These Are All Our Favorite Greek Destinations
The Aegean Islands
The often postcard perfect Aegean Sea contains many islands including the North Aegean islands of Samos and Ikaria, Chios, Lesbos and Lemnos, the Cyclades, which include Andros, Ios, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros and Santorini, the Dodecanese islands of Rhodes, Kos and Patmos, the Saronic Islands, including Salmis Island, Poros and Aegina, the Sporades, containing Alonnisos, Skiathos, Skopelos and Skyros. Although the Aegean Islands are not as lush as their Ionian counterparts, they can be just as attractive. Lesbos, one of the largest of the islands, has beautiful beaches, therapeutic springs, and vast olive groves.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and lies some 100 km (60 miles) southeast of the Peloponnese at the southern limit of the Aegean Sea. The island was the centre of the Minoan civilisation (2600-1400 BC), the oldest civilisation in Europe, and its attractions include the sites of Phaistos, Knossos and Gortys. There’s also a Venetian castle in Rethymno, the beautiful Samaria Gorge, along with many other natural sites, monuments, and beaches.
The extensive ruins of Knossos may be found 5 km (3 miles) southeast of Heraklion (IrÃ¡klion). This 3,000-year-old Minoan site was once the capital of the island and is laid out on four levels on the hill of KefÃ¡la. The frescoed Minoan Palace is a complex collection of over 1,000 interlocking rooms, and is thought to be the legendary Labyrinth of King Minos. Around the palace is the site of the city of Knossos, which may have had as many as 100,000 inhabitants. Among the excavated are a number of villas and the Little Palace. Finds from the site are displayed in the Archaeological Museum in the nearby Venetian-style port town of Heraklion.
This rocky island (5 km long and 1.3 km wide) lies 10 km (6 mile) southwest of Mykonos. Delos has none of the usual tourist facilities, and appeals particularly to those who are interested in Greek antiquity. The Ecole Francaise d’Athenes (French School of Athens) has been excavating the island since 1873; the extensive area of is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece.
Mykonos is the most expensive and most visited of all the islands. There is much to see in the white-washed cobbled labyrinth of a town, full of beautiful boutiques. It has a lively, hedonistic nightlife and is rated among the top clubbing destinations in the Mediterranean. Attracting jet setters and a notable gay community, the tiny Mykonos offers beautiful beaches, trendy bars, chic restaurants, waterside nightclubs and several small luxury hotels. It is a good base from which to visit the neighbouring islands of Delos and Rinia.
Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands, and lies in the eastern Aegean Sea between the Greek mainland and the island of Cyprus, approximately 11 miles (18 km) to the west of Turkey. The island has some beautiful scenery, excellent beaches and well restored ancient buildings, all of which have made Rhodes a major tourist centre.
The city of Rhodes, situated at the northern tip of the island, has been capital of the island since its foundation in 408 BC. The compact Old Town, with its maze of narrow streets and lanes, lies within a magnificent 4 km (2.5 miles) long circuit of 14th and 15th century walls built by the Knights of St John during the Crusades. The walls are one of the finest examples of the medieval art of fortification, and are complete with towers, bastions and a dry moat.
Many of the streets in this medieval part of town follow the rectangular grid plan from the 5th century BC. The west part of the walled town became the Turkish quarter, the smaller east part the Jewish quarter, whilst the southern part was occupied by Greeks. The Knights’ town (the Collachium), occupied the northern part. The Street of the Knights still conveys an excellent impression of the 15th and 16th centuries, and climbs to the Palace of the Grand Master, which was originally the seat of the Grand Masters of the Knight’s Order before becoming a Turkish prison. Although the Palace was destroyed in 1856 by an ammunitions explosion, it was rebuilt in 1940 by the Italians and now features some beautiful mosaics from the Hellenistic and Roman eras that were shipped across from Kos.
There’s also a definite Turkish influence in the Old Town, such as the 16th century Mosque of Suleiman, with its tall, leaning minaret and striped dome, and the Mosque of Soultain Mustafa, tucked away on Plateia Arionos. Immediately opposite the Soultain Mustafa mosque is the hamam, or Turkish bath, which has undergone extensive renovation. The entrance fee is very cheap, but you must bring your own towel.
Santorini is a small, circular archipelago of volcanic islands situated about 200 km south-east from the Greek mainland. A giant central lagoon, created when a volcanic eruption blew the centre out of the island around 1600 BC, is surrounded by 300 m (984 ft) high, steep cliffs on three sides. The island slopes downward from the cliffs to the surrounding Aegean Sea. Santorini’s spectacular natural beauty and its renowned nightlife make the island one of Europe’s top tourist hotspots. Expect black sand beaches, stunning sunsets, gourmet cuisine and boutique hotels.
