An Insider’s Guide to the Best of Greece

An Athens-based writer gives a lowdown on all that the country has to offer.  
Best of Greece 1
If there’s one thing the Greeks can brag about, it’s the timeless pleasures of a Mediterranean summer. Photo by: Calin Stan/Shutterstock

Food + Drink

Meals in Greece start late—midnight appetisers, anyone?—and tend toward the long, loud, and unruly. Picture a happy commotion of small plates, spilled wine, and extra chairs marshalled into service for those tardy arrivals.

Athens

Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani

Housed in a refurbished neo-classical building behind city hall, Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani is a riff on the traditional Byzantine pastomageireio,a boisterous deli cum taverna where shoppers can load up on cured meats, homemade sausages, and aged cheeses or else enjoy heaping portions of the same on the spot. Not to be missed are the house versions of kavourmas, a beef sausage pan-fried with spicy peppers and potatoes, and sudjuk, a Turkish sausage spiced with cumin and served in a tomato stew with a fried egg.

Volos

Kavouras Tsipouradhiko

Tsipouro, a hard-edged Greek grape distillate produced locally in terrifying quantities, is roughly equivalent to downing a shot of scouring pads. The best way to seek out its elusive pleasures is at one of the dirt-cheap tsipouradhika near the Volos waterfront, such as Kavouras Tsipouradhiko. For the price of a minibar-size bottle of hooch, the mezes are free, whether stuffed grape leaves, grilled octopus, smoked mackerel, or skordalia garlic dip.

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Clockwise from top left: A Santorini stray; A plate of fried sardines at Babis restaurant on Aegina; Freshly caught octopuses in Santorini hung to dry for evening grilling; Sidewalk pastels on Syros. Photos by: Michael George (cat, octopuses), Brad Torchia (dish), ultramarinfoto (chairs)

Santorini

Selene

Tucked into the heart of Santorini’s wine country, Selene is Hellenic haute, with an inventive menu accompanied by a wine list that includes some of the island’s famous Assyrtiko. Go for Selene classics such as squid and fava risotto or shrimp ravioli in almond sauce.

Tinos

To Thalassaki

To Thalassaki, in the island port town of Isternia Bay, is the sort of seaside taverna that pops up in the fever dreams of Mediterranean travel agents: The tables are crowded so close to the waterfront that a random wave might make off with the appetisers. The menu is full of local flourishes, like goat’s cheese with pollen culled from the island’s beehives. Hungry tourists have been known to take a speedboat over from neighbouring Mykonos, just for the cuttlefish risotto.

Thessaloniki

Sebriko

At Sebriko the food is priced for a cash-strapped clientele; many of the ingredients sourced from small, local producers can be bought off the shelves. Try the spalobrizola (flank steak) marinated in truffle oil.

 

History + Artefacts

Travelling in Greece, you’ll be reminded at almost every turn how much of Western civilisation was built on Greek foundations.

Epidaurus

Great Theatre of Epidaurus

The crisis might’ve bottomed out much of the Greek economy, but one of its most resilient sectors has been the theatre—a testament to dramatic traditions still trundling along since the days of Aeschylus. Pay homage to the art’s ancient roots in Epidaurus. Built in the fourth century B.C., the site’s amphitheatre overlooks a wooded landscape, with natural acoustics that would be the envy of today’s most highly trained sound engineers. To visit during the summer’s wildly popular Athens and Epidaurus Festival, it’s best to book weeks in advance.

Athens

Agora

In its ancient heyday, the Agora was the heart of Athenian public life—an all-purpose space where locals voted in civilisation’s first democratic elections, caught a play, debated the latest rumblings from Sparta, or listened to learned discourse from Plato. The ruins aren’t Greece’s greatest, but it’s still stirring to stand in the very spot where a crude template of our own democracy first took shape.

