Insiders' guide to Greece
Greece has thousands of islands – and beautiful spots on the mainland – but which is best for you? Click to skip to our experts' picks for history, for families, for food, for walking trips and more
Small is beautiful … Agistros beach, Skiathos.
THE BEST PLACE FOR … BEACHES
Skiathos – Sporades
Skiathos hit the jackpot when it came to beaches. Textbook sands line its south coast, from Koukounaries, the island's best-known beach – where deep green trees provide the backdrop for a dramatic golden sweep – to Megali Ammos. And if much of the island's sand is buried beneath rows of sunbeds, it doesn't take a great deal of effort to find a windier, sparser and less manicured slice of island life. A half-hour walk north through the woods from Koukounaries takes you to the laid-back Mandraki and Elias beaches, while further east is expansive Megalos Aselinos. Here, in the evening, goat bells clang and families play badminton in the setting sun.
Perhaps the best beaches are the smallest: at picture-perfect Agistros, Mikros Aselinos, and Krifi Ammos (or "hidden sand"). At remote Kechria, in what the Skiathian writer Papadiamantis called a "beautiful, melancholic valley", a Greek flag flies above the craggy beach as people wade into the sea, or stop in the shade of the beach taverna for a cold Mythos beer.
Visibility for snorkelling and scuba diving is especially good around the islets. Take a boat to the beach at Tsougria, or view it from afar over an iced coffee at Bourtzi, an islet linked to Skiathos Town by a bridge, and which – rumour has it – the Beatles once tried to buy. Even some main island beaches – such as pebbled Lalaria, with its rock arch – are accessible only by boat.
Skiathos has over 60 beaches, but there is more to see: visit the lazy cats at the Evangelistria monastery instead, or the fresco paintings at Kounistra, from where a path winds to the miniature "Hidden St John" monastery. Visit Papadiamantis's old house in Skiathos Town and watch a film at the open-air cinema. Try the octopus stifado at Amfiliki restaurant, washed down with a tsipouro (like grappa) and go to Kentavros bar (where the spirit of the 1960s lives on) to hear whose yacht is in the harbour.
Skiathos may be favoured by the A-list, but by staying at the campsite behind Koukounaries you can join them on a budget. The island's charm, after all, lies in its simplicity: the glaring sun, the pine-swathed hills, and a dazzling turquoise sea.
• Torair (flytorair.com) flies from Gatwick to Skiathos.
Jonathan Knott, author
An island of unspoilt beaches and fishing villages, with an elegant 19th-century capital, Syros is the place Greeks go to avoid mass tourism. It is the Aegean's most underrated island. Ermoupoli, once Venice's prized Aegean colony, then Greece's biggest port, is spread across two hills, one crowned with a Greek Orthodox church, the other with a Roman Catholic church – a legacy of the Italians, who have also made their mark on the architecture. Ermoupoli is characterised by gorgeous neoclassical mansions and 19th-century tenement blocks. Its labyrinthine alleyways are home to fish restaurants and marble- and-brass espresso bars. One block behind the waterfront is Antiparou, a pedestrian lane full of outside tables and chairs, shaded by flowering bougainvillea creepers. Beyond that is In the town square, where Greek yuppies pose with €6 Heinekens, old folk sip Greek ("not Turkish") coffee and children play football in the dust.
Out of town are many small coves. Some 12km to the south is the long, narrow beach at Megas Gialos – incredibly tranquil, with soft pale sand and tamarisk trees and straw canopies offering shade. There is a whitewashed chapel, a few wooden boats moored to a jetty at the western end, a cafe and three grocery stores. Self-catering is possible at the many studio flats available in the village, from about €25pp a night. Expect a diet of bread, olives, tinned sardines, yoghurt and honey – Megas Gialos is too remote for deliveries of much fresh food.
