Greece is the sweet, hippy brother of the Mediterranean family. Its craggy islands topped with distinctive clusters of sugar-cube houses are the subject of travel advertisements the world over – but there’s more color and contrast to this nation than the pin-ups (usually of the Cycladic islands).
From the hot, dusty hills of Athens and crumbling temples – with graffitied streets and a big bar scene that the marketing photos also overlook – to tiny time-trapped islands like Milos and Symi, you could go to Greece 20 summers in a row and barely scratches the surface of its pretty landscapes.
But wherever you go, you’re likely to encounter the proud hospitality, rustic home cooking and uniformly charming coves that make it a summer hit with honeymooners, solo backpackers and young families.
Current travel restrictions and entry requirements
Greece dropped all of its remaining Covid requirements on April 29, 2022. Travelers can enter without testing or quarantine, regardless of their vaccination status. The requirement to wear face masks in many indoor settings was also removed on June 1, with masks currently only required on public transport and in hospitals.
Ministers said the suspension of the use of a vaccination passport (showing proof of vaccination to enter certain indoor venues) will initially last through the summer months, with the government monitoring developments in Covid cases ahead of a examination at the end of August.
Best time to go
Although many Greece lovers – especially families – flock to its coasts and islands during the peak summer weeks, the country is hot, windy and less crowded in the shoulder seasons: May to early June and from September to October.
In early spring – March and April – you may still experience highs and lows or drizzle, so if you want sunshine you should play it safe with a trip in May. Some accommodations on holiday islands like Santorini only open from spring to autumn.
Athens gets very hot in the summer months, so it’s best seen in early spring or late fall, when you can comfortably hike around the hilly sights with a bit of coolness and bursts of Sun.
Like many countries in the midst of climate change this decade, Greece experienced a historic heatwave in the summer of 2021, with wildfires breaking out at temperatures of up to 47C. If you are going from July to August you will want to make sure you are next to the pool or the sea.
Main regions and cities
Every group of islands in the vast expanse of Greek sea is worth your time, but the most popular for vacationers are the Ionian Islands, the Cyclades and the Dodecanese. On top of that there are beautiful stretches of mainland coastline and tiny islands much closer to the mainland.
The Cyclades: including Santorini and Mykonos
For clusters of sugar cube buildings, picturesque windmills and jaw-dropping cliffs, you want the Cyclades – Santorini is one of the more expensive places, but definitely worth it 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 more terrestrial with greener landscapes, great hiking and family-friendly hotels, and goats perched on steep cliffs.
The Dodecanese: including Rhodes and Kos
Byzantine and medieval treasures, as well as family-friendly beach hotels, make the Dodecanese a hit with history buffs and families alike.
Athens is an essential city break. It comes with some really old and must-see sights, tons of archeological and mythical nerdiness for Classics fans, and a fun and affordable bar and restaurant scene. There are also a host of stylish, good-value boutique hotels, many with small rooftops giving you views of the majestic Acropolis hill.
Crete is increasingly popular for its mix of natural beauty, historic sites (it’s home to Knossos, the ‘Palace of the Minotaur’) and its exceptional food scene in a nation with admittedly similar menus across the board.
It is true that all the large Greek islands have a festive city. But, being larger in size, for each bustling nightlife strip, they have dozens of beautiful, quiet bays with low-key accommodation. This means you should do some 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 attracted Captain Corelli’s Mandolin fans with its rustic beauty for decades, but Lefkada and Zakynthos have some of the most dazzling unspoilt beaches in the country. You can island hop between the Ionian Islands quite easily from spring to autumn, with ferries from just £8 one way. The tiny island of Ithaka, a ferry from Kefalonia, is a tranquil beauty with stretches of unspoiled nature and bustling little harbors for an evening out.
The Peloponnese is one of Greece’s best kept secrets, with pretty little low towns with red roofs and golden sandy beaches, as well as secluded monasteries and spas to explore. Head down the coast from Kalamata Airport to explore tiny villages filled with bougainvillea and charming family-run tavernas.
