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Playground of Zeus, Apollo, and Aphrodite … birthplace of the Olympic Games … academy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle … cradle of democracy and Western literature—although it’s relatively small in size, Greece has had a legendary influence on world culture. From its classical capital of Athens, to a countryside speckled with grand amphitheaters and sacred temples, to the sun-soaked islands that dot its coast, it’s no wonder mighty heroes and ancient thinkers found inspiration in this Mediterranean oasis.
In recent years, the country has fallen on harder times: A persistent economic crisis, frictions within the European Union, and immigration issues all present ongoing challenges. But in spite of it all, Greece’s indomitable spirit lives on through its most valuable asset—its people. Warm, proud, and gregarious, Greeks cling fiercely to their long-held traditions—including a love of family and a passion for their famous cuisine—while focusing on shaping their future in a modern world.
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
Often heralded as the cradle of Western civilization, Athens abounds with antiquity, culture, and mythology. The city is still dominated by ancient monuments, including the Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896, as well as its crowning glory—the Acropolis. Dating back to the fifth century BC, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is an enduring symbol of Greek devotion: Its iconic Parthenon and Temple of Athena were both built to honor the goddess of wisdom, craft, and war. But just beyond the shadow of this citadel, another side of Athens emerges. From the elegant Plaka neighborhood filled with cafés and shops, to pedestrian promenades lined with clubs, to abundant art and history museums, it’s a modern metropolis with something to offer each of the 3.7 million residents who call the city home.
Get to know iconic Athens and discover the legendary locales beyond its borders with travel expert Rudy Maxa.
Perhaps no city epitomizes Greek mysticism better than mountainside Delphi. According to legend, Zeus determined the site to be the center of “Grandmother Earth,” and it was guarded by a faithful python for hundreds of years. Eventually, the python was slain by the god Apollo, who then claimed sacred Delphi as his own. Around the eighth century BC, the ancient Greeks began constructing a sanctuary here to honor their founding deity. The resulting Temple of Apollo was occupied by the Pythia, a high priestess who served as the mouthpiece of Delphi’s patron god. Her prophecies were often cryptic, but that didn’t stop leaders and laypeople from seeking her divine insights into the future—which often came at a hefty price. While the Delphic Oracle is long gone, the whispers of the gods are still said to reverberate throughout the temple’s ruins, inaudible to the mortals who pass through.
Known as “the island of the winds” due to its seasonal squalls, Mykonos is best known for its conical, wooden-roofed windmills. Built in 16th century, these quintessentially Cycladic structures were vital to the island’s agrarian economy. Today, they are entirely symbolic of Mykonian innovation, and serve as an elegant crown over the capital city of Chora. Unlike Greece’s other island capitals, which are built like amphitheaters, Chora is spread out across a wide area. A walk along its rambling, marble streets reveals ample upmarket shops, stylish restaurants, and quaint cafés ideal for people-watching. Chora culminates at the 18th-century district of Alefkántra, whose grand mansions and waterfront balconies have earned it the nickname “Little Venice.”
In Greek, the word Meteora means “suspended in the air”—and seldom has a name been more fitting. After the Byzantine Empire crumbled at the end of the 14th century, Greek monks escaped invading Turks in Meteora, constructing some two dozen monasteries directly atop a series of towering sandstone pillars. Access to the monasteries was meant to be difficult, so rope ladders, large nets, and baskets were used to hoist provisions—and monks themselves—up the vertical cliff faces. Today, the six monasteries that remain are still home to some 60 monks and nuns, who have a far easier time reaching the sky-high structures than they did 500 years ago: Sturdy bridges and stone steps have replaced the more rudimentary methods.
