Greece is a land of sea and mountains. Over a fifth of the Greek landmass is islands, numbering several thousand if you count every floating crag -- and nowhere in Greece will you find yourself more than 96km (60 miles) from the sea. It should come as no surprise, then, that the sea has shaped the Greek imagination, as well as its history.
So, too, have the mountains. Mainland Greece is a great vertebrate, with the Pindos range reaching from north to south, and continuing, like a tail, through the Peloponnese. The highest of its peaks is Mount Olympus, the seat of the gods, nearly 3,000m (10,000 ft.) above sea level. Eighty percent of the Greek mainland is mountainous, which you will rapidly discover whether you make your way on foot or on wheels.
Whether you arrive by sea or by air, chances are you'll debark in Athens. The city is not always pleasant and is sometimes exhausting -- just to be clear, it's the noise level and traffic -- yet it's unavoidable. Its archaeological sites and its museums alone warrant a couple of days of exploration. Between visits to the sites, a stroll in the National Garden will prove reviving. Then, after dark as the city cools, the old streets of the Plaka district at the foot of the Acropolis offer you chances to stroll, shop, and have dinner with an Acropolis view. The central square, pedestrianized side streets, and residential streets of Kolonaki are where fashionable Athenians head to see and be seen -- and to do some serious shopping. Piraeus, as in antiquity, serves as the port of Athens and the jumping-off point to most of the islands.
Athens is also a great base for day trips and overnight excursions, whether to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, the forested slopes of Mount Hymettus (Imittos), the Monastery of Kaisariani (Kessariani), the Byzantine Monastery of Daphni, the legendary plains of Marathon, or the ruins of Eleusis, place of ancient mysteries.
The Sarconic Gulf Islands
Cupped between Attica and the Peloponnese, in the sheltering Saronic Gulf, these islands offer both proximity and retreat for Athenians who, like their visitors, long for calming waters and cooler breezes. In high season, the accessibility of these islands on any given day, especially on weekends, can be their downfall. Choose carefully your day and island, or you may be part of the crowd you're trying to avoid.
Aegina, so close to Athens it can be a daily commute, is the most besieged island, yet it possesses character and charm. The main port town of Aegina is picturesque and pleasant, while across the island to the east, set atop a pine-crested hill, stands the remarkably preserved Temple of Aphaia, a Doric gem. Poros, the next island in line proceeding south, is convenient to both Athens and the Peloponnese. Its beaches and lively port are each a draw, with the picturesque rubble of an ancient, scenically situated temple thrown in. Still farther south lies vehicle-free Hydra, remarkable for its natural beauty and handsome stone mansions built by sea captains. The port of Hydra has a lot to offer and knows it, all of which is reflected in the prices. It's a great place for pleasant strolls, views, and a swim off the rocks. Spetses, the farthest of these islands from Athens, offers glades of pine trees and fine beaches -- and a great many hotels catering to package holiday tours from Europe.
Crossing the narrow isthmus -- less than 6.5km (4 miles) across at its narrowest point -- from the mainland onto the southern peninsula of Greece is a move you will never regret. The Peloponnese retains a sense of separation from the north and from the rest of Greece. Its often barren landscape is virtually forested with stunning archaeological remains, each with a richly evocative past: Mycenae, the mountain citadel of Agamemnon; Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games; Sparta, home of Helen and Menelaus; the palace of Nestor at Pylos; the magnificent and still-used theater of Epidaurus; the temple and stadium at Nemea; and the Bema at Corinth, where St. Paul addressed the Corinthians. The small but stately port of Nafplion provides a comfortable, convenient base from which to explore surrounding sights.
The mountain and seaside roads of the Peloponnese are unrivalled in Greece. There are several particularly spectacular routes we suggest you take. The vertiginous route from Sparta to Kalamata passes the Byzantine ghost town of Mistra and continues on through the twists and turns of Langada Pass, one of Greece's most beautiful routes. Follow the excellent road from Tripolis to Olympia that cuts through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in Arcadia, passing traditional villages that are among the region's loveliest. And allow yourself a day or two to head to The Mani, the southernmost region of the Peloponnese, where tower-villages dot the hillsides, and coastal roads wind high above the sea.