Galissas beach in the south-west of the island is rather more busy – and worldly. It has a rockers' beach bar, where nubile Australian backpackers hunt for grizzled Greek bikers, and a small and secluded beach with skinny- dippers. It also has several restaurants with perfect sunset views over the sand dunes, while you eat, serving minced lamb with chicory and unusual fish dishes, alongside standard Greek fare of roast meats and stews. Peter and Tony offer en-suite rooms with en-suite bathrooms and reasonably fast, wireless internet
Further north is Kini, the closest Syros gets to a beach resort. Here are largish beachfront hotels, and restaurants serving ubiquitous feta salad or deep-fried calamari drenched in lemon juice, washed down with retsina. Some families let out the guest apartments attached to their homes. The best are half a mile inland, high enough to offer magnificent views of the setting sun.
At the northern headland of Kini bay, take the footpath north for a 2km clifftop walk through heather to the sandy beach of Delfini. After a swim, make the return journey at sunset, for the best view on the island, and an indelible memory of red sky over black water.
• Olympic Airlines (olympicair.com) flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Syros, via Athens. EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Mykonos for the ferry to Syros. There are fast, regular and reasonably priced services from Athens, Santorini and most other islands (greeka.com). Local transport by bus, rental car or scooter. Olympic Holidays (olympicholidays.com) offers packages to Syros, staying at the Dolphin Bay Hotel Resort in Galissa, from £409pp, including flights from Gatwick
Kamil Tchorek, journalist
… FOR HISTORY
Crete's story begins almost 5,000 years ago, with the mysterious Minoans. The prehistoric equivalent of a modern superpower, the Minoans built vast palaces, from which they controlled the rest of the island and an empire further afield (the famous "Linear B tablets", written in a primitive form of Greek, provide vivid evidence of their obsessive bureaucracy – no literature, just lists and lists and more lists). Whether the Minoans were peace-loving types, living under the benign influence of a Mother Goddess, or hardline imperialists remains a matter of dispute. What is left of their power bases can be seen at Gournia and Phaistos, stunningly beautiful sites.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Venetians controlled Crete for several hundred years, making it a wonderful melting pot of Italian and Byzantine art. The best place to catch a glimpse of this is the church at Kritsa (near Agios Nikolaos), which has a wonderful array of 14th-century frescoes.
Knossos, originally a Minoan palace, was excavated and imaginatively restored in the early 20th century by Sir Arthur Evans, who rebuilt the place in concrete and "completed" its damaged frescoes. It is best enjoyed as a monument to British taste of the period, and to Evans's vision of an unspoiled, primitive Greek society – complete with weird snake goddesses and bull-leapers.
• Aegean Airlines (aegeanair.com) flies to Heraklion from Heathrow. Yades Heritage and Hospitality Hotels (yadeshotels.gr) has historic hotels all over Greece, including Kapsaliana Village, a restored hamlet in Arcadi, with doubles from €135 a night
Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge and author of The Parthenon (Profile Books, £15)
Thrace, in the north-east, is home to Muslim villages, and in towns such as Xanthi you can hear Turkish in the street, among the Ottoman houses. The inhabitants here were exempted from the exchange of populations with Turkey in 1923. Until the beginning of the last century the first language of large areas of Attica and Euboia in northern Greece was Arvanitika, a form of Albanian, which has been replaced by modern Albanian, spoken by recent immigrants. From the past you can see the ruins of Venetian towers, Crusader castles, Catholic monasteries, Ottoman seraglios and fountains. And in the heart of Athens there is a mosque and madrasa close to Monastiraki station. If you come to Greece for the classical sites, spare a glance for its more recent cultural heritage.
• EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Thessaloniki.
John Mole, author
Run for the sun … Skiathos has more than 60 lovely beaches.
