Sprawling, globalized Athens is an obligatory, almost unavoidable introduction to Greece: home to over a third of the population, it is on first acquaintance a nightmare for many, but also – as Greeks themselves often joke – tó megálo horió: the largest “village” in the country. Aside from the show-stopping Acropolis it offers a truly metropolitan range of cultural diversions, from museums to concerts; well-stocked shops; gourmet restaurants and stimulating clubs, plus an excellent transport infrastructure. Thessaloníki, the metropolis of the north, has emerged in its own right as a lively, sophisticated place with restaurants and nightlife to match that of Athens, Byzantine monuments compensating for a lack of “ancient” ones, and – among the inhabitants – a tremendous capacity for enjoying life.
Apart from these cities the mainland shows its best side in the well-preserved Classical ruins of Corinth, Olympia and Delphi, the frescoed Byzantine churches and monasteries at Mount Áthos, Metéora, Ósios Loukás, Kastoriá and Mystra, the massive fortified towns of Monemvasiá, Náfplio and Methóni, the distinctive architecture of Zagóri and the Máni, and the long, sandy beaches of the Peloponnese and the Pelion peninsula. Perhaps more surprisingly, the mainland mountains offer some of the best and least-exploited hiking, rafting, canyoning and skiing in Europe.
Out in the Aegean or Ionian seas, you’re more spoilt for choice for where to go. Perhaps the best strategy for first-time visitors is to sample assorted islands from nearby archipelagos – Crete, the Dodecanese, the Cyclades and the northeast Aegean are all reasonably well connected with each other, while the Sporades, Argo-Saronic and Ionian groups are best visited in single trips. If time and money are short, the best place to head for is well-preserved Ýdhra in the Argo-Saronic Gulf, just a short ride from Pireás (the main port of Athens), but an utterly different place once the day-cruises have gone. Similarly, Skýros, remotest and most unspoilt of the Sporades, is a good choice within modest reach of Athens or Thessaloníki. Among the Cyclades, cataclysmically volcanic Santoríni (Thíra) and Mýkonos with its perfectly preserved harbour-town rank as must-see spectacles, but fertile, mountainous Náxos, dramatic cliff-sided Amorgós or gently rolling Sífnos have life more independent of cruise-ship tourism and seem more amenable to long stays. Crete could (and does) fill an entire Rough Guide to itself, but the highlights here are Knossos and the nearby archeological museum in Iráklion, the other Minoan palaces at Phaestos and Ayía Triádha, and the west in general – the proud city of Haniá, with its hinterland extending to the relatively unspoilt southwest coast, reachable via the fabled Samarian gorge. Rhodes, with its unique old town, is capital of the Dodecanese, but picturesque, Neoclassical Sými opposite, and austere, volcanic Pátmos, the island of Revelation, are far more manageable. It’s easy to continue north via Híos, with its striking medieval architecture, to balmy, olive-cloaked Lésvos, perhaps the most traditional island in its way of life. The Ionian islands are often dismissed as package-holiday territory, but their Venetian-style architecture, especially evident in Corfu, and neighbouring Paxí, make them well worth seeking out, especially on a journey between Greece and Italy.