Greece is hands-down one of the most beautiful European countries. With great beaches, delicious food, friendly locals, and incredible history and archaeological sites, Greece is truly a place that can be enjoyed by all, no matter what your interests are. Ancient Greeks have left behind absolutely incredible ancient ruins and fascinating myths and legends to go along with them.
Beyond mainland Greece, Greece offers an estimated 6,000 breathtaking Greek islands with varying rugged landscapes, clear blue waters, and pure excitement. It’s no wonder this country is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. This ultimate guide to visiting Greece will give you a big head start in planning the most epic Greece vacation with the best things to see and do, where to stay, how to get around, and insider tips from our own experiences.
Best Things to Do in Greece
1. Spend a day or two in Athens
When it comes to living history, Greece is king. No trip to Greece is complete without a day or two spent in Athens. This ancient city, home to a once powerful empire, features incredible ancient ruins that date as far back as the fifth century BC. A day spent exploring these historic ruins is perfect for history buffs.
Start your day off at the Acropolis, one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can purchase a ticket same day, but if you want to skip the line, you can book a guided tour like this one in advance. Wear comfortable walking shoes with good grip – the marble has been smoothed down over the centuries.
Other important ancient ruins to visit in Athens include the Ancient Agora of Athens (the Acropolis can be easily accessed from here), the Parthenon, the Temple of Zeus, and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Learn more about Greek culture and history by visiting the National Archaeological Museum. It’s the largest museum in Greece and features artifacts dating back to 7000 BC.
If you visit Greece in the summer, enjoy the Athens Epidaurus Festival, which runs from the beginning of June until the end of August. The festival celebrates art and music from around the country. The Plaka neighborhood is another great part of Athens to explore in the summer. It features some of the city’s best restaurants and a laid-back vibe similar to the Cyclades islands.
2. Island hopping through the Cyclades Islands
Of all the Greek islands, the Cyclades are my favorite. This incredible island group is characterized by its iconic blue and white facades, volcanic landscapes, and some of the best beaches in the country. While the most popular islands in the Cyclades are Mykonos and Santorini, there are so many hidden gems to visit in the Greek Isles.
Santorini is famous for its amazing views, busy streets, and the gorgeous Aegean Sea. The best activity to enjoy here is taking a sunset sail around the caldera. Mykonos is more of a party island. Paros is an amazing alternative if you enjoy the vibes of Santorini and Mykonos but want to avoid the huge crowds these islands attract.
For rugged beauty and adventure, take a ferry to Milos, one of the best Greek islands to visit. It’s great for a family vacation if you enjoy exploring great beaches and mind-blowing scenery. Go on a boat tour of Kleftiko and check out Sarakiniko Beach, which resembles the moon’s surface. Other great islands to explore in the Cyclades include Ios, Naxos, and Amorgos.
3.Explore the Rugged Ionian Islands
Located east of mainland Greece in the Ionian Sea, the Ionian Islands of Greece feature some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. These islands are much larger than the Cyclades and vastly different in landscape. While you’ll still find sandy beaches and some of the best hotels, the landscape is much more lush and green. You also won’t find the blue and white facades you’re used to seeing in the Cyclades.
Popular destinations in the Ionian Islands include Zakynthos, Kefalonia, and Corfu. Accommodations range from modest hotels to villas and luxury hotels. These accommodations are often much more affordable than the Cyclades, making this island group a budget-friendly alternative to the more popular tourist destinations.
Some activities that I recommend in the Ionian Islands include renting a boat in Paleokastritsa in Corfu, visiting the Instagram-worthy Shipwreck Beach in Zakynthos, and touring the stunning Melissani Cave in Kefalonia. All these are must-sees and memories you’ll have for years.
4. Sample some iconic Greek food
The food in Greece is unlike much of the food you’ll find in Western Europe. The combination of flavors and spices is comforting while not making you feel heavy after eating. Ingredients like olive oil, feta cheese, tomatoes, and olives are in many of this country’s most popular dishes. Here are some things that you just can’t pass up when visiting the Greek mainland or the Greek islands:
- Greek Salad – A good Greek salad in Greece is plain and simple. At most restaurants, this usually consists of only tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and blocks of feta cheese dressed in olive oil.
- Souvlaki – Souvlaki is grilled meat kabobs, usually made of chicken, lamb, or pork. They’re often served with french fries and a side of pita bread.
- Tzatziki – The most famous Greek dip. Tzatziki is a sauce comprised of Greek yogurt, cucumber, dill, garlic, olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon juice. So tasty and pretty healthy!
