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Ancient Splendors

The sight greets you time and again in Greece—a line of solid, sun-bleached masonry silhouetted against a clear blue sky. If you're lucky, a cypress waves gently to one side. What makes the scene all the more fulfilling is the realization that a kindred spirit looked up and saw the same temple or theater some 2,000 or more years ago. Temples, theaters, statues, a stray Doric column or two, the fragment of a Corinthian capital: these traces of the ancients are thick on the ground in Greece, from the more than 3,000-year-old Minoan Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete to such relatively "new" monuments as the Parthenon. You can prepare yourself by reading up on mythology, history, and architecture, but get used to the fact that coming upon these magnificent remnants of ancient civilizations is likely to send a chill up your spine every time you see them.

Temple of Poseidon, Sounion, Attica. Set over the sea and showstopper of the Apollo Coast, the extant columns of this great temple are one of the icons of ancient Greece, hallowed by King Aegeus and visited by Lord Byron.

Delphi, west of Attica. Set in a spectacular vale, this was the ancient site of the most venerated and consulted Greek oracle. The site is breathtaking, and the remnant artworks, such as the fabled Charioteer, even more so.

Mycenae, Northern Peloponnese. Haunted by the legendary spirits of Agamennon and Clytemnestra, this royal town of the 13th century BC conjures up the days of Homer, thanks to such staggering relics as the Lion Gate.

Majestic Monasteries

A legacy of the great Byzantine era, and often aligned with great historic churches of the Greek Orthodox Church, the monasteries of Greece seem as spiritual and peaceful as when St. John walked the land. A religious mystique hangs over many of these island retreats, infusing them with a sense of calm that you will appreciate even more when escaping from party-central towns like Mykonos or overcrowded beaches. The natural beauty and calm of many of these places, many visitors find, heal your body and soul, revitalizing you for the rest of your trip.

Monastery of St. John the Theologian, Patmos. On the hill overlooking Hora is this retreat built to commemorate St. John in the 11th century—not far away is the cave where he experienced his Revelation, near the Monastery of the Apocalypse.

Nea Moni, Chios, the Northern Aegean Islands. The island of Chios has an array of stunningly perched monasteries, including this one, whose interior blazes with color, marble slabs, and mosaics of Christ’s life. Built by an 11th-century emperor, it has a rare octagonal Katholikon church.

Monastery of Taxiarchis Michael Panormitis, Symi, the Dodecanese. Dedicated to Symi’s patron saint, the protector of sailors, this magnificently frescoed monastery—landmarked by its elaborate bell tower—makes a great day trip from Symi, but why not make a night of it by booking one of its 60 guest rooms?

Evangelistria, Skiathos, the Sporades. Sitting on Skiathos’s highest point, not far from the town of Lalaria, is this late-18th-century jewel, looming above a gorge and set with a magnificent church with three domes.

Natural Wonders

Some countries have serene pastures and unobtrusive lakes, environments beautiful in a subtle way. Not Greece. Its landscapes seem put on Earth to astound outright, and often the intertwined history and spiritual culture are equally powerful. This vibrant modern nation is a land of majestic mountains whose slopes housed the ancient gods long before they nestled Byzantine monasteries or ski resorts. The country’s sapphire-rimmed islands served as a cradle of great civilizations before they became playgrounds for sailors and beach lovers. If there are no temples to the ancient gods on many of the mountains on the Greek islands, the looming summits that seem to reach into the heavens, impressive from any perspective, inspired the Greeks to worship natural forces. Many islands have ancient goat and donkey trails that are sublime hikes; prime walking months are April, May, and September, when temperatures are reasonable, wildflowers seem to cover every surface, and birds are on their migratory wing.

Samaria Gorge, Hania, Crete. From Omalos, a zigzag path descends steeply 2,500 feet into the tremendous Samaria gorge that splits the cliffs here for 13 km (8 mi) down to Ayia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea. Catch views of the Cretan kri-kri goat near the famous "Iron Gates" stone passageway.

The flooded caldera, Santorini, the Cyclades. What may be the most beautiful settlements in the Cyclades straddle the wondrous crescent of cliffs, striated in black, pink, brown, white, and pale green, rising 1,100 feet over the haunting, wine-color Aegean Sea.

The Most Beautiful Towns and Villages

Historic, simple, famous, nondescript, or perfectly preserved: almost any Greek village seems to possess that certain balance of charm and mystique that takes your breath away. The sight of miragelike white clusters of houses appearing alongside blue waters or tumbling down cliffs and hillsides is one of the top allures of any trip here. Villages are awash in cubical, whitewashed houses—often built atop one another along mazelike streets (designed to confound invaders). Add in distinctive architectural landmarks—a Byzantine cathedral, a Venetian 16th-century kastro (or fortress), and monasteries that seem sculpted of zabaglione custard—and these villages and towns often look like unframed paintings.

Rethymnon, Crete. A Venetian fortessa rests on a hill above this city, where cobblestone alleyways squirm their way through Turkish and Italianate houses. Bypass the newer parts of town to stroll through the Venetian harbor, packed solid with atmospheric cafés and shops.

Ia, Santorini, the Cyclades. Here is where you can find the cubical white houses you’ve dreamed of and a sunset that is unsurpassed.

Hydra, the Saronic Gulf Islands. The chicoscenti steal away to this harbor beauty, set with crumbling 19th-century merchant’s mansions, joyously festive waterside cafés, art galleries, and some Hollywood pixie dust (Sophia Loren filmed Boy on a Dolphin here).

Corfu town, Corfu. A little beauty of a city, Corfu town retains evocative traces of its Venetian, French, and British occupiers. It is a grand gateway to one of the greenest and perhaps prettiest islands in all Greece.

Updated: 2014-01-14

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