Greece Travel Guide: Overview
Situated at the convergence of Africa, Asia and Europe, Greece is a nation of many influences, histories and traditions. Considered the cradle of Western civilization, Greece gave the world democracy; Western literature, philosophy and theater; foundational mathematical and scientific principles and the Olympic Games. It contains a staggering 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the iconic Acropolis. Whether you’re strolling a ruin or sunning on the beach, Greece is an intoxicating, beautiful, historically rich nation with something to offer every world wanderer.
Agricultural societies began in Greece during the Neolithic Age (around 7000 BC to 3100 BC). The Helladic Age, also known as the Bronze Age, followed, wherein the economy transitioned to a metal-based system. Over the next five centuries, what’s known as Mycenaean Greece rose to prominence and then subsequently fell.
In its place came Ancient Greece (1100 BC to 146 BC). This iteration of Greek society covers many sub-ages, including the Classical Period and Hellenistic Period. Both these eras encompass Greece’s golden age. It was a time of prosperity and progress in many fields, from art, literature and theater to math, philosophy and science. During this peak, Greek culture and geographical influence spread as far as Egypt and Afghanistan.
This age ultimately ended with the Roman conquest of Greece and a transition into Roman Greece from 146 BC to 324. Byzantine Greece followed (324 to 1453), starting with the establishment of Byzantium and ending with the fall of Constantinople.
Ottoman Greece reigned until the Greek Revolution of 1821, after which came the age of Modern Greece, which continues today. After its involvement in World War I and World War II, Greece underwent a long civil war (1944 to 1949), which is largely considered the first significant confrontation in the Cold War. In 1967, the military staged a coup d’état and seized power until 1974, when their overthrow led to the reinstatement of democracy.
In more recent headlines, the financial crisis of 2008 hit Greece particularly hard, and subsequent austerity measures led to public demonstrations and civil unrest. These tensions have since calmed, however, and Greece remains a major tourist hub, a prominent shipping sector and the largest economy within the Balkans.
Ancient Greece was known for its visual art, sculpture work (often marble or bronze), architecture, theater, philosophy (most notably Socrates and Plato) and more. Many of these artistic endeavors, especially architecture and theater, formed the basis for their modern Western counterparts.
Homer’s enduring epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad, remain shining examples of classic Greek literature, and other notable ancient literary figures include Sappho, Sophocles and Euripides. In the modern era, two Greek authors have been awarded the Nobel Prize: George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis.
On the film front, Zorba the Greek is one of the most well-known and internationally acclaimed Greek films.
Good to Know
When traveling in Greece, keep some of the following in mind:
Greece’s currency is the euro. It’s one of 19 European Union countries that use this as the sole currency.
ATMs are readily available and remain the most common way for tourists to get cash. In areas with high tourist volume, however, ATMs can run out of money—especially on weekends. While the worst of the financial crisis in Greece has passed, it’s still possible for ATMs not to be refilled on schedule. As a precaution, don’t ever let yourself get so low on cash that you’re in a jam if one ATM comes up empty.
Backroads Pro Tip
ATMs are often enclosed in glass outside banks. If it’s after bank hours, the doors will likely be locked. Just swipe your ATM card at the card reader, though, and the doors should open.
US dollars are not accepted in Greece, so make sure you have adequate means to pay with a credit card, to pull euros out of an ATM or to exchange US dollars to euro. You can always easily exchange your money at the airport or at hotels, but rates are often poor. If you’re heading to more remote parts of Greece or less visited islands, make sure to get your cash before you leave.
Tipping in Greek restaurants is common but not as expected as in US restaurants. A 5 to 10 percent tip is sufficient for good service. Note that bills will sometimes be rounded up, so check this before deciding whether to leave a tip or not.
It’s also customary to leave a small gratuity (a few euro) for porters and housekeeping at your hotel.
Greece is a highly Westernized country, and many travelers from the United States or Canada will feel largely at home here. There are, however, subtle differences. It’s not uncommon, for example, for a Greek person to ask very personal questions, which can seem intrusive to many travelers. If you’re uncomfortable answering a specific question, smile and politely decline.
When visiting someone’s home, bringing a small gift is customary—as is being at least thirty minutes late. In terms of dress code, when visiting churches or monasteries, both men and women should avoid shorts, and women should also avoid exposed arms. (Shawls or wraps will sometimes be provided for this reason.) In general, when going out, it’s considered good form to dress well.
Avoid inadvertent offense with your body language. For example, never hold up your hand with the palm out or make an “OK” sign with your thumb and index finger in a circle. Both gestures have offensive connotations in Greece.
Throughout Greece, 220 volt outlets are standard. You’ll find both C and F plug types. (That’s two round prongs and two round prongs with an earthed top, respectively.)
