Think Greece and conjure up images of white-washed villages cascading down hillsides, azure seas sparkling in bright sunshine and powder-soft white sand beaches. A visit to this special country is a lifelong dream for many, as it delivers an astounding array of breathtaking landscapes, ancient ruins, joie de vivre and something that is simply hard to define – a dreamy quality unique to Greece.
To some, a trip to Greece may seem like a mirage – unattainable and forever in the distance – but in fact, it's an affordable place to visit these days. Even as the country deals with a continuing financial crisis, the tourism industry is still there, ready and raring to go. What this means for travelers now is that places that used to be overrun or pricey are more affordable, with a greater array of availability than usual and more bang for your buck.
Whether exploring some of the world’s most impressive ruins or dining at a seaside tavern, a trip to Greece can be done with style and variety, without breaking the bank. Plus, it is a chance to funnel much-needed funds into an economy that relies heavily on the tourism industry. Travel independently, eschewing the big consolidators and package dealers, and go with mom and pop outfits instead and you will not only be funding local folks, but you will have the intimate experience of integrating into the villages and towns you visit.
Athens is usually the gateway for any Greece trip, and it really is a must for at least a couple of days in order to take in the truly magnificent Acropolis and its neighboring sights: the Theatre of Dionysos, where theatre originated, and the Ancient Agora, where Socrates expounded his philosophy. While museums in other parts of the world charge $30 for entrance, a joint ticket for the Acropolis plus 10 other ancient Athenian sights cost a mere €12, and €6 for kids. The sweeping, excellent Acropolis Museum costs just €5. For a few euros more you can also visit the Temple of Olympian Zeus with its colossal fallen columns, abutted by Hadrian’s Arch (free!) and the nearby Panathenaic Stadium, in all its marble glory.
Of course, the main expense on any trip is lodging, but now more than ever deals can be had for quite stylish accommodations. In Athens, try everything from excellent budget options like Hotel Adonis to mid-range deals like the Hera Hotel at the foot of the Acropolis, the uber-stylish New Hotel, or the boutique, elegant Magna Grecia.
Top island tips
Even famous islands, like Corfu with its culture-laden old town, imposing fortresses, and absorbing walking streets and architecture, offers deals: live well at Bella Venezia, a former girls’ school converted into a lovely boutique hotel with all the trimmings, and dine on some of the best food in the country in the city’s many restaurants. Wholesome Greek cooking at To Tavernaki Tis Marinas starts at €6 per plate and high-end you’re-gonna-dream-about-it-later meals at La Cucina range from €13 to €25.
Another way to hit the top islands, like Santorini with its spectacular caldera (and usually sky-high prices), is to get a bit creative. Get super-sensible prices on Santorini lodging through sights like Airbnb. By eschewing the traditional hotel model, you’ll find studios with kitchenettes or even a sunset view windmill in Oia that’s been converted into a two-bedroom, two-bathroom family vacation rental. Since it can sleep seven, the price (US$283 per night, at the time of writing) is a downright bargain!
In addition to Santorini’s more obvious charms, it’s also been named one of Wine Enthusiast’s 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations in 2014 (along with Samos and Crete) for its superlative wine, predominantly an Assyrtiko.
Off the beaten path
Incredible trips and outstanding value also abound in lesser touristed corners of the country. For example, not far from super-chic Mykonos, the rural, gorgeous island of Tinos, with its terraced hillsides, top-notch local cuisine, Church of Panagia Evangelistria (a shrine on the level of Lourdes) and marble villages, remains a little-known highlight. Stay at the old-school Tinion Hotel, with its sweeping veranda and antique-filled rooms, and explore the island: from the fascinating Museum of Marble Crafts (€3) in Pyrgos, to beachside Thalassaki (tel. 22830 31366) in Ormos Isternia, where you’ll have perhaps one of the best meals of your life. They specialize in seafood, incorporating local ingredients such as cheeses, sausages and wild artichokes, at €10 to €14 per dish.
Two other spots that are tops for exquisite living at bargain prices are the Peloponnese and the island of Lefkada in the Ionian Island group. The vast Peloponnese is loaded with fantastic sights from Byzantine cities and Mycenaean palaces, to lush orchards, hike-able gorges and snow-capped peaks. Wonderfully cool, affordable hotels fill its Venetian town of Nafplio (try Amfitriti Pension, Pension Marianna or Adiandi), or stay in the walled seaside castle-town of Monemvasia (try Malvasia Hotel). In general, throughout the Peloponnese excellent, home-cooked taverna meals regularly start at €6. And most of the sights are cheap (€3!) or free.
On the other hand, Lefkada is for beaches! Its western coast has some of the most spectacular in the country, if not the world, and they cry out for exploration. The friendly husband and wife team of Manolis and Romina have restored a mansion in Lefkada town, Hotel Boschetto, for those who want to be close to the promenade action. They also have a collection of impeccable maisonettes at Mira Resort, overlooking a large pool with sweeping views of the sea. Because of its off-the-beaten-path nature, your euro goes a long way in Lefkada. With your own wheels, head into the rolling hills of central Lefkada to find the unique Kolyvata Taverna, where Mrs. Maria serves you from her home, with delicious dishes based on seasonal produce, ranging from €5 to €8 each.
With a bit of strategic planning and a willingness to travel free of package tours, Greece offers delightful, affordable surprises around every bend. Those mentioned here are just a very bare minimum. Search further and you’ll find great deals in places like lush, idiosyncratic Kefallonia, or tiny, wild Serifos. Head inland and explore vibrant cities like Thessaloniki, or mountainous regions like Epiros with its exquisite Zagorohoria region and plenty more awaits you.