- Pita Gyro – My absolute favorite Greek food! A gyro is a sandwich (though it resembles a taco) filled with shaved meat (usually chicken, pork, or lamb), tzatziki, onion, tomato, and french fries, all wrapped up in soft and warm pita bread. You can find these pretty much anywhere for just a few euros.
- Kleftiko Lamb – Greek comfort food at its finest. The lamb is marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic and then slow-cooked for hours with hearty vegetables like carrots and potatoes.
- Moussaka – Another amazing Greek comfort meal. It’s like an elevated shepherd’s pie but with ingredients like sliced potatoes, eggplant, minced lamb, and a creamy bechamel sauce.
- Fresh Seafood – The Greek islands are famous for their delectable fresh seafood. My favorite thing to get whenever I find myself in the Greek islands is a freshly caught grilled octopus with mashed fava beans. The best I’ve ever had was at Medusa on the island of Milos.
5. Visit the Saronic Islands
If you’d like to indulge in some quick Greek island hopping while visiting Athens, the Saronic Islands are the way to go. These islands are just off the coast of mainland Greece and easily accessible on a day trip from Athens. The islands are a peaceful getaway for Greek locals looking to escape the big cities for a weekend.
The most popular islands to visit in the Saronic Gulf are Hydra, Poros, and Egina. Each island features crystal-clear waters, incredible architecture, and a relaxing atmosphere. You can visit multiple islands on an organized tour for a day or stay overnight to explore at your own pace.
When visiting the Saronic Islands, don’t miss visiting the Temple of Athena Aphaia, located on the island of Egina. This archaeological site was built in 480 BC, with 25 of its 32 original columns still standing. As for beaches, Halikiada Beach on the island of Agistri is continually praised as one of the most beautiful destinations in the entire country.
6. Explore more of mainland Greece
There’s much more to mainland Greece than the country’s capital of Athens. It’s a large country with lots to see and explore regarding historic ruins and natural beauty. Each city and village tell its tales of mythical heroes and legends battling their way to superiority. Whether you’re looking to explore a modern city or a village steeped in history and mythology, here are some of the best places to visit in mainland Greece:
- Thessaloniki – This metropolis is much like Athens, with its great mix of historic ruins and modern city living. You can find many remains dating back to both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, along with a bit of Roman flair. For the best panoramic views of the city, trek up to the Heptapyrgion of Thessaloniki, a former fortress and prison.
- Delphi – The picturesque village of Delphi is located on the foothills of Mount Parnassus and features some of the most impressive ancient ruins in the country. It’s famous for being the home of the high priestess Pythia, known as the oracle of Delphi. People from all over the Mediterranean would make a pilgrimage to Delphi to hear the messages that were given to her straight from Apollo. It’s close enough to Athens to be visited on a day trip, so definitely add it to your list of places to visit.
- Olympia – Located in the western Peloponnese, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is known as the Valley of the Gods. Take a private tour of the massive archaeological site and learn the history behind the Olympic games.
- Halkidiki – The Halkidiki region is located just south of Thessaloniki and transports you to another world. Its hallmarks include electric blue water, striking white sand, and lush Mediterranean forests. For a relaxing vacation off the beaten path, you’ll surely want to spend a few days at some of this region’s endless beaches.
- Monemvasia – This tide island is located off the Peloponnese Coast in the Myrtoan Sea. It was once a popular place for Venetian royalty to settle – you can still see some of the ruins of their once extravagant mansions. Its medieval city is extremely well-preserved and is great for sightseeing and enjoying the views of the sea.
7. Crete, Greece’s largest island
Crete is the largest of Greece’s inhabited islands and also the most populated. This beautiful island in the Aegean Sea offers activities and accommodations to fit every travel style. The old town of Chania is reminiscent of Venice and is within walking distance of Crete’s top attractions, including the Maritime Museum of Crete and the Archaeological Museum of Chania.
No Greece travel guide would be complete without mentioning Elafonissi Beach, Crete’s iconic pink sand beach. This beach is located on Crete’s southwestern coast, and the amount of pink you’ll see depends on the season and weather conditions. Other incredible adventures on the sea in Crete include exploring Balos Beach, Seitan Limania Beach and sailing on a luxury catamaran off the coast of Rethymno town.
Other fun things to see and do on this magnificent island include the Palace of Knossos, Samaria Gorge National Park, horseback riding in Heraklion, and visiting Psychro Cave, known as the ‘Home of Zeus.’ This island is full of hidden gems and amazing activities to delight, so I would highly recommend at least three to four days here for the best experience.
