By Marilyn Jones
Many visitors to Greece vacation only on its islands, but the mainland has its own appeal. It is a place of antediluvian history, mythology, legend, and lore.
Start in Athens, which is regarded as the birthplace of democracy and the cradle of Western civilization. Named for the goddess Athena, this welcoming modern city is at least 5,000 years old.
Its center is the Acropolis, a major Mycenaean fortress. High atop the fortress remains is the Parthenon, a temple built to honor Athena. Construction was completed in 438 B.C. This is the most popular attraction in the city, and you’ll want to arrive early in the day to avoid crowds. Mid-morning tourists swarm around the site, and by afternoon it is nearly impossible to climb the steps to the temple.
Within walking distance is the Acropolis Museum. Housing an expansive collection of artifacts unearthed at the Acropolis and in surrounding areas, it features statues, carvings, building facades, and personal items such as jewelry, pottery, toys, and mosaics.
The neighborhood of Plaka is below the Acropolis. Cafes and restaurants line its pedestrian-only streets. This is a great place to souvenir shop from street vendors and stores specializing in gold jewelry. After the sun sets, you may want to visit one of the many nightclubs and bars here.
If you’re in Athens on a Sunday, try to be at the Presidential Mansion and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at 11 a.m., when the Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place. The soldiers, accompanied by a military band, march from their barracks, just behind the Parliament House, along the Vasilissis Sofias Avenue to the tomb.
Visiting the Monastiraki flea market is a chaotic and exhilarating experience as you sort through thousands of items, including antiques and other collectibles. The market runs from Monastiraki Square westwards.
West of Athens is ancient Corinth. Once a busy and wealthy trading city because of its location and control over the only land access to the Peloponnese Peninsula, Corinth dominated the trade in both the Saronic Gulf and the Gulf of Corinth. It was once one of the largest, most important cities in Greece, with a population of 90,000 in 400 B.C.
Corinth consisted of three parts: the acropolis on the hill (Acrocorinth), the city itself on a lower plateau, and the port on the coast. A 12-mile wall surrounded the complex. Today some Christians make pilgrimages to the site. Corinth is well known from the two letters written by the Apostle Paul, the Bible’s First and Second Corinthians.
In 146 B.C., Romans destroyed Corinth, and a hundred years later they built a new city in its place. The Temple of Apollo is regarded as one of the best examples of an early Doric temple anywhere in Greece. You’ll also discover the remnants of a marketplace, fountains, homes, and streets.
There is almost always a museum at archeological sites in Greece. The Corinth museum includes intact pottery and vessels, tiny figurines, sculptures, and intricate mosaic floors from Roman villas.
Next to the ruins is a flower-lined street with coffee shops, small souvenir stores, and restaurants. For lunch, try dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with rice, herbs, and ground lamb or beef); moussaka (a tomato-based, casserole-like dish made with eggplant and minced meat); or spanakopita (a traditional Greek pie made with feta cheese and fresh spinach).
In Sparta, you’ll find the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil. The city is at the center of one of the leading olive-producing regions in the country. Displays and guides help explain olive-oil production and its Greek tradition.
From the museum, continue your exploration on foot. After dark, patrons enjoying lively music fill the bars. Restaurants serve local cuisine including syglina, a dish of pork smoked in herbs; and rafiolia, a crescent pie of flaky pastry with mastic liquor, rosewater, and white almond pulp.
Close to Sparta is Mystras, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The town was the second most important community after Constantinople (now Istanbul) at the end of the Byzantine period. It was here in 1448 that the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaeologos, was crowned.
Currently, the fortification and castle are closed, but you’ll discover plenty to see in Upper Town and Lower Town. Many buildings along winding pathways can be entered. The churches, with their brightly colored frescos dating to the 14th and 15th centuries, are especially impressive.
Messene is one of the largest and best-preserved archaeological sites in Greece. In 369 B.C., after the Theban general Epaminondas defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra, the Messinians who, for almost 350 years lived under Spartan rule, founded the city.
There is a large theatre with its original tile stage floor, the Fountain of Arsinoe, a marketplace, a public bathhouse, a treasury, and the Sanctuary of Asclepius. Also here is one of the most impressive ancient Greek stadiums, where gladiators fought and wrestling competitions were held.
Before heading north toward Olympia, stop at one of the lovely beach communities.
Nafplio offers accommodations and restaurants facing the waterfront. Shops feature everything from inexpensive souvenirs to high-end fashion. Also visit Palamidi Fortress, which is perched high above the city and was built by the Venetians in the 18th century.
If you’re looking for a laid-back place to swim and enjoy lunch, stop at Methoni. Overlooking the sandy beach is one of the largest Mediterranean castles. The Venetians built it in the 13th century, and the Turks reconstructed it 300 years later.
Olympia was the most important religious and athletic center in Greece. In A.D. 393 Emperor Theodosius I abolished the games that had taken place here every four years for more than a millennium. Emperor Theodosius II went even further and destroyed the complex. Little remains of the magnificent temples and athletic facilities, but the ruins still illustrate its former glory. Your guide will point out features including the gymnasium, wrestling school, and Temple of Zeus. One column of the temple was restored and re-erected, putting into perspective the sheer size of the original structure.
An altar in front of the Temple to Hera ostensibly maintained a continuous fire during the ancient games to symbolize the fire stolen from the gods by Prometheus. Today the Olympic flame is lit here and carried to the games for a ceremonial lighting. The stadium looks much as it did when the ancient Olympics were heldhere. The facility could accommodate 45,000 spectators. Tourists line up along the original stone start line to run the 630-foot track.
