If your idea of a Greek vacation is an island escape—all blue skies, limpid seas and white sand beaches, with the odd, sun-bleached marble ruin thrown in for a hint of culture—it's time to take another look. Fascinating cities are scattered across Greece, and you'd be surprised at what you can discover.
Athens is an obvious first choice for vacationers heading to Greece. Its airport is usually the first stop for Northern European and North American visitors heading for the islands. And maybe they take a whistle stop tour of the Acropolis and the neighborhood known as the Plaka before sailing or flying off for their sun and sand break.
But Athens is really worth exploring for at least a few days. After you've seen the Acropolis and the Ancient Forum, enjoy the cafe culture of Kolonaki, Thissio, or Makrygianni near the New Acropolis Museum. Explore the terrific street art in Psyrri. Sample some of the top modern cuisine in Europe. Climb Lycabettus Hill for the best views of the city. And that's just scratching the surface—Athens will surprise you, and you might just fall in love with it.
Greece's second largest city is a disorienting blend of old and new. Compact and set around a beautiful, curving waterfront, it is the gateway to Macedonia and Alexander the Great country. The whole city is an UNESCO site, listed as an Open Museum of Early Christian and Byzantine Art. You can spend your time there exploring the 15 different buildings and sites that chart the transition from Roman through early Byzantine Christian times and also the Ottoman occupation. The city's symbol, The White Tower, pictured here, originated as a 15th century Ottoman fortification.
Or, you can ditch the past completely and dive into Thessaloniki's youth culture. This is a university city with a lively nightlife and live music scene, a reputation for great street food, and an extraordinary range of festivals. There's an international film festival, several music festivals, celebrations of Greek culture, and a festival of European street entertainment.
Pireaus, widely known as the port of Athens, may be on the Athens Metro and only 12 miles from the center of that city, but it is one of Greece's major cities in its own right. Visit to explore streets that were originally laid out in the 5th century B.C.—that's when Themistocles, a politician in the early years of Athenian democracy, chose it to be a major port for the city state. Today, there are three ports.
The central port is the main ferry and industrial port, and you might spot some of the city's most ancient walled-fortifications, at Freatida.
If looking at some of the most fabulous yachts in the world is your thing (and we are talking fabulous—just think of all those legendary Greek shipping billionaires), head for the Zea Marina area. It's good for cafes, bars, restaurants, and high-end shopping, too. There's an archaeological museum with objects found in the harbor, including several massive bronze statues, and next to it, the Ancient Theatre of Zea, dating from the 4th century B.C. Mikrolimano is the place to see fishing boats and small sailing yachts and to eat the freshest fish in the area.
Head up to Kastella to see picturesque houses with great views or explore 3,000 years of Greek maritime history in the Hellenic Maritime Museum, the largest in Greece, though surprisingly small.
You are unlikely to make a special trip here, but coordinating your flights into Greece with the departure of your island ferry can leave you with a lot of time to kill in this port city. Instead of thinking of it as an inconvenience, plan on it and enjoy the surprising pleasures Piraeus has to offer.
Kalamata spreads her arms around the Gulf of Messina in the southwestern corner of the Peloponnese. And yes, this is the region that produces those fat purple olives of the same name. But there is a lot more to discover.
A small archaeological museum was created in the city's marketplace in the mid-1980s after an earthquake destroyed the market building. The finds from the local area include rare antiquities and jewelry from an ancient Mycenaen tomb, the ancient and legendary period of heroes, Helen of Troy and the Trojan War.
Before relaxing at one of the many bars and cafes along Navarinou on the seafront, head for the center of the old town to Pl.23 Martiou—or 23rd of March Square—to discover the birthplace of the modern Greek republic. Kalamata was the first city to be liberated from the Ottoman Turks in the Greek War of Independence. The Greek Declaration of Independence was signed in the 11th century Church of the Holy Apostles in the center of this square. Amfias Street is lined with comfortable tavernas and cafes. While you are in Kalamata, try to fine some lalagia to dip in your strong Greek coffee. These strips of fried dough, flavored with orange zest and cinnamon, are a local speciality.
Patras, Greece's third largest city is a busy port handling much of Greece's trade with Italy and Western Europe. It is also a university town with two free universities and a big student population. The nightlife, as you might guess, is pretty buzzy.
