Greece is known for its good food, friendly people, interesting archaeological sites, vibrant nightlife, and relaxing beaches. It is one of the world’s most popular destinations, raking in the top 20 most-visited countries. In 2016 alone, it welcomed almost 25 million visitors!
The country has a long history. The first advanced civilizations to live in Greece were the Cycladic Civilization – comprising most of the Cycladic islands – and the Minoan Civilization – comprising Crete and Santorini.
But the rise of the Greek city-states took place during Classical Greece, sometimes between 1200 and 800 BC. It is known as the Golden Age of Greece, spurring scientific, political, architectural, economic, literary, and artistic achievements. Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes were preeminent cities during this time.
The tumultuous past and various occupations have shaped the architecture, culture, and food of Greece. From the Romans to the Byzantines, and Ottomans, the streets of the Greek bare the influence of history.
In spite of its size, Greece packs a lot of history and amazing places to visit.
Top Bucket List Destinations not to Miss in Greece
Sprawled over mainland and islands, Greece offers so many things to do and places to see that will keep you longing to come back. I’ve fallen for the country many years ago and, with each new visit, I discover new places that fascinate me.
The capital of Greece, the cradle of civilization, is the most important stop on your Greece itinerary. Blessed with the Mediterranean climate, it’s a great city to explore during the cold (and wet) season. Home to more than 5 million inhabitants, Athens’ city design was marked by the Ottoman, Byzantine, and Roman civilizations.
What to See
The most important places to visit in Athens are the historical sites, concentrated in the area around the Acropolis. There’s a combined ticket that gets you access to seven archaeological sites for a total price of 30 euros for an adult (as of 2017). Realistically, you’ll want to visit the Acropolis of Athens and its museum. A UNESCO site since 1987, the Acropolis of Athens consists of walls and temples.
Nowadays, we can still see the remains of the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the temple of Athena Nike. You can easily spend 1.5-2 hours here.
Another important site to visit, and my favourite one, is the Ancient Agora of Athens together with its museum. It was the heart of the city-state. The most important buildings are the Stoa of Attalos – now housing the museum- and the temple of Hephaestus. You’ll easily spend 2 hours visiting the site and the museum.
Other sites worth visiting are the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Olympieio), The Roman Agora of Athens, Hadrian’s Library, and the Tower of the Winds. All of these are located between Plaka and Monastiraki.
What to Do
The best way to get from Monastriki to Syntagma (or the other way around) is on Ermou Street, Athens’ shopping street. You’d likely do only window shopping, but the buzz is amazing. Don’t forget to plan to watch the change of the guards in Syntagma. The one taking place on Sundays at 11 a.m. is the most interesting. Then, go to the National Gardens to relax and forget you are in a busy capital.
If you fancy taking day trips, The Temple of Poseidon is the best place to watch the sunset. Or hop on the ferry to Hydra and enjoy an island where motorized vehicles are prohibited.
Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece, being home to almost one million inhabitants. It is a vibrant city, with a happening cultural scene. Its history has been shaped by the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottomans.
What to See
There are parts of the Byzantine Walls that are still standing. Also, the city’s symbol, the White Tower, is the only surviving tower on the seafront. Many interesting churches can be visited, all being steeped in history. Don’t miss Agios Demetrios, (7th Century. ACE) and Agia Sophia (9th Century). A lot of museums are guaranteed to keep you occupied, too. The Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki is comprehensive and is split into seven areas (from prehistoric to early Christian).
What to Do
Take a stroll in the Upper Town for an amazing view of the bay. With an extensive Ottoman history, Thessaloniki is where you can experience the interesting Turkish public baths (hammam).
Start the day with a koulouri – the pretzel-like dough that was supposedly invented in the city – and then visit the Modiano & Kapani markets and get a taste of amazing cheese and olives. End the day with a walk on the waterfront. It sprawls along 5km.
If you are up for a day trip, Epanomi Beach is just 25km from the city. It offers blue waters, sandy beaches, a lot of cafes, and amazing weather!
Santorini is the most popular island of the Cyclades. Its beauty is due to a very destructive event: a volcano eruption that broke the island apart. And a currently active underwater volcano that creates a new island. It is famous for the dramatic views, stunning villages such as Oia, amazing wines, and nice beaches.
What to See
Akrotiri is a 3500 years old Minoan city that was preserved by the volcanic ash: a Greek Pompeii if you wish. A must-see due to how well the streets and buildings have been preserved. Complete the picture with a visit to the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, located in Fira, as it contains some articles found at Akrotiri.
Ancient Thera is another site worth your time. The ruins belong to the Hellenistic and Roman phases of the city, although it was founded in the 9th century and has been inhabited until the early Byzantine period. The Archeological Museum in Fira contains some artifacts found here.
What to Do
Explore the many small villages. Fira and Oia are the most popular, but there are plenty of others to check out. You can walk along the caldera from Fira to Oia. Don’t miss the Black Beach – with stunning views of the sunsets-, the Red Beach, and the White Beach.
Santorini is also popular for its wines, so why not enjoy some wine tasting, touring the vineyards while on a special wine holiday?
If you enjoy snorkelling or diving, make sure to dive to the wreck near the volcano.
Part of the Dodecanese, Rhodes is one of the largest and most fertile Greek islands. Due to its combination of archaeological sites, stunning medieval town, and beaches, it draws a lot of visitors each year.
