An all-time classic!
In Greece, sea and mountain meet to dramatic effect, and everything is bathed in the bright, relentless light of the Mediterranean sun. Life here can be what you make it, either an endless party or a quiet affair. The smells of thyme and lavender, the shops tucked away on tiny island streets, the welcoming people, the undiscovered beaches, the gorgeous food, and the epic history will make you want to plan your next visit back to Greece before you’ve even left.
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Watch the Sunset in Santorini
This crescent-shaped Cycladic island is the result of intense volcanic activity in the ancient times and is renowned for the dramatic views of the Aegean sea and a rocky caldera that rises 1,100 feet above sea level. The towns of Fira and Ia are perched along the top of the island and provide some spectacular and wildly popular sunset-watching opportunities across the bay. With its seriously romantic backdrop, it’s no wonder that Santorini is such a popular wedding destination.
INSIDER TIPThe best months for avoiding the crowds are the shoulder seasons of April and May and September and October.
Explore the Acropolis
WHERE: Acropolis, Athens
Every city-state in ancient Greece had an acropolis, a fortress high up on a hill to keep hostile visitors at bay. But there is only one Acropolis, built in 5 B.C. in Athens. It is rightly considered as the jewel of the Athenian civilization, the pinnacle of Classical beauty, and the epitome of human accomplishment in the ancient world. As you enter from the Beule Gate on the west side of the hill, the imposing scale and remarkable architectural design of the Propylaia, the Parthenon, and the Erechteion speak to the imagination and boggle the mind.
INSIDER TIPThe joint ticket for all Unification of Architectural sites costs 30 euros and offers entry to the Acropolis and 10 other important sites across Athens over a period of five days.
Stroll Around Europe’s Oldest City
WHERE: Knossos, Crete
The Minoan civilization dominated this region of the southeastern Mediterranean some 5,000 years ago. Excavations, which first started in Knossos in 1878, offer a glimpse into what life might have been like in one of the most legendary ancient kingdoms before it was (supposedly) destroyed by the volcanic eruptions in Santorini and the subsequent tsunami that reached Cretan shores. The palace of the wise King Minos reveals a people in possession of advanced technology, newly-acquired writing skills, and intellectual prowess.
INSIDER TIPThe in situ restoration of the palace murals by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans paints an evocative picture of the Minoans’ everyday life rituals and unique artistic gifts.
Get Serious Mamma Mia Vibes
WHERE: Skopelos, Sporades
There are about 6,000 islands and islets scattered around the Hellenic seascape, so one might rightly wonder: why Skopelos? Because it is possibly the greenest of all the Greek islands (with more than 67 percent of the land covered by pine trees) and if the surprising combo of glowing greenery and aquamarine crystalline waters made the Mamma Mia producers fall in love with Skopelos, then that’s good enough for us.
INSIDER TIPThere are 110 steps to go up to the chapel of St. John, in Kastri. It’s a good idea to attempt the climb around sunset for incredible views.
Explore Greece’s First Capital
WHERE: Nafplion, Peloponnese
The history of modern Greece is intertwined with “Nafplio the Beautiful”, as Greeks call it. The first capital of the newly independent state in 1821 retains its picturesque character, especially in its historic center. The Venetian Old Town is an ideal base for exploring the ancient sites of the Peloponnese. Narrow alleyways are covered with thick bougainvillea, while relaxed coffee shops and well-preserved neoclassical buildings are a world away from the busy pace of the modern town of Nafplion.
INSIDER TIPVisit Palamidi, the dominating Venetian castle towering over the town. You can drive up from the back of the cliff or walk up the 857(!) steps.
Discover an Ancient Treasure Trove
The most important findings from excavations around Greece are held at the National Archaeological Museum, and sometimes it feels like there is not enough space for everything to be displayed in its full splendor. Still, this is the most important museum to visit when in Athens, and you will need to spend at least half a day here to appreciate the findings, especially the Mycenean collection, the Kouroi, and the Poseidon of Artemision (although it is very difficult to prioritize any of the displays). Hire a guide to help you navigate its maze of rooms.
INSIDER TIPA refreshment at the museum’s leafy garden cafe will provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Athens.
Climb the Mountain of the Gods
WHERE: Mt. Olympus, Macedonia
The tallest mountain of Greece (2,918 meters) set the stage for the trials and tribulations of the twelve Olympian Gods. In order to worship Zeus, an impressive sanctuary was set up at Dion, at the foot of the mountain, where a good-sized city sprung up in Hellenistic times. The mountain itself is an impressive body of rock, which boasts numerous trails, eateries serving hearty soups and tasty game dishes, and some small but inviting waterfalls.
INSIDER TIPMount Olympus is host to 5 popular trail runs of variable distances (from 22 to 100 kilometers). After the races, runners recover at nearby Litochoro beach.
