The ultimate guide to backpacking Greece
Sipping an iced coffee in a village square shaded by an olive tree. Hailing a donkey to take you to a beach with water as clear as gin and tonic. Playing backgammon over a plate of calamari in a seaside taverna…
Backpacking Greece means slowing down and reconnecting with a Europe many think has disappeared forever. A place where extended families linger over dinners cooked to recipes that have been handed down through generations, where you order a lemonade in a cafe and the owner will go out to their garden to pick the lemons. A place where the hippies who never quite made it home sit smoking ‘herbal cigarettes’ on forgotten coves and people believe they can read the future in coffee grinds.
Of course, there’s plenty of hedonism to be found too. Greece’s wine-growing history can be traced all the way back to 4500 BC and there’s no shortage of places to drink and dance until sunrise. From the glamorous night clubs of Mykonos to the pool parties of Kos and rooftop cocktail bars in Athens, Greece has something to suit every party-lover.
And anyone with even a passing interest in culture is going to be wowed. This is the country that literally gave birth to modern civilization and even the smallest of villages has some sort of visible link to the past, whether that be a crumbling temple or Venetian fort.
So what are you waiting for? Time to set out on your very own Greek odyssey. Get inspired and make the most of your trip with our complete guide to backpacking Greece.
Jump straight to:
- Best time to visit Greece
- Travelling around Greece
- Travel costs in Greece
- Where to stay in Greece
- Best places to visit in Greece
- Greek food
- Greek culture
- Greece travel advice
Best time to visit Greece
The best time to visit Greece depends on what sort of holiday you’re after.
Looking to watch the sunset from a terrace in Santorini, chilled glass of assyrtiko (zesty local wine) in hand? Opt for the shoulder seasons of May and October, when the high season’s crowds have melted away and the prices in the glamorous mountain resort of Oia are a little more affordable.
If the idea of discovering secret bays on a sailing boat or partying barefoot in the sand until the sun comes up sounds appealing, Greece’s weather dazzles in summer, which typically lasts from June until September.
Weather in Athens
The weather in Athens can be scorching, so March, April, September and October are the most comfortable for sightseeing. During these months, hiking to the peak of the Acropolis to stand in the shadow of The Parthenon or stepping into the ring that hosted the very first Olympic games in 776 is much more manageable, particularly when followed by a fresh pomegranate juice at a pavement cafe.
Weather in Crete
Given that it is the southernmost island in Europe, it isn’t surprising that the weather in Crete is particularly balmy or that the island enjoys 2,790 hours of sunshine a year. Between March and October you may need a coat, but you’ll have its haunting mountain villages and vine-filled valleys all to yourself. Our favourite time of year is between Easter and early June, when the hiking trails wind between meadows of wildflowers.
Travelling around Greece
Greece’s landscape varies from the snow-capped peak of Mount Olympus, where the Ancients believed the Gods ruled the universe, to steaming volcanoes and dense forests populated by brown bears hunting for honey among the pine trees. With thousands of islands scattered across two seas, you begin to build up a picture of why careful planning is key for travelling around Greece. However, don’t let that faze you. There are countless gems waiting to be discovered if you get your act together and plan carefully.
Best way to travel around mainland Greece
The best way to travel around Greece is to hire a car which will allow you to cover plenty of ground at your own pace. Drivers must be 21 or over and have held their license for more than 12 months, although those under the age of 25 may still have to pay a young driver’s surcharge. Reliable companies with lots of offices throughout the country include Hertz, Europcar and Budget. Remember to hire a GPS if you’re planning on heading into the countryside. One historic village and olive grove can look confusingly similar to another…
The best thing about exploring mainland Greece by car is that the tourist crowds tend to flock to the islands, leaving gems such as the beautiful beaches of northern Evia to no one but you and the locals. Sure, summer can get toasty, but in a country as hilly as Greece you really can explore the untouched beaches around Koroni in the morning and cool off in a shady mountain stream in the afternoon.
Greek island hopping
The Greek islands are like members of the same fabulous family. They all have their own personality, but there are certain characteristics most have in common: whitewashed villages built around historic squares, grass singed gold by hours of sunshine and enticing seas that are just crying out for you to take the plunge.
Follow in the footsteps of the Greek hero, Odysseus, who spent a decade exploring the islands on his way home from the Trojan war, by planning your own Greek island-hopping adventure. There are 6,000 to discover, of which 227 are permanently inhabited.
Feeling flush? Chartering a boat is a fantastic way to avoid crowds and discover gems such as Gavdos, an emerald tuft with long, lonely stretches of sand and only 50 residents. Plenty of companies offer intimate tours for no more than eight guests and they’re often more affordable than you think.
Travelling by ferry allows you to put together your own itinerary and is arguably a more authentic experience. As any seasoned island hopper will tell you, ferries tend to leave on time from the first port but are often delayed after that, so prepare to tuck into endless spinach pastries at portside cafes while watching fishermen mend their nets, and leave plenty of time for connections. If you need to be somewhere to catch a specific flight, it’s best to leave a day’s leeway. You’re on island time now baby…
There are three grades of boat. The most common and reliable are passenger ferries operated by companies such as Blue Star, which have outdoor seating and space for cars, while faster but choppier high speed catamarans are generally used for shorter journeys.
Most people fly into Athens International Airport and take the ferry from Piraeus, the main port. There is a ferry to pretty much every island from Athens 365 days of the year, although they may occasionally be cancelled due to bad weather. However, many routes between the islands only operate during the high season so it’s always a good idea to check on websites such as Ferry Hopper before you travel. For example, ferries between Mykonos and Santorini only run between March and October. If you’re visiting outside these dates, you’ll need to catch a ferry or fly to Athens before the next leg of your trip.
