Things to Do in Greece
The best place to capture the mystery and magic of Crete’s ancient Minoan civilization is the ruins of Knossos, just outside Heraklion. The secrets of this enigmatic civilization were only unraveled in the 20th century, by the man who would go on to restore the palace ruins, Sir Arthur Evans.
The Palace of Knossos was built at the height of the Minoans’ glory, in around 3400 to 2100 BC, reflecting their wealth and sophistication. Best known for their incredibly naturalistic frescos and exquisite ceramics, the Minoans traded with other contemporary great powers in Egypt and Asia Minor.
The original palace was destroyed by an earthquake in around 1700 BC, and a more sophisticated complex was built over the ruins. Knossos was eventually destroyed by fire in 1400 BC.
Minoan pottery, jewelry, frescos and sarcophagi from Knossos are displayed in Heraklion at its fabulous archaeological museum.
The volcanic eruption of Thira that put an end to the thriving Minoan civilization was so cataclysmic, it may have spawned the legend of Atlantis.
The explosion occurred around 3600 years ago, scooping out the once-circular island’s center and west coast, and creating the sea-filled caldera and signature sheer cliffs where Santorini’s townships teeter today. Since then, there have been perhaps a dozen major eruptions.
The volcano is quiet today, though the nearby island of Nea Kameni in the center of the caldera still emits puffs of steam. It’s thanks to the caldera that towns like Oia boast such stunning sunsets, providing a low-lying, obstruction-free observation point as the sun sinks into the sea.
The Acropolis (Akropolis) means 'city on a hill' and dates from the 5th century BC. Dominated by its main temple, the Parthenon, the Acropolis can be seen from all around the city of Athens. In 510 BC, the Delphic Oracle told Pericles that this hill should be a place to worship the gods so he set about an ambitious building project which took half a century and employed both Athenians and foreigners. It reflects the wealth and power of Greece at the height of its cultural and influence.
Even now, the Classical architecture of the temples influences the building styles of our modern cities. But the thick pollution of Athens has taken its toll on the gleaming white marble of which the temples are made, as have souvenir-hunters, including the British Government who still have the famous Elgin Marbles (a frieze from the Parthenon) in the British Museum. These days the area is heavily protected, undergoing restoration, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tucked into an isolated cove on the northern coast of Zakynthos (also called Zante) in the Ionian Islands, Navagio Beach is one of the biggest visitor attractions on the island. Already beautiful and shaded by dramatic marble-white cliffs, it acquired its notoriety in October 1980, when a freighter that was being chased by the Greek Navy ran aground there and was abandoned. Today the Panagiotis still languishes in the soft sandy bay, slowly sinking, rusting and gathering a coat of graffiti under the steep white limestone cliffs that protect the beach.
Thanks to its popularity and despite the fact that it can only be reached from the sea, Navagio Beach gets packed with day-trippers and tourist boats in high season; to escape the crowds try to visit early in the morning or in late afternoon. There are no facilities whatsoever at the beach, so at the height of summer take umbrellas for shade, water and sun cream as well as picnic supplies.
Archaeological buffs and lovers of legends mustn’t miss the trip to the sacred island of Delos. On Delos, the archaeological jewel of the Cyclades, you can see firsthand where the ancients lived and clamber over the ruins they left behind. Held sacred as the mythological birthplace of Apollo, Delos was at the heart of the ancient world as an important religious and commercial center, reaching its zenith in the Hellenic period around the 5th century BC.
The huge site sprawls along the island’s west coast, from the stadium in the north to the old trading warehouses to the south. Standouts include the Sanctuary of Apollo temples and the Terrace of the Lions. The remains of private houses surround the semicircular Theatre, and the site includes several agoras, monuments, sanctuaries and temples. You can see finds from the excavations at the site museum, including the original lions from the much-photographed Terrace of the Lions.
The hub of civic activity in Thessaloniki is Aristotelous Square, which was designed by French architect Ernest Hébrard in 1918 after the devastating fire of 1917 that destroyed much of the city center. Sitting on the waterfront just off Nikis Avenue, the square was designed to mimic the vast and grandiose open plazas found in many European maritime cities – such as the Praca do Comercio in Lisbon – and to move away from the chaotic layout of Ottoman Thessaloniki towards an ordered town development plan. Today most of the monumental mansions that line the piazza were rebuilt in the 1950s and renovated again in the early 21st century. It is one of the biggest and most impressive squares in Greece, offering a view of Thermaikos Gulf to the southwest and up the grand boulevard of Aristotelous to the gardens of Platia Dikastirion.
More Things to Do in Greece
If you came to Santorini for the sunsets, the town of Oia is where you want to be when the sun sinks towards the horizon to such glorious effect.
Perched on the steep edge of the caldera, with open views of the sea, the village is quieter than the island’s main town, Fira, at least outside sunset hours.
A string of tavernas turn their faces to the caldera for those views, and it’s fun exploring the town’s tiny backstreets and rocky cliff face, where homes have been carved from the volcanic rock.
There’s some seriously chic boutique accommodations in Oia, complete with infinity pools and spas. The lucky people staying on for the evening dine in Oia’s gourmet restaurants, perched on terraces to catch the best views. Follow the 300 steps leading from the top of the caldera and you reach the fishing port of Ammoudi. Boats sail from here to the nearby island of Thirassia.