Stay and Play in Party Town
WHERE: Thessaloniki, Macedonia
The second largest city in Greece is so much more than a getaway stop on the way to the beach towns of Halkidiki and the monasteries of Mount Athos. A vibrant party city with a multicultural history, Thessaloniki has some of the best nightlife in Greece, while in the daytime, a walk along the promenade of Thermaikos, a visit to the Archaeological Museum (with the marvelous golden treasures from the Royal Tombs of Vergina), and an eastern-spiced meal in the Old Town will lure you into extending your stay.
INSIDER TIPThessaloniki loves cinema. The International Film Festival takes place in November every year, and in March, the Documentary Film Festival takes over.
Indulge in Low-Key Elegance
WHERE: Folegandros, Cyclades
With one of the prettiest towns in Greece, Folegandros is the archetypal Cycladic island. Rocky and tiny, it has 20 kilometers of scenic paths that wind through the beautiful windswept clifftop city of Chora before continuing on to Stavros, Xristos, Fira, and Agkali. Still largely untouched by tourism, it has however been coined as the “new” Santorini. Now is the perfect time to roam about its slate-paved streets and take in the infinite views beyond the whitewashed cubic houses and blue church domes.
INSIDER TIPWith Chora high up on the rock, you will need a way to reach the beaches every day. There are buses that make the 2-3 kilometer trek, and mules are still widely used as a means of transport.
Keep the Olympic Flame Alive
WHERE: Olympia, Peloponnese
Olympia is a must-do day trip when touring the Peloponnese. This important sanctuary was the only one in Greece initially dedicated to Zeus and is forever associated with the Olympic Games. To this day, the flame of every modern Olympics is lit in the Temple of Hera before making its long journey around the world. Walking around the tranquil site surrounded by pine trees and olive groves, you’ll get a glimpse into the lives of ancient heroes and feel inspired by their sportsmanship.
INSIDER TIPDevote a couple of hours to walking around the site and taking in the topography before visiting the Archaeological museum to the north of the excavation.
Party Like a Jet-Setter
WHERE: Mykonos, Cyclades
Greece’s most famous island is the quintessential party paradise that attracts an impressive number of A-list celebrities and jet-setters. The picture postcard views of the Chora, the luxurious hotels with infinity pools, the high-end boutiques and beach clubs, and the clubs that blast music through the night prove that Mykonos lives up to its name. There’s a quieter side to the island, but in the summer months you need to look hard to find it; visit the more traditional settlements like Ano Mera and its monastery.
INSIDER TIPThe northern beaches (Kapari, Choulakia, Mirsini) may be more exposed to the winds but are also more secluded and unspoiled by tourism. Some, like Fokos, are accessible by dirt roads.
Go Back in Time on a Magical Island
WHERE: Delos, Cyclades
Just a short boat ride away from the party world of Mykonos lies a tiny abandoned island that is in its entirety an archaeological site, still echoing a magical place in ancient Greek civilization. Delos was the birthplace of handsome Apollo, a religious sanctuary, the center of the Delian League, the geographic center of the Cyclades, and a safe port for incoming vessels. Today, Delos makes for an unforgettable and somewhat introspective discovery; just don’t forget your sunglasses!
INSIDER TIPThe actual archaeological site has limited visiting hours from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays and Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. other days of the week.
Step Back to the Middle Ages
WHERE: Monemvasia, Peloponese
Enter this rock-island fortress town from its unique single entrance (moni emvasia, according to the Byzantines) and you are suddenly transported five centuries back in time to the clashes between the Byzantine empire and the Franks. This is a cozy town where everything still needs to be brought in through the gate via donkeys, while the narrow alleyways, restored buildings, old ruins, and dramatic views across the bay will ignite your imagination.
INSIDER TIPStay inside the fortress walls for added romance and magic. And don’t forget to visit the nearby Kastania cave.
Explore Out-of-This-World Rock Formations
WHERE: Meteora, Thessaly
There is something supernatural about the sandstone formations of Meteora. Here, majestic geological forces and the determination of the human spirit combined to create monasteries nestled on top of these impressive rocks. The rock formations were created about 60 million years ago as the seabed was pushed upwards and weathered by water, winds, and temperature changes. Perhaps the best way to take in the rocks’ ethereal and dramatic beauty is by hiking, especially at sunset, and rock-climbing (for the more adventurous types).
INSIDER TIPThere are 6 monasteries to visit for a small entrance fee. Dress modestly and take note that photos and videos may not be allowed inside the churches.
Get Lost in a Medieval Maze
WHERE: Rhodes, Dodecanese
The oldest populated Medieval town in the world draws you into its maze-like nameless streets with beautifully restored buildings and cobbled, traffic-free paths. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is striking even from first glance, as it’s surrounded by impressive fortified walls and a moat. A visit to the Palace of the Grandmaster, the Knights of St John Hospital, and the Street of Knights can be combined with more traditional tourist endeavors like fine dining and souvenir shopping. It’s like walking into a film set, only it’s real.
