While its economic reputation has taken a battering, Greece remains a premier-league travel destination. Its incredible historic sites span four millennia, encompassing both the legendary and the obscure. Its convoluted coastline is punctuated by superb beaches, while its mountainous interior urges you to dust off your hiking boots and explore. Yet perhaps its greatest riches are the islands, ranging from backwaters where the boat calls twice a week to resorts as cosmopolitan as any in the Mediterranean.
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For anyone with a cultural bone in their body Greece cannot fail to inspire. Minoans, Romans, Arabs, Latin Crusaders, Venetians, Slavs, Albanians and Turks have all left their mark, and almost every town or village has a link to the past, whether it’s a delicately crumbling temple to Aphrodite, a forbidding Venetian fort or a dusty Byzantine monastery decorated with exquisite frescoes. And let’s not forget the museums stuffed to bursting with Classical sculpture and archeological treasures.
But the call to cultural duty will never be too overwhelming on a Greek holiday. The hedonistic pleasures of languor and warmth – swimming in balmy seas at dusk, talking and drinking under the stars – are just as appealing. Bar a few upmarket and “boutique” exceptions you may struggle to find five-star comfort – orthopaedic mattresses, faultless plumbing and cordon bleu cuisine are not the country’s strongpoint – but this isn’t really what the Greek experience is about. Greek food, for example, is at its best fresh, abundant and uncomplicated, while the genuine welcome you receive at the simplest taverna is often enough to get you booking next year’s break as soon as you have returned home.
Whatever you come here for, it’s clear that Greece needs its tourists like never before. For the last few years it’s been synonymous with financial calamity with a titanic debt crisis seemingly ready to engulf Europe. However, this seems to have put off few people (visits to the islands were up 30 percent in 2011). Perhaps they know what we’ve known since the first edition of this guide was published thirty years ago – Greece can offer surprises and a true sense of discovery to even the most demanding traveller.
Facts about Greece
- Greece has about 14,400km of coastline, the tenth longest in the world.
- Out of a total population of 10.7 million, 4 percent are immigrants (mostly from Albania). There are also large Greek communities in the US, UK and Australia (Melbourne is the third-largest “Greek” city).
- With over 370 brands, anise-flavoured ouzo is country's most famous and popular beverage. Come the evening, the Greeks sip it with a little ice and water while tucking into mezédhes. Stin uyeia sou!
- Tourism is the country’s main foreign-currency earner, with up to ten million visitors from overseas in a good year; export of agricultural products – especially olive oil and olives, citrus, wine and raisins – is another key industry.
- Easter is the biggest date on the calendar. Instead of chocolate eggs, locals exchange hard-boiled ones painted red.
Outdoor activities in Greece
The Greek seashore offers endless scope for watersports, from waterskiing and parasailing to yachting and windsurfing. On land, the greatest attraction lies in hiking, through what is one of Europe’s more impressive mountain terrains. Winter also sees possibilities for skiing at a number of underrated centres. As for spectator sports, the twin Greek obsessions are football (soccer) and basketball, with volleyball a close third.
Windsurfing is very popular around Greece: the country’s bays and coves are ideal for beginners, with a few spectacularly windy spots for experts. Board rental rates are reasonable and instruction is generally also available. Waterski boats spend most of their time towing people around on bananas or other inflatables, though you usually can waterski or wakeboard as well, while parasailing (parapént in Greek) is also on offer at all the big resorts. Jet skis can be rented in many resorts, too, for a fifteen-minute burst of fuel-guzzling thrills.
A combination of steady winds, appealing seascapes and numerous natural harbours has long made Greece a tremendous place for sailing. All sorts of bareboat and flotilla yacht trips are on offer (see Sailing and watersports), while dinghies, small cats and motor boats can be rented at many resorts. For yachting, spring and autumn are the most pleasant seasons; meltémi winds can make for nauseous sailing in July and August when you’ll also find far higher prices and crowded moorings. The Cyclades suffer particularly badly from the meltémi, and are also relatively short on facilities: better choices are to explore the Sporades from Skiáthos; to set out from Athens for the Argo-Saronic islands and north Peloponnese coast; or to sail around Corfu and the Ionians, though here winds can be very light.
Because of the potential for pilfering submerged antiquities, scuba diving is still restricted, though relaxation of the controls has led to a proliferation of dive centres across the mainland, Dodecanese, Ionians, Cyclades and Crete. There’s not a huge amount of aquatic life surviving around Greece’s over-fished shores, but you do get wonderfully clear water, while the rocky coast offers plenty of caves and hidden nooks to explore.
In the Peloponnese, central mainland and Epirus, there’s much potential for rafting and kayaking.
Skiing is a comparative newcomer to Greece, beginning on Mount Parnassós in the 1950s. With global warming, snow conditions are unpredictable at the southernmost resorts, and runs remain generally short. However, there are now eighteen ski centres scattered about the mountains, and what they may lack in professionalism is often made up for by an easy-going, unpretentious après-ski scene. The season generally lasts from the beginning of January to the beginning of April, with a few extra weeks possible at either end, depending on snow conditions. No foreign package operators currently feature Greece among their offerings – it’s very much a local, weekender scene.
The most developed of the resorts is Kelária-Fterólakkas on Parnassós, the legendary mountain near Delphi, though high winds often close the lifts. Other major ski centres include Vórras (Mount Kaïmaktsalán), near Édhessa; Veloúhi (Mount Tymfristós), near Karpeníssi in central Greece; Helmós, near Kalávryta on the Peloponnese; and Vérmion, near Náoussa in Macedonia.
Walking and cycling
If you have the time and stamina, walking is probably the single best way to see the remote backcountry, with plenty of options from gentle strolls to long-distance mountain paths. This guide includes some of the more accessible mountain hikes, as well as suggestions for more casual walking on the mainland and islands; there are also plenty of companies offering walking holidays. In addition, you may want to acquire a countrywide or regional hiking guidebook and some detailed maps.
Cycling is less popular with Greeks, but in an increasing number of resorts you can hire mountain bikes, and many of the rental places lead organized rides, which again vary from easy explorations of the countryside to serious rides up proper mountains. Summer heat can be fierce, but spring and autumn offer great riding and walking conditions. Again, there are specialist companies offering cycling breaks in Greece.
Football and basketball
Football (soccer) is far and away the most popular sport in Greece – both in terms of participating and watching, its status strengthened still further by Greece’s unexpected emergence as Euro 2004 champions. The most important teams are Panathanaïkós (www.pao.gr) and AEK (aekfc.gr) of Athens, Olympiakós of Pireás (olympiacos.org) and PAOK of Thessaloníki (paokfc.gr). Matches – usually Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons – take place between September and May, and tickets are generally not too hard to come by at prices far lower than in the UK.
The national basketball team is one of Europe’s strongest, while at club level, many of the football teams maintain basketball squads – Panathanaïkós are the most consistently successful.
Six of the best windsurfing spots
- Vassilikí on Lefkádha island
- Sánta María, Páros
- Prassoníssi, Rhodes
- Kokkári, Sámos
- Kouremenos, eastern Crete
- Karathónas, Peloponnese
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