11 things I wish I knew before visiting Greece
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When it comes to deciding where to go next, Greece is a usually a slam dunk. Whether it’s a beachy island getaway you’re after or an Athens (or perhaps Thessaloniki) city break that blends sightseeing by day with ouzo gulping by night, the mythic Mediterranean country ticks all the right boxes for classic holidays but wait — there’s more. Lots more.
Landing in Athens is the easy bit, but once you’re on terra firma you’ll find yourself immersed in both an epic history and some rather iconic landscapes, too. How you navigate this richness is largely up to you, but the more you know before you go, the more capably you can decode all those big fat Greek travel mysteries. Keep the following things in mind to help you steer clear of the cliches and make the most out of your experiences in Greece.
1. Don’t just make the Acropolis in Athens your priority
Making the Acropolis the focus of a jaunt to Athens is like making a trip to Paris about visiting the Eiffel Tower — so don’t do it. Instead, do like the Athenians do and drink in views of the sacred rock from any number of rooftop bars and restaurants in the vicinity, or better yet wake up to a view of it from your hotel room. And the best views of Athens as a whole are actually from the top of Mount Lycavittos anyway (take the funicular in the Kolonaki neighborhood to the top).
Dodge the tourist crowds marching up to the Parthenon and instead inspect the arguably more evocative ruins at the foot of the Acropolis in the ancient agora area. I’d also suggest skipping the Acropolis Museum (which as long as the Parthenon marbles remain in London is actually not so blasphemous) and diverting your cultural hours to the National Archaeological Museum across town. It’s a bit fusty but still the best museum in Greece. Essential smaller museums include the Benaki Museum and Museum of Cycladic Art, both of which blend ancient artifacts with excellent contemporary exhibitions. If you fancy a Picasso or Van Gogh fix, the brand new Goulandris museum is a must.
2. Don’t just feast on gyro
I’ve seen this over and over (and over) again: tourists who enjoy a hearty international-style buffet breakfast at their hotel and then opt for a gyro or souvlaki platter for lunch and then again for dinner. Don’t get me wrong, authentic Greek gyros are pretty scrumptious and at about three euros each are fiscally attractive dining options too. But Greek gastronomy is more diverse than that and experiencing at least some of it can be a highlight of your trip.
To savour a Greek breakfast staple you’ll almost never find at a hotel buffet, try strapatsada, a delectable dish made with eggs (usually scrambled), feta cheese, fresh tomato sauce and a dash of olive oil. One of the best is served at the restaurant of the Acropolis Museum (you don’t have to pay for museum admission to eat at the restaurant). For the best seafood, shun the touristy tavernas around the Plaka and head instead to Piraeus, where the seafood is generally cheaper, fresher and comes with sea views, too. Vegan restaurants are also taking off, particularly in Athens.
3. Find your nearest laiki
The spirit of ancient Greece lives on in the weekly laiki, or outdoor fruit and vegetable market that takes place rain or shine throughout the year on Fridays. A visit to a laiki is a great way to get an eyeful and taste of nature’s bounty for which Greece is justly famous for. Every neighbourhood in Athens has its own laiki and some are bigger and better than others. One of the best is in Pagrati, on Archimidous Street right behind the Panathenaic Stadium (the world’s only stadium built entirely of marble). Besides organic produce you’ll find plenty of traditional comestibles like extra virgin olive oil, halva and honey for sale.
4. Greece isn’t just for the summer months
One of the greatest Greek myths is that the many islands are strictly for summertime escapes, but that’s far from the case. True, many islands rock their Greek summer vibes best in the peak months of July and August (the months that also pull the most crowds), but swimming season heats up as early as May and in many places doesn’t wind down until November. Little islands near Athens like Hydra and Spetses are worth visiting even in winter and big islands like Crete have plenty of cultural attractions and historic sites to keep you busy throughout the year.
5. Don’t take a three-island day cruise
When you are in the Piraeus port you’ll see many advertisements for three-island cruises that promise you a mini-odyssey to a trio of islands close to Athens. Generally these are Aegina, Hydra and Poros. Focus on one island instead. Packing three islands into a single day trip is something that Greeks themselves would never do, it diminishes both the quantity and quality of your time. If you are really into ancient ruins, spend time on Aegina. For dramatic scenery, Hydra’s the spot. Amongst all the islands within an easy ferry journey from Athens/Piraeus, Poros easily qualifies as the quiet charmer where you could linger for hours over Greek coffees and delightful harbour views.
