Greece offers sunshine, seafood, whitewashed houses with bright-blue shutters, and a relaxed, Zorba-the-Greek lifestyle. As the cradle of Western civilization, it has some of the world's greatest ancient monuments. While it's a late bloomer in the modern age and retains echoes of a simpler, time-passed world, contemporary Greece has one of Europe's fastest-changing cultural landscapes. With its classical past, hang-loose present, and edgy future, Greece offers something for every traveler.
For anyone with a cultural bone in their body Greece cannot fail to inspire. Minoans, Romans, Arabs, Latin Crusaders, Venetians, Slavs, Albanians and Turks have all left their mark, and almost every town or village has a link to the past, whether it’s a delicately crumbling temple to Aphrodite, a forbidding Venetian fort or a dusty Byzantine monastery decorated with exquisite frescoes. And let’s not forget the museums stuffed to bursting with Classical sculpture and archeological treasures.
Airport : Athens International Airport (ATH) Spata, Greece
Country Code: 30
Credit Cards: Visa & Mastercard are widely accepted. American Express is less so due to the higher commision.
Drives on the: Right
Electricity: 220 V - 240 V
Ethnic Groups: 91.56% Greek;
Location: Southern Europe
Official Language(s): Greek
Religion: Eastern Orthodoxy
Time Zone: EET (UTC +2)
Tipping: Tipping is not obligatory
The best time to visit most of Greece is outside the mid-July to end of August peak season, when soaring temperatures, plus crowds of foreigners and locals alike, can be overpowering. You won’t miss out on warm weather if you come in June or September, excellent times almost everywhere but particularly on the islands. An exception to this, however, is the north mainland coast – notably the Halkidhikí peninsula – and the islands of Samothráki and Thássos, which only really bloom during July and August. In October you will almost certainly hit a stormy spell, especially in western Greece or in the mountains, but for most of that month the “little summer of Áyios Dhimítrios” (the Greek equivalent of Indian summer) prevails, and the southerly Dodecanese and Crete are extremely pleasant. Autumn in general is beautiful; the light is softer, the sea often balmier than the air and the colours subtler.
December to March are the coldest and least reliably sunny months, though even then there are many crystal-clear, fine days. The more northerly latitudes and high altitudes endure far colder and wetter conditions, with the mountains themselves under snow from November to May. The mildest winter climate is found on Rhodes, or in the southeastern parts of Crete. As spring slowly warms up, April is still uncertain, though superb for wild flowers, green landscapes and photography; by May the weather is more settled and predictable, and Crete, the Peloponnese, the Ionian islands and the Cyclades are perhaps at their best, even if the sea is still a little cool for swimming.
Other factors that affect timing for Greek travels have to do with the level of tourism and the amenities provided. Service standards occasionally slip under peak season pressure and room prices on the islands can rocket. If you can only visit during midsummer, it is wise to reserve a package well in advance, buy any ferry tickets beforehand or plan your itinerary off the beaten track. You might choose, for instance, to explore the less obvious parts of the Peloponnese and the northern mainland, or island-hop with an eye for the remoter places.
Out of season on the islands you will have to contend with reduced ferry and plane services plus fairly skeletal facilities when you arrive. You will, however, find reasonable service on main routes and at least one hotel and taverna open in the port or main town of all but the tiniest isles. On the mainland, winter travel poses no special difficulties except, of course, in mountain villages either cut off by snow or (at weekends especially) monopolized by avid Greek skiers.
Sprawling, globalized Athens is an obligatory, almost unavoidable introduction to Greece: home to over a third of the population, it is on first acquaintance a nightmare for many, but also – as Greeks themselves often joke – tó megálo horió: the largest “village” in the country. Aside from the show-stopping Acropolis it offers a truly metropolitan range of cultural diversions, from museums to concerts; well-stocked shops; gourmet restaurants and stimulating clubs, plus an excellent transport infrastructure. Thessaloníki, the metropolis of the north, has emerged in its own right as a lively, sophisticated place with restaurants and nightlife to match that of Athens, Byzantine monuments compensating for a lack of “ancient” ones, and – among the inhabitants – a tremendous capacity for enjoying life.
