Greece and the Greek Islands

Greece and the Greek Islands

Mother of western civilization, birthplace of philosophy, democracy and the Olympic Games, Greece has always been one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. Due to its geography and long and exciting history, the country has attracted travellers from all backgrounds and tastes. Situated in Southern Europe with the mighty Athens as its capital. Surrounded by the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean Seas, Greece has more than 8,500 miles of coastline and hosts around 2000 islands and islets.

The Greek culture is a unique mix of Western and Eastern characteristics and its people are famous for their hospitality, as well as their relaxed way of celebrating and enjoying everyday life. Mainland Greece and the Greek islands are equally worth visiting in order to experience the marvelous archaeological, historical and religious sites, rich culture and pristine beaches. Travellers have the chance to experience Greek cosmopolitan life, taste the thousands of traditional delicacies and spirits, attend local festivals, try out the great nightlife, adventurous expeditions and find refuge on one of the isolated and remote beaches or beauty spots.

Climate

Temperatures in Greece vary depending on the area visited. Northern Greece can occasionally face cold winters, with temperatures reaching below zero, while summers are hot and humid. The South of the country has a milder climate year round, but still the summers can reach temperatures up to 4o°C (104°F), or higher. Whatever the season, however, the country is popular for its sunshine and blue skies for the majority of the year.

The best period to visit the country is May to October, although July and August are characterized by strong winds called “Meltemia”, especially in the Aegean Sea – ideal for surfers. It is important to be equipped with high factor sun protection as the sun is extremely hot and can be harmful.

Language

The official language is Greek. With its own lettering system, it can make recognizing even place names difficult, so it is easiest if you choose maps and guide books to include both European and Greek spellings. In city centres and in popular tourist destinations the majority of the population, especially the young people, can speak some English. It might prove difficult, however, to communicate in English when visiting remote areas not yet exposed to tourism. In that case don’t forget your phrasebook!

Cuisine

Greek cuisine is known for lots of olive oil, feta cheese, fresh vegetables and nuts. Dishes vary according to the local specialities. For example, mountainous areas are popular for their meat dishes, while in the islands cuisine is largely based on a variety of fresh fish. Grilled meat and fish, oily oven baked dishes like stuffed vegetables and Moussaka (layered potato, vegetables and mince) and of course the infamous Greek Salad. Other rich salads and dips like tzatziki and taramosalata can be found in every restaurant or taverna.

Food is a very important and highly valued element of Greek culture and rich dinners are a must and the most important meal of the day. Oranges, lemons and olives are grown in abundance and feature in many dishes. In some ways, the Greeks have similar habits to the English, so when dining out expect chips with just about everything unless you request otherwise. Be sure to try the many types of seafood on offer in the Islands and around the coast. For a tasty snack, why not try a cheese pie or for the sweet toothed baklava, layered pastry cake?

 

 

 

Currency

The currency is the Euro.

  • USD$1= 0.75 Euros
  • GBP £1= 1.20 Euros

For up to date currency information, check xe.com.

Greece is considered an affordable destination, however, prices vary according to the visitor’s taste and the area visited. Touristy areas around the country tend to be more expensive. It is important to note that all prices are subject to an increase during high season (July – August).
Dinner (including both food and wine) in a traditional taverna – ‘koutouki’ – will cost you around 20EUR. The popular ice cold coffee frappe will cost you around 3EUR. Off season, you may find basic ‘pensionne’ accommodation from as little as 40EUR a night for a single room, though the price can soar to 10 times this in popular resorts in season.

Visas

Greece is an EU member, therefore the same rules apply as in other European countries. US and Canadian citizens do not need a Visa for up to a 3 months stay.

For further information contact the nearest Greek Consulate.

 

Accomodation

Accommodation in Greece is valued by Lux, A, B and C categories, according to the amenities offered.

Basic B&B, or C category hotels in Athens, would cost around 45-60 EUR for a double bedroom. Youth hostels in Athens are not easily found, and if they are, they generally tend not to be of a good standard. On the islands a room to rent (not including breakfast) would cost around 30-40EUR for a double bedroom, but you could bargain a room for as little as 15 Euro off season.

During high season (July-August) prices are, in remote areas, sometimes in the discretion of the owners, but good bargains be discovered, especially for prolonged stays.

Greek Islands and Surroundings

Crete

To get the most out of Crete, be under no illusions about its size. The largest Greek island simply cannot be explored thoroughly in much less than a week, and to use Crete as a destination for a quick lounge on the beach would be both wasteful and impractical, given the number of attractions on offer as well its distance from Athens.

The list of highlights is extensive: the charming city of Chania with old Venetian buildings at its heart, the dramatic Sammaria Gorge, heaving tourist hotspots like Malia, Agias Nikolaos and the bustling capital Heraklion. Emptier beaches and coves lie there to be discovered. Rent a car and flee to the eastern and western ends of the island where the crowds are less evident. The island is also rich with historical points of interest, most famously the ruined palace at Knossos – a world-class site of archeological wonder.

