The Top Ten Must-See Locations in Greece
Ah Greece... I can honestly say I fell in love with this country before even visiting. My love of ancient history made this place an obvious destination for myself, but the writings of author Mary Renault really clinched it for me. Her novel about the Peloponnesian War, "The Last of the Wine," was nothing short of revelatory to my mind. I mean, I had known, prior to this, of ancient Greece's great achievements, of her great philosophers, warriors, artists and statesmen. But Renault brought the world so vibrantly alive, it was like seeing it all for the first time, and I was enraptured. I doubt I'm alone in this feeling, the feeling that comes when one begins to grasp the magnitude and significance of a place that had previously resembled little more than a fairy tale. I guess that was the true magic of that novel after all, it was a fairy tale, and yet, the story was true. All those tales of epic battles, gleaming temples and brilliant minds had actually happened, and the raw, deep-in-my-gut realization of that truth was, and is, awe-inspiring. Better yet, the grand testaments of Greek architecture are still, in many areas, on display. The memoirs of thinkers like Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle can still be read, and the battlefields upon which so many brave men died can still be trod upon in contemplative silence.
So, predictably, I booked my first trip to Greece in 1998, and have since been back two more times. Granted, there is SO much to experience in this country that three trips cannot do it justice, but gladly, I've been able to scratch off some of the best locations from my list. The top ten then, from good to great, are as follows:
10. Crete and the Palace of Knossos
I have heard, and can imagine, that the island of Crete with its remnants of the powerful Minoan culture is a phenomenal place, and one of the best in all of Greece. However, my day on Crete was marked by brutal temperatures and a mercilessly boring tour guide. Thus, what should have been a lovely glimpse of a beautiful island steeped in history was instead a sweaty, sweltering snooze fest. But that should not in any way take away from what could and should be a great vacation destination. Thanks to the work of archaeologist Arthur Evans, the Palace of Knossos is on display for all to see, even if that means what one sees today may not exactly be accurate. Evans was, shall we say, a little overzealous and allowed his imagination to reconstruct much of the palace we see today. Nevertheless, the complex is truly a sight to behold. This was the place where, according to myth, Theseus slew the half-bull, half-human creature known as the Minotaur, saving numerous young Athenians from being sacrificed to the monster. Not bad for a day's work.
9. The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
At Cape Sounion, a lovely temple dedicated to Poseidon stands, but it's the view that is really stunning. Overlooking the Aegean Sea, the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion served to not only appease the somewhat moody disposition of the sea-god, but most certainly warmed the hearts of Greek sailors as their ships neared the shores of their home. While this temple is certainly a beautiful example of 5th century Doric architecture, its backdrop, especially at sunset, is the essential "icing on the cake" for this particular site, and greatly contributes to its unique and magical nature.
Oh boy, did I get goosebumps at this site. Seriously, I was like a giddy school boy in a candy store, running from spot to spot, jaw agape at the ruins of this massive, menacing city of old. Mycenae is a remnant of bronze-age Greece, the Greece that to men like Socrates and Plato was already considered "ancient." In fact, it was the grand scale of building at Mycenae that gave rise to the term "Cyclopean," as the Greeks of later centuries could not accept that it had been built by human hands, instead attributing it to the work of giants, or "cyclops."
Mycenae was the principal city of bronze-age Greece, and as is to be expected, a great amount of information on its history can be found in the realm of myth. This was, so the stories go, the site of numerous atrocious acts of revenge, murder, cannabilism and greed. The House of Atreus, as it is referred to in myth, was about as dysfunctional as families can get. Beginning with Tantalus cooking his own son and attempting to feed him to the gods, this heart-warming story of Mycenae ends with Agammenon sacrificing his daughter, returning home after the Trojan War to be murdered by his adulterous wife, who in turn is murdered by her own son. As you walk among the rubble of Mycenae, bear these myths in mind, and remember: No matter how bad things may be in your own family, they can't compare to the House of Atreus.
It's a heartrending site really, so many buildings encompassing such a grand scope, now all in ruins. But if you can muster up a little imagination, it's obvious: this place must have been aesthetically phenomenal.
In 776 B.C. the first Olympic games were held here, and continued to be held every four years until their abolishment under the Roman emperor Theodosius I in 394 A.D. A little homework will make a world of difference at Olympia, as you'll probably be more than a little curious as to what exactly each pile of rocks and/or ionic capitals once was. Things to note are the Temple of Zeus, which housed a huge statue of the god, crafted from gold and ivory by the famed sculptor Phidias. This statue, though eventually lost, remains one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Phidias' workshop, where the behemoth was created, was excavated here as well. If you're not too worn out from sightseeing, run a race at the Stadium, located on the very east side of Olympia.
Today, the Olympic games continue, but the spirit of the ancient Olympics has taken on a different face, meaning that in ancient Greece, all warring conflicts were temporarily ceased in the name of sport. Bitter enemies could, for a few days at least, cease killing each other and race chariots, or beat each other to a bloody pulp in pankration, a hybrid of boxing and wrestling. But of course, it wasn't perfectly diplomatic; only Greek-speakers could compete, and guaranteed, the moment the festivities ceased, the warring would continue.