The city wears its four millennia of history almost casually, but wander around and climb the many grand staircases to the upper town, and there is plenty to see, such as a Roman theater that still hosts performances Byzantine churches and Venetian-style homes. Starting as a Mycenaen settlement, Patras has lived through a Hellenic and Roman period to Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman. It was one of the first cities to join the Greek War of Independence; the revolutionary soldiers besieged the Ottoman garrison for nearly eight years before it fell in 1828.
But you'll find history just about everywhere in Greece. Visit instead for the Carnival, Patrino karnavali, in February. They've been celebrating it for 180 years. It is one of the largest carnivals in Europe, and it seems to last forever.
And just outside of Patras, visit one of the wonders of modern Greece: the Rio - Antirrio Bridge, opened in 2004, which connects the Northwestern corner of the Peloponnese with the rest of mainland Greece across the Gulf of Patras. At nearly three kilometers, it is one of the longest multi-span, cable-stay bridges in the world. It has a walkway and visitor center and welcomes pedestrians.
Crete is the biggest of the Greek islands, and unlike the others that have one or two large, main towns, Crete actually has three cities. The largest of these and the island capital is Heraklion. It has a Venetian harbor for fishing boats and yachts overlooked by a Venetian fortress, Rocca a Mare, as well as a ferry port and several large commercial docks. Just to make things confusing, the fortress is also known by its Turkish name, Koules and by its original Venetian name, Castello de la Mare.
This is a busy, workaday city. It's where Crete's international airport is located, so it is usually the first place visitors see. And it's a bit of a shock. First-time visitors unaccustomed to the architecture of the Eastern Mediterranean may be surprised by how unlovely and dirty it seems. But Heraklion has a lot to see, and it requires a bit of patience.
- It was the home of Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece's leading literary figure of the 20th century, author of Zorba the Greek and the Last Temptation of Christ as well as the birthplace of El Greco
- The Historical Museum of Crete is beside the Venetian harbor and charts the history of the various civilizations that occupied this island.
- The Natural History Museum is a great family attraction with such child-pleasing features such as dinosaurs and an earthquake simulator.
- The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is the oldest and probably the most famous museums in Greece, as well as one of the greatest archaeology museums in the world. That's because it holds most of the existing artifacts of the Minoan civilization, uncovered on Crete at Knossos and Phaistos. It's a must visit, just for the Minoan frescoes alone. Heraklion is the closest Cretan city of Knossos, about a half hour's drive away.
Chania is Crete's second largest city and completely different in character from Heraklion. It's Venetian harbour is utterly charming, and its streets are lined with brightly painted houses. This is a lovely small city to walk and browse. There are good shops, plenty of restaurants and tavernas, and several luxury hotels.
Like the two other cities on Crete, it has its own Venetian fortress, known as the Firka, which now houses the National Maritime Museum, which houses a display of ancient and modern ship-building along the sea wall. And most people grab a selfie near Chania's Instagram-ready 16th-century Venetian lighthouse. It is not only picturesque, but also one of the oldest working lighthouses in the world.
Chania's old town is lined with narrow, cobbled streets just aching to be explored. And when you need to get away from it all, Crete's most famous hike, Samaria Gorge, starts just a few kilometers outside of town.
Rethymno, on the north coast of Crete, about halfway between Heraklion and Chania, is another of the island's Venetian gems. Its old Venetian harbor is tiny and lined with restaurants, bars, and shops that light up the water at night. It has a rather substantial mosque, the Neratze Mosque, now used as a music center. This is an impressive, multi-domed remnant of Ottoman occupation, complete with a dramatic minaret. The Venetian fortress here, called the Fortezza, was created as a citadel to protect all the residents of the city during the Ottoman-Venetian wars. It was never big enough for that, so walled fortifications were created on the landward side of the city. The Ottomans did eventually and briefly occupy this irregularly shaped citadel, but other than converting a small church into a mosque, they left little evidence of themselves within it.
Rethymno is the place to go if you are looking for urban pleasures such as shopping, restaurants, bars, museums, and galleries alongside a tropical beach vacation. Crete's longest beach stretches for 12 miles to the east of the city.
If it's shopping you are after, move away from the waterfront and old town, which are heavy on souvenir shops, and head for Dimakopoulou Street and the area around the Museum of Contemporary Art of Crete.