With its whitewashed Cycladic houses, black-sand beaches, and red pumice cliffs plunging into the Aegean, Santorini is Greece at its most postcard-perfect. Some even speculate that the island is part of mythical Atlantis, which the gods banished to the ocean floor. (In reality, the archipelago is all that remains of the island of Thera, which collapsed into a caldera following a massive volcanic eruption thousands of years ago.) Regardless of its origins, modern-day Santorini enchants with its romantic scenery and prolific history. A cable car transports visitors from the coast to Fira, Santorini’s clifftop capital, offering sweeping views of the indigo harbor. Nearby, the excavated Minoan city of Akrotiri boasts a story similar to Pompeii, prolific wineries yield dry whites and dessert Vinsanto, and cliff-side villages like Oia and Imerovigli are ideal vantage points for witnessing spectacular sunsets.
Perched at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, Thessaloniki has been a hub of commerce and a breeding ground for religion, politics, and art since the third century BC. Due to its strategic importance, it changed hands many times over the millennia—the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans have all laid claim to its sprawling shores, and evidence of their occupation is peppered throughout the city. In fact, its vast collection of Byzantine monuments is one of the most extensive in the world. Today, Thessaloniki’s value endures: It is the capital of the Macedonia region, and the second-largest city in Greece. From the Ano Poli (Upper Town)—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only section of the city that survived the Great Fire of 1917—to open-air markets like traditional Modiano and hilltop Kapani, and small shops and tavernas filled with locals, it’s easy to see why Thessaloniki boasts a reputation as Greece’s cultural capital.
Films featuring Greece from international, independent filmmakers
Join travel expert Rudy Maxa to discover the sundrenched villages and natural wonders awaiting you along Greece's Cyclades islands.
Discover two sides of Athens—our pre-trip extension destination—from ancient ruins to a vibrant youth culture.
Produced by Fritzie Andrade, Max Cantor, Chris Carmichael, Aaron Wolfe
©2015 The New York Times
See Greece in 1954 in this vintage 16mm film footage—from donkeys to hillside towns and ruins.
Immerse yourself in Greece with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Ancient myths and the Greek identity
Lemons have been used in Greek cooking since at least the first century. Try using them as you make Avgolemono.
Discover the daring profession of sponge-diving in Symi.
by Lyette Mercier
Delos: Location, location
The island of Delos, for example, is a small, rocky spot of land in the Aegean Sea. It possesses limited drinking water and no arable soil. Nonetheless, it was one of the most revered places in ancient Greece, as it was believed to be the birthplace of the divine twins Apollo and Artemis, god of the sun and truth, and goddess of the moon and the hunt, respectively.
Their mother, Leto, was the first wife of Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon. Zeus married his second wife, Hera—who was also his sister—when Leto was pregnant with the twins. If Zeus running off and marrying his sister while another wife was pregnant sounds callous, well, Zeus wasn’t exactly known for doing right by the mothers of his children. He accidentally burned one to ash (Semele, mother of Dionysus) and swallowed another (Metis, mother of Athena). Hera was the goddess of wives and mothers, but her role in many myths is that of the jealous harasser of Zeus’ paramours. She hated Leto, and declared that all land on Earth deny the pregnant goddess shelter or fear Hera’s wrath. After wandering the world and being denied shelter everywhere, Leto finally found a rock floating in the sea and therefore was not subject to Hera’s curse. There, under the shade of a lone palm tree, she gave birth to Artemis and, nine days later, Apollo. Nonnus, a Greek epic poet, wrote in the fifth century AD,
When Leto carried her twin burden she had to wander over the world, tormented with the pangs of childbirth . . . until Delos gave help to her labor, until the old palm tree played midwife for Leto with her poor little leaves.
Leto’s twins, both skilled with a bow and arrow from birth, protected their mother from further Hera-induced trials before taking their place with the other major god and goddesses on Mount Olympus.
Some versions of the Delos myth say that after the twins’ birth, Zeus appealed to his brother Poseidon, god of the sea, to tether the rock to the ocean floor with diamond chains. In other versions, Leto herself anchored the rock to the seabed in gratitude for giving her sanctuary. The island was named Delos, meaning “the visible,” and became a sacred place for worshippers of Apollo and Artemis, as well as a major cult center for other Greek gods.