The largest of the Greek islands, birthplace of the painter El Greco (and Zeus, they claim!), possesses a landscape so diverse, concentrated, and enchanting that no description is likely to do it justice. Especially if you rent a car and do your own exploring, a week will pass like a day. More or less circling the island on the national highway (don't imagine an interstate), you'll drive a line of inviting ports like Iraklion, the capital, Chania, Rethymnon, and Ayios Nikolaos.
Venturing into the heartland of Crete -- not far, since Crete's width ranges from 12 to 56km (7 1/2-35 miles) -- you'll find the legendary palaces of the Minoans: Knossos, Phaestos, and Ayia Triadha, to mention only a few. This is not to say that Crete is without classical sites, Byzantine monasteries, Venetian structures, and Turkish remains. It's Greece, after all. Other excursions might include the Lasithi Plain or the Amari Valley, and for the energetic, the Gorge of Samaria is indispensable.
Crete is a culinary mecca. For thousands of years its wines were sent all over the ancient world. Today, they complement the fresh goat cheese and olives -- all local and all part of Crete's spell.
In antiquity, the Cyclades -- the "encirclers" or "circling islands" -- had at their center the small island of Delos, where mythology tells us that Apollo and his sister Artemis were born. Declared a sanctuary where both birth and death were prohibited, Delos was an important spiritual, cultural, and commercial hub of the Aegean. Today, its extensive remains remind visitors of its former importance. It's easy to make a day trip here from Mykonos, whose white, cubelike houses and narrow, twisting streets began to attract first a trickle and then a flood of visitors in the 1960s. Today, almost every cruise ship puts in at Mykonos for at least a few hours, so that visitors can take in the proliferation of cafes, restaurants, and shops. Those who spend a few days here can stay in boutique hotels, sip martinis in sophisticated bars -- or head inland to visit the island's less-visited villages.
Paros (sometimes called "the poor man's Mykonos"), is the transport hub of the Cyclades, with a gentle landscape, appealing villages, good beaches, and opportunities for windsurfing. From here you can get to Tinos, home to perhaps the most revered of all Greek Orthodox churches; Naxos, whose fertile valleys and high mountains lure hikers and campers; Folegandros, much of whose capital Hora is built within the walls of a medieval kastro (castle); and Santorini, which some believe to be the lost Atlantis. On Santorini you'll find a black lava beach, the impressive remains of the Minoan settlement at Akrotiri, chic restaurants, boutique hotels -- and the most spectacular sunsets in all of Greece.
This string of islands, named "the 12" despite the fact that they number more than that, nearly touch the Turkish shoreline. Except for Rhodes and Kos, all of the Dodecanese are deforested, bare bones exposed to sun and sea. But what bones! Far to the north lies Patmos (already in the 5th c. nicknamed "the Jerusalem of the Aegean"), a holy island where the Book of Revelation is said to have been penned and where the Monastery of St. John still dominates the land. Far to the south basks Rhodes, "City of the Sun," with more than 300 days of sunshine per year. For obvious reasons, it's the most touristed of the islands. Rhodes has it all: history and resorts, ruins and nightlife. There's even peace and quiet -- we'll tell you where to find it.
Between these two lie an array of possibilities, from the uncompromised traditional charm of tiny Simi to the ruins and well-known beaches of Kos. And with Turkey so close, you may want to consider an easily arranged side trip.
Central Greece, for our purposes, stretches from the Corinth Canal to Mount Olympus. Its landscape is vastly diverse, from the fertile Boetian plains to the snowy peaks of Parnassus and Olympus. Also here are the legendary battlegrounds of Thermopylae (where the Spartans under Leonidas delayed the Persian invasion in 480 B.C.) and Chaironeia (where Philip of Macedon defeated the Greeks in 338 B.C.).
