Greece (Ελλάς, Hellas)  is a country in Southern Europe, on the southernmost tip of the Balkan peninsula, with extensive coastlines and islands in the Aegean, Ionian, and Mediterranean Seas. It shares borders in the north with Albania, the FYROM, Bulgaria, and Turkey. It has an ancient culture that has had a significant influence on the arts, language, philosophy, politics, and sports of western society, including the genres of comedy and drama, western alphabets, Platonic ideals and the Socratic method, democracies and republics, and the Olympics. Furthermore it's a geographically appealing place to visit, with a mountainous mainland and idyllic island beaches.
Roughly counterclockwise from the northeast:
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Major cities include:
Greece is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, ranking in the world's top 20 countries. According to the greek Ministry of Tourism, the nation received about 17 million visitors from January to mid August 2007, a large number for a small country of 11 million. Visitors are drawn to the country's beaches and reliable sunny summer weather, its nightlife, historical sites and natural beauty.
Over 90% of visitors who come to Greece come from other European countries, although in recent years there have been growing numbers of tourists from other world regions. The vast majority of visitors arrive during tourism season, which is April through October. Peak season is July through August, and most of the tourists and tourism industry are concentrated in Crete, the Dodecanese Islands, the Cycladic Islands, the Ionian Islands, and to a lesser extent: the Peloponnese region and the Halkidiki peninsula in Makedonía region. There are still many rewarding areas in the country free of large-scale tourism.
Many first-time visitors arrive in Greece with specific images in mind and are surprised to discover a country with such regional and architectural diversity. The famous whitewashed homes and charming blue-domed churches only characterize a specific region of the country (the Cycladic islands). Architecture varies greatly from one region to the next depending on the local history. Visitors will find Neoclassical architecture in the cities of Ermoupolis and Nafplio, Ottoman-influenced buildings in Grevená and Kozáni, whitewashed Cycladic homes on the island of Páros, and pastel-colored baroque homes and churches on Corfu. The nation's terrain is just as varied as its architectural heritage: idyllic beaches, towering mountain ranges, wine-producing valleys, vast stretches of olive orchards in the south, and lush forests in the north. Greece's historical sights are just as varied; the country is littered with just as many medieval churches and castles as classical ruins and temples.
Greece boasts a very long history, with the Greek language being present in the country for nearly 4,000 years.
The country's first inhabitants are now referred to as the Pelasgians. Little is known about them, but it is believed that they were a primitive people. The first advanced civilizations to live in Greece were the Cycladic Civilization -who inhabited most of the Cycladic Islands- and the Minoan Civilization, who inhabited the islands of Crete and Santoríni. The Minoans had developed a written language which remains undecipherable to modern-day archaeologists.
Greek-speaking Indo-European peoples arrived in the country from somewhere to the north, around 1700 BC, and slowly invaded the entire country from the north all the way to Crete, as well as the west coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey), absorbing the native peoples. These invaders all spoke various early dialects of Greek and were divided into a number of tribes (the Achaeans, Ionians, Dorians, and others), each which arrived in the country at different time intervals. Their arrival may have been responsible for ending the Cycladic and Minoan civilizations and brought the country into what is now referred to as the Dark Age of ancient Greece; although it is now understood among historians that civilization in Greece remained sophisticated and advanced during this time. The first Greek-speaking civilization, the Mycenean Civilization, centered in the Peloponnese region, was prominent during this time period.
The rise of the Greek city-states occurred sometime around 1200 to 800 BC and heralded the Golden Age of Greece which lasted many centuries and spurred several scientific, architectural, political, economic, artistic, and literary achievements. Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes were the most prominent of the city-states (with Athens being the most prestigious), but there were several other advanced city-states and colonies that had developed across the Aegean basin. Greek settlements were also established in southern Italy and other coastal areas of the Mediterranean colonized by Greeks. The legacy of Greek Civilization from this time period made a major impact on the world and continues to influence us to this day.
Hellenistic and Roman eras
The epicentre of Greek Civilization shifted, during the 4th century BC, from southern Greece to northern Greece. The northern Macedonian kingdom, under Alexander the Great, conquered all of Greece, and proceeded eastward, creating an empire all the way to South Asia with the stated intent of spreading Greek Civilization. The empire eventually broke up, and Greece was eventually annexed by the growing Roman Empire. Although weakened politically, Greek Civilization continued to flourish under Roman rule and heavily influenced Roman culture.
Arrival of Christianity and rise of Byzantine Empire
Christianity arrived in Greece with the preachings of St. Paul during the 1st century AD, and eventually spread throughout Greece and the Roman Empire. In the 4th century, Roman Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christian worship and declared it the state religion of the empire. He moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (present-day Istanbul), which he renamed Constantinople. Internal divisions eventually divided the Roman Empire into a western half (the West Roman Empire) and an eastern half (East Roman Empire.) The West was eventually invaded and sacked by invaders from northern Europe, while the East survived for another millenium as the Byzantine Empire with Constantinople as its capital.
