Being born in Greece means having to explain a lot - how we could have mismanaged our economy for so long, why the Windex jokes in Big Fat Greek Wedding don’t really make sense and which of the famous Greek Isles to visit. The latter has been asked of me more than a hundred times. Rather than recycle the same email, here are my quick notes and thoughts. If you have additions or comments, please please add them in the comments. If you disagree, fuck off and go buy a guide book.
Note Bene: these recommendations are mostly catering to a couple’s trip, since most end up going to Greece with a partner. It’s the best way to see the islands, unless you enjoy unbridled debauchery until 7am with endless bikini-clad girls (that’s a different guide).
You definitely want to stay in the Cycladic islands. The stuff out west (Ionian) is nice, but far and more expensive, with less to see in terms of history and culture. The Dodecanese are also some of my favorites, and they’re next to the Cycladic islands. You can mix them up a little, I think. Here’s a good map with a link to an interactive guide…
In general, it pays to lock down your trip in advance and do some research online about hotels on the specific islands you want to visit. I’ll describe a few of them below, but it’s really up to you. Check out pictures and Google the different islands – where you go really makes a difference. These islands grew up very isolated, historically, which has led to a unique topography and social scene on each island. If you plan on booking hotels in advance, I would use a travel agent and book your rental car (if you need one) and domestic plane or ferry tickets together. Prices are pretty flexible, so you can end up saving a bundle.
The General Character of Greek Islands
Here are my general island thoughts. I’ve roughly labeled which ones are (P)arty, (R)omantic or (G)reek, which should give you an idea of character.
- Mykonos (P)(R) – big party island, beautiful with great beaches. Don’t miss that one if you want to see what the posh islands are like. A nice mix of tourists and Greeks with some really upscale restaurants, shopping and hotels. Lots of nude beaches, but also lots of smaller, romantic places to hang out. More below…
- Santorini (R) – romantic, picturesque, but a bit further than the others. More upscale, but less of a party. If you stay in Ia (sometimes spelled Oia), you will have a tremendous view of the volcanic bay (“caldera”) and you can sample the general character of the Cycladic islands. It is one of the most beautiful, quiet and memorable places to spend time with your significant other. It’s often called the Honeymoon Island.
- Ios (P) – party island, and covered in drunk, British teenagers. Can be nice, but totally skippable.
- Naxos (G) – large, historically important island. Some ruins and stuff, with a mix of nice beaches. Not really a party island at all, and far too big to be that interesting or manageable on a short vacation.
- Paros / Antiparos (R)(G)(P) – beautiful, mix of fun and great dining, gorgeous little town in the north and great restaurants all over. I always try to get to Paros a little. Antiparos is much smaller, great for a tour off the beaten path, more of a Greek vacation spot.
- Amorgos (R)(G) – gorgeous, but far off the beaten path. It’s quiet, with fewer tourists and less developed retail. The main town is really special, as are the beaches on the eastern side. We’re talking lonely, stone-covered beaches with a sprinkling of German tourists and families.
- Koufonissia (R)(G) – beautiful, but tiny! 4 square miles, and hard to get to. Last time I went, they didn’t even have an ATM or credit card functions on the island. The facilities are sparse, but the beaches and water are some of the most picturesque in that part of Greece. [Update 2011] I haven’t been there in 9 years, but have heard that the island has become overrun with people. It’s crowded and full of yachts and tourists. Read up on it before you decide to go…
- Sifnos, Serifos & Folegandros (R)(G) – I hear really good things about all three, but I’ve never been. Probably not worth the travel time if you’re limiting yourselves to a few days, but might be an idea if you’re spending more than a week there. Folegandros, in particular, is one of the Greek gems (I’ve been told).
- Syros & Tinos (G) – less interesting, but important nautical islands. Not really that touristy. There are nice beaches, but unless you have to stop there, don’t.
A Rough Itinerary
My recommendation would be Santorini – Paros / Antiparos – Mykonos. That, of course, is if this is your first time. It’s a shame to travel across the world and miss these islands. They are perennial favorites for tourists, and for good reason. I personally avoid them in favor of exploring islands off the beaten path, but you might enjoy them. Mykonos is party-heavy, expensive and glitzy. Paros is lower key, but still really nice. Santorini is gorgeous, quiet and romantic. They’re all a mix, but none of them is really inexpensive. In each, you can find lower-priced accommodations, and the reviews on TripAdvisor tend to be spot-on. I would do your homework if you’re trying to save money.
