Two Days in Athens: What to Do Before and After a Greek Islands Cruise

2 Days in Athens before a Cruise

Travel is incredible—and it’s also unpredictable. In a world filled with delays, cancellations, long security lines, and bad weather, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst has always been our motto. Although seamless travel days are more the norm than the exception for us, we have heard too many horror stories about missed flights and shortened tours to risk cutting it close—especially when it comes to cruises. Those boats? They wait for no one.

One of our favorite preparation techniques is building in time for things to go wrong and space to set them right again. When planning for our weeklong Greek island cruise, we decided to fly into Athens the day before our embarkation and return home the day after our adventure ended. If luck was on our side, we knew we would appreciate the extra time to explore the country—and our bodies would appreciate the chance to adjust to the new time zone. If anything slowed our progress toward our destination, we could forgo exploration and minimize our stress knowing we wouldn’t miss our boarding or put our vacation at risk.

The allure of the Greek islands is attracting more visitors than ever before, but there is far more of Greece to see than the islands alone. Scheduling an extra day before or after a cruise provides the opportunity to see more of the country’s incredible mainland. If you have ever considered taking a cruise to the Greek islands, here are a few ways you might choose to spend some time to explore Greece before you board your ship or after you return!

Do I really need to arrive the day before my Greek Islands cruise departs?

Santorini Greece
Santorini, Greece
Greece is an enormously popular destination, with more tourists than ever trying to check sunset in Santorini or Mykonos’ beaches off their bucket lists. The easiest way to explore the island is by boat, and cruising offers a convenient way to see the most popular spots as your hotel room floats along with you. Many visitors, especially those hoping to maximize their vacation time, try to align their arrival and departure into Athens to the dates of their sailing. Technically, arriving the day you plan to board your Greek Islands cruise is fine for most travelers, but there are a few reasons why an earlier arrival might be a better choice.

Many cruise lines encourage guests to book flights that arrive the day of their departure so they can take advantage of transfers between the airport and the ship. This option can be very convenient, but it can also be risky if you encounter a flight cancellation, a significant delay, or if you miss any leg of your flight. If you don’t arrive as scheduled, cruise lines will not delay their departure for delayed guests. That means you may miss your first night onboard—or you may miss even more depending on the itinerary.

Planning to arrive at least a day before your cruise will give your itinerary enough padding to troubleshoot any challenges you encounter without compromising a moment of your time on the boat. In the unlikely event you need that time, your vacation will benefit from having enough space to fix any problems you encounter while preserving your peace of mind. You’re far more likely to arrive for your cruise on time if you have a day or two to tackle issues instead of just a few hours.

Do I really need to leave the day after my Greek Islands cruise ends?

For many travelers, it makes plenty of sense to start the long journey home on the day of disembarkation. Many cruise operators provide transfers to the airport to ensure the beginning of the final travel leg is as easy as possible. That said, travel days are always stressful. If your vacation time allows, it can be far more relaxing to let your fellow travelers embark on the mad rush to the airport while you enjoy one more peaceful day before your return to reality.

There are a few perks to staying for an extra day, not the least of which is enjoying some extra time to sightsee. You may find less expensive flights the day after your cruise ends if demand is a bit lower; we saved a significant amount of money traveling home on a Monday instead of a Sunday despite paying for an extra hotel night and incidentals. On occasion, cruises experience delays when they return to port if customs officials are slow to clear them, which can lead to passenger delays when it comes time to disembark. I experienced a similar situation in 2017 when returning to Miami after a 14-day transatlantic cruise; it took more than three hours to clear the ship upon arrival, and some passengers missed flights while many others experienced frustration as they worried about getting to the airport with enough time to navigate security and board their planes. This delay was beyond the cruise operator’s control, but the consequences for the passengers was very real. I was very glad I made plans to stay in Miami for a couple of nights before returning home; instead of joining an increasingly angry chorus of passengers desperate to get off the ship, I had a longer breakfast and a final farewell mimosa while waiting for our disembarkation call.