Greece's medieval history is dominated by the Byzantine Empire which revolved around Christianity, Greek Language and Civilization, and Roman law. It was a powerful force in the Mediterranean basin for centuries, engaging in trade, politics, and the spread of Christianity. The empire collaborated with Rome during the Crusades against the Muslims. However, during the 13th century, the Crusaders turned on the Byzantine Empire itself and sacked Constantinople. With a weakened Byzantine Empire, Frankish and Latin invaders arrived and occupied various parts of Greece. Over the following centuries, the Byzantine Empire began to regain strength and reconquer lost territory, but received a final blow in the 15th century when a growing Ottoman Turkish Empire to the east conquered Constantinople.
With the sacking of Constantinople, Greece fell under Ottoman Turkish rule, but vigorously retained its Greek-speaking Christian culture. Howewever, many Greeks fled the country, establishing Greek communities elsewhere in Europe; these communities would later influence the Greek Revolution.
Enlightenment and revolution
The Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice competed with the Ottoman Turks for control of various areas of Greece and managed to conquer various islands and coastal areas, bringing pan-European movements such as the Rennaissance (and later the Enlightenment) to places in Greece such as Crete, Corfu, and parts of the Peloponnese region. In the 18th century, the Enlightement, both in Venetian/Genoese-occupied areas of Greece and from Greek communities abroad, led to an awakening among prominent Greeks and gave birth to the goal of an independent, unified, and sovereign Greek state. The Greek Revolution finally broke out on the 25th of March, 1821, and led to a long war against the Ottomans for independence. The Greek Revolution gained attention across Europe, with Russia, Britain, and France sending military aid to assist Greece.
19th Century to Mid-20th
The nation finally achieved its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829. The newly-independent Greek State was briefly a republic, before becoming a monarchy at the will of major European powers. During the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Greece gradually annexed neighboring islands and territories with Greek-speaking populations. The country sided with the allies during WWI. Despite declaring neutrality during WWII, the country was invaded by Mussolini's military in 1941. Greek forces victoriously pushed the Italians out of Greece, but the Germans then came to their aid, occupying the country until its liberation toward the end of the war. Civil war broke out in 1947 between communist rebels and royalists. The communist rebels were defeated by the royalists in 1949. WWII and the civil war that followed had left the country war-torn, forcing several people to flee the country in search of a better life abroad.
Greece joined NATO in 1952; rapid economic growth and social change followed. A right-wing military dictatorship staged a coup in 1967, suspending political liberties and forcing many prominent Greeks into exile. King Constantine II and his family also fled the country. Democracy returned in 1974, and a national referendum abolished the monarchy, creating a parliamentary republic.
Greece joined the European Community or EC in 1981, which later became the European Union (EU) in 1992. The country's tourism industry which had begun to take off during the 1960s, bagan to flourish, bringing 5 million annual visitors to the country in 1980 (a figure that will eventually grow to over 17 million by 2007). The country suffered serious economic stagnation in the 1980s, but began to experience remarkable economic growth in the 1990s, fueled by heavy investment, entrepreneurship, trade, and EU aid. By the early 21st century, the Greeks have achieved a stable and prosperous nation, with a high standard of living. An influx of immigrants began in the late 1980s, transforming Greece, once an immigrant-sender, into an immigrant-receiving country. Foreign-born residents, most of them undocumented and coming from various parts of the world (Eastern and Central Europe, Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa) are estimated to number at least 1 million, or equivalent to 10% of the population. In 2004, the nation stepped into global spotlight as it successfully hosted the Summer Olympic Games in Athens, to the defiance of critics.
Despite its small size, Greece has a varied climate.
Most of the country, including all coastal areas, enjoys a so-called Mediterranean climate, almost identical to much of California. Summers are hot and dry with a 7-month period of near-constant sunshine generally from April until November. The remainder of the year is characterized by a relatively cold, rainy period which generally starts sometime in November and lasts until late March or early April. Sporadic rains do occur during the dry season, but they tend to be rare, quick showers. The country’s Ionian Coast and Ionian Islands tend to receive more annual precipitation than the rest of the country. The islands in the southern Aegean and parts of the southeastern mainland are the driest areas of the country.
The most pleasant weather occurs in May-June and September-October. The warmest time of the year starts in mid-July and generally lasts until mid-August, when the annual meltémi winds from the north cool the country. Mid-July to mid-August is the height of summer, and the midday sun tends to get very strong; during this time, most Greeks avoid heavy physical activity outdoors between 1:00 and 5:00 PM. It is best advised to get in tune with the local way of life by waking up early, doing all sightseeing and errands in the cool morning hours, and then spending the afternoon in the relaxing shade or at the beach. In fact, the bulk of tourists arrive in Greece during the height of summer, to do just that!