Getting around Santorini
Arguably Greece’s most iconic island, you’ll probably recognise images of Santorini’s soaring cliffs and inky calderas from the postcards. Like Helen of Troy, images of Santorini have launched literally thousands of ships and put almost as many wedding proposals into motion too. The sight of the sun bathing the whitewashed fishing villages in rose-gold before sinking below the horizon has inspired countless would-be Orpheus’ to pop the question, and you’ll often hear spontaneous applause from onlookers as yet another Eurydice says ‘yes’.
There are always taxis waiting to meet each plane or ferry and Fira’s taxi rank can be found on Dekigala, just around the corner from the bus station. Nothing is more than a 40-minute drive so fares shouldn’t be higher than around €25 maximum.
Santorini is well served by buses, particularly during high season, and you can find information about times and routes on the KTEL Santorini website.
Adrenaline junkies can hire quad and motorbikes with a valid motorcycle license. Just remember to drive on the right-hand side of the road and use the free car parks in the villages. The roads in Fira are winding and narrow, while many of Oia’s cobbled lanes are for pedestrians only.
Travel costs in Greece
In the 60s and 70s, Greece was a major stop on the hippie trail from Europe to India and you’ll still find pockets of the original flower children in areas such as Livaldi beach on Icaria. Back when they arrived, it was possible to live on a few drachma a day, if you didn’t mind surviving off mostly bread and olive oil and possibly sharing your digs with the family’s donkey. However, when the euro became Greece’s official currency in 2002, travel costs in Greece became similar to many other European countries, although it still offers better value than destinations such as Italy or France.
Greece’s debt crisis in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash has been well publicised and there’s no doubt that locals have felt the pinch. In fact, Greece has suffered the longest recession of any capitalist economy to date and unemployment is still at nearly 40% for people aged 25 and under. When you’re tucking into a cold Mythos beer at a taverna, get chatting to your waiter. Many are highly qualified in careers such as medicine, engineering or law but unable to find a job in their field.
In this climate, tourism is the backbone of the economy and locals need your support more than ever. So, exactly how much money do you need to take to Greece?
Greece’s currency is the euro and it’s denoted as EUR. Coin denominations are 1c, 2c, 5c, 10c, 50c, €1 and €2, while banknote values include 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500. At the time of writing, €10 is equal to around £8.55 or $11.29, but always check the latest exchange rates.
It’s always worth carrying plenty of cash with you in Greece, particularly when visiting remote villages on the smaller islands. While every island will have at least one ATM, they are often out of order. Stock up in the bigger towns when you can.
How much money to take to Greece
If you’re planning on visiting Greece during peak season, you’ll need to budget around €60 per day. This will cover sleeping in a hostel dorm, two meals out at local tavernas and getting around by public transport. Entrance to most sites tends to cost less than €15.
Ferry prices vary from €15 to €80 depending on the type of ferry and the distance you’re travelling. Deck tickets are the cheapest and remember that you’ll save money on accommodation if you’re doing an overnight trip. Just remember to pack your pillow and a blanket – it can get chilly under the air conditioning on a long journey. It’s also a good idea to bring your own food. Most ferries have sandwich bars selling cheese pies, snacks and spinach pastries, but it will be better value and there will be more choice at a local market.
Now, down to the slippery business of seafood. The most common complaint from visitors to Greece is that they didn’t realise how much their supper was going to set them back until after they’d scraped the plate clean because prices for fish aren’t generally marked on the menu. This is because they change depending on what the fishermen have caught that day.
When you order, you’ll be taken over to a glass counter filled with the likes of octopus, lakerda and red mullet to choose your perfect meal. This is the time to ask for the price per kilogram. If you’re looking to get your seafood fix without breaking the bank, opt for something at the lower end of the fishy food chain. Sardines, anchovy, mackerel and smelt all flourish in the clean, warm waters of the Aegean and Ionian seas.
Where to stay in Greece
From bedding down in a cave on Santorini like an extremely chic caveman to checking into an olive farm, there are no shortage of quirky hostels to choose from in Greece. Opt for a dorm room to ensure more of your holiday budget is going towards the important things in life like oussou, or splash out on a private room for two if you’re feeling romantic. Here’s our guide for where to stay in Greece.
Where to stay in Athens
Housed in a neoclassical building right next to the Roman Agora, Athens Quinta feels more like a boutique hotel than a traditional hostel. Rooms are decorated with antique touches such a globes and vintage chandeliers, while an outdoor dining area and sun terrace is the perfect place to relax with a coffee and traditional Greek spoon sweet, which are on offer free of charge.
This cool design hostel can’t be bettered on location or facilities. Situated in the heart of Psirri, Athens’ most hip and happening area, it is fully air-conditioned, has an enormous roof terrace with views of the Acropolis and also boasts Zampanò, which takes traditional Greek cuisine to a whole new level. Tick, tick tick.
If you’re after a stylish home away from home, opt for this brand new hideaway in Exarhia, a bustling barrio filled with students, artists and old-school Athenians. Painted in soothing colours, it has a terrace with plenty of seating, kitchenettes on every floor and beautifully designed communal areas that make connecting with fellow travellers a breeze.
Ideal for big groups, this great value hostel and studio complex in the shadow of the Acropolis is literally built above a village of facilities. Meet likeminded travellers at the sports bar, which has a pub quiz every Monday and live music on weekends, and head to The Fish Cafe for homemade plates such as Atlantic Cod with hand cut Naxos potatoes and Cretan rock salt for just €6.
