Greece today offers the traveller the comforts of modern Europe in close proximity to the stark beauty of the ancient world. There is no denying that the historical and cultural heritage of Greece continues to resonate throughout the modern Western world - in its literature, art, philosophy and politics. Reminders of the country's glory are all over Greece - from Athens' Parthenon and Delphi's Temple of Apollo, to the ruins on Crete of the Minóan city of Knossós, a civilisation reaching even further back into history.
Scattered throughout the calm blue waters of the Aegean are Greece's 1,400 islands, the largest of which is Crete, each with its own special story. The serenity of islands like Skópelos contrasts with the hedonistic party islands such as Mykonos and Páros where the worship of Dionysus, the god of revelry, continues to the beat of garage and house music. Athens's previous glory in sports was restored when the Olympic Games returned home in 2004.
Greece is situated on the Mediterranean. The mainland consists of the following regions: Central Greece, Peloponnese, Thessaly (east/central), Epirus (west), Macedonia (north/northwest) and Thrace (northeast). Euboea (Evvia) the second-largest of the Greek islands, lying to the east of the central region and connected to it by a bridge, is also considered to be part of the mainland region. The Peloponnese peninsula is separated from the northern mainland by the Isthmus of Corinth. The northern mainland is dissected by high mountains (such as the Pindus) that extend southwards towards a landscape of fertile plains, pine-forested uplands and craggy, scrub-covered foothills. The islands account for one-fifth of the land area of the country. The majority are thickly clustered in the Aegean between the Greek and Turkish coasts. The Ionian Islands are the exception; they are scattered along the west coast in the Ionian Sea. The Aegean archipelago includes the Dodecanese, lying off the Turkish coast, of which Rhodes is the best known; the Northeast Aegean group, including Chios, Ikaria, Lemnos, Lesvos and Samos; the Sporades, off the central mainland; and the Cyclades, comprising 39 islands (of which only 24 are inhabited). Crete, the largest island, is not included in any formal grouping.
Greece was the birthplace of European civilisation. The period from 700BC saw the rise of the great city states of Athens, Corinth and Sparta, frequently engaged in long struggles for supremacy, and uniting only when faced with the common threat of invasion by the Persian Empire. The zenith was reached in the fifth century BC when Athens became the cultural and artistic centre of the Mediterranean, producing magnificent works of architecture, sculpture, drama and literature.
Location: Southeast Europe
Population: 11.1 million
Language Spoken: Greek (Ellenika). Most people connected with tourism and those of a younger generation will speak some English, French, German or Italian.
Country Dialling Code: +30
Currency & Money: Euro (EUR; symbol €)
Foreign currency can be exchanged at all banks, savings banks and bureaux de change. Exchange rates can fluctuate from one bank to another. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa and other major credit cards are widely accepted (although less so in petrol stations). All major currencies are widely accepted and can be exchanged easily at banks. Generally, banks in Greece charge a commission of 2% with a minimum of €0.15 and a maximum of €13.21 on the encashment of traveller's cheques. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller's cheques in Euros, Pounds Sterling or US Dollars
Weather: Greece generally has mild wet winters and hot dry summers. Athens can be stiflingly hot, so visitors should allow time to acclimatise. The evenings are cool. Winter temperatures can be severe in the mountains and even Athens can get viciously cold. Maximum temperatures on the islands hover around 30°C (87°F) in summer, but the heat is often tempered by the northerly wind known as the meltemi . Winters are mild in the south but much colder in the north. November to March is the rainy season.
WHEN TO GO
Conditions are perfect between Easter and mid-June - beaches and ancient sites are relatively uncrowded; public transport operates on close to full schedules; and accommodation is cheaper and easier to find than in the mid-June to end of August high season. Conditions are once more ideal from the end of August until mid-October, as the season winds down. Winter is pretty much a dead loss outside the major cities as most of the tourist infrastructure goes into hibernation from the middle of October till the beginning of April. This is slowly changing, however; on the most touristy islands, a few restaurants, hotels and bars remain open year-round, while the ski resorts on the mainland do thriving business.
TOP THINGS TO DO
• Do not miss the Hellenic Festival (website: www.hellenicfestival.gr; Jun-Sep), with world class music, dance and theatre performances in the second-century AD Odeon of Herodes Atticus, in Athens, as well as classical Greek dramas in the fourth-century BC amphitheatre in Epidaurus.
• Find a beach for every mood. The best include Lalaria, a pristine white pebble beach on Skiathos, and Plaka, a long stretch of unspoilt sand on Naxos. On Mykonos, Paradiso and Super Paradiso offer daytime bathing and hedonistic nightclubs. Alternatively, escape the crowds on unspoilt Koufonissi.