Summer evenings tend to be very rewarding. As strong as the sun may get on a summer afternoon, the low levels of atmospheric humidity in most areas of the country prevent the air from trapping much heat, and temperatures tend to dip to very pleasant levels in the evenings. But even during midday, high temperatures actually tend to be quite comfortable as long as the time is not spent doing a lot of walking or other physical activity. (Athens, however, can still be uncomfortably warm during summer afternoons due to the predominance of concrete in the city, an effect similar to New York City.) Coastal areas near open waters (away from tightly-closed bays and gulfs) especially on many of the islands, tend to be quite breezy, and can be quite cold at night.
While the Mediterranean climate characterizes most of the country, there are two other climate systems that are present. One is the cool Alpine climate which is found on mountainous areas of the country's interior, including many high-altitude valleys. Another system is the Continental climate found on the interiors of north-central and northeastern Greece, and gives those areas very cold winters and warm, relatively humid summers.
Holidays and festivals
The following are national public holidays:
The nation's three most important holidays are Christmas, Easter, and the Assumption. Christmas tends to be a private, family holiday, but lights and decorations adorn city squares across the country. Assumption Day is a major summer festival for many towns and islands. Easter weekend is perhaps the most flamboyant of all holidays; religious processions on Good Friday and the following Saturday evening culminate in exuberant fireworks at midnight, Easter morning.
Although not an official holiday, pre-Lenten carnival -or apókries- is a major celebration in cities throughout the country, with Patras hosting the country's largest and most famous events. Carnival season comes to an extravagent ending the weekend before Lent begins, with costumes, float parades, and various regional traditions.
In addition to nation-wide holidays and celebrations, many towns and regions have their own regional festivals commemorating various historical events, local patron saints, or wine harvests.
Contrary to most national holidays in other countries, Independence Day in Greece is a very sober holiday.
Note that the method used by Greek Orthodox Church to determine the dates for Holy Week and Easter are different than that used by the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches. Therefore, Greek Orthodox Holy Week and Easter usually fall on a slightly later date than their Protestant and Roman Catholic counterparts, but they do frequently coincide (as was the case for 2007).
Passport and visa requirements
Greece is both a member of the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA). All EU nationals (including citizens of new member states) may enter Greece with a valid national ID card; this includes non-member states affiliated with the European Union, such as Monaco and Andorra. Citizens from EEA states that are not members of the EU (such as Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland), may also enter Greece with a valid national ID card.
A valid passport is required of all non-EU and non-EEA nationals, and most are also required to obtain a visa. Citizens of select countries, including Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Hong Kong SAR, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, and the United States, are allowed a 90-day visa-free stay. Citizens of Brazil and Uruguay are allowed a 60-day visa-free stay. For the most recent information on entry requirements, contact your nearest Greek consulate.
Greece is a signatory of the Schengen agreement along with Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Iceland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden. There are no passport checks when traveling between any two Schengen countries. A non-Schengen national who plans on visiting multiple Schengen countries -and who needs a tourist visa to visit them- may do so on just one visa from one Schengen country; but he is best advised to specifically obtain the visa for the first country he will be visiting.
Athens' Elefthérios Venizélos International Airport (located near the Athens suburb of Spáta), is the country's largest, busiest airport and main hub, handling over 15 million passengers annually as of 2006. Other major international airports in terms of passenger traffic are, in order of passengers served per year, Heraklion (Nikos Kazantzákis Int'l), Thessaloniki (Makedonia Int'l), Rhodes (Diagóras), and Corfu (Ioánnis Kapodístrias).
Athens and Thessaloníki handle the bulk of scheduled international flights. However, during tourism season, several charter and planned low-budget flights arrive daily from many European cities to many of the islands and smaller cities on the mainland.
Olympic Airlines, the nation's flag carrier, offers service to Greece from several cities in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and North America. Aegean Airlines, which owns half the the domestic market, also operates a number of international routes to Greece from various European cities. Athens is also well-served by airlines from all over Europe, the Middle East, North America, and Southeast Asia, with flights to their respective hubs.
The presence of low-cost carriers in Greece's international market has increased tenfold within the past decade, offering service to Athens and Thessaloníki from several other European locations, such as Easyjet (from London Gatwick, London Luton, Milan, Paris and Berlin), SkyEurope (Vienna, Bratislava, Prague, Budapest and Krakow), Virgin Express (flying from Brussels), Transavia (Amsterdam), German Wings (Cologne/Bonn and Stuttgart), Hemus Air (Sofia), Sterling (Copenhagen, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Oslo), LTU (Düsseldorf), Alpi Eagles (Venice), Norwegian Air (Warsaw, Katowice and Krakow), Wizzair (Katowice and Prague), and FlyGlobeSpan (Glasgow).