INSIDER TIPΤhe Rhodes Jewish Museum is attached to the Old Town’s ancient synagogue and is very informative on all aspects of Jewish life on the island.
Find Your Perfect Beach
With 8,498 miles of coastline, you are never too far away from a pristine beach in Greece. In fact, 380 of Greece’s beaches boast Blue Flag status for their cleanliness. Greeks spend plenty of time at the seaside to escape the summer heat and their social life in the hotter months is closely intertwined with beach activities. Follow the locals to the more popular seafronts or hire a boat to discover your own private bay.
Discover a Spiritual World
Thousands of churches, chapels, and monasteries are scattered throughout Greece, sometimes in the most unusual of places: on top of mountains, on rugged slopes, or next to winding roads. Some of them have an architectural interest (such as the blue and white domes of the Cycladic churches), while some are highly sought-after wedding destinations. However, they all attest to the Greeks’ deeply religious spirit and their historical connection to the roots of Orthodox Christianity. The Greek Easter and the Assumption of Mary are the two biggest celebrations in the Greek Orthodox calendar.
INSIDER TIPDress conservatively with covered legs and shoulders when entering a Greek church or monastery. Sometimes long skirts are provided at the entrance.
Embrace the Italianate Lifestyle
WHERE: Corfu, Ionian islands
Corfu’s lush green slopes, protected coves, and mild climate first lured Ulysses, followed by a string of Byzantine, Venetian, and British settlers (including the literary Durrells). Corfu has not escaped the wave of tourism development unscathed, but there are some pretty attractions to be seen here, including the Old Town, the Achilleion Summer Palace, and the islet of Pontikonisi. Canal d’Amour beach between Sidari and Peroulades can get busy but is a fun place to go swimming and diving amongst lunar rock formations and aqua green underwater caves.
INSIDER TIPHire a boat to appreciate Corfu’s winding coastline and waterside tavernas that are only approachable by sea.
Leave Your Car Behind
WHERE: Hydra, Saronic Islands
Whether you visit Hydra as part of a cruise trip or on a swift two-hour catamaran from Piraeus, the approach to the harbor is spectacular as the crescent-shaped hilly settlement is slowly revealed. Life on tiny Hydra follows a relaxed, slow pace with refreshing dives from the rocks of Hydronetta and tasty meals on the seafront. Venture out for a walk along Hydra’s windswept paths, where you’ll be in awe of the simple beauty of this island.
INSIDER TIPJewelry designer Elena Votsi (who designed the medals for the Athens and the Rio Olympics) hails from Hydra. Look out for her shop on a side street leading away from the harbor.
Visit a Holy Island
WHERE: Patmos, the Dodecanese
It is not easy to get to Patmos, as there is no airport and the fastest connection to the mainland takes about seven hours. However, once you get here, you’ll immediately sense the serenity, sophisticated vibe, and relaxed change of pace that makes the island so attractive to its loyal repeat visitors. Must-sees include the monastery of the Apocalypse where St John wrote the Revelation in 95 A.D., the aristocratic mansion houses of the Chora, and the wonderful sunset views across the island.
INSIDER TIPIt is a 25-minute walk (flip-flops are not ideal) from Diakofti village to Psili Ammos beach where you’ll find fine golden sand and a small tavern offering a very tasty goat in tomato sauce dish. If you don’t feel like walking, you can take the boat from Skala.
Enter Warrior Country
WHERE: Mani, the Peloponnese
Countless stone towers, seven fortresses, Byzantine churches, archaeological sites, and 98 traditional and historical protected villages are scattered throughout Mani. This is the land of warriors, where many Greek heroes hail from. The barren land, the difficult living conditions (especially the lack of drinking water), the isolation, the strict social norms, and the high ethics have made Maniots a proud people. A road trip or walking expedition around Mani, Areopoli, Gytheio, Oitylo, and Stoupa will attest to their heroic heritage.
INSIDER TIPSpilaia Dirou, one of the most beautiful caves in the world, is located on the west coast of the peninsula. Visitors can explore about 1.2 kilometers of the cave by boat.
Visit With an Oracle
It was determined that Delphi was the cradle of the world when Zeus let two eagles fly from the ends of the world and the sacred birds met here. Then came Pythia and her oracles, which were only relayed on the 7th day of the month and deeply influenced the fate of the ancient world. The Delphic sanctuary today has one of the highest concentrations of ancient ruins in the world (and a wonderful museum) and is easily accessed from Athens on a day trip.
INSIDER TIPIn the spring, the wild poppies that blossom on the hills of mount Parnassus make the walk along the Sacred Way even more spectacular, while the climb is much easier in the cooler spring weather.