This shiny new hostel is decorated with paired back minimalism with the odd flamboyant touch, such as a blossom tree in the middle of the communal work area and enormous blackboard walls so you and your crew can leave your mark. Decent coffee machines and a roof terrace are the sort of thoughtful little touches that ensure Bed Station stands out and attracts a cool crowd of digital nomads, as well as backpackers.
Where to stay in Crete
A sociable hub in a historic building, this homely hostel has a rambling garden that’s ideal for sunbathing as well as a terrace where everyone gathers to sip beer and play cards in the evenings. Located in Rethymno’s Venetian old town, it makes a great base for day trips to the most attractive sites of the island like Samaria Gorge, Elafonisi pink beach and the Lake of Kournas, and has plenty of buzzing beach bars nearby.
Nestling in an olive grove a short stroll from the south coast’s many deserted beaches, this rustic hostel is so relaxed it’s practically horizontal. Guitars, flippers, snorkels and beach mats can all be borrowed free of charge, while very cheap drinks keep the vine-covered terrace buzzing long into the balmy evenings. Many of the guests are on long trips or repeat visits, so this is the place to come for a real community vibe.
Discover the laid back seaside charm of these family-run apartments, just 400m from the legendary Malia beach and the happening nightlife of Malia village. Each room sleeps between 2 and 4 people and has a small kitchenette so you can save dollar by preparing your own meals. Forgot to bring a book? Borrow one from their well-stocked library and chill out by the swimming pool.
There’s a reason travellers have been returning to Pension Mylos since it first opened its doors in the 80s. For a start, there are those endless views over Kitroplatia Beach and Mirabello Bay. Then there’s the fact that every room has a balcony, fridge and air conditioning and that the quaint cafes and tavernas of Agios Nikolaus are just 200m away. Check into your new home today.
Where to stay in Rhodes
Located in the very centre of Rhodes town, with beaches and clubs within easy staggering distance, this is a sleek, contemporary hostel with a super sociable vibe. Workout in their gym, book a massage, or tune into a film in their cinema room. There are several types of accommodation on offer including dorms, female dorms, doubles, triples, six-bed rooms, suites and apartments, so there really is something to suit every budget.
If you’re travelling solo, there is no better place to stay than this fun-loving hideaway just 15-minutes stroll from Rhodes Old Town. With its sofas, tiled floors and Moorish lanterns, the outdoor bar area is a fantastic place to make new friends. The famously friendly staff have an encyclopedic knowledge of the best places to see and be seen in Rhodes.
Escape the bustle in this small family-run hotel, located in the traditional village of Ialisos. A blue and white colour scheme and balconies filled with flowers create an instant holiday atmosphere and you can even hire bikes from reception. The owner, Vivian, is a marine biologist who’s always happy to take guests diving or on nature walks in the gorgeous countryside. Choose from studios or dorms for up to 5 people.
To be honest they had us at 24-hour bar and billiards table, so when you also factor in the enormous pool surrounded by sun loungers and Faliraki Beach just 800m away you’ll see why we’re tipping Telhinis as the perfect getaway for couples. The 51 rooms are simple but comfortable and you can buy air conditioning for just €5 extra per day.
Where to stay in Corfu
You can expect to be partying until sunrise in rowdy Kavos, which makes these cute apartments in the city centre the perfect crash pad. Comfortable, clean rooms sleep anywhere from 2 to 5 people, ideal for groups of mates, plus they all have a balcony and kitchenette so you can refuel with some home-cooked comfort food. Nearby, there’s a communal pool and snack bar where you can catch a disco nap before doing it all over again…
This rambling property on Agios Gordios Beach is every bit as fun and flamboyant as its name suggests. There’s almost no end to the opportunities for socialising on offer: toga parties, beer pong, happy hour, a 24-hour bar and even an in-house nightclub. Rooms are functional and comfortable, with more luxurious doubles with seaview balconies available. Don’t miss the 4-wheeler quad safari through maintain villages and sand dunes. They’ll even pick you up from the airport for free if you’re staying for two or more nights.
Discover your own rural idyll at Marios, a collection of 14 studios in two traditional buildings on the outskirts of the village of Sadari. The real draw of the property is the gardens, which have hammocks and barbeque facilities, as well as Mario himself, who is one of the kindest and most welcoming hosts out there.
Popular with a slightly older crowd, Ipsos village nestles at the foot of some dramatic hills on the north of the island. Suitable for couples, families or groups of up to four friends, these studios have cool tiled floors and balconies with tables and chairs. They’re also perfectly located for enjoying the many beach bars that line Ipsos beach.
If you’re looking to chill out in beautiful surroundings with cool people, Sunrock is the hostel for you. Located two minutes’ walk from Pelekas Beach and with its own organic farm that has been in the same family for generations, this cosy, rustic spot has one of the best sunset views on the island. Breakfast and dinner made with home-grown ingredients are included in the price and there are plenty of opportunities for socialising thanks to a well-stocked bar and frequent beach barbeques.
Where to stay in Santorini
What could be more authentic than staying in a traditional Santorini cave dwelling in a village that most tourists have no idea exists? On the site of an 18th century winery in Karterados, where locals get around by donkey and grandmothers sit on the porch shelling beans from their gardens, this fabulously boho hostel and hotel consists of 8 traditional caves, one historic apartment and numerous sea view terraces with a big pool area and gardens. There is a social vibe in a chilled-out way, with a communal kitchen, yoga classes and weekly movie nights. For a combination of atmosphere and value this is a real gem. Fira town is a 5-10 minute drive away.
