As far back as 480 B.C, the rivaling city-states of Ancient Greece faced fierce power struggles from within, as well as the threat of slavery and death by distant tyrants with armies so massive they shook the ground. Throughout the passing centuries, the war-torn region experienced periods of conquest by the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, who left footprints that would echo throughout eternity. From these complex political movements and often brutal confrontations, the influx of new technologies, engineering techniques, and precious materials allowed Greece to prosper into the multi-faceted culture we see today.
On March 25, 1821, Greece declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire and was officially recognized as a country in its own right, ushering in an age of freedom. Nowadays, the spellbinding history surrounding the aptly named cradle of Western civilization sees over 30 million visitors flock to its lands each year to soak up the rich historical legacy, as well as enjoy world-class beaches and a continental climate.
We’ve compiled the ultimate summertime guide to Greece, the legendary home of the gods of Greek mythology.
Before you go and good to know
Getting there and around
The busiest airport in Greece is in the capital of Athens. This international hub receives direct flights from most European cities; however, the airports in Santorini and Crete also run several flights throughout Europe.
As a country with thousands of hidden islands, the ideal way to travel to them once in Greece is by ferry, while taking in the epic coastlines along the way. One of the best sites to book ferries is Ferryhopper, which offers daily trips to the major ports scattered across the peninsula. Although tickets don’t generally sell out, it is a good idea to book at least a few weeks in advance to give yourself some peace of mind while vacationing.
In terms of traversing the islands, there are several options. Renting a car from Athens and taking it on the ferry can be a handy way to avoid wasting time once the ferry arrives; however, all of the islands have affordable rental companies that offer scooters, buggies, ATVs, and bikes at a reasonable price, too.
Widely considered to be the birthplace of democracy and Western civilization, Greece’s evolution has transformed the country into one that enjoys a captivating mix of both history and myth. With a tale that traverses the Bronze age and the classical, Roman, and Ottoman periods, the secluded islands and vast mainland of Greece offer a compelling insight into human history.
Start your own Herculean adventure by visiting the birthplace of civilization at the Acropolis in Athens and the throne of Zeus at Mount Olympus on the mainland, all before journeying across the horizon to the Minoan palaces of Knossos on the island of Crete.
A great way to discover the roots of the time of legend is by attending one of the diverse and vivacious events around the country every year. The Athens Epidaurus Festival takes place from June to August and showcases ancient drama, plays, ballets, operas, art exhibitions, and classical music concerts around several theaters in Athens.
Other popular summer festivals include Megaro Gyzi Festival in Santorini every August, with its traditional music and eclectic art exhibitions; Naxos Festival in the Cyclades, showcasing theater performances and art workshops between July and August; and Sani Festival in Halkidiki, which offers dance performances and painting exhibitions from July to September.
Food and drink
The Greek’s intense pride in their history means that many of the dishes found in the charming restaurants nowadays very closely resemble those eaten decades, even centuries, ago. One such ancient dish is the absolutely delicious, sun-dried octopus. Found in most fish taverns across the remote islands, the octopus is first hung out in the sun for up to 24 hours before being charcoal grilled, seasoned with fresh lemon, and washed down with a generous glass of some local ouzo. Truly a meal fit for Zeus himself!
Other tastebud-tingling dishes not to be missed in the land of the setting sun include creamy feta cheese salads; fried fish and calamari fresh from the Mediterranean or Aegean Sea; gyros filled with spit-roasted meat and Tzatziki sauce; the iconic, oven-baked Moussaka; and, of course, olives with lashings of that famous olive oil that has been perfected by the Greeks over thousands of years.
Places to visit
As the capital of Greece and one of the world’s oldest cities, with a recorded history dating back over 3,000 years, Athens is an ideal way to start your Greek adventure. There are few sites as iconic as the 2,500-year-old Acropolis, which rests majestically on a rocky outcrop right in the heart of the city. Some of the monuments found at this fabled site are generally considered the greatest architectural achievements of Ancient Greece, such as the towering Parthenon. The city flourishes with history around every corner; however, those looking to delve deeper into how advanced the ancient Greeks were shouldn’t miss the chance to visit The National Archaeological Museum—widely regarded as one of the best in the world.
In terms of soaking up the local culture, the Monastiraki Flea Market offers a veritable feast for the senses. It’s one of the liveliest squares in the city, where locals come from far and wide to sell their wares. The crisscrossed streets of the neighborhood itself are also a great spot to take a much-needed break by sipping on a cocktail at one of the rooftop bars while gazing upon the monumental views of the magnificent Parthenon. After a busy day exploring, there’s no better end to the day than watching the sunset over the Acropolis from Mount Lycabettus.