Delos’ mythical importance may have been tied to its location in the Aegean Sea. It is equidistant from the Greek mainland to its northwest, Rhodes to its east, Crete to its south, and the Peloponnese to its west. To a culture as skilled in mathematics and navigation as the Greeks, this would have given Delos a significance befitting an important origin myth. Delos endured as a place of worship until the dawn of Christianity, when after a long decline it was abandoned. Today, relics of Delos’ sacred history are scattered across the sunny island. Indeed, the isle is one of the most important archeological sites in Greece and excavations there are ongoing.
“Most Idyllic Place”
Artemis had a later role in the creation of another Aegean island, according to legend. Today, the island of Patmos is best known as the place where St. John wrote the biblical Book of Revelation. The grotto where he received his divine vision, fantastically known as the Cave of the Apocalypse, is a popular Christian pilgrimage site. But in ancient times, the island had a charming origin story with Artemis as its champion.
The myth: Artemis once hunted in the evenings on Mount Latmos, where there was a temple in her honor. While there, she would converse with Selene, the goddess of moonlight. One evening, Selene’s moonbeams cast a glow upon an island on the bottom of the sea. Artemis was enchanted by the isle and asked Apollo to raise it to the surface for her. Apollo didn’t want to do it, however; in the manner of families everywhere, he asked his father to do it for him. Zeus then passed the task along to Poseidon, who finally fulfilled Artemis’ wish and brought Patmos to the surface, where Selene’s brother Helios, god of sunlight, warmed it with his rays and brought the land to life.
Artemis made the first settlers of the island devotees from Mount Latmos, and they named the island “Litios,” meaning “Daughter of Leto,” in the goddess’s honor. Today, the island retains the charm that inspired such a lovely origin myth, with Forbes magazine naming Patmos “Europe’s Most Idyllic Place” in 2009.
Delphi: Center of the Earth
Apollo was worshipped along the Aegean as well, most famously in Delphi, where legend has it he slew Python, a dragon, and took control of the Delphic Oracle from Gaia, the earth goddess. The ancients believed Delphi to be the center of the Earth, with the dragon protecting the world’s omphalos, or navel. The Oracle at Delphi was sacred well before Apollo was worshipped, and the myth of Apollo and Python served to explain the transition from worshipping the earth goddess there to visitors worshipping Apollo as the god speaking through the Oracle.
The Oracle, always a woman, was called Pythia, because it was believed that the vapors that sent her into a prophetic trance rose from Python’s corpse. Today, it’s speculated that the Oracle’s trances were caused by breathing ethylene gas rising from a fissure in the earth. In her trance, Pythia would mutter nonsense that was then interpreted into prophecy by the temple’s priests.
Citizens from all over the Hellenic world came to consult the Oracle once a month, with the richest visitors skipping the line by giving lavish gifts to Apollo’s temple. Pythia’s prophecies were so in demand that the historian Plutarch, who was also a priest at the temple, wrote that eventually there were three Oracles: two to work in shifts and a spare in case the others needed a break. The Oracle was abandoned after an earthquake in 373 BC, and contemporary research has shown that the temple is located on top of two fault lines, suggesting the possibility that the quake closed off the fissures releasing the ethylene gas that allowed the Oracle to prognosticate. The Oracle’s last recorded response in 362 BC stated “the temple has fallen.” The rise of Christianity also contributed to the Oracle’s demise.
Love & loss
Though Apollo communicated with humans through the Oracle, there are also many tales of the gods interacting directly with mortals. One of the sweetest (or saddest, depending on how you look at it) myths is that of Ariadne and Dionysus, god of wine and celebration. After helping Athenian founder Theseus to defeat the monstrous Minotaur and escape the labyrinth, Ariadne fled with the hero, in love and planning to marry him. Alas, Theseus had other ideas and abandoned Ariadne as she slept on the beach on the island of Naxos. Some versions of the legend maintain that Theseus had fallen in love with Ariadne’s sister Phaedra and callously left Ariadne to die on Naxos; some say Theseus forgot Ariadne on the beach in his hurry to get home; while other accounts are that he was ordered by Dionysus to abandon Ariadne and was heartbroken to leave her. (The latter version was possibly favored by Athenians, because it makes their city’s founder look like less of a cad.)
