Just the mention of Greece conjures up postcard-perfect images of bright blue-roofed homes near aquamarine waters and awe-inspiring ancient ruins that tower above. But Greece is so much more than just gorgeous beaches and historic ruins. Think the country’s wildlife is limited to donkeys on Santorini or alley cats in Athens? You don’t know Prespa Lakes, one of Europe’s most important natural sanctuaries and home to more than 300 species of birds and mammals. And we bet you’ve never heard of the drakospita, ancient and mysterious stone structures that rival the marvel of Stonehenge.
Whether you want to immerse yourself in the culture of ancient Greece or island hop with your own skipper, stopping for meals of freshly caught fish on an isolated beach with no one else around, Greece has a multitude of extraordinary experiences just waiting for you to try.
Like the rest of the country, Athens is a city steeped in history, tradition and culture. Visitors can get an excellent introduction to all of this through museum visits and guided tours. But seeing an exhibit of traditional tableware and going to a Greek restaurant are not the same as eating a meal made with the same ingredients as an ancient recipe on a plate thousands of years old. Ditto for looking at displays of ancient Greek clothes through glass versus being able to touch them. Such immersive experiences are hard to find, but do exist if you know where to look.
Get Educated in Athens
Athenian Muse offers a variety of educational experiences that combine a lecture with meals, wine tastings or even a fashion show. For instance, the three- to four-hour Ancient Greek Gastronomy experience starts with a lecture on ancient Greek food and tableware by an archaeologist, followed by a six-course meal on authentic reproductions of millennia-old dishes. During the 3.5-hour Haute Couture in Greek Antiquity experience, a scholar talks about ancient clothing styles, while a practical demonstration on a live model shows what the clothing really looked like. Other experiences center on coffee making, musical and literary traditions, and Greek wine.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Late Roman Empire (Turkey, Greece, Italy) by Jose Claudio B R Cardoso
“The Parthenon at the top of the hill was much damaged along the centuries. From its original destination as a temple for Athena, it was later an Orthodox church, a Catholic church and a mosque. A lot of (pagan) sculptures were damaged by zealous early Christians, while others were being removed to other places (mainly British Museum). It was also hit by cannon bullets during a war. A lot of restoration was and [is] being done.” Read more!
Take a Yoga Retreat
Greece’s golden sunshine, unspoiled beaches and glittering sea views create the perfect setting to escape from the real world for a little while. For total physical and mental relaxation, why not practice your downward-facing dog pose on a beach as the sun sets over the Aegean?
Yoga retreats are offered in destinations across Greece, with many open to both beginners and more advanced yoga practitioners. In addition to daily yoga classes, retreats typically include fresh, healthy meals and plenty of free time to laze around on the beach or explore local villages.
Silver Island Yoga, located on its own private island, limits guests to just 10 per week for a truly intimate escape. Aegialis Hotel & Spa is a larger resort with an extensive thalassotherapy spa where you can treat yourself to body scrubs and hot stone massages in between yoga classes. Yoga Rocks in southern Crete hosts a rotating cast of instructors to lead weeklong retreats in a variety of disciplines, from Prana Flow to Ashtanga. Seefor an extensive list of yoga retreats in Greece.
[st_related]How to Incorporate Wellness into Your Next Trip[/st_related]
Spot Wildlife at Prespa Lakes
Whether you’re a birder looking to check off another species or you simply appreciate the beauty and serenity of a vast wildlife sanctuary, you’ll enjoy a visit to Prespa Lakes. The Megali (Great) and Mikri (Small) Prespa lie at the meeting point between Greece, Albania and Macedonia, and are famous for their high level of biodiversity. More than 260 species of birds and 40 types of mammals, including brown bears, wolves and wild boar, call these lakes their home. But you’ll also find Byzantine-era churches, monasteries and even cave paintings. One such church is St. Achilios, which can only be visited by walking across a floating bridge to an island in the Small Prespa.
There are multiple inns and bed and breakfasts in the Prespa Lakes region, so visiting on your own is not out of the question. However, English is not widely spoken, and signs are all in Greek. If you don’t feel the need for a tour guide but want some guidance, the Hotel Kinissi Palace, in nearby Thessaloniki, offers a two-night, self-drive Birding and Nature in Prespa Lakes tour. Want a guide? Tour operator Naturally Greece is located in the region and can put together a custom tour tailored to your needs.
