You know the feeling when you find a place you can’t wait to tell people about. Somewhere you know everyone should visit at least once. Because hearing about it is pretty special but seeing it is something else. Well, here are 12 for you in Greece… and the best bit is that you can sit there in the comfort of your home and cherry-pick the ones that jump out at you.
Standing proudly above Athens – and at the top of our list – is the Acropolis, the Sacred Rock (as it’s known to Greeks) that’s been watching over Athens for the last 2,500 years.
The ancient Athenians worshipped here, every conqueror wanted to make it their own, UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site and specialists are today lovingly restoring it… But all you need to do is marvel at the geometry of the columns, the detail of the stonework and the intricacies of its history, and then enjoy the exhibits in the Acropolis Museum right next door.
The S word! It’s that ethereal manifestation of what happens when an impossibly beautiful volcanic landscape is bathed in amazing white light and then reflects its brilliance on everyone who visits. Santorini is the embodiment of everything magical about the Greek islands and the Cyclades islands chain in particular. But there’s also a lot that you won’t be expecting… the taste of the cherry tomatoes, the wine routes, the hiking paths and the sunsets. Our top tip is to visit outside the peak summer months (April-May and October are best) for the most personal experience possible.
Mention Santorini and the Cyclades and, in the same breath, what comes next? It could only be Mykonos. The original luxury destination and right at the top of so many holiday wish-lists. But the reason Mykonos has endured is because it also oozes authenticity, especially in the main town where you’ll discover the island’s beating heart. A walking tour of Hora (as it’s called) or a day spent visiting the island’s dairies and farms will leave you wondering what else you don’t know about this unique island.
White cliffs, sky-blue sea and a strip of sand with an iconic shipwreck in the middle of it… It could only be Navagio Beach in Zakynthos. Images of Shipwreck Beach (as it’s also known) have appeared in the pages of travel glossies all over the world.
But it’s when you see it in the flesh that you understand its full landmark status: The light dancing off the water, the scale of the cliffs and the pleasure of swimming here (as only the best beaches in the Ionian Sea can do). Boy does Zakynthos know how to turn on the style!
The Palace of Knossos
So this is where it all began! The Palace of Knossos, just outside Heraklion, in Crete, is the best-known and largest of the palaces of the Minoans, the very first civilisation of Europe. They gave us myths and legends such as the labyrinth and the Minotaur, artwork such as the Bull-Leaper frescoes and the Snake Goddess figurines and the remains of their largest palace.
It takes something to stand out amongst all the amazing things to do in Crete, but the Palace of Knossos – and the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, which houses many of the palace’s artefacts – makes quite a claim.
Staying in Crete, we head to the northwest coast, to one of the most recognisable beaches in the world, let alone Greece. Balos is otherworldly in its beauty… the blues of the sea, the subtle pink of the crushed shells in the sand and the wild splendour of Cape Tigani, the distinctive saucepan-shaped outcrop of land you look onto. Altogether, it’s an Instagrammer’s dream. But Balos isn’t just about physical beauty. It’s also about escape… swimming, exploring the Natura 2000-protected surroundings, or just finding a little nook to contemplate how Chania, as a region, just keeps on giving.
The Medieval Town of Rhodes
A completely different view of Greece next. We’re off to the Middle Ages and a town that’s been continuously inhabited since a time when knights on horseback strode its cobbled streets. It’s the Medieval Town of Rhodes, in its entirety a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That you’re on Rhodes, the largest island in the Dodecanese and more commonly associated with sunshine and beaches, makes it even more special.
Corfu Old Town
Another old town but on the other side of Greece. We’re off to Corfu next, an Ionian island with a unique history: the Byzantines, Venetians, French and British all ruled over Corfu… and all their influences are reflected in the architecture, ambience, sights and sounds of its old town. You’ll find it wandering down the cantounia (narrow pedestrianised streets) and in the squares, palaces, fortresses and churches, as well as in the tavernas and bistros serving Corfu’s rightly famous food. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it deserves to be prominent on your list of incredible things to do on Corfu.
The mind boggles at the daring of the 15th-century monks who climbed the sheer faces of the Meteora rocks and built the monasteries we marvel at today. Then again, it’s hard to imagine a more remote and spiritual place and the feeling of being one step closer to heaven. Six of the monasteries are still functioning and the best way to give this experience once-in-a-lifetime status is to hike through a landscape that’s as eye-catching as the end-destination. And guess what? UNESCO has bestowed World Heritage status on the monasteries.
It’s hard to over-emphasise the importance of Delphi. Like many sanctuaries in antiquity, it was dedicated to the god Apollo. But it was also considered the centre of the world. Rulers and military leaders, as well as common folk, sought guidance from the Oracle. And no doubt, the majesty of the landscape was half the effect. Games were held here, as well as theatrical and musical performances. But mostly, it was about the soothsayer Pythia and her obscure prophesies. And you guessed it, it gets a big thumbs up from UNESCO, so its proximity to Athens (2hr20min by car) is more than welcome.
We watch and cheer every time they’re staged. And for some of us, it’s a life’s dream to participate in them. But how many can claim to have visited the place where they started? We’re talking about the Olympic Games, of courses, and we’re in Ancient Olympia, where the ancient Games were held for over 1,000 years and the Olympic flame is lit today. The remains are fascinating (the Ancient Stadium, Phidias’ Workshop, The temples of Zeus and Hera…), as is the Archaeological Museum. But it’s the spirit of the place you’ll remember most. With another tick from UNESCO, it’s a must on any itinerary in the Peloponnese.
And we’ve saved the biggest till last. Mt Olympus, the mountain of the 12 ancient gods and the highest point in Greece, if you climb the tallest of its three peaks(2,918m). You don’t have to, of course, but it’s one of the landmark hikes in Europe – not just for its mythological significance but also the incredible scenery. There are also less demanding walks, such as the Enipeas Gorge along the pan-European E4 hiking trail. And you can finish with a swim in the sea. Whether you visit Olympus on a day-trip from Thessaloniki or stay here, you’re in for adventure on an Olympian scale.
Seeing really is believing
So there we have it…. An epic tour of 12 incredible destinations in Greece. There’s history, iconic islands, grand nature and no fewer than six UNESCO World Heritage Sites to choose from. And, as promised, we didn’t even make you get up from your sofa. For now.