Swimming, diving, and sailing in Athens
Written by Isabella Zampetaki
One doesn’t automatically think of the Greek capital as somewhere to connect with nature. Writer Isabella Zampetaki reveals some less familiar treasures just a few miles south of the city.
Swimming in azure coves, experiencing Vouliagmeni Lake’s thermal waters, hiking the paths of Mt Hymettus, sailing in the Argosaronic Gulf, and diving in caverns and shipwrecks are physical activities that perfectly complement a cultural exploration of Athens’ renowned ancient heritage.
With the Acropolis being the ultimate landmark of Athens, the 60km of scenic coastline stretching all the way to Cape Sounio tends to fly under the radar. Dotted with areas of natural and cultural beauty, five-star hotels, luxury beaches, and gourmet restaurants, the Athens Riviera is where you can get away from it all. At the same time, it is only an hour’s drive from downtown, which allows for a day trip to explore the city’s renowned historical monuments. For places to stay, choose from the Vouliagmeni area, which is closer to central Athens, or Lagonissi and Sounio, further south.
Along the Riviera you will find a number of well-organised beaches that offer sophisticated services and access to shallow, tranquil waters. Book your sun-lounger at Astir Beach through your mobile phone and combine a day at the beach with a spa treatment or a personal training session, without ever losing sight of the sea. Beach facilities also include two Olympic-sized beach volleyball courts, where tournaments are held in the summer. Lagonissi Resort’s Grand Beach keeps up with the latest trends in water sports, while part of its wind-sheltered beach lends itself to sandcastle building. Grand Beach’s sea-surrounded swimming pool is as iconic as the 16 secluded coves that are available exclusively to hotel guests.
Lake Vouliagmeni(limnivouliagmenis.gr) offers both a fresh-water and a salt-water swimming experience of unique geological interest. The lake lies protected in the embrace of a giant rock that was once a cave, and welcomes swimmers all year round as its temperature never falls below 22°C. Apart from the appeasing charm of its millennia-old surroundings, you will also benefit from the thermal properties of its potassium-rich water from underground springs, as well as from the presence of garra rufa fish, always willing to volunteer their exfoliation services. Geological findings along the lake’s underwater tunnels contribute to the explanation of how the Mediterranean Sea was formed.
To immerse yourself deeply in the beauty of the big blue, you can take scuba-diving lessons or plan a dive with one of several diving centres on the Athens Riviera. At most diving sites, the utter peacefulness is interrupted only by your own bubbles and a fleeing school of timid damselfish or the occasional encounter with a grouper, amberjack, or lobster. When diving along rocky seawalls, it is well worth shining your torch on the caverns to reveal the bright red algae that cover most of them. Along with Cerianthus anemones, nudibranchs, and small shrimps, these underwater species are the most typical in the area.
Returning to the surface, the human scale of the landscape and the proximity of islands visible on the horizon naturally awaken one’s curiosity to explore the friendly sea that lies ahead. The silver shimmer of the sun’s rays on the Aegean has been guiding and alluring travellers along its sea routes since antiquity. In those times, Cape Sounio, the southernmost tip of Attica, controlled the sea passage to the islands of the Aegean. Along with the silver mines in nearby Lavrio, Sounio enabled classical Athens to become a superpower of its era. All that remains of the once-glorious port, fortress, and city are the white marble pillars of the sanctuary of Poseidon, the ancient Greek god of the sea. Their unscathed elegance and harmonious connection to their natural environment never cease to inspire a desire for maritime exploration.
Sail and motor boats are available for hire in the neighbouring port of Lavrio. The island of Tzia, 17 nautical miles off Lavrio, is a typical Cycladic gem with whitewashed houses amphitheatrically built on a barren hillside. The protected bay of Vourkari is the perfect place to enjoy lobster spaghetti as well as views of the traditional lighthouse, built in 1831. A trip to Tzia can also include a stop for a swim at one of the secluded coves on the southern coast of Makronisos island. Agkistri is an alternative destination for those who prefer green slopes leading to turquoise bays. Sail to this pine-clad island’s sandy beaches off Alimos, and make a stop for grilled octopus, fried squid, and local katsoula fish at one of Perdika’s seafront tavernas.