… FOR FAMILIES
As the ferry arcs toward the island you catch the first glimpse of the Portara, a marble gateway on the headland, all that remains of an ancient temple to Apollo. I first came to Naxos 20 years ago, when donkeys were used for rubbish collectionand the ferry from Athens could take 10 hours – and I have been coming back ever since. It is the largest and most fertile of the Cycladic islands. The harbour is small and the airport even smaller. For these reasons, Naxos has not been overrun by cruise ships and mass tourism, even in July and August.
The island has long white beaches, mountain paths, Byzantine churches, Venetian towers and good cafes. Most importantly, it is a working island, and the slow pace, absence of loud bars and the many activities on offer make it perfect for families. The shallow beach at Aghios Giorgos – a short walk from the Hora (town centre) in Naxos town – is ideal for small children. Further down there is surfing, diving and windsurfing , and sunset rides around the island (naxoshorseriding.com).
South from the town, the beaches extend from the bay at Aghia Anna to Prokopios and around to Plaka, Aliko, Kastraki and Mikri Vigla. The latter beaches remind me of Australia – scrubby sand dunes, a certain wildness. Cedar trees offer shade. To the east, in the bay of Moutsouna, ecotourism has flourished. The northernmost point is the old fishing village of Apollon, close to an ancient marble quarry, famous for a huge male figure, abandoned around 600BC. The Hora rises like a pyramid to the Venetian Kastro – a labyrinth of cobbled streets. The author of Zorba the Greek was educated here, and the Venetian, Byzantine and archaeological museums are city pleasures on a small island.
The lush interior is great for hiking and walking, and in spring the wildflowers flush the fields and roadsides. Each village has its own character. Sangri sits in the middle of a plain surrounded by small Byzantine churches. Halki, with its neoclassical mansions and Venetian towers, differs again from the drama of white marbled Apeiranthos, overlooking a steep valley. Local buses connect with these villages, including a bus to the foot of Mount Zas, the highest mountain in the Cyclades. The return reward is lunch in the village of Filoti and coffee in the shade of a huge plane tree.
• The Blue Star ferry from Piraeus (Athens) takes just under six hours (bluestarferries.gr). Olympic Airways flies to Naxos from Athens
Meaghan Delahunt, author of To The Island (Granta, £12.99), set on Naxos
Hora village square, Patmos, and an alfresco feast at a Greek Taverna.
… FOR AN EXCLUSIVE RETREAT
The very long ferry trip from Piraeus (usually docking at 3am) and lack of an airport mean that Patmos is too remote for the faint-hearted or the package tourist; there is little here for the party set, and its beaches are simple. Above all, it has a beautiful rocky purity, pebbly shores, the coldest, cleanest sea in the Aegean, old mountain pathways and simple beach tavernas. The island is dominated by its monastery, perched high as an eagle's nest, and the power of the orthodox church is tangible: Byzantine gold treasures; dark cars speeding high-ranking priests to the port; and pilgrims queuing to enter the cave where St John saw his apocalyptic revelations.
Patmos has long attracted those who want peace and solitude (if not visions) and many artists and writers have found inspiration here. However, it also has a reputation as a summer haven for a discreet international elite, and the old merchants' mansions are mostly owned by wealthy outsiders. Each August, the Italians arrive – a reminder that the Dodecanese were colonised by Italy until 1948.
• The ferry from Piraeus to Patmos takes about nine hours.Bestofgreece.co.uk has a selection of villas on Patmos, including Keramikos, in Chora, which sleeps seven, from £1,307 per week
Sofka Zinovieff, writer
… FOR MUSIC
Dylan and Baez danced to it barefoot, now Greek teens prefer it to pop… Lyra, born in the Byzantine era, is Crete's wild, unbridled folk music. Played on the eponymous three-stringed, pear-shaped instrument (it looks like a small violin, but is held upright on the knee and bowed horizontally) and accompanied by verses of rhyming couplets (or mantinades) that are "rapped", Crete's musical legacy has a rough quality – not unlike tsikoudia, the local firewater that's served at lyra gigs. Venues range from intimate cafes with a couple of dozen tables, to sprawling, 1960s-style festivals where it's not unusual for gunshots to be fired – although, happily, not in anger.