Athens is the capital of Greece, and the birthplace of Western civilisation. The 2,400-year-old Parthenon still dominates the skyline from its position on the Acropolis. The Theatre of Dionysus and Odeon of Herodes Atticus are close by, as are many other ancient sites, such as the temple of Athena Nike. Travellers visiting between June and September should make sure that they catch the Hellenic Festival, which features music, dance and theatre performances in the 2nd century AD Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
Syntagma Square (Constitution Square) is situated in the centre of the city, near the site of the former Royal Palace (now the Greek Parliament). It is tourist core of the city, home to a number of luxurious hotels and within 2 km of nearly all of the famous ancient monuments. The flea market in Plaka, narrow streets winding past tavernas and craft shops, is a good area to feel the bustle of Athens that has continued for so long.
One of the tallest hills is Lycabettus, which according to legend, is actually a boulder thrown down from the sky by the Goddess Athena. Located near Alexandras Avenue and Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, it offers sprawling views of Athens below. Pine trees cover its base, and at its peak are the 19th century Chapel of St. George, a theatre and a restaurant. These may be reached by a funicular railway that climbs the hill from a lower terminus at Kolonaki.
Most of the city’s museums were renovated for the 2004 Olympics. Some of the best include the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, which holds the world’s greatest collection of Greek art; the Museum of Cycladic Art, known for its collection of its 3,000 year old elegant white meta-modern figures; the Byzantine Museum and the Benaki Museum, which also has a new Islamic Art branch. The Athens Planetarium is considered to be among the world’s best.
The ancient site of Corinth lies about 78 km (48 miles) southwest of Athens and 3 km (2 miles) southwest of the modern city, which was built in 1858 after the original city was destroyed by earthquake. The former city-state was once renowned for its wealth and elegance, immorality and orgiastic cults. Visitors may now explore its theatre and many temples, before checking out the adjoining museum.
The monolithic rock, Acrocorinth (the acropolis of Corinth), oversees the city and offers fine views of the Isthmus and the hills of the Peloponnese. This commanding site was fortified in ancient times, and its defences were maintained and developed during the Byzantine, Frankish, Turkish and Venetian periods. Highlights include the Frankish gate, the Byzantine walls, the Hellenistic tower and the remains of a 16th century mosque. The famous temple of Aphrodite once stood on the rock’s eastern summit.
Delphi, lying on the slopes of Mount Parnassus high above the Gulf of Corinth, is one of the most famous sites in Greece. It was known throughout the ancient Greek world and beyond as the Sanctuary of Apollo and the shrine of his Oracle, who offered guidance to the rulers of ancient Greece. This fascinating pagan religious complex, set on a stunning hillside site, comprises classical temples, a theatre and a stadium. The Delphi Archaeological Museum, set between the excavated area and the village, contains a fascinating collection of finds from the site.
The Ionian islands contain 7 principal islands: Corfu (Kerkyra), Paxos (Paxi), Lefkas (Lefkada), Ithaca (Ithaki), Cephalonia (Kefallonia), Zante (Zakynthos) and Cerigo (Kythira). Ithaca was the setting for The Odyssey, Cephalonia beside it for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Corfu to the north for youthful revelry. Sedate and party areas can be found in the Ionian group as each island has its own character.
Cephalonia (also known as Cefalonia), the largest of the Ionian Islands, is an island of bare limestone hills rising to 1,628 m (5,341 ft) in Mount Ainos and striped by green valleys with luxuriant vegetation. Most tourists stay in or around Lassi, a resort located just a few kilometres from Argostoli, the largest town on the island. Sami, the island’s principal harbour, lies 24 km (15 miles) east of Argostoli. The ancient city of Same lay to the south, on the slopes of the hill that rises above the modern town, and the remains of the 2nd century town walls can still be seen. Close by to Sami are the stalactitic caves of Melissa¡ni (north- west, in an underground lake) and Drongara¡ti (southwest).
Corfu, the most northerly of the Ionian Islands, lies off the coast of Albania, at a distance ranging between 3 and 23 km. The beauty of its scenery, with rugged limestone hills in the north and gentle green hills in the south, its luxuriant southern flora and mild climate make Corfu a very popular holiday area. The north and east coasts are home to most of the package holiday resorts, whilst the interior has relatively little tourist trade.
The town of Corfu is situated on a promontory on the east coast and is home to an old fortress that dates from the Venetian occupation and was constructed in the 15th century. The fortress has been cut off from the land by a defensive moat. Son et lumiÃ¨re shows are given here in summer. At the north end of the town is the harbour, with the massive 16th century New Fort rising above it on the south. Northwest of the harbour is Nikiforos Street, the town’s busy main shopping street, which runs to the Spianada (Esplanade), a large park-like area between the town and the Citadel. The Esplanade is home to a cricket pitch, where over 100 games are played a year.
The town has a number of museums, including the Royal Palace of Asian Art (a superb collection of Chinese, Japanese and Indian art from the Neolithic era through to the 19th century); the Corfu Archaeological Museum, whose most notable exhibit is the Gorgon Pediment (585 BC) from the temple of Artemi; and the Corfu Byzantine Museum, containing approximately 90 icons dating back to the 15th century.
