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Greece

Our Greece Travel Guide

Introduction

Whether it’s your first time travelling to Greece or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.

At a glance

Flying time from UK
3 hours

Time zone
GMT +2

Currency
Euro (€) = 100 cents

Language
Greek

Travel advice
Check the FCO for latest visa & travel advice

Travel Guide

Overview

"As I looked on the Parthenon for the first time in my life, I found myself crying. It had never happened to me before. Your sunset weepers I despise. It was not full moon, or anywhere near it. The half circle put me in mind of the labrys, the Cretan double axe, and the pillars were the most ghostly in consequence."
Daphne du Maurier, 'The Chamois'

Despite recent financial difficulties and political instability, Greece remains a favourite European holiday destination, with visitors drawn to its considerable array of superb beaches and reliable sunny weather, historical sites and natural attractions.

Athens is famously the birthplace of Western civilisation. The ancient 'high city' still dominates the sprawling capital's skyline, with the 2,400-year-old Parthenon perched atop the Acropolis and the charming historical districts of Plaka, Monastiraki and Thission beneath.

The surviving splendours of Ancient and medieval Greece also include Delphi, home to the Temple of Apollo, the archaeological sites of Olympia and the monasteries of Meteora, built high on natural sandstone pillars.

For pure natural wonders, you can hike on the mainland through the Mani or Arcadia Mountains on the Peloponnese Peninsula, or embark on an island cruise between idyllic getaways and contrasting landscapes.

Crete is the largest island of southern Greece and offers great sandy beaches, a vibrant nightlife, snow-capped mountains, gentle walks across rolling landscapes covered in wildflowers, and challenging hikes around the dramatic Samaria Gorge. It is also home to important archaeological sites at Knossos, Phaistos and Gortys.

Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean has beautiful beaches and therapeutic springs as well as a long-established gay scene.

Mykonos and Ios are the main travel meccas of the Cyclades with a cosmopolitan nightlife; nearby Santorini's whitewashed capital Fira has romantic clifftop views over a beautiful blue lagoon; and a little off the tourist track Syros and Amorgos are charmingly undeveloped.

Rhodes and Kos in the Dodecanese are popular destinations with a wide range of natural attractions. The Ionian Islands are the most lush, where Corfu remains the most popular and developed island, and Cephalonia and Ithaca offer a gentler pace of life.

Culture & etiquette

Families - and specifically mothers - are the dominant social force in Greece. Elders are respected and cared for and men consider it to be a personal honour and duty to care for their family. Children are firmly disciplined, but parents at all income levels spend a large share of their earnings on feeding, clothing, schooling and (where possible) spoiling their children.

The Church plays a greater role than in other secular nations, and Easter is the main religious holiday.

Greeks are extremely proud of their culture and its contribution to world civilisation, and are deeply patriotic.

Greeks are generous hosts. If invited to dinner, it's expected that guests will arrive at least 30 minutes after the allotted time. Meals are an occasion to socialise, so expect a good deal of discussion over dinner, which can last long into the night.

Drink

"I'd learned never to be a snob until I got to know a person's worth; and how can you get to know a person well if you don't have coffee together?"
Costas Taktsis, The Third Wedding

Greece is an ancient wine-producing country, though its offerings are little known internationally because production is generally small-scale and exports are low. Most tavernas offer house 'barrel wines', usually produced locally, which can be a bargain.

Bottled wines are fairly expensive, but whites from Santorini and reds from Naoussa and Drama are worth investigating. Retsina's distinctive taste comes from pine resin, which was originally used to seal wine vessels and became an acquired local taste. Medium-sweet imiglykos reds are a good accompaniment to cheeses and desserts.

Local beer brands include Alpha, Fix, Mythos and Vergina, and are essentially cheaper but palatable versions of Northern European beers like Heineken and Amstel, which are produced locally under licence. Bars in major cities and tourist areas also offer draft Irish, Czech and German beers. Microbreweries have taken off in recent times, the best known being Craft, Neda, Piraiki and Septem.

The famous indigenous spirit is the anise-flavoured ouzo, served mixed with water like pastis. Tsikoudia (known as raki on Crete) is the Greek equivalent of grappa, distilled from grape residues after the juice for wine has been squeezed off. It is usually served after dinner, chilled in summer.

Festivals

The highlights of the cultural calendar include:

April - Corfu Animation Festival. A celebration of cartoons for all ages.

June/July - Rockwave Festival, Athens. The biggest music event of the summer.

