Close your eyes. Now, conjure up some images of Greece in your mind’s eye. What can you see?
Image: Santorini, Greece.
If you’ve visited before, your head will be swimming in moments and experiences from travelling around Greece. If not, you’ll very likely find yourself deep in a slide show of images from popular culture, cinema and travel TV shows—islands awash in blues and whites and delicious meze, rowdy celebrations and ancient wonders.
Image: Navagio Beach on the coast of Zakynthos in the Ionian Islands.
And while all of those things are inherently Greek, there’s much more to this fascinating country than Shirley Valentine, Mamma Mia and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin might tell you.
It’s hardly surprising that islands come to mind when musing about Greece and considering a holiday here. Depending on who you ask, Greece is home to between 1,200 and 6,000 of them. Sparkling jewels like Santorini, Mykonos, Corfu, Crete, Naxos, Paros and the Ionian Islands have been drawing visitors to the Greek Islands for generations.
Image: Little Venice, Mykonos
An island-hopping Greek holiday would be on many a bucket-list. Dreamy days spent flitting between islands, each with their own beguiling attractions is, understandably, very appealing and popular. Elsewhere, ‘Culture Vultures’ lose themselves in an astonishing cultural and architectural legacy thousands of years of old.
Foodies head to Greece for the country’s diverse Mediterranean cuisine, devouring local dishes like moussaka, spanakopita and souvlaki. Not to mention the tzatziki, grilled octopus and fish, feta, dolmades, olives and cheese. And olive oil. Oh! The olive oil.
It’s little wonder then, that Greece—population 11 million—now welcomes some 30 million visitors each year. The country’s visitor numbers have increased more in the last decade than any other in Europe. And while some worry about the effects of over-tourism which is a legitimate concern in many tourism hot-spots, tourism is one of the most important sectors of Greece’s economy, contributing nearly 20% of the country’s GDP.
But there’s much more to Greece than days spent pleasantly adrift amid sparkling islands and one of the longest coastlines in the world covering some 13,000 kilometres. It turns out, for example, that 80% of Greece consists of a land shaped by mountains and hills, making the country one of the most mountainous in Europe. The summit of Mount Olympus, the mythical abode of the Greek Gods, soars nearly 3,000 metres above sea level.
Weather-wise, these mountainous regions feature an Alpine climate with heavy seasonal snowfalls. Elsewhere, particularly in coastal locations, the climate is primarily Mediterranean, featuring mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers.
Unless you’re a real Grecophile, there are many things you won’t know about Greece. ATAS accredited travel professionals are a great source of specialist travel knowledge, insiders’ tips and can help you create the kind of holiday that perfectly suits your preferred travel style and budget. So, we asked John Polyviou, owner of ATAS-accredited Sun Island Tours (Sydney, NSW travel agency) for a list of ways to make the most of your time in Greece, and tips for seeing parts of the country most visitors don’t.
Image: The Acropolis overlooking Athens.
Where would he start? Even though a number of airlines now fly directly into destinations such as Mykonos, like most visitors, John kicks things off in Athens, albeit with a bit of a twist.
“Many people who visit Athens look to stay in the shadow of the Acropolis in Plaka. Whilst this neighbourhood, which is millennia old, is a beautiful place to be, don’t forget to visit some of Athens’ famed bars, nightclubs and shopping by the sea in Glyfada. Few people know that Athens has some stunning beach resorts in the Vougliameni area, just a 30-minute drive from Athens city centre.
And he points out that urban experiences aren’t restricted to the country’s capital.
Image: Thessaloniki. Credit: Sun Island Tours.
Thessaloniki in the north is Greece’s second largest city. From here you can visit the ancient city of Pella, which was the capital of ancient Macedonia under Alexander the Great. You can also cruise around Mt Athos—a long peninsula dotted with monasteries—or visit the beach towns of the Halkidiki peninsula.
Image: Beaches and coves of the Halkidiki peninsula.
And what about the islands, where would John go?
“One of the most interesting archaeological sites in the Aegean Sea is the island of Delos”, says John.
“Just a short trip from Mykonos, the now uninhabited island was considered to be the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis. The island’s excavations are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Be sure to visit when you’re in Mykonos”, he suggests.
Image: The Theatre Quarter in Delos, Greece. Credit: Bernard Gagnon
John also recommends visiting Crete.
“Crete is Greece’s largest island, and it has its own distinct culture, recipes and traditions. It is also the setting of the wonderful 1964 film Zorba the Greek. It is a great place to hire a car and explore, from the harbour at Chania to Knossos Palace, Samaria Gorge and Balos Lagoon”, he says.
And the best time of year to visit?
“It’s a common misconception that the Greek islands are always warm. Actually, it gets so cold during winter that on occasion some of the islands see snow! Besides this, many ferries do not operate during the winter months, and all the beautiful small hotels close down as their proprietors head back to the mainland until the next summer season. So don’t try to visit the island from November to April. The best months for decent weather and good prices is May to mid-June and mid-September to October”, says John.
It’s expertise like this that keeps bringing customers back to ATAS accredited travel agents and tour companies like John’s Sun Island Tours time and time again.
Your ATAS accredited travel agent will very likely already work with Sun Island Tours and other expert tour operators like it, and can craft your perfect Greek getaway.
The great Grecophile romantic poet, Lord Byron once said, “If I am a poet, … the air of Greece has made me one.” By the sounds of it, it’s that kind of place.
Your ATAS travel agent can help ensure you are set prior to heading off on your big fat Greek holiday, but here are a few travel warnings and useful tips to keep in mind.
ATAS travel agents recommend that Australia passport holders register for travel alerts before they travel.