“Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek.” – My Big, Fat Greek Wedding
I roll my eyes every whenever my Greek boyfriend begins a statement, “Well, you know, in ancient Greek…” The ancient Greece angle has derailed many of our conversations. While I tease him about this, I have realized he is right. With the deepest history on Earth and the oldest living language in the world, Greeks are right to brag.
If you explore beyond Athens and Santorini, she will show you her expansive, mythical history and how it has influenced the entire world. And you will also have the pleasure of refreshing yourself at her stunning beaches.
From over a year spent traveling through Greece, these places showed its varied landscape. It is an overview, and I will write more detailed descriptions later. Stay tuned. But for now, off you go…
#1 Crete – Birthplace of Hellenic Culture
Historians call them the Minoans. We most associate them with King Minos and the legend of the Minotaur. The half man, half bull stalked the labyrinth in the 1500-room palace at Knossos. With a plot like the Hunger Games, the legend says the Minotaur devoured annual tributes from Athens sent as reparations to the king. Relating to this, historians cultivate a chick-or-the-egg debate. What came first, the massive palace labyrinth or the mythical legend?
Nevertheless, the remains at Knossos attest to the wealth the Minoans built over five centuries of influence over the entire Mediterranean. Minoans filled their burial chambers and palaces with gold jewelry and weapons. Dynamic figures in palace frescoes capture human emotion that was not seen before the Minoan civilization.
It isn’t known what happened to the Minoans, but historians theorize that a massive volcanic eruption destroyed their fleet, infrastructure, and climate.
What to see:
- Palaces at Knossos and Phaistos.
- Beaches: Crete has drop-dead-gorgeous beaches. Do not miss Elafonisos and Balos.
- Food. Yeah, I know it’s not a site! But Crete offers the best food in Greece, and that is saying something!
#2 Mycenae – Hellenic Warriors and Chieftains
We do know the Mycenaeans had also been on Crete. Archaeologists found Mycenaean tablets at Knossos from the late-Minoan period.
We read about the Mycenaeans in Homer’s mythological legends of the Iliad and the Odyssey. You may recall famous characters of Agamemnon, Paris and Helen, and Achilles. Historians thought the Iliad and the Odyssey were simple fairy tales until another amateur dug up the ruins of Troy at the end of the 19th century. Now they’re not so sure…
In mythology, this empire commissioned Heracles to perform the 12 Labors. They had Cyclops to build the massive stone walls of the fortress at Mycenae.
Like the Minoans, it isn’t known what happened to the Mycenaeans, but something destroyed the fortresses of Mycenae around 1200 BC.
What to see:
- The fortress at Mycenae is the star of the show.
- Nafplio is nearby and is an excellent base from which to explore the region (see #5).
#3 Athens – Center of classical Greece
Several centuries later, Homer retold stories of the Mycenaeans’ valor. This helped to revitalize the region after a period of barbarianism. As if waking up from a stupor, the famous city-states formed, particularly in Athens and Sparta.
The Battle of Marathon occurred during this time. You may the story of the chap that ran 26.2 miles to Athens to announce the Athenian victory over the Persians? Nevertheless, the Persians persisted. Sparta and Greece agreed to stop fighting with each other to concentrate on the Persians. The result was the most glorious period of Greek history with influences on art, science and medicine, and politics. Democracy. Marble and Bronze Sculpture. Architecture. Philosophy. Medicine. Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato – people and their ideas that are still relevant after thousands of years.
What to see:
- Acropolis and the Parthenon
- Panathenaic Stadium
- Ancient agora
#4 Mystras – Center of Late-Byzantine
Mystras was hopping during the late Byzantine Empire. You might ask, what is Mystras and what happened to Constantinople? For that, we must fast forward several centuries to the 4th crusade. Western Catholic Christians were fighting their eastern Byzantine Christian colleagues in Constantinople. (How’s that for teamwork?) In one of the most influential events in European history, western crusaders captured Constantinople and ransacked it. The city was obliterated and Constantinople never recovered.
Mystras is one of the most sensational places in Greece. Why? In 1261, Byzantine leaders recaptured Constantinople. Thrilled by their accomplishment, they initiated a resurrection of Classical Greek scholarship. This revitalization is the Palaeologan Renaissance (the Palaeologans were the ruling dynasty of the Byzantine Empire).
This happened in Mystras before the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century. Some scholars argue that the Byzantines began a renaissance that spread across Europe. At minimum, history has overlooked the Byzantines’ indispensable contributions to the Italian Renaissance. And it all happened in Mystras.
The remains here are some of the best-preserved structures from middle-Age Byzantine.
What to see:
- 13th-15th century frescoes in the preserved churches in Mystras: Agios Demitrios, Agia Sofia, Hodgetria, Pantanassa, Mitropolis and Perivleptos.
- The Palace of Despots dominates the hilltop and shows classic Byzantine architecture.
- Although from a different time, ancient Olympia is nearby.