To see why lyra is back in a big way, kick off in Chania, just down the road from Stavros, where Zorba the Greek was filmed. Apart from its summer festival (from July–September, attracting top names such as Tzouganakis, Zoidakis, Psarogiorgos, Zervakis, Dagakis), there are two cafes, Harhalis, on Grigoriou St, and Cafe Kriti on Kalergon St, where seasoned Cretan music veterans come to jam.
Zipping along the coast to Heraklion, you'll find clubs like the pretentious Big Fish (Handakos St) and the more streetwise Xatheri (Daidalou St) playing Kritiki sounds. Heraklion also hosts an arts festival from July to September with plenty of live lyra, while the Aerakis Music store (Daidalou St) stocks a huge range of Cretan music, many of the artists signed to this legendary store's own label.
The labyrinthine white village of Anogia, high in the Psiloritis mountain range (and a short hike from Zeus's mythical birth-cave), is where many of the island's greatest artists – from Nikiforos Aerakis and Manolis Manouras to Nikos Xylouris – were born. Order a thimble of strong, raki-spiked elliniki coffee and hobnob with black-shirted shepherds listening to Cretan music on Radio Kriti FM at the kafeneion in the central square, then pay a call at the corner house, cluttered with memorabilia, where sweet-voiced Nikos Xylouris grew up.
Labyrinth in Houdetsi hosts the Irish-born lyra aficionado Ross Daly's lyra and lute workshops, while further south are the party hot-spots, where clubs like Zig Zag in Malia (Malia St) and The Matrix in Hersonissos (Eleftheriou Venizelou St) play DJ Omeyocan's remixes of Cretan hits.
Wind up your music tour with a pilgrimage to Matala, the hippy beach resort facing towards Libya, where Joni Mitchell camped out in caves and was inspired to write "Carey", one of her most popular and enduring songs.
• Aegean Airlines flies from Heathrow to Crete.
Heidi Fuller-Love, travel and lifestyle writer based partly in Greece
Santorini is renowned for its distinctive food.
… FOR FOOD
To find the one Greek destination with the best food is about as easy as finding Atlantis, but here goes.
Dishes from Crete, the Cyclades and the influx of 20th-century refugees from Constantinople, Smyrna and Pontus who have introduced their traditional foods (meatballs, stuffed tomatoes/peppers, dolmadakia, bulgur, peinerli and varenika) to the region make Thessaloniki the perfect city to sample Greek gastronomy.
One place I visit regularly is the bougatsatzidiko (cream pastry shop) for bougatsa me krema – a vanilla-flavoured semolina custard between crispy filo sheets topped with icing sugar and cinnamon. It is heaven for breakfast.
Also try Vary Peponi (Apellou St, just off Nauarinou Square), an intimate restaurant with quality home-cooked dishes, lots of options for vegetarians/vegans – superb pulses. B. (Veta), the cafe-restaurant at the Byzantine Museum (brestaurant.gr/), offers more sophisticated Mediterranean food, while Hatzifotiou patisserie (Paulou Mela St, hatzifotiou.gr) has the best baklava and other syrupy desserts.
Santorini, the island of romance, is the home of fava, a delicious and nutritious yellow split-pea purée. It is also known for its wine, distinctive cherry tomatoes, white aubergines, and the fact that vegetables grow on the dry volcanic land. The 218˚ cafe-restaurant (218.gr) in Oia, in the north, has Greek cuisine with Cretan and Cycladic flavours and amazing views across the Aegean.
In the eastern Aegean lies Ikaria, named after Icarus. Ikaria's population are famous for living to a ripe age, on a diet based on vegetables, olive oil, honey and horta (wild greens). Try grilled octopus in red kidney bean stew. As befits the birthplace of Dionysos, the god of wine, Ikaria has an organic winery and farm, which has three-bedroom stone houses to rent and holds wine or cookery classes. Ikaria is, not surprisingly, famous for its village parties and festivals, or panigyria.