• Sail Greece's myriad islands. Depending on experience, visitors can go bareboat (chartering just the boat), flotilla (as part of a group of yachts lead by an expert) or skippered. Several UK-based agencies offer all-inclusive sailing holidays in Greece.
• Go windsurfing. The best places for it are Vassiliki on Lefkada, Kefalos on Kos, Kokkari on Samos, Ialisos on Rhodes, Chrisi Akti (Golden Beach) on Paros, and Agios Georgios and Mikri Vigla on Naxos. Hire and instruction are available.
• Climb Greece's highest mountain, Mount Olympos (2,917m/ 9,570ft), believed by the ancients to be home of Zeus, or scale Mount Pasnassos (2,457m/8,061ft) near Delphi.
• Hike the length of the Samaria Gorge (18km/11.2 miles) on Crete, or the Vikos Gorge (14km/8 miles) in Epirus.
• Escape the sun, sand and surf. Surprisingly, Greece is also home to several decent ski resorts. The best equipped is the Parnassos Ski Centre on Mount Parnassos (website: www.parnassos-ski.gr). Alternatively try Helmos on the Peleponnese, or Vermion in Macedonia.
• Get wet. The shallow, fast-flowing rivers of mainland Greece offer excellent facilities for water-based adventure sports such as rafting, kayaking and canoeing. Sea kayaking is also becoming increasingly popular on the islands.
• Go deep. To guard against the pilfering of underwater antiquities, scuba-diving is restricted to certain stretches of the Attica coast, Corfu, Kalamata, Kalymnos, Mykonos, Preveza, Rhodes, Skiathos and Zakynthos, all of which are home to dive centres offering instruction and rental equipment.
• Go underground. Greece is home to some 6,000 karst caves, the majority in Crete. Over 20 show caves are open for guided tours, the largest and most impressive being Perama, filled with stalagmites and stalactites, near Ioannina.
• Get tipsy. Several of the top vineyards open their cellars to the public for wine tasting sessions, and also offer wine for direct purchase. Most of these require visitors to call one day in advance to book your visit.
• Luxuriate. Greece is gifted with numerous springs giving forth thermal and/or mineral waters. Various spas and hydrotherapy centres have developed throughout the country, some of which offer sophisticated wellness centres for pampering.
• Get twitching. There are 11 wetlands of international importance in Greece, and over 190 ‘important bird areas'. The most impressive include the Nestos Delta in Thrace and the Prespa Lakes in Macedonia. Expect to see herons, storks, pelicans and eagles.
TOP THINGS TO SEE
• Explore Athens. Begin with the Acropolis rock, home to the fifth-century BC Parthenon, then stroll down to the Ancient Agora, once Athens' civic, political and commercial centre. Do not miss the world class National Archaeological Museum, packed with ancient marble statues, jewellery and ceramics.
• Discover Delphi, believed by the ancients to be the centre of the world. This fascinating pagan religious complex, set on a stunning hillside site, comprises classical temples, a theatre and a stadium. Numerous finds are displayed in the excellent Delphi Archaeological Museum.
• Admire the former city-state of ancient Corinth, once renowned for wealth and elegance, immorality and orgiastic cults. Explore its temples and theatre, then check out the adjoining museum. Also see nearby Acrocorinth, a vast hilltop fortress combining Byzantine, Turkish and Venetian elements.
• Visit the treasure trove that is Mycenae. This hilltop citadel, surrounded by Cyclopean Walls accessed via the splendid Lion Gate, was the powerful Mycenaeans' capital. Golden treasure, including the ‘Mask of Agamemnon', was found here.
• Run the original Olympic race track in Olympia, birthplace of the Olympics, which were staged here between the eighth and fourth centuries BC. Explore the site, then see the Archaeological Museum and the nearby Museum of the Olympic Games.
• Discover the unforgettable landscape of the Meteora, with six medieval monasteries built upon bizarre, rocky pinnacles. The monasteries, which once totalled 24, were originally reached using pulley systems, but are now accessible via steps carved into the rocks.
• Do not miss Thessaloniki, Greece's second city. It is home to the excellent Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum exhibiting ancient marble statues and gold jewellery from the region of Macedonia. Its beautiful Byzantine churches are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites.
• Men should head to the peninsula of Mount Athos, an autonomous monks' state since 1060. Twenty monasteries house some 1,700 monks. Only male visitors are permitted, and that upon prior request. All visitors can take a boat ride around the peninsular.
