Greece Tourist Guide & Info
Greece has so much to offer to visitors, it’s no wonder it is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. Ancient Greece is generally considered the cradle of Western civilization, having greatly influenced the arts, language, philosophy, politics, and sports of western society.
If the stay is short, visitors may have a difficult time choosing between Greece's numerous ancient historical sights, the idyllic beaches of the islands, the towering mountain ranges, and the olive orchards in the south. The main touristic regions are divided as follow:
– Attica (including Athens)
– the Peloponnese
– the Greek Islands
– Central/Northern Greece
Origin & Culture
With its extensive coastline and islands, Greece has excellent seafood. Traditonal dishes include grilled octopus, astakomacaronada (spaghetti with lobster) and achinosalata (sea-urchin eggs in lemon and olive oil). Lamb shares a same popularity as it is easily farmed here. Look for Oven-baked lamb with potatoes, moussaka, paidakia (grilled lamb chops) or Giouvetsi (lamb baked in a clay pot). Real Greek food has little in common with what is offered in Greek restaurants around the world. You can find certain staples that are considered more like junk food in Greece, such as gyros and souvlaki.
Popular appetizers (meze) include Dolmadakia (stuffed grapevine leaves), deep-fried vegetables, spanakopita (spinach pie), Saganaki (a fried cheese), Taramosalata (fish roe mixed with boiled potatoes), feta cheese and Tzatziki (yogurt with cucumber and garlic puree). A mixed meze plate is called a pikilía. A real Greek salad is essentially a tomato salad with cucumber, red onion, feta cheese, and kalamata olives, dressed with olive oil. Mezes are often enjoyed with a glass of Ouzo, an anise-flavored aperitif, or Tsipouro, the Greek Grappa.
Greek desserts are usually heavy nuts and honey, such as the classic baklava, finikia, (cookie topped with chopped nuts), Loukoumades (small crusty donuts) and Galaktoboureko (custard baked between layers of phyllo). Greek yogurt, much thicker than what we accustomed too, is served with honey as a dessert.
Greek coffee is prepared with the grounds left in. It is a thick, strong black coffee, served in a small cup either sweetened or unsweetened. During the hot summer months try a frappé, a shaken iced instant coffee called with or without milk, sweetened or unsweetened.
Wine is enjoyed with most meals. Almost every taverna has there own home wine which is usually of good quality. Specialty wines include the whites from Santorini and reds from Naoussa and Drama; the Imiglyko half-sweet red wine; the distinctive Retsina dry white wine with hint of pine resin used to seal the flasks and bottles.
Greece is credited with the birth and development of science, literature, architecture, the fine arts, philosophy and democracy. The culture of Greece has evolved over thousands of years, from Mycenaean Greece, into Classical Greece, the Byzantine Empire and finally the Greek War of Independence. Greek culture was also influenced by the Roman Empire, Turkey, Italy, the Balkans, and the British Empire.
Byzantine art featured an abstract or symbolic approach, as opposed to classical art where being as realistic as possible was the main goal. Later the Cretan School describes an important school of icon painting. The Heptanese School of painting succeeded the Cretan school, showing an increasing Western European artistic influence and becoming less religious. Modern Greek painting began to be developed around the time of Romanticism.
Greece has a remarkably rich and resilient literary tradition. The first recorded works in the western literary tradition are the poems of Homer and Hesiod. Early Greek lyric poetry was responsible for defining the lyric genre as it is understood today in western literature. The Byzantine era had strong Christian influence. Modern Greek literature took shape with the independence of Greece.
The tradition of philosophy in Ancient Greece accompanied its literary development. The works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers profoundly influenced Classical thought, the Islamic Golden Age, and the Renaissance. Hippocrates is referred to as the father of Western medicine. Thales of Miletus is regarded by many as the father of science. Pythagoras was a mathematician often described as the father of numbers. Other great Greek minds developed astronomy, cartography and physics.
Folkloric traditions go back into ancient times where choruses were performed for entertainment, celebration and spiritual reasons. Greek folk music is found all throughout Greece and styles can vary from various regions or islands. In the 19th century popular songs were the so-called Athenian serenades. The 20th century saw the birth of the styles Rebetiko initially associated with the urban lower and poor classes, the orchestral Éntekhno with elements from Greek folk rhythm and melody, and Laïkó which is a modernized form of Rebetiko. Laïkó music is mostly accompanied by the Greek instrumental bouzouki, an instrument of the string family. Other instrument used in the history of Greek music include the guitar, flute, sistrum, timpani (drum), psaltirio, Sirigs, lyre, cymbals, keras and kanonaki.