- In Mykonos, you want to stay relatively near the main port town, which is where most of the hotels, villas, etc. are. Also, the nightlife and restaurants are all there, and you don’t really want to drive at night.
- In Paros, I recommend staying in Naoussa. It’s smaller, better restaurants, and a cooler vibe. The port town (Parikia) is cool, with a great restaurant called Levantis (http://www.parosweb.com/goingout/home/levantis/) that I love, it’s just not worth staying in the middle of the hustle and bustle.
- In Santorini, I recommend Ia (Oia). Katikies was a dream come true, but pretty expensive. Tablet Hotels (www.tablethotels.com) runs deals on these once in a while.
In terms of timing, you could do all 3 plus Athens in a week, but it will take great planning in advance. I suggest 3 nights in Mykonos, then 2 nights in Paros and 2 nights in Santorini. That way, you can leave Saturday morning and get to Athens early (flight recommended). You can hit the Acropolis in the afternoon (but check the times it’s open first), hit the city in the evening and take off Sunday morning. You should talk to a travel agent or look online for the details of (a) ferry schedules between islands, (b) flights to & from the islands and (c) Acropolis schedule. If any of these don’t work, you’ll have to rejigger your plans. Also, you should probably rent a car or mopeds in every place you go, since the beaches can be far and it’s nice to go exploring. If you’ve never driven mopeds, I don’t suggest trying to learn on vacation. The car rentals are usually pretty cheap (20-30 EUR per day at most place), so it shouldn’t be too bad. Plus, way safer and less stressful. General Thoughts on Visiting Greece
- As of Summer 2011, the country is a mess. Really, it’s always been a mess, but now the tourists can see it. I would avoid Athens unless you’re really into the history. The riots and discontent are probably limited to the city, and you can probably avoid interruptions and delays by not relying on city infrastructure (subject to strikes, protests and the like).
- A guidebook might be worthwhile. Not just for the history and details, but because information changes a lot and mine might be a bit outdated.
- Greeks start LATE. You might go to dinner at 9pm and see no one (or just tourists). Usually, depending on the day, dinner starts at 11pm or 12am. Be prepared. The party goes late, too, but we also sleep in. On busier, more modern islands (Mykonos, Santorini), your day might start around 11am heading to the beach. Sleep/swim all day, watch the sunset around 7pm, nap and shower, out around 11pm, Home around 4 or 5. It’s tiring but great.
- Tipping is not expected above a few euros. Less than 10% almost all the time.
- If you want to save money and don’t care that much about the amenities of your hotel, don’t book a room. When you get off the ferry or arrive at the airport, you can usually see a gaggle of 10-20 people holding signs trying to get your business. They will have pictures and speak English, and will negotiate hard for a rate. Hold off until you find the one you like, and don’t be afraid to ask to see the place before agreeing to stay there. I remember finding rooms this way for $20-30 per night a few years ago. Depending on season & island, it shouldn’t be too much higher.
- The above notwithstanding, rooms on Mykonos & Santorini should be booked ahead, and be prepared to pay Manhattan rates. 300-500 Euros per night is not unusual, and booking early pays off. If you’re looking for something special (read: extremely expensive but unbelievable), try Katikies, Rocabella, Canaves (I think), Grace and Asteri (I think).
Mainland, Peloponnese & Other Sites
- Nafplio, Olympia, Epidaurus and some other sights on the Peloponnese are really worthwhile if you’re looking for traditional historical ruins to see alongside your beach vacation.
- Delphi, north of Athens, is really an amazing place as well.
- Athens is worth seeing at the end of your trip, once you’ve had a chance to adjust to the climate and you’ve really gotten the beach and sun side of the trip out of your system. It sucks getting off the plane and spending 2 days in hot, crowded Athens on the Acropolis (110 degrees) if you haven’t already been on a beach for a week.
- Monemvasiais also pretty incredible, with a lot of cool scenery on the drive down the coast.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to Greek travel, culture or anything else. If you want that, again, go buy a guidebook. These are my quick thoughts, full of bias, snobbery and anything else that will avoid your criticism. If you know me, please follow up for more details or a different type of trip. I would be happy to help!