The Saronic Islands, a small group of islands not far from Athens and the Peloponnese, are used to hosting hedonistic and off-the-beaten-path retreats for writers and artists. Leonard Cohen, writer Henry Miller and artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas were just three of the big names hiding in Hydra in its touristic early days – car-free to this day, this magical island is glorious for hiking and swimming in craggy coves, with a compact but glamorous culinary scene in the harbour. Neighboring Spetses is a popular film location, while Poros offers peaceful, low-key and affordable food and accommodation.
The best things to do
Eat drink and be happy
Much of those who travel to Greece each summer head there to relax, swim and eat, whether at the chic, rosy beach clubs of Mykonos or the peaceful coves of Paxos or Skopelos. And there’s no shame in doing this – most ports and villages only have a handful of tavernas and bars, so you can keep things lively by moving to a larger island (like Crete or Corfu) or by going to a few small ones.
To run away
Besides living the good life and stocking up on the Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, 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 to smaller islands, and it’s easy to organize a day or an afternoon for a few tens of euros (many involve a picnic on the beach and/or a slug of ouzo).
Greece’s ancient wonders also make it a honeypot of day trips: you can, for example, travel to Olympia in the Western Peloponnese to see statues of ancient heroes, learn about the original Games and race on the age-old race track. In Crete, be sure to visit Knossos; head to Mycenae in the Peloponnese or several castles and palaces in Rhodes; or visit the ancient stadium at Delphi, two and a half hours north of Athens. Many of the quieter Greek islands are popular with hikers for their uninterrupted natural splendor. Head out in the spring to see wildflowers on your hilly expeditions to tiny churches or silent bays.
Good train connections are sadly lacking at this lovely holiday spot, but most major stops would require you to catch a plane or ferry anyway. Many fly into Athens before catching a domestic flight or ferry 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 in Athens but continuing on to the Peloponnese, for example – hiring a car is a good idea.
Unless you’re tacking on Athens, flying straight to one of the larger islands and then taking ferries is usually the best plan. However, the ferries only run from spring to autumn (approximately late March to early October, but this varies from route to route). If you’re flexible on time, local buses can take you between major towns on larger islands like Corfu, Crete and Kefalonia, but you’ll need to look carefully at times (and they may not show up). -be not always). The laid-back attitude to services and timetables in this sun-drenched nation has earned its way of life the nickname GMT: it’s “maybe Greek time.” On holiday islands such as Mykonos, you are at the mercy of a handful of taxi drivers.
How to get there
Flights to Athens are often the cheapest way, followed by budget airlines serving the major holiday islands (Rhodes, Crete, Corfu, Kos, Mykonos, etc.). From these points you can take ferries to smaller points.
As the most northwesterly holiday island, Corfu is slightly quicker to reach than Athens (around 3.10 hours for the 3.40 hour flight from Athens). And don’t overlook Preveza, the 3 hour 20 wonder from which you can access both the mainland and the islands.
The most durable
It is possible to travel to Greece from the UK entirely by train and boat. Your journey by train, starting with the Eurostar, runs roughly: Paris, Milan, Bari. Then from Bari you take the 4pm ferry to Patras, where the Peloponnese joins the mainland.
Tip to save money
Although it has dreamy luxury hotels, Greece excels in no-frills self-catering apartments. If you’re looking to travel on a shoestring, you can buy pristine, white-tiled, toweled rooms (some with receptions and even a pool) for as little as £40 a night, self-catering. Many have the best views of the bay, and a mini-market offering yogurts and peaches for breakfast is just steps away.
What weather is it?
Much like the rest of the Mediterranean – in April and May daily highs will be in the low 20s, making it ideal for an active spring break. Summer sees reliably sunny days with temperatures reaching the 30s, while you will have beautiful sunny days well into the mid 20s through October. Some islands – the Aegean in particular – experience brisk “Meltemi” winds in July and August. As this is a large country, it is worth checking individual weather conditions – the southern and eastern islands can stay warmer for longer than the northern ones.
What time zone is it in?
Eastern European Time (EET), which is GMT+2.
What currency do I need?
What language is spoken?
Greek, although as a tourism-loving country, English is widely spoken.