Greece dances run deep in the country’s folklore as well. In the Mycenean period, the ancient Greeks believed that dancing was invented by the Gods and therefore associated it with religious ceremony. Popular dances of this period included the Syrtos, Geranos, Mantilia, Saximos, Pyrichios, and Kordakas.
Certain topics are considered very sensitive or taboo so best to avoid them. These topics include the Macedonian and Turkish issues; do not degrade anything related to Ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire; completely avoid the subject of the military junta of the late 1960s-mid 1970s; and the Cyprus civil war of 1974. Pay attention to some hand gestures: Greeks put out their entire hand, palm open, five fingers extended out, like signaling someone to stop. This is called "mountza" and means get lost, or worse. So when refusing something offered to you make sure to put your palm down to refuse, not up.
Greece is a country in Southern Europe but politically also considered part of Western Europe. Greece has land borders with Albania, the Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria to the north, and Turkey to the east. The Aegean Sea lies to the east of mainland Greece, the Ionian Sea to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south.
Athens is the capital and the largest city in the country. Administrative divisions consist of thirteen regions subdivided into a total of 325 municipalities. The regions and municipalities are fully self-governed.
Eighty percent of Greece consists of mountains with ranges extending into the sea as peninsulas, of which Mount Olympus is the highest at 2,917 m. Western Greece contains a number of lakes and wetlands and is dominated by the Pindus mountain range. Northeastern Greece features another high-altitude mountain range, the Rhodope range.
The Greek Islands are a collection of over 6,000 islands and islets that belong to Greece. Only 227 of the islands are inhabited. Crete is the largest and most populous island. The Greek islands are traditionally grouped into the following clusters:
– the Saronic Islands in the Saronic gulf near Athens
While the area around Attica was inhabited during the Upper Paleolithic period (30000–10000 BC), the first advanced civilizations in Greece began with the Cycladic in the Cyclades Islands, the Minoan in Crete and Santorini, and later on the mainland (3000–1200 BC).
The next 400 years are referred to as the Greek Dark Ages, as the Cycladic and Minoan civilizations fell into decline following the arrival of the Dorians, who simply absorbed the later into their culture. Two of the most celebrated works of Greek literature, the Illiad and the Odyssey by Homer, were written during that period. At the same time we saw the rise of the Greek city-states and Greek settlements were also established in southern Italy and other coastal areas of the Mediterranean. The 5th through 4th centuries BC is known as Classical Greece when much of modern Western politics, artistic thought, scientific thought, literature, and philosophy developed. The Empire reached its climax during the rule of Alexander the Great, a period known as the Hellenistic era.
The empire broke up after Alexander's death, and Greece was eventually annexed by the growing Roman Empire. Although weakened politically, Greek Civilization continued to flourish under Roman rule and heavily influenced Roman culture. Christianity arrived in Greece during the 1st century AD. The Byzantine Empire existed for more than a thousand years, from the 4th century to 1453, when the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christian worship and moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. During the 13th century, a weakened Byzantine Empire was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Greece fell under Ottoman Turkish rule.
Over the next centuries the Greeks tried several times to take arms against the Empire in vain but a strong independent and unified movement broke out in 1821 which led to the Greek War of Independence. Aided by three Great Powers, Russia, the United Kingdom and France, Greece finally claimed its Independence in 1830. During the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Greece gradually annexed neighboring islands and territories.
Greece was invaded by Mussolini's military in 1941 during WWII. After liberation, a civil war broke out in 1946 between communist rebels and royalists, ending with the communist rebels defeated in 1949. By joining NATO in 1952, Greece experienced rapid economic growth and social change. A right-wing military dictatorship staged a coup in 1967. Democracy returned in 1974 with a parliamentary republic.
Greece rejoined NATO in 1980, joined the EU in 1981 and adopted the euro as its currency in 2001. The country's tourism industry returned in the 80s and began to experience remarkable economic growth in the 1990s. In 2004, the nation hosted the Summer Olympic Games in Athens. The Greek government debt crisis began in 2009. These austerity measures taken by the Eurozone have proved extremely unpopular with the Greek public, precipitating demonstrations and civil unrest.
Some of the national parks are Parnassos, Iti, Prespes, Vikos-Aoos, Parnitha, Samaria and Mount Olympus. In Greek mythology, Olympus was regarded as the home of the Twelve Olympian gods of the ancient Greek world. It formed itself after the gods defeated the titans in the Titan War, and soon the palace was inhabited by the gods. It is the setting of many Greek mythical stories.