Perfectly located for exploring Fira, the island’s atmospheric capital, these studio apartments around a private pool sleep anywhere between 2 and 6 people. Although they’re built in the traditional Cycladic style, they are in fact less than 10 years old and are as bright and shiny as you could imagine. Interiors showcase the best of Greek contemporary style with statement fabrics, while balconies are perfectly angled for watching the island’s famous sunsets. Their chic styling makes them ideal for couples.
If you’re planning to base yourself among the cafes and boutiques of Kamari, where you’ll find Santorini’s famous black sand beach, look no further than these uber traditional studios, which are built around a heart-shaped pool. Have a potter in the gardens or chill on the sun loungers before strolling the 350m to the beach. All rooms have a kitchenette, air conditioning and television and some can sleep up to 3 people.
If you’re looking for a good value beach holiday on Santorini, you won’t do better than Stelios Place, located literally 30m from Perissa, the most famous beach on the island. These gorgeously nostalgic studios are clambered by bougainvillea flowers and boast a swimming pool surrounded by striped sun loungers. Inside, expect blue and white fabrics and simple posies of fresh flowers in glass jars, which give a lovely, summery vibe. If you book for three nights or more, free airport transfers are included.
This little haven has romantic getaway written all over it. The rooms sleep between 2 and 4 people and are decorated with impeccable taste. Think neutral colours and locally sourced materials, as well as statement lamps made out of seashells that create a vibe of laid-back, seaside chic. Tucked away in the back streets of Fira, it has its own pool and you can rent motorcycles for day trips from reception.
Where to stay in Kos
Tucked away on the outskirts of Kos town, just a short stroll from the beach, these family apartments offer rooms for 2 to 4 people. All have a view of either the garden, pool or mountains, as well as a kitchenette, and they are individually decorated in a super traditional Greek style. It’s a great hideaway for couples or mature backpackers – close enough that you can still stroll to the main strip if you feel like a party but secluded enough for some proper R and R time.
If you want to discover more great hostels, check out our full list of hostels in Greece and find the perfect spot for you!
Best places to visit in Greece
From the mysterious ruins of Delphi on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where the ancients went to ask the gods about the future, to the stylish cafes of Paros, there are so many epic things to experience in Greece that you may find yourself booking your next trip before your tan’s even faded. Get inspired with our ultimate guide on the best places to visit in Greece.
Best Greek islands
Whether you’re looking to spend your holiday dancing the night away, writing your masterpiece on a deserted beach or sipping ouzo in a sleepy taverna, Greece has the perfect island for you. There are six groups to choose from, each of which share cultural customs and geographical quirks. So, which are the best Greek islands for you?
The Cyclades is the little black dress of Greek island groups. Characterised by sugar-cube houses, blue-domed churches, sleepy squares and barren landscapes, these are the islands you’ll recognise from your mates’ instagram accounts.
Santorini and Mykonos are the most infamous duo in this group, second to none in terms of glamourous nightlife. If you’re on a budget or looking for something more low-key, try sleepy Schinoussa, which only has 250 residents but 18 sandy coves. Folegandros’ main town, Hora, is as picturesque as they come, with its warren of winding streets, while Sifnos is popular with well-heeled Greeks. Apollonia, the main town, is filled with sophisticated boutiques and buzzes after dark with stylish types sipping cocktails and tucking into seafood suppers long into the evening.
Closer to Turkey than mainland Greece, the Dodecanese islands are characterised by medieval villages and elaborate Byzantine churches. Halki’s port, Emborio, is made up of gorgeous 19th century houses that will have you reaching for your camera, while petite Lipsi has several gorgeous pebble beaches, including Hohlakoura. According to Greek mythology, this is where the beautiful nymph Calypso held Odysseus prisoner for several years on his way home from the Trojan war, and you may find it equally difficult to leave once you’ve been seduced by the sleepy, authentic atmosphere.
Thanks to a slightly cooler climate, the steep slopes of the Ionian islands are covered in fragrant lemon and olive groves giving them a more pastoral feel than some of the other groups. The Venetians, French and British all squabbled over this group, leaving behind stunning architecture after every occupation. Gaios, the pretty main town on Paxi, has a very Italian flavour and on Agios Nikolaos there’s a Venetian Castle with designs by Leonardo Da Vinci. Lefkada boasts some of Greece’s best beaches, while Ithaca has a wild, untamed beauty that makes it a paradise for nature lovers.
Because they’re so close to Athens, the Argo-Saronic islands are best visited outside of high season or weekends, when the crowds will be a little smaller. These rocky, volcanic tufts are characterised by romantic towns that are a favourite with yachties. Bohemian Hydra is car-free, with residents hitching a ride on donkeys when they need to travel or transport things.
Floating off the eastern coast of the mainland, the Sporades’ five minutes of fame came when Mamma Mia was filmed on Skopelos. Now that excitement has died down, this group has sunk back into its usual sleepiness. The main activities are hiking from beach to beach through rolling pine forests and sipping cold beer at a taverna or two come nightfall.
Best beaches in Greece
Nestling in the Messinia region, in a little explored corner of the southwestern Peloponnese, you’ll find one of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean. Voidokoilia (or cow’s belly) is a crescent moon bay on a narrow isthmus that stretches between two networks of sand dunes. Follow the path to the ruins of Old Navarino castle for sweeping views of the Divari lagoon, a glassy stretch of water that’s waded by herons and flamingos.
For a very different experience, head to Mylopotas Beach, a long swathe of champagne coloured sand on Ios. It’s lined by fish restaurants such as Drakos Taverna and Far Out Beach Club, which is always filled with bronzed party goers fluttering to music. Sun loungers here are free, cocktails cheap and there is an excellent sushi bar by the pool.