[st_related]In Your Face: Nine Up-Close Animal Encounters[/st_related]
Take Part in an Olive Harvest
You can’t have that world-famous Greek cuisine without olives! If you’re interested in doing more than just eating these small, salty fruits, you can participate in an important Greek ritual: the autumn olive harvest.
Xenonas Fos ke Choros, a guesthouse on the island of Kythira, invites travelers for weeklong stays during the November harvesting season. You’ll spend a maximum of four days climbing trees and dropping olives into the waiting nets below. Included are meals, a Greek cooking workshop and a visit to an olive press factory. (Visit AGreekIsland.com and click on Special Holidays for more details.)
On the island of Crete, Saint Basil Olive Grove hosts tourists in villas located adjacent to the trees where it grows its organic olives. During olive harvest week in November, guests can hand-pick fruit from nursery trees, bag harvested olives and help prune the trees. In between harvest activities, you can take a “walking and wildflower” tour with a local guide, learn to cook traditional Cretan dishes and explore the old quarter of nearby Chania.
[st_related]12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies[/st_related]
Do the Greek Island Yacht Crawl
There is plenty to see and do on the Greek mainland, but let’s face it, the idyllic Greek Islands are a draw all on their own. There are more than 200 inhabited islands to choose from, the best known being Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes and Crete. Visitors can choose to visit two or three smaller islands, like Hydra and Poros, on a day-ferry trip from Athens or select an island farther afield to spend a few days exploring more thoroughly. A third option is to join a yacht trip and spend entire days on several islands without worrying about where to stay and how to get from island to island.
Yacht tour operator Off the Beaten Tack offers a variety of one-week sailings that run between Santorini and Mykonos but stop every day at a new place, many well off the beaten path, like a picturesque but uninhabited island for a barbecue of fresh fish. Each sailing is tailored to what passengers want to see or do, and can be themed around art, history, scuba diving, spirituality or yoga. The captain is familiar with the locals and can arrange visits to churches, tours of ancient ruins or meetings with artists, winemakers and more. Other Greek Island yacht tour providers are Poseidon Charters and SailtheGreekIslands.com.
[st_related]Nine Best Destinations to See from the Water[/st_related]
Go Back in Time in the Zagorohoria
It may be impossible to take a step back in time as far back as ancient Greece, but you can still get a taste of what local life was like a few hundred years back when you visit the 46 traditional villages known as the Zagorohoria (or Zagori). Here you’ll still find Old World architecture like arched stone bridges, steep cobbled paths and gray stone homes tiled with slate slabs. You’ll also find some of the country’s most beautiful alpine scenery. Tucked into the Pindus mountain range, the area is great for hikers, photographers and history buffs.
The Zagorohoria can be visited without a guide; there are numerous places to stay, and you can spend days exploring the villages (you’ll probably need to rent a car, as it’s not too easy to hike from one village to another). If you want something more organized, White Pegasus offers a selection of hikes and horse treks in the area, as does the Alpine Zone, which also runs white water rafting excursions. Some of the hotels offer their own tour services, such as Mikro Papigo in the village of Papigkon.
Get a Taste of Greece in Athens
Moussaka, dolmades, souvlaki. The names roll off the tongue, as exotic to say as they are to taste. Some of these dishes even date back to ancient Greek times; records of souvlaki have been found as early as the 17th century B.C. So while you’re stepping on the same stones Aristotle and his peers trod on in the Acropolis, take a break and try some of the same foods they ate.
The most interesting way to taste your way through Greece’s culinary traditions is to join a walking tour in Athens. There are lots of options, including three-hour tours from Viator and GetYourGuide. Athens Walks Tour Company’s four-hour offering starts off with a traditional Greek breakfast of koulourakia (sesame bread rings). Other stops serve up treats like loukoumades (Greek donuts), custard-filled filo squares, Greek cheese and yogurt, olives and, of course, local wine.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Greece on a Harley by Becky B.
“I arrived in Athens on a Saturday and it didn’t take me long to realize that Athens is just another New York City with lots of taxi cabs, few trees and too many people. I loved it anyway. I had no intention of visiting the Acropolis but when I visited the Monastiraki market I found myself within eyesight and walking distance. I was very glad that I did.” Read more!