• Explore the extensive ruins of Knossos, a 3,000-year-old frescoed Minoan Palace, home to Europe's earliest civilisation. Finds from the site are displayed in the Archaeological Museum in the nearby Venetian-style port town of Iralkio, on Crete.
• Visit Santorini's whitewashed towns of Ia and Thira, built on a cliff overlooking the caldera, a circular depression in the sea created when a volcanic eruption blew the centre out of the island around 1600 BC. Expect stunning sunsets, black sand beaches, boutique hotels and gourmet cuisine.
• Lap it up in Mykonos, known for its glamorous, hedonistic nightlife. Attracting jet setters and a notable gay community, tiny Mykonos offers charming white, cubic buildings, typical of the Cyclades, chic restaurants, trendy bars, waterside nightclubs, plus several small luxury hotels.
• Invade Rhodes Town. The compact Old Town lies within an imposing 14th-century stronghold built by the Knights of St John during the Crusades. Visit the gothic Palace of the Grand Masters, plus several mosques and a 16th-century hamam (Turkish baths) added by the Ottomans.
Note: The Hellenic Ministry of Culture (website: www.culture.gr) can provide more details on any of Greece's state-run museums and archaeological sites.
TRAVEL TO GREECE
The national airline is Olympic Airlines (OA) (website: www.olympic-airways.com). From London to Athens is 4 hours; and from New York is 13 hours.
Athens (ATH) (Elfetherios Veniselos) (website: www.aia.gr) is located 33km (23 miles) northeast of the city. To/from the airport: There is a six-lane motorway linking the city and the airport, and regular airport buses run 24 hours from the centre and the port of Piraeus. In addition, metro line 3 has been extended so that some, but not all, trains run between Monastiraki in the city centre and the airport. Facilities: Duty-free shops, car hire, banks, ATMs, bureaux de change, bar and restaurant facilities, post office, business centre and hotel.
Thessaloniki (SKG) (Macedonia) is 16km (10 miles) from the city. To/from the airport: Regular coach and taxi services are available. Facilities: Duty-free shops, restaurants, bars, banks/bureaux de change, car hire and a post office.
Corfu (CFU) (Kerkira) is 3km (2 miles) from the city. To/from the airport: Regular coach, taxi and local bus services are available. Facilities: Duty-free shop, cafe, bar and car hire.
Rhodes (RHO) (Paradisi) is 16km (10 miles) from the city. To/from the airport: Coach, taxi and local bus services are available. Facilities: Duty-free shop, car hire, bank, bureau de change, cafe and bar.
Main ports: Corfu, Heraklion, Igoumenitsa, Patras, Piraeus (Athens), Rafina, Rhodes, Thessaloniki and Volos.
International car ferry lines link Patras and Igoumentisa with Ancona, Bari, Brindisi and Venice in Italy year round, and there are also summer services from Corfu to these ports. There is also a service between Rhodes and Marmaris in Turkey.
Major ferry operators covering the international routes are Superfast; website: www.superfast.com), Minoan (tel: (210) 920 0020; website: www.minoan.gr) and ANEK; website: www.anek.gr).
Greek ports are used by a number of cruise lines.
The national railway company is Hellenic Railways Organisation Ltd (OSE) (website: www.osenet.gr). A good way to travel from the UK is to take the Eurostar through the channel tunnel, from London to either Brussels or Paris, both of which have onward connections to Greece. For further information and reservations, contact Eurostar, within the UK, outside the UK; website: www.eurostar.com) or Rail Europe within the UK; website: www.raileurope.co.uk).
InterRail: offers unlimited first- or second-class travel in up to 30 European countries for European residents of over six months with two pass options. The Global Pass allows travel for 22 days, one month, five days in 10 days or 10 days in 22 days across all countries. The One-Country Pass offers travel for three, four, six or eight days in one month in any of the countries except Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. Travel is not allowed in the passenger's country of residence. Travellers under 26 years receive a reduction. Children's tickets are reduced by about 50%. Supplements are required for some high-speed services, seat reservations and couchettes. Discounts are offered on Eurostar and some ferry routes. Available from Rail Europe (tel: 0844 848 4064; website: www.raileurope.co.uk/inter-rail).
Eurailpass: offers unlimited first-class train travel in 18 European countries. Tickets are valid for 15 days, 21 days, one month, two months or three months. The passes cannot be sold to residents of Europe, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, or the Russian Federation. Available from The Eurail Group (website: http://www.eurail.com/).