Greece is one of the most bio-diverse countries of Europe in terms of flora with some 5,500 species of flora. Common flowers include hyacinth, narcissus, gladioli, anemones, lilies, irises, cyclamens, and tulips. Forests are covered primarily with aspen, pines, conifers as well as chestnuts and beeches.
The wildlife of Greece comprises about 900 different species. On land you can spot the brown bear, wolf, marten, wildcat, roe deer, wild goats, jackals, and hedgehogs. In the sky you can observe ducks, falcons, buzzards, pelicans, ibises, cormorants, herons and egrets. Marine life includes dolphins, whales, flying fish, swordfish, tuna, sunfish, and the endangered Mediterranean monk seals and the Loggerhead sea turtle. The National Marine Park on Zakynthos is the prime nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles.
In ancient Greece, wrestling was the number one sport of the Olympic Games and it remains a favorite sport to this day. The forms of wrestling we know today as Greco-Roman and Freestyle was first developed by the ancient Greeks. Wrestling was part of a soldier's training regimen. Wrestling is still one of the most significant Olympic sports in Greece, which has produced champions.
Football is the most popular sport in Greece. Its national governing body is the Hellenic Football Federation founded in 1926, which is member of FIFA and UEFA. Another very popular sport in Greece is basketball. Volleyball and water polo also enjoy quite a bit of popularity. There are many other sports practiced in the country, such as kickboxing, weightlifting, athletics, sailing and rowing, swimming and diving, tennis and handball.
Other Useful Info
The Euro (€) is legal tender in Greece. One euro is divided into 100 cents.
ATMs are prevalent in all cities and even the smaller towns. Mastercard, Visa and traveller's checks in US dollars are widely accepted. For credit cards make sure to have your 4 PIN code with you and cards with chips may be the only ones accepted. Small shops and restaurants may only accept cash, especially on the islands.
If you need to exchange foreign currency, go to any currency exchange shop found in all major cities or at a bank. There are also automated currency exchange machines in some areas of the country. Usually, only the larger hotels will exchange money for their guests.
The climate in Greece is predominantly Mediterranean. However, due to the country's unique geography, Greece has a remarkable range of micro-climates and local variations. Summers are hot and dry with near-constant sunshine and sporadic flash showers, generally from April until November. The remainder of the year is characterized by a relatively cold, rainy period.
From mid-July to mid-August, the sun in the afternoon hours can be extremely warm, easily reaching in the 30s Celsius. It is best advised to wake up early, doing all sightseeing and errands in the cool morning hours, and then spending the afternoon in the relaxing shade or at the beach. The low levels of atmospheric humidity in most areas of the country prevent the air from trapping much heat, and temperatures tend to dip to very pleasant levels in the evenings. While the Dry Mediterranean climate characterizes most of the country, there are two other climate systems that are present:
The Continental Mediterranean and western islands are wetter than the dry Mediterranean and have cooler winters and summers.
The Alpine Mediterranean has a harsh winter with abundant snowfalls, while the summers are cool with frequent thunderstorms. This climate is to be found in the mountainous areas of Northwestern Greece as well as in the mountainous central parts of Peloponnese.
For monthly average temperatures please refer to your destination of choice.
Payphones are widely available but most work only with phone. Pre-paid calling cards are sold in many shops and kiosks, as well as international calling card.
Internet Cafes are becoming common place and can be found in most towns. Mobile internet on 3G cellphone networks and Wi-Fi connections can be found almost everywhere.
ELTA is the state-owned postal service provider of Greece. The mail service of Greece is reliable but slow.
The ERT (Elliniki Radiofonia kai Tileorasi), the Greek Radio and Television broadcasting agency, owns 6 national television stations, 3 of which are digital, and 7 national radio station.
Tap water is generally potable in most places but it may not taste very good, especially on some small islands. If in doubt, bottled water is always safer. Sun and heat stroke are common, particularly in the summer months. Make sure to use sunscreen and wear a light sun hat.
Medications are obtained at pharmacies where you can have your prescriptions from your doctor filled.
You do not need any vaccinations against illness to travel to Greece. As in any part of the world, it is advisable to have your anti-tetanus vaccination up to date if you are going to be in contact with nature and the countryside, as well as any other official vaccination program.
January 01 – New Year's Day
January 06 – Epiphany
February/March – Shrove Monday
March 25 – Independence Day
April/May – Good Friday, Easter
May 01 – May Day/Labor Day
June – Pentecost Whit Sunday and Monday
August 15 – Assumption of Our Lady
October 28 – Ohi Day
December 25 – Christmas
December 26 – Saint Stephen's
Note: Greek Easter and Western Easter dates are not calculated with the same calendar so usually do not coincide.
