Out of all the times I have visited Ellas, I have done so as a native daughter. I go back to see relatives, friends and family to the same regions and haunting grounds: Athens and its surroundings for my mother’s side, the Cycladic Islands, specifically Ios, for my father’s. With such a short time to spend in the summers, many Greeks of the Diaspora never budge from the usual places. Except for the chance KTEL bus ride I took from Igoumenitsa to Corinth because there was no room on the ferry from Bari, I had never traveled through the beautiful northern part of Greece. I still remember that beautiful ride: the Lake of Parga glowing silver under the light of an August moon, the white cranes that roosted on tops of the oaks and plain trees near Arta, the majestic mountains of Pindos.
If you do not go out of your way and see Greece as a tourist even as a repeat visitor, you will miss out on experiencing the full spectrum of glorious sites of Ellas. You will only know Greece as the tiny speck of your yiayia’s chorgio. (Lucky for you your yiayia’s chorgio is stunningly beautiful.) Greece is beautiful no matter where you go. But, just in case you needed some tips of where to travel in your own homeland, here’s 10 Must-See places that you have to check off your bucket list.
1 Crete and Knossos:
The largest of the Greek islands, Crete is a spacious land of pleasing contrasts where landscapes range from stunning coastline to rugged mountains and rolling countryside dotted with olive trees. Bustling metropolitan cities spread beyond to quiet villages centered around outdoor coffee shops. Steeped in history, Crete still bears archaeological traces of the many civilizations that inhabited it down through the centuries. The must-see attraction here is the labyrinth-like Palace of Knossos, built around 2000 B.C. The Archaeological Museum of Iraklion (heraklion-crete.org), in the Cretan capital contains the most important Minoan artifacts unearthed to date. You can also visit the Dhiktaion Cave, the birthplace of Zeus, according to Greek mythology.
The Greek word “meteora” means “suspended in the air,” and this phrase aptly describes the spectacular cliffs that rise more than 1,200 feet (366 meters) into the air overlooking the villages of Kalambaka and Kastraki in the north central mainland of Greece. What makes these cliffs even more inspiring are the historic monasteries perched along the summits. Dating back to the 14th and 16th centuries, the monasteries at Meteora were built by monks seeking spiritual isolation and freedom from religious persecution.
3 The Cyclades and Aegean
With over 2,000 islands to choose from, it would be impossible to see them all. But you can gather the flavor by visiting each different archipelago. The sunny, dry Aegean is known for its picture postcard white stone houses bunched against a palette of fading cerulean blues in sky and sea. Out of all the islands of the Cyclades, Santorini gets the beauty queen award. The island is a volcanic caldera, the result of an eruption in 1650 B.C. that ranks among the most powerful in human history. The village of Oia is a prime spot for watching sunsets over the caldera. Santorini’s top archaeological attraction is the town of Akrotiri, a Minoan site believed to have been destroyed in the eruption, which is blamed for the demise of the Minoan civilization on Crete as well. Santorini also offers beaches with black and red volcanic sand and opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving.
4 The Peloponnese
Shaped much like a large leaf, Peloponnese was traditionally called Morea, which means mulberry leaf. Located in the southernmost region of both Europe and Greece, Peloponnese is a wide peninsula connected to the mainland by the Rio-Antirrio bridge. Interspersed with classical Greek temples, Venetian fortresses, Byzantine churches and Mycenaean palaces, Peloponnese echoes the ancient cultures and events from its extensive history. The archaeological site in Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic games in 776 B.C., is the most beautiful on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula, according to Frommer’s. The site encompasses remnants of the stadium that hosted the contests and the Temple of Zeus, which housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: an enormous gold and ivory statue of the king of the gods. The site’s best preserved monument is the smaller and older Temple of Hera.