Thessaloniki is Greece's hub for international rail service. Trains connect Thessaloníki to Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest, Istanbul, and other international cities.
Greece can be entered by automobile from any of its land neighbors. From Italy, ferries will transport cars to Greece. From western Europe, the most popular route to Greece was through Yugoslavia. Following the troubles in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, most motorists from western Europe came overland by Italy, and then took a trans-Adriatic ferry from there. Although the countries of the former Yugoslavia have since stabilized, and Hungary-Romania-Bulgaria form another, albeit a mugh longer, alternative, the overland route through Italy now remains the most popular option.
There is some, albeit limited, international bus service to neighboring Albania, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
From Italy, several ferries depart for Greece daily. Ferries to Patras (Pátra), Igoumenítsa, and Corfu (Kérkyra) leave throughout the year from the Italian port cities of Venice, Trieste, Ancona, Bari and Brindisi. For more information on Italy-Greece ferries, see www.greekferries.gr.
By bus and train
Intercity buses are a very popular option for domestic travel. KTEL is the national government-subsidized network of independent businesses which cooperate together to form a dense route system serving almost the entire country. The system is efficient, reliable, and relatively inexpensive. It serves both long and short distances, including routes from major cities to islands near the mainland, such as Corfu and Cephalonia (in such cases, the ferry crossing is included in the price of the bus ticket).
Trains are another inexpensive way to get around, but the national rail system (OSE) is extremely limited. This is due to neglect after the arrival of large scale automobile use and air travel, and also due to past technological difficulties in surmounting the country's difficult terrain. The importance of rail travel is now being rediscovered, and the national rail network is currently under major renovation. The project's completion is still a long way off, but visitors can already benefit from the first sections of the modernized rail system that have been inaugurated. An entirely new suburban/regional rail system, the Proastiakos, has been opened in 2004 for Attica and adjacent regions and is under further expansion. There has also been extensive (and continuing) modernization of the Athens-Thessaloníki corridor, with travel times being slashed.
Exploring the country by automobile can be an extremely rewarding experience, allowing you to explore the incredibly scenic and varied terrain of the country's coastlines, interior, and islands, at your convenience. However, Greece does have a relatively high road fatality rate, among the highest in the European Union. Many Greek drivers tend to drive aggressively, and the nation's topographic reality poses challenges by forcing many narrow roads in mountainous regions to take several twists and turns. On the plus side, the road fatality rate has been steadily declining as a result of government campaigns, tougher policing, and lawmaking.
Roads are usually well-marked and well-maintained, and billions of Euros are being poured into expanding the nation's network of multi-lane freeways. Because of the rapid expansion and improvement of the nation's road system, it is advised to have the most updated road map(s) possible. Many of the newer motorways are toll roads, and fees can be expensive. Road signs in Greek are usually repeated with a transliterated version in the Latin alphabet.
For those used to driving in North America, secondary Greek roads, particularly in towns and villages, can seem surprisingly narrow. If cars meet on a narrow stretch of road it is customary for one driver to find a spot to pull over and let the other driver pass. At times, one driver will need to back up for the other. Adherence to this practice is expected and failure to do so will bring the ire of your fellow drivers. Because of this, and also because there are often pedestrians in the roadway, drive slowly through villages and small towns.
Another major difference between driving in North America and Greece is the range of speeds at which vehicles travel, particularly on the highways. While speed limits are as high as 120 kph (75 mph), some vehicles will be traveling as slowly as 60 kph (40 mph). Other vehicles will travel at speeds well in excess of the posted limits and can come up from behind very quickly. It is advisable to drive in the left-most lane only to pass slower vehicles.
Automobile rental agencies are present throughout the country, especially in major cities and in highly touristed areas. The automobiles offered are overwhelmingly manual transmission; automatics do exist, but it is advised to reserve one in advance. Gasoline/petrol prices are steep, but relatively inexpensive in comparison with many other EU countries. Some automobile rental agencies and insurance policies do not allow taking the car out of the country.
Drivers who do not hold an EU driver's certificate must carry a international driver's permit obtained in their home country. This may not be required when renting a car, but will certainly be required if involved in an accident or pulled over by the police for a traffic citation. Insurance policies may be void if the driver is a non-EU driver without an international permit.
To get to the islands you will mostly have to take a ferry. There are extensive connections from Athens and in-between islands for "hopping." Ferries are about the one thing in Greece that leave on time so BE PROMPT. In August, ferries fill up due to the National Holiday (Aug 15) so plan ahead. New "fast ferries" are cutting distance times in half but prices are slightly more expensive. Sometimes, it is more practical to fly, especially to Crete or Rhodes. However, flights are usually more expensive. Santorini is 8 hour slow boat from Athens but the entrance view from the boat is spectacular.