With its white sand and electric blue water, the result of the sulphur in the rocks, Navagio Beach wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean, but it is in fact on Zakynthos, an Ionian island that’s scalloped with talcum-soft beaches. A rusting shipwreck at the foot of the towering chalk cliffs makes for the perfect photo opportunity and gives the whole bay a sense of mystery.
You don’t have to leave the mainland to find some of the best beaches in Greece. Roughly halfway between Athens and Thessaloniki, the Pelion peninsula is a nostalgic dreamland of chestnut forests (where the ancients believed the centaurs lived), stone cottages and glorious bays. Most of the best coves are on the Northeast coast, including Agios Ioannis and Mylopotamos, and Northwest coast, such as Kala Nera and Boufa beach.
Best cities in Greece
When you think about holidaying in Greece you probably picture long, lazy days and sultry ferry trips between the islands. However, an urban break is a fantastic way to combine contemporary Greek culture with plenty of insights into the country’s storied past.
Naturally, Athens has to come at the top of any list. Greece’s dynamic capital is both historical and hip, and the Acropolis, that iconic symbol of classical Greece, is still the hub around which the city revolves. Almost no matter where you are, this rocky hill, home to archaeological giants such as the Parthenon, temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion, will be towering above you, exactly as it has done since the 5th century BC. In order to see these ruins close up and learn about the pivotal role they played in the lives of the ancients with fewer crowds, aim to get there when it opens at 8AM, or wait until around 5PM, when the day trippers have melted away and golden hour transforms the white marble to dusky gold.
The labyrinthine streets around the Parthenon are always filled with beautiful people sipping craft brews and browsing the flea markets for vintage clothes. On balmy evenings check out Cine Thission, an outdoor cinema which has been open since 1935, before heading to Barrett, an exhibition space and cocktail bar that has progressive DJs on Friday and Saturday nights.
Clinging to the curve of coastline at the top of the Thermaic Gulf, Thessaloniki is one of the best cities in Greece for nightlife and it has an exotic Ottoman feel, particularly around the old Turkish quarter in Valaria. The arcades around Valaoritou Street have all been reimagined over the last few years into stylish cocktail bars such as La Doze, but you’ll still find more traditional bazaars such as Modiano Market, where you can stock up on gifts like spices and traditional sweet treats.
Best places to go in Greece
So you’ve kicked back on the islands, got bronzed on the beaches and filled that extra suitcase with souvenirs in the cities, but there’s still plenty more to experience on mainland Greece.
If your visit falls in winter, why not check out some of Greece’s ski resorts, a great budget alternative to the Alps? You’ll find mountain lakes, cosmopolitan villages where Europe’s jet set mingle in winter and ancient ruins dusted in snow. Some of the best slopes can be found near Arachova, a resort with an altitude of 1000m in the foothills of Mount Parnassus that has such great nightlife it’s nicknamed ‘winter Mykonos.’ Head to Sehre for cool cocktails and hot DJs and Doctor John for cheese fondue. No drink will set you back more than around €8.
Do you like to read or have secret dreams of being a poet? The pocket-sized city of Ioannina, on the shores of beautiful Lake Pamvotida in the Ioannina Basin region is home to several famous poets and novelists and there are plenty of writing workshops you can do in the area.
The island in the middle of the lake is thought to be the only inhabited island in the world without a name, and you can row out to it in a boat. Follow the footpath around the outskirts and you’ll stumble across seven monasteries from the 13th century, including the monastery of Saint Nicholas Philanthropinon, which is covered in beautiful frescoes. Back in the cobbled streets of the village you’ll find just 200 residents, mostly making a living by serving local specialties such as eel cooked on roof tiles.
One of the most magical landscapes in Greece is Meteora, a World Heritage–listed area of massive sandstone pinnacles rising out of forests which inspired the backdrop for Game of Thrones. On top of these pinnacles, six monasteries are still lived in by a community of 60 monks and nuns who have a serious head for heights.
As with most truly jaw dropping places, Meteora has been discovered by tourists and the best way to see it without the crowds is to book a sunrise tour. Stay in the cute mountain village of Kalabaka and don’t miss a meal at Restaurant Meteora, which has been serving up delicious family recipes since 1925.
It’s fair to say that Greece is a nation that’s obsessed with food. No matter where you base yourself, food is going to play a major role in your holiday. In fact, the ancient Greeks invented the word gastronomy, which they defined as ‘the art and science of good eating’, and a Greek called Archestratus is thought to have written the first cookbook in 350 B.C.
Greeks today eat lots of the same dishes their ancestors did in ancient times. Tuck into a plate of dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and you’ll practically be biting into the past. Greek cuisine has its roots in the family, and food is the delicious thread which runs through almost all major social occasions. Many restaurants are family-run and if you ask any local “who makes the best moussaka?” the answer will almost always be “my mother.”
Greek food is extremely regional, with every island boasting its own dishes and techniques, so it’s worth reading up on the local specialities before you go. To give you a flavour: Macedonian feasts typically involve a lot of meat, but no meal is considered complete without at least one twisted feta and vegetable pie on the table. Food from the mountainous Epirus region focuses on dairy due to the huge number of sheep and goat farms in the area. And in the Cyclades, seafood is king. Stroll through any Cycladic village and you’ll see strings of octopus drying in the sun, ready to be grilled over pine-wood fires and sprinkled with paprika.