The Castle Town of Monemvasia is among the most impressive places in Greece and another UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Peloponnese. Located on the south eastern side of Peloponnese, Monemvasia Greece was entirely carved on the back side of a sea rock in the Medieval times. This huge sea rock is not visible from the mainland, so that the locals could avoid enemy attacks. The only way to reach Monemvasia was by boat, while later on a paved pathway was constructed to connect the castle entrance to the mainland. This is how the name came out, meaning single passage. A new town has been constructed in the mainland, just opposite the rock. A walk around the Castle Town is a travel to the past, while the sea view from the castle top is breathtaking. Source: www.greeka.com
5 Rhodes and the Dodecannesus
A separate archipelago of islands more east is referred to as the Dodecannesus (The Twelve Islands.). More fertile and green than the Cyclades, the Dodecannesus provides a different flavor of island life. Rhodes is one of the largest and most fertile of the Greek Islands, and is one of the most visited because of its combination of beaches, archaeological sites, and extensive medieval town. The climate is particularly good, with the weather typically sunny and mild. The island is usually counted as one of the Dodecanese, but due to its importance for travelers is considered separately here.
The rock-rose is so prolific here that it has been named the ‘Island of Roses,’ While the northern coast is renowned for its lively tourist resorts the south offers tranquil beaches and a slower, more simple pace of life.
Rhodes is a must-see because of the fascinating history of conquerors you can trace in the architecture. It makes a great backdrop for those who are Medievally inclined. In the Middle Ages, Rhodes’ came under the influence first of the Venetians, then of the Genoese, and finally of the Knights of Saint John, an organization of Crusaders who took over parts of Palestine but were later expelled by the Saracens and the Knights Templar and took refuge in Rhodes, wresting control of the island from the Genoese in 1306, ruling for two centuries, and building Rhodes once again into a major maritime power, until the island was conquered by Süleyman the Magnificent in 1523, becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. The history is written in its walls.
Halkidiki is a trident-like peninsula near the city of Thessaloniki, sporting excellent beaches. The three separate peninsulas can be roughly summarized as follows: Kassandra has the nightlife, Sithonia has the beaches and Athos has the monks. Being closest to Thessaloniki, Kassandra is more built-up, while the more quiet Sithonia has campgrounds, hidden coves and clear waters. Both are popular with Greek and Eastern European tourists. Much of the easternmost peninsula belongs to the Mount Athos monastic community. It’s accessible by boat and open to male pilgrims only.
7 Zagori or Zagorohoria and Epiros
If you like green, mountains, and wildlife (including a species of Greek bear) then Zagoraochoria is for you. Zagori is a region of great natural beauty, with striking geology and two national parks, in northwestern Greece. It’s dense forests and rugged mountains are furrowed by powerful rivers and dotted with traditional villages, many featuring grand stone houses dating from the late eighteenth century. The best way to enjoy the area is by hiking the numerous paths connecting the villages. The most accessible and rewarding target is the wonderful Víkos Gorge.
There’s been an ongoing competition between Athens and Thessaloniki similar to the one say between New York and Chicago. Hmmm? Which is the better city? In many ways one makes up for what the other lacks. Thessaloniki is Greece’s second-largest city and the capital city of the Macedonian region of Northern Greece. Lively festivals, social events and a buzzing nightlife make this city the cultural capital of Greece. Comprised of a historic city center and commercial district, Thessaloniki offers both old and new attractions from its Byzantine walls, White Tower and Turkish baths to colorful food markets, museums and art galleries. Thessaloniki’s nightlife is unmatched. Deemed one of the world’s “ultimate party cities” by Lonely Planet, here you will find a vibrant nightlife, trendy shops and art galleries galore. Thessaloniki also offers, according to Frommer’s, the spiciest — and some of the best — cuisine in Greece. The city’s Byzantine-era churches (the most famous being of its patron Saint Demetrios) are UNESCO World Sites. Thessaloniki is more walkable as it hugs the harbor in a long U-shaped route that is spectacular during sunsets.
So, next year, when you go drop in to stay with your relatives in Sparti or wherever, make sure you schedule in a visit to some of these places. Why not make them travel around Greece with you too? (The Greeks tend to be very loyal in the places they visit for vacation, year after year.) It would make a for a great vacation within a vacation.