6. Greek islands aren’t just for hitting the beach
Greece has some 6,000 islands, of which about 227 are inhabited. That represents a lot of geographical diversity. Some islands have gorgeous beaches — think Mykonos, Kefalonia and Corfu — while others have a mix of decent beaches and landscapes that offer up the possibility of more varied activities. Kalymnos is the place for rock climbing and bouldering, Paros is ideal for windsurfing and kite surfing, Sifnos and Tinos (and to a certain extent Santorini) are much favoured by foodies and so forth. The shoulder season, April to June and also October, is often ideal for these beyond-the-beach pursuits.
7. Skipping Santorini is not a sin
Two essential Santorini travel facts: the first is that yes, it’s a geologically unique island and the second is that yes, you should probably also skip it. How dare I? Well, due to far too many cruise ships disgorging way too many people onto such a small place, the wisp of an island has degenerated into a sort of hyper-sanitised Selfie Island and really, how much fun is that? The views over the volcanic caldera are cool as are the Minoan ruins at Akrotiri but the beaches aren’t great and the good hotels and restaurants tend to be overpriced.
So check it out if you must — and seasonal non-stops from Heathrow to Santorini can be an enticement — but make sure you avoid the months of June, July, August and now all of September too. Other Aegean islands beckon with their own brand of gorgeousness, whether that be breezy Andros, volcanic Milos and myriad others.
8. You should visit Greece during Easter
Greeks celebrate Easter with a fervour most Europeans reserve for Christmas — and the enthusiasm has a distinctly non-commercial flavour at that. The Greek Orthodox Church still holds sway over many aspects of contemporary Greek life and Easter week is when some of the more celebratory aspects really kick in, with all manner of feasts and public processions that begin on Palm Sunday and vary from location to location but that are particularly colourful on islands like Corfu. In 2020, Greek Easter falls on Sunday 19 April.
9. Think of Crete as a separate country
Because in many respects it is. Starting with size: Crete is 160 miles from one end to the other and is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. That means it’s difficult to see it all in a single take, nor should you try. The landscapes are stunningly varied and unlike the more stereotypical Greek island getaways the Cretan economy is not wholly dependent on tourism: historic cities like Heraklion and Chania also have a youthful vibrancy that’s hard to resist.
There are numerous non-stop flights from Crete’s two major airports in Heraklion and Chania to London airports in the peak summer season and year-round connections from Athens. From Athens/Piraeus there are also daily ferry departures, they typically leave around 9:00 p.m. and arrive in Crete at 6:00 a.m. While these ferries resemble small cruise ships with plenty of seating options (including cabins), a flight on Aegean will you get from Athens to Crete in just about an hour.
10. Remember the mainland
Greece is more than Athens and the islands. The region of which Athens is a part, Attica, is home to some of the most important sites in antiquity from Marathon to Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon. South and east of the Greek capital, the Peloponnese offers a dramatically chiselled coastline and plenty of historical gems too, like the city of Nafplion — the first capital of Greece — and the remarkable fortress isle of Monemvasia. The northern city of Thessaloniki, named after Alexander the Great’s half-sister, is worth a detour for its history, museums and excellent restaurants.
11. You needn’t spend a fortune to have a blast in Mykonos
Stick around Greece for any length of time and you’re bound to hear Greeks bemoan how Mykonos has become an enclave affordable only for the likes of Arab princes and their consorts (who may or may not include Lindsay Lohan). While there is some truth to that, don’t let it put you off a visit because the cosmopolitan Mykonos vibe is something you won’t find anywhere else. The small Cycladic island has some of the best beaches, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs in the Mediterranean. July and August are the months to avoid, but if you can manage to hit Mykonos in June or September, you’ll probably have a great time and without necessarily breaking the bank.
Greece is a country with attractions that are so iconic everybody thinks they already know the place and to varying degrees maybe they do, but not unlike Madonna, there is a lot more to her than meets the eye. It’s when you avoid insisting on the cliches — you probably don’t need a whole day to snap selfies at the Acropolis or an overpriced seafood lunch in the touristy center of Mykonos town — that the colours of Greece really begin to reveal themselves. And if you can avoid those peak crowded months of July (especially the second half) and August you’ll very likely have a better holiday experience in Greece overall.
Featured image by The Points Guy/Anthony Grant