Ah, Greece. It’s my favorite country – I’ve spent four months here in the past two years, and plan to spend at least five more months here this year. It’s a sun-filled seaside heaven. Every time I have to leave, I literally count the days until I can return. So with all that time traveling and living here, I’ve learned a lot of Greece travel tips that I hope will help you on your next trip here.
Here are my top ten Greece travel tips.
10. You can drink the water – most of the time.
Greece has water quality ranging from fine in Athens to excellent in Crete. So buying big quantities of bottled water, and then adding those empty bottles to the already-big mounds of plastic waste we’ve created in the world? Not necessary.
The exception to this is some islands – like Santorini and Corfu. This is because the tap water there is often desalinated ocean water. It’s not harmful to you, but it does taste pretty nasty and salty. Fortunately, bottled water is quite cheap and readily available in those places so you won’t go thirsty. If you’re not sure if the water is ok to drink, since it varies by location, just ask a local or the hotel where you’re staying.
9. A cup of coffee has two different prices.
It’s much cheaper to take away a coffee than to drink it in a cafe, and that’s for a good reason. When you get a coffee to stay in a cafe, you can sit for as long as you like – hours and hours even when all you order is one little cappuccino.
It’s part of the culture to linger a long time over a coffee with a friend or five. And it usually comes with a little biscuit or cookie on the side too – sometimes a very delicious one. It’s worth the extra euro to stay and linger, chatting to your friends, writing on your laptop, or just taking in the scene around you. This is especially great for digital nomads in Athens, like me,
8. You can’t flush toilet paper here.
Greece is amazing, but let’s get real – this is my least favorite part of living here. The pipes are too old and narrow to handle anything larger than a postage stamp. Greece isn’t the only country where this is the case – it’s true in most of Southeast Asia too.
But when the garbagemen are on a semi-strike in 90-degree weather and the trash piles up several feet high… it makes a bad situation very, very unpleasant (flashbacks to last October!). So yes, that’s what that little waste bin next to the toilet is for.
7. The produce is incredible, and you can buy it from the farmers themselves.
My favorite weekly event in Athens is the local laiki agora, or farmer’s market. This is not the over-priced twee small event of American cities. It’s street after street of tables selling everything from local honey to extravagant flowers to the best produce. And the prices are insane.
Get a pound of sour salty olives for $3, two pounds of fresh spinach for $1, pomegranates for .75 each, and everything else that grows in the fertile soil of Greece (and also bananas from Ecuador, which, ok). Homemade olive oil and wine? Got it. Tiny fresh Mediterranean fishes and slinky octopi? Got it too.
Just walking around as the vendors shout “my children, come here!” in Greek at me and yell at me to taste their olives is happiness. It’s a distillation of the chaotic hospitality and excellent food that is everything I love about Greece.
6. It’s possible to get around most places without a car.
I don’t enjoy driving, and I’m always nervous to do it abroad – especially in a country like Greece where road rules are more like suggestions. But it’s doable to explore much of the country and the islands without having to rent a car. Athens has great public transit – a big clean subway system plus loads of buses. They even have Uber now too. Driving and parking in the city is a nightmare, so the subway is much easier.
And outside of Athens, the bus system is great as well. I’ve bussed all over the Peloponnesus, Santorini, and Crete with no issues at all. The bus drivers are cranky at first (oh, I have been yelled at by many a driver for trying to pay them/not paying them/telling them where I’m going/not telling them where I’m going). But they’re actually quite helpful once they warm up a bit and will make sure you get off at the right place.
I’ve never paid more than $7 for a bus ticket in Greece and I’ve bussed everywhere (you know I love buses). Also the buses play great rebetiko music for a local feel.
5. A majority of people in Greece speak English.
This is for a few reasons – most people under age 40 learned it in school, most of them have also spent time abroad working, and the big tourism industry in Greece means a high level of English. The only times I have really struggled is in little villages in Crete with elderly people. But they communicate just fine by pinching my cheeks and giving me flowers and raki.
Otherwise, it’s quite easy to navigate here – plus, most signs in big tourist areas are in both English and Greek. Greek is a difficult language, plus it has a completely original alphabet, so Greeks are understanding of people who don’t speak their language.