July - Yakinthia Festival, Crete. Four days of love-themed events including outdoor concerts.

July - Up Festival, Koufonisi, Crete. Free three-day festival of DJs and live performances on Pori Beach.

July - Kalamata Dance Festival, Peloponnese. International performances and workshops.

July - Tinos International Literary Festival, Cyclades. Distinguished writers from around the world give interviews and readings.

July - Hippocratea Festival, Kos. Outdoor concerts, Greek dancing, contemporary art exhibitions and theatrical performances.

July/August - Sani Festival, Sani Resort, Halkidiki. International jazz, world music, classical Greek performance and visual arts.

July to September - Naxos Festival, Cyclades. Bazeos Tower and other castle venues host storytelling festivals, dance events and seminars on musical improvisation.

August - Kastoria River Party. Five days of music from Greek and international acts.

August - International Classical Musical Festival of the Cyclades, Syros. A week-long programme of chamber music at the Apollo Theatre.

September - Aegina Fistiki Fest. Five days of music and gastronomic treats to mark the year's pistachio harvest on the Saronic Gulf island.

November - International Film Festival, Thessaloniki. World and local cinema screenings and events.

Food & drink

"I liked the chatter and the laughter from neighbouring tables... A man from one table would suddenly rise to his feet and stroll over to another, discussion would follow, argument at heat perhaps swiftly dissolving into laughter. This, I thought to myself, has been happening through the centuries under this same sky."
Daphne du Maurier, 'The Chamois'

Greek cuisine is a blend of local traditions and outside influences: notably from neighbouring Turkey and Italy. The traditional diet is typically Mediterranean, combining locally-grown vegetables, herbs and grains. Lamb is the staple meat, but a good deal of seafood also appears in the national diet, and chicken, beef and pork are popular. Olive oil is used in almost every dish, and lemons and tomatoes are common flavours. Dinner is invariably served with bread and wine.

Popular fast foods are Turkish-style kebabs: gyros of roast lamb, pork, chicken (or sometimes beef) with salads and sauces and wrapped in a fried pitta; or souvlaki, grilled meat, onions and peppers on a skewer. Dips include tzatziki, made from strained yoghurt, olive oil, garlic, chopped cucumbers and dill or mint, skordhalia, a garlicky mashed potato dip usually served with fried salted cod, melitzanosalata, roasted aubergine with garlic, lemon juice and parsley, taramasalata, salted cod or carp roe mixed with breadcrumbs or potato and lemon juice, and achinosalata, sea-urchin eggs in lemon juice and olive oil. Grilled octopus, in a simple marinade of olive oil and lemon juice, is a popular snack or starter. Fish, usually priced by the kilo, can be expensive.

A traditional Greek salad consists of tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese, onion and olives dressed in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano. It may sometimes contain green pepper or other vegetables, and comes with an inauthentic touch of vinaigrette or lettuce only in tourist areas.

Hot mains include moussaka, a rich oven-baked dish of minced meat, aubergine, tomato and white sauce; pastitsio, a local take on lasagna; stifado, a meat stew flavoured with onion, wine and cinnamon; and spetzofai, country sausage braised with pepper and tomatoes. Paidakia, grilled lamb chops, are also popular, and tend to be gamier and chewier (because the sheep live longer) than those at home.

The commonest desserts are baklava, tissue-thin filo pastry layered with honey and chopped nuts; and galaktoboureko (or the similar, but syrup-free bougatsa), a semolina-based creamy custard pie also made with layered filo. Other pastries are also worth a try, though they are often on the sweet side.

Yoghurt in Greece is usually 10% fat, and a quite different experience from a slimline version from Sainsbury's. Try it with a spoon of honey, with or without fresh fruit such as watermelon.

Breakfast treats include tiropita, cheese pie; spanakopita, spinach pie; bougatsa, or crusty village bread known as horiatiko psomi, all washed down with coffee.

Geography

Greece lies at the southern end of the Balkan Peninsula, bordering Bulgaria, the Republic of Macedonia and Albania to the north; and surrounded to the west by the Ionian Sea, to the south by the Mediterranean and to the east by the Aegean and the west coast of Turkey. Ranging in latitude from around 35° to 42°N and in longitude from 19° to 28°30′E, its climate ranges from Mediterranean in Athens and the islands to Alpine in the west and temperate in eastern Macedonia and Thrace.

