Spotlight on Greece
28 January 2017
Glorious beaches overlooked by ancient ruins, turquoise seas, wonderful fresh food, and welcoming Greek hospitality mean that Greece continues to be a sought-after destination.
There are so many different parts of Greece to explore and its charm will delight everyone from sunseekers to history buffs. Discover the breathtaking Ionian islands, nestled in their sheltered position on the western side of Greece. Explore ancient history in Athens. Experience the dazzling white buildings and postcard-perfect beaches of Santorini…
Read on to find out what to see, do, and eat on your next trip to Greece.
Did you know?
- Greece is the southernmost country in Europe and shares borders with Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey
- It is believed that the first Ancient Greek civilisations were formed nearly 4,000 years ago (approximately 1,600 BC) by the Mycenaeans of Crete
- The mainland has rugged mountains, dense forests and beautiful lakes – but the country is best known for its islands, which dot the Aegean Sea in the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and the Ionian Sea in the west
- Greece has 169 inhabited islands and a further 2,000 or so islets
- The largest island is Crete which is in the Mediterranean Sea
- Mount Olympus is Greece’s highest mountain at 2,917 metres
- Typically, Greece enjoys more than 250 days of sunshine per year – or 3,000 sunny hours. This makes it one of the sunniest countries in the world and the most sunny in Europe!
When to visit Greece
- Greece’s numerous historical sites can draw visitors at any time of the year
- Springtime is great for more active pursuits – hiking, island hopping by bike, mountain biking. And there are lots of specialist breaks such as yoga, writing or artist retreats, too
- Greece’s has the 10th longest coastline in the world and a warm Mediterranean climate, which means you can enjoy wonderful fishing, sailing, open water swimming, kite surfing, wind surfing, and scuba diving from April through to October
- By late September and October, most of the crowds disappear but the Mediterranean is still warm – and the newly deserted beaches are perfect for swimming in
- For history buffs, Athens is a jaw-dropping location for a city break at any time of year
Travel Counsellor Sarah visited Athens in July 2016 with her 10-year-old daughter: "The highlight of Athens was most definitely the Acropolis. It is well worth visiting the museum first, which gives fantastic views of the Parthenon from the gallery, built in alignment with the temple, and a virtual replica of the cella of the Parthenon. It showcases the temple’s sculptures and 160m long frieze, which for the first time in more than 200 years is shown in sequence. [I think] The walk to the top of the Acropolis should be done at the end of the day, when it is cooler and the evening sun complements the colour of the ancient temples."
Sights to see in Greece
- Rhodes, the largest island in the Dodecanese chain, is the most visited of all the Greek islands. You can while away many pleasant hours strolling around the beautiful medieval Old Town in the island’s capital, Rhodes Town. Tightly packed with shops, cafes and restaurants, this atmospheric heart of the city is a legacy of the crusading Knights of St John, who used the island as their main base from 1309 until 1522. Elsewhere, the island abounds in golden sandy beaches, including below the hillside village of Líndhos with its ancient acropolis
- Hire a car or moped on Kefalonia to explore the island made famous by best-selling book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Capital Argostoli is a beautiful town to stroll around with lush cafes and bars and historical sites like St George’s castle. Explore the caves hidden in the hillsides around the pretty port of Sami or take a daytrip to the neighbouring island of Ithaca. Kefalonia has many beautiful beaches, but Myrtos is one of the most spectacular beaches in Greece. If you’ve seen the movie you will recognise its unmistakable sweep of white sand hemmed in to the blue, blue sea by tall wooded cliffs
- The Cyclades island of Santorini is another of Greece’s iconic locations. The centre of the island collapsed into the sea in 1,620 BC following a violent volcanic eruption. What remains of the island curls around this azure sea-filled caldera, picture-postcard white houses jostling down its steep hillsides and spilling down to the sea. Spend the day on one of the island’s dark, volcanic-sand or pebble beaches, then choose one of the idyllic tavernas that hug the hillside and sample fresh seafood and local dry, white wine as you watch the dramatic sun set pink and purple over the sea
- The largest of the Ionian islands, Corfu, is blessed with great beaches. If you want to party, head to Kavos. Or, for a family beach holiday, try Sidari with its long stretch of golden sand and legendary Canal d’Amour (swim through it to meet your soul mate!). Perhaps the most photographed site on the island is the 17th century Pantokrator monastery which perches atop the pretty islet of Pontikonisi, or “Mouse Island”, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway
- Crete is a popular destination for hikers, especially in spring when the weather is warm but not too hot. You can trek through the Samariá Gorge, Europe’s longest gorge. The 16km trek starts with pine forest, wild flowers and a lively stream, and ends in a narrow gorge with 300m walls. Or hike through mountain paths to the impressive Dikteon Cave, where, according to legend, Zeus was born. Just make sure you pack plenty of water!
Travel Counsellor Neelima visited the Greek Isles in April 2016: "We arrived at Santorini via a fast ferry (SeaJet) from Mykonos to this pearl of the Aegean. Everywhere I looked was a picture perfect moment, caldera view, inky blue water, pretty blue domed churches, hundreds of whitewashed buildings and to see the sun dive into the Aegean Sea – it truly is a sight to behold. And then, the day brings you the hour where you make it to the top of Oia so you can celebrate your day with the breathtaking sunset!"
