Greece. It’s the land that gave us democracy and philosophy; a land of literature and legend; a land of myth and history. It’s got one of the most iconic and beautiful coastlines on the planet, famed archaeological sites and the nicest people you could hope to meet. And if all that wasn’t enough, those amazing Greeks also gave the world Feta. For this alone, we should be eternally grateful. Here’s your essential Guide to Greece.
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Reasons to Visit Greece
There are a lot of reasons to visit Greece and there’s so much to love. Every Island, Every city and every village has a unique identity and a special charm. In my ‘Guide to Greece’ series, I’ll be exploring the best (and maybe the worst) of Greece, according to moi! While I’ve been lucky enough to spend months at a time discovering Greece’s cities, islands and destinations, there’s really quite a lot to explore, so it’s going to take some time to grow this blog series. I hope that you’ll stick with me on the adventure.
Essential Guide to Greece
If you’re planning a visit to Greece, you should probably brush up on some of the essential things you need know before you go. I’ve put together a basic guide to Greece to hopefully make your trip a little smoother. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but they’re not all in the guide books or found online. Most are questions I asked myself at one point or another as I travelled around Greece or that other people have asked me along the way. Some information may vary from destination to destination, so be sure to read the post relevant to your particular Island or city.
Where is Greece?
Greece is situated in South-east Europe and is a gateway country to Europe. It is made up of a large mainland and surrounded by Islands that are popular holiday destinations, particularly for visitors from Europe and from Turkey.
How Many Islands Are in Greece?
There are up to 6000 Greek Islands if you count even the smallest of them. 227 are inhabited. That means that there are more inhabited Islands in Greece than there are countries in the world. That fact blew my mind and I nearly ran away with myself and grand ideas of visiting them all, but let’s not too get carried away! The Islands are spread throughout the Ionian Sea off Greece’s west coast and the Aegean Sea to the East and the South. They are grouped geographically.
The Ionian Islands
Off the West coast of Greece lie the Ionian Islands including well known Islands Corfu, Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Ithaki and Lefkada. They’re known for being green and fertile and they boast a rich cultural history. Based to the west of Greece, the influences come from the west, notably from the Venetian period and so these islands have a very distinct and different vibe from the islands of the Aegean.
The Saronic Islands
Known as wealthy, or upmarket islands, the Saronic Islands lie in the Saronic Gulf, off the south coast of Greece. The Islands are easily accessible from Athens and attract a large amount of Greek visitors and artsy people. The Islands include the famous Hydra, Spetses and Athenian favourite, Aegina.
The Sporades Islands
Think Mamma Mia! The film was partly shot on the islands of Skopelos and Skiathos which are well known islands in the Sporades group. These islands are in the north Aegean, just off Greece’s East coast.
The Cyclades Islands
This world famous group of Islands include the island’s you’re probably most familiar with: Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos, Ios and many more. They’re the picture perfect white buildings and blue domes against dramatic landscapes. They’re also the most crowded and expensive of the Island groups.
The Dodecanese Islands
Rhodes, Kos and Patmos count themselves among the Dodecanese Islands. They’re situated in the Aegean Sea, close to the Turkish coast. Steeped in history and with clear eastern influences from the Ottoman period and beyond, these islands are a cultural wonder.
Also close to Turkey, the North-Eastern Aegean islands are popular with tourists from western Europe and from Turkey. Lesvos, Chios and Samos in particular have struggled in recent years with the strain of the refugee crisis as they have hosted the influx of immigrants entering Europe via Turkey.
So special it gets its own Island group! Or simply just big enough. Crete is one of the most famed of the Greek Islands and for good reason. It’s situated in the south Mediterranean and is well connected with the rest of Greece and all of Europe.
What are the Main Cities of Greece?
Everybody’s heard of Athens. It’s one of the best loved cities in the world with huge historical significance. Athens is the capital city of Greece and is in the South of the country. Thessaloniki is the second city in the North and Patras is the next largest city in West.
I mentioned above that Greek people are nice. That doesn’t even begin to cover it. Greek people are known for their hospitality and the reason why is clear from the moment you set foot on Greek soil. For me, the people of Greece have been the highlight of my travels. Generally blessed with hearts of gold, Greek people will invite you to their table and even into their homes with the best will in the world. Mostly, I’ve found that Greeks are intensely proud of their cities or islands and will be the best tour guides you’ll come across. They genuinely care that you enjoy your experience in their home-place and will go out of their way to make sure you enjoy yourself.
Unless they work at the bus stations.
It’s an unfortunate fact that there are miserable people everywhere. In Greece, it seems that there’s a special place reserved for these people behind information desks at bus stations. You’ll find recurring themes in my posts about Greece. One will be frustration at the lack of information available. The second will be the horrible public transport systems. Mix the two and… well… you’ll find those stories in the some of the guides on this site.