For history buffs, Mykonos may not be the ideal place to visit. Sure, the history is there, like everywhere in Greece, but it's just that Mykonos isn't really geared towards it. So when you set foot here, set down the Oxford History of Greece for a day or two, and relax. There is a hypnotic, surreal sense about this island, and despite its popular draw for locals and foreigners alike, solace can be found.
Mykonos has been described as cosmopolitan, and it's easy to see why; the island's reputation as a favorite haunt for Greek celebrities is evidenced by the high, intimidating percentage of really, good-looking people...everywhere. If coming off a cruise, you will most likely dock off of the Island's main town, also named Mykonos. Here you'll find a plethora of seaside bars, tavernas, restaurants, gift-shops and the like. The winding, maze-like streets of Mykonos may seem perplexing at first, but fear not: It's nearly impossible to get lost here, however, expect to be slightly disoriented at first. But, that's part of Mykonos' charm. If being perplexed for more than a few minutes while traversing the shimmering, blue and white buildings of this veritable paradise stresses you out, you may need to re-evaluate why you're here in the first place. Also, bear in the mind that these streets were intentionally designed as a labyrinth in an attempt to confuse marauding pirates, so as strange and maddening as the city planning may appear, they had a pretty good reason for it.
As you arrive in Kalambaka, the first thing you'll notice will inevitably be the massive rock pinnacles dominating the horizon. As the buildings of Kalambaka give way to a more rustic appearance, you'll enter the village of Kastraki, and before you an ancient, cobblestone path pinched between olive groves and mountainous giants winds its way unassumingly upward into a world of monasteries, natural beauty, and phenomenal views of the landscape below.
Meteora is one of the few places in Greece whose structures have been built within the last 1000 years, but that doesn't stop a large influx of tourists from visiting Meteora's six monasteries every year. The villages of Kalambaka and Kastraki are the setting off points for Meteora, although there is very little in the way of lodging in Kastraki. But no matter, the towns are so close to each other as to be practically one and the same, and as far as figuring out which way to go, well, just look up; you can't miss it. Many tourists opt for a taxi to get them up to Meteora, but if you're up to it, the hike shouldn't be missed, and besides, back in the 11th century monks didn't just hike this, they climbed it; and then went on to build 24 of most precariously placed monasteries in the world. Suck it up.
As evidenced from the above photo, Santorini, or Thera is the kind of place you could die happy at. The crisp, white-washed buildings, the Mediterranean climate and the stunning blue waves of the Aegean all add up to make this a remarkable place to visit, and if relaxation often alludes you, as it does me, Santorini will make you melt in your seat with contentment. Even the greatest stressors will at least be temporarily forgotten as you sip red wine and munch on kalamatas in one of the numerous patios overlooking the Mediterranean.
But beyond the sheer beauty of Santorini, it holds a cataclysmic past. The island today is, as you can note from the crescent shape, a remnant of a massive volcanic eruption, one that rocked the Mediterranean over 5000 years ago, and decimated a thriving Minoan population; one that in all likelihood originated from the island of Crete. It is theorized that this catastrophe spawned the Atlantis myth, but whatever the truth may be, this island holds a captivating and tragic past, quite a contrast to the sense of calm that pervades the island today.
3. Mt. Olympus
Obviously this is not for everyone, but wow, if you're able, a hike up the Mountain of the gods is well worth it. A train out of Athens will get you to Litohoro, the setting-off point for your ascent, and a quaint, idyllic town to boot. There's not much here, but Litohoro is really quite beautiful, especially the town square's fountain at night. Several restaurants in the village offer numerous choices for your mountain climbing fuel, and nothing washes down a Greek pizza like a bottle of Mythos beer. Needless to say though, it'd be best to limit your alcohol intake the night before hiking Olympus, as it's fairly tough. Whatever you decide to do though, take my advice, and eat a hearty brekafast. I hiked from the trail head all the way to the second peak on nothing more than a granola bar; it's no wonder that I was exhausted almost the entire time.
The best option available to hikers is to take a taxi out of Litohoro to the trail head. At the time of my visit, there was very little here in way of supplies, so pack accordingly in Litohoro, at least enough food/water until you reach the first mountain lodge, which, if memory serves correctly, was about a three and a half hour hike up. You'll do best to spend a night here. The lodge is fully stocked with all kinds of nutritional, calorie-laden foods. The staff is extremely helpful and friendly, and speak a variety of languages, which is very much needed; while here I met Germans, Norwegians, Dutch and French, all here with the hopes of catching a glimpse of Zeus and his entourage.
