A visit to Greece can be very rewarding because there are so many different things to do. Whether you're interested in touring the headline attractions, exploring fascinating cities, island hopping or just loafing on a beautiful beach, you'll find more than enough to do in this beautiful and ancient country.
Explore the Acropolis
It doesn't matter how many times you've seen pictures of the Parthenon, climbing up to see it is an unforgettable experience. It may be crowded with other tourists but the experience will still be all your own. Bring water—it's hot at the top, but the climb is through cool woods. On the way up, stop to see the Ancient Theatre of Dionysus, the oldest surviving theater in the world. On top, enjoy the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion—famous for the six maidens that support its roof—and the breathtaking views of Athens. Afterward, cool off in the New Acropolis Museum where the Acropolis discoveries of thousands of years, and cast copies of the Parthenon Frieze, are kept.
The highest of Athens' seven hills is twice as high as the Acropolis. A climb up rewards you with panoramic views of all of Athens' main landmarks (bring along a tourist map to pick them out). It's covered with interesting desert flora and fauna. Be on the lookout for 65 different varieties of birds and giant tortoises lurking in the shade. They are unique (in Athens) to this hill. The climb from the bottom is easy but long, with flights of steps through residential areas like Kolonaki. You can cut out that part by taking the funicular almost all the way up from a bus stop at the bottom but you'll miss the gradually unfurling view.
Explore Anafiotika in Plaka
Many visitors explore Athens' famous Plaka—a touristy area on the eastern slopes of the Acropolis—but few find their way to Anafiotika, a distinctive neighborhood within the neighborhood. Press upward, past the tavernas and the shops selling tourist goods to find a little village of boxy, whitewashed cottages straight out of the Cyclades. It was built in the 19th century, at the very top of Plaka, by settlers from the island of Anafi. They came to Athens for work and recreated their Cycladic island homes in the heart of the city. Its streets are narrow winding staircases and walking up them is like peering into someone's back garden. Persevere and you'll end up near the entrance to the Acropolis.
Shop in Monastiraki
Athens' flea market is enormous with as many stalls selling junk as those hawking interesting finds. But if you are visiting Athens, Monastiraki has a fun, buzzy atmosphere and is worth a visit. Try to find your way to Avissinia Square, a small, cool corner of the market with a cafe that has entertainment and interesting merchants. Even if you don't buy anything, the opportunities for banter with the locals and Instagram-worthy photos are plenty.
Stroll Around the Ancient Agora and Consider Democracy in the Stoa of Attalos
Below and northeast of the Acropolis, Athens' Ancient Agora is a partially wooded area, laced with paths and studded with the ruins of the city's ancient meeting and market place. This is where the issues of the day were debated and voting on the leader took place. In the Stoa of Attalos, an impressive museum of the archaeology of the site, you can see ostraka, broken shards of pottery that were used to expel a citizen (usually a leader who had fallen out of favor) from Athens for 10 years. The word ostracism derives from this practice. The other major monument in the Ancient Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus, near the top. Water isn't available on this site, so bring your own. If you aren't planning to find your way down to the agora from the Acropolis, the nearest Athens Metro station is Thisseio.
Travel Back in Time at the National Archaeological Museum
This museum, one of the truly great museums of the world, houses finds from all over Greece and from every period of known Greek history. There's the golden mask of Agamemnon, found in Mycenae and named for the legendary king who was led Greek forces in the Trojan War and whose sacrifice of his daughter led to one of the great family tragedies of Greek mythology and drama - matricide, fratricide, you name it. Among the 11,000 items are some of the most famous ancient objects ever found, including an iconic bronze of Zeus poised to throw a thunderbolt and the mounted figure of a boy jockey full of passion and excitement. Look for the Antikythera Mechanism, a mysterious and beautifully-crafted apparently mathematical object. Scientists still don't know what it's for. This museum is a little bit off the beaten path, a 10-minute walk from Viktoria Metro station, but absolutely worth a visit.
See the Acropolis at Night
The Acropolis is floodlit after dark and seeing it then is yet another memorable Athens experience. Find a place with an unobstructed view to spend your evening—a rooftop restaurant for dinner or a bar with a rooftop terrace—and you won't be disappointed. The GB Roof Garden Bar on the eighth floor of the Hotel Grande Bretagne or the Galaxy Bar on the 13th floor of the Athens Hilton are both good spots for an (expensive) drink with a view. There are actually dozens of bars atop most of the better hotels. For a less expensive option with a great atmosphere, good reasonably priced food, live music and a terrific view of the Acropolis at night book a first (top) floor table at Cafe Avissinia in Monastiraki.
Watch a Greek Goldsmith in Action
Ilias Lalaounis was Greece's most famous jeweler, as important in Greece as Cartier in Paris or Faberge in the Russian Imperial Court. He designed jewelry for the wealthy, for royalty, and for movie stars. His designs were given as gifts of state and some of them appeared in famous films.
His former workshop is now a little jewel of a museum where you can have a close look at some of his most important jewelry pieces (often on loan from the owners) and get a behind the scenes look at how various items were designed and made. In a workshop on the ground floor, you can watch a goldsmith work using traditional Greek techniques, some of which are unchanged since classical times.
Visit Apollo's Oracle at Delphi
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi is worth a special trip. As one of the most important sites of ancient Greece, plan on spending a whole day visiting this massive sacred site dedicated to the sun god. Apollo's temple is on the southwestern slopes of Mount Parnassus; above it, an amphitheater and ancient stadium, below it, dozens of "treasuries" where all the ancient Greek states left tribute. Even further down, the Valley of Phocis is filled with a deep green river of millions of olive trees that spread and plunge from the mountains toward the sea. They still harvest Kalamata olives in Apollo's groves as they have done for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years.This was where Apollo spoke in prophesy and riddles through the voice of the Pythia—the Delphic Oracle—and the fate of the ancient world was shaped.