Just remember when you come across these people that, while it may be frustrating as hell, there will be somebody else close at hand with that lovely Greek spirit who will be willing to help you out with a smile and a kind word.
On that note…
Transport in Greece is obviously my bugbear. There’s no reason why it has to be as poor as it is. The infrastructure, for the most part, is there. Yet the Greek transport Gods have butchered it. So, let’s get this info out there and get back to all the lovely stuff…
If you’re flying directly to and from your destination, you’re probably not going to experience too many transport difficulties. Do keep an eye on any flight updates leading up to your arrival and departure, though, as airport workers in Greece regularly go on strike with limited notice.
You may also want to look into transport options from the airport to your hotel as some Islands don’t have shuttles or public buses operating between the airport and the main towns or Island resorts. Your hotel may offer a solution and it would be advisable to ask about it as taxi prices on some of the Islands are ridiculously expensive (bordering on London prices on some of the very touristy Islands).
Athens has a Metro, buses and trams that service the city and are pretty good. Thessaloniki and Patras have well connected bus services too. You might find yourself waiting for long periods and information difficult to find, so be prepared and give yourself plenty of time. In Greece, people operate on ‘Greek Time’, so don’t expect things to happen when they should. Bus workers seem to strike every other week, so keep in mind that your plans could be affected and you might have to make alternative arrangements.
If travelling intercity from the main cities to the Islands, buses are much better and often faster than trains. You can catch buses quite frequently. Buses to the Islands are scheduled to make connecting ferries so you don’t even have to think about it and shouldn’t experience any problems if travelling from main cities. Aside from the three main cities, though, intercity travel can be difficult and can include a lot of connections and waiting around. Travelling in Greece can take a really long time if you’re relying on Public Transport so even when something seems pretty simple, I’ve had to allow a ‘travel day’ – as in a whole day, even for shorter trips – to allow for the connections and delays that come up on almost every journey.
Public transport on the Islands is simply awful. Buses on most of the Islands I’ve visited are poorly organised and scheduled. If you are travelling on foot by ferry, you should know that some of the ports aren’t serviced by buses. Where they are, some port towns on the islands have only one or two buses a day that depart for the main towns or resorts. Some of the routes have no return buses until the following day, or the last bus leaves just minutes after you’ve arrived. And buses in the evening? Not a chance. In fact, some places are impossible to leave after lunch time. This improves somewhat during high season and in destinations that draw crowds, but it’s nowhere near efficient and if you want to explore the island, you’re going to need a rental car.
The Ferries are quite good and pretty regular if you’re travelling from major mainland ports. Again, you’re at the mercy of a strike-happy workforce and you won’t find this out very easily, so it’s no harm to check with your ferry company or even ask at your hotel. There’s no centralised website for timetables as all the ferry routes are operated by different private companies, but a google search should turn up results.
Don’t even get me started on inter-island ferries. I shudder at the thought. You are likely to struggle with finding information, but when you do, you’ll learn that the ferries depart and arrive from obscure places that are difficult to reach. Not only will there be no buses, but possibly not even a taxi at the other side to get you where you need to go. Or, you could get the one bus a day that goes to your departure ‘port’ (i.e. a beach with a boat precariously tied to a bollard) six hours before departure, only to find that there is not even a toilet available. It’s not always the case, but do make sure to check schedules in advance.
Travelling inside Greece is not necessarily easy. It’s not set up for the independent traveller so if that’s you, you may find yourself getting quite frustrated with a very lacking transport system. It’s quite baffling that a modern country and EU member state can have such a poor travel service when compared even to developing countries.
If this is the information age, then Greece must not have gotten the memo. Finding information requires concentrated research. For bus schedules, again, there is no central website for finding information. Of course there isn’t! The buses are in the hands of a company called KTEL who have a monopoly on bus travel in Greece and they seem to not be particularly interested in helping customers. You’ll have to look up timetables by region – For example, Thessaloniki is in the region of Macedonia, so you need to visit the KTEL Macedonia website. Confused? Google KTEL and the city you’re travelling from or to. You should find a link. There may or may not be an option to translate from Greek. For intercity travel, it may also be a good idea to actually go to the bus station in advance and speak to one of the lovely and informative staff members there.
Some towns and cities have more than one bus station. You’ll have to do some detective work on whether your arrival station is the same as your departure for your next bus. Ask the staff at the station, and make sure to ask about buses connecting the stations as there aren’t always obvious signs.
Or rent a car and save your sanity.