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The neighbourhood of Anafiotika feels like a quiet rural village, but it lies on the northeast slope of the Acropolis in buzzing Athens. Photo by: Brad Torchia

Crete

Aptera

“Ancient Aptera is the next big thing in Crete when it comes to archaeological sites,” says the island’s vice-governor for development, Dimitris Michelogiannis, of what according to Greek mythology was the scene of an epic battle between the Sirens and the Muses. The Cretan government is heavily invested in putting Aptera on the map, developing the site and adding events like last year’s full-moon concert—the ancient theatre’s first in 1,700 years. Cultural tourism in Crete is still dominated by cruise-ship crowds mobbing the Minoan ruins of Knossos, so you’d do well to visit Aptera while it’s still largely undiscovered.

Olympia

Stadium

The ruins at the site of the first Olympic games have been standing for 3,000 years. Yet wandering beneath the stone arch leading into the ancient stadium, I could almost hear the cheers of Greek nobles ringing in my ears.

Epirus

Oracle of Zeus at Dodona

The ancient Greeks considered Delphi the centre of the universe, but Dodona’s oracle predates Delphi’s by more than a thousand years. It’s a spectacular site, ringed by mountains in the remote northern hinterlands of Epirus. Few tourists stray this way unless they get lost on their way to the famous, skyscraping monasteries of Meteora, but it’s worth the detour.

 

Islands + Beaches

Tourist arrivals in Greece broke records last year, and the tourism industry has almost kept the country afloat through nearly a decade of recession. If there’s one thing the Greeks can brag about, it’s the timeless pleasures of a Mediterranean summer.

Athens

Apollo Coast Coves

Wised-up Athenians skip the city’s price-gouging beach resorts in the summer and travel down the “Apollo Coast,” where a series of hidden coves hugs the road between the resorts of Varkiza and Vouliagmeni. Here, the democratic right to sun and sea still applies. Do as thelocals do: Park your scooter in a patch of shade, clamber down the hillside, lay your towel on a rock, and dive in.

Crete

Falasarna

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The Cycladic island of Milos is known for its fine beaches, including Sarakiniko on the northern coast. Photo by: Mossimo Vitali

The beaches at Falasarna lie along a remote stretch of coastline in the northwest of Crete, wedged in by acres of olive groves. There’s a full-fledged archaeological site about a mile from the beach, where the sandstone towers and ramparts of an ancient settlement rise above the harbour. Head farther north to reach one of the most idyllic beaches in the Mediterranean, Balos, where white-sand beaches surround an impossibly turquoise lagoon.

Cyclades

Syros

Sure, it doesn’t have the name-brand appeal of Cycladic neighbours like Mykonos and Santorini. But thanks to a large year-round population, Syros is lively and lived-in, and hosts an excellent film festival every summer. With Venetian-built mansions perched along the waterfront, Ermoupoli is one of the Greek islands’ most atmospheric and elegant ports. The best of the island’s beaches is at Kini, on the western shore, with a protected, crescent-shaped cove.

HalkidikI

Sithonia

Viewed from above, the three-fingered Halkidiki peninsula looks like it’s reaching into the Aegean to scoop up some soft, powdery sand. This is where Greeks from across the north flock for their summer vacations. There are miles of beaches to explore on the two fingers nearest Thessaloniki. Kassandra is the busier of the two—think thumping beach clubs and spring break–style all-inclusives—so rent a car and head to Sithonia, where you can pull to the side of the road and pitch a tent under the palms.

Pelion Peninsula

Papa Nero

A mountainous, forested spit of land jutting out between the Aegean Sea and the Pagasetic Gulf, the Pelion might be the Greeks’ best kept secret. For proof, head to Papa Nero, which has some of the widest, loveliest beaches in the Pelion, if not all of Greece.

 

Culture + People

Philotimo, that indefinable Greek blend of duty, pride, and honour, can still be found in abundance, whether Greeks are thumbing their noses at EU creditors or opening their doors to refugees. So can philoxenia, that famous Hellenic hospitality.