The final stretch is relentlessly steep, but once you get above the cloud line the views are to die for. Unfortunately, poor-planning on my part negated the possibility of me ascending the highest peak, as I reached the second-highest at sunset, and returned to the mountain lodge in the dangerous dark of night; another reason to spend a night at the lodge prior to the second leg of this hike. I got a good look at the trail leading to Zeus though, and I would advise that you avoid a solo venture at this point, as it can be treacherous.
Due to the high amount of snowfall, Olympus should only be considered in summer or fall. I believe that the main lodge is closed outside of this season also, so unless you have suicidal tendencies, or are a professional climber, don't try it, Olympus has its fair share of casualties.
Nestled along the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, Delphi boasts the perfect conglomeration of natural beauty and ancient ruins. The oracle of Delphi was renowned in the ancient world for its prophetic contributions, and kings of various empires sought its knowledge on matters of grave importance. In the case of King Croseus, his inquiry into whether or not to invade the rising Persian empire under Cyrus was met with this cryptic response: "If you attack, you will destroy a great kingdom." The kingdom to be destroyed, unfortunately for Croesus, was his own.
There is plenty to feast one's eyes upon here. From the tholos at the sanctuary of Athena to Apollo's gargantuan temple, the site has a sense of mystique surrounding it. But sadly, as is the case with so many sites of great antiquity, a lot of imagination is required to picture it as it once was. Delphi,for those who don't know, was the spot where "the Delphic Oracle" presided. Simply put, a female of tragically young age was relegated to a career of inhaling semi-toxic fumes seeping from the earth. This unsurprisingly put her in an inebriated state, in which she then babbbled incoherently to priests who "interpreted" the divine message to whomsoever inquired; essentially, a conduit for the the deity of Apollo. Inquiries ranged from when, or upon whom to wage war, who to marry, legal and financial advice, and anything and everything warranting enough importance to make the trip.
When here, don't miss the opportunity to visit the Delphi museum, which houses the well-known bronze statue, The Charioteer, as well as Kleobis and Biton, two excellent examples of Archaic statuary. The village of Delphi, within walking distance of the ancient site, has more than its fair share of clean and affordable lodging, as well as a good selection of restaurants and cafes. If here in the high season though, it would be wise to book your lodging in advance.
It was a frightening realization at first, finding that the Athen's of 400 B.C., the one of gleaming temples and philosophers, of hoplites and torchlight, the one that had occupied so much of my time as I read of the romantic exploits of it's previous inhabitants, was now a mess of smog, traffic, noise and sprawl. Of course, I had known it wouldn't be perfect, but this? Every building resembling every other, dappled in a murky grey pallor that could darken the most joyful of hearts. Ceaseless car horns, unintelligble tongues, and music that, frankly, I can't stand, we're all adding up to the pessimistic belief that perhaps I had seriously misspent my money, and that my return flight date couldn't come soon enough.
But the beauty of this city, is how she slowly reveals herself, bit by bit, until you eventually wake up one day and realize just how beautiful she really is. There is sprawl, to be sure, but nestled here and there, and everywhere in between, are treasures waiting to be disovered. An obvious destination is Athen's acropolis, upon which solidly sits the recognizable Parthenon as well the Erecthion. But the sites hardly end there. Those not to be missed (though hardly the extent of what to experience here) include the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian's Arch, the Greek Agora and the Archeological Museum. A hike up Lykavittos Hill may be a wise way to begin your trip, as it offers a sweeping vista of the city below, and beyond the view, is a good way to get your bearings in what can be a fairly confusing city to navigate.
The district of Plaka, nestled just below the Acropolis, is the most picturesque area of Athens, containing a conglameration of cafes, tavernas, and gift shops. Its cobblestone streets, outdoor restaurants and live perfomances make Plaka an excellent choice for where to lodge in Athens.
Things to Know When Planning a Trip to Greece
Greece is a fairly temperate region, characterized by hot,dry summers and mild, wet winters. Due to its mountainous character, temperatures can vary considerably from area to area, with summer averages hovering around 80 degrees fahrenheit, much like the Pacific Northwest of America.
What time of year to visit Greece ultimately depends on personal preference, but winter should be avoided, as daily temperatures range from 40 to 55 degrees. Two weeks spent in Greece last January were hardly uncomfortable though, and I saw very little rainfall from Athens all the way to Istanbul, Turkey. Fall and Spring are probably your best options, as not only do temperatures remain moderate, but the tourism high season will be avoided as well.
Unfortunately for Americans, Greece switched from the drachma to the euro in 2002, turning a dirt cheap vacation into a fairly pricey one almost overnight. As of August, 2008, the exchange rate for euros against American dollars is painfully askew, with one dollar fetching you about 67 cents of Greek currency. Be aware too that exchange rates can vary from place to place, and generally speaking, the first money changer you see upon entering any foreign country is usually the worst. Keep your eye on the daily fluctuation of rates, and shop accordingly.
In Athens, finding English speakers really isn't a problem, but the further one gets from there, the more knowing some Greek will help. Not only will it increase your chances of getting on the right bus or train, but the locals will surely appreciate your efforts as well.