The country consists of a large mainland; the Peloponnese Peninsula, connected to the southern tip of the mainland by the Isthmus of Corinth; and 6,000 islands (227 inhabited) including Crete, Rhodes, Corfu, the Dodecanese and the Cyclades.  Altogether the country has about 14,000 kilometres of coastline.

Some 80% of Greece is mountainous. The Pindus chain crosses the centre of the country from northwest to southeast, with a maximum elevation of 2,637 metres. Extensions of the Pindus stretch across the Peloponnese and under the Aegean, forming many of the Aegean Islands including Crete, and joining the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey. Central and Western Greece contain high, steep peaks dissected by canyons including the Meteora and the Vikos Gorges - the latter the third deepest in the world after Mexico's Copper Canyon and the Grand Canyon, plunging to a depth of over 1,100 metres. Mount Olympus to the southwest of Thessaloniki is the highest point in the country, rising to 2,919 metres above sea level. The Rhodope Mountains form the border with Bulgaria, in a region covered with vast, thick forests. Plains are found in eastern Thessaly, central Macedonia and western Thrace, while western Greece contains a number of lakes and wetlands.

Getting around

You can get almost anywhere in Greece by bus - eventually - with inexpensive regular services covering long and short distances, and often including ferry transit. Trains are more comfortable, but services are limited by the country's difficult terrain. The main route between Athens and Thessaloniki has been modernised and upgraded, while the historical trains of Pelion, the Rack Railway in Kalavryta and the scenic route between Katakolo and Olympia are a great way to tour the countryside.

Driving a hire car gives you much more freedom, though city lanes, motorways and mountain roads can be hair-raising for different reasons. A car is less flexible if you're island-hopping, as car ferry services are limited and expensive.

There's a good ferry service to all the main islands in the high season, but the most relaxing and rewarding way to island-hop is on a sailing tour. In the off-season the seas can be rough and boats are often kept in port.

There are also many fabulous options for hiking, cycling and kayaking in the mountains and on the islands.

History

"Those who tell the stories rule society."
Plato

The first inhabitants of Greece were primitive tribes-people now known as Pelasgians. The first advanced civilizations were the Cycladic (in the Cyclades) and the Minoan in Crete and Santorini. The Minoans had a written language that has yet to be deciphered by archaeologists.

Indo-European peoples arrived in the country from the north from around 1700 BC, and slowly invaded the country all the way south to Crete and to the west coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey). The first Greek-speaking civilization, the Mycenean, was centred in the Peloponnese. Many Ancient Greeks made a living from the sea, becoming accomplished fishermen, sailors and traders.

Greek city-states arose in the period 1200 to 800 BC, heralding Greece's Golden Age, which lasted for centuries and spurred many notable scientific, architectural, political, economic, artistic and literary achievements. Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Thebes were the most prominent, but several other advanced city-states and colonies also developed across the Aegean basin and spreading into southern Italy.

In the 4th century BC, the northern Macedonian kingdom, under Alexander the Great, conquered all of Greece, and proceeded eastward, creating an empire that stretched as far as South Asia. The empire broke up after Alexander's death, and Greece was eventually annexed by Rome. Although politically weak, Greek civilisation continued to flourish under Roman rule and greatly influenced Roman culture.

Christianity arrived in Greece with the teachings of St Paul during the 1st century AD, eventually spreading throughout Greece and the Roman Empire. In the 4th century, Constantine the Great legalised Christian worship and declared it the state religion throughout the empire. He moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium (now Istanbul), renaming it Constantinople. Internal divisions eventually divided the Roman Empire into a western and eastern half, and while the west was eventually sacked by invaders from northern Europe, the east survived for another millennium as the Byzantine Empire until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

With the capture of Constantinople, Greece fell under Turkish rule, but held onto its Greek-speaking Christian culture. Many Greeks fled the country, establishing communities elsewhere in Europe that would later influence the Greek Revolution.

The Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice competed with the Ottoman Turks for control of parts of Greece, conquering islands and coastal areas, and bringing Renaissance ideas to Crete, Corfu and the Peloponnese. In the 18th century, the Enlightenment, in both Venetian and Genoese-occupied Greece and among Greek communities abroad, led to the goal of an independent, unified and sovereign Greek state. The Greek Revolution finally broke out on 25 March 1821, and led to a long war for independence against the Ottomans. The revolution gained attention across Europe, with Russia, Britain and France sending military aid.