In all variations of the myth, poor Ariadne was left alone, abandoned and in tears. Depending on the tale, either she was discovered by Dionysus, who was so enchanted by her beauty that he made her his wife, or she was taken hostage by the god for breeding purposes. Ovid, in his poem the Fasti, sides firmly with Dionysus, saying of Ariadne,
Theseus’ crime deified her. She gave that ingrate the winding thread [of the labyrinth] and gladly swapped her perjured husband for Dionysus. Pleased with her marital fate, she asked: “Why did I sob like a country girl? His lies were my gain.”
By all accounts, Dionysus so loved Ariadne that after her death he raised her crown to the heavens, creating the constellation Corona. Other stories say he also descended to the underworld to bring Ariadne and his mother, Semele, up to live with him in immortality on Mount Olympus. The myth is considered a classic love story, with Ariadne depicted alongside Dionysus on many ancient paintings and mosaics.
It’s hard to throw a stone in Greece without it landing somewhere associated with a myth. Wherever you travel here, keep in mind the fabulous tales its ancient inhabitants spun about their homeland—and that the storied landscapes that still exist here were as inspiring then as they are today.
from Harriet’s Corner
From city apartments to island homes, it’s a safe bet that all kitchens in Greece will always have at least one ingredient in common: the lemon. Abundant in these ancient isles, lemons have been used in Greek cooking since at least the first century, contributing to everything from savory sauces to sweet desserts. Two millennia later, the golden fruit remains prized not only by Yia Yias (grandmothers) cooking comfort food, but also by chefs capitalizing on the current embrace of healthy cuisine.
One of the most beloved Greek food pairings is the luscious blend of egg delicately flavored with lemon juice. Avgolemono is the name for both a soup and a sauce with similar ingredients. Both feature dairy and citrus emulsified into broth to yield a texture reminiscent of a cream sauce, but with a bright, tangy flavor. And they’re both simple to make: the soup, a meal in itself, requires just four ingredients besides salt and pepper, while the sauce requires only three, and makes a perfect accompaniment to chicken, fish, or rice.
8 cups chicken stock
1 cup orzo or rice
4 eggs, separated
Juice of 3 lemons
Salt & pepper to taste
1 cup chicken stock
3 eggs, separated
Juice of 3 lemons
Salt & pepper to taste
by Maria Mavrelli
Beneath the clear, warm waters of the Dodecanese Islands, there lies an abundance of a commodity which today we tend to take for granted: sponges. In modern times, it’s hard to think of picking up a sponge as an adventure; all you need to do is go to the store. But there was a time when the story of the sponge was far more exciting.
From ancient times until around the 19th century, sponges were collected by a daring method called skin-diving. Clad in little more than their bravado, divers would cling to a round, flat stone attached to a rope and plummet to the bottom of the sea, reaching depths of up to 100 feet. Their task was to collect as many sponges from the ocean floor as they could before their breath ran out; an urgent pull on a rope tied around their wrist was their ticket back to the fresh air above.
While this method could hardly be considered efficient, the merchants of the Dodecanese nonetheless prospered as a result. One island that fared especially well was the isle of Symi, located at the southern end of the Dodecanese chain. Symi’s golden age began in the 19th century, when a Symiot merchant acquired a diving suit from Augustus Siebe, a German engineer who revolutionized the diving profession.