Currency, Money and the Greek Economy
Greece uses the Euro as it is in the Eurozone. ATMs are plentiful in the towns and cities. Cards are accepted in many places, but don’t expect to live a contactless life in Greece. Cash is king and there are businesses, particularly small ones on the islands, who don’t have card machines. Even some hotels ask you to pay in cash, so if you need to make some bigger payments, plan ahead and ask if you’re not sure. Believe me, the last thing you need is to be stuck in a very remote location with no bathroom, waiting six hours for a ferry, only to find that they only accept cash and the closest ATM is a €27 taxi ride away, back where you came from six hours ago. This is a true story.
Greece was famously hit hard by the economic recession and while the world boasts about recovery, there are no such signs in Greece. The minimum wage is €4.23 per hour. That’s less than €685 per month. And I’ve met quite a few people getting paid significantly less (legal, or illegal). Young people who have recently graduated are earning less in a month than some of their Western European counterparts earn in a week. Unemployment is at 23%. I thought Ireland had lost a generation to emigration, but it’s so much worse here and there’s no sign of it letting up.
Quite a large number of businesses in Greece are owned by companies based in and paying taxes in other countries, including countless hotels and even 14 airports. It might be no harm to keep in mind while you’re visiting Greece that money spent in local businesses will actually go back into the local economy. There are thousands of family run hotels and restaurants, tour operators, car rental companies, supermarkets, beach supplies stores and lots more which support local families and employ local people. It’s always good to be responsible when travelling, so if you haven’t thought about it before, maybe now is a good time to make yourself aware of where your money is going and the impact you’re making.
Greek, obviously, is the language of Greece. The Greek alphabet is completely different to the roman alphabet that we’re familiar with in countries speaking Western European languages. Once you become familiar with the characters, though, you’ll find it gets a lot easier to read as it’s phonetic. That doesn’t mean you’ll understand it though!
The standard of English is remarkable among Greek people. Young people nearly all speak it perfectly, especially in tourist areas and in the cities. Most people have at least a little bit of English and communication usually isn’t a problem. Generally, I found that people appreciate you making an effort to say a few words in Greek so why not brush up on a few basic words before you travel? I’ve definitely found it opened up friendly conversations and helped me to get talking to more people along the way. You can’t underestimate friendly conversation and making new contacts, especially if you’re travelling solo.
There are plenty of online resources to help you learn a few words, but the few obvious ones to get you started are:
Thank You: Ef-ka-rees-toh
There are so many options for people travelling in Greece. Tourism is a huge part of the economy and the islands in particular have hotels, resorts, guest houses, villas and all sorts of accommodation options for all sorts of budgets. Accommodation in the cities and on some of the more visited islands can set you back a pretty penny and I found that good deals often came with a catch, like a junky on your doorstep! It’s recommend paying a little more for the peace of mind that comes with a safe and well-located hotel or hostel. This is especially important in Athens, where there are a lot of hotels in very sketchy neighbourhood. Check out my advice on Athens here.
For budget travellers to Greece, there are hostels and budget studio apartments available in most of the popular tourist destinations. If you go a bit further off the beaten track, your budget may have to be adjusted accordingly. Wherever possible, go on the recommendations of friends who have visited, travel writers and bloggers that you trust or highly rated properties on booking.com – just make sure you’ve read the reviews before you book and my top tip is to avoid any property that has a no refund policy. It just makes for a lot of stress and annoyance if and when things go wrong!
No guide to Greece is complete without a mention of safety. I was on the verge of writing about how safe I felt in Greece as a solo female traveller when I witnessed an attempted robbery at an Athens metro station. On the step ahead of me on an escalator, a young guy stealthily tried to unzip the backpack of a girl in front of him. Of course, I had a hero moment and smacked him around the head a bit while shouting and drawing attention to him. He quickly scarpered off, as did four or five of his friends who were conveniently positioned close to girls travelling alone and wearing backpacks. So be sure to take care of your belongings, and maybe invest in a PacSafe backpack, which have amazing safety features.
It must be said, though, that after three months in Greece, this was the first time I had encountered anything like this. Athens is a massive city and is teaming with tourists. Like all cities, there is always a risk that you will be targeted so be sensible and take all reasonable precautions to protect yourself.
In general, though, I’ve always felt perfectly safe in Greece.
Eating and Drinking
These are both things that the Greeks do extraordinarily well. The food is incredible and the Greeks are all foodies. They use the finest, purest ingredients in their food and as you’d expect with Mediterranean diets, the vegetables are the freshest you could hope to find. The olives made me like olives! The oil is to die for and the feta… have I mentioned the feta?
And then there’s the bread. The Greeks love their bread and it’s beautiful. Of course it is! Sinfully, breadfully beautiful.