If your electronics run on 110 volts, you’ll need a converter, and if your plug shape is different, you’ll need an adapter as well.
Public restrooms are readily available in Greece, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a hotel, tourist site, museum or restaurant that doesn’t have facilities. If you’re ever unsure if a bathroom is available, just look for the telltale “WC” sign.
While the practice can seem foreign to Westerners, putting used toilet paper in a bin (rather than in the toilet) is common practice in Greece. Their plumbing, a holdover from the Roman days, is often too narrow to accommodate toilet paper, so you’ll often notice a small bin in the facilities for this purpose.
In some very rural parts of Greece, you might even encounter a squat toilet or two, but this, on the whole, is uncommon.
In major areas, such as Athens and Thessaloniki, tap water is potable. On the islands, water quality becomes much more suspect. Many Greek islands don’t have their own sources of water, meaning water has to be brought from the mainland in water tanks. This water is primarily meant for washing and showering—not drinking. Err on the side of caution, and go with bottled, purified or filtered water on any island. When outside major mainland cities, this rule applies as well.
When to Visit
Spring, early summer and fall are often considered the best times to visit Greece. Think mid-April to mid-June and again from September to mid-October. The weather will be nice during these times, but you’ll avoid the sometimes oppressive heat of full summer.
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- Mount Athos is an autonomous monastic state within the nation, and it’s entirely inaccessible to women.
- You might know it as “Greece,” but the official name of the nation is actually the “Hellenic Republic.”
- The ancient Olympic Games originated in Greece and were first recorded as early as 776 BC.
- The word “tragedy” derives from ancient Greek for “goat song.”
- Shoes that can damage ancient Greek sites have been banned since 2009. So, leave the high heels at home!
- Greece has been continually inhabited for over seven thousand years.
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Regions and Cities
Aegean Islands Region
No Greece travel itinerary would be complete without a mention of the stunning, beach-filled region that encompasses the Cyclades, which includes Mykonos, Santorini (Thira) and more.
Mykonos: Make a stop at the “Island of the Winds” for its bustling tourist activity, active nightlife and classic Greek beaches.
Santorini: Visit this stunning, iconic island for postcard-perfect views of blue domed roofs and whitewashed buildings. For one of the most quintessentially Greek experiences, head to Oia for sunset.
Central Greece Region
Bordering the Aegean Sea, Ionian Sea and Corinthian Gulf, this region is a staple of any Greek travel guide thanks to its beautiful mountain terrain and world-famous ruins.
Athens: Greece’s capital and largest city, iconic Athens is a must-see whether you’re a first-time tourist or a perennial visitor. From the Acropolis and Parthenon to the National Archeological Museum to Olympic sports complexes, Athens—widely known as the cradle of civilization and birthplace of democracy—is a delight of old and new.
Crete, the most populous and largest of all Greek islands, and several surrounding islands comprise this region that was once the heart of the ancient Minoan civilization. Amid the history, marvel at the natural scenery, including snow-capped mountains, valleys, plateaus, caves, gorges and beaches.
Chania: Split into Old Town and New Town, Chania is a charming mix of ancient history and architecture and the lively bustle of the more modernized areas. Don’t forget to check out the marina in Old Town.
Elounda: Stunning, captivating and pristine, Elounda’s luxury seaside resorts consistently attract Saudi royalty, as well as former Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou.
Heraklion: The largest city on Crete, it’s also a popular jumping-off point for the renowned palace of Knossos. The city features numerous museums and was home to Zorba the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, among other notable cultural figures.
Kritsa: Ancient and picturesque, Kritsa offers abundant olive groves and a rich history of weaving art. Hike the plateau of Katharo for stunning views of Mirabello Bay.
Rethymno: Built during the Minoan civilization, this ancient city has a charming old town and a white-sand beach that’s not to be missed. Hit the numerous museums and architectural features, from Rimondi Fountain to Guora Gate.
Once home to Alexander the Great, this mountainous southern Balkan region boasts unique culinary and musical traditions, as well as economically and culturally important port cities.
Thessaloniki: Greece’s second-largest city, it’s commercially, economically and politically vital to the nation. A major tourism hub, the city’s largely considered the country’s cultural capital, and it boasts many vibrant festivals and events. Trek to the top of the White Tower of Thessaloniki for a lovely view.
Worth a Visit
Home to the famed ancient oracle, Delphi is interesting for its historical value, but it’s also set amid stunning natural beauty. Whether you’re there for the view or the history, make sure you don’t miss it.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to six functioning Eastern Orthodox monasteries built on precarious natural pillar-like rock formations. While getting to the top used to require removable ladders, infinitely more convenient steps were cut into the rock in the 1920s.