Get a taste for Greek food with our handy guide:
Traditional Greek food
On a boiling summer’s day, what could be better than rolling off the beach and into a shady taverna for an iced coffee and Greek salad? Devastatingly simple yet oh so delicious, this iconic dish of tomato, feta, onion and olives is Greece’s gift to the world. The tables at Boukari Beach taverna on Corfu are the closest you’ll get to the water without getting wet, making it the perfect spot for a long lunch.
Another very traditional Greek food is moussaka, a baked lamb and eggplant casserole covered with a thick layer of bechamel sauce that becomes golden and crusty. As comforting as a hot bath on a chilly evening, it’s eaten at big family gatherings as well as served at pretty much every restaurant in Greece. With its checked table cloths and waterfront views of a Venetian fort, Assos Restaurant on Kefalonia is a great place to try it, while Alexandra’s on the fantastically atmospheric island of Kastellorizo also does a tasty version.
Odysseus and Penelope. Theseus and the minotaur. Mezedes and ouzo. In Greece it is tradition to never drink strong spirits without some tasty nibbles alongside, which has given birth to a selection of small plates known as mezedes or meze for short. What these little plates lack in size they more than make up for in flavour. Think salty anchovies, juicy olives or crumbly sheep’s cheese. Every region has its specialities. On Lesvos, salted sardines eaten raw (sardeles pastes) are the order of the day in July, which is when the fish are in season. If you’re heading to Volos, a coastal university town on the mainland that overlooks the Pagasetic Gulf, don’t miss a rowdy evening in Me Zen, which has a huge range of tsipouro spirits and cured meat meze plates.
Olive oil is the backbone of Greek cuisine. In fact, locals take it as seriously as the French do wine and many families keep their own olive grove so they’re never without a fresh supply. The taste and colour of the oil varies hugely depending on where the trees are grown and how early in the season they’re harvested.
Greek street food
The economic crisis put value for money back at the top of many diners’ priority lists, meaning that a street food craze is sweeping through Athens and Thessaloniki at the moment.
Fried dough balls in honey (loukoumades), custard pastries dusted with cinnamon (bougatsa) and mouth-watering cheese pies (tyropita)… this is the sort of revolution we can get behind! Classic circular bread rolls dusted with sesame seeds (koulouri) are currently being reimagined by the Oven Sesame franchise, who are experimenting with salad, cheese and ice cream fillings. One of these bad boys will keep you full for a couple of euros.
The godfather of Greek street food, gyros (it’s pronounced yee-ros), can be traced all the way back to Alexander the Great, whose soldiers used to roast meat on their swords on an open fire. You’ll probably recognise these towers of twizzling pork and beef from too many nights that have ended in doner kebab shops, but the Greek version, served in pitta with fresh tomatoes, tzatziki, onions and fries are a cut above anything you’ll have had back home. If Greek mums had all the kit to make gyros they’d taste like the ones at Diagonos, which has been a local’s favourite on Thessaloniki’s waterfront since 1977. Louis Grill House on Andros does a juicy pork version.
Souvlaki is the second most famous Greek street food and can also be eaten wrapped in a pitta if you’re on the go. It’s similar to gyros, except the meat is cooked on individual skewers and usually served with fries and tzatziki. Like most things on Mykonos, souvlaki has been given a glam makeover at Souvlaki Story, where you can eat in their sparkling white restaurant – or if you’re feeling the effects of the night before, opt to have them deliver to your hostel.
Vegan Greek food
The good news for globetrotting vegans is that Greece is awash with delicious plant-based dishes.
It’s partly down to all that Mediterranean sun. In a country that’s bathed in 360 days of sunshine a year, it’s no surprise that vegetables such as tomatoes, olives, eggplant and oregano all flourish in its mineral rich soil. Trust us when we say that foraged bitter greens (horta), served with olive oil, garlic and lemon at Santorini’s Candouni restaurant is about to become your new favourite appetiser. It tastes all the better given that it’s served in a romantic courtyard filled with flowers in the ridiculously picturesque village of Oia, which has some of the best sunsets in the world.
Another vegan Greek food must-try is fava, a dip made from yellow split peas and served sprinkled with crunchy red onion, capers, parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. Scooped up with freshly baked bread it’s an incredibly satisfying snack, with the fresh crunchiness of the toppings contrasting perfectly with the velvety peas. The fava on Santorini is particularly delicious as the yellow split peas thrive in the volcanic soil, but you can try it at traditional tavernas throughout the Cyclades. Metaxy Mas is a low-key restaurant in Naxos old town which does a mean line in traditional finger food, including fava.
The other reason that Greece is such a paradise for vegans is religion. From the mysterious roadside shrines to elderly ladies dressed all in black, the influence of the Greek Orthodox Church can be felt everywhere and the traditional calendar includes 180 fasting days every year. Every Wednesday and Friday and in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Easter, many Greeks follow a diet that’s fairly similar to most vegans, although some seafood such as squid and octopus is still allowed. Slow baked chickpeas (revithia sto fourno) with caramelized onion is a favourite at these times of year. This comforting recipe came from the island of Sifnos where it is traditionally cooked in clay pots and you can try the real deal at Manoli’s Restaurant in Vathi, which was recently taken over by Stelios, Manoli’s son.
The tomatoes and peppers in Greece are as plump and flavoursome as they come, and another vegan must try is gemista (vegetables stuffed with rice, fresh herbs and onion before being slow baked). Try it on the seaview terrace at Lela’s Taverna in the gorgeous village of Kardamyli in the Peloponnese.
Maybe it’s the heat or even to balance the saltiness of the feta, but Greeks have a very sweet tooth. Most of their desserts feature nuts, fruit, local herbs and lashings of local honey, although portions tend to be fairly small. When there’s this much sugar involved, even the most frenzied of dessert fiends is going to be satisfied!
