Getting to the Next Level in Greece

Sep 22, 2021

When you think of Greece, certain iconic images or experiences immediately come to mind. There's the timeless majesty of the Acropolis standing guard over Athens, the white-washed walls lining the winding alleys in Mykonos, the sunset over the placid blue waters of the caldera in Santorini. It's enough to fill an Instagram feed with stunning "I want to go to there" images and compel millions of travelers to visit every year. But for every iconic Greek experience or attraction, there are countless others that are equally as incredible, even if they are less well-known.

So we've compiled a list of "next-level" Greek go-tos, once you've hit all the Greek classics. Start planning your next trip to Greece in order to hit these spots.

Once you've climbed the Acropolis hilltop to see the Parthenon ... climb the stone pinnacles to see the monasteries of Meteora.

Greece is home to some of the world's most magnificent and historic religious buildings, the most famous being the Parthenon in Athens. Many of these buildings can be found in incredible settings like the Hozoviotissa Monastery overlooking the Aegean Sea from a cliffside perch on the island of Amorgos.

But nothing compares to Meteora, where the landscape and the architecture combine to create a scene that leaves visitors awestruck. Towering over the town of Kalabaka are 400-meter sandstone pinnacles that seem to reach for the heavens. It's stunning even before you realize that there are monasteries built on top of these monoliths. Now consider that 24 of these structures were built mainly between the 14th and 16th centuries, with the building materials being carried by monks scaling the rocks or hoisted by ropes into the clouds. 

Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, six of the complexes are still active monasteries or nunneries, welcoming visitors willing to pay a modest fee (and wear modest attire) to take in views that are equally impressive inside (where religious icons, murals and frescos line the walls) and outside (the valley and plain of Thessaly stretch out before you). You no longer need to be a mountain climber to visit—steps were added in the early 20th century. However, expect a very active day of sightseeing with a lot of walking and pack plenty of water—these are monasteries, not convenience stores. Kalabaka is a 4-hour train ride from Athens, making it a perfect overnight getaway from the Greek capital.

Once you've eaten your way through Athens ... order up a culinary detour to Thessaloniki.

You can plan an entire Greek holiday around food. And whether you stay in Athens, escape to the Greek islands or peel away to the Peloponnese, you'll find each region adds its own local flavor to the staples of Greek cuisine.

The best example of this may just be found on the tables of tavernas in Thessaloniki. Located in the northeastern part of the country, Greece's second-largest city has come under many influences (Macedonian, Ottoman, Roman, Balkan, Armenian and Persian to name just a few), bringing different cuisines together long before fusion was a culinary buzzword. 

For a taste of what the city offers, venture to the Ladadika neighborhood. Once a commercial marketplace for traders from the nearby port (especially olive oil, Ladadika means "with oil"), the area has been recently restored into a pedestrian-friendly district with narrow cobblestone streets, colorful storefronts and alfresco dining. After a satisfying meal, make sure to find a shop selling bougatsas, a sweet and savory cream-filled pie, and/or Trigona Panoramatos, custard-filled phyllo cones soaked in syrup.

Once you've posted the photo of Navagio beach to Instagram ... sneak away to the unspoiled beaches of Milos.

If there was a fashion week for beaches, Greece would steal the show. Across the 16,000 kilometers of Greek coastline are more beautiful beaches than one can see in a lifetime, featuring sands of all colors (white, black, red, gold, pink) often framed by stunning cliffs and lapped by water so blue that it has its own paint color. (Aegean Teal was Benjamin Moore's 2020 Color of the Year.)

The supermodel of the bunch is found on the Ionian island of Zakynthos. Navagio, or Shipwreck, Beach is a smear of golden sand tucked into a cove of crystalline blue water guarded by towering white cliffs. The aforementioned shipwreck with the curious back story still sits on the beach, providing you a sense of the scale of the surroundings.

You can only reach Navagio by boat, but it can get crowded in the summer months. If you want to find a less crowded stretch of coast that is equally as stunning, the island of Milos in the Aegean has the answer. Sarakiniko seems otherworldly, as the ever-present wind and sea have eroded white volcanic rock down to a landscape that may be best described as "if the moon had a beach." 

The sandy area itself is rather small, but the surrounding rocks provide ample space to stretch out, as well as opportunities to try a tame version of cliff jumping into the azure Aegean Sea. 

Once you've visited the center of the ancient world in Delphi ... walk in the footsteps of a historic who's who in Philippi.

On the scenic slopes of Mount Parnassus sits the "navel of the earth", as proclaimed by none other than Zeus. Delphi was the spiritual center of the Greek world for several centuries B.C., with the famed Oracle of Apollo providing divinely inspired guidance to leaders that pilgrimaged or sent emissaries from across the ancient Western World. Temples, monuments and other great buildings surrounded the Sacred Way that led to the Temple of Apollo from which the wise words were whispered.

Located about a two-hour drive from Athens, you can still walk amid these ruins at this UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as take in the theater and stadium where the events of the Pythian Games were contested. If you visit in the winter months, you may also be able to sneak in some skiing at Mount Parnassus nearby.

About 300 miles to the northeast is another city that attracted some of ancient history's biggest names to its gates. Philippi was put on the map when it was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon (aka the father of Alexander the Great) in 356 B.C. in an effort to control nearby gold and silver mines. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the plains near Philippi were the site of a crucial battle in 42 BC between the forces of Brutus and Cassius, and those of Octavian and Mark Antony, whose victory signaled the end of the Roman Republic and start of the Roman Empire. Almost one hundred years passed before the city was visited by the apostle Paul, where he founded the first Christian church on European soil. Located along the crucial Via Egnatia trading route, Philippi became one of the centers of the Christian world as the Roman Empire re-oriented itself to toward Constantinople in the first millennia AD. 

Visiting today, you can see the old fortified walls and Greek theatre dating back to the 4th century BC as well as ruins of the Roman forum and temples. Tread lightly as you explore this UNESCO World Heritage site, as you are walking in the footsteps of some all-time greats.

Once you've applauded the sunset in Santorini ... party until sunrise in Ios.

With its blue-domed roofs capping the all-white architecture perched on sea cliffs high above the Aegean, Santorini is the definition of picture perfect. After a day of exploring vineyards, black sand beaches and the winding walkways of the hillside towns, pick a spot facing west to see the iconic Santorini sunset, when the day's final hour proves to be worth its weight in gold.

After those moments of Zen, you may be in the mood to celebrate life. While Mykonos has a well-earned party reputation, Ios more than holds its own—and it's much closer to Santorini, less than two hours away by ferry.

Ios draws a younger crowd than Mykonos and is more affordable, whether you're in the mood for an all-day beach party at a spot like Pathos Beach Club or you want to hit the clubs for an all-night affair that often spills out into the narrow alleys of the main town of Hora. After sleeping off the fun with a lazy day of sunbathing at Milipotas Beach or exploring some of the island's picturesque churches (myth has it there is one for every day of the year), you can queue up another night of fun or just sit back and admire a classic Greek sunset.

Ready to go? Greece is open to vaccinated American travelers. Find travel inspiration for your Greece vacation, pick your favorite islands and remember these travel tips.

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