It is possible to ferry cars and caravans across to one of the major ports of entry or to enter overland. Points of overland entry are from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia via Evzoni, and Niki; from Bulgaria via Promahonas or Kastanies and Kipi. From Serbia, the route is via Italy (Trieste), Austria (Graz) and Belgrade. The journey from northern France to Athens is over 3,200km (2,000 miles). For car ferry information, see Getting There By Water.
Bus: There are routes from Athens via Thessaloniki to cities in Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Information and bookings are available from the Hellenic Railways Organisation Ltd (OSE) which operates international coach services.
TRAVEL AROUND GREECE
Olympic Airlines (website: www.olympic-airlines.com) and Aegean Airlines (website: www.aegeanair.com) operate flights on many domestic routes. Private charter flights are also available.
It is both cheap and easy to travel around the islands. There are ferry services on many routes, with sailings most frequent during the summer. The main ports in Attica are Piraeus and Rafina, although there are regular sailings to the islands from the smaller ports of Alexandroupolis, Igoumenitsa, Kavala, Kyllini, Patras, Thessaloniki and Volos.
Tickets can be bought from the shipping lines' offices located around the quaysides. In major ports the larger lines have offices in the city centre. There are two classes of ticket (First Class and Economy Class) which offer varying degrees of comfort; couchette cabins can be booked for the longer voyages or those wishing to avoid the sun. Most ships have restaurant facilities. During high season it is wise to buy tickets in advance, as inter-island travel is very popular.
Routes from Piraeus: Piraeus offers frequent services to most islands in the following groups: Argo-Saronic, Cyclades, Dodacanese and the Northeast Aegean, plus Crete and several other mainland ports.
Check sailing times either with individual lines, the Greek National Tourism Organisation, or in Piraeus upon arrival in Greece.
Routes from Rafina: There are ferries to nearby Evvia from Rafina, plus to some islands in the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, and the northeast Aegean.
Other routes: Several other routes between the mainland ports and the islands are also covered.
Hydrofoil: A hydrofoil service (also called the Flying Dolphins) offers a fast and efficient service from Piraeus, travelling to many of the nearby islands. Although this is somewhat more expensive than travelling by ferry, journey times are cut drastically. They also serve some other routes. For further information on various ferry and hydrofoil timetables, see the Greek Travel Pages (website: www.gtp.gr).
Yachts: Numerous types of yachts and sailing vessels can be chartered or hired with or without crews. ‘Flotilla holidays' are popular, and the Greek National Tourism Organisation (see Contact Addresses) has a full list of companies running this type of holiday.
The two main railway stations in Athens are Larissa (with trains to northern Greece, Evia and Europe) and Peloponnissos (with trains to the Peloponnese). Train information and tickets are available from the Hellenic Railways Organisation (OSE) (tel: 1110, within Greece only; website: www.ose.gr). Travelling north, there are regular daily trains from Athens to Thessaloniki, Livadia, Paleofarsala, Larissa, Plati, Edessa, Florina, Seres, Drama, Komotini and Alexandroupolis (connections from Thessaloniki and Larissa). Travelling south, there are regular daily trains from Athens to Kiato, Xylokastra, Diakofto, Patras, Olympia, Argos, Tripoli, Megalopolis and Kalamata.
InterRail One-Country Pass: offers travel for three, four, six or eight days in one month within Greece. Travel is not allowed in the passenger's country of residence. Travellers under 26 years receive a reduction. Children's tickets are reduced by about 50%. Supplements are required for some high-speed services, seat reservations and couchettes. Discounts are offered on Eurostar and some ferry routes. Available from Rail Europe; website: www.raileurope.co.uk/inter-rail).
Balkan Flexipass: offers five, 10 or 15 days' unlimited rail travel within one month in Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Rep) and Romania. Available from the Hellenic Railways Organisation Ltd (OSE) (website: www.ose.gr).
Greece has a good road network on the whole, mostly paved. Traffic drives on the right.
Coach: Coaches link Athens and all main towns in Greece. Services on the islands tend to be less reliable, and on some small islands there is no motorised transport at all. Fares are low.
Bus information: There are two long-distance bus terminals in Athens: Terminal A and Terminal B. For information on long-distance buses, run by KTEL (website: www.ktel.org), enquire at Terminal A, 100 Kifissou Street, or Terminal B, 260 Liossion Street.
Car hire: Most major international car hire firms operate throughout Greece.
Regulations: The minimum age for driving is 18. Children under 10 must sit in the back seat. Seat belts must be worn. There are fines for breaking traffic regulations. The maximum speed limit is 120kph (75mph) on motorways, 110kph (60mph) outside built-up areas and 50kph (30mph) in built-up areas. It is illegal to carry spare petrol in the vehicle. EU nationals may import a foreign-registered car, caravan, motorcycle, boat or trailer for a maximum of six months. This period may be extended to 15 months for a fee and further paperwork.