Apart from these cities the mainland shows its best side in the well-preserved Classical ruins of Corinth, Olympia and Delphi, the frescoed Byzantine churches and monasteries at Mount Áthos, Metéora, Ósios Loukás, Kastoriá and Mystra, the massive fortified towns of Monemvasiá, Náfplio and Methóni, the distinctive architecture of Zagóri and the Máni, and the long, sandy beaches of the Peloponnese and the Pelion peninsula. Perhaps more surprisingly, the mainland mountains offer some of the best and least-exploited hiking, rafting, canyoning and skiing in Europe.
Out in the Aegean or Ionian seas, you’re more spoilt for choice for where to go. Perhaps the best strategy for first-time visitors is to sample assorted islands from nearby archipelagos – Crete, the Dodecanese, the Cyclades and the northeast Aegean are all reasonably well connected with each other, while the Sporades, Argo-Saronic and Ionian groups are best visited in single trips. If time and money are short, the best place to head for is well-preserved Ýdhra in the Argo-Saronic Gulf, just a short ride from Pireás (the main port of Athens), but an utterly different place once the day-cruises have gone. Similarly, Skýros, remotest and most unspoilt of the Sporades, is a good choice within modest reach of Athens or Thessaloníki. Among the Cyclades, cataclysmically volcanic Santoríni (Thíra) and Mýkonos with its perfectly preserved harbour-town rank as must-see spectacles, but fertile, mountainous Náxos, dramatic cliff-sided Amorgós or gently rolling Sífnos have life more independent of cruise-ship tourism and seem more amenable to long stays. Crete could (and does) fill an entire Rough Guide to itself, but the highlights here are Knossos and the nearby archeological museum in Iráklion, the other Minoan palaces at Phaestos and Ayía Triádha, and the west in general – the proud city of Haniá, with its hinterland extending to the relatively unspoilt southwest coast, reachable via the fabled Samarian gorge. Rhodes, with its unique old town, is capital of the Dodecanese, but picturesque, Neoclassical Sými opposite, and austere, volcanic Pátmos, the island of Revelation, are far more manageable. It’s easy to continue north via Híos, with its striking medieval architecture, to balmy, olive-cloaked Lésvos, perhaps the most traditional island in its way of life. The Ionian islands are often dismissed as package-holiday territory, but their Venetian-style architecture, especially evident in Corfu, and neighbouring Paxí, make them well worth seeking out, especially on a journey between Greece and Italy.
The most-loved festivals in Greece are connected to the Greek Orthodox religious calendar and are celebrated with enormous enthusiasm across the entire country. Easter week is the favorite, with Christmas a close second. The majority of the rest of the annual events are linked with traditional cultural celebrations such as music, dance, and food as an ever-popular draw.
New Year’s Day
After New Year’s Eve common to all countries, Greece celebrates New Year’s Day as St Basil’s Day, with church services followed by festive seasonal gifts to the children, commemorating the Three Kings and their gifts to the baby Jesus.
This traditional festival falls in January at the end of the 12 days of Christmas. It’s a ceremony to bless the waters of the sea, rivers, and lakes in order to banish evil spirits, with its origins lost in the mists of time. Taking place in Piraeus, as well as in fishing villages all over the country, it involves a local priest hurling a crucifix into the water, followed by young men diving in to retrieve them.
The pre-Lent Carnival festivities take place in Athens, Greece and across the country in February, with traditional costumes worn by all, street parties, food and wine, and all kinds of traditional and modern entertainment. Kite-flying is a standard game, while eating and drinking to joyful excess are a must.
Greek Orthodox Easter
Holy week for the Orthodox Church falls later than the Catholic Easter, with celebrations beginning on Palm Sunday and continuing until late on Easter Sunday. Good Friday sees candlelit processions, but midnight on Easter Saturday is the heart of the celebration, with massive fireworks displays and the ceremony of the Holy Flame. A priest carries the flame from church at 12:00 p.m. and lights worshippers’ candles until the area is a sea of flickering flames. Special foods include red-painted Easter eggs and roast lamb, with the traditional fast broken after midnight on Easter Saturday.
