The fortified ghost town of Vathia, on Greece’s Mani Peninsula, was once as wild as our Wild West.

The fortified ghost town of Vathia, on Greece’s Mani Peninsula, was once as wild as our Wild West.

Rick Steves: The best way to spend two weeks in Greece

The nation’s true joy and character can be found outside of touristy Athens and the islands.

I was in Athens, at a rooftop restaurant under a floodlit Acropolis, marveling at how a Greek salad never gets boring. It was the last day of a long trip. I was reviewing, as I always do after completing an itinerary, how effectively my time was spent. I had kept my focus more on seeing historic sights on the mainland rather than luxuriating on Aegean Islands. Given that focus, here are the top stops — in itinerary order — that make what I consider the best two weeks Greece has to offer:

Athens, a big sprawling city, has obligatory ancient sights (the hilltop temple of the Acropolis, and the ruined forum of the Agora); an extremely touristy old quarter (the Plaka); and fine museums — the best in the country. Its 3 million people sprawl where no tourist ventures, including immigrant zones with poor yet thriving communities. For most, the joy of Greece is outside of Athens. See it and scram.

Delphi is a touristy little mountain resort with a breathtaking setting. It’s a long way to drive (three hours from Athens) for some ancient ruins. But learning about the oracle (whom the ancients consulted for advice) and being there in the empty cool of the early evening, you know why, in ancient times, this was considered the center of the world.

With Olympia’s once majestic temple columns toppled like a tower of checkers by an earthquake, the site is as evocative (with the help of its excellent museum) as anything from ancient times. And you just have to play “On your mark, get set … go!” on that original starting block from the first Olympic Games in 776 BC.

Kardamyli, a humble beach town, has a “Bali in a dust storm” charm. This handy base for exploring the desolate Mani Peninsula works like a stun gun on your momentum. I could stay there for days, just eating well and hanging out. It’s the kind of place where travelers plan their day around the sunset.

The Mani Peninsula is tumbleweeds stark. If Greece had a Tombstone and an OK Corral, it would be here. The awe-inspiring fortified ghost hill town of Vathia is vendetta ville — it seems everyone lived in forts and sat in corners looking out. While the peninsula in general is bleak, I enjoyed walking through its nearly dead towns and popping into once-sumptuous old fresco-covered churches.

Monemvasia, a Gibraltar-like rock with a Crusader-style stone town at its base, has ruins all across its Masada-like summit. It’s connected by a causeway to the mainland. Summiting Monemvasia is a key experience on any Peloponnesian visit. Rather than sleep here, I chose Gythio: This workaday fishing town, with little tourism and a hearty charm, has a harborfront perfect for a sunset stroll and plenty of cheap restaurants and good affordable hotels.

Consider a stop at Mystras. Once the cultural capital of the Byzantine Empire, its churches represent some of the finest surviving examples of late Byzantine architecture in Greece. Mystras spills down a mountain over the town and the scant ancient ruins of Sparta. Sparta — where mothers famously told their sons to “come home with your shield or on it” — is a classic example of how little a militaristic society leaves as a legacy for the future.

Charming Nafplio, though it has plenty of tourism, is both elegant and proud. It’s a must-see on any Greek visit because of its historical importance (the first capital of an independent Greece), its accessibility from Athens (an easy 2½-hour bus ride), and its handy location as a home base for touring both Mycenae and Epidavros. The town has a beach, great restaurants, a thriving evening scene and a good balance of local life and tourist convenience.

Mycenae is the ruined capital of a civilization that was as mysterious to Socrates and Plato as those guys are to us … a thousand years older than the Acropolis and other Golden Age Greek sights. After climbing through its ruins and unforgettable tombs, cap your visit in its fine museum.

Nearby Epidavros has a lousy museum and forgettable ruins. But its magnificent theater is the best of the ancient world and still used for plays today. For that reason alone, Epidavros is an essential stop.

The island of Hydra, just a quick hop from the mainland, gave my trip a fine island paradise finale. Hydra, so close to Athens (with a direct two-hour hydrofoil connection about hourly), is amazingly laid-back and real with just enough tourism to make it fun and lively.

Many tourists spend their entire time on Greece just island-hopping, setting foot on the mainland only to fly in and out of Athens, but there’s much more to see, learn, and experience in this ancient land.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite places over the past two decades. You can email Rick at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

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