Greece Guide, Europe

Meteora landscape, Greece

Meteora and its monasteries, on the Greek mainland

Greece Tourism

Get there in the right season at the right place and it is a marvel of blue skies, white beaches, ancient monuments and history up to your eyeballs, particularly Athens.

The people are mostly agreeable (though since the various EU debt problems since 2014, the rise of left-wing government and deteriorating relationship with Germany we’d have to say that Germans need to think twice about visiting). Many locals speak English (obviously those in/related to the tourist trade), while the summer weather just about guarantees blue skies and sunshine for Greece holidays.

Transport systems – whether metro, bus, plane or inter-island ferry – are excellent, though overground trains are still questionable.
The biggest bargains in the country are ferry fares. Most boats are new, well stabilised and fast e. g. getting from Santorini to Mykonos in about 1. 5 hours for around €10, depending on sea conditions.

The variety of sights is huge, from Athens or Crete‘s classic ruins to Meteora‘s pinnacle monasteries, to the lost city of Atlantis (Santorini island, and the apex of pretty Greek islands, Mykonos). These must be on any serious traveller’s ‘do before I die’ list, but they don’t require a huge amount of time or expenditure.

Santorini town and caldera, Greece

Oaia village and a ferry in the volcanic caldera, Santorini island

Downsides

– Greece is no longer a cheap destination.
– Seafood supplies are sadly stunted. See ‘Cuisine’.
– Outside the chunk around the Acropolis, Athens is not a pretty sight.

Weather

Best season: April – June, September – mid October for sightseeing, though the Mediterranean will be chilly for swimming till June. The very, very best month for visiting the islands is September, with warm seas, fewer tourists and most ferry services still operating.
OK: mid July – August. But. . . the country is over heated, overcrowded and suffers the random Meltemi wind, making sea voyages wobbly and beach use uncomfortable.
Worst: Mid October-February is the cold, wet season so apart from a cool shuffle around Athens winter is to be avoided.

Panormos beach, Mykonos island, Greece

Panormos beach, Mykonos island

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: Athens and a little elsewhere – 1 week
Recommended: 3 weeks for a cursory look at one or two Greek regions, at least 2 months for a thorough Greece tour.

Main Attractions

Athens

Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon, Athens.

***Athens, you don’t need much time there as the main sights are in a compact, easily walkable area, but you should give it at least a couple of days. See Athens pictures

***Delphi is not only the striking World Heritage home of Apollo, Dionysos, the oracle and varied stone treasures, but also a spectacular clifftop village. Tour buses take the shine off but it’s still worth the 180km/ 112m from Athens.

***Meteora. You could do this James Bond-pinnacle-monastery location in an afternoon with your own wheels, but that would be rushed. It’s a great place for grabbing some Ouzo and ice from a vendor and sitting on a very high rock, or having a strenuous walk.

Thessaloniki seafront, Greece

Thessaloniki.

*Thessaloniki is a sophisticated port city with a few ancient monuments and a good selection of bars, restaurants and clubs, but it’s hardly a must see.

Halkidiki, Kavourotrypes beach, Greece

Halkidiki, Kavourotrypes beach, Sithonia peninsula

***Halkidiki. The Halkidiki peninsula, near Thessaloniki has three smaller peninsulas, the good (Sithonia), the god (Athos), and the ugly (Kassandra). The first is the one with excellent beaches, stunning roads and a non-touristy feel.

*** Zagoria. Not easy to get around without a car, this area boasts superb views as well as a collection of incredibly organic, traditional villages – known as Zagorohoria – built mainly out of slate. Popular tourist targets are: Papingo, Monodendri and Tsepelovo.
There are also two hiker’s delights, well-forested Vikos-Aoos National Park and the 10km/6m Vikos Gorge.

*** The Peloponnese. This delightful island/peninsula is another area that deserves time and your own wheels, offering the essence of Greece in one package. Mountains tower, valleys are full of trees and remnants of lost civilizations – Olympia, Epidaurus and Mycenae for example – superb beaches (especially along the south Messinian Gulf) see few foreigners, and towns are attractive, particularly Nafplio, Greece’s first capital. It’s full of fortresses and fancy mansions and makes a good base for exploration.
Hikers, on the other hand, prefer pretty little Kardamyli village as a base to enjoy the Vyros Gorge and Taygetos Mountains.

*** The Greek Islands: Get the season right and they’re perfect. See Greece beach pictures and information

Skiathos town at night, Greece

Skiathos island town at night

Activities

Hiking: Spectacular scenery and fairly reliable weather encourage this activity, but poorly marked paths are a problem. Around Meteora and in the Zagoria and Peloponnese regions (see ‘Where to go’) are stunning walks, while Naxos island is favoured by German legs.
The islands are a safe choice since you can’t accidentally get too far from humanity. May and June are prime hiking months generally as hills are scattered with wild flowers and temperatures are comfortable.

