Greece, the cradle of western civilization, is not only monumentally historic, but it’s also beautiful and boasts some pretty unique beaches and mouthwatering cuisine. Given that the country is made up of thousands of islands — several hundred of which are inhabited — a cruise ship is the best way to travel between them. Often it’s the only way, as only a handful of islands have airports. Cruise ships large and small sail to Greece, though the benefit of smaller vessels is that they can navigate smaller harbors, docking in less populated islands brimming with opportunities for exploration. Here, the five sites and must-have experiences luring us to Greece.
Many cruises start or end in Athens, and you’ll definitely want to stay in port a few days, if possible, to explore some of the world’s most iconic historic monuments: from the Parthenon overlooking the city from the ancient Athenian acropolis, to the stunning Temple of Zeus in its shadow, which at one time was the largest temple in Greece. Of the temple’s 104 original Corinthian columns, 15 still stand tall, while a 16th lies on its side after having been blown over during a storm in the 19th century.
Just outside of Athens, across many of the Greek Islands, are a number of ancient towns and medieval fortresses easily accessible from the moment your cruise ship reaches port. Greek civilization developed along the coast, partly because the sea was so important to trade, so most of the antiquities and historical sites you’ll want to visit are within steps of the harbors.
Disembark in Monemvasia, for instance, and you’ll be greeted with a small town and fortress that dates back to 6th century AD, and which later became an important trade and maritime center for the Byzantine Empire. Walk along the town’s cobblestone streets and see ruins of ancient churches and homes. Stop in at a local bar for a glass of the popular sweet wine, or take an equally refreshing dip in the sea below, easily reached via an exposed ladder placed off the rocks halfway back down the road to the pier.
The food alone is reason enough to cruise to Greece, so be sure to have a meal in port whenever possible. Whether you’re stopping at Santorini, Olympia or Athens, you can’t go wrong when ordering the classic Greek salad, a heap of juicy red tomatoes, fresh feta cheese and crisp cucumbers, usually served with a basket of hearty bread and a bowl of Kalamata olives. Other must-eat dishes include mashed eggplant salad (melitzanosalata), grilled calamari, fish or meats served with fresh pita, and the best way to round out a meal, baklava. This ubiquitous pastry is made with thin layers of filo dough, stuffed with chopped nuts, then baked and sweetened with honey.
There are a lot of amazing museums in Greece, including the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — considered one of the world’s most important museums for its abundant collection of ancient Greek artifacts. Roam the massive (air-conditioned!) halls and marvel at statues dating as far back as 7th century BC. You’ll find white marble sculptures, bronze statues and other towering figures, many of which are missing appendages that have broken off over the years. Notwithstanding a few missing fingers, the pieces have held up remarkably well considering most are more than 2,000 years old.
Greek beaches are not the traditional strips of white sand people expect, rather shores of crushed shells, black sand and sometimes stones greet beach-loving cruisers to Greece. The lack of sand doesn’t keep locals from pitching a towel atop the rocks and catching some rays. Mourou, the grey pebble beach on the island of Amorgos, is set dramatically within arcs of ancient rocks, where grottos and a dark teal sea make for some intensely gorgeous scenery. You can get there in about 20 minutes via motor scooter or car from the main cruise port. A tavern overlooking the beach is the perfect place for lunch.
The uniquely Greek look of whitewashed walls and cerulean roofs is recognized the world over. While there are many theories about the use of these two colors (from the white paint keeping things cool by reflecting the sun, to white and blue representing the sky and the sea), the colors are forever associated with the country — and even make up the colors of the national flag. Wander down the narrow streets of places like Mykonos to soak up the beauty and shop the local boutiques for souvenirs such as silver jewelry and apparel.
Sure, there’s more to see and do in the quaint neighborhoods than shop, but now that we’re on the subject, the sandal selection here is second to none. Namely because Grecians have been making and wearing strappy leather sandals for millennia, so craftsmanship is practically an art form. The handcrafted shoes are thick and sturdy, and come in a variety of colors and styles. Some of the best places to find traditional Grecian sandals are in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens. Try the So What! Bags and Sandals shop on Kapnikareas Street, where a pair like this can be purchased for about $30 USD.