General Tips for Greece
What to pack
Greece’s terrain is almost entirely mountainous, whether you’re on the mainland or in the Greek islands. The cities are a mix of smooth marble, regular roads/sidewalks, and cobbled streets/sidewalks. Most of the sites themselves, though, either require a lot of heavy restoration or are quite decrepit, so it’s important to pack a decent pair of shoes with soles that have good, deep treads that you can walk without major issues for at least 8 hours. The treads are important for being able to grip to the terrain, since they can be slippery whether the ground is dry or wet. I’d personally recommend hiking shoes.
It’s still ok to take sandals or flip flops, for the quick trip to the store or down to the hotel lobby, or even at a few beaches (with the exception of Santorini).
If you plan on going to the beaches in Santorini, water shoes might also be helpful. Most of the beaches there are more rocks than sand. This isn’t necessary, but I found it much more comfortable to walk around in water shoes than flip flops at these beaches.
Clothing can get tricky in Greece depending on the season and where you go. It’s also important to remember that some churches don’t allow shorts. They may allow it at times, or provide skirts for women, but be aware that they can turn you away if you don’t abide the no shorts rule.
A. Light jacket
It’s always a good idea to take a light jacket on any trip, if for no other reason than to not freeze in a heavily air conditioned room. In May, there are still a few places in Greece that can be chilly. North and central Greece were a bit on the cold side, namely in the early morning, the evenings, and when it rained a bit. Island hopping on the ferries can also have a bit of a cool draft, so a light jacket is also useful there.
B. Swim gear
If you’re planning on hitting the beaches, pack your bathing suits. You can also take swim goggles with you to protect your eyes from the very salty waters of the Aegean sea.
C. Sun protection: Sunscreen, Sunglasses, and Hats
Sunscreen is necessary for everyone. Even if you’ve never ever had a sunburn, don’t count on not getting burned there. Even if you’ve never gotten a sunburn before, take some good quality sunscreen, as you may just get your first one there (like my parents did). The sun is quite bright and harsh there for several reasons – you’re at a higher altitude, and if you’re anywhere near the water, the water reflects the sun – so please take the sunscreen and apply as often as you can (this can be a challenge if you end up sweating a lot, which is likely).
On a similar note, sunglasses are necessary. The bright sun will probably be blinding, especially when you look up at the monuments and sites, or around the water.
Hats also help. Caps are fine, but hats with a way to protect the back of your neck is advisable, even if it looks silly.
I like staying as close to the sites as possible that way I can pop in and out of the hotel as I please. Obviously, it’s not always possible because of availability and budgetary reasons, but that’s my primary goal. I also prefer to stay at chain hotels if the prices are within reason, but this is unnecessary. If you like boutique hotels better, then you use those, or if you like AirBnB or the likeness, that’s fine too.
Breakfast at Accommodations
Regardless of what accommodations you choose, I would advise to have breakfast before you step out for the day. What I mean by this is that if you stay at a hotel, it’s better to have breakfast included with your room rate. If you choose AirBnB, have some breakfast ready in the home. I recommend this so that you can leave straight to the sites once you’ve finished breakfast, so that you can maximize your sightseeing. There’s nothing wrong with going out for breakfast, but it’s much more of a hassle to find a place that has something you like, get serviced, and finally pay for it (unless it’s literally a grab and go situation, but that’s hard to find in most places).
One tricky aspect about Greece is making reservations. Reserving too early is a mistake, as things are subject to change, and often do. However, for Athens and Sanotirini, it’s a good idea to book earlier rather than later, so that you can get rooms at prime locations. I would say 2-3 months should be ok for those two places, earlier, if it’s peak tourist season.
It’s ok to book accommodations at other cities closer to your travel dates, as those are more susceptible to the “subject to change” issues. For non-peak season, 2-4 weeks out is fine. For peak season, 6-8 weeks is best.
Note: Peak season is Greece is during the summer, which is June – August end.
Driving and Transportation
Driving: Road conditions and parking
You can drive in mainland Greece and on the various islands. Driving in mainland Greece isn’t too much different from driving in the US, except that driving laws aren’t strictly enforced, but there are rules that native drivers follow. Even still, I didn’t find them to be aggressive (only that most of them wanted to overtake me), but they were almost always patient.
