From vibrant, modern cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki, to picturesque islands like Hydra where there is no motorized transport, Greece offers a huge variety of locations and experiences. Knowing where to go, what to do, and how to fit it all in requires planning.
Maybe you want to sample island life, or simply chill on the beach. Or perhaps you’re here to learn about the magnificent antiquities and spend your time touring archaeological sites.
Here are 14 expert tips for planning a trip to Greece to help you create the perfect vacation in this magnificent country.
Know When To Go
Greece can be extremely hot in the height of summer, especially in the capital, Athens, and the second city Thessaloniki. It’s one of the reasons the city centers pretty much turn into ghost towns during the main vacation month of August.
Locals head either to the gorgeous suburban coastal resorts near Athens (clubs and restaurants literally move lock, stock and barrel to the beach) or the islands, where sea breezes cool things down a little.
All this means that the islands themselves can be busy, which is great if you love a buzz, but less so if you’re looking for peace and quiet. If solitude is more your thing, Greece’s shoulder seasons will be a better fit, with June and September ideal months.
The weather is warm and, if you come in September, the sea will have had the whole summer to reach a blissful, balmy temperature.
Dress Down to Dress Up
On the whole, Greece has a simple summer rule: it’s too hot to dress up all fancy, so why bother? As such, casualwear is the norm throughout: shorts and t-shirts (or short-sleeved shirts if you want to look a little classier) is all that’s needed for gentlemen, and light summery dresses for ladies.
A shawl or light sweater might be of use for early evening if there’s a sea breeze, but that really is about it. The only exception to the rule would be a truly high-end restaurant but even then, the only change for men would be a preference for long pants.
Pack jelly shoes for stony beaches, coverups for sunny days, and a hat, as a lot of beaches don’t have much shade.
Learn Some Greek
The expression “it’s all Greek to me” for something sounding unintelligible originates from the works of Shakespeare, but don’t let that put you off trying to learn a few words.
The Greeks love a trier, and you’ll get more attention, better service and lots of friendly claps on the back for your efforts, despite the fact that English is widely spoken.
Learning a few simple words will easily suffice when planning a trip to Greece. Yiasas is a polite, respectful greeting at any time of day and adio (a Greek version of the Spanish adios) is easily remembered as “goodbye”.
“Yes” and “no” can easily be remembered in that they sound like the opposite of what you might expect. Nai (yes) sounds close to the English “no” and ochi (no) sounds a little like “okay”. Parakaló means “please” and Efkharistó means “thank you”. Simple!
Visit the Athens Metro Museums
Athens is a city that is simply redolent with history. Almost every turn is greeted with yet another ancient sight, while the skyline is dominated by the iconic Acropolis, one of the most popular landmarks in Greece.
When work started on the new Athens Metro system in the early 1990s, it heralded one of the biggest (largely unintentional) excavations in modern times, yielding some 50,000 archaeological findings.
Graves, roads, baths, ancient riverbeds, and even an aqueduct all came to the fore, causing untold headaches for the associated construction companies and huge delays in completion of the works.
The result is that the Athens Metro now has six stations that display archaeological findings from the works. All of the stations are free to visit as you don’t even need a subway ticket to get access to the forecourts in which the finds are displayed.
If you only have the time to visit one station, make it the one at the central Syntagma Square. It is packed with incredible ancient art and a quite magnificent cross-section display on one wall that illustrates the depths at which items on display were found.
Read: Three Days in Athens
Learn Sign Language, Cab-Driver Style
Don’t be surprised to find yourself sharing a cab if you hail a taxi in Athens. There’s huge demand for the bright yellow taxis, much more than the drivers can handle and so sharing means everyone is a winner.
You and your fellow passengers get where you want to go without waiting for an empty ride and the driver makes himself a little extra on the side. It’s a fairly simple arrangement if you’re the first rider in the car, but to hitch onto someone else’s ride, you need to know a little cab driver sign language.
Keep your arm raised when hailing a taxi (even if they all look occupied), and any willing drivers will make a twisting motion with their hand which translates as “Where are you headed?”. Mouth the destination and point in the direction. He or she will then either raise their eyebrows (no chance) or beckon you towards the car (come and join us).
Make Time for People-Watching
If you want to get a sense of people and place in any town or city in Greece, take a seat and an iced coffee frappé in a local coffee shop in the early evening, and sit back and relax.
From about 5pm Greeks head out on their evening volta, which literally translates as “stroll” but is more like a long and languid promenade.
They’ll parade up and down a high street or quayside chatting away about the issues of the day, worry beads twirling furiously in their hands, before settling down for their own coffee in the same café they’ll have chosen the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that.
This ritual is all part of the social fabric. Everything moves slower in Greece, and you will benefit from adjusting your expectations of the pace of life.
Sample Street Food
Greek people simply love eating but their main meal tends to be later in the evenings. Throughout the day (and especially in the big cities), the ubiquitous souvlaki street food is a great popular choice for lunch or a snack.
The Greek version of a kebab comes wrapped in a soft pitta, stuffed with spit-roasted or skewered meat, fresh tomatoes, red onions and usually tzatziki, the famed Greek dip of yogurt, cucumber and garlic.
You can buy souvlaki on almost every street corner and you’ll find localized variations depending where you are in the country. A top tip here is to carry some breath mints with you or pick some up from one of the ubiquitous street kiosks. That tzatziki can pack a pungent punch.
If garlic isn’t your thing, or if you’re vegetarian, head for a bakery and buy a bag of tiropita, or cheese pies. Spanakopita, equally delicious, are cheese pies with spinach.
