Greece is the Mediterranean family’s mellow, hippyish sibling. Its craggy islands topped with distinctive clusters of sugar-cube houses are the stuff of travel ads the world over – but there’s more colour and contrast to this nation than the pin-ups (usually of the Cycladic Islands) let on.
From Athens’ hot, dusty hills and crumbling temples – set against grimy-hip graffitied streets and a great bar scene that the marketing photos, too, forget – to tiny, trapped-in-time islands like Milos and Symi, you could go to Greece 20 summers in a row and barely scratch the surface of its pretty landscapes.
But wherever you go, you’ll likely encounter the proud hospitality, rustic home cooking and uniformly lovely coves that make it a summer hit with honeymooning couples, solo backpackers and young families alike.
Current travel restrictions and entry requirements
Greece dropped all of its remaining Covid requirements on 29 April 2022. Travellers can enter without testing or quarantine, regardless of vaccination status. The requirement to wear face masks in many indoor settings was also scrapped on 1 June, with masks only required on public transport and in hospitals at present.
Ministers have said the suspension of the use of a vaccine passport (showing proof of vaccination to enter some indoor venues) will last for the summer months initially, with government watching how Covid cases progress before a review at the end of August.
Best time to go
Although many Greece lovers – families especially – will flock to its coast and islands in the peak summer weeks, the country is warm, breezy and less crowded in its shoulder seasons: May to early June and September to October.
In early spring – March and April – you might still get up-and-down or drizzly weather, so if you want sun you should play it safe with a May trip. Some accommodation on holiday islands such as Santorini only opens from spring to autumn at any rate.
Athens gets toasty hot in the summer months, so it’s best seen in early spring or late autumn, when you can comfortably hike around the hilly sights with a bit of coolness and bursts of sun.
Like many countries amid this decade’s climate change, Greece experienced a historic heatwave in summer 2021, with wildfires breaking out in temperatures of up to 47C. If you’re going July to August, you’ll want to make sure you’re pool or sea-adjacent.
Top regions and cities
Every island group in Greece’s vast swathe of sea is worthy of your time, but the most popular for holidaymakers are the Ionians, the Cyclades and the Dodecandese. On top of this, there are lovely stretches of mainland coast, and tiny islands much nearer to the mainland.
The Cyclades: including Santorini and Mykonos
For the clusters of sugar-cube buildings, quaint windmills and jaw-dropping cliffs, you want the Cyclades – Santorini is one of the priciest locations, but absolutely worth the hype if you like your luxury. But Syros, the ‘Cinderella of the Cyclades’, is also having a moment right now.
The Ionians: including Corfu and Kefalonia
The Ionians are earthier with greener landscapes, great hiking and family-friendly hotels, plus goats perched on rugged cliffsides.
The Dodecandese: including Rhodes and Kos
Byzantine and medieval treasures, plus family-friendly beach hotels, make the Dodecanese a hit with history buffs and families.
Athens is a must-do city break. It comes with truly ancient, bucket-list sights, tons of archaeological and mythical nerdiness for Classics fans, and a fun, affordable bar and restaurant scene. There’s also a scattering of stylish, good value boutique hotels, many of them with petite rooftops lending you a view of the majestic Acropolis hill.
Crete is increasingly popular for its mix of natural beauty, historic sites (it’s home to Knossos, the ‘Minotaur palace’) and stand-out food scene in a nation of admittedly similar menus across the board.
It’s true that every big Greek island has a party town. But, being larger in size, for every one thumping nightlife strip, they’ve got dozens of beautiful, tranquil bays with low-key accommodation. This does mean you have to do a bit of geographical research before you go to make sure the atmosphere is right for you.
Best under-the-radar destinations
Lefkada and Zakynthos
Kefalonia may have lured Captain Corelli’s Mandolin fans with its rustic beauty for decades, but Lefkada and Zakynthos have some of the nation’s most dazzling unspoiled beaches. You can island hop between the Ionians pretty easily spring to autumn, with some ferries from as little as £8 one-way. Tiny isle Ithaka, a ferry from flights-connected Kefalonia, is a tranquil beauty with swathes of unspoilt nature and lively little ports for an evening out.
The Peloponnese is one of Greece’s best-kept secrets, with pretty little low-rise, red-roofed towns and golden sandy beaches, plus remote monasteries and destination spas to explore. Drive down the coast from Kalamata Airport to explore dinky villages filled with bougainvillea and charming, family-run tavernas.