There are two ports in Athens: the main port Piraeus and outlying Rafina. These serve all islands, but northern islands such as Lesvos, it is better to leave from Rafina. An up-to-date site with domestic ferry schedules is here.
Typical travel times, slow boat from Piraeus: Athens-Paros = 4 hours, Athens-Mykonos = 5.5 hours, Athens-Santorini = 8 hours, Athens-Heraklion = 9 hours,
See also Continental Greece in ten days
The nation's domestic air travel industry is dominated by state-owned Olympic Airlines and its growing competitor, Aegean Airlines. Both airlines offer an extensive route network within the country, including service connecting several islands to the mainland.
Aegean Airlines and more recently, Olympic Airlines offer E-tickets, which only exist as an e-mail or a web page with booking confirmation. It should be provided printed at the check-in desk at the airport (no need to visit airline office).
There are many taxis in Greece, but in the large cities, Athens in particular, getting one can be quite a challenge! Taxi drivers are known for being quite rude and not taking you if they feel like it. You hail taxis like in any other large city, but in Athens many taxis will refuse to take you if they don't like your destination. If you need a taxi during rush hour, it can be next to impossible to find one going outside the perimeter of Athens(they all say they are going home, or worse, they ignore you). If you want to go to a beach in the southern suburbs such as Glyfada, what I have found helpful in a moment of desperation is to find a hotel and get a taxi from there, much easier. A word about luggage and transport from the airport. Most taxis will not take more than three people but will load their trunks with luggage hanging out if need be since the cars can be very small. If you need a taxi from the ferry at night from Pireaus, well all I can say is good luck. The drivers who wait outside are looking to take at least three different individuals going in the same direction so they can charge three fares! I found if you are two or three people, only one person should hail the cab and then if he agrees to take you, have the other(s) jump in. The taxi situation has improved since the Olympics when they retrained all the drivers to be more polite, but getting a cab in Athens can still be a real pain in the neck!
Greek is the national official language and is the native tongue of the vast majority of the population. Foreign languages are widely studied, and most Greeks have some command of one or more foreign languages. English is the most widely studied and understood of foreign languages, followed by French, Italian, and German. Basic knowledge of English can be expected from almost all personnel in the tourism industry and public transport services, as well as most Greeks under the age of 40. However, learning a few Greek terms, such as "hello" and "thank you" will be warmly received.
The Latin and Cyrillic alphabets were derived from the the Greek alphabet and about half of Greek letters look like their Latin counterparts, and most Greek letters resembles its Cyrillic counterparts. With a bit of study it's not too hard to decipher written names, and common terms such as "hotel", "cafeteria", etc. And you'll find that place names on road signs throughout the country are often transliterated into Latin letters (some signs, especially on the newer roads, are even outright translated into English).
Other Balkan languages such can be useful, especially in the north; Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Romanian,Bulgarian and Macedonian are widely understood, although most don't always give a warm reception, especially on those with vivid memories of the Civil War of the 1946-1949.
Greece's official currency is the euro (€), which replaced the drachma in January 2002.
Currency exchanges are common particularly in larger cities and in any touristed area. In addition to hard currency, they also accept traveler's checks. There are also automated currency exchange machines in some areas of the country, particularly at Athens airport. The National Bank of Greece NBG (Ethnikí Trápeza Elládos), the country's largest commercial bank, will also exchange euros for some currencies -such as the US Dollar and British Pound- often times at better rates than currency exchanges. Other commercial banks, such as Alpha Bank may also exchange currency, but only for account-holding customers.
You may get better exchange rates by using credit and ATM cards. Mastercard, Visa, and Eurocard are widely accepted across the country in retail stores, hotels, and travel/transportation agencies (including ferry, airline, and car rental agencies), but are not accepted at some restaurants. Local souveneir shops usually require a minimum purchase before allowing you to use your card and may not accept it for special sales or deeply discounted items. ATM machines are present almost everywhere, with Mastercard/Cirrus and Visa/Plus being the most widely accepted cards. Many ATM machines may not accept 5-digit pin numbers; ATM card-users with 5-digit pins are advised to change their pin to 4 digits before leaving home.
Value Added Tax is charged on most items, usually included in the item's price tag but some shops offer "Tax Free" shopping to non-EU residents. This means that non-EU residents can ask for a VAT refund at their port of exit in the EU. Be sure to ask for your voucher before leaving the store and show that along with your items to the customs officer upon departure from the EU.
Bargaining is only tolerated (and unenthusiastially expected) in touristy souvenir shops and sometimes in family-owned arts and crafts stores. In all other instances, it is ineffective and offensive.
