Things to Do in Greece
Once the glorious capital of Minoan Crete and one of the most powerful cities in the eastern Mediterranean, ancient Knossos is a place steeped in legend. Today, it’s Crete’s largest and most important archaeological site, crowned by the hilltop Palace of Knossos—built around 2000 BC—and revealing a fascinating history that stretches all the way back to the earliest European civilizations.
The “Santorini volcano” may refer to two different peaks: the first, Thira, exploded around 1600 BC and ended the thriving Minoan civilization and may have spawned the legend of Atlantis. Millennia of eruptions formed the second “Santorini volcano”—the island of Nea Kameni, drawing visitors eager to hike to the rim of its active crater.
An archaeological wonder, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the world's most instantly recognizable landmarks, the Acropolis is the star attraction of ancient Athens. Dramatically perched on a jagged clifftop—the so-called sacred rock of Athens—the ruins overlook the modern city and date back to as early as 510 BC.
A regular on lists of the world’s best beaches, Myrtos Beach (Paralía Mirtos) is a 0.5-mile (700-meter) expanse of gleaming white sand curving between two high promontories on Cephalonia’s north coast. While the stunning color comes from rounded pebbles and coarse sand, not fine powder, the view from the blue Ionian Sea is spectacular.
With white sand and marble cliffs, Navagio Beach (Shipwreck Beach)makes a striking setting for swimming and sunbathing. Set on sun-soaked Zakynthos island off the coast of Greece, Navagio Beach is a popular day trip destination. The beach’s centerpiece is a long-abandoned freighter—the remains of a smuggler’s shipwreck—that still languishes on the sands.
The bright turquoise waters of the Greek Islands have inspired many a postcard, but perhaps no spot is more idyllic than Blue Caves of Zakynthos. Visit these sea grottoes, carved by thousands of years of erosion, to bask in the glow of the cobalt-blue water that creates a magical reflection on the caves' pale stone walls.
Chania’s spectacular Venetian Harbour is a symbol of the town’s rich and varied history, built between 1320 and 1356 when it was first under control of the Republic of Venice. Made of butter-colored stone and with its walls stretching for just under a mile (1.5 km), it provided sheltered waters and safe anchorage and was originally a thriving trading port with berthing room for up to 40 galleys. A breakwater was constructed to the north of the harbor to protect the ships from storm damage, and on this St Nicholas Chapel and bastion were built. During Venetian times condemned criminals were executed on this spot. The Firkas Fortress (now the Maritime Museum of Crete) at the entrance to the harbor was built with the dual purpose of safeguarding Chania from invasion and housing Venetian troops.
However the most striking of the edifices along the Venetian Harbour is the lighthouse (no public access), which dates from around 1570 and looms majestically skywards at the harbor entrance to this day. It is Chania’s most-photographed monument and was restored to its original splendor in the 1840s; the lighthouse is magical when illuminated at night.
Today, the Venetian Harbour offers mooring for local fishing boats and pleasure craft; in summer it is a romantic spot to stroll and then enjoy eating and drinking in the many harbor-side restaurants, tavernas and ouzo shops. Even in winter, it’s usually warm enough to sit outside in a café while sipping coffee and enjoying the Cretan sun.
One of a trio of ancient Greek monasteries listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, Hosios Loukas Monastery (Moni Osios Loukas) is exquisite example of a Byzantine-era monastery, now preserved as a museum. Founded in the early 10th-century by the hermit monk Luke Stiris, whose tomb is still housed on the premises, the complex comprises two beautifully conserved churches located in a suitably dramatic setting on the tree-lined slopes of Mount Helicon.
First up is the Katholikón of Ósios Loukás, the larger of the two churches and renowned for its elaborate 11th-century interiors, a masterpiece of colored marble, vivid frescoes and extraordinary mosaics, including icons by 16th-century painter Michael Damaskinos. The neighboring Chapel of Theotókos is Greece’s only remaining 10th-century church and is most impressive from outside, with its classical Byzantine structure and elaborate brickwork.
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.
Thessaloniki is northern Greece’s party town and New Year sees crowds spilling into Aristotelous Square for the countdown to midnight before they pile into late-night clubs and bars to celebrate until sunrise. The square is also a popular spot for social events and festivals throughout the year; during the recent unrest concerning Greece’s financial position within the EU, many protests and political rallies also took place here.
The White Tower (Lefkós Pýrgos) is one of the best-loved buildings in Thessaloniki, a dumpy cylinder topped with turrets that sits at the southern end of the seafront promenade of Nikis Avenue. Thought to have been built on the top of Byzantine remains during the reign of Suleiman I the Magnificent in the mid 15th century, the six-story tower is 40 m (131 ft) high and 23 m (75.5 ft) in diameter, with sturdy stone walls dotted with tiny arrow slits. Originally it formed part of the city’s fortifications and was used by Thessaloniki’s Turkish invaders as a place of public execution. Since then the tower served as a communications center in World War I and later as a meteorological laboratory. Three more towers and a defense wall were knocked down after the fire of 1917, and its current use is as a visitor center with an exhibition detailing the turbulent history of the city. A viewing platform at the top of the tower looks out over the sea in one direction and the rooftops of Thessaloniki to the other.
One of the most popular evening pastimes for Thessaloniki locals is the waterside stroll up Nikis Avenue, starting at the old port and winding up in front of the White Tower.