The tallest mountain in Greece, this mythological home of the gods abounds with flora and fauna and has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Greece
For US citizens, a visa is not required for stays of 90 days or less. This applies to tourism and business-related trips. When you enter Greece, your passport should have at least six months of validity left, and you’ll often need to provide proof of your intent to leave within that 90-day window (e.g., a return ticket).
National and international airports are available throughout the nation. If you’re flying into the mainland, you’ll likely land in Athens (Athens International Airport) or Thessaloniki (Thessaloniki International Airport). If your first stop is an island, such as Crete, you’ll hit either Chania International Airport or Heraklion International Airport.
A series of smaller domestic airports can connect you to cities (on the islands or mainland) across Greece.
Long-distance bus travel is common in Greece, and buses are generally clean, modern and safe. These buses are operated through a company called KTEL. If you’re in a particularly rural area, buses might be more rustic and less comfortable. Because the government fixes the rates, there’s not a lot of variance or guesswork on price. Buy in advance, or buy on the bus.
Train travel is less common in Greece as the rail system is limited. It did get a major boost with the 2004 Olympics, but it remains a convenient way just to get from major city to major city.
To get to the islands, you’ll have to navigate the Greek ferry system. The most frequent runs are made March to October, so if you’re traveling in the winter, make sure to check the ferry schedule ahead of time.
If time is short, air travel is a fast (but often expensive) way to get from one point to another.
If you’re looking to rent a car, the minimum age is 21. (Some agencies also impose a maximum age of 70.) You must also have had a driver’s license for at least one year. Note, if you’re under 25, you might be hit with a “young driver surcharge.” Make sure to secure your international driver’s license before you arrive, and remember that gas stations are typically only open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Greek is the official language of Greece.
For any concerned travelers, the language barrier is definitely not insurmountable in Greece. While not everyone you encounter will be fluent in English, Greeks do typically start learning English in the third grade. This makes communicating with most people in English pretty painless. Most signage, especially in big cities and touristy locations, will be written in both Greek and transliterated English.
If you want to try your hand at a few key Greek phrases, here are some useful everyday ones (with their phonetic equivalents):
- Hello, good-bye: yah-soo, yah (less formal “hi”), yah-sas (to a group)
- How are you?: tee-kah-nis
- Good morning: kah-lee-mer-ah
- Thank you: eff-kah-ri-stoe
- Please, you’re welcome: para-kah-loe
- My name is: may leh-neh
- What’s your name?: pos-oh leh-neh
- Yes: neh
- No: oh-hee
Backroads Pro Tip
While you won’t understand what you’re saying, learning to phonetically read the Greek script can get you out of some traveling jams. For example, say you’re at a remote bus station, and the destination cities are only written in the Greek script. If you learn the phonetic equivalent of each letter, you can sound out the word and determine the city.
Food and Drink
Greek cuisine is largely composed of the typical Mediterranean staples: fresh fish, olives, feta, lamb and more. The dishes you’ll most likely encounter include the following:
- Baklava: A honey-sweetened dessert made from layered flaky filo and ground nuts.
- Cheese: From feta to graviera, ask for it fresh from behind market counters. You won’t be sorry.
- Moussaka: Layered eggplant-based dish with many ingredient variations, including minced meat, béchamel sauce, potato and more.
- Ouzo: An anise-flavored aperitif found just about everywhere in Greece. Opa!
- Souvlaki: Charcoal-grilled or spit-roasted meat (usually chicken or lamb) served in a pita (gyro) or skewered.
- Tzatziki: Ubiquitous sauce for meat composed of tangy Greek yogurt mixed with cucumber and garlic.
Food in Greece: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
While the relatively recent Greek financial crisis did bubble over into protests and strikes, Greece remains a safe place to travel. (For any still-reluctant travelers, take heart that the US Department of State doesn’t currently have any warning about traveling here.)
If your travel dates find you in Greece on November 17, expect various demonstrations across the nation. This date marks the anniversary of a student-led uprising in 1973 against the military regime, and it’s not entirely unheard of for these demonstrations, even today, to escalate into violence.
Petty crime, such as theft, is perhaps the most prevalent concern. Be particularly alert in crowded areas, such as bus or train stations and main tourist sites. Consider wearing a secure money belt for your most important items (passport, cash, credit cards and more).
In terms of natural dangers, the heat can get very extreme in July and August. Always wear adequate sunscreen and clothing protection, such as sunglasses and a hat. Drink plenty of water, and avoid rigorous physical exercise in the hottest parts of the day.
If you need emergency services, call 112. Operators almost always speak Greek, French and English. Other emergency numbers include the following:
- 100: police
- 199: fire brigade
- 166: emergency medical service
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Greek adventure!