The Meteora (lit: suspended rocks) is one of the largest and most important complex of monasteries in Greece, located at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly in central Greece. The six UNESCO-listed monasteries are built on spectacular natural sandstone rock pillars, which were originally only reachable by using a pulley system. However, they are now accessible via steps carved into the rocks. The Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) monastery was used in the James Bond film ‘For Your Eyes Only’.
The Holy Mountain of Athos is the most easterly of the three ‘fingers’ of the Chalcidice peninsula. It is an area of great natural beauty, with its great expanses of forest and hilly landscape washed by the waters of the Aegean. It is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries and a number of hermitages scattered about the peninsula. Although visits to the Mount Athos monasteries are permitted only with a special pass (granted only to men over the age of 18), all visitors can take a boat ride around the peninsular.
Mycenae is an archaeological site located about 90 km south-west of Athens, in the north-eastern Peloponnese. This hilltop citadel has been well-preserved, surrounded by Cyclopean Walls, which may be accessed via the splendid Lion Gate. A number of pieces of golden treasure, including the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’, were discovered here in 1876.
Olympia, lying between the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos, was the birthplace of the Olympics, which were staged here between the 8th and 4th centuries BC. The Olympic flame of the modern-day Olympic Games is lit by reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror at the restored Olympia stadium and then transported by a torch to the place where the games are held. Visitors may explore the site, then see the Archaeological Museum and the nearby Museum of the Olympic Games.
Thessaloniki is Greece’s second city and capital of Greek Macedonia. It lies at the head of the Thermaic Gulf (Gulf of Salonica), near the mouth of the river AxiÃ³s (Vardar) and on the foothills of the KhortiÃ¡tis range. The city is home to the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum, which exhibits ancient marble statues and gold jewellery from Macedonia, Salonica and Thrace. The city’s most important church is the 5th century basilica, Ayios Dimitrios (St Demetrius), which was built over a Roman bath-house (the remains of which can be seen on the north side of the church). The basilica has three side-chapels, a museum, and underground catacombs that also include Saint Demetrios’ (the patron saint of the city) imprisonment chamber.
Other highlights include the White Tower of Thessaloniki (home to the Museum of Byzantine Cultures and offering excellent views of the downtown area); the extensive Byzantine walls of the Upper City (Ano Poli); the ornately decorated Arch and Tomb of Galerius (more commonly known as the ‘Kamara’), which was built in 298 to 299 AD; and Aristotelous Square, which is lined with shops and hotels. A large park lies at the north end of the square, and Thessaloniki’s thriving old market is just a short distance away to the east and west.
Greece is home to over 6,000 karst caves – most of them in Crete. There are many caves open for guided tours, the most impressive and largest being Perama, near Ioannina, filled with stalagmites and stalactites.
Climbing and Hiking
On of the best walking trips in the Greek islands is the hike down the 18 km length of the Samaria Gorge on Crete. The northern entrance to the gorge is 1,250 m above sea level, which descends almost to sea level, opening out a couple of kilometres above the village of Agia Roumeli. The most famous part of the gorge is the section known as the ‘Iron Gates’, where the sides of the gorge reach up to 500 metres high and close in to about 4 metres. The walk takes between four and seven hours and can be strenuous, especially in high summer. The Vikos Gorge (14 km/8 miles) in Epirus is also worth a trip.
For those preferring a climb, there’s Mount Olympos, Greece’s highest mountain at 2,917 m (9,570 ft), believed by the ancients to be home of Zeus, or Mount Pasnassos near Delphi, which stands at 2,457 m (8,061 ft).
Sailing between the many beautiful islands is one of the most popular activities in Greece. Depending on experience, visitors can go skippered, flotilla (as part of a group of yachts lead by an expert) or bareboat, where they simply charter the boat and sail it themselves.
Despite the copious amount of sun, sea and sand in Greece, the country is also home to several good ski resorts. The best equipped is the Parnassos Ski Centre on Mount Parnassos, and there are several others, including Vermion in Macedonia and Helmos on the Peleponnese.
Greece is perfect for watersports such as windsurfing, scuba-diving, rafting and canoeing. The best places for windsurfing are Ialisos on Rhodes, Agios Georgios and Mikri Vigla on Naxos, Vassiliki on Lefkada, Chrisi Akti (Golden Beach) on Paros, Kokkari on Samos and Kefalos on Kos.
The shallow, fast-flowing rivers of mainland Greece offer excellent facilities kayaking, rafting and canoeing. Sea kayaking is also becoming increasingly popular on the islands.
Scuba-diving is restricted to certain stretches of the Attica coast, Corfu, Rhodes, Zakynthos, Mykonos, Skiathos, Kalamata, Preveza and Kalymnos in order to prevent theft of underwater antiquities. All these areas have dive centres offering rental equipment and instruction.