AEGEAN / SARONIC GULF

If you don’t have time to stray too far from Athens, a swift tour round the nearby Saronic islands makes for a neat day away from the capital’s heat and congestion. Try Aegina for its magnificent Temple of Aphaia, standing well-preserved, high on a hilltop. Historic Hydra offers picturesque villages and elegant yacht-filled seafronts – a little slice of St. Tropez in the Aegean sea, while Poros is a quiet spot for relaxing in harbour-front cafes.

IONIAN

Kefalonia

Kefalonia’s profile was raised when it became the setting for the blockbuster book and film, ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’, but this breathtakingly beautiful island, dramatically mountainous with stunningly clear water off lovely coves, has remained low-key. The remarkable Melissani underground lake is a unique geological wonder, and the atmosphere is exceptionally quiet compared with the likes of nearby Zakynthos.

Corfu (Kerkyra)

Corfu deserves its reputation as a hotspot for the British package holiday brigade, but travellers averse to the beer and fish ‘n’ chips scene certainly shouldn’t be put off, for the island’s considerable size (33 by 15 miles) makes it quite possible to escape the crowds. More rain falls on Corfu than any other Greek island, resulting in the lush vegetation that gives the place a tropical feel and puts it at stark contrast to the parched scenery of other islands. The beaches are superb, if a little over-populated in the summer months.

Ithaki

Most sensibly visited as a day trip from Kefalonia, Ithaki’s claim to fame is its place in history as a key setting in Homer’s Odyssey. The fabled birthplace and home of Odysseus is rocky, rugged and peaceful, and its beautiful harbours have become popular places for mega-rich yacht crews to hang out.

Zakynthos (Zante)

More developed than neighbouring Kefalonia, but just as easily recommend – Zakynthos offers ample sunbathing possibilities including the famous Shipwreck Beach – home to a wreck nestled in a perfect crescent of white sand, locked between cliffs and perfect turquoise waters that pops up in every Greek travel brochure. The island is also a breeding ground for turtles, although sadly, the destruction which mass tourism has wrecked on the beaches has dilapidated the turtle’s breeding grounds. If you are British and want some home grown fun, there’s no shortage of partying opportunities here.

CYCLADES

Andros

Andros is an attractive, green island, less tourist-centric than Mykonos or Santorini but still with plenty of nightlife on offer. An elegant atmosphere prevails, and the Shipping Museum stands testament to the island’s strong nautical tradition.

Ios

Ios has all the picturesque bays, whitewashed houses and narrow alleyways you could wish for – but it also gets more than its fair share of young package tourists, seeing the sights through a lager-induced haze. If that’s what you’re looking for from a Greek island, Ios won’t disappoint. If it all gets too chaotic, the more cosmopolitan (but similarly crowded) Santorini is nearby.

Mykonos

Another well-developed island with a firm reputation as a spot for endless partying. Not the destination for a peaceful getaway, but if you want a well-developed and well-watered tourist scene, you’ll find every need catered for in Mykonos. A lively gay scene is one element of the regularly outrageous nightlife. As you’d expect, it’s hugely busy here in the height of summer.

Delos

If the Mykonos experience leaves you yearning for something a little more highbrow, hop over to nearby Delos, a tiny island that’s ideal for a day trip but which doesn’t allow any overnight stays. Still one of the most important religious centres in Greece, the island holds a lofty position in Greek mythology for being the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Rooted in more real history, from around the 7th Century BC Delos became an important commercial hub, whose local wealth allowed the construction of lush marketplaces, stadia, theatres and public monuments.

Delos is a living piece of ancient history, easily rivaling Olympus or the Acropolis for its ancient monuments and over worldly atmosphere of ancient spirits, and the indoor museum also holds some remarkably well preserved ancient treasures. You’ll get a strong sense of that history as you wander round the UNESCO- protected ruins, although dodging the midday crowds in peak season is strongly advised. For a sense of the layout of this ‘open air museum’, just head for the top of Mount Kythnos and peer down.

Naxos

Regularly heaving with French and German tourists, Naxos is the biggest island in the Cyclades. The cosmopolitan capital of Chora boasts a huge Venetian castle, but for more intimate tastes of Greek life there are plenty of small villages where the tourist infrastructure has not yet taken root.

Paros-Antiparos

Paros has become one of the most visited islands in Greece. Getting there from Athens takes a modest five hours, making it a convenient and popular spot for both Greeks and foreigners who want to spend their days frolicking in the ocean and their nights hitting the bars. The bustling resorts of Paroika and Naoussa provide ample opportunities for hedonism. It can be hectic, but luckily Paros comes with its very own antidote, the aptly-named Antiparos. Just ten minutes away by boat, this peaceful island has just one village, Kastro, and also boasts the intriguing cave at Agios Ioannis Hill, full of stalactites and among the biggest in Europe.

Santorini

Santorini, or Thira (its Greek name), is a busy island with vast numbers of visitors and no shortage of attractions for them. This geological curiosity owes its present form – basically one giant crater – to a vast earthquake thousands of years ago, which may have had a hand in the origins of the Atlantis legend. Accordingly, it’s a strangely beautiful island with a landscape of ancient lava. Unusually coloured rocks and beaches lie waiting round every corner, with picturesque gleaming white houses complementing the dark volcanic panoramas. Island-hoppers should certainly plan to arrange some sort of accommodation before reaching the island in July and August, and not expect to cover it all on a miniscule budget.

