Alice Barnes-Brown discovers glorious green spaces alongside ancient wonders
A traditional city break won’t typically feature a boat trip to a verdant island, a heart-pumping cycle up a mountain and a peaceful moment of reflection in a tortoise-filled garden.
Yet that’s what Athens offers to the traveller in need of both urban and unspoilt landscapes: pine tree-lined pathways and rural delights in the daytime and the comforts of city life, including an array of crowd-pleasing hotels, after dark.
Here are some of the best experiences you can suggest to clients looking for a city break with a healthy dose of outdoor activities.
Ellinikon Experience Park
Between the glittering glass houses and all-day beach bars of the Athenian Riviera, an exciting project is taking shape: the Ellinikon. The city’s former airport has lain abandoned for about two decades, but is now becoming Europe’s largest coastal park, three times the size of Monaco.
A small part of the planned park, the Experience Park, opened in December 2021. Easily accessible from Syntagma Square – it takes about 25 minutes on the metro to reach Elliniko station – the park is a fantastic place for your clients to unwind, featuring a Zen garden with a mirror-like water feature and shady spots for yoga.
It’s also designed with families in mind: children are encouraged to play in the fountains and airport-themed playground, while adults can read a book under eucalyptus trees and relax on benches made from recycled bits of runway in the herb garden.
Book it: Newmarket Holidays’ week-long Classical Greece and the Ancient World adventure sets its Athens base in Glyfada, a glitzy neighbourhood next to the Ellinikon, giving clients plenty of time to pop out and enjoy the park. Prices start from £1,199, including flights and B&B accommodation.
Better known to Athenians as ‘Trellovouno’, which means Crazy Mountain – Hymettus dominates the city’s eastern skyline. The 1,000-metre-plus peak is a popular place for Athenians to take a break: invigorating treks and cycle rides through bee-filled Aleppo pine and thyme forests are the main attraction, but daredevil climbs on sheer rock faces, home-cooked food from the traditional taverna at the Kalopoula ravine beauty spot and the fresco-covered Byzantine Kaisariani monastery are all enriching stops. Budding naturalists will find something fulfilling on the jaunt, too, with ever-elusive bats sleeping in the mountain’s many caves.
There’ll soon be even more to sweeten the deal for nature lovers: a new app that maps 100km of hiking and biking trails is currently in development in Hymettus, which will make it even easier for international visitors to explore the mountain.
Book it: Responsible Travel’s six-day Mountain Biking Holiday in Greece, from £635, has the option to add extra nights in a family-run hotel in Athens, so your clients can continue their cycling adventures along the 100km of biking and walking trails on Hymettus. Includes breakfast, but excludes flights.
For nature enthusiasts who aren’t in the mood for a strenuous hike, but do want to take in awe-inspiring views over Athens, the Acropolis and the Aegean, suggest Filopappou Hill, opposite the Acropolis’ main entrance. Here, the urban sprawl quickly disappears from view and the sound of crickets replaces cars. More than 100 species of bird, including indigenous peregrine falcons, live in this area.
The start of every Filopappou meander begins with a peek inside a former prison built into the hillside, rumoured to have kept Socrates captive before his trial in 399BC. Then, the path forks: turning right means travelling through low-lying trees to the Pnyx, the ancient Athenian version of parliament. Turning left through the cypress trees leads to the pinnacle of the hill, where city panoramas are framed by a towering Roman monument.
Book it: Abercrombie & Kent’s eight-night tour of the Peloponnese includes two full days in Athens, giving your clients plenty of time to explore the Acropolis and Filopappou. Prices start from £1,450 including five-star B&B accommodation, but not flights.
National Garden of Athens
Formerly the garden of the Greek royal family, this little Eden next to Syntagma Square is ideal for a quick dose of natural beauty, as the Athenians who come here for their morning jogs or lunch breaks will attest. The 38-acre site is a mix of perfectly symmetrical flowerbed gardens and areas of semi-wild woodland filled with swaying Washington palms and brightly blooming oleanders.
There are 519 types of flora cultivated here and plenty of opportunities to see mother nature in all her glory, from arches covered with roses in spring to avenues filled with golden leaves in autumn. It’s not just the green-thumbed who’ll love the National Gardens: the main lake is home to a charming colony of ducks and Cretan goats, who jostle for the attention of laughing children, and the terrapins that call a nearby fountain home provide hours of entertainment as they swim, amble and munch.
Book it: Cox & Kings’ 11-night Heart of Ancient Greece tour places your clients in the Electra Hotel, a few steps from the National Garden. Prices start from £2,395, including flights and four to five-star B&B accommodation.
Looking for a Greek island paradise to sell to fans of The Durrells? Agistri, a wildlife-filled Saronic isle, might be just the ticket. The hydrofoil zips into the sleepy island in just one hour from Piraeus harbour, and upon disembarking, adventure awaits. Aromatic pine forests cover the entire island, and adorable peacocks, bunnies and squirrels roam.
Deviating from the main trails is likely to lead to a surprise natural marvel, from the crystalline cove of Mariza to the marshy lake Aponisos. This, the southernmost tip of the island, is best known for its tranquil beach and Total Wipeout-style inflatable play equipment, but for an experience that forms a true connection with nature, your clients can rent a horse and explore the unspoilt island in the most romantic way possible.
Book it: As part of a five-night family holiday package (£1,406), Sunvil offers an excursion that
visits three Saronic islands: Agistri, Aegina and uninhabited Moni. Price includes flights and B&B accommodation in the three-star Acropolis Museum Hotel.
PICTURES: Shutterstock/CoinUp, Isidoros Andronos