Athens

Art Galleries

For a few months in 2017, as Athens played host to Documenta, the prestigious contemporary art exhibition, you might’ve been understandably surprised to see Icelandic hipsters pedalling past the Parthenon and displaced Brooklynites thumbing through their phrase books for the Greek word for “kale.” Although the exhibition came and went, it underscored the fact that Athens is having a moment in the contemporary art world. Particularly lively is the scene in rough-around-the-edges areas like Metaxourgeio and Kerameikos, thanks to pioneering galleries like Vamiali’s, Rebecca Camhi, and The Breeder.

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Clockwise from top left: A server at Zampanó restaurant in Athens; View from the Acropolis; Cleaning fish on Aegina Island; Athens’s Temple of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and crafts.
Photos by: Brad Torchia

Epirus

Zagori

Travelling north along the spine of the Pindus range, you’ll eventually reach Zagori, a rugged, mountainous chunk of the Epirus region that borders Albania. The spectacular, UNESCO-listed Vikos Gorge—more than 10 miles long and roughly a half mile deep—is the main attraction, offering some of the best hiking in Europe, but the whole region is worth exploring. The landscape is cleaved by canyons and dotted with traditional stone villages and centuries-old monasteries.

Santorin and Crete

Wine Country

Krasí (wine) is a way of life in Greece, which has some of the most ancient wine-producing regions on the planet. The country’s oldest and best known export, retsina, tastes to some palates like it might’ve disinfected wounds in the Peloponnesian Wars, but more sophisticated varietals abound. Visit Santorini to get a taste of its distinctive Assyrtiko: crisp, dry, acidic, with a mineral hint that conjures up the island’s black volcanic soil. In Crete, head to the sprawling wine region around Heraklion to sample local varietals like the fragrant Vidiano, or Marouvas, a sherry-like red that is unique to the island.

Tinos

Our Lady of Tinos Church

Wild, windswept Tinos is home to some impressive phenomena, but none more so than the pilgrimageto this famous shrine. Built around an icon said to have been revealed by a vision of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Tinos is one of the holiest sites of the Greek Orthodox Church. Pilgrims travelling to Tinos to kiss the icon will drop to their knees just a few steps from the port, crawling along the length of a scruffy red carpet that, less than a kilometre later, ends at the doors of the church.

 

Stay + play

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Typical Athenian street scenes include ruins like these near the Roman Agora, the main market during Rome’s rule. Photo by: Francesco Lastrucci

What to know

Greeks can be smug about many things—this is the nation, after all, that brought you the word “hubris”—but the boasts about their Mediterranean climate are well deserved. Warm, sunny weather arrives in Greece as early as April and lasts into October, although you should avoid the peak summer months of July and August, when temperatures and prices soar.

The economic downturn has put a strain on many households, and the refugee crisis sadly shows no signs of ending, but travellers are rarely affected. Protests against the government are common—and strikes occasionally disrupt air and sea travel—but Greece is still a remarkably safe, easy, and friendly destination.

Where to sleep

If the rooftop views of the Acropolis—an olive pit’s throw away—don’t seduce you at AthensWas, a boutique hotel in the capital’s historic heart of Plaka, then arty flourishes such as Le Corbusier armchairs and Jacob Jensen phones will do the trick (athenswas.gr).
Visitors to Crete should skip the dreary resorts outside Chania and check into the Ammos Hotel, where traditional, whitewashed walls hide colourful and playful nods to contemporary design (ammoshotel.com). On Tinos, the family-run Crossroads Inn, in the hillside village of Tripotamos, gets high marks from guests for its seven self-catering villas built from restored buildings, including an old raki distillery. Ask for a tour of the vineyard run by the husband of the inn’s proprietor (crossroadsinn.gr).

 

To read about a story on heroes and Hellenic heritage in Greece, go here.

  • Christopher Vourlias is a Brooklyn-born, Athens-based freelance journalist specialising in African film and TV, travel writing, and narrative non-fiction.

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