The whitewashed oasis of Mykonos is just a scenic, two-hour ferry ride from Athens, with tickets generally costing between 20 and 40 euros. Located in the center of the Cyclades, the picturesque paradise offers a fantastic mix of glamorous nightlife and old-world simplicity. The winding streets of the capital, Hora, or Mykonos Town, create a wonderful, labyrinth-like setting, with colorful wooden doors, charming local houses, and tiny Greek churches at every turn, while Little Venice boasts jaw-dropping vistas come sunset.
Other must-see corners of this island gem include the iconic Mykonos windmills, standing high on a hill near Mykonos Town; the Church of Panagia Paraportiani, with its four, unique chapels, each built at a different point in history; and the mythical birthplace of Apollo, Delos island, which showcases the ancient ruins of temples, villas, and theaters. If dancing until the sun comes up is what you’re looking for, Cavo Paradiso is the place to be. The international DJ lineup at this beach club offers an unforgettable night of clubbing, meeting fellow partygoers, and watching an indescribable sunrise across the vast Aegean Sea.
As one of the lesser known islands, compared to tourist hubs, such as Santorini, the enchanting island of Milos truly is a hidden gem not to be missed during a Greek adventure. Generally cheaper and less crowded than its more popular counterparts, the undisturbed coves and caves of Milos make a welcome respite away from the crowds.
The beaches of Sarakiniko and Kleftiko will leave you breathless with the sheer beauty of their white cliffs and rich geology. Kleftiko, an old pirate hideaway, is only reachable by boat, meaning that taking a trip around the island from one of the many tour companies is an absolute must. At Sarakiniko, you’ll find a moonscape, alien-like environment, where you can explore the hidden coves, bathe in the calm, shallow inlet, and even try some exhilarating cliff jumping.
There are so many remote beaches on the island that you’ll need at least a few days and a rental car to truly get the most out of Milos, including Firiplaka Beach, Paliochori Beach, Firopotamos Beach, the ancient village of Klima, and the fishing village of Mantrakia, which has some of the best seafood found anywhere in Greece at the superb Medusa Restaurant.
The quintessential image of the Greek islands for many is the blue domed churches of Santorini. This rugged, volcanic island affords some spectacular sunsets, and the whitewashed towns that dot the jagged slopes are sure to captivate visitors.
That world-renowned image of the dreamy, blue domes can be found in the quaint village of Oia, located on the northern point of the island. Although this may be one of the most picture-perfect spots on the planet, it’s important to take note that the town gets incredibly busy in the afternoon—often with hour-long queues just to get that perfect snap. Try getting the early bus to arrive by around 9 a.m. so you can take in all the beauty away from the impending mobs.
Another unique spot in Santorini is Red Beach, found on the south side of the island, which is a curious red sand cove that is towered by dramatic, Mars-like cliffs. There are other black and gray sand beaches nearby that are worth a visit, including Perivolos, Perissa, and Kamari, while the towns of Akrotiri, Caldera, and Fira offer a generous combination of old-world charm and Instagram-worthy photo ops.
The ferry route from Santorini to Crete runs several times a day and takes just a few hours—making the historical center of Europe’s earliest advanced civilization an essential stop while island-hopping. As the biggest island in Greece, it’s advisable to prolong a stay at the birthplace of Zeus to take in all the godly sights on offer. Regularly spoken of as Europe’s oldest city, the Palace of Knossos is an ancient architecture lover’s dream, while the Sacred Monastery of Arkadi and the Koules Fortress both offer a glimpse into the more recent history of Crete.
Heavenly beaches are also scattered across the island, one of the most beautiful and notable being Balos Lagoon. Wedged between the capes of Gramvousa and Tigani, the shallow turquoise waters are simply divine. Another essential day trip while in Crete is Elafonisi Beach, made famous by the movie, "Captain Corelli’s Mandolin." In this dreamlike nature reserve, the angelic pink sand and clear turquoise water offer a genuine celestial slice of paradise.
Local culture brims on the island, too, with Chania’s Venetian Harbour, Lake Voulismeni, and Rethymnon Old Town containing a gorgeous blend of sweet cobblestoned streets, intriguing Renaissance architecture, and a plethora of lively bars and delectable local restaurants that serve fresh local produce.
For more exciting travel guides, jam-packed with helpful information for your upcoming trips, check out our Travel Guide series on the blog!