Kithnos

Kithnos is a stone’s throw from Piraeus (you can be there in three hours), making it a favourite destination for Athenians. It’s recently become popular with overseas travelers who head for the port of Merihas and the charming capital Chora. Dyopida is another attractive town, whilst party animals will find their feet in Merihas. Kithnos’ immaculately clean beaches and hot mineral springs make it a worthy point for a stopover en route to other Cycladic islands.

SPORADES

Skyros

Skyros, the biggest island in the Sporades, is a richly green paradise for lovers of the outdoors. The famous native wild ponies can still be paid a visit, although only about 150 survive from the population of 2000 that once used to live and work in the fields. Gorgeous villages house strong traditions of local crafts, still evident in workshops dotted around the narrow cobbled streets. The capital is particularly proud of its castle with a marble lion guarding the entrance. You’ll also find a statue of the war poet Rupert Brooke in Eleftheria Square, and the Museums of Archeology and Folklore are recommended. Nine miles from the capital, Atsitsa is a curious secluded community where yoga, tai chi, reflexology and other holistic activities are the order of the day. If all that leaves you with a big appetite, renowned local cheeses should fill the gap.

Skiathos

Underrated Skiathos has many adoring fans who seem to hail from all corners of the world – visitors from Holland and Sweden being particularly regular attendees. This is another dramatically green island which, like Skyros, is great for hiking. You’ll find some truly phenomenal beaches and equally spectacular nightlife, along with plenty of cultural points of interest like the Evangilistria Monastery, where revolutionaries holed up in the war of independence. Another is the house of Greek writer Alexandros Papadiamantis, whilst natural highlights include the Blue Grotto and Lalaria, an impressive pebbly beach.

DODECANESE

Rhodes

You won’t run out of things to do on Rhodes. The capital offers a bustling modern city, next to a splendid medieval old town. If castles and vast stone walls are your bag, you’ll be well catered for. More winding narrow streets are to be found at the resort of Lindos, and ruins are yet more ancient variety at Kamiros. Rhodes is a massively popular destination, but big enough that escaping the crowds is quite possible. Look to the emptier west coast and island interior to flee the masses, or make for notorious Faliriki to experience first-hand the debauchery made famous by British TV series ‘Club Reps’.

Kos

Situated within spitting distance of the West coast of Turkey, Kos has succumbed heavily to the tourist trade from two fronts. As is so often, visitors cling primarily to an over-developed coastline, leaving the relatively untouched interior that can offer an easy escape route. The location means that near-Eastern influences are evident in Kos’ ruins, the centrepiece of which are the remnants of the Asklepion. This 5th Century BC teaching centre of of Hippocrates, founding father of all things medical, is idyllically situated up a hill, with splendid views of Kos and across the water to Turkey, where the mega-resort of Bodrum is well-connected by regular ferry services.

AEGEAN

Samos

Green and hilly Samos has a rugged interior that draws many travellers. The island is nestled close enough to the coast of Asia Minor that the magnificent ruins of Ephesus make a feasible day trip, and that ancient spectacle can compensate for the scant remains of Samos’ own Temple of Hera, once among the largest in the Greek world. More up-to-date reasons to visit include a fine selection of beaches and picturesque towns, lush vineyards and a good infrastructure that isn’t too over-the-top. Be aware though that Samos is large, and a car or motorbike rental is recommended.

Lesvos

Ancient female poet Sappho is probably Lesvos’ most favourite denizen, and fortunately the island hasn’t been altered beyond recognition in the several thousand years since she lived there. Attractive villages and vast olive groves give Greece’s third largest island the sort of idyllic Mediterranean feel that can elsewhere get suffocated beneath the throbs of nightclubs. As well as the myriad charming towns waiting to be explored, further highlights include the Byzantine castle overlooking the capital of Mitilini and a fifteen million year-old petrified forest.

Evia

Evia’s great draw is the remarkable set of hot springs at Edipsos. It’s a hugely popular destination for Athens residents using the pools’ rejuvenating qualities to soak up some of the frown-lines that life in the capital can bring on. The journey to get there doesn’t take long, but Evia itself is huge – no Greek island except Crete is bigger – and on maps it appears to be a lump of mainland. Like Skiathos, it boasts exceptional natural beauty, and because of its size, escaping the crowds isn’t a problem. Don’t miss the convent of Galataki, perched amidst gorgeous scenery over the site of an ancient Temple of Poseidon.

Limnos

Limnos’ resident deity was Hephaestus, hurled there from the heavens by Jupiter after a divinities family tiff. It remains a good place to land, blessed with a landscape still pleasingly untouched by package holidaymakers. The capital Myrina is dramatically framed against Mount Athos, whilst beaches are best at the bays of Plati and Kaspakas. Not far from the capital is Therma, where spa waters have regenerating powers.

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Mykonos

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Rhodes

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