Climbing: The mainland offers the biggest, baddest climbs, with the amazing vertical pinnacles of Meteora proving popular.

Skiing: Northern Greece has mountains and snow in excess, though few foreigners visit so ski resorts are good value and pleasant but fairly basic. Mt Parnassos, NW of Athens, and Mt Vermio, west of Thessaloniki are the best known.

Windsurfing: One of Europe’s best windsurfing destinations due to consistent sun, wind and protected bays on a myriad islands, boards are widely available to rent.
Schools are established in some of the best locations on Lefkadha, Kos, Paros, Samos, Crete and Corfu’s west coast.

Sailing: endless hospitable islands, sheltered bays, good winds and sun and a huge rental selection at the right price make Greece a major sailing haven. Skiathos has a particularly large fleet.

Snorkelling/Scuba: Snorkelling is fair, with interesting rocks and fishies particularly in evidence around Paros (Monastiri), Skopelos (Velanio) and Corfu (Paleokastritsa).
Scuba is prohibited outside recognised dive schools due to government fears of theft of underwater antiquities. Some islands that have schools are: Corfu, Skiathos, Crete, Mykonos, Paros, Rhodes, and Santorini.

Motorcycle/scooter hire

Greece scooters on Naxod Island

Transport on Greek islands is easiest by scooter. They are good value, easy to park and OK off-road, BUT, most rental agents demand a full motorcycle licence, not just a car licence, even for 49cc wheels. So get a licence!
And look out for sand/dirt on bends if you prefer not to go home with a gravel rash.

Rental transport tips and advice

Greek Food

The bad news: Four legs good, two fins bad, so don’t go thinking great seafood at reasonable prices. Totally contrary to expectations it is generally:
– ridiculously expensive
– unimaginatively prepared
– limited in variety
And the taramasalata. . . 8 out of 10 times it appears as pink, slightly fishy mashed potato. Is the Med/Aegean overfished?
The good news: Lamb and pork, pizzas, crepes, pasta, aubergine dishes and kebabs are commonplace and well prepared.
Fruit and pastries are good, though traditional salads in Greece are dull.
If you’re in a hurry or on a budget you’ll easily find a streetside kebab counter (Gyro) serving pitta bread with delicious pork and/or mixed salad, with a cold Amstel beer, for a couple of €/$.

Always check a few prices before ordering food and drinks to avoid rip-off experiences. Generally the simple tavernas with uncomfortable chairs have the warmest welcome, best local food and cheapest prices – but not always.

Drink carafe wine not bottled. Clear, bright and quaffable, it is much cheaper and a world away from the awful home-made oxidised plonk they often served years ago – although occasionally it is still offered, so maybe best to order just a miso (half litre) or even tetarto (250ml) until you know if you like it.

When eating out, order the Greek way – a few dishes on the table to share. Maybe just two appetisers, one meat or fish plate for two people. You can order more after if still hungry. Don’t expect food to come in sequence, or all together. Each dish will come when it’s ready!

Greek Festivals

Feb-March: Carnival – regions vary, though most events will be colourful and bacchanalian. Patras is famed for its elaborate processions.
25 March : Independence Day – the usual parades, but also dancing.
March-April: Easter – Greece has a strongly religious bent so Easter celebrations are often striking. Good Friday eve candle processions all over the country are moving. Especially dramatic is Athens’ on Lykavittos Hill. Also Saturday night candle Mass and more processions.
June-Sept: Athens Festival – music and drama in evocative Athenian settings. It’ll be all Greek to you.

Visas

Europe citizens and nationals of USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not need visas for visits up to 90 days.

Electricity

Electric sockets are 220v and take 2 round pin plugs.

Safety

Crime was rare, though we’re not sure what impact the 2015 austerity program and high levels of unemploymewnt are having on deperate locals these days.
Athens gets a fair share of pickpockets and low-class hotel thievery.

Paros island sculpture, Greece

Plato, as seen by a Paros sculptor

Language

Many Greeks, especially the young, speak English, so a few basic words will suffice.
For reading street signs, however, a grasp of the Greek alphabet is VERY useful, and not too difficult since many characters are the same or similar.

A couple of words:
‘Hora’ means old town or main town and is used when the island name is identical to the town name.
‘Domatio’ (domatia pl. ) means apartment to rent. Domatia are usually newish, very comfortable and good value.