Greece is blessed with such variety of locations and moods that it’s impossible to experience the country in a single visit or a short stay. With scores of famous island destinations to choose from, and mainland locations that vary from the rural to the sophisticated, the mountainous to lush green forests and broad empty beaches, it’s true that a traveller to Greece is spoilt for choice.
Much has been written about the 1400 islands of Greece, and for many, it’s the automatic choice of destination for a holiday. But mainland Greece boasts some of the most beautiful, and interesting, places to visit and in many ways is still the real Greece of tiny traditional villages, rugged scenery, long coastlines and a rich history of antiquity.
If your time is limited, the Saronic Gulf islands of Aegina, Poros, Hydra and Spetses are very accessible from Athens, and for those with just a few days to spare are an ideal location for a quick visit through its villages, architecture and beaches.
Spetses is probably the most beautiful of the group with its ageing pine trees lining wonderfully sandy beaches and blue and crystal clear seas and Aegina has retained much of its traditional ‘greekness’ and is a good all-year-round destination.
The traditional ‘Greekness’ of Aegina Island
If one is on a once-in-a-lifetime journey, The Cyclades are the most famous of all the island groups, some 24 inhabited islands including, for elegance and excitement, Mykonos – one of Greece’s most famous islands, and, where most of the famous have visited!
The color of the Cyclades Islands
Its white cubist houses and wonderful beaches are everywhere, and includes Paradise beach – where clothes are optional and a beautiful body is strictly necessary.
It’s expensive, but the restaurants and nightlife is some of the best one can get. Mykonos must be seen at least once, and a short visit can be combined with other islands or cruises.
Santorini, the jewel of the Aegean
Also part of the Cyclades is Santorini – the most dramatic of all Greece’s islands.
Its giant volcano and black sand beaches, wonderful villages perched high above the sea, its unforgettable sunsets, all make for an outstanding experience if you’ve never been before. It’s spectacular, very pricey, very busy and very geared to the tourist industry – but they also deliver it very well.
If your young and looking for excitement then Ios should be your choice, the island where the under 30’s congregate from June to September for what seems like one long party. At sunset, the place comes alive with bars and pubs, discos and clubs of every variety and the place rocks until dawn. Some of its beaches are the best around, and in daytime are packed with the young from every corner of the globe, many probably nursing hangovers!
Finally there’s Tinos, not far from Mykonos – and probably Mykonos’s antidote – with over 100 churches, traditional Cycladic villages and largely empty beaches.
If you have time to spare and want the best scenery and interesting excursions, the Dodecanese island group – the farthest from the mainland– is a good choice.
Dodecanese: A diiferent face of Greece
For history and some of the best scenery, Rhodes is probably best. The old city of Rhodes Town is a walled fortress, Lindos has ancient temples, most of its Southwest coast is one long beach (with few people on it), whilst the northern beaches are busy, and full of nightlife.
Then, there is Patmos (called the Jerusalem of the Aegean) for its rocky soil, beautiful coastal areas and charming villages of whitewashed cubic houses. Moreover, Patmos is the place where St. John wrote the Apocalypse!
Sporades Islands: Green Paradise in the heart of the Aegean
For some of the more authentic and pretty islands, the Sporades group of Skopelos, Skiathos, Skyros, and Alonissos are one of the more popular selections and are characterised by dense vegetation and mountainous terrain, the bluest and cleanest seas and lovely mountain villages.
These are some of the least cosmopolitan of island groups and relatively easy to get to and travel through.
Ionian Islands: The genteel region of Greece
On the west coast are the Ionian islands, including Kefalonia, Corfu, Lefkada, and Zakynthos and also popular for tourists.
Some seasoned travellers claim Corfu to be the most beautiful island in the world for its dramatic scenery, its greenery (from the most rainfall of all the islands), and its cooler summer temperatures, ideal for those concerned about being able to handle the heat of southern Greece.
Corfu is very touristy in some parts, but balances that with some of the most unspoiled villages and scenery you can find on the mainland.
They say, for the heart and soul of Greece, you need to visit the mainland, especially Peloponnesos.
Peloponnesos: The heart and soul of Greece
Some call it true Greece and it boasts many good beaches, mountains and classical sites such as Mycenae, Epidavros and Nemea. It’s a place of rugged mountains, deep and green valleys, and the site of the ancient Olympia.
Nafplion, one of the most beautiful port towns of Greece was the first capital of modern Greece, and is a collection of Venetian houses and classical mansions as well as more traditional architecture.
The Pelion Peninsula is a wonderful area full of planes, apple trees and chestnuts, some of the best (and often emptiest) beaches, mountain streams, miles of orchards, and a wonderful collection of villages, some specialising in crafts.
It’s cooler, too, often a welcome relief from the mid-summer heat.
Coastal Volos lies at the foot of the region, and from there it’s not difficult to get to Sporades islands, or travel into Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city after Athens.
Athens and Thessaloniki compete against each other for the right to be called the cultural centre of Greece. Certainly, Thessaloniki’s bars and clubs, restaurants and ouzeries, and the elegance of the women, are amongst the best in Greece. It’s a large city, less bustling than Athens, with less antiquity to see, but has its own unique energy, feels more modern, and is more laid back, with wide avenues, large parks, squares and old houses, and many neoclassical buildings. It’s as modern a city as anywhere else in Europe, and has given Greece some of its greatest musicians, poets and artists.
From here one can strike out into the Macedonian region of mainland Greece and into Halkidiki, one of the most popular of tourist destinations. The area has some beautiful beaches and resorts and is a great destination for those wanting great nightlife and all inclusive accommodation.
One mainland destination not to be missed is the monasteries of Meteora. It’s one of the most amazing places to visit with giant rock formations crowned by originally inaccessible 500 year – old monasteries. It’s unique. One doesn’t have to be religious to visit Mount Athos (or Agio Oros) but one needs to be respectful of tradition, and somewhat adventurous. It is, simply, a place that has to be visited and is the living spiritual centre of Greece and almost a state-within-a-state. Women aren’t allowed to visit the monasteries here, and men need the proper papers to be allowed to. It’s an experience of a lifetime, with huge monasteries covering the coastline and mountains, caves with hermits still living in them, and monks everywhere from every country of the Orthodox world.
It’s true what people say: Greece can be the journey of a whole lifetime.