Greek cuisine is a blend indigenous traditions and foreign influences. Neighboring Italy and Turkey have left a major impact on Greek cuisine, and there are shared dishes with both of these nations. The traditional Greek diet is very Mediterranean, espousing vegetables, herbs, and grains native to the Mediterranean biome. Being a highly maritime nation, the Greeks incorporate plenty of seafood into their diet. The country is also a major producer and consumer of lamb; beef, pork, and especially chicken are also popular. Olive oil is a staple in Greek cooking, and lemon and tomato paste are common ingredients. Bread and wine are always served at the dinner table.
The cuisine in Greece can be radically different from what is offered in Greek restaurants around the world. Greek restaurants abroad tend to cater more to customer expectations rather than offer a truly authentic Greek dining experience. One example is the famous gyros (yee-ros), a common item on Greek menus outside Greece. While it is a popular fast-food item in Greece today, it is actually a relatively recent foreign import (adapted from the Turkish doner kebap) and is considered by Greeks as junk food. It is never served in the home and is generally not found on the menus of non-fast-food restaurants.
Eating out is Greece's national passtime and a rewarding experience for visitors; however, not knowing where to go or what to do can dampen the experience. In the past, restaurants that catered mostly to tourists were generally disappointing. Thankfully, the nation's restaurant industry has grown in sophistication over the past decade, and it is now possible to find excellent restaurants in highly-touristed areas, particularly areas that are popular with Greek tourists as well. Thus, it remains a good idea to dine where Greeks dine. The best restaurants will offer not only authentic traditional Greek cuisine (along with regional specialities) but Greece's latest culinary trends as well.
Restaurants serving international cuisine have also made a presence in the country, offering various options such as Chinese, French, Italian, and international contemporary.
In Greece, vegetarianism never took off as a trend, and restaurants catering strictly to vegetarians are practically non-existent. However, Greeks traditionally eat less meat per capita than northern Europeans and North Americans, and there are countless vegetarian dishes in Greek cuisine.
Popular local dishes
The traditional fast foods are gyros (γύρος, "GHEER-ohs", not "JIE-rohs" as in "gyroscope"), roast pork or chicken (and rarely beef) and fixings wrapped in a fried pita; souvlaki (σουβλάκι, "soov-LAH-kee"), grilled meat on a skewer; Greek dips such as tzatziki (τζατζίκι), made of strained yoghurt, olive oil, garlic and finely chopped cucumbers and dill; and skordhalia (σκορδαλιά), a garlic mashed potato dip which is usually served with deep fried salted cod.
With its extensive coastline and islands, Greece has excellent seafood. Try the grilled octopus and the achinosalata (sea-urchin eggs in lemon and olive oil).
Greek salad (called "country salad" locally, "HorIAtiki"), a mix of tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese and onion – all sliced – plus some olives.
The fried potatoes or french fries are also also often made fresh in Greece and are a hidden secret in modern Greek cuisine. Tzatziki is usually a good dip for them, though they are still good on their own.
For dessert, ask for baklava, tissue-thin layers of pastry with honey and chopped nuts; or galaktobouriko, a custard pie similar to mille feuille. Other pastries are also worth tasting. Another must-try is yoghurt with honey: yoghurts in Greece are really different from what you used to see at Dannon stores. Fruit such as watermelon is also a common summertime treat.
For breakfast, head to local bakeries (fourno) and try fresh tiropita, cheese pie; spanakopita, spinach pie; or bougatsa, custard filled pie, or even a ""horiatiko psomi", a traditional village type bread that is a household staple, and very tasty on its own too. All are delicious and popular among Greeks for quick breakfast eats. Each bakery does own rendition and you are never disappointed. Have this with a Greek coffee to be local.
A popular drink is a frappe made with instant Nescafe, water, sugar , and sometimes milk. It is frothed and served over ice.
It's common to charge cover fee in cafes officially (i.e. stating it in a receipt), such as €0.4 to €2.0 per person.
For things such as bread and fresh orange juice, the just-in-time principle is often used: bread or oranges are purchased by the cafe right after the first order is taken. So don't be surprised if your waiter returns to the cafe with a bag of oranges after accepting your order. And this is how fresh bread is guaranteed in most places.
McDonald's and Pizza Hut have made a significant presence in Greece over the past 15 years. However, they face strong competition from the popular local chains.
Goody's is the most popular fast-food chain in the country, offering a large variety of fast food meals, with numerous outlets throughout the country. A more recent chain is Everest which specializes in hand-held snacks. Flocafé is gaining popularity through its coffee and dessert items. There are also many independently-owned fast food businesses that offer typical fast food items, such as gyros. Many of these small businesses tend to be open late at night, and are popular with younger crowds on their way home from a night out.
Greece, an ancient wine producing country, offer a wide variety of local wines, from indigenous and imported grape varieties, including fortified and even sparkling wines. Greek wines are generally not available on the international market, as production is relatively small, costs are quite high and little remains for export. However, in the past decade Greek wines are winning many international prizes, with the rise of a new generation of wineries, with exports rising as well.
