A roughly two-hour drive from Athens can take you to some amazing places. If you live in Athens, and you want to make weekend trips, you are spoiled for choice. But also if you visit from abroad, really, you don’t need to travel far, take ferries or domestic flights to see some of Greece’s best. There is the island of Evia (connected to the mainland by a suspension bridge) with fantastic forests, beautiful mountains and some great beaches, and hardly any tourist development. And on the mainland, Central Greece has beautiful mountains, charming villages, and some nice places by the coast as well.
Delphi, for starters, is a must-see. I find it the most magical archaeological site in Greece. In ancient times, the site of the oracle of Delphi was regarded as the centre of the world, the place where heaven and earth came together. It still feels that way. The scenery is magnificent and site is awe-inspiring. You will find the remains of the temple of Apollon as well as several smaller ones, a theatre, a stoa, a stadium and a gymnasium. Part of the site is above the road (opening hours and an entrance fee); but there is more, below the road, which is freely accessible, quieter (at least during my visits) and no less fascinating.
Drive on another half hour or so for a visit to Galaxidi, one of most picturesque ports on the Greek mainland. Gorgeous 19th century neoclassical houses line the waterfront; come here at lunchtime for a meal by the water. There’s a good choice of tavernas serving fresh fish and traditional Greek food.
Situated 12 km east of Delphi, Arachova is another great place to visit. It is a picturesque little mountain town, where you can buy traditional handicrafts, taste local specialties and dance to Greek music, but where you will also find shops selling trendy ski wear, and where you can lounge with a café latte and a chocolate soufflé, and with something jazzy playing in the background. The town really comes to life during the snow season, when the cafés fill up with youngish types, showing off their hippest ski outfits.
The mountains of Parnassos and the ski centre
With 14 lifts and about 25 slopes, Parnassos is the largest ski resort in Greece. At just a two-hour drive from Athens, it attracts a fair amount of skiers during winter weekends, but as few Athenians will actually take days off work to go skiing (and there are no Greek school vacations between the New Year and Easter), on weekdays the slopes are practically empty.
Most Greeks happily forget about the mountains of Parnassos as soon as the snow melts away, but it is also a beautiful destination for the summer. The national park of Parnassos is great for hiking or mountain biking, and there are lots more options for outdoor activities, including kayaking, rafting, canyoning and rock climbing.
A bit further from Athens, about three hours by car, the mountains of Evritania offer just about everything you could hope for: densely forested mountains, fast-streaming rivers, crystal-clear lakes, breathtaking gorges, traditional villages and a handful of centuries-old monasteries. The area offers great opportunities for all sorts of outdoor activities (rafting, canoeing, canyoning, river trekking, mountain biking, rock climbing, horseback riding…) and in the winter you can ski (a little) – the centre of Mount Velouhi has 12 runs.
During the winter the area is popular with Athenians, who come on weekends to ski and après-ski; most of them stay in the town of Karpenisi which has some reasonably upscale places to stay, but if you are looking for real charm in a more relaxed and ‘authentic’ setting, opt for the villages south of Karpenisi.