With your gaze turned towards the sea, it is easy to forget that Athens lies just a few kilometres away from its Riviera, on the other side of Mt Hymettus. A well-planned day trip to the city provides time to explore some of the major sites of archaeological interest. A visit to the Parthenon can be combined with a stroll in the verdant ancient Agora that lies at the foot of the Acropolis rock and was once the city’s bustling centre. The Acropolis Museum (theacropolismuseum.gr), designed by renowned architect Bernard Tschumi, hosts significant finds from the Parthenon and provides family backpacks with material and activities recommended for young children. Select antiquities from all over Greece, including the Kouros statue which was originally found in Sounio, are on display at the National Archaeological Museum (namuseum.gr).
A warm afternoon is the ideal occasion to discover the forest of Kaisariani – one of the coolest spots in Athens – on the west slope of Mt Hymettus. The mountain’s natural springs create a sense of running water and freshness throughout a family-friendly hiking trail in the forest. The path begins next to an 11th-century Byzantine monastery, built with material from an earlier ancient shrine. Right behind it lie the quarries from which ancient Romans exported ash-blue marble to Italy to build statues. The path continues on to botanical gardens where volunteer groups of schoolchildren have handwritten the wooden signs naming the different species of Mediterranean plants and herbs that grow here. Keep walking under the pines and cypresses, olive, and carob trees, until you reach a wooden kiosk where you can have a Greek coffee or taste fasolada, a traditional white-bean soup. Just make sure that you are back from the mountain to the coast in time to watch the sun set into the sea!
The Argosaronic Gulf offers good underwater visibility at various dive sites, including the Kyra-Leni shipwreck, 30 minutes from the coast. This freighter sank near the south coast of Patroklos islet in 1978. With its bow pointing upwards, it looks as if it is still contemplating its return to the surface. Over the years, the wreck has been colonised by a range of marine species, including moray eels and groupers.
Agia Marina, Attica, +30 229 107 9686
Black cod with miso tastes even better when served al fresco, in a setting of impeccable minimalist design. The Matsuhisa restaurant, featuring world-famous Nobu cuisine, is nestled in the pine-covered Astir Palace hotel complex and enjoys a panoramic view of the Argosaronic Gulf. The stunning sunset makes it worth scheduling your dinner accordingly.
40 Apolonos Street, Vouliagmeni, +30 210 896 0510
Nick Vardalachos, one the world’s five fastest windsurfers, introduces sports enthusiasts to the tricks of his trade at Lagonissi Resort’s Grand Beach. Equally thrilling is the chance to fly up above the sea on a flyboard or to test your balance with a stand-up paddleboard yoga session.
Lagonissi-Attica, +30 229 107 6000
Among the programmes offered by Cape Sounio Grecotel Resort, Aegean Discovery introduces young explorers to kayaking and snorkelling techniques so that they can set out along the coastline to explore the sea’s plant and animal communities. While learning more about dolphins, sea turtles, and local fish, children become aware of ways in which they can protect the environment.
The Acropolis walk
This family walk introduces younger guests to Athens’ most important ancient monuments, including the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Theatre of Dionysus, and the Archaic Spring House. Through a series of fun activities, it offers a glimpse of daily life in an ancient world metropolis and allows children to make meaningful connections between past and present.
A day at the farm
Surrounded by olive trees and aromatic lavender bushes, the Margi Farm is an 8-hectare field where you can pick or plant organic vegetables, feed the farm animals, and build your own scarecrow. After a guided walk around the vegetable garden, you can have a farm-to-fork dining experience or take a hands-on cooking lesson from award-winning chef Panagiotis Giakalis.