Splash out.