Wine is most Greeks' drink of choice, "Krasi" (inos: οίνος) and traditional spirits like ouzo, tsipouro, raki and tsikoudia (produced in Crete, similar to the Italian grappa). Retsina is a "resinated wine" with a strong, distinctive taste that can take some getting used to; the flavor comes from pine resin, which was once employed as a sealant for wine flasks and bottles. The most well-known and cheap-n-dirty is "Kourtaki Retsina".
Local producers include:
Beer (bira: μπύρα) is consumed all around the country. Excellent local varieties like Mythos and Alpha, as well as Northern European beers produced in Greece like Heineken and Amstel, are readily available mostly everywhere. (North American beers generally are not.) Heineken is affectionally known as "green"; order it by saying "Mia Prasini." On the quality front, there is also a microbrewery/restaurant called Craft (2 litre jug also available in large supermarkets), and new organic beer producers like Piraiki Zythopoiia.
The most famous indigenous Greek liquor is ouzo (ούζο), an anise-flavoured strong spirit (40%), which is transparent by itself but turns milky white when mixed with water. A 200 mL bottle can be under €2 in supermarkets and rarely goes above €8 even in expensive restaurants. Mytilene (Lesbos) is particularly famous for its ouzo.
Raki or tsikoudia is the Greek equivalent of the Italian grappa, produced by boiling the remainings of the grapes after the wine has been squeezed off. It is quite strong (35-40% of alcohol) and in the summer months it is served cold. It costs very little when one buys it in supermarkets or village stores. The raki producing process has become a male event, as usually men are gathering to produce the raki and get drunk by constantly tring the raki as it comes out warm from the distillery. One raki distillery in working order is exhibited in Ippikos Omilos Irakleiou in Heraklion, but they can be found in most large villages. In northern Greece it is also called tsipouro (τσίπουρο).
Imported scotches, bourbons, gins, etc. are usually available in bars and kapheneia, especially in urban areas or places frequented by tourists. The Greek name for your favorite spirit is often close to its native name: ουίσκι is whiskey.
Coffee (kafes: καφές) is an important part of Greek culture.
The country is littered with kafetéries (kafetéria singular) which are cafes that serve as popular hangouts for Greeks, especially among the under-35s. They tend to be pretty trendy -yet relaxed- and serve a variety of beverages from coffee, to wine, beer, spirits, as well as snacks, desserts, and ice cream. In the pleasant months of spring, summer, and fall, all kafetéries provide outdoor tables/seating and they are busiest with customers in the late afternoon and evening hours. Several kafetéries also double as bars.
Kafeneia (coffee houses) are ubiquitous, found even in the smallest village, where they traditionally served a function similar to that of the village pub in Ireland. Their clientele tends to be overwhelmingly men over 50, however everyone is welcome, male or female, young or old, Greek or foreigner; and you will be treated extremely courteously. However, if you're not interested in cultural immersion to this extent, you may find the kafeneia pretty boring.
Traditionally, coffee is prepared with the grounds left in. It is actually a somewhat lighter version of Turkish coffee but in Greece it's only known as Greek coffee - "ellinikós kafés" or simply "ellinikós." Despite being slightly lighter than the original Turkish coffe, it remains a thick, strong black coffee, served in a small cup either sweetened or unsweetened.
During the hot summer months, the most popular coffee at the kafetéries is frappé (φραπέ): shaken iced instant coffee. This is actually an original Greek coffee and can be really refreshing, ordered with or without milk, sweetened or unsweetened.
Coffee can also be made espresso-style, French press (mainly at hotels), and with modern filter technology. The latter is sometimes known as Γαλλικός: gallikos ("French") which can lead to some confusion with the press method. It is best to ask for φίλτρου: filtrou, which refers unambiguously to filter coffee. It is best not to ask for black coffee, as it is unlikely that anyone will understand what you are asking for.
Espresso or cappuccino fredo are also gaining popularity. Espresso fredo is simply espresso + ice (no milk or foam); cappuccino fredo may be served from mousse containers, not prepared just-in-time; be careful to check.
In mass-sector taverns and cafe, iced tea typically means instant; ask twice if you prefer real brewed ice tea.
A glass of water is normally served with any drink you order; one glass for each drink. Some cafes which cater to tourists charge extra for water, especially if it's served in a bottle, even if you didn't ask for it. This is not included in the cover charge, which is normally a separate line item.
If you enjoy the local traditions and charm, unhurried rhythm of living, small, family-run pensions are the best way to enrich your experience. Owners and personnel there are friendly and open-minded, compared to stand-offs you normally meet in large hotels.
If you have a larger budget renting a villa is a luxurious and splendid idea. They are normally near or on the beach and provide more space and a great view.
