Although there are a number of tempting excursions from Athens, getting in and out of the city is so unpleasant that we suggest you visit most of the following places as you head off to the Peloponnese (Daphni and Eleusis are on the way) or to Central or Northern Greece (you can take in Marathon or Brauron). Nonetheless, two excursions -- the Monastery at Kaisariani and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion -- can be more easily done as day trips from Athens.
These excursions take you into Attica -- today, as in antiquity, the countryside around Athens. According to legend, the hero Theseus unified the 12 towns of Attica under Athens. The Attic countryside provided Athens with wine grapes, olives, honey, grains, fruit, marble from Mount Pentelicus (Pendeli) and Mount Hymettus (Imittos), and silver from the mines at Laurium, near Sounion. Today the Attic mesogeion ("the middle of the earth," or the Attic plain) is still known for its fine grapes, most often used in making white retsina.
Serious fires have raged through much of Attica every summer since 1995. Some forests on mounts Pentelicus and Hymettus have been destroyed, and many vineyards. In addition, the new roads constructed for the airport and the Olympics have accelerated the transformation of Attica into a spreading suburb of Athens.
Temple of Poseidon at Sounion
One of the easiest and most popular day trips from Athens is to the 5th-century-B.C. Temple of Poseidon on the cliffs above Cape Sounion, 70km (43 miles) east of Athens (about 2 hr. by bus). This place is very popular at sunset -- so popular that, if at all possible, you should not come on a weekend.
The easiest way to visit Sounion is on an organized tour. If you want to go on your own for far less money, take the Sounion bus leaving from Mavromateon along the west side of Pedion tou Areos Park (off the eastern end of Leoforos Alexandras). Buses leave about every half-hour, take 2 hours to reach Sounion, and cost 6€. To verify times, ask a Greek speaker to telephone the local ticket office (tel. 210/823-0179). Once you're in Sounion, you can catch a cab or walk the remaining kilometer to the temple. If you go to Sounion by car, heading out of Athens on Syngrou or Vouliagmenis boulevards, you'll probably fight your way through heavy traffic almost all the way, in both directions. If you can choose, take the bus that goes via Syngrou Avenue (it will eventually hit the coastal road) and get a seat on the right side of the bus.
Monastery of Kaisariani (Kessariani) & Mount Hymettus (Imittos)
Beautiful Kaisariani Monastery stands in a cool, bird-inhabited grove of pines and cypresses on the lower slopes of Mount Hymettus, famous for its marble and honey. In fact, the 4th-century-A.D. philosopher Synesius of Cyrene tells the story that the Sophists lured students to their lectures "not by the fame of their eloquence, but by pots of honey from Hymettus." This has long been a lovely place to escape the heat of Athens, especially after most of the bees left Hymettus and no longer vexed visitors. Keep in mind that the remaining pine groves here are a potential tinderbox. As always, be very careful if you smoke or use matches.
Kaisariani is 8km (5 miles) east of central Athens. The easiest way to visit is to take a taxi from Athens for about 20€ to 25€. Then, if you wish, you can return by bus, having spotted the bus stop on your way up to Kaisariani. If you want the cab to wait while you visit the monastery, negotiate a price in advance. Every 20 minutes, bus no. 224 leaves from Plateia Kaningos on Academias and from Panepistimiou and Vas. Sofias, northeast of Syntagma Square, for the suburb of Kaisariani. If the day isn't hot, the monastery's wooded site is a pleasant 2km (1-mile) walk (follow the signs) up the road; or you can take one of the cabs by the bus stop.
We suggest that you do not drive unless you want to explore Mount Hymettus, which is no longer the woodsy place fabled in antiquity, but which has become bleak after its recent fires. Kaisariani is poorly signposted so you may have trouble finding it, even with a good map.
Mount Parnitha, the most beautiful and largest national park in Athens (well known for its hiking trials, ski resort, and casino) was severely damaged during a fire that raged for days during a heat wave in June 2007. About a third of the forest (referred to as the "lungs of Athens") has either been destroyed or severely damaged.
Kaisariani's Dress Code -- Kaisariani is still an active church. Remember to dress appropriately: Shorts, miniskirts, and sleeveless or skimpy shirts are considered offensive.
Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron (Vravrona)
Most visitors do not come to this shrine to Artemis in the Attic hills. It's a lovely, tranquil spot -- in danger of losing its peace to the proliferating roads and overhead noise from planes from the international airport. Brauron is 38km (24 miles) east of central Athens between Porto Rafti and Loutsa, on the east coast of Attica.
