Picture Greece, and what do you see? Sun-baked white sand beaches, sparkling turquoise ocean and queues of overheated tourists queuing for ferries? You're not alone. While the multi-island nation – spread out across the Agean – is undoubtedly a summer favourite, there’s a whole lot to explore in the wintertime too. Pack your scarf and your history books and get ready to see a new side to the country. Here’s why a trip to Greece in winter makes a whole lot of sense.
Explore ancient and modern in Athens
Athens in June or July is something you never forget. The intense heat can make slogging round the Acropolis more of an endurance sport than an entertaining excursion. In winter, there’s a fraction of the tourists and you won’t get sunstroke as soon as you start the climb. Greek weather in December and January is still pleasant, with daytime highs of around 12ºC, and frequent sunny days.
The Acropolis dominates the city from every angle, so it's only natural to make exploring this fascinating testament to the city’s past a priority. Exploring the Parthenon and Temple of Athena Nike, built 2,500 years ago, will awaken your inner archaeologist. Next up is the National Archeological Museum, home to the finest collection of ancient Greek art and sculpture in the world (naturally).
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The Acropolis in all its glory © Lambros Kazan/Shutterstock
With Ancient Greece well explored, you can spend the next day digging into Athens’ more modern attractions. What Athens lacks in visual beauty (much of the city is comprised of boxy concrete buildings) it more than makes up for in other ways. The city has a legendary cafe culture and locals can be found in deep discussion at cafe tables for hours at a time. Join them and you might learn more about Greece today than any history book or doom-laden newspaper article can tell you. Equally renowned is the city’s nightlife, which ranges from bouzouki clubs (live-music venues featuring the country’s top musicians) to gritty late-night bar crawls.
Head to the Peloponnese Peninsula
Across the isthmus of Corinth from Athens, you’ll reach the Peloponnese, perfect for enjoying a taste of rural Greece without depending on ferry schedules. There are quaint fishing villages, dusty olive groves (Kalamata olives originate here), and traditional tavernas at every turn. Regional dishes are packed with local produce like aubergines – served stuffed with meat and baked in the oven – sea bream, grilled and flavoured with rosemary, and artichokes – often served in an omelette with pork and manouri cheese, all cooked in lashings of delicious golden olive oil.
Base yourself in the chic town of Nafplio with its pretty waterfront and Venetian fortress overlooking it all. If your thirst for Greek ruins is not yet slaked, make time to visit the site of Ancient Corinth, the incredibly well-preserved amphitheatre at Epidaurus and the beehive-like Tomb of Agamemnon.
Go hiking on Crete
The largest island in Greece, Crete has it all… beautiful beaches, fascinating archaeological sites, and, in summer, towns thronged with rowdy teenagers escaping after A-levels. When the tourists leave and the weather cools, another side of the island reveals itself. A visit to Greece in winter is a great opportunity to get active without the oppressive heat spoiling your fun. There are miles upon miles of hiking trails to enjoy here, where you’ll come across trees heavy with ripe oranges, or decorated with delicate almond blossoms. The White Mountains in the centre of the island will be dusted with snow, lending a picture-postcard backdrop to your excursions. The town of Chania on the north coast of the island makes a great base for a round-trip multi-day hike, stopping at family-owned inns along the way.
Hiking the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) in Crete © Markus Bolliger/Shutterstock
Start and end your trip to Crete in Heraklion, where signs of the island’s history as a former Venetian outpost are clearly visible. Spot the Venetian winged lions at the waterfront Koules fortress, and poke your head into the courtyard at the loggia in Lion square, where Venetian nobles once gathered to make municipal decisions.
Of course, no trip to Crete would be complete without a day trip to Knossos, just outside Heraklion, and considered by many to be Europe’s oldest city. With evidence of human habitation dating back to neolithic times (7000 BC), the historic significance of the site is hard to overstate. And if that isn’t interesting enough, Knossos is also the mythological home of King Minos and his Minotaur.
Enjoy the peace on Hydra
Sit in a waterfront cafe on Hydra (just off the Peloponnese coast) and what you’ll hear is… nothing. Well, that’s not strictly true – you might hear animated conversation, the clink of cutlery and the soft putt-putt of boats coming into the harbour. But you won’t hear cars, motorbikes or vans – there are no motorised vehicles on the island. If you’re in need of a few days away from the pressures of work and commuting then Hydra makes a great choice. Boats come into the main town of Hydra port, and from there you can get around on foot, on a donkey or by water taxi. Drop your bags at your hotel or guesthouse, then allow yourself to wander with no fixed agenda. You’ll be in good company; Leonard Cohen owned a holiday home on the island, and the Rolling Stones often spent holidays here in years past. Just remember to leave your phone switched off.
Hydra island, Greece © kokixx/Shutterstock
For the ultimate trip to Greece in winter – go skiing!
Yes, you read that correctly. If you’re not willing to give up your annual escape to the slopes you can combine the two with a trip to Greece in winter. The country has several ski resorts, the biggest of which is at Mount Parnassos, near Delphi. Though smaller than your regular Alpine resort, Parnassos has 23 trails of varying difficulty and a network of cross country trails, plus gear rental shops and food options – everything you need for a day on the mountain. Stay in nearby Arachova and enjoy the town’s welcoming nightlife, or make the day trip from Athens.
Top image: Hydra island © Romas_Photo/Shutterstock