Of the two main museums, the Archaeological Museum is the most popular, but don’t pass up the Museum of the Ancient Games, which houses ancient gaming awards, shields, busts, and statues.
To leave Peloponnese Peninsula, you’ll take a ferry or drive over the Rio-Antirrio Bridge to cross the Gulf of Corinth. Rio-Antirrio is one of the world’s longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges and the longest of the fully suspended type. Nearly two miles in length, it is a beautiful example of modern engineering.
According to Greek mythology, Delphi marked the center of the world; it was a sacred space where humans could communicate directly with the gods.
The most important Greek temple and oracle of Apollo is here. The UNESCO World Heritage site is on Mount Parnassus. Most of the ruins, including a massive theater, hippodrome, and treasury buildings date from the sixth century B.C.
One of the most remarkable places in Greece is Meteora. Eastern Orthodox monasteries are perched on top of enormous rocks rising from the plains of Thessaly a few miles northwest of Kalambaka.
The area was originally settled by monks living in caves during the 11th century. This was a time of Turkish occupation. The monks climbed higher and higher up the rock face until they were living on the peaks where they were able to build by bringing material and people up with ladders and baskets. During the Turkish occupation, it was the monks who kept alive the Hellenic culture and traditions. Historians believe that without the monasteries, this culture would have disappeared, and modern Greece would be a reflection of the Ottoman Empire.
In the early 20th century, roads, pathways, and steps were constructed for easier access. To reach the 16thcentury Roussanou Monastery, for example, you climb a long flight of stairs and cross a small bridge. Inside are religious paintings, wood iconostasis, panel icons, and a tiny chapel. In recent years, this monastery was converted into a convent.
Six monasteries are open to visitors. To enter, women must wear skirts below their knees. Men’s arms must be covered, and they must wear long pants. Come prepared, as not all the monasteries provide coverings for guests.
From Athens to the Meteora Monasteries, Greece offers history, natural beauty, wonderful food, and welcoming people. Count on coming home with a suitcase full of souvenirs, a camera full of photos, and a head full of happy memories.
Marilyn Jones was a guest of Exodus Travels on her visit to Greece.
Not a History Buff? Here Are Five Options
Mt. Olympus. You can enjoy the area’s rugged beauty by rafting, mountain biking, taking a Jeep safari, or hiking. Trails are classified as easy, medium, difficult, or dangerous.
Thessaloniki. Greece’s second-largest city is also its hippest. Music and nightlife, some of the country’s best restaurants and hotels, a pristine beach, and exclusive shopping make Thessaloniki a memory-making destination.
Ioannina. Take a ferry from the city across Lake Pamvotida to the island of Ioannina and visit one of the monasteries or explore the island settlement with traditional Epirotic architecture. Ioannina hosts several arts-related events throughout the year.
Loutraki. Known for its vibrant nightlife, this city also features Greece’s most popular casino, a premier spa location, upscale shopping, and outdoor activities including windsurfing, parasailing, and hiking.
Mount Parnassos. Greece’s most popular ski resort area is about three and a half hours from Athens by car. It features 23 ski runs catering to all skill levels.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS:
Greece, also known as Hellas (population, 10.7 million), is in southwestern Europe, neighbored by Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey. The Aegean Sea, Ionia Sea, Cretan Sea, and Mediterranean Sea also border the country. Greece’s 8,498-mile coastline is the longest on the Mediterranean Basin and the 11th longest in the world. There are 18 UNESCO World Heritage sites with an additional 14 on the tentative list.
Along the coasts, Greece has a typical Mediterranean climate with mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. The mountains receive significantly more precipitation and the mountains in northwestern Greece and Peloponnese experience winter snowfall.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Unless you are a Greek history and mythology scholar, the best way to experience historic sites is to join a small group tour or hire a guide and driver. Euros and credit cards are accepted. Generally, there is little negotiation with merchants. English is widely spoken in cities and rural areas. Many historic sites close during winter.
Fifty airports—including Athens’s Eleftherios Venizelos International, Athinai, and Elefsis—accommodate private jets. British Airways, Delta, and American Airlines provide service from the U.S. Rail travel to Athens is available from other countries in Europe.
Athens has an excellent metro system, and taxis are plentiful. Just remember, all legal Greek taxis are yellow, have taxi lights on their roofs, and have working meters. Greece’s train system is limited. Standard-gauge services run from Athens to Dikea in the northeast by way of Thessaloniki and Alexandroupoli. There are also connections to Florina and the Pelion Peninsula. Modern roadways connect cities and attractions.
Historical sites are everywhere, and there are also plenty of outdoor and nightlife options. (See sidebar above.)
Traveler Report Card
Acropolis View Hotel (B+) in Athens is within easy walking distance of the Acropolis, Acropolis Museum, shops, and locally owned restaurants. Make sure to spend time on the hotel’s fifth-floor observation deck, especially at sunset when lights illuminate the Parthenon. Rooms are standard…Hotel Karalis (B+) in Pylos is right on the Bay of Pylos in the heart of the village. Restaurants overlooking the bay are close by. Request the newer part of the hotel with a view of the water…Olympic Village Hotel (B+) in Olympia offers easy access to shopping and restaurants as well as the historic area and museums. Rooms are standard.
Alliotiko (A-) in Delphi is a small family-run restaurant in the heart of town serving traditional Greek food…Pheidias (A) in Olympia features Greek and Mediterranean food with vegetarian and vegan options. It is near historic sites…Tavernaki Tou Gamprou (A), near ancient Corinth, offers Greek food, and vegetarian and vegan options. Tripadvisor rates it No. 5 among 85 restaurants in Corinth.