Look for the Ghost of Helen of Troy at Agamemnon's Palace in Mycenae
Located on the Argolis peninsula, about an hour and a half west of Athens, the ancient palace of Mycenae has always been associated with the semi-mythical King Agamemnon and his murderous children Electra and Orestes - not to mention his unfaithful sister-in-law, Helen of Troy. The castle dates from between 1350 and 1200 B.C. and was the center of a Late Bronze Age kingdom with a population of about 30,000. Today you can explore the ruins and enjoy views of the whole of the Argolis, all the way to the sea. The site has a good museum to put it all in context, with some remarkable ceramics found there.
Project Your Voice at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus
The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the best-preserved ancient Greek theater in the world. It's famous for its size—with a seating capacity of 14,000—its acoustics and for the fact that it remained untouched by the Romans. Check out the acoustics by standing on the center stone in the perfectly circular orchestra pit and whispering to a friend in the top row.
The theater was part of a shrine to Aesculapius (the Greek god of medicine). The shrine was an ancient holistic healing center—a sort of Hellenic spa. The Greeks believed that the arts were necessary for good health. The theater is in the Argolis, about a half-hour drive from the Venetian town of Nafplio or 2 hours from Athens.
Olympia, in the northwest Peloponnese, was the site of the original Olympic Games, held in the 8th century B.C. Dedicated to Zeus and Hera, it was the most important Panhellenic gathering place for religious observances through sport. The site today has a museum, the remains of several temples, training areas, and a running track with its stone starting blocks still in place—so you can have a go at the 100 meters yourself. The Olympic Flame of the modern Olympics starts its worldwide relay by being lit at Olympia.
Pick Olives in the Peloponnese
Visit Greece in the late fall, October to November, and you might be lucky enough to witness or even take part in an olive harvest. There are more olive trees—both cultivated and wild—in Greece than maple trees in Vermont. Some of these trees have been producing olives for hundreds of years. In the southern Peloponnese, Eumelia Organic Farm invites guests to join its harvest and learn about cooking with olive oil. If you happen to be in the olive-growing regions of Greece during the harvest period, ask the locals or check with the nearest tourist information office about harvest festivals.
Mount Olympus, in northeast Greece, is the traditional home of Zeus and the major Greek gods. The mountain is the highest in Greece, rising almost straight from the Aegean Sea to a height of 9,570 feet (2,917 meters). In 1938, the mountain and nearby surrounding areas became the first Greek National Park. Today, its lower slopes, broken by narrow, densely forested gorges with waterfalls and caves, are popular with visitors looking to see the park's exceptional biodiversity. There are 1,700 plant species, 32 species of mammals, and 108 species of birds on the mountain. The mountain is difficult to reach from Athens but makes an interesting side trip from Thessaloniki if you are touring Macedonian Greece.
Head for Thessaloniki, in the northeast. This Macedonian city on the Aegean is rapidly becoming one of the hippest destinations in Greece with a lively foodie scene and one festival after another. Besides film and music festivals there are several quirky celebrations like theStreet Mode Festival, which adds parkour, free riding, and other street sports to its giant music party mix. Reworks is five days of music and intellectual discussion, with genres ranging from electronica, dance music to classical, and experimental.
Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Thessaloniki
For centuries, Thessaloniki was the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire. It was a crossroads of cultures and particularly important to early Medieval Christianity. The traces of this history remain on the cityscape and there are 15 buildings and monuments included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessalonika. They range from the 4th century city walls and the Rotunda of St. George, pictured here, to a 14th century Byzantine bathhouse, right in the middle of the city's commercial district.
Climb the White Tower
The 112-foot White Tower, in its commanding position on Thessaloniki's waterfront, is the symbol of the city. It was built by the Ottomans in the 15th century to replace a Byzantine tower that stood at one end of the city's fortified wall. Over the years it has served as a garrison, a fortress, a prison, and a place of execution. In fact, at one time it was called the Bloody Tower because it's walls were stained red with condemned prisoner's blood. Visitors who climb to the top for the fabulous Aegean views, learn all about it's history on the way up.
Discover the Birthplace of Alexander the Great
Macedonia, in Northeast Greece, is the homeland Alexander the Great and monuments to his military accomplishments are scattered all over the place. Pella, about a 50-minute drive from Thessaloniki, was the capital of ancient Macedonia and Alexander's actual birthplace. The remains of the royal court, with its colonnades and distinctive pebble mosaics, cover about 10 city blocks. The agora was the biggest in the ancient world and included shops, workshops, administration offices, and the city’s hall of historical records. Among the extensive ruins, a two-story house indicates the city's wealth and the Archaeological Museum of Pella brings the city's little known story to life.
Learn about Thessaloniki's Jewish Heritage
Thessaloniki was one of the most important Jewish settlements in Europe. Ninety-six percent of its Jewish population was wiped out in the Holocaust but the traces of thousands of years of heritage remain. Visit the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki to learn about the architecture of "Salonika" and the Jewish Necropolis that dates from the Ottoman period. The city has put together a 10 stop tour that includes homes, synagogues, Holocaust landmarks, and even the famous Modiano Market, based on designs by Jewish architect Eli Modiano.
Find the Minoans in Knossos
If you only make one island stop while you are visiting Greece, head for Crete and to the remarkable ruins of Knossos. Knossos was the center of the Minoan civilization and may be the oldest surviving city in Europe. There are Bronze Age, and even Stone Age, remains. The excavated palace is almost a village in itself with 1,000 interconnected rooms. The site was excavated in the early 20th century by British Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. Some of what you can see there may be imaginative reconstruction but this is still one of the wonders of the ancient world and not to be missed.