#5 Nafplio – Center of Ottoman Greece
After the collapse of Constantinople, the Venetians and the Ottomans passed the fortress city of Nafplio back and forth. Located on the Bay of Nafplio on the Peloponnese peninsula, it was an important trading city.
Nafplio took center stage in the Greek world after the Revolution. The Peloponnese was always a center for resistance to Ottoman rule. Living in a rugged environment, the Peloponnesians were ruffians and didn’t take well to taking direction. A defensible city with its three fortresses, the Revolutionists chose Nafplio to be the capital of the new Greek state (it didn’t last too long though).
What to see:
- Three fortresses in the city: the island fortress of Bourtzi, the ancient Akronafplia above the Old Town, and Palamidi Fortress on the cliff above the city.
- Venetian and Neoclassical architecture.
- Gelato. Nafplians don’t mind this Venetian legacy!
- Epidavros: The most magnificent ancient theater in Greece is located 30 minutes away.
#6 Zagorochoria – Mountain village life
Mountain villages bring nostalgia to the Greek psyche. Today, villages have far fewer residents than they used to, but come alive at Easter and during summer vacations. After sunset, twinkling lights from the tight-knit mountain villages appear as if they are floating on a black canvas. Waiters at the local tavernas recite the menu, and it always includes fava, horiatiki (Greek salad), grilled souvlaki meats, and pies with feta or spinach. Small shops sell their local village products, whether it is olives, cheese, honey, mountain tea, oregano, spoon sweets, liquors or the local handcraft.
I’ve visited villages all over Greece – in the Peloponnese, central and northern Greece and on the islands. Each one has its own personality. For me, the 46 villages in the Zagorochoria region have the most to offer.
What to see:
- Traditional stone and slate villages and the old stone bridges connecting them.
- Zagarochoria surrounds the Vikos Gorge. It is one of the most well-known outdoor destinations in Greece offering hiking, rafting, horse-riding, mountain biking, etc.
- The Byzantine town of Ioannina is the launching point of the region and boasts a castle and a brand new Silversmithing Museum.
#7 Thrace – Orthodox Ottomans and Muslims
This is one I haven’t made it to yet, although the region bordering Turkey is at the top of my list. The only remaining Muslims in Greece live in this region. After World War I, the Greeks were fighting again with the Ottomans. The war ended at a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Greece and Turkey agreed on a ‘population exchange.’ Muslims go to Turkey and Christians go to Greece. Segregation based solely on religion disregarding ethnicity and language ripped apart communities in both countries. Two million people were displaced.
Considering this, Thrace is unique. For political reasons, there were two exceptions granted to this agreement. 1) Muslims living in the Thrace remained there and 2) In exchange, Orthodox Christians living in Istanbul stayed there as well. Muslims and Christians live in Thrace side-by-side.
#8 Piraeus – Port of Refugee Arrival
Many of these Ottoman Christian deportees arrived in Piraeus, the port south of Athens. The population of Piraeus doubled to 250,000 people almost overnight. The humanitarian nightmare included a lack of food, lack of housing, and rampant illnesses such as smallpox and typhus. “Every space in the city of Athens and adjacent port of Piraeus, from theaters to government offices to royal palaces, was filling up with the ragged, destitute, and sick migrants.” (Bryce Clark, Twice a Stranger)
These desperate conditions influenced a musical movement. Disenfranchised refugees played rebetiko, which fused old Greek fiddle style with influences from Asia Minor.
“Persecution by the police was intense, and consequently the songs that were composed whilst in jail form an important part of the rebetiko chemistry.” (BabaYaga Music). Throughout the Piraeus ghettos, rebetiko recounted the tortures of the lives of the refugees. Rebetiko became mainstream and clubs throughout Greece still play it today.
One of the most famous rebetiko songs is “Frankosyriani” by Markos Vamvakaris.
#9 Greek Islands – Beaches, White-washed Houses, and Fish Tavernas
The islands of Greece are the gems of the entire Mediterranean. I don’t know anywhere else with such crystal-clear turquoise water, warm sun, and charming white-washed houses huddling on rocky hillsides. And this part isn’t even my favorite… I dream of eating fresh seafood at a small taverna by the sea.
Greeks will tell you that each of the 227 inhabited islands has a unique character. So how do you pick which to visit? Consider going beyond Santorini and Mykonos to escape the crowds and get an authentic Greek island experience.
I’ll share my favorites (but shhhh…. don’t tell anyone!):
- Symi because of the stunning little harbor
- Tinos because of the beautiful village called
- Pirgos, known for its marble-carving
- Sifnos because of this restaurant by the sea
- Crete because it has everything you could want, see above!
And my personal wish list, #everysingleone chosen because of their beaches:
There it is, my list of euphoric places in Greece! And by the way, euphoria is derived from the Greek word euphoros, meaning fruitful. Insert eye rolling here…
Perhaps you have another can’t-miss spot in Greece? Or where would you like to go? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!