Try something a little different…
- Zakynthos is the third largest of the Ionian islands and famous as the largest nesting ground in the Mediterranean for the Caretta Caretta “loggerhead” sea turtle. Nesting season coincides with peak holiday season, and the Bay of Laganas, to the south west of the island, is a protected area between June and October. Tourists are asked to take precautions not to damage the nesting grounds, but aren’t excluded from the beach, which means spotting a turtle is not only possible but likely. Elsewhere on the island, Alykanas and Tsilivi offer fantastic water sports. Or, take a boat trip to Navagio beach, star of many a postcard, and the site of a ship wreck trapped on its sandy cove before steep cliffs
- Halkidiki is a trio of peninsulas reaching out into the Aegean Sea in the north east of Greece. It offers the same warm gentle seas, glorious beaches, and pine clad interiors of Greece’s islands. The most westerly of the peninsulas, Kassandra is the most popular spot, while Halkidiki’s second peninsula, Sithonia is a magnet for Greek holidaymakers and so has a more authentic feel. Finally, Mount Athos, the third peninsula, has been a refuge for monks to which women are not permitted for more than 1,000 years. Don’t let this put you off visiting Kassandra or Sithonia though – their beautiful sandy beaches, friendly local tavernas, and stunning views over to Mount Olympus and Mount Athos respectively make them a perfect holiday destination. Make a day trip to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, dotted with ancient Greek, Roman and Turkish ruins, great shopping and colourful restaurants
- Skiathos and neighbouring Sporades island, Skopelos, found fame in the 2008 film Mamma Mia! based on the ABBA stage play. The island’s main town, Skiathos Town, has a youthful, party vibe and vibrant nightlife, with bars and restaurants spilling down to the waterfront. Its harbourside is crowded with cocktail bars, restaurants, and boutique shopping. Yet, this little island also has some of the best beaches in the Aegean, clear blue bays and emerald, pine-clad hills. To soak up the sun, head to sleepy villages like Troulos, a cluster of houses, hotels and tavernas overlooking a quiet bay, or the remote golden sandy beaches of Elias or Mandraki
- Easter is a huge event in Greece. In Athens, streets are hung with garlands. All shops and some restaurants will close over the Sunday and Monday. But, perhaps the most impressive Easter celebrations take place in Corfu. On Good Friday, the procession of the mummified body of the island’s patron, St Spyridon, is carried around Corfu Town to the accompaniment of The Philharmonic Society of Corfu. Then, on Holy Saturday, clay jars are thrown in the streets from people’s balconies
- If you can pull yourself away from its glorious beaches, Crete’s Archeological Museum in Iráklion has some amazing treasures. One of the largest and most important museums in Greece, it houses some unique examples of Minoan art.
Travel Counsellor Penny visited Skiathos and Skopelos in August 2016: "In total you can find more than 50 beaches on Skiathos, which is of course quite a few for such a relatively small island. Because of the fine white sand (and small white pebbles on some of them) and the clear waters, the colour of the sea is usually a beautiful turquoise or green blue, and very inviting for a swim. The island is just 19 miles long but a hire car is a must if wanting to explore the more remote North of the island, otherwise the island is served by a regular bus service between Skiathos Town and Port down the coast to Koukanaries, at a cost of just R40 per person one way.
Skopelos Town is a lovely place to just meander through the side streets, souvenir hunting and stumbling across a taverna for lunch. We ended the trip with a visit to Agios Ioannis, the site of the famous church scene in Mamma Mia - simply stunning!"
A taste of Greece
- In Greece, you can’t walk too far without encountering a cake shop with windows laden with pastries and sweet treats, but Greece’s savoury pastries are out of this world too. Do try the tiropita (cheese pie), tiropitakia (feta and filo triangles), spanikopita (spinach and cheese pie), and kourou (cheese pasty).
- Of the sweet pastries, baklava is king. This nutty, honey treat is claimed by many countries, but is said to have (whisper it) been developed in the imperial kitchens of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. As it spread through the Ottoman empire, each region added its own variation and, in Greece, baklava is supposed to be made with 33 dough layers, one for each year of Christ's life
- If you like to go meat-free once in a while, Greek food provides a multitude of tasty options. Order a range of small plates for sharing and tuck in to tsatsiki (cucumber and yoghurt dip), dolmathakia (stuffed vine leaves), Greek salad, sfougata (fried cheese balls), skordalia (garlic and potato dip), and more – all served with plenty of fresh crusty bread
- For desert, try the Loukoumades – fried donut balls soaked in honey or syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon
Penny also raved about the food she tried during her stay in Skiathos: "We ate at many restaurants but our favourite was the Victoria Taverna in Troulos. We were so impressed, we literally worked our way through the whole menu! From lamb kleftiko to baklava, meatballs to mousakka, every plate was enjoyed (and we were rewarded with free dessert/amaretto to end our evening). The service was impeccable."
For more ideas about what to do in Greece, when to go or where to stay, get in touch with your Travel Counsellor.