Wherever you visit in Greece, try local cheeses. Many are labelled PDO (protected designation of origin), indicating that the cheese has been produced in a traditional way. Try kefalograviera, batsos, kefalotyri, ladotyri from Lesvos and metsovone.
• EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick to Thessaloniki. The Andromeda, a boutique hotel in a 1920s listed building, has doubles from £60 through LateRooms.com (0844 774 1001, laterooms.com). EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Santorini. . EasyJet flies from Gatwick, Manchester and Edinburgh to Athens. From there, fly or take the ferry to Ikaria. Visit island-ikaria.com for more information
Elisavet Sotiriadou is a writer and chef. She runs Greek cookery courses in London at Leith's Cookery School, and supperclubs
… FOR BOUTIQUE HOTELS
The Dodecanese islands, just off the Turkish coast, still see their share of island-hopping backpackers, but they're acquiring a new breed of luxurious boutique hotels, designed to complement local architecture.
On Rhodes, the breathtaking medieval city of Rhodes Old Town – all cobbled alleyways, shadowy spaces and half-buried ruins – comes into its own at night. Here, in a peaceful corner, is the gorgeous Spirit of the Knights, a newly converted traditional home, whose six suites evoke different eras of Rhodes's history, from the Crusaders to the Ottomans.
The dazzling white village of Lindos, on the west coast of Rhodes, is home to the sumptuous Melenos Lindos. Poised between a Crusader castle and sandy beaches, it's the perfect honeymoon destination. Opulent rooms boast glorious sea-view terraces, and there's a top-flight restaurant.
Even more romantic is the ravishing island of Symi, a ferry ride north-east. A harmonious array of neoclassical mansions, painted matching ochre and terracotta shades, rise to all sides of its amphitheatre-like harbour; many can be rented. The exquisite Old Markets is a converted mansion overlooking the bay. Symi is also known for innovative restaurants, its latest gem being Muses in the main village square.
Further north, Patmos was where St John had his visions. In the village of Hora, Archontariki offers four spacious suites, with gardens and courtyard.
• Fly Tor Air has flights from Gatwick to Rhodes for around £200. Doubles are available at Spirit of the Knights, €145–270), Melenos Lindos, €250–570 , The Old Markets, , and Archontariki in Patmos.
Greg Ward, writer on the Dodecanese for the Rough Guide to Greece
You can visit Meteora as part of an Ionian island-hopping holiday. Photograph: Alamy
… FOR ISLAND-HOPPING
With cheap flights from the UK, Corfu is becoming a gateway for exploring the surrounding small islands, as well as mainland Greece. Ask around the ports of Agios Stefanos, Roda/Sidari or Corfu town and you can usually find a boat to take you north-west to the lovely Diapontia islands of Othoni (the biggest island, with many sea caves and impressive rocks), Erikoussa (the northernmost, with a picturesque port, Porto, and good beaches) and Mathraki (good for hiking and beaches). For northern Greece, the mainland port of Igoumenitsa can be reached by ferry within an hour from Corfu.
Nearest to Corfu is the Epiros region, whose capital, Ioannina, is built on the banks of Lake Pamvotis, where there is an inhabited island. Visit the museum of Ali Pasha, seven monasteries, and the Byzantine castle of Ioannina.
Inland, Meteora is the second-largest and most important complex of Greek Orthodox monasteries in Greece, and has Unesco world heritage listing. The six monasteries here make a viable day trip from Corfu, with an early start.
To visit Albania, ferries go from Corfu to Saranda, and you can take a tour that visits the archaeological site at Butrint.