Use good judgement, keep money and travel documents well hidden in a money belt and take advantage of the safety deposit boxes provided by the hotels. Always lock your hotel door or your rented car. Never leave any luggage unattended and be inconspicuous with jewellery, cameras, or anything of value. Try not to walk around empty streets or poorly-lit areas. After dark do not walk in the Athens districts of Monastiraki or Omonia, or around the two railway stations of Larissa and Peloponissos.
Great purchases that can be made all over Greece include antiques, jewelry, designer clothes, olive products, fur coats, Backgammon sets, music recordings, rugs, wine, Ouzo, honey, leather goods (bags, sandals, coats), ceramics, paintings, evil eye beads for protection and worry beads.
It is considered rude to try to bargain in Greece, except in flea markets but only haggle if you are serious about buying. In Athens, head for the Plaka and Kolonaki. In the Plaka there is the Monastiraki flea market and Ermou Street for shops. Kolonaki is more upscale with designer stores. Many islands or regions sell their own specialties. Delphi is great for wool blankets and sweaters. Ioannina is popular for silver, copper and brassware. Santorini produces distinctive flavored wines from the volcanic-rich soil. Kos is known for its bathing sponges. Mykonos offers icon reproductions, incense and beeswax candles. Rhodes has beautiful hand-woven lace, embroidered linen and crochet work. Crete sells local olive oil, herb-based cosmetics, honeys, and embroidered linens.
A departure tax of 12 Euro, per person, is to be paid when leaving the country.
The VAT tax in Greece is between 6.5% and 23%, depending on the goods or service. Goods not belonging to any special category are taxed at 23%. Refunds are made for the VAT on certain goods and merchandise if you are a non-EU resident and you spend a minimum of around 100€ in the same store on the same day. You must ask for a tax-free receipt from the store and then present the form with your purchases at the refund booth at the airport.
Tipping in Greece is not expected but it is always appreciated. Bellhops and doorman usually receive $2 per bag and chambermaids should get $2 per day. Almost all restaurants and hotels include a service charge, the VAT and municipal taxes in their prices. Round up to the nearest bill or leave about 10%.
The Greek rail infrastructure is run by Hellenic Railways Organisation (OSE). Thessaloniki is Greece's hub for international rail service. There a small network of international bus service to its neighboring countries. If arriving by car, the easiest and safest way is to arrive overland by Italy, and then take a trans-Adriatic ferry from there. Several ferries depart for Greece daily. From Turkey there are ferries stopping at certain Greek Islands.
To get around the mainland and the islands of Greece you can choose from several options. Intercity buses are a very popular option for domestic travel. The system is efficient, reliable, and relatively inexpensive. Some routes even include routes to islands near the mainland as the ferry crossing is included in the price of the bus ticket. The national rail system is slow and limited but currently under major renovation. The project's completion is still a long way off.
The best way to island hop is by ferry. In the summertime the frequency is good but in the wintertime or if the weather is bad, schedules are not as reliable. There's no single official source for schedules. During high-season there are extensive connections from Athens (Piraeus, Rafina and Lavrio ports) and quite a few islands, but there may not be many intra island connections, or daily service. In high-season it is recommended to reserve ahead of time, if possible. Rule of thumb: be flexible, always have a backup plan and make sure to arrive a day ahead if flying out. Faster hydrofoil and catamaran services are becoming more and more popular but be prepared to pay more.
Automobile rental agencies are present throughout the country. Roads are usually well-marked and well-maintained. Road signs in Greek are usually repeated with a transliterated version in the Latin alphabet. Exploring the country by car can be an extremely rewarding experience and gives you the freedom to reach even isolated towns or archaeological sites. But driving in Greece can be a challenge. Drivers might appear aggressive and risk takers, the national accident rate is very high, and the presence of many twisty mountainous roads, sometimes hugging the side of a cliff can be scary. In big cities traffic and finding parking can be very difficult, and the ferries that allow car transport are slower.
Although you can find taxis all over Greece, it can turn into a harrowing experience. Greek taxi drivers do not have the best reputation, they will often refuse to pick you up if it is not a direction they want to head in, and if in a group they may try to insist each person pays the full fare. In daytime and inside the city limits make sure the meter has the 1 lit, not 2 which is night and out of the city fares. The best way to deal with a bad driver is to start writing down the driver's license number and threaten to call the tourist police, he will probably cave in.
Many cities, towns and certain islands have public transit such as bus routes. In Athens, trolleys and regular buses have frequent links to tourist attractions and places of interest. The Athens Metro is one of the most modern, fast, comfortable and reliable in Europe. The Thessaloniki Metro is scheduled for completion in late 2014.