Places you must visit in Greece


Athens

Athens ranks with Rome and Jerusalem for its glorious past, yet few visitors fall in love with the modern city. But beyond the off-putting veneer of concrete there is a kind of dilapidated charm. Almost every house or apartment has a balcony bulging with geraniums. Athens is a blend of east and west; its raucous street vendors and colourful markets are reminiscent of Turkish bazaars, while neoclassical mansions hark back to the city's brief heyday as the 'Paris of the Mediterranean'.

The Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon, stands over Athens and is visible from almost everywhere in the city. Pericles set about transforming the Acropolis into a city of temples after being informed by the Delphic oracle in 510 BC that it should become a province of the gods. The city was a showcase of colossal buildings, lavishly coloured and gilded, and of beautiful statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones. Now in ruins, the cool grandeur of the bare marble is still breathtaking. Beside the Parthenon, which is unsurpassed in its grace and harmony, is the Erechtheion, immediately recognisable for its much-photographed Caryatides, the six maidens who take the place of columns. The Ancient Theatre of Dionysos, is on the southern slope of the Acropolis.

In the northeastern slope of the Acropolis is the old village of Plaka, virtually all that existed of Athens before it was declared the capital of independent Greece. Its narrow labyrinthine streets retain much of their charm despite the modern gross commercialism. Fenced off on the verge of Plaka is the ancient Agora (marketplace), which formed the centre of social and civic life in ancient Athens. Other attractions include the National Archaeological Museum, which houses magnificent gold artifacts from Mycenae and spectacular Minoan frescoes from Santorini (Thira), among other exquisite objects and antiquities; and the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic & Ancient Greek Art, with a collection of the elegant marble figurines that inspired the likes of Modigliani, Brancusi and Picasso.

Plaka is the most popular area to stay. Book in advance in July and August though, as Athens becomes overrun with tourists.

Peloponesse

The Peloponesse, Greece's southern peninsula, is rich in history and scenically diverse. Packed into its northeastern corner are the ancient sites of Epidavros, Corinth and Mycenae, all easily reached from Nafplion. Further south, you can explore the medieval, capacious Byzantine city of Mystras near Sparta at the slopes of Mt Taygetos, with its winding paths and stairways leading to deserted palaces and fresco-adorned churches and the area of Mani, a region of bleak mountains and barren landscapes broken only by imposing stone towers, mostly abandoned but still standing sentinel over the region. Other attractions in the region include the beautiful medieval town of Monemvasia, the Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, and the thrilling Diakofto-Kalavryta rack-and-pinion railway, which roller coasts its way through the deep Vouraikos river Gorge.

Meteora

The World Heritage monasteries of Meteora, in the middle of Greece, are one of the most extraordinary sights. Built into and on top of huge pinnacles of smooth rocks, the monasteries provided monks with peaceful havens from increasing bloodshed as the Byzantine Empire waned at the end of the 14th century. The earliest monasteries were reached by climbing removable ladders. Later, windlasses were used so monks could be hauled up in nets, a method used until the 1920s. Apprehensive visitors enquiring how often the ropes were replaced were told 'When the Lord lets them break'. These days access to the monasteries is by steps hewn into the rocks and the windlasses are used only for hauling up provisions.

Cyclades Islands

The Cycladic islands epitomise the postcard image of the Greek islands: dazzling white buildings are offset by bright-blue church domes, while golden beaches meet an aquamarine sea. Some of the Cyclades, such as Mykonos, Santorini, Paros and Ios, have vigorously embraced the tourist industry; others, such as Andros, Kea, Serifos and Sikinos, are visited infrequently by foreigners but are favourites with holiday-makers from Athens.

Mykonos is the most expensive and heavily visited of all Greek islands. It has the most sophisticated nightlife and is the undisputed gay capital of Greece. Barren, low-lying Mykonos would never win a Greek-island beauty contest, but it does have superb (if crowded) beaches. The town is an enchanting warren of chic boutiques and chimerical houses with brightly painted balconies draped in bougainvillea and clematis; it's too perfect for some tastes. Santorini (also known as Thira) is regarded by many as the most spectacular of the Greek islands. Thousands of tourists come every year to gape at the sea-filled caldera, a vestige of what was probably the world's largest volcanic eruption, ever. Despite the crowds who visit in summer, Santorini's weirdness, apparent in its black-sand beaches and mighty cliffs, holds a distinct allure.

If you want to escape the tourist crowds, Sikinos, Anafi and the tiny islands to the east of Naxos offer some respite.

Crete

Greece's largest island has the dubious distinction of playing host to a quarter of all visitors to Greece. It's still possible to find some peace by visiting the undeveloped west coast, the rugged mountainous interior and the villages of the Lassithi plateau. Crete was the centre of the Minoan culture, Europe's first advanced civilisation, which flourished from 2800 to 1450 BC. The palace of Knossos, just outside Crete's largest city, Heraklio, is the most magnificent of Crete's Minoan sites. While Heraklio is a modern, wealthy but somewhat charmless city, the other large towns, Chania and Rethymno, are packed with beautiful Venetian buildings. Paleohora, on the southwest coast, was discovered by hippies in the 1960s and from then on its days as a quiet fishing village were numbered, but it remains a relaxing place favoured by backpackers. Many travellers spend a day trekking though the 18km-long Samaria Gorge to get to Agia Roumeli on the southwest coast. Further along the south coast, which is too precipitous to support large settlements, are the villages of Loutro and Hora Sfakion, linked by boat. The climate on the south coast is so mild that swimming is possible from April to November.

Dodecanese Islands

Strung along the coast of western Turkey, the Dodecanese archipelago is much closer to Asia Minor than to mainland Greece. Because of their strategic and vulnerable position, these islands have been subjected to an even greater catalogue of invasions and occupations than the rest of Greece - Egyptians, the Knights of St John, Turks and Italians have all done their bit as conquerors. Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands and its town is the largest inhabited medieval settlement in Europe. The Avenue of the Knights is lined with magnificent medieval buildings, the most impressive of which is the Palace of the Grand Masters, restored, but never used, as a holiday home for Moussolini.