Perhaps the sweetest and most popular of the lot is baklava, those tiny towers of flaky pastry layered with chopped nuts and drenched in syrup. Crispy, chewy and oh so satisfying, it is so decadent even the Greeks tend to save it for special occasions. It holds a special place in the national psyche because the Greeks invented fillo (which means leaf) pastry in the third century. The Asimakopouloi Bros confectionery shop on Athens’ Charilaou Trikoupi Street has been a local favourite since 1915 and is currently owned by the third generation of the same family. They make their own butter in house, which elevates their baklava to something special.
Greek coffee (ellinikos) is brewed over hot sand in a briki (long-handled brass pot, tapering towards the rim), the same way it’s made through all the old Ottoman lands, and its grainy, bitter taste is the perfect partner to amygdalota. These chewy almond cookies are traditionally served at family gatherings and weddings, as their white colour symbolises good luck. There’s no flour in the recipe, so they’re perfect if you’re trying to limit your gluten intake and are particularly associated with the Cycladic islands. Believe us when we say that these little beauties are going to become your go-to Greek snack!
If you end up making friends with a Greek family or checking into a homestay on your trip, you can expect to be greeted with a traditional spoon sweet on your arrival. These are exactly what they sound like, a teaspoonful-worth of syrupy preserve intended to get a guest’s visit off to a sweeter start. Every region has its specialties. On Naxos, you can get your chops around quince spoon sweet flavoured with basil, while Ikaria’s specialty is walnut and sour cherry. In some traditional tavernas on Chios you may be offered mastic, a ball of resin from the mastic tree served on a spoon in a cold glass of water, after your meal.
In some ways, Greece is a very European-feeling country and some aspects of the culture may not seem that different to the rest of the continent. Dig a little deeper however, or visit rural villages and you’ll discover a host of cultural quirks. The sound of worry beads and click clacking of backgammon still fills the air outside the kafenions (very traditional cafes populated exclusively by men), plates are smashed at weddings and the bazouki is still the key instrument in traditional rebetika music.
Greeks are incredibly friendly and can often ask personal questions that leave reserved Brits squirming. However, this is just part of Greek culture. As one local told me over a glass of tsipouro: “We don’t have problems, we talk about them until they go away.”
If you get invited over for dinner by new friends, remember that you are expected to arrive 30-45 minutes late and that you should ask for second helpings if at all possible. Refusing food is seen as rude, while asking for more is taken as a massive compliment. If eating out with local friends at a restaurant, offer to pay, but if they say no, don’t insist or they may be offended.
The most important holidays are Christmas and Easter and if you’re travelling over these periods it’s definitely worth booking in advance and doing your research. This is when Greeks go home to visit their families, so many businesses close or run reduced hours. However, these are also incredibly interesting times to visit thanks to all the quirky local traditions.
In the main squares of island villages, you’ll find a boat decorated with lights instead of a tree, while Saint Basil rather than Father Christmas brings children presents on January 1st. In Vordados village, on the evening before Easter, two rival church congregations fire thousands of home-made rockets at each other’s bell tower, with direct hits on the belfry being counted up the next day.
Most villages will host several panagia (mini festivals) throughout the year, which will see the whole community gather for dancing and traditional music in the town centre. You might be able to get a sense of when particular islands will be celebrating by visiting the local tourism board’s website, although some celebrations are spontaneous.
A particularly popular date is the August full moon, considered the brightest of the year, which sees parties across Greece. In Athens, historical venues such as the Acropolis or Roman Agora open for free moonlit performances of theatre and dance. Find more details at Why Athens.
Greek culture facts
The Monty Python sketch ‘what did the Romans ever do for us’ could just have easily be written about the Greeks. We are talking about the culture that invented philosophy, democracy, modern medicine, literature and mathematics, as well as the alarm clock, maps, showers, central heating and anchors… safe to say we’ve got a lot to thank them for! In order to get the most out of your trip, it’s useful to have a brief overview of the history of Greece.
Greeks are rightfully very proud of their cultural heritage, which can be traced back to the Minoan civilisation who flourished on the island of Crete circa 3650 BC. The Bronze Age from about 1600 to 1100 B.C.E is known as ‘the time of heroes’, when the Mycenaeans ruled Greece, and this is the period which gave birth to many of the myths we still know today, including Homer’s Odyssey. The National Archaeological Museum is filled with interesting art from this period, and you can still visit the Mycenaean citadel, located 24km north from Nafplion.
The Acropolis @sararamazanloo
The Hellenistic period saw Greece transform from a series of independent city states who were often at war in the classical period, to a vibrant, cosmopolitan country that stretched all over the Mediterranean and was united by a single language.
This was considered Greece’s golden age, when the Parthenon was built, the first marathon run and great thinkers such as Sophocles producing plays that resonate as much with audiences today as they did all those years ago. You can watch them performed in ancient Greek theatres such as the Odeon of Herodes Atticus as part of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, which runs every summer and is the highlight of Greece’s cultural calendar.
Ancient Greek culture
Medusa, the sorceress whose look could turn enemies to stone. Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the underworld. A certain wooden horse that led to the downfall of Troy…
The ancient Greeks lived in a world of heroes, monsters and myths, all overseen by a complex family of gods whose grudges and taste for incest would have made prime viewing on the Jeremy Kyle Show. These rulers were often cruel to their human subjects. Catch Zeus on an off day and you could end up chained to a rock with eagles eating your liver for eternity, as Prometheus discovered when he gave humanity the gift of fire. As a result, the country is liberally scattered with elaborate temples built to assuage the gods and visiting them provides a fascinating glimpse into ancient Greek culture.