Squeezed between two hills on the arid plains of the northeastern Peloponnese, fortified Mycenae was the major settlement in the powerful Mycenaean civilization that held political and cultural sway over the Eastern Mediterranean from the 15th to the 12th century BC. The Bronze Age city is regarded as the home of the legendary Agamemnon and is UNESCO World Heritage-listed for its profound cultural influence upon later Greek civilizations.Covering around 32 hectares and at its peak with a population of around 30,000, the ruins at Mycenae were excavated in 1874 by Heinrich Schliemann, who also worked at Troy. Highlights include the Lion Gate, the main entrance into the citadel carved with figures of mythical lions; the Treasury of Atreus – also known as the Tomb of Agamemnon; the scant remains of the Royal Palace; and the Cyclopean Walls, whose massive stone blocks are all that remain of the original fortifications.
The Epidaurus Theater is a stunningly well-preserved ancient theater constructed in the 4th century BC. It was built by the architect Polykleitos on the side of a mountain and merges perfectly into the surrounding landscape of undulating hills, overlooking the Sanctuary of Asklepius. For centuries, Epidaurus Theater remained covered by trees, until excavations revealed the ancient monument towards the end of the 19th century. Despite repairs and restorations over the years, particularly to the seats, the stage itself has been retained as it was since ancient times. Today, the theater is a popular venue for the annual Athens Festival productions, which are held here every summer.
Thessaloniki is home to one of the world’s largest caches of Byzantine architectural treasures, thanks to the city being ruled by Constantinople from the fifth century AD to the 13th. The empire’s legacy can be seen in what’s left of the city walls; in the many Byzantine churches; in Latomou Monastery and, most importantly, in the church and crypt of Ayios Dimitrios. Named after the city’s patron saint, the Christian martyr Dimitrios, the church started life as a small temple – itself built over the remains of a Roman baths complex – in the fourth century under Byzantine rule it took its present shape as a five-aisled basilica, built of stone with layers of arcaded windows and two stumpy towers. In the Middle Ages Thessaloniki became part of the Ottoman Empire; in 1493 Ayios Dimitrios was transformed into a mosque and its original Christian frescoes and mosaics were plastered over. It remained a mosque until the liberation of the city in 1912, but burnt down five years later.
Most of Santorini’s pocket-sized beaches are made of dark volcanic sand and pebbles set against black, austere cliffs, but perhaps its most unusual beach is near the Minoan ruins at Akrotíri on the south coast. Aptly named Red Beach (‘Kokkini Ammos’ in Greek) for its blood-red sand and gently crumbling burnt-umber cliffs, the crescent of beach forms a bizarre Martian landscape of red and black lava boulders scattered over grainy red and black sand. Rocks thrown up by ancient volcanic activity lurk just offshore in the calm bay, forming perfect platforms for sun worshippers, and the crystal-clear waters are paradise for snorkelers.
Open-topped wooden boats, known as kaiks, trundle backwards and forwards between Red Beach and Akrotíri disgorging a constant stream of visitors.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus (or Olympieio) has been a ruin almost since it was built. The Athenian rulers who began its construction in the 6th century BC set out to build the greatest temple in the world, but it was not actually finished until about the 2nd century AD (over 600 years late!) by the Roman emperor Hadrian. By then it was the largest temple in Greece, bigger than the Parthenon. In the 3rd century AD it was looted by barbarians and its glory days were over. Since then it has slowly fallen into ruin.
The temple was dedicated to the worship of Zeus, king of the gods of Mount Olympus, and once contained a massive statue of the god. Of this, there is no trace and only fifteen of its original 104 columns still stand. Over the centuries much of its marble has been recycled or stolen for other temples, or perhaps, over the centuries, a bit of garden paving.
Delphi is the second-most important archeological site in Greece (after the Acropolis in Athens). In ancient times Delphi was considered the place where heaven and earth met so the gods were close-by. Established around the 7th century BC, Delphi was a sanctuary to the god Apollo. It was here that the Oracle of Delphi was situated, the most trusted oracle in the ancient world from which the spirit of Apollo gave advice on everything from domestic matters to wars.
Delphi had a theatre and temples as well as the oracle, and has a well preserved stadium which once held chariot races. These were excavated from the mid-1800s and today the ruins stand impressively in their mountain landscape. Many believe the place to have a special magic and report being moved spiritually when visiting Delphi. Ancient engravings on the stone such as 'Know Thyself' and 'Nothing in Excess' could be from today's self-help movement.
Little Venice is a tiny quarter of trendy boutiques, churches and whitewashed fishermen’s houses lining the seafront in Mykonos’ Old Town. Flowering bougainvillea adds a touch of crimson to the bright white walls, and wooden balconies painted in trademark Grecian colors of blue and rust hang over the narrow streets.
Just south of the Old Jetty at the entrance to Little Venice, stands the rocklike Church of Panagia Paraportiani, while the town’s iconic row of hilltop windmills overlook the quarter. Come to Little Venice at dusk to capture postcard shots of a Mykonos sunset, and stay on into the evening at a waterfront taverna.
- Things to do in Athens
- Things to do in Santorini
- Things to do in Rhodes
- Things to do in Mykonos
- Things to do in Heraklion
- Things to do in Katakolo
- Things to do in Kos
- Things to do in Ios
- Things to do in Thessaloniki
- Things to do in Chania
- Things to do in Albania
- Things to do in Macedonia
- Things to do in Macedonia
- Things to do in Cyclades Islands
- Things to do in Dodecanese