But the affluence came at a dreadful cost. By spending so much time at such low depths, and then quickly ascending back to the surface multiple times per day, the Greek sponge divers exposed themselves to decompression sickness, a debilitating condition commonly known as “the bends.” The bends took a great toll upon the Dodecanese divers, disabling or claiming the lives of as many as one-third of those who took the plunge. Symiot families grew weary of mysteriously losing their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers to the sponge-diving trade (which they ruefully dubbed “the tyranny”) and by 1919, Symi had scaled back its role in the industry significantly—merchants still funded expeditions, but left the actual diving in the hands of outside help.
As you walk Symi’s streets, evidence of its sponge-diving heritage can still be found all around if you look closely enough—from the antique diving equipment on display at the Naval Museum, to the opulent merchant homes perched upon the island’s hills. As you admire Symi’s splendid sights, be sure to keep in mind the price its people paid to get there.
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Throughout most of Greece, January and February bear the hallmarks of classic Mediterranean winter weather: cooler temperatures and wet, overcast days. As you go further north into the mountains, the weather turns chillier and snow falls are frequent; the snow here will last until May.
Fewer crowds, especially in the big cities and on the islands, make for ideal exploring weather, though not all attractions will be open so it’s best to call ahead.
The winter months are a particularly good time to visit Greece’s many fascinating ruins: Minimal crowds allow for less hassle and more in-depth discoveries.
Greece begins to thaw in March, and April officially heralds the start of spring. This is an excellent time to visit: Temperatures are pleasant, the first of the season’s vegetation is in bloom, and markets reopen after winter’s gloom, but the crowds of summer have yet to arrive.
All of Greece comes to a spectacular stop around Easter. Depending on whether the holiday falls in March or April, you can expect to find shops and restaurants closed. But this shouldn’t deter you from visiting Greece during Easter: The magnificent pageantry of the holiday is truly a sight to see.
If your visit falls during the Easter celebrations, visit a local village or attend an Orthodox service—this all-important holiday provides a unique insight into contemporary life in Greece.
Greece begins to heat up in May and June: Crete, the Peloponnese, the Cyclades, and the Ionian islands are often warm enough for swimming. Wildflowers paint the countryside an array of vibrant hues, and sunny days make for excellent hiking and biking weather.
As locals are not yet on their summer holidays, visiting Greece in May or June will give provide the best of the summer months, without the crowds.
July and August mark Greece’s high season, bringing with them sunnier days, higher temperatures—and plenty of crowds. Greece, and especially the islands’ many white-sand beaches, are undeniably beautiful during the summer, but you will have to share the view with other visitors, locals and tourists alike. Many people flock to islands like Santorini and Mykonos to experience the famed nightlife scene there.
Athens can be stiflingly hot during the summer months, and August can be oppressive throughout the country. But the seas around the islands are at their calmest, and the crystal-clear waters of the Aegean make for a delightful reprieve from the heat.
It’s said that God saved all his blue paint for the Aegean Sea, and after visiting the Greek Islands you’ll be hard pressed to disagree. Though they may be crowded, the islands are at their best in the summer months; if you’re visiting Greece this time of year, you won’t want to miss your chance to soak up the beautiful beaches, sparkling seas, and sunny island life.
If you’d rather skip the crowded beaches and relentless heat, visit Greece in September or October. The days are still warm, there are fewer tourists, but most restaurants, shops, and sites still maintain their summer hours. This is also a great time of year to sample local foods and wine: The grape harvest begins in the fall, and Greek specialties like olives are in their prime.
In the more mountainous areas of northern Greece, fall can bring rain and storms. But in all other areas of the country this is a delightful time to visit.
September and October are generally considered the best time for whale watching in the Aegean Sea. Local sailing competitions add an extra thrill to visits to the coast and islands.
After the autumn leaves fall, November and December bring their characteristic shorter days and chillier temperatures. While the largest and most popular of the Greek Islands (like Santorini and Mykonos) operate year-round, the smaller, less touristy islands all but shut down for the winter months. And in the mountains, snow begins to fall, blanketing the northern regions in festive white.
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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