Where to stay in Greece
Greece offers a wide array of accommodation options to fit every budget. There are studio rentals, exquisite villas, family-run hotels, luxury hotels, and everything in between. Here are just a few of the best places to stay in Greece, including some of my favorite hotels of all time:
- Grand Hyatt Athens – Athens
- Mystique, a Luxury Collection Hotel – Santorini
- Nikki Beach Resort & Spa – Santorini
- Makis Place – Mykonos
- Domes Zeen Chania, a Luxury Collection Resort – Crete
- Domes Miramare, a Luxury Collection Resort – Corfu
- Hyatt Regency Thessaloniki – Thessaloniki
- Porto Koukla Beach Hotel – Zakynthos
- Domes White Coast Milos – Milos
- Blue Sea House – Milos
How to Get Around in Greece
Getting around in Greece requires a little bit of planning. If you’re only planning to visit Athens or the other larger metropolises such as Thessaloniki, you can easily get around using public transportation or taxis. Greece’s version of Uber is called Beat and is also relatively cheap and easy to use. Make sure to download the app and request your ride while you have Wi-Fi.
If you’re planning to go island hopping, Greece has an awesome ferry system. There are slower ferries that go overnight and are more like cruise ships, with restaurants and private rooms, or there are faster ferries that will get you between islands in half the time. You can purchase ferry tickets online or in person. Ferry companies, like Blue Star, sell their tickets through travel agencies, which can often be found in the main cities and near the ports.
Getting around the islands is different than in mainland Greece. I highly recommend renting a car. On the smaller islands like Santorini, Mykonos, and Milos, you can even rent ATVs, and I would actually recommend that over renting a car. ATVs can access dirt roads and many places that aren’t accessible by car. On larger islands like Crete and Zakynthos, a car is preferable over an ATV as you’ll want to cover more ground in less time.
Travel Tips Greece
Whenever visiting a new place, there are a few basic things to keep in mind before beginning your trip. Greece is a relatively safe destination, and the locals are extremely warm and welcoming. Here are a few tips to make sure your trip goes smoothly:
Purchase travel insurance
I highly recommend buying a travel insurance plan before visiting any overseas destination. Our favorites here at ViaTravelers include SafetyWing and VisitorsCoverage. The purpose of travel insurance is to cover any unforeseen circumstances and emergencies that may arise during your journey. I always say it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Pack for all weather conditions
Greece is blessed with mild weather year-round, but that doesn’t stop the Meltemi winds. This weather phenomenon mainly occurs in the Cyclades, when strong winds hit the islands. Unfortunately, this can occur at any time (especially during the summer) and can last from a few days to weeks. It’s also hard to predict. Make sure you’re prepared by packing the following:
- A few cute pairs of swimsuits
- A good pair of sunglasses that you don’t mind getting dirty
- A light windbreaker jacket
- Comfortable walking shoes (a lot of walking is involved in any trip to Greece)
- A mask and snorkel to explore sea caves
- A GoPro or any waterproof camera
- A good hat to protect you from the sun
- Face and body sunscreen (the Greek sun is strong!)
- A packable beach towel (and a packable tote bag to hold all your beach gear)
Be aware of pickpocketers
This is something to be aware of if you plan to visit large cities like Athens and Thessaloniki. While Greece is a safe country to visit and violent crime is low, the Greek police do warn about pickpocketers, especially in public transportation and areas of high foot traffic. Always be vigilant and make sure to have your most important belongings secured in a safe place.
Avoid the summer crowds
I’ve visited Greece many times over the years at different times of the year. While the weather is absolutely stunning in July and August, the summer crowds can greatly diminish the trip. I would avoid this time of year if at all possible. Instead, visit Greece during the shoulder season!
Visiting in late May, early June, September, and even early October will allow you to enjoy amazing warm weather and crystal clear waters with just a fraction of other tourists. You can also get a better deal on hotels and vacation rentals if you visit in the shoulder season compared to the high season.
Learn basic phrases in Greek
While most Greek residents speak English in the major tourist destinations, it’s always nice to learn a bit of the language before visiting. Locals will much appreciate a simple good morning or good evening in Greek. Here are a few easy phrases to learn before your trip to Greece:
- Yasu/Yasas – Hello
- Kalimera – Good morning/Good day
- Kalispera – Good evening
- Efcharisto – Thank you
- Parakalo – You’re welcome/my pleasure
- Tee kanis? – How are you?
- Kala – I’m fine