See the Best Sunsets
Greece is famed for having some of the best sunsets in the world, and planning a trip to Greece must include making time to witness one for yourself. Watch as the huge fiery sun dips into the Aegean, painting the sky with myriad streaks of crimson, burnt orange and yellow.
Across the country, there are several locations that vie for the title of the best of the best, each offering its own unique take on this most magnificent of natural sights.
Little Venice in Mykonos, the Acropolis of Lindos in Rhodes and Keri Lighthouse on the island of Zakynthos all lay a decent claim to the title. Two more of the best are in Athens and on the island of Santorini.
At Cape Sounion, on the southern tip of the Athenian Peninsula, the backdrop is the ancient Greek ruins of the Temple of Poseidon and the story of King Aegeus and his son Theseus’s victory over the Cretan Minotaur.
Over on Santorini, the tiny village of Oia, overlooking the island’s volcanic caldera, is one of the most romantic getaways in Greece. It plays host to hundreds of visitors each day, gathering to watch the setting sun tinge the whitewashed houses with pink before sinking into a sapphire sea.
Discover Your Greek Spirit
Greece’s national spirit is ouzo, an anise-flavored firewater made of grape must, a by-product of winemaking.
Qualities can vary but a decent brand of ouzo served chilled over ice at a quayside taverna as traditional, brightly-colored fishing boats bob on the sparkling harbor is one of the quintessential culinary experiences that Greece is known for.
Several different regional variations exist to try, depending on where you are. In Crete, a social occasion simply cannot take place without a glass (or several) of raki. Unlike ouzo and Turkish raki, the Cretan version is not flavored with anise, making it more similar in taste to the Italian spirit, grappa.
Another alternative is tsipouro (sometimes known as tsikoudia), also distilled from wine residue but using a slightly different process. Traditionally, tsipouro is served straight from the freezer in shot glasses, several times over in quick succession. Be warned—it’s surprisingly potent.
Master a Mezze
When you dine out in Greece, you’ll see meze, or mezedes on the menu. It’s typical to start a meal with a selection of these small, hot and cold sharing dishes. This could involve anything from hummus and tzatziki to meatballs, salty feta cheese with herbs, small seafood dishes, olives, and dolmades (stuffed vine leaves).
It’s all too tempting to over-order and spend your whole meal feasting simply on mezedes. Be warned, though, that if you’ve ordered a main as well, you could end up extremely full. Portion sizes in Greece are generous, so don’t overdo it.
Make it a Family Affair
Family life is the beating heart of Greek society and there can be few places left in the world where generation upon generation live either in the same home or in close proximity, from grandmothers dressed in mourning black, to the newest of newborns.
As such, social occasions, from simple weekend meals out to significant birthdays, present the chance for both immediate and extended families to get together. If you’re ever present at such an event, you’ll discover an incredible amount of the host’s “cousins”.
In such a multi-generational society, families are welcomed everywhere with open arms, making Greece the perfect family getaway. The idea of a restaurant where kids aren’t welcome is completely alien to Greeks and no request where the kids are involved is too difficult to accommodate.
Find Your Vantage Point
High points offering bird’s eye views of a destination offer a great way to assess the lay of the land and make for great pictures, too. In Athens, head to the top of Lycabettus Hill in the city center on the rickety funicular railway.
The top of the hill is home to a small church, a café and incredible views of the capital, from the surrounding Greek mountains to the faraway beaches, with the skyline dominated by the iconic Acropolis.
In Thessaloniki, Ano Poli, or the Upper Town, is home to the last bastions of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture in the city, as well as the old city walls, which offer great places from which to photograph the metropolis below.
The 900-or-so step climb to the 18th-century Palamidi Fortress in Nafplion is rewarded with magnificent vistas over the Argolic Gulf, while on Hydra, a 12-mile loop hike to Mount Eros and back takes in the Profitis Ilias Monastery and distant views of the mainland, surrounding islands and the Saronic Gulf.
Sightsee During Siesta Time
It’s so hot in Greece during summer that an afternoon nap or siesta is baked into Greek law in summer. Well, not law, perhaps, but you’ll find common “quiet hours” to allow everyone to take advantage of afternoon downtime.
These quieter times make it the ideal opportunity to visit some of the best museums in Europe as there are simply fewer people around. If you visit one museum, make it the dazzling Acropolis Museum in Athens, beautifully laid out, and displaying priceless artifacts that have all been discovered on Acropolis Hill.
Sample the Local Wines
Dionysus, the god of fruitfulness and vegetation, is also known as the god of wine and ecstasy. Yet for a nation of people who love the good things in life, back in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Greeks did not enjoy a great reputation for their wines.
All that has changed over the last few decades, with strong heritage-style wine-making communities being breathed back into life to make some quite exceptional vintages.
Nemea, around 30 miles from the port of Nafplion, is probably the best example. Here, around 40 wineries use the native Agiorgitiko grape to provide some fine reds. The surroundings of second city Thessaloniki play host to producers who are part of the wider north’s Winemakers of Northern Greece.
This trade body covers the provinces of Macedonia, Thrace and Epirus, a region that sees a real variety of terroirs as it ranges from the slopes of famed Mount Olympus to the coastal vineyards of Halkidiki.
On Santorini, there are distinct wines thanks to the volcanic nature of the island. Some very good sweet whites are made here from sun-dried vinsanto grapes.
Wineries in all three regions have cellar-door tours, or their produce can be sampled in restaurants around the country.
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