We have compiled the basic “must-see” list for first-time visitors to Greece. These are the places, for better or worse, that attract visitors by the thousands every year. There’s much, much more to Greece, but if your budget or time is limited, these are the main spots to explore:
Athens – The Acropolis
Say what you like (or don’t like!) about Athens, no one’s trip to Greece can be complete without a visit to its supreme symbol, the outcropping of rock called the Acropolis, crowned with Athena’s sacred temple, the Parthenon. It looks great all day, but visit in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds. Skip the Sound and Light show – cold in temperature and corny in tone.
Athens – The National Archaeological Museum
Even if you hate museums, grit your teeth and get cultured here. It’s a world-class display of seemingly endless artifacts. Most dramatic are the tall, enigmatic kouroi, archaic statues of godlike young men or man-like young gods, displayed against a rich red background that reminds us that the real temples, statues, and walls of Ancient Greece weren’t bleached white by centuries of sun and rain. If you can bear to be (briefly) unfaithful to Greece, the Egyptian antiquities collection upstairs and in back is well worth a look.
Near Athens – Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
It’s worth the tour bus trip or car ride to visit this clifftop temple, the empty spaces between the columns framing the sky and looking like a portal into eternity. You will feel poetic or heroic just looking at these ruins. With the Aegean Sea below spread out below like an endless shimmering sea of silk, one wonders if seagod Poseidon misses the loss of his temple’s roof and walls very much. Most popular at sunset, it’s as beautiful in the early morning, and much, much less crowded. Give the on-site restaurant a miss for anything but a snack.
Island of Santorini
Atlantis legends, missing Minoans, a living volcanic legacy, swell sunsets, good local wine, fine restaurants, vampire stories, oodles of tourists. There’s nothing like it. But rearrange your trip, cancel your tickets, do anything in your power to be able to arrive by sea, slowly crawling up the coast watching the banded cliffs of brown, black, and red crowned by snow-white tufa, a light lava which still clings to parts of the island like frosting on a cake. Signature site of the once-buried city of Akrotiri is under a tin roof, gets extraordinarily hot – go early in the day. The hotels carved into the cliffsides are not for those with vertigo. Looking for activity, bustle, lots of restaurant choices? Stay in Fira. Want more of a retreat but still with all the amenities? Stay in Oia.
Island of Mykonos
The most famous Greek island got that way for good reason. It’s charming, fun, beautiful, and now, renowned for sophisticated, international goings-on. Vibrant nightlife, terrific shopping, more nude and non-nude beaches per square mile than anywhere else in Greece, loved by gays, straights, honeymoon couples, Greeks, tourists…though half of all these groups will insist that the island is pass?r over-developed, they still come in droves. Genuinely sick of the frenzy? Get over onto the other side of the island for an entirely different Mykonos, with open country, charming private chapels, and less tourist-shocked Greeks.
Ancient Theater of Epidaurus
A relatively easy drive from Athens, the site of Epidaurus on the Peloponnese Peninsula is worth a special trip. The Theatre, functional enough for plays to be regularly presented during the summer, has unbelievable acoustics. On your way, there’s a great little village bakery/liquor store in Adami.
Combine this Peloponnesian stop with your trip to Epidaurus. This Mycenean fortress disengorged much of the gold displayed at the National Archaeological Museum, and is a fascinating place, with gargantuan walls, cylindrical tomb shafts, and the double-lion gate. Wear good shoes and watch your step – the rampway leading to the gate was made steep to permit easy defense of the palace from marauders, and tourists still qualify. The snack bar has been known to run out of water on hot days…bring your own for this hot, dusty, but intriguing site.
The big island of Crete is like a separate nation within Greece, with a bit of everything, from party-hearty beach towns like Mallia (practically on top of the remains of the Minoan palace) to the sophisticated, expensive little city of Agios Nikolaos, or the natural wonders of the Samaria Gorge and the “real Crete” city of Chania. The interior is filled with steep mountains, obscure villages, the windmill-jammed Lassithi Plain, and some challenging roads. The southern coast is wilder, with some great retreat spots. Don’t trust the maps – roads are much wigglier, often high-altitude, when you meet them in person. Exception: the north coast road from Iraklio to points east is freeway-wide and quick.
Crete – Knossos
Irresistible, labyrinthine reconstruction of a destroyed Minoan palace from the time when King Minos ruled the Aegean and the mainland Greeks paid tribute, long before the Golden Age of Greece. Disorienting, easy to get lost even today, with a mystery around every corner. It seems strange to be able to just hop on a public bus to get to this ancient, enigmatical place, but the Number 2 Knossos bus from downtown Iraklion does just that. Definitely not a retreat from the city, Iraklio has grown up around it and it’s approached by a busy, narrow road. Once inside the Cretan landscape visible from the palace looks untouched since ancient times.
Island of Hydra
Easy hydrofoil access from Athens makes this sophisticated little island which bans vehicle traffic a local version of Mykonos – with the shopping, without the nude beaches. Charming harbor, nice church architecture, fun shops, and pricey but generally good quality tavernas. Feel like a day’s pilgrimage? Walk to the monastery above and behind the town… making sure that, whether you’re a man or a woman, you have something to cover those illicit bare arms and legs once you arrive.