There are a lot of different traditional dishes and most regions and islands will have their own specialties or variations of popular Greek dishes. Roast Lamb with potatoes is a firm favourite along with the world-famous Greek salad, dolma (stuffed vine leaves), gyros (think kebab but for God’s sake don’t call them kebabs) and anything seasoned with oregano. I’ll try to impart any wisdom I can in my posts on each destination, but if in doubt, there are plenty of traditional tavernas with friendly serving staff who are always happy to help and to talk you through ingredients and give recommendations.
Customs and Tavernas
Tavernas are Greek restaurants and usually offer great value. Greeks eat out all the time. Prices go up in tourist hotspots and standards often go down. Seek out the places where the locals go and you won’t be disappointed. I was once told that there’s no such thing as a bad meal in a Greek restaurant and that is generally true, but standards can slip in some of the island resorts or busy city hotspots, so it’s no harm to check reviews online before you chose your restaurant.
It’s usual for Greeks to order a number of dishes and share among the table, so if you’re with a group and you go that route, you’ll probably get a chance to taste a few different dishes. If you are lucky enough to know any Greek people, ask them to do the ordering and to teach you about the different dishes and drinks on offer.
Bread is brought to your table whether you ask for it or not. And it sits there, begging you to eat its bready goodness. And of course you do. Alternatively, you can ask your server not to bring you bread, which may earn you shocked looks from the entire restaurant and plenty of whispered conversations from the people peering their heads over their menus to find out who that strange person is who refused bread? But it’s ok. You and your conscience can sit in smug satisfaction… until the feta arrives.
It all goes haywire with dessert. You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t want it. Ok, you wanted it desperately, but you had given yourself a good talking to and decided against it. You survived without bread, surely a little thing like dessert wouldn’t bother you? And then they land it down on the table in front of you anyway. Because it’s on the house. Sure, it’d be rude not to. Both your resolve and your dessert are gone in 3 seconds flat.
Basically, a lot of restaurants give you a free dessert. And it’s delicious.
Greeks tend to split the bill. Tourist areas may be more familiar with people paying individually, but in regular tavernas, it’s probably advisable to just go with the flow and split it up between everyone if you’re in a group. Also, Greece has a tipping culture so don’t be mean. Leave a few euro to your server. After all, they just brought you free dessert.
Make sure to have a Greek coffee while you’re visiting Greece. It’s an acquired taste, but if you like coffee, you should at least try it. Remember to leave some in the cup as it’s made with ground coffee beans that will settle at the bottom. Nobody needs to drink that. And if you’re visiting in summer and it’s just too hot for coffee, then treat yourself to the yummiest of all coffee treats with a Freddo Cappuccino. I don’t know if this is specifically a Greek thing. I’ve just learned of it and I love, love, love it.
Greek wine is much sweeter than wines from other countries and (I can barely believe I’m saying this), it doesn’t really float my boat. Obviously, there are exceptions and I did have this one glass that I could have fallen into and happily lived out my days as a wine-nymph, but unfortunately 175ml disappears far too quickly. I might add that this particular wine was on the pricey side. Usually, though, wine in Greece is reasonably priced. Add to that the wineries that you can visit for tasting and discounted sale prices and any wine lover will quickly be looking into luggage allowances.
Ouzo, Tziporou and all the alcohol
The Greeks do alcohol and they do it well. My most perfected Greek word is ‘Yammas’ (cheers). They do hard alcohol though! Ouzo and Raki are the well-known options, but if you’re not familiar with Tziporou, give it a go. If you have the opportunity, order it with a Greek person because there’s a specific way to drink it. You pour it over ice and have to wait for the ice to melt before you drink. I’m sure there’s more to it than that as it seemed to be a fine art with the Greek people who introduced me to it. You can add aniseed too if you’re really adventurous.
Things that go ‘bite’ in the late evening
They torment me! I need a constant supply of bracelets, sprays and devices to keep the mosquitos at bay. Their bites are unpleasant at best and on days when you count nine to the face alone, it’s perfectly understandable that you might have an ‘off’ day. Unfortunately, you’ll find them in Greece, particularly on the islands. I keep a note on my posts of exactly how many bites I got on each island which will scientifically* prove how mozzie ridden each island is.
*absolutely no science involved.
I stocked up on all of the bits and piece I needed to survive the mosquitos and thankfully the number of bites decreased significantly. Here are a few of my go-to items.
While talking about biting things, just be aware that Greece also has snakes and scorpions.
To learn more about each island, you can read about my trips to Corfu, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Athens and many more by checking out the pages listed under ‘Guide to Greece’ in the main menu bar at the top of the page.
Don’t be shy. If you think I missed something or if you just want to show me some love, feel free to leave a comment below. I love a good comment!
My Guide to Greece posts include sponsored or affiliate marketing so that I can keep bringing you these guides. Don’t worry, I haven’t sold my soul. All opinions expressed here are still my own and I’m still (too) honest!