Go Byzantine Church Hopping in Kastoria
With 54 Byzantine and medieval churches scattered around Kastoria, visitors are spoiled for choice in this northern Greek city. While not all are in good condition, many of the churches have been restored and feature fresco paintings, like St. Athanasius of Mouzaki with its painted scenes of saints dressed in Byzantine clothing. For more insights on Byzantine architecture and art, stop by the Museum of Byzantine History in Dexamenis Square. When you’re done with the Byzantine era, head to the old neighborhoods of Doltso and Apozari to see the 19th-century mansions once owned by rich fur traders.
You can visit many of the 54 churches in Kastoria just by wandering the streets, but to get a full sense of the history and importance of the city, you’ll want to join a tour. Culture 8 offers a two-hour walking tour through the city center that traces the history of the city from the Byzantine era to the beginning of the 20th century. Another option departs from Thessaloniki. Offered by Key Tours, the day tour stops first at the ancient lake settlement of Dispilio before heading to Kastoria for a visit to the Byzantine Museum and a walk through the old town.
Relax on Quiet Nisyros
If you don’t want to share your stretch of Greek paradise with dozens of other tourists, hop on a ferry (from Piraeus, Kos or Rhodes) to Nisyros. The island has it all: long stretches of beach, ancient Greek ruins and even a volcano. Sunbathers should head to beaches like Gialiskari (also called Lefki Beach) located less than two miles from Mandraki (the island’s capital); Katsouni, the largest on the island; secluded Lyes; or Chochlakia with its unique black-pebbled beach. For something a little different, visit the volcano where you can walk in and around the crater — the most recent explosion was in 1888. Don’t miss the Volcanological Museum, located on the edge of the caldera. Want more to explore? There are also ancient walls dating back to the fifth century, and the hilltop, built-in-a-cave monastery of Panagia Spiliani.
If you’re drawn to the seclusion of the beaches, you’ll want to stay on the island, but if you just want to see the main sights your best bet is a day tour departing from the island of Kos. Most are unguided and simply provide the inter-island ferry transport, but Key Tours’ six-hour offering includes a visit to the volcano and time to explore Mandraki.
Explore a Mystery on Evia
On Evia, one of the largest of Greece’s 1,000+ islands, is a mystery not unlike Easter Island’s Moai or England’s Stonehenge. Known as drakospita, or dragonhouses, these 25 large limestone house-like structures, dating back to the fourth and third centuries B.C., cling to the steep slopes of southern Evia’s rocky mountains. Theories on their purpose abound — a dragon lair, ancient sanctuary for Zeus, defensive guard post — but what is certain is that they are a marvel of ancient architecture.
Visiting the dragonhouses is not for the faint of heart; they can only be toured on foot and are found at altitudes as high as 4,500 feet. One of the most impressive is on Mt. Ochi. Visitors can go about halfway up the mountain by car, but then must hike the rest of the way. Alternatively, a full-day hike starts in the village of Myloi, not far from the main town of Karystos. If you can’t manage the hike, ancient relics retrieved from inside the Mt. Ochi dragonhouse can be viewed in the small Archaeological Museum of Karystos. There also is a dragonhouse that can be reached on foot from the village of Styra. Most hotels and B&Bs in southern Evia can offer guidance or even tours to the dragonhouses.
Best Time to Go to Greece
The majority of tourists traveling to Greece go there in the summer months, when temperatures are perfect for beach-going. Travelers can enjoy comfortable weather — while avoiding crowds of tourists — by visiting Greece during the spring or fall shoulder seasons. Winter is the low season for tourism to Greece, and during this time, many hotels and attractions close down. But travelers looking to ski on Greek mountains can take advantage of powdery slopes during the coldest months of the year.
Greece on a Budget
Prices in Greece vary greatly by season. You’ll pay the most for a hotel stay in July and August. On the other hand, winter rates for accommodations will be at their cheapest (that is, at the hotels that stay open during winter); the same goes with flights. Summer flights from the U.S. to Greece can be quite expensive, so look to book during shoulder or low season to save. A popular and budget-friendly way to tour the Greek Islands is by cruise ship. A variety of major cruise lines offer Eastern Mediterranean sailings, which stop at Greek ports including Athens, Corfu, Mykonos and Santorini.
–written by Dori Saltzman and Sarah Schlichter