Athens - Looming large above Greece’s chains of idyllic islands, and loaded with history, Greece’s mainland is a craggy terrain of raw natural beauty, ancient ruins and buzzing contemporary life.
Often forgotten as tourists stream out to the archipelagos, striking out into the various regions of Greece’s mainland affords fresh perspectives, a view into traditional ways of life, and a less-visited region, where it’s not unheard of to get a site or a walking trail to yourself.
The main gateways, Athens and Thessaloniki, each merit attention, from Athens’ vaunted Acropolis and down-to-earth nightlife to Thessaloniki’s more laid-back seafront vibe. Then it’s essential to head for the hills: whether it’s the Pindos range, near the lakeside city of Ioannina, whose Epirus region harbours small stone villages called the Zagorochoria, or Parnassos mountain with the nearby Delphi ruins rising above the sparkling Gulf of Corinth. In the north, the heavenly peak Olympus calls for hikes in search of Zeus, Hera, and the Greek gods.
On the east coast, the heavily forested Pelion Peninsula, former enclave of the mythical centaurs, is now criss-crossed by traditional cobblestoned mule paths, called kalderimia, which make perfect walking and hiking trails (pilionwalks.com).
Lakes, like Prespa in the north near Florina, offer prime bird watching, and coastlines like those around Halkidiki, in the Thessaloniki region, boast swimming beaches perfect for children. Halkidiki is also home to holy Mount Athos, a monastic enclave that may only be visited by men, and only by arrangement (agioritikiestia.gr)
It’s important not to neglect the vast fingers of the Peloponnese, either. This rural region could be the terrain of your whole trip if you let it. Visit the ruins of Olympia (odysseus.culture.gr; admission €12/R200), site of the original Olympic games, Mystras, Mycenae, and the ancient theatre at Epidavros. Country lanes wind between olive groves and wine country, and central mountains like the Taygetos afford top treks.
The wild Mani area is a more austere landscape of stone and open sea vistas and is notable for its unique tower houses, former bastions of warring families. Nafplio, a picturesque Venetian fortress town on a protected azure gulf, makes a fine base, with historic townhouses now converted into top boutique hotels and interesting shops. Grab a map, and take your time, there’s more than enough to choose from.
Most trips to Greece start in Athens, the nation’s capital and of course an important stop for exploring the iconic Acropolis (odysseus.culture.gr; €20, joint admission to major ancient sites €30) which beckons day and night from its mighty perch. The nearby Ancient Agora (odysseus.culture.gr; €8, or included in Acropolis joint admission) was the centre of civic life in ancient times, and Socrates spoke there.
Important museums include the sleek Acropolis Museum (theacropolismuseum.gr; €5) which smartly showcases the Acropolis carvings and artefacts. The National Archaeological Museum (namuseum.gr; €10) is home to the world’s pre-eminent collection of ancient Greek art. The Byzantine and Christian Museum (byzantinemuseum.gr; €8), Cycladic Art Museum (cycladic.gr; €7) and Benaki Museum (benaki.gr; €9) are also world class, and are within easy walking distance of one another.
Lesser-visited Thessaloniki (also known as Salonica) has its own fascinating history, with its famed White Tower and Roman ruins like the Rotunda of Galerius. The city boasts a relaxed seafront setting, great coffee culture and a rich culinary tradition.
Baked treats like tsoureki, a stuffed sweet bread, are made at Terkenlis (terkenlis.gr), and the city’s hallmark confections, like pastry cones filled with rich cream, call for sampling.
The Ladadika neighbourhood, formerly the olive oil district of the city, is top for creative, welcoming eateries. Paparouna (paparouna.com) is a favourite for its imaginative takes on wholesome Greek produce. Kouzina Kioupia (kouzina-kioupia.gr) is popular for delicious Greek staples in a convivial atmosphere, with tables spilling onto a square.
According to myth, Zeus sent two eagles flying and they met at Delphi (odysseus.culture.gr; €12), the centre of the world. The site’s 4th-century BC Temple of Apollo was where the famed Oracle, usually an older priestess, would make pronouncements, which were then interpreted by the priests of Apollo. Other outstanding remains include a theatre, stadium and the circular Sanctuary of Athena Pronea.
Meteora (odysseus.culture.gr; €3 per monastery) lives up to its name: derived from the word meteoros, “suspended in the air”, these monasteries perch on dramatic rock pinnacles. Walking paths connect these highly defensible enclaves which have been home to monks since Byzantine times. The monasteries are decorated with outstanding historical frescoes, and the area offers rock climbing and camping opportunities.
In the north near Thessaloniki, don’t miss Vergina (also known as Agia; aigai.gr; €12), which includes the grand subterranean burial mound of the Macedonian kings, like Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. The elaborate burial offerings are wonderfully preserved.
Epidavros (odysseus.culture.gr; €6) is a magnificent, beautifully preserved ancient theatre next to the powerful sanctuary of the ancient god of medicine, Asclepius. You can catch a performance in summer in this vast, acoustically perfect theatre as part of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival (to 20 August; greekfestival.gr), or visit both sites during the day.
Nearby, Mystras was the capital of the Byzantine empire. With palaces and chapels dating from 1271 to 1460 strewn across a foothill of the Taygetos Mountains, it makes for a great wander. Monemvasia, a city on a dramatic rock islet is also well worth a visit.
Trekking Hellas (trekking.gr) offers hiking and rafting trips in the Peloponnese. For instance, a week-long self-guided trek along the 75km Menalon Trail, through river gorges, mountains and valleys, costs from €590 per person, including B&B, packed lunches, luggage transfers and maps, but not flights.
Where to stay
In Athens, Hotel Hera (herahotel.gr) has doubles for €100 B&B, and is within walking distance of the Acropolis. The iconic Grand Bretagne (grandebretagne.gr) has been the hotel of choice for dignitaries and celebrities since the 19th century, and the rooftop bar has stellar views of the Acropolis. Doubles start at €300, room only.
Thessaloniki’s Electra Palace Hotel (electrahotels.gr) offers B&B doubles from €145, and is the city’s swankiest lodging; its grand facade arcs around Aristotelous Square, the heart of the city, rooms are lavishly kitted out, and the rooftop pool has sea views.
Near Meteora, Dellas Boutique Hotel (dellasboutiquehotel.com) has doubles for €62 including breakfast, and provides charm and comfort after a long day out trekking between monasteries.
In Nafplio, Amfitriti Palazzo Design Hotel (amfitriti-pension.gr), with doubles for €77 B&B, is one of the numerous excellent boutique hotel options, in the heart of the old city. Housed in a renovated neoclassical mansion, the hotel is a blend of sleek modern decor and old-world comfort.
Airlines serving Athens and Thessaloniki include easyJet (easyjet.com), British Airways (ba.com), and Aegean (aegeanair.com), which also serves Ioannina.
Tour operators to mainland greece include Sunvil (sunvil.co.uk), Olympic Holidays (olympicholidays.com) and Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (ramblersholidays.co.uk).