Get out your bucket list; it’s time to cross off a major line item: Greece.
The fabled land remains tops for culture, food, outdoor travel, art and, of course, beaches and islands. As part of the border-free Schengen Area, it’s also incredibly easy to visit for many travelers worldwide. From advance booking to local etiquette and health and safety issues when you're there, here's everything you need to know to plan a memorable trip to Greece.
1. Choose your season wisely
Your experience in Greece will be wildly different depending on when you visit. Summer is tops for action, family fun, and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, but prices are at their highest and pre-booking is necessary for everything since it’s packed. The shoulder seasons (spring and autumn) are a delight – prices are lower, and rooms and resources are more readily available. Winter offers a moody and budget-friendly retreat, great for walking, hiking and sedate travels where you will often be the only visitor around. Bear in mind that some businesses will shut down completely during the low season.
2. Pick a practical plan and prioritize your wishlist
Do you want a grand tour, taking in the not-to-be-missed highlights all over Greece, or would you prefer to focus your time on exploring your favorite islands or regions, like the Peloponnese? The best way to choose from the dizzying array of options on offer is to focus on what is important to you – relaxing on beautiful beaches, learning more about Greece's fascinating history and culture, museums and archaeology, off-the-beaten-track wildlife, or partying until dawn – and plan accordingly.
3. Find the perfect island or region for you
Greece merits multiple trips as every island offers something different, and each of its regions is equally dazzling – you're never going to see everything on your first visit, and you'll ruin your trip if you pressure yourself to do just that. Also, don’t be fooled that the biggies are the only islands worthy of your attention. Though Mykonos, Santorini and the major names have plenty to offer, lesser-known islands (there are hundreds!) like Amorgos or Kythira are also a delight. They've also got the added bonus of smaller crowds and lower prices if that's a key consideration for you.
4. Athens isn't the only gateway to Greece
In many cases, you will find it useful to transit in or out via Athens, as its airport has connections with numerous international destinations, and the city itself is a gem. However, there are other international airports around the Greek mainland (such as in Thessaloniki) and on some major islands (such as Mykonos, Santorini and Corfu). If you'll need any internal flights to get to your destination of choice, it's worth checking the price of these individually. Due to government subsidies, it can work out significantly cheaper to book each part of your Greek itinerary separately from your international flights.
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5. Always book lodging, ferry tickets and rental cars in advance during peak season
In peak season, prices are high, and demand is even higher – this is not the time for ad hoc bookings on the fly. Greece is an incredibly popular summer destination, and the best options get snapped up well in advance.
6. Roads in Greece are for confident drivers
No one who has traveled on Greece’s roads will be surprised to hear that the country’s road fatality rate is one of the highest in Europe. Overtaking is listed as the greatest cause of accidents. Heart-stopping moments aside, your own car is a great way to explore off the beaten track if you are confident in your driving and keep a few key points in mind.
- The road network has improved enormously in recent years; many roads marked as dirt tracks on older maps have now been asphalted, and a lot of the islands have very little traffic.
- There are regular (if costly) car-ferry services to almost all islands.
- Greece is not the best place to initiate yourself into motorcycling. If you're not confident on a motorbike, it may be best to park this option until you have more experience.
- All the big multinational car-rental companies are represented in Athens, and most have branches in major towns and popular tourist destinations. The majority of islands have at least one outlet.
7. Greece is not very wheelchair-friendly beyond Athens
Access for travelers with disabilities has improved somewhat in recent years, but the majority of accessible sights, hotels and restaurants tend to be located in Athens. Much of the rest of Greece remains inaccessible to wheelchairs, and the abundance of stones, marble, slippery cobbles and stepped alleys create frustrating barriers for those with mobility issues. People who have visual or hearing impairments are also rarely catered to.
Careful planning before you go can make a world of difference. There are specific resources online that provide links to local articles, resorts and tour groups catering to tourists with physical disabilities.
8. Pack the right kinds of clothing
Athenians are well-dressed, and the younger crowd is trendy, so keep your smart clothes for the urban catwalk of clubs and bars. Nevertheless, in Athens and other metropolises such as Rhodes, Thessaloniki and Iraklio, everyday attire such as shorts or jeans and casual tops are just fine.
Bars or fashionable restaurants require more effort – the scene is stylish rather than dressy. Think tops and trousers rather than T-shirts and cut-offs. In out-of-the-way places, you can wear casual clothing, and in summer, the heat will make you want to wear the least amount of fabric you can get away with – bring quick-drying tank tops and cool dresses.
Sturdy walking shoes are a must for the cobbled roads, and proper hiking boots are key if you're exploring the countryside on foot. It's considered respectful and mannerly to cover up before entering churches.
9. Learn some basic Greek phrases
Greek is a tough language to learn thoroughly, but mastering a few basic greetings and niceties will make a world of difference in how Greek speakers receive you. In touristed areas, many people speak English, so rest assured that you can get by as long as you know some key phrases.
10. Carry cash and don't rely on cards or ATMs
As part of the EU, Greece uses the euro. In restaurants, a service charge is normally included in the bill, and while a tip is not expected (as it is in North America), it is always appreciated, and a few coins can be left if the service has been good. Taxi drivers normally expect you to round up the fare, while bellhops who help you carry your luggage to your hotel room or stewards on ferries who take you to your cabin normally expect a small gratuity of between €1 and €3.
ATMs are found in every town large enough to support a bank and in almost all the tourist areas. Be aware that ATMs on the islands can lose their connection for a day or two at a time, making it impossible for anyone (locals included) to withdraw money. It’s useful to keep some backup cash just in case this happens during your visit.
Credit cards are now an accepted part of the commercial scene in Greece, although they’re often not accepted on many of the smaller islands or in small villages. Don't rely on your cards alone, and check in advance when dining or drinking if it's your only option.
11. Levels of healthcare in Greece vary
Although medical training is of a high standard in Greece, the public health service is underfunded. Hospitals can be overcrowded, and relatives are expected to bring in food for the patient – often a problem for solo travelers. Conditions and treatment are much better in private hospitals, which are expensive. All this means that a good health-insurance policy is essential.
There is at least one doctor on every island, and larger islands have hospitals. Pharmacies can dispense medicines that are available only on prescription in most European countries. If the situation isn't critical, it's often best to consult a pharmacist first for minor ailments.
12. Stay hydrated and remember how powerful the sun can be
Tap water isn't safe to drink on many islands – ask if in doubt. Keeping a supply of bottled water to hand is essential for hydration as well as safety; many tourists underestimate how hot it can get in Greece, and heatstroke and serious sunburn are common on beaches with little shade. Break up your sun-drenched siestas with time in the shade getting hydrated, and pack plenty of high-factor SPF. Mosquitos are an irritant rather than a danger, but packing insect repellant is recommended.
13. Pickpocketing and other petty crime is common in busy places
The major risks of theft in Greece are pickpockets in the large cities and theft of belongings when lounging on busy, popular beaches (leave passports behind in hotel safes). Never leave your belongings unattended, and don't leave your bags hanging from the back of your seat where you can't keep an eye on them.
The tourist police work in cooperation with the regular Greek police. Each tourist police office has at least one member of staff who speaks English. If you need to report a theft or loss of passport, go to the tourist police first, and they will act as interpreters between you and the regular police. Some unscrupulous taxi drivers will try to charge you extortionate rates from the airports to the city centers. Always make sure the meter is running or pre-negotiate and agree on the price before you get in.