The Saronic islands, a small cluster islands not far from Athens and the Peloponnese, have a history of hosting hedonistic, off-the-beaten track retreats for writers and artists. Leonard Cohen, writer Henry Miller and artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas were just three of the big names who hid out in Hydra in its early days of tourism – car-free to this day, this magical isle is glorious for hiking and swimming in craggy coves, with a compact but glam dining scene back in the port. Neighbour Spetses is a popular filming location, while Poros has peaceful, low-key and affordable food and accommodation.
Best things to do
Eat, drink and be merry
A large chunk of those who go to Greece each summer go there to lounge, swim and eat – whether that’s at the swanky, rosé-touting beach clubs on Mykonos or in the peaceful coves of Paxos or Skopelos. And there’s no shame in doing just that – most ports and villages have just a handful of tavernas and bars, so you could keep things lively by moving around a larger island (such as Crete or Corfu) or hopping to a few tiny ones.
Aside from living the good life and stocking up on the olive-oil rich Mediterranean diet, this is a nation of sailors, and you should do your best to get out on the waves. Every major beach town offers boat trips, whether to caves along the coast or smaller islands, and it’s easy to arrange a day or afternoon out for a few dozen euros (many involve a beach picnic and/or a slug of ouzo).
Greece’s ancient wonders also make it a honeypot of day trips: you could, for example, make for Olympia in the Western Peloponnese to see statues of ancient heroes, learn about the original Games and run the centuries-old race track. On Crete, be sure to visit Knossos; head for Mycenae in the Peloponnese or several castles and palaces on Rhodes; or visit the ancient stadium at Delphi, two-and-a-half hours north of Athens. Many of Greece’s quieter islands are popular with hikers for their uninterrupted natural splendour – go in spring to see wildflowers on your hilly expeditions to tiny churches or hushed bays.
Good rail links are sadly lacking in this lovely holiday spot, but most great stops would require you to hop on a plane or ferry anyway. Many fly into Athens before taking a domestic flight or ferry on to one of the islands – the latter is affordable but some routes take you into four or even six-hour territory. On the mainland – if you were stopping at Athens but carrying on into the Peloponnese, say – hiring a car is a good idea.
Unless you’re tacking on Athens, flying direct to one of the bigger islands and then taking ferries onward is usually the best plan. Ferries only run spring to autumn, however (roughly late March to early October, but it varies from route to route). If you’re flexible on time, local buses can get you from major town to major town on larger islands like Corfu, Crete and Kefalonia, but you’ll have to examine the timetable closely (and they may not always show up). The laid-back attitude to services and schedules in this sunsoaked nation has earned its lifestyle the nickname of GMT: that’s “Greek Maybe Time”. On holiday islands such as Mykonos, you’re at the mercy of a handful of taxi drivers.
How to get there
Flights to Athens are often the cheapest way in, followed by budget airlines serving the big holiday islands (Rhodes, Crete, Corfu, Kos, Mykonos and so on). From these points you can get ferries onward to smaller specks.
As the most northwesterly holiday isle, Corfu is marginally quicker to reach than Athens (around 3 hours 10 to Athens’ 3 hours 40 flight time). And don’t discount Preveza, the 3 hours 20 wonder from which you can access both mainland and islands.
It is possible to travel to Greece from the UK entirely by train and boat. Your train journey, starting with the Eurostar, goes roughly: Paris, Milan, Bari. Then from Bari you get the 16-hour ferry to Patras, where the Peloponnese joins the mainland.
Though it has some dreamy luxury hotels, Greece excels at self-catering, no-frills apartments. If you’re looking to travel on a shoestring, you can bag pristine, white-tiled-and-towelled rooms (some with front desks and even a swimming pool) for as little as £40 a night, self-catering. Many have the best views of the bay, and a mini-mart carrying yoghurt and peaches for breakfast is only ever a wander away.
What’s the weather like?
Much the same as the rest of the Med – by April and May daily highs will be in the low 20s Celsius, making it great for an active spring break. Summer sees reliably sunny days with temperatures climbing into the 30s, while you’ll get lovely sunny days into the mid 20s well into October. Some islands – the Aegeans in particular – see lively ‘Meltemi’ winds during July and August. As it’s a wide-spread country, it’s worth checking individual weather patterns – islands in the south and east can stay warmer longer than those in the north.
What time zone is it in?
Eastern European Time (EET), which is GMT+2.
What currency do I need?
What language is spoken?
Greek, though as a tourism-loving country, English is widely spoken.
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