What to Do in Athens Before a Greek Islands Cruise

Arrive as early as possible

If you have the flexibility to select flights that land in Athens early in the day, you’ll have more daylight available to explore. By the time you deplane, pass through customs and immigration, collect your luggage, and travel to your hotel, you’ll already be a couple of hours into your vacation. If your plane lands early in the day, you’ll still have time to see some of the city. If it’s late in the day, you may be tempted to skip sightseeing in favor of catching some sleep—often a welcome option after long flights, but not an ideal choice if you won’t have much time to see Athens later on.

Take a walking tour of Athens

Athens Olympic Stadium
Athens Olympic Stadium
One of the best ways to see any city is by taking a walking tour, and Athens is no exception. Like many cities, Athens has a free walking tour where local guides escort tourists to many of the most popular spots in the city in exchange for tips. Because free walking tours are offered by locals incentivized to do a terrific job, since great tours mean better tips, they are often full of interesting stories, welcome restaurant and shopping suggestions, and a chance to see some off-the-beaten-path locations. Walking tours offer a great chance to stretch your legs and get some sunshine after the busy days leading up to the trip, not to mention the long flights it takes to get there.

We met Eleni, our Athens Free Tour guide, at a spot close to our hotel for a morning walking tour, and by lunchtime we felt very oriented to the city and its history. We saw the Theatre of Dionysus, Athens’ first theater and the birthplace of the Greek tragedy, and we stood by Hadrian’s Arch that dates to the 2nd century AD. I was especially thrilled to see Panathinaiko Stadium, which was built for the 2004 Olympics; I had the chance to run a lap around it before it officially opened when I was in high school. Our Sunday visit aligned with the ceremonial Changing of the Guard complete with a brief parade through the city. The tour was a perfect way to begin our Greek adventure.

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Schedule embarkation toward the end of the available windows

Many cruise lines ask you to let them know when you plan to check in at the ship so they can manage the crowds and keep the flow of guests moving. While many people have great reasons for arriving as early as possible (including having more time onboard and ensuring traffic or other ground delays don’t impact arrival), consider scheduling your embarkation for later in the arrival window. That will free up several hours of time on the morning of your departure that can be spent exploring Athens. For our cruise, we elected to arrive at 3:30 PM; the earliest arrival was 12:00 PM, and the latest was 4:30. When we arrived, there were no other guests in line to check in, and the cruise staff team had us checked in and on the way to our room in mere minutes. Although we were far from the last people to board, we had a very easy check-in process without sacrificing time we wanted to spend in Athens.

Explore Plaka

Known as the “neighborhood of the gods,” Plaka has everything you could hope to enjoy if you have just a few brief hours in the city before departing for your Greek Islands cruise. Shopping, dining, and people watching along the cobblestone streets take place within one of the city’s most historic spots. We spent time there after our walking tour for lunch before returning to our hotel to collect our luggage and find a taxi to take us to the port. Plaka could easily fill an hour or two or an entire morning depending on how much or little you want to do.

Athens After a Cruise: What to Do

Take a Day Trip

Delphi, Greece
Delphi, Greece
If you haven’t explored mainland Greece, the day you return to Athens after a Greek Islands cruise is a great time to add a day trip. We decided to incorporate a day trip for two main reasons: we had one final place we wanted to see outside of Athens that wasn’t easily accessible without a car, and booking a tour guide for the day also meant we had someone ready to pick us up from the port after we disembarked—a smart move since we had our luggage in tow! Athens is a wonderful city, but there is more to Greece beyond its capital and islands, so we were glad to stretch our vacation time to move beyond the most popular stops for one last look into Greek history.

Before returning to Athens, we spent a day north of the city in Delphi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ancient Greeks considered Delphi to be the center, or navel, of the world, a spot marked by a marble monument known as the Omphalos of Delphi. Delphi remains famous for the Oracle of Delphi, known as Pythia, a priestess known to directly speak with the Greek gods thanks to her connection to the divine (and, more likely, gas emissions that caused hallucinations). We spent most of the day hiking alongside Delphi’s ruins to see the Temple of Apollo, the treasuries, and the ancient theatre built in the 4th century BC. We especially liked the Tholos of Delphi, located about a mile from the main ruins within the Temple of Athena Pronaia. Although nothing compares to exploring such a historical site, we were also grateful to exhaust ourselves with a day of sun and movement before boarding yet another long flight the next morning!