More Things to Do in Greece
Discover archaeological ruins and ancient Greek history during a trip to Delos, an island in the Cyclades, near Mykonos. Known as the mythological birthplace of Apollo, Delos was an important religious and cultural center in Ancient Greece. Visit to see the ruins, including a theater, temples, monuments, private homes, and markets.
The Theatre of Epidaurus 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.
In terms of its architecture, structure, and acoustics, Epidaurus is widely regarded as the best ancient theater in Greece. In fact, its extraordinary acoustics mean that all 14,000 spectators situated in its semi-circular seating arrangement can hear every note played and every word spoken – even from the highest seats up on the 54th tier.
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 true showstoppers, however, are the grave circles, believed to be the burial sites of Mycenaean royalty thanks to the numerous precious gold, silver, bronze and ivory artifacts excavated around the tombs, including a gold funerary mask Schliemann believed to be the mask of Agamemnon. Many antiquities discovered at Mycenae are now on show at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens but the smart, white museum next to the citadel still has three halls stuffed with pottery, burial urns, clay figurines, fragments of fresco and a replica of the death mask of Agamemnon. A model of the ancient site can be found just outside the museum.
Crete is renowned for being a divinely sun-baked Greek Island, boasting great beaches and hot weather—but it’s less known for its spectacular White Mountains (Lefka Ori). Found in the west of the island, the mountains are a paradise for hikers and nature spotters when not dusted with snow in winter and early spring.
Perching on the end of the breakwater, the Venetian Lighthouse is the most striking of all the buildings around Chania’s imperious Venetian Harbour, and was constructed around 1570 when the town was under control of the Republic of Venice. It is one of the oldest lighthouses in the world and its spindly, butter-colored stone tower stretches up 69 feet (21 m) high. Last renovated in 2006, the tower was modified several times in the intervening centuries, gaining the mini-minaret above its light in 1839, when Ottoman Turks occupied Crete.
Although it’s no longer operational and closed to the public, the lighthouse is the landmark building in Chania and has an unusual three-part construction; its base has eight sides and its middle section has 16, while its upper reaches are circular. There’s an enjoyable stroll along the walls of the Venetian Harbour to admire its spectacular architecture and this is a romantic spot to linger when it’s illuminated after dark; better still, enjoy the view over an ouzo in one of Chania’s many harbour-side tavernas.
With shallow waters, pale pink-tinted sands, and sweeping dunes, Elafonisi is frequently and deservedly listed among Europe’s best beaches. The beach is connected to a protected island nature reserve, which is home to a variety of rare plants and animals, including loggerhead sea turtles.
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 and 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. Restoration
took several decades and the church finally reopened in 1949, with only a few surviving relics of its original decoration, including the glittering seventh-century mosaics around the altar. The subterranean crypt was rediscovered after the 1917 fire and houses the silver reliquary of St Dimitrios as well as a museum showcasing early Christian and Byzantine sculptures, coins and fragments of pottery rescued from the blaze.
Santorini’s Red Beach is not your average white-sand beauty. Rather, it’s a narrow, pebbly stretch hemmed in by high scarlet cliffs and scattered with large volcanic rocks. Together with the sapphire blue waters of the Aegean Sea, these volcanic features create a striking natural color palette that draws photographers to its shores.
Situated in Chora Mykonos (aka Mykonos Town), the waterfront quarter of Little Venice is one of the island’s top sunset-viewing spots. Rows of whitewashed old fishermen’s houses—now occupied by bars, shops, and restaurants—back onto the seafront, their brightly painted red and blue balconies jutting out over the water.
Delphi, with its remarkably preserved ruins dotted along the southern slopes of Mount Parnassus, is one of Greece’s most famous archaeological site. Dating back to the seventh century BC, the ancient city of Delphi is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to sites such as the Sacred Way, Stoa of the Athenians, polygonal wall, monument of Platea, and Temple of Apollo.
Built as a summer residence by Empress Elisabeth of Austria in 1890, Achilleion Palace in the village of Gastouri is among the top attractions on the island of Corfu. Visit the palace designed by Italian architect Raffaello Caritto in a Pompeian style to see paintings and sculptures of mythical gods, including art dedicated to Achilles.
The Agora was the political and social heart of the ancient city of Athens, and the ruins of this civic center and marketplace are among the most important archaeological sites in today’s capital. Explore this cradle of Greek democracy, including the Temple of Hephaestus and Stoa of Attalos.
Athenian rulers began construction of the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Naós tou Olympíou Diós) in the sixth century BC. By the time Roman Emperor Hadrian completed it 600 years later, it was the largest temple in Greece, and its statue of Zeus—king of the gods of Mt. Olympus—was one of the largest in the world. The temple began to fall into ruin shortly after it was finished; today only 15 of its original 104 columns still stand and much of its marble has been recycled or stolen for other temples. Nonetheless, what remains is a truly impressive sight to see.
Perched on the steep edge of the caldera, looking out over the glittering Mediterranean, Oia (pronounced “ee-yuh”) is famed for its dreamy sunsets. Oia is also one of the most picturesque villages in Santorini, with its striking white buildings, blue-domed churches, and atmospheric cave houses burrowing into the volcanic rock.
- 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 Thessaloniki
- Things to do in Chania
- Things to do in Corinth
- Things to do in Albania
- Things to do in Macedonia
- Things to do in Cyclades Islands
- Things to do in Macedonia
- Things to do in Dodecanese