Your Trip to Greece: The Complete Guide

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A visit to Greece can be a dream vacation as long as you know what your dream really is and plan for it. The country's beautiful beaches and world-famous archaeological sites are just two (of many!) reasons to visit Greece. But whatever your reason, use this guide to learn more about the various regions of Greece, how to travel around the country and what to expect of Greece's food, culture, and sights.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: Spring and early fall are the best times to visit when there are fewer tourists but the sea is still warm and the weather fine for outdoor activities.

Language: Greek. English is spoken in the cities and areas popular with visitors.

Currency: Euro (€)

Getting Around: Train service in Greece is limited. An exception is the InterCity Network run by TrainOSE that connects Athens to Thessaloniki and several other cities. Buses, including both local and intercity services, are run by regional cooperatives known as KTEL. The services are not nationally coordinated, so you need to look up KTEL for the region you plan to visit. This KTEL Macedonia website (covering the area around Thessaloniki) is typical. Athens and Thessaloniki have local and suburban public transportation systems. Athen's Metro (expanded for the Olympics) is particularly good, cheap, and clean. Hundreds of Ferries connect the mainland to the islands and mainland coastal ports to each other. Private companies run the ferries, and there is no nationwide timetable. Save time and money by using the services of a Greek travel agent to book ferries and for information about buses and trains. Greek websites on these subjects are not well developed for international travelers, but agents are common in ports and city centers.

Travel Tip: Driving in Greece is not for the faint-hearted. Even though many of the highways have been improved in recent years, mountain roads can be hair raising. That, coupled with Greek driving habits, means that the country has a much higher accident rate than elsewhere in Europe.

Things to Do

Eighty percent of Greece is covered in mountains, divided into many peninsulas, and separated by canals. There are also about 6,000 islands, 227 of them inhabited, and thousands of miles of coast. Getting from one part of the country to another can be complicated so it's important to know, in advance, what you want to do and where to find it:

  • Two major cities, Athens, the center Classical Greece, and Thessaloniki, the heart of Byzantine Greece, are hubs of culture, museums, fashion, nightlife, shopping, dining, and festivals. Both are good bases for touring.
  • Fragrant woodlands, dramatic mountains, olive groves and sacred sites dedicated ancient oracles and gods cover mainland Greece. Byzantine fortresses and remote monasteries perch between deep, folded mountain valleys.
  • Wherever you go in Greece you'll find thousands of years of history, from the earliest signs of democracy to the temples and theaters of the ancient world as well as the remnants of the Romans and the Byzantines. The Parthenon, the Acropolis, and the Temple of Apollo at Delphi are among the most popular sites.
  • The thousands of Greek islands and beaches are an essential part of Greece and Greek culture and are surprisingly easy to reach by plane or ferry. Islands like Crete, Santorini, and Kefalonia are worth a trip on their own.

What to Eat and Drink

Though the foodie scene in the cities is becoming pan-European and international, the best things to eat in Greece are still fresh and local. Octopus and kalamari (fried rings of squid) are popular taverna fare. Fresh Greek salads with feta or local cheeses, a squeeze of lemon and tangy olive oil, are part of every meal. Look for sweets flavored with mastic, a gum from evergreen trees. You may be welcomed to your hotel with a spoonful of cherry or apricot jam and a glass of water.

Take some time, as well, stop at a kafenion (cafe) for coffee and honey-soaked Greek pastries, like baklava and kataifi, or the custard pie known as galaktoboureko. A popular outdoor coffee drink, apparently invented accidentally in Thessaloniki, is frappé. It's made of instant coffee, ice water, and sugar beaten with an electric whisk to form a foam.

The Greeks these days are producing outstanding red and white wines from vineyards in Crete and Santorini. Ouzo, flavored with aniseed, is similar to French pastis drinks. It is sweet and robust and, when added to water, turns white. It packs a lethal punch. If you have a taste for firewater, try the raw spirit made from the byproducts of winemaking. It's called raki in Crete and Tsipouro or Tsikoudia everywhere else. As far as local beers are concerned, microbreweries have caught on, and there are excellent craft beer makers. Look for Red Donkey, a fruity amber ale from Santorini.

Learn more about what to eat and drink in Greece, including the top 10 dishes to try in Greece and the best restaurants in Athens.

Where to Stay

Accommodations in Greece range from quirky Athens boutiques in bohemian neighborhoods like Psirri to corporate giants, like the Athens Hilton in the city center or the luxury Hotel Grande Bretagne in Syntagma Square. The area immediately west of Syntagma Square and into Monastiraki has a concentration of moderately priced three and four-star hotels.

Learn more about the best hotels in Athens, as well as top neighborhoods to visit in Athens.

Getting There

The main international airport for Greece is Athens International Airport, with connecting flights to Thessaloniki, Kalamata, and several of the islands, including Crete and Santorini. Athens Airport is on a main highway and is about 20 minutes from the city center by car or taxi (taxi fares are set by law). Car rental, pick up and drop off, is easiest to arrange at the airport. The cheapest and fastest way to get to the airport from Athens is by Metro Line 3. The airport Metro station is well marked. There are also bus services from the airport to the ports of Piraeus, Rafina, and Lavrio.

Culture and Customs

Outside of the big cities and major tourist resorts, Greece is a relatively conservative country. In small towns and rural areas, women should dress modestly, avoiding bare shoulders, exposed bosoms, tight or very short skirts or shorts. Even in the cities, cover up before entering Greek Orthodox churches. And, if you are visiting monasteries like the ones at Meteora, don't wear trousers. If you do, the monks will give you wrap around skirts to put on over pants.

Nude and topless bathing is tolerated in many parts of Greece, and on some of the islands, like Crete and Spetses, a short walk beyond the end of a popular beach will take you to a nude beach area. But check with your hotel or a local taverna first. Nude bathing is still technically illegal. On the small islands and in more rural places, Greek families from the small mountain villages visit the beach on weekends with their families. Nude bathing that may be tolerated during the week is not allowed on weekends and school holidays.

Money-Saving Tips

  • Travel in the off-season: The most popular time to visit, with the highest prices from June to September. Visit in May or October, and the weather is reliably warm, but prices are much lower.
  • Consider self-catering: That's what Europeans call vacation rentals. Efficiency apartments and small villas are usually cheaper than hotel accommodation, and you can save quite a bit by cooking some of your meals yourself.
  • Rent an electric bicycle or moped: They're cheaper than rental cars and popular for getting around on islands and in coastal resorts. Just be careful. They are very noisy, and you may not be aware of traffic coming up behind you.
  • Take advantage of what's free: Most museums and historical attractions have free admission on certain days or for certain groups of travelers. Look up the site you're interested in on the Greek Ministry of Culture & Sports website. In the left column of your attraction's listing, click on "Information," and you'll find all the free days.
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