The Parthenon @kyndal.rayne.travels
At just 3km long and with no running water, Delos may look like one of the less interesting Cycladic islands to the untrained eye, yet it was one of the most sacred sites in the ancient world, as the Greeks believed it was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Today, it is covered in the ruins of temples and ancient theatres and also has an archeological museum which has one of the best collections of ancient art in the country. You can book a day trip that includes the ferry to and from Mykonos and a 90-minute tour of the enormous site for around €50.
If I told you that people used to travel to Delphi to hear Apollo speak through a cult of young priestesses you’d raise your eyebrows, but such was the magical world the ancient Greeks lived in. There are detailed accounts of the priestesses falling into trances before predicting the future and interestingly a fire of laurel leaves, known to cause a semi-trancelike state if you breathe the fumes for an extended period, was permanently burning in their sanctuary.
Between the two towering peaks of Mount Parnassus you’ll find the monumental ruins of a site that included stadiums, theatres and temples, all nestling in natural hollows on the mountain. It’s about 180km from Athens and you can do a guided day trip for around €75.
The Greek language is the one of the oldest in Europe and it can be hard to get your head around. It has different letters, which have been used since 800 BC, various intonations and difficult grammar. Luckily most people under the age of around 40 learned English in school and those who work in the hospitality industry are often fluent.
However, in rural areas or on the smaller islands, a few key phrases will get you a long way. It is also always a good idea to learn polite greetings to whip out in shops or when passing someone in the street. There’s nothing like a well-timed ‘kalimera’ (good morning) to get you into locals’ good books, and as Greek’s are so hospitable you may even find yourself invited to a family or social occasion as a result.
Be careful not to confuse yes and no — it’s easy to mistakenly associate “neh” with “no” in English, and “oh-hee” with “okay” when in fact it’s the opposite! An easy way to remember is that they’re actually the inverse of what you would think.
Brush up on your skills with these key phrases:
- Hello – ???? ??? – “YAH-soo”
- Nice to meet you – ?????? ???? – “HA-ree-ka po-LEE”
- How are you? – T? ?????? – “tee-KAH-nis?”
- Thank you – ????????? – “eff-kha-ri-STOE”
- Please / You’re welcome – ???????? – “para-kah-LOE”
- Good morning – ???????? – “kah-lee-MER-ah”
- Good afternoon/evening – ????????? – “kah-lee-SPER-ah”
- Goodnight – ????????? – “kah-lee-NEEKH-tah”
- My name is – ?? ???? – “may LEH-neh”
- What is your name? – ??? ?? ????? – “pos-oh LEH-neh”
- Goodbye – ???? ??? – “YAH-soo”
- Yes – ??? – “neh”
- No – ??? – “OH-hee”
- Excuse me/Sorry – ??????? – “See-GHNO-mee”
Greece Travel Advice
So you’ve booked your flights, narrowed down where you want to go and checked into the perfect hostel. Ensure your trip goes without a hitch with our Greece travel advice.
Is it safe to travel to Greece?
More than 3 million Brits visit Greece every year and most visits are trouble free, so when considering if it’s safe to travel to Greece the short answer is yes! Of course, you should use common sense to look after yourself and your belongings. Pickpocketing can be an issue in big cities, so make sure you zip up your bag and don’t leave your camera or wallet lying around.
The Greeks have a long and proud history of demonstrations in the major cities, and in the current economic climate these are only too frequent and have been known to turn violent. Demonstrations are traditionally held on 1 May, 17 November and 6 December, although they often break out at short notice. Syntagma Square, in central Athens, is often a gathering point and is best avoided if a protest does break out.
Indecent behaviour, including mooning, isn’t tolerated. The police will make arrests and the courts are likely to impose heavy fines or prison sentences on people who behave indecently. Something to bear in mind after that extra shot of ouzou…
The emergency services number in Greece is 112. Calling 999 from a UK mobile in Greece will automatically transfer you to the Greek emergency services.
What to pack for Greece
Choosing what to pack for Greece entirely depends on what season you’ll be visiting in.
In summer, the days are almost always scorching and the nights balmy, although it’s always worth throwing in trousers and a light jacket for ferry crossings. In winter and shoulder season, the climate is similar to much of the Mediterranean. Temperatures rarely drop below 12 degrees on the islands and 5 degrees in Athens.
Although beach wear on the islands and resorts is expected, Greece is fairly conservative in rural areas and women should cover their shoulders and knees when visiting churches. A sarong will come in handy for this and is invaluable as a light cover for ferries or to protect skin from too much sun. A good mosquito repellent for your body and room is a must if you’re island hopping.
If you’re planning on going out in Mykonos or Santorini, bring platform shoes rather than heels. The streets are cobbled and mostly pedestrian, so you’ll be walking home in the dark. For the same reason, comfortable sandals are a must-pack, although closed toe shoes are a good idea if you’re planning on hiking or exploring the ruins.
So, has our ultimate guide to backpacking Greece got you ready for a mythological adventure? Whether you’re drawn to the ancient sites of Athens, the rustic cobbled streets of Mykonos or those picture-perfect Santorini views, we’re sure you’ll love every second of your Greek odyssey. Oh, don’t forget to have an Ouzo for us!
About the author:
Imogen Lepere is a travel writer with a soft spot for anything quirky, surprising and incongruous. Her adventures include teaching in Kathmandu, riding the Trans-Mongolian railway and living with a nudist colony in Greece. She currently splits her time between London and Melbourne, where she can normally be found with a glass of wine in one hand and a pen in the other. Read more of her work on her blog or follow her on Instagram.