What to See
Start with a visit to the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site which comprises one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. The town comprises fortifications, museums, a church, and palaces. The Archeological Museum operates a tour of the city walls.
There are quite a lot of castles to check out, too, some offering stunning views of the surrounding areas.
What to Do
There are plenty of surf camps in Greece and Rhodes is known as a great surfing destination. You can also snorkel. If water sports aren’t in your vacation plans, then you can just relax on one of the many beaches. The most famous ones are Lindos and Faliraki.
Kerkyra, one of the Ionian islands, is quite an oddity. It was controlled by the Venetians, French, and British, all still baring influence on the island.
What to See
The Old Venetian Fortress is a must-visit, offering gorgeous views of the town to the east, and of mountains on the Albanian coast to the west. Unfortunately, most of the Venetian fortifications were destroyed by the British and have been replaced by their own structures.
What to Do
Visit the traditional villages of Kynopiastes, Lakones, Benitses, and Roda. All offer a glimpse into the traditional way of life and an opportunity to slow down and relax.
Of course, a visit to Corfu would not be complete without checking out the many beaches it offers.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, offering a lot of interesting things to do, whether you prefer to visit archaeological sites, spend time in nature, or relax on a beach.
What to See
The Palace of Knossos is a must-visit. It comprises the ruins of the ancient Minoan civilization. Learn more by visiting the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion which includes artefacts found here.
Spinalonga Island was the last Turkish outpost on Crete and was later turned into a leper colony.
What to Do
If you love to hike, Samaria Gorge is a National Park which comprises gorgeous trails. However, it is forbidden to camp, stay overnight or swim in the streams.
You can also check out the many caves, some having been part of the island’s history. The cave of Milatos is where the locals fled from the Turks in 1823.
And, for sure, the gorgeous beaches should not be forgotten.
What to Eat
Anyone knows a thing or two about the Greek cuisine. Whether you’ve tried the famous “Greek yoghurt” (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing as Greek yoghurt!), had a Greek salad, enjoyed Baklava, or ate souvlaki, you’ve surely enjoyed the flavorful foods of the country. If you’re really into Greek cuisine, why not trying a culinary vacation?
The Greek cuisine is part of the Mediterranean one, being based on vegetables, fish, a lot of olive oil, wine, and some meat (out of which lamb is the most popular). Other important ingredients include yoghurt, herbs, olives, and cheese. There are many foods to try when you visit Athens, including moussaka- the traditional food of Greece -, tzatziki, Horiatiki salad (the classic Greek salad), and loukoumades.
When you get in a taverna you’ll notice the many (affordable) mezedes. It’s traditional to serve meals surrounded by friends and these various dishes are perfect to be shared. Some of the must-try mezedes include fried kalamarakia, saganaki, keftedes, and dolmades. Pair them with ouzo or raki.
On the streets of Athens, you’ll find koulouri, which is very similar to a bagel. Everyone eats them any time of the day. And although Greeks have a coffee for breakfast, many pick up a koulouri before they go to work in the morning. During summer, they are paired with a frappe (ice cold coffee), of course!
Should you find yourself on an island, try the local seafood. There’s nothing more flavourful than freshly caught fish tossed on the grill and served with a sauce made of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic. Pair it with potatoes salad and some wine.
Visiting Greece during the cold season? Try fasolada, a tomato bean soup, which can be served with feta on top. Or enjoy gigantes (baked beans).
Greeks also do fast-food. You can find souvlaki places all over the cities. The meat is roasted on a skewer and then served in a pita bread with tomatoes, onions, tzatziki, and tomato sauce. Or maybe stop for a spanakopita (spinach pie).
For a special treat, visit Greece during Easter. Head to one of the villages on the island and enjoy the roasted lamb or goat. Easter Sunday is a feast day, packed with good food, friends, and entertainment.
If you have a sweet tooth, try bougatsa, which made of phyllo pastry and semolina custard. Don’t forget the Greek coffee!
Getting Around Greece
When talking about getting around Greece, we need to keep in mind that the country consists both of mainland and islands.
Getting between the islands and from the mainland to the islands is most often done by ferries. The slow ferries – which carry cargo, vehicles, and passengers – run year-round, whereas the high-speed ferries run only during the travel season (April to September). There are also airports on quite a lot of the islands, offering both internal flights and flights from various other countries. The frequency of flights is much higher during the travel season.
Depending on how large the island is, you’d be able to use public buses, rental cars, rent scooters, or walk. On many islands, the public transport routes are limited during the cold season.
On the mainland, the infrastructure is quite extensive. There are trains and buses connecting the cities by land. You can also fly between the major Greek cities.
Athens has a metro system, which can easily get you from the airport or Piraeus port to the city center. Unfortunately, Rafina is still reachable only by bus. Other options in the city of Athens include buses and trams. And there’s a commuter rail system serving Athens, Thessaloniki, and Patras.
Many travelers choose to rent cars while in Greece. If you plan to explore the country on your own, this is a great choice, as it gives you a lot of flexibility. Mind the other drivers’ manners though as Greek drivers are impatient. Take out insurance if you decide to rent any vehicle in the country.
If you’ve ever wondered if you should visit Greece, I hope this article made you look up airfare to the country. Whether you fancy a city break, a stay on the beach, want to learn to cook tasty food, tackle the waters with the surfboard, practice yoga on the edge of a volcano, or enjoy the open road, Greece will make you fall in love with all it has to offer.