Students from EU countries may enter many sites for free. Students from other countries have their entrance fees reduced. So take your International Student Identity Card with you.
Greece is one of the safest nations in Europe and in the world.
Violent crime and theft rates are very low; public disorder is extremely rare, and public drunkenness is generally frowned upon. There has recently been a spike in theft -at least a perceived one- which some locals will not hesitate to blame on the influx of immigrants. Visitors should rest assured that this is an extremely safe and friendly destination, but it is always advisable for foreign tourists to exercise basic precautionary measures just as they would at home. Athenians hold negative perceptions for the areas from Omonoia Square to Karaiskaki Square and the area near Larissis train station (in the western areas of the city proper) and they will advise you to avoid these areas late at night. A string of crimes committed by drunk young Britons against locals and other tourists (ranging from vandalism incidents to public indecency and a handful of violent episodes) in areas popular with young British partiers (notably Faliráki in Rhodes and Kávos in Corfu), made national headlines in the summer of 2003. Authorities have since stepped up police presence in these areas to crack down on lewd behavior.
According to car rental agencies in Athens, you can safely leave luggage, car radio, and other belongings in a car anywhere in mainland Greece.
It is strictly forbidden to take photos of military installations or other strategic locations. Authorities will take violations quite seriously. Obey signs prohibiting photography.
Despite a loud call for health care reform from both the voters and the political establishment, the nation's health care system has received very high marks from the World Health Organization (WHO), a branch of the UN. However, many citizens prefer private health care for longer-term hospital stays. Depending on the age and nature of a particular hospital or clinic, services range from adequate to excellent. Health care is free and universal for all citizens, as well as for all EU nationals upon presentation for E111 form. For non-EU nationals, only emergency care is provided for free.
A network of helicopter ambulances serves the islands, transporting patients who need immediate attention to the nearest island or city with a major hospital.
The country's pharmacies and medications are of top quality, and pharmacists are highly trained experts in their field. Many medications that can only be acquired by prescription in the US and UK, can be purchased without prescription in Greece. When sick with a simple, common illness, a visit to the pharmacist will provide you with the medication you need. If you are looking for a specific medication, be sure to know its generic name, as brand names might be different. Most pharmacies close on Sundays, but a sign will be posted on the door indicating the nearst pharmacies that are open.
In late spring and summer, the government runs public service announcements on television reminding Greeks to wear their sunblock at the beach. The Mediterranean sun tends to get quite strong, and can burn skin that has not been exposed to the sun for a long time. Any excessive daily sun exposure can also cause long-term damage to skin. Sunblock and sunscreen are widely available throughout Greece at supermarkets, grocery stores, pharmacies, and special stores selling beach-related items.
During the hottest months, while visiting archaeological sites, wear tank tops, carry umbrellas, and carry water. Temperatures stay at about 95-100 F. The sun is merciless.
There are no required inocculations for Greece and the water is perfectly safe. The tap water on some of the islands is desalinated sea water, which may taste awkward; locals on such islands prefer to drink bottled water, which is widely available throughout the country at supermarkets, grocery stores, and kiosks.
Greeks rate politeness with a person's behavior and not their words. Furthermore, there is an air of informality; everybody is treated like a cousin. They use their hands to gesture a lot. Have fun with this. Sometimes over-emphasizing politeness in spoken language will only make the person dealing with you think you are pretentious. It's nice to learn basic words like "thank you" (Ευχαριστώ: ef-khah-rees-TOH) or "please" (Παρακαλώ: pah-rah-kah-LOH).
Greeks take leisure very seriously; it is a work-to-live culture, not live-to-work. Don't take perceived laziness or rudeness harshly. They do it to everyone, locals and tourists alike. Rather than fight it, just go along with it and laugh at the situation. It can be very frustrating at times but also appreciate their "enjoy life" attitude. They do take politics and soccer very seriously.
Dress codes for churches include covered shoulders for women and knees covered for both sexes. This tends to be lightly enforced during the height of the summer tourist season, simply due to sheer volume!
Do not say that Greece is part of Eastern Europe; Greece was the only openly pro-Western country in a sea of Communists neighbours, both pro-Soviet and neutral. It is not geographically correct either.
To "swear" at someone using their hands, Greeks put out their entire hand, palm open, like signalling someone to stop. This is called "mountza". Sometimes they will do this by saying "na" (here) as well. It is basically telling someone to screw off or that they did something totally ridiculous. "Mountza" is known to come from a gesture used in the Byzantine era, where the guilty person were applied with ash on his/her face by the judge's hand, in order to be ridiculed.
Greeks smoke tremendously, and they see cigarettes as a birthright. However new laws are putting restrictions on smoking, and awareness is growing about the risks of second-hand smoke. Don't be afraid to tell a cab driver or someone to put out the butt if it is bothering you... but they might bite back!