The nation finally achieved independence in 1829. The new state was briefly a republic, before becoming a monarchy at the behest of major European powers. During the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, Greece gradually annexed neighbouring islands and territories with Greek-speaking populations.

The country sided with the allies during World War I. Declaring neutrality during World War II, the country was nevertheless invaded by Mussolini in 1941. Greek forces succeeded in pushing back the Italians, but then Germany stepped in to occupy the country until its liberation towards the end of the war.

Civil war broke out in 1946 between Communist rebels and royalists, the former supported by Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania and the latter by the Britain and the US. The Communists were defeated in 1949, by which time the country was battered, and many people emigrated in search of a better life abroad.

Greece joined NATO in 1952, nurturing economic growth and social change. A right-wing military dictatorship staged a coup in 1967, disbanding all political parties and forcing many Greeks into exile, from prominent Communists to King Constantine II and his family. Democracy was restored in 1974, when a national referendum abolished the monarchy and created a parliamentary republic.

Greece joined the EC (later EU) in 1981, and the country's tourism industry - which had been based around the hippy trail since the 1960s - began to really flourish. From 5 million annual visitors in 1980, numbers grew to over 17 million by the turn of the 21st century. The country suffered serious economic stagnation in the 1980s, then enjoyed remarkable growth in the 1990s, fuelled by heavy investment, trade and EU aid. An influx of immigrants began in the late 1980s, from Eastern and Central Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and now number at least one million, or close to 10% of the population.

The broad success and feel-good factor of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens have since been usurped by economic and political turmoil. High public spending combined with widespread tax evasion; the credit crunch and the resulting recession have led to a crippling debt burden. EU bailouts totalling 240 billion euros have been unable to plug the funding gap, and the economy shrank by 23% between 2008 and 2013, with no imminent sign of an upturn. The accompanying austerity cuts have made politicians of the ruling parties deeply unpopular. The 2012 elections delivered a notably shaky, conservative-led coalition, while the virulently anti-immigration Golden Dawn party claimed 18 seats in parliament for the first time.

"Friends show their love in times of trouble."
Euripides

Shopping

The Centre of Hellenic Tradition (with great views of the Acropolis) and Ethnikos Organismos (the National Welfare Organisation) in Athens offer a wide selection of traditional arts and crafts including ceramics, woodcarvings, prints, hand-loomed rugs, silk embroidery and copperwork.

Rhodes and Crete are known for leather goods (of variable quality) including sandals, handbags, belts and jackets. The fur trade, centred in Kastoria and Siatista in northwestern Macedonia, offers coats, jackets, stoles and muffs made from the skins of adorable and endangered animals including mink, beaver, lynx, bobcat, sable and chinchilla. A sizeable chunk of this output is exported to Russia.

Athens has internationally known jewellers such as LALAoUNIS and Zolotas, Chania on Crete has a number of artisan outlets offering good quality gold and silverwork, and jewellery shops abound on Rhodes, Mykonos, Santorini, Skiathos, Hydra and other islands.

Crete, Chios, Mitilini, Sifnos, and Skopelos are also good for ceramics; Crete (again) and Metsovo for textiles; and Corfu and the villages of the Peloponnese for olive-wood boards, bowls and utensils.

Organic, ethically produced olive oil, honey, jams, soaps and cosmetics have become quite widely available in recent years. Perhaps demand will someday outstrip that of the fur trade.

Tipping

A service charge is normally included in restaurant bills, but a small tip is welcomed. Taxi drivers expect you to round up the fare, while hotel porters or ferry stewards helping with heavy luggage appreciate a couple of euros for their trouble.

Where to eat

Eating out is a national pastime. If in doubt about which restaurant to choose, follow the locals (who generally won't sit down to supper until at least 9 pm). For decades, the food served in tourist areas tended to be of a poor standard, but these days it's much easier to find a satisfying and authentic traditional meal.

International cuisine is also widely available, but vegetarians (especially vegans) still face a struggle. Where salad is available as a main dish, it is often accompanied by cheese, meat or fish, and some cooks and waiting staff may be puzzled or offended by a request for veggie alternatives that are not on the menu. Many dips, starters and side dishes, however, are meat- and dairy-free.

Kafetéries are popular hangouts also serving wine, beer, spirits, snacks and desserts, transitioning into bars come evening. Greek coffee is served strong and thick and usually sweetened, with foam on top and grounds in the bottom of the cup. If you're wary of the local brew, you won't have to venture far to find a hot or iced espresso, filter coffee or cappuccino.

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