Take bus no. 304 for the Zappion to the village of Loutsa, which is about 2km (about a mile) from the site. By car, from Athens, head toward Porto Rafti. In Porto Rafti, follow signs for Vravrona and Artemida. On the left, about 600m (1,968 ft.) before the site, are the remains of a 6th-century church. Traffic often backs up on the road between Stavrou and Markopoulo, particularly in Peania, so the trip will probably last the better part of an hour. You can also take the new highway from Athens to the airport and continue on to Rafina, where you can ask for directions to Brauron.
In 490 B.C., the vastly outnumbered Athenians and their allies from the little Boeotian town of Plataea defeated the invading Persian army on the plain of Marathon, and saved Athens and much of Greece (and, some say, much of Europe) from Persian rule. In honor of their valor, the 192 Athenians who fell here were buried on the battlefield in an enormous burial mound. Beyond that, there's little to see at Marathon, as there is little to see at Gettysburg and Runnymede, but such sites are moving because of the battles that shaped the course of history. When Lord Byron came to Greece to fight in the War of Independence, he visited Marathon and wrote:
The mountains look on Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the sea.
And musing there an hour alone,
I dreamed that Greece might still be free . . .
Alas, before he could fight to free Greece, Byron succumbed to fever in the boggy, cholera-infested town of Mesolongi, where he died on April 19, 1824.
Marathon is 42km (26 miles) northeast of Athens between the villages of Nea Makri and Marathona. Buses leave Athens from Mavromati along the east side of Pedion tou Areos Park every half-hour in the morning and every hour in the afternoon. The trip costs 4€ and takes 2 1/2 hours. For departure times, call the tourist police (tel. 171) or ask a Greek speaker to call the local ticket office (tel. 210/821-0872). By car, drive north from Athens along Leoforos Kifissias, the more scenic route that circles Mount Pendeli through Dionissious to the sea at Nea Makri; or drive along the National Highway toward Thessaloniki, from where signs direct you to Marathon.
Monastery of Daphni (Dafni)
If you've never seen Byzantine mosaics and wonder what all the fuss is about, Daphni is the place to come. Daphni is one of the greatest masterpieces of the Byzantine Empire, which was founded by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, in the 4th century A.D. and conquered by the Turks in 1453. The great art historian of Byzantine Greece, Sir David Talbot-Rice, has called Daphni "the most perfect monument" of the 11th century -- and this sober scholar was not given to hyperbole.
Unfortunately, getting here is an ordeal. If possible, see Daphni on your way to or from the Peloponnese. If you're driving, you can easily stop here; if you're traveling with a tour, most stop at Daphni. You could brave a taxi, but it's a very ugly ride -- and the 9km (5 1/2-mile) trip west of Athens can take an hour. Coming by bus involves numerous changes. It is best to take the Metro to the Daphni station and continue by bus or taxi. A visit to Daphni can be combined with a stop at Eleusis .
If you're driving, follow the signs for Corinth out of Omonia Square. After you cross an overpass of the National Road that runs north to Thessaloniki (Salonika), the road rises for 5km (3 miles) to the gentle crest of a hill. There is a traffic light just over the crest and another traffic light approximately .5km (1,500 ft.) farther on. Turn left at the second light and then right along the parallel road about .3km (about 900 ft.) to the monastery. Warning: Due to the heavy traffic, turning off the National Road is not always easy, so allow yourself plenty of time to get to the left to make the turn.
Open or Closed? -- Be sure to check with the Greek National Tourism Organization (tel. 210/870-0000) or the Ministry of Culture website (www.culture.gr) to see whether Daphni, closed for some time, is open when you plan to visit.
Sanctuary of Eleusis (Elefsis)
Although Eleusis was the site of the most famous and revered of all the ancient Mysteries, the present-day site is so grim (surrounded by the industrial city of Elefsina) that you'll need a keen interest in either archaeology, mystery cults, or oil refineries to enjoy a visit here. Eleusis is 23km (14 miles) west of Athens. To get here by bus, take no. A16, 853, or 862 from Eleftherias Square off Leoforos Pireos near Omonia. (This trip can be combined with a visit to Daphni Monastery.) Ask the driver to let you off at the Sanctuary (Heron), which is off to the left of the main road, before the center of town. If you're driving, take the National Road and exit at Elefsina. There are almost no signs for this important site; you may have to ask repeatedly for directions. You'll know you're close when you pass through a small, pleasantly wooded square with several restaurants and can catch a glimpse of the site off to the side.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.