4. But a few key words of Greek go a long way.
That being said, it’s polite and appreciated to know a few Greek words and use them while you’re here. Parakalo παρακαλώ (please and also you’re welcome), efharisto ευχαριστώ (thank you), and yassas γεια σας (a general polite hello) will get you a lot of smiles and sometimes a cookie. You’re in their country, after all, it’s only polite to respect their language.
If you want to level up, learning the Greek alphabet is tricky but means you can figure out a whole lot more of what’s going on. And I’ve been using Duolingo to practice my more advanced Greek (I can talk about cake, wine, and cats now – super crucial to my life).
3. Greeks like to party – to a limit.
Greek culture is very communal, social, and fun. They love to celebrate any occasion, stay up late socializing, and enjoy a beer, wine, or raki. But they aren’t heavy drinkers – and they don’t appreciate tourists coming here to get smashed either. Alcohol is usually consumed with food as part of a meal, not as a means to get wasted. On Saturdays nights in hip cafes full of young people, about half of them are just drinking coffee.
So enjoy that glass of wine with lunch – Greece has amazing wine – and some ouzo after dinner. But don’t follow in the footsteps of the loutish British tourists I’ve seen too often here, wasted by 4 pm and staggering in the streets.
2. Greece is a very safe country – yes, even Athens.
If I had “ena evro” (one euro) for every American suburban dweller who asked me in low tones how I ever managed to feel safe in Athens, I’d have enough money to purchase the crumbling Neoclassical mansion of my dreams.
Greece is ranked #39 on the list of safest countries in the world. Athens is one of the safest cities in Europe, and one of the few cities I feel safe walking around alone at night. It’s safer than Paris, Dublin, and every US city I’ve ever visited. Yes, it’s dingy and a little dark and covered in graffiti, but that has nothing to do with safety. And I’ve now lived in two of the most avoided neighborhoods in Athens as a woman alone – and always felt safer than anywhere I lived in Boston.
As in any major tourist destination, pickpocketing does happen, especially in Monastiraki and on the metro line from the airport, but that’s about it. Keep an eye on your belongings as you would anywhere and you’ll be fine.
Greece for solo female travelers is especially great. There’s almost no street harassment, everyone will help you and look out for you, and crime is very, very low. That’s why Greece is my top destination for solo female travelers. (Plus the hot men, of course.)
1. And finally… Greek food is incredible and should not be missed.
Here’s what you need to know to eat your body weight in heavenly (and often healthy) food.
- Bakeries gleam from every corner and are often open late, sometimes even 24 hours. You can get a massive variety of sweets here, from the classic baklava and spanakopita (plus the cheese version, tyropita) to the giant sugary donuts that are my weakness. Plus, they’re a great place to get cheap meals like a slice of pizza, a sandwich, or sometimes a salad. And as a snack, koulouri can’t be beat – sesame bread rings you’ll see hanging up on racks.
- Souvlaki joints are everywhere, and you can find them by following the smell of the roasted meats to the source. A little distinction – souvlaki are little meat strips grilled on a stick, while gyros are the big cones of roasting rotating meat you’ll see in the window. You can get them usually in a few different meats (chicken and pork are classics), and as a plate or on a pita with salad, fries, and tzatziki. An excellent and cheap snack or light meal at any time.
- Cafes usually serve a little food, but they’re a better stop for a coffee or glass of wine.
- Mezze places specialize in serving big dishes you share as you hang out with friends or family. They have great prices and a relaxed, fun atmosphere.
- Foods you can’t miss: spanakopita, gyros pita, saganaki (fried cheese mmm), Assyrtiko white wine from Santorini, loukomades (little fried dough bites), olives and cheese, and real Greek yogurt with honey.
I could write a whole separate blog post about Greek food – and maybe I will someday. But those are the basics that will get you fed well, wherever you are. Καλή όρεξη! (That’s Greek for bon appetit!)
Food, safety, getting around and getting a few Greek words under your belt – I hope this was all the tips you need to know about traveling in Greece. It’s a beautiful, friendly, and historic country, and I hope you love it as much as I do. Happy travels!