Feast of St George
St George of dragon-slayer fame is Greece’s patron saint, as well as the patron of many Greek towns and villages. His day, April 23, sees celebrations across the country involving parades, church services, and street fun, often including costumed reenactments of the hero’s victory over the dragon.
Officially known as International Workers’ Day, May 1 in Greece sees the pagan Festival of the Flowers, traditionally linked with deities Persephone and Demeter. Wreathes of May flowers are hung on doors and buildings, and parades of flower-decorated floats take place.
This theatrical and musical event runs every June through August at the spectacular Greek amphitheater at Epidaurus. Every Friday and Saturday evening, the massive stone theater with its amazing acoustics hosts recreations of famous classical plays, concerts, and recitals, truly a unique experience to relive history.
A community event, as well as a family feast, Christmas sees midnight masses, sparkling Christmas trees, and carols on Christmas Eve. Families reunite for the festivities and Christmas markets, dance and music processionals, and Christmas lights all set the holiday spirit. Many hotels offer special Christmas and New Year packages and, although the weather isn’t at its warmest, the Greek people compensate with their love of this season.
Love to go shoe-shopping? Love eco-friendly products? Want to find everything you need in a single store? You seek items of luxury and high aesthetics when you go shopping? You look for ‘treasures’ from old times, works of art in out-of-the-way places or original materials for your own personal creations? Whichever type of shopper you are, Athens is not going to let you down. The city’s best shopping areas are there for you to explore…
For luxury lovers
Those of you, who seek luxury in the heart of town, search no more! Kolonaki is the ideal shopping area for you. Skoufa, Patriarchou Ioakeim, and Tsakalof are streets lined with boutiques full of designer products of top quality and high aesthetics. When you’re finished with your shopping, take a break and enjoy a light meal or have a coffee in one of the famous local cafés and restaurants.
Those of you, who prefer the north suburbs, visit Kifisia. You can go shopping in malls housed in renovated buildings of remarkable architecture as well as in modern and tasteful stores. See the shop windows on Kassaveti, Levidou, Panagitsa, Kolokotroni and Kyriazi streets and enjoy your stroll along roads lined with centuries-old plane trees, bordering busy cafés and restaurants.
If however you would rather go shopping by the seafront, Glyfada is the right place for you. Visit Metaxa St., one of the busiest shopping streets in town. You will find some of the finest restaurants in the vicinity where you can taste fish and seafood, after your buys.
For creative and alternative shopping lovers
Is handmade jewellery your thing? You’re constantly on the lookout for new materials for your own creations? Make sure you visit the little bead shops [chandradika], and the handicraft stores on Lekka, Romvis, Leocharous, Praxitelous, Aiolou and Agiou Markou streets, downtown. Explore the numerous backstreets around Karageorgi Servias Street and the arcades; stroll along Ifaistou Street in Monastiraki where shops remain open on Sundays. A world of colours awaits you in those beads, buttons, fabrics, papers and other fantastic materials!
For Vintage Lovers
You look for authentic vintage furniture and decorative items, clothes and other old, well-preserved objects? The marketplaces in Monastiraki and the neighbouring Psyrri area are the ideal shopping destination for you. Have a short break in Avissynias square for a coffee or a cocktail and allow the cinematic feel of the scenery take you on a journey through time!
For Art Lovers
You’re an artist or an art lover? Greece is the native land of great artists dating as far back as the Antiquity. In the shops in Plaka and in gift shops of city museums such as the Acropolis Museum you will find true copies of ancient art as well as modern original works of art inspired by ancient Greek heritage. A visit to the Museum of Cycladic Art would also be a great idea, if you love the abstract style of prehistoric Cycladic Art. If however you prefer ornate creations, visiting the Benaki Museum is a must for you; on display you will see earrings, necklaces, and rings fit to a Byzantine noblewoman. You will find exquisite jewellery to suit all tastes, in the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum.
If you are a Modern Art lover, visit the Herakleidon Museum Gift shop where you will find remarkable objects on sale – inspired after the museum exhibits. In Kolonaki, galleries house works of art by contemporary famous artists and in Gazi you will find items created by new and rising artists.