Roads were pretty good, with the exception of a few dirt roads that I got routed through, but that was rare. Most of the routes from my GPS took me through towns, but occasionally there were highways too. The highways for the most part are tolls, so it’s a good idea to keep some cash for those. Exact change isn’t necessary at the toll booths, since there are attendants who collect it.
I largely avoided driving in Athens, where there are a lot of pedestrians, but the main issue with having a vehicle in Athens is the parking. It’s hard to find parking. Parking in general is hard to find in pretty much any tourist site, but in most of the tourist sites/town outside of Athens, it was ok to park wherever you could safely park. You basically didn’t need to worry about getting tickets or towed.
Driving on the islands (well, just Santorini), is a little treacherous. We’ll get more into this in the Santorini section, but with some of the worst drivers that I have ever seen along with terrifyingly narrow roads on cliffs, it was far from ideal to drive there, though largely necessary for us (covered later).
Renting a car
Car rentals require a credit card, your driver’s license, and an international driver’s permit. Be sure to have all three to present at the rental car counters. Also, if your primary car insurance doesn’t cover you outside of your home and you don’t have a credit card that has car insurance included (specifically collision damage), it’s probably a good idea to add insurance to your rental.
If you plan on renting from one of the major car rental agencies, such as Avis, Hertz or SixT, it maybe cheaper (and available) if you walk up to the counter and rent one without a reservation versus reserving a car online. I also found that SixT tends to be the cheapest option from all of the major agencies whether on the mainland or on the islands.
B. Manual vs. Automatic
Obviously, manuals are far more available and cheaper, but if you’re not a skilled manual driver, go for the automatic. The last thing you want to worry about is gear shifting on the mountainous roads.
Carry only enough cash that you need. The change can get bulky and there are a lot of pickpockets around. There are plenty of easily accessible ATMs in the mainland, Santorini, and Mykonos, so getting money shouldn’t be a problem.
- If you use a credit card pretty much wherever they are accepted, you will need roughly 25-50 Euros per person per day (this range is due to some pricier sites not accepting credit cards).
- If you’re not going to use credit cards, expect to carry about 100-125 Euros per person.
Greek food is pretty well known to be healthy, and vegetarian/vegan friendly. It’s also quite inexpensive, even when compared to some of the more modest costing European countries. For example:
- The most expensive gyro that I had on the mainland was roughly 5 Euros, while on it was roughly 8 Euros on the islands.
- Lamb was usually 14 Euros
And, the portions are enormous. I was told that the reason for that is because Greeks don’t usually have much food until their last meal of the day, so the portions for the last meal are quite large, probably enough for 2 people.
Health and Safety, and other Notes
These are some general notes, some of which I’ve mentioned, but bears repeating.
- Be careful of pickpockets. Even with your wallet in the front pocket (and even if you have safety pins to deter pickpockets), it’s very easy to have it stolen. Just ask my dad.
- Be respectful of the rules at the sites. Do not pose at sites or in museums, as the Greeks are very proud of their heritage and see that as a sign of disrespect. Also, be mindful of the roped off areas. Don’t lean over or encroach in, or worse, hop over them. They’re there for a good reason, whether to prevent people from desecrating the sites or for safety reasons.
- Bring smaller collapsible bags if you take backpacks or bigger bags with you. Most museums (and some sites) will likely not allow big bags.
- Keep yourself hydrated by taking water bottles with you. It’s very hot out there, and you don’t want to dehydrate. It’s especially helpful to take thermos like bottles to keep the water cool, especially inside the (outdoor) archaeological sites which are expansive and won’t have places to buy water.
- I’ve been advised by locals and expats not to drink tap water. They may be dusty because Greece is in a drought.
- Apply sunscreen liberally and often!!
- Avoid renting a car in Athens. Parking is difficult and driving may be challenging.
- Similarly, as a pedestrian, be careful while walking and crossing the streets. There are still some insanely bad drivers there who are not afraid of hitting pedestrians.