Emergency breakdown service: ELPA (Automobile and Touring Club of Greece;(website: www.elpa.gr). Emergency breakdown services can be contacted toll-free by dialling 104.
Documentation: A national driving licence is acceptable for EU nationals. EU nationals taking their own cars to Greece are advised to obtain a Green Card. The car registration documents must be carried at all times. Nationals of non-EU countries may need an International Driving Permit and should contact ELPA.
Travel in Towns and Cities
Athens: Athens city centre is well served by frequent buses and trolleybuses. Tickets can be purchased from the Athens Urban Transport Organisation (OASA) at various booths and kiosks situated around the city. Athens has a reliable underground system (ISAP) that consists of three major lines. Line 1 runs north-south between Athens (suburb of Kifissia) and Piraeus daily 0500-0015; Line 2 runs between Aghios Antonios and Aghios Dimitrios and line 3 runs between Monastiraki and the airport. Tickets can be purchased in the stations. The tram system in Athens cuts through the city from Syntagma Square right through to the coast and runs a pleasant route from Peace and Friendship Stadium all the way to the most southern point of Glyfada. Tickets can be booked at all stations and trams connect with the Metro at Neos Kosmos and Neo Faliro. Athens' large fleet of yellow taxis are extremely cheap by European standards. If you hail a taxi down in the street, it is not unusual to share the ride with other passengers going in a similar direction. Drivers are obliged to run a meter. Prices go up between midnight and 0500.
Thessaloniki: The city centre is well served by frequent buses. Tickets can be purchased from periptera (kiosks). Construction of the long-awaited metro in Thessaloniki finally began in 2006. If building work goes to plan, the single line running east-west will have 13 stations and should be ready for 2012. Taxis in Thessaloniki are dark blue and white. As in Athens, they are cheap and plentiful.
POPULAR PLACES TO VISIT
Athens: redolent with history and mythology, is an affable city enlivened by bustling outdoor cafes, pedestrian streets that wind through the city's ancient sites and its fair share of urban eccentrics. If you get into the Athenian mindset, you'll enjoy one of the most laid-back and quirky European cities. The city may look like a concrete jungle and still suffers from bouts of the dreaded nefos (smog), but beyond its noisy and chaotic veneer is an undeniable charm. The historic centre, major sites and dining and entertainment precincts are all close together making Athens a great walking city.
Crete: Steeped in Homeric history and culture, scented by wild fennel and basil, spoils visitors with its wealth of myths, legends and history, a blessed and dramatic landscape, an extraordinary fusion of past and present, and an abundance of choices and experiences. Its stunning mountain ranges are dotted with caves and sliced by dramatic gorges, and its rugged interior is blanketed in olive groves, wild flowers and aromatic herbs. Breathtaking drives along the rugged south coast lead to a sundrenched paradise of long sandy beaches and isolated coves.
Cyclades Island: ( kih-klah-dez ) are what Greek island dreams are made of - rugged, multicoloured outcrops of rock, anchored in azure seas fringed by golden beaches and strewn with snow-white cubist buildings and blue-domed Byzantine churches. Add in olive groves and the scented wild gardens of mountains and terraced valleys, all under a brilliant Mediterranean sun, and it's easy to believe that the Cyclades is as close to paradise on earth as you can get. The reality is, of course, more prosaic.
Dodecanese Islands: are heavenly with it's whitewashed walls, deep blue sky, olive groves, fig trees, azure Aegean waters and much more. In this diverse group of islands you can experience the traditional life without the tourist trappings. This evocative group of islands is scattered along the easternmost edge of the Aegean, where ancient history jumps out at you at every turn. Island-hop your way to heaven, or just indulge in a spot of people-watching in the bar and beach scene of the big resorts.
Ionian Islands: are made up of - Corfu, Paxi, Lefkada, Kefallonia, Ithaki, Zakynthos and Kythira - far more lush than those barren Aegean islands, and tinged with a distinctly Venetian flavour. Each island has its idiosyncrasies of culture and cuisine, and differing dollops of European and British influences. Their surfeit of charms include mountainside monasteries, Venetian campaniles, unspoilt villages, ancient olive groves, famous wines, white beaches and ludicrously blue-heaven waters.
Santorini: is an unique island known officially as Thira, and is visited annually by vast numbers of holidaymakers who gaze at the submerged caldera, epicentre of what was probably the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history. Anyone with a thick hide for relentless crowds and commercialism shouldn't miss it.