Shop in a shop lovers
You wish to find everything in a single place, combine shopping with enjoying α meal, drink or going to the cinema? Then visit the shopping malls in Athens for great buys!! If you happen to be downtown, try Attica and Athenian Capitol. You have more choices in the north suburbs where you can visit The Mall Athens, Golden Hall and Avenue. If you’re in the Piraeus area, try Athens Heart or Village Shopping and More. If you head towards the south suburbs, spend some time in the Athens Metro Mall and if you travel west, visit the River West. McArthurGlen and Smart Park are just 15 minutes away from the airport by car and in addition to the Airport Retail Park, they offer many a choice for shopping before boarding your plane or for passing your time before you take your delayed next flight.
For Shoe lovers
Shoes and handbags are a favourite part of each woman’s wardrobe. If you love to buy shoes, visit Ippokratous and Charilaou Trikoupi streets which are the ideal destination for shopping downtown. You will also find many shoe shops in Ermou street close to Syntagma square. If you look for hand made bags or leather sandals, those found in Adrianou Street shops are top quality! So, stroll around the city streets, the ideal pair of shoes is somewhere out there waiting for you…
Although many visitors get by on moussaka or kalamári almost every night, there is a huge range to Greek cuisine, not least its wonderful mezédhes, seafood and juicy, fat olives. Despite depressed wages, most Greeks still eat out with friends or family at least once a week. The atmosphere is always relaxed and informal, with pretensions rare outside of the more chichi parts of Athens and certain major resorts. Drinking is traditionally meant to accompany food, though a range of bars and clubs exists.
Greeks don’t generally eat breakfast, more often opting for a mid-morning snack. This is reflected in the abysmal quality of most hotel “continental” offerings, where waxy orange squash, stewed coffee, processed cheese and meats, plus pre-packaged butter, honey and jam (confusingly called marmeládha), are the rule at all but the top establishments. There might be some fresh fruit, decent yoghurt and pure honey, if you are lucky. The only egg-and-bacon kinds of places are in resorts where foreigners congregate, or where there are returned North American- or Australian-Greeks. Such outlets can often be good value (€4–7 for the works, including coffee), especially if there’s competition.
Picnics and snacks
Picnic ingredients are easily available at supermarkets, bakeries and greengrocers; sampling produce like cheese or olives is acceptable. Standard white bread is often of minimal nutritional value and inedible within a day of purchase, although rarer brown varieties such as olikís (wholemeal), sikalísio (rye bread) or oktásporo (multi-grain) fare better. Olives are ubiquitous, with the Kalamáta and Ámfissa varieties usually surpassing most local picks in quality.
Greek cuisine and restaurants are usually straightforward and still largely affordable – typically €12–20 per person for a substantial meal with house wine. Even when preparation is basic, raw materials are usually wholesome and fresh. The best strategy is to go where Greeks go, often less obvious backstreet places that might not look much from outside but deliver the real deal. The two most common types of restaurant are the estiatório and the taverna. Distinctions are slight, though the former is more commonly found in large towns and emphasize the more complicated, oven-baked casserole dishes termed mayireftá (literally, “cooked”).
As one might expect, the identikit tavernas at resorts dominated by foreigners tend to make less effort, bashing out speedily grilled meat with pre-cut chips and rice containing the odd pea. You should beware of overcharging and bill-padding at such establishments too. In towns, growing numbers of pretentious “koultouriárika” restaurants boast fancy decor and Greek nouvelle (or fusion) cuisine with speciality wine lists, while producing little of substance.
Greeks generally eat very late in the evening, rarely venturing out until after 9pm and often arriving at midnight or later. Consequently, most restaurants operate flexible hours, varying according to the level of custom, and thus the opening times given throughout the listings should be viewed as approximate at best.