Enjoy a Greek Meal

If you’re looking for a final memory to make in Athens, pick a hotel with a view of the Acropolis, order a bottle of local wine or a Greek Iced Coffee and enjoy a relaxed meal as the sun sets on your day and your vacation. Instead of debriefing our trip and scrolling through photos on our sofa at home, we loved sipping Assyrtiko and savoring fresh feta and warm bread at an outdoor table in Athens. Vacation is all about what you can see and do as you fill your vacation hours—and it’s also about finding moments to pause, reflect, and find gratitude in how you were able to travel at all. As it turns out, gratitude pairs perfectly with moussaka and souvlaki.

Visit the Acropolis

The Acropolis, Athens
The Acropolis,
While you can certainly visit the Acropolis before a cruise, visiting after you return may be a bit easier. The Acropolis is, perhaps, the most well-known spot in Athens; while you can see it from almost anywhere in the city, climbing to the top to see the Parthenon up close is well worth your time and effort. Still, visiting isn’t as easy as it used to be. Due to its popularity, there is a limit on the number of visitors allowed in each day, and each day is broken into time slots to avoid overcrowding. While tickets can be purchased online in advance, they are nonrefundable and nontransferable, so a flight delay at the beginning of your trip could leave you with an unusable ticket. Consider purchasing your ticket for the day you return to Athens after your cruise ends, when you’re less likely to encounter delays and can enjoy a more relaxed experience.

The Acropolis itself is incredible, and you can see it all in as little as an hour (although more time is certainly recommended, especially in hot weather that might slow you down as you like the hill!). The Parthenon is a temple dedicated to Athena during the 5th century BC, and it stands as a testament to the skilled craftspeople who built it as well as a symbol of the history it has witnessed. The Parthenon has survived fire and ransacking, undergone conversions to become a Christian church and an Islamic mosque, withstood wars, and welcomed Greece’s independence. Today, it’s much more than a selfie spot; be sure your itinerary provides enough time to truly enjoy and appreciate your visit.

Where to Stay in Athens Before a Greek Islands Cruise

When it comes to selecting a great hotel for a night before or after a Greek Islands cruise, it really comes down to personal preference. Many hotels in Athens claim to have great views of the Acropolis, and for the most part, they are all correct. After all, the Acropolis rises high above other buildings, so it’s easy to find a hotel—and even a room—with a great view. When selecting our hotels, we prioritized location as well as amenities like free WiFi so we could easily stay comfortable and connected. We ended up staying at Altar Suites the night before our cruise and Polis Grand Hotel the night we returned to Athens. Both hotels exceeded our expectations as far as space and comfort were concerned, and the fact both rooms offered great views of the Acropolis made it even more special.

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As always, we took our criteria to and quickly found a few great options. For this trip, using’s map feature helped us visualize where each potential property was located, which made it easier for us to see how close we would be to the Acropolis, Plaka, and the meeting point for our walking tour. If you’re looking for a hotel for a night before or after your Greek Islands cruise, might have just the place for you, too.

Enjoy Athens!

Our time floating between the Greek Islands was almost as magical as the sun soaked days we spent exploring them, yet one of the best decisions we made was to extend our trip by a day in both directions to ensure we minimized any potential stressors that could have come from flight issues, missing luggage, or the simple anxiety of having an itinerary with no wiggle room. If you are planning to take a Greek Islands cruise, consider adding a day before embarkation and after disembarkation to afford yourself the same luxury we had. If anything challenges your travel plans, you’ll appreciate the time you reserved for troubleshooting. If everything goes smoothly—and it’s very likely to go smoothly—you’ll be thrilled you have the time to explore one of the world’s most historic and impressive cities. On our first night in Athens, jetlagged and eager to remedy our exhaustion, we couldn’t help but pause after dinner to admire the moon over the Parthenon. That same moon has risen over that same structure for centuries, and millions of people have been treated to that very same view. We hope you have a chance to see it, too.

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