Emma Tennant, author of several books on Greece, including A House in Corfu
… FOR THE SIMPLE LIFE
At the end of our trip to Paxos we concluded that it really was a boring island. Silent, because there's no flight path (you have to take a ferry from Corfu). Calm, because there is no mass tourism, no stag nights, not many people at all. Repetitive, because we found our favourite taverna (Vontza), beach (sandy Vraki), swimming spot (a stroll down from our villa, Faye), view (Erimitis cliffs at sunset), long-distance drive (Loggos harbour, five miles) and dessert (tiny Caramac-flavoured lollies from the bakery at the edge of Gaios harbour)... and did them over and over again. Boring. Definitely boring.
Katharine Viner, deputy editor, the Guardian
This is a country for old men – they sit in every square, playing backgammon, drinking moonshine and arguing about politics. Epiros, a mountainous region in north-west Greece, bordered by Albania and the Ionian sea, is the playground of retirees who have returned home – to an undeveloped, rocky, dramatic landscape.
In the Zagorohoria, where 40-odd villages cling to the edge of the Vikos Gorge, tourists raft, hike and bungee jump. In Bourazani, a 1,200-hectare environmental park is home to 850 animal species, 109 types of butterfly, and 50 wild orchid varieties (bourazani.gr/English). And Metsovo has a vineyard, museums, and a ski lift.
A few summers ago, at the annual festival in Lia, on the Greek-Albanian border, my friend Abby and I met Bill, a British tourist on his motorbike. When the music started, the village president announced: "We'll begin as we always do – the priest will lead the dance." Abby exclaimed: "The priests dance? This is a great country." Bill, who has been biking across Greece for four decades, responded: "This is the great country." For old men, young women, and everyone in between.
• Olympic Airways (olympicair.com) flies daily from Athens to Ioannina. (Or go by ferry from Corfu.)
Eleni N. Gage, author of North of Ithaka Her first novel will be called Other Waters
… FOR HIKING AND NATURE
"I think no place on Earth can be lovelier than this," said Edward Lear, describing Corfu in 1856. Today, the island, covered by 3m olive trees, is still as beautiful if you keep away from the resorts, perhaps walking the eight-day Corfu Trail (thecorfutrail.com) along paths built when the island was under British rule, from 1814 to 1864.
In the less developed south, rolling hills fall down to empty sandy beaches to the west. In the middle of the island, picturesque villages perch on hillsides. A ridge runs up the west coast and drops down to spectacular but popular beaches. To the east there are views of Corfu town, a world heritage site.
The Pantocrator massif, rising to 900m, crosses the top of the island, with lush deserted valleys stretching towards the north coast resorts and a sheer drop to the "corniche" of the north-east, with its luxury villas and small shingle bays overlooking Albania, just 2km away, and the mountains of the mainland in the distance. In spring the island is covered in flowers, with 150 species, including 50 orchids, counted along the trail (corfuflowers.com). Truly a green paradise.
John Waller, author of books including Walking the Corfu Trail and Corfu Sketches
Partying on Mykonos
… FOR NIGHTLIFE
Mykonos is still the number-one party island in Greece. Begin with sunset cocktails at a waterside bar in Little Venice, where long-standing favourite Caprice serves sublime margaritas. After dinner, head for Rock'n'Roll Mykonos for classic 70s and 80s rock. Next door, Pierro's (pierrosbar.gr) continues its tradition of drag shows. For dancing on the beach, catch a night bus to Paradise Club (paradiseclubmykonos.com) which has Full Moon Parties on 14 July and 12 August. Moby will play here on 4 August. If that's not enough, scramble up the hill above Paradise Beach to Cavo Paradiso (cavoparadiso.gr). Open until 8am, it's the perfect spot to watch the sun rise over the Aegean. Guest DJs this summer include Roger Sanchez, David Morales and Erick Morillo.
Jane Foster, freelance writer based in Athens (jane-foster.com)
We would like to once again thank the Guardian for this excellent article! www.bestofgreece.co.uk