With their long hours and tiny profit margins, estiatória (sometimes known as inomayiría, “wine-and-cook-houses”) are, alas, a vanishing breed. An estiatório will generally feature a variety of mayireftá such as moussaka, macaroni pie, meat or game stews, stuffed tomatoes or peppers, the oily vegetable casseroles called ladherá, and oven-baked meat and fish. Usually you point at the steam trays to choose these dishes. Batches are cooked in the morning and then left to stand, which is why the food is often lukewarm; most such dishes are in fact enhanced by being allowed to steep in their own juice.
Tavernas and Psistariés
Tavernas range from the glitzy and fashionable to rough-and-ready beachside ones with seating under a reed canopy. Really primitive ones have a very limited (often unwritten) menu, but the more elaborate will offer some of the main mayireftá dishes mentioned above, as well as standard taverna fare: mezédhes (hors d’oeuvres) or orektiká (appetizers) and tís óras (meat and fish, fried or grilled to order). Psistariés (grill-houses) serve spit-roasted lamb, pork, goat, chicken or kokorétsi (grilled offal roulade). They will usually have a limited selection of mezédhes and salads (salátes), but no mayireftá. In rural areas, roadside psistariés are often called exohiká kéndra.
All tavernas will offer you a choice of bottled wines, and most have their own house variety: kept in barrels, sold in bulk (varelísio or hýma) by the quarter-, half- or full litre, and served in glass flagons or brightly coloured tin “monkey-cups”. Per-litre prices depend on locale and quality, ranging from €4 (Thessaly, Skýros) to €10–11 (Santoríni, Rhodes). Non-resinated wine is almost always more than decent; some people add a dash of soda water or lemonade. Barrelled retsina – pine-resinated wine, often an acquired taste – is far less common than it used to be, though you will find bottled brands everywhere: Yeoryiadhi from Thessaloníki, Liokri from Ahaïa and Malamatina from central Greece are all quaffable.
Kafenía, cafeterias and coffee
The kafenío (plural kafenía) is the traditional Greek coffee-house. Although its main business is “Greek” (Middle Eastern) coffee – prepared unsweetened (skétos or pikrós), medium (métrios) or sweet (glykós) – it also serves instant coffee, ouzo, brandy, beer, sage-based tea known as tsáï vounoú, soft drinks and juices. Some kafenía close at siesta time, but many remain open from early in the morning until late at night. The chief summer socializing time for a pre-prandial ouzo is 6–8pm, immediately after the afternoon nap.
Cafeterias are the province of fancier varieties of coffee and kafés frappé, iced instant coffee with sugar and (optionally) condensed milk – uniquely Greek despite its French name. Like Greek coffee, it is always accompanied by a glass of water. Freddoccino is a newer, cappuccino-based alternative to the traditional cold frappé. “Nes”(café) is the generic term for all instant coffee, regardless of brand. Thankfully, almost all cafeterias now offer a range of foreign-style coffees – filter, dubbed fíltros or gallikós (French); cappuccino; and espresso – at overseas prices. Alcohol is also served and many establishments morph into lively bars late at night.
Sweets and desserts
The zaharoplastío, a cross between café and patisserie, serves coffee, a limited range of alcohol, yoghurt with honey and sticky cakes. The better establishments offer an amazing variety of pastries, cream-and-chocolate confections, honey-soaked Greco–Turkish sweets like baklavás, kataïfi (honey-drenched “shredded wheat”), loukoumádhes (deep-fried batter puffs dusted with cinnamon and dipped in syrup), galaktoboúreko (custard pie) and so on. For more dairy-based products, seek out a galaktopolío, where you’ll often find ryzógalo (rice pudding), kréma (custard) and locally made yiaoúrti (yoghurt). Both zaharoplastía and galaktopolía are more family-oriented places than a kafenío. Traditional specialities include “spoon sweets” or glyká koutalioú (syrupy preserves of quince, grape, fig, citrus fruit or cherry).
Bars (barákia) are ubiquitous across Greece, ranging from clones of Spanish bodegas to musical beachside bars more active by day than at night. At their most sophisticated, however, they are well-executed theme venues in ex-industrial premises or Neoclassical houses, with both Greek and international soundtracks. Most Greek bars have a half-life of about a year; the best way to find current hot spots, especially if they’re more club than bar, is to look out for posters advertising bar-hosted events in the neighbourhood.
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