Central Greece's best-known site is the sanctuary of Delphi, whose imposing ruins and spectacular mountainside location dazzle visitors. Farther north, in Thessaly, the monasteries on the lofty otherworldly heights of Meteora offer glimpses into the Byzantine and modern Greek world of the Orthodox Church. If you have a less austere retreat in mind, the traditional villages on the lush, gentle slopes of Pelion -- where centaurs once roamed -- are ideal places to relax under chestnut trees and read up on all that you've seen, and all that you plan to see, in Greece.
Whether by air, ferry, or hydrofoil, the Sporades, strewn north and east of the island of Evvia (Euboea), are readily accessible from the mainland and offer verdant forest landscapes, gold-sand beaches, and crystalline waters. That's the good news. The bad news is that they are no secret. Skiathos is the most popular. Skopelos, whose lovely port is one of the most striking in Greece, is more rugged and remote than Skiathos, with more trails and fewer nightclubs. Relatively far-off Skyros is well worth a visit, offering fishing and diving, sandy beaches, and luminously clear waters.
Northwestern Greece, or Epirus, is predominantly mountainous and mostly cut off by those mountains from the sea. It is unlikely that you will encounter many tourists. Nature lovers and trekkers venture here to challenge themselves hiking Vikos Gorge and the mountainous Zagori region. Epirus is not, however, without amenities and attractions.
Ioannina, on the shores of Lake Pamvotis, is the largest and most appealing city in the region; it is one of the few places in Greece where the long Muslim occupation is still manifestly visible. The traditional mountain village of Metsovo, perched several thousand feet high in the Pindos Mountains, offers a number of local attractions and hikes replete with vistas.
Only 32km (20 miles) from Ioannina lie the ruins of one of the most famous of ancient shrines, the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona, where the voice of the great lord of Olympus was believed to speak through the rustling leaves of a sacred oak tree.
The Ionian Islands
Across centuries, these islands have been the apple of more than one empire's eye. Lush, temperate, blessed with ample rain and sun, and tended like architectural gardens, they are splendid. Corfu, the most noted and ornamented, is a gem, and is sought after accordingly. Ithaka is as yet somewhat out of the tourist loop, but needs no introduction for readers of the Odyssey. With adjustments for the nearly 3,000 years that have elapsed, Homer's descriptions of the island still hold their own. If you can do without name recognition, Kefalonia, relatively inconspicuous and unspoiled, has a lot to offer: picturesque traditional villages, steep rocks plunging into the sea, fine beaches, and excellent local wine.
Thessaloniki & Northern Greece
Just as it once was the urban understudy of Constantinople, Thessaloniki is modern Greece's second city. With less than 20% of Athens's population, however, it is not a close second. Even so, among Greece's major cities, it may be second to none in visual appeal and international flair. Among the city's many attractions are the legendary White Tower and its archaeological and Byzantine museums. As a home base, it offers comfortable proximity to many of Macedonia's major sites.
Macedonia is Greece's largest geographical region -- rich in natural beauty, soaked in history, and mostly removed from the epicenters of the tourist explosion that, in places, has almost leveled the diverse traditions and cultures of Greece. Besides Thessaloniki, Macedonia is home to three major archaeological sites associated with Alexander and his father -- Pella, Vergina, and Dion -- as well as the location of the independent religious state of Mount Athos. This mountaintop theocracy, off-limits to women since the year 1060, may be viewed from cruise ships (departing from Thessaloniki) or visited with special permission -- but only by men.
The Northeastern Aegean Islands
The four major islands comprising this group form Europe's traditional sea border with the East. Beyond their strategic and thus richly historic location, they offer a taste of Greece that is less compromised by tourism and more deeply influenced by nearby Asia Minor and modern Turkey. Samos, unique among the islands in the extent to which it is covered with trees, produces excellent local wine. Its important archaeological sites and opportunities for outdoor activities make it a congenial and interesting destination, and it is an ideal place from which to enter and explore the northwestern Turkish coast. Hios is unspoiled and welcoming, offering isolated and spectacular beaches, as well as the stunning monastery of Nea Moni and some of Greece's most striking village architecture. The remaining islands of Lesvos and Limnos, for various reasons not major tourist destinations, have their ways of inviting and rewarding those who explore them.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.