Highlights from my trip to Greece
I just returned from a vacation to Greece this weekend, so I thought I’d share the highlights of my trip while they are still fresh in my mind. Greece is a fabulous country to visit for history buffs, beach goers, and yes, food lovers! If you love Mediterranean food, you’ll eat well in Greece.
We were there for 8-9 days (including travel time) with 2 days in Athens, 3 in Crete and 3 in Santorini. In this post, I’ll take you through the highlights of each spot, but first let’s chat about the basics of Greek food.
Greek Food Essentials
Greek Food Pyramid: You’ve probably heard about the Mediterranean Diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil and that’s definitely what you find in Greece with a few clarifications. The base of the Greek food pyramid is bread, and I definitely had some of the best bread I’ve ever had there! Even today, Greece is not really a wealthy country and as is often the case in more rustic diets, bread and grains compose a large part. Next up on the pyramid, you’ll find tons of vegetables, followed by cheese and dairy products, then followed by fish and finally red meat on the top.
Greek Coffee: Strong coffee lovers will be happy in Greece! Greek Coffee is brewed in a tiny pot with a handle called a briki is very similar to Turkish coffee (just don’t tell them that). Usually served sweetened with sugar, the fine coffee grounds are boiled with the water and then the whole thing (grounds included) are served to you in a small cup. (Sip slowly and leave the grounds in the bottom of the cup.) If you aren’t up for Greek coffee, order an espresso, a Freddo—espresso shaken up with ice—or a Frappe—Nescafe blended with ice.
Olive Oil: Greek olive oil is abundant and you’ll find a lot of small producers on the island of Crete. Koreneiki olives are the most famous in the region, but be sure to try different kinds. Almost every shop that sells it will have open bottles of at least a few kinds for you to try—just ask. The thing I liked about shopping for olive oil in Greece is that there are so many small producers. There’s not necessarily one “best” brand" just a lot of different farms across the islands. Also, it’s all really affordable, so be sure to bring a few bottles home and plan for the extra weight!
Greek Wine: Like Italy, I found that all the “table” wine we ordered in Greece was great and paired with the food really well. Also like Italy, it was really affordable (like to the point where you are thinking is this price for the bottle or a glass) and we really only saw people drinking wine when they were eating. Santorini and Crete have vineyards and wineries and there are many day trips you can take to visit them.
Must try dishes in Greece
You’ll see a lot of repetition on Greek menus but here are some dishes to try.
Souvlaki: the street food essential that’s usually skewered pork, lettuce, tzatziki, tomato, onions and often French fries, wrapped up in a hand held pita. A perfect quick bite if you need to save a few bucks or are hungry when the restaurants aren’t open. My husband ate nearly one a day. You can also get souvlaki with chicken, without meat at all, or with halloumi cheese.
Bougatsa: This became our favorite pastry and was perfect for mornings when we didn’t have breakfast or just needed a little something. Basically it’s a thin dough wrapped around custard or sweet cheese (similar to ricotta). Some places served it plain and some with a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon.
Seafood: If you do any traveling to the Islands, seafood is a must. We liked ordering whatever the catch of the day was but also had great mussels, octopus, and a fish roe-based appetizer called taramosalata. An interesting convention is that Greek menus will always specify whichever dishes are from previously frozen fish. Assume it’s fresh unless you see frozen in parentheses next to it.
Highlights from each stop on our itinerary
Since we had a limited amount of time, we decided to stick to only 3 locations: Athens, Crete, and Santorini rather than trying to squeeze in more islands. It actually ended up being a pretty diverse, yet smooth itinerary so I’d recommend it if you only have about a week in Greece. Here’s what we liked best in each location:
You can’t go to Athens without seeing the Acropolis, and a guided tour is really the best way to do that. Most tours start first thing in the morning, but because of our travel time, we actually needed to book an afternoon tour around 4pm. This ended up being genius because the Acropolis is way less crowded at that time of day—it was almost peaceful being up there. The nearby Acropolis museum (filled with the sculptures, etc from the Acropolis itself) is also worth a visit and it’s only 5 euros.
Our favorite thing by far that we did in Athens is this food tour by Alternative Athens. Our group of 8 explored 3 neighborhoods with our local guide Zoe. We had about 8 tastings and really got our bearings on the neighborhoods and classic Greek dishes from coffee to loukoumades to olive oil and cheeses. Our go-to travel plan is to do a food tour on the first day we arrive to a new country. These tours tend to be intimate and you are just so much more prepared for what’s to come.
In Crete, we stayed in the city of Chania (also spelled Hania) which is on the west side of the island. Chania has a beautiful Venetian harbor and is filled with restaurants and shopping. Many day-tours leave from Chania so although it’s not centrally located on the island, it’s not a bad hub. Our favorite restaurant there is right on the water but outside the city. It’s called Thalassino Ageri and had some of our favorite seafood ever.
Our favorite day in Crete was when we rented a car and drove to Elafonissi beach, a pink sand beach on the southwestern part of the island that has a small island nearby that you can walk to through waist-deep water. We got there early to claim some chairs and an umbrella and it felt like we were in the Caribbean with the turquoise blue water and the whole tropical vibe. After the beach we drove back to Chania, but on the way, drove up some pretty terrifying mountain roads to reach a traditional village called Milia. Now an ecolodge, they have a restaurant that serves pretty much only things that they grow or cultivate since the location is so remote. We had some more traditional Crete mountain dishes there and were also briefly chased by a heard of mountain goats.
Santorini is like a postcard come to life—if you’ve ever seen photos of the Greek islands with white buildings and bright blue accents they are probably from Santorini. We initially wanted to avoid this heavily touristy island, but it made the most sense with our itinerary to go there, and we did enjoy it. Lodging on Santorini is expensive, but it’s somewhat mitigated by the fact that you can get anywhere you want to go on the island by a pretty easy to navigate system of public buses.
We stayed in the main town of Fira which ended up being advantageous because it’s the hub of that bus system. We spent a day exploring Fira and heading to Kamari, a black sand beach on the other side of the island. The next day we headed to Oia, considered the fanciest spot on the island and got massages at Caldera Massage Studio. The massage package, while pricey, included a private balcony to watch the sunset, which is the The Thing to do in Santorini, especially Oia. Everyone waits on the balconies until the sun goes all the way down and then starts clapping! Oia is also connected to a port called Ammoudi Bay by about 300 stairs so we also headed down there to have fish by the sea. We also visited a big winery called SantoWines to do a tasting and a tour of Santorini wines (many dry whites) as well as their local dessert wine VinSanto.
A few things to know before you go to Greece:
Restaurant hours: most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7 or 7:30pm and really fill up around 9-10pm.
Shoulder season: July and August are considered the busy seasons so it’s recommended to travel on the shoulder season (like we did) in May or September if you can. The weather is still nice (it was 70s and 80s and sunny every day for us) but it’s not as mobbed with tourists.
Carry cash: we found many places didn’t accept cards with big restaurants and hotels being the exception. Bring your ATM card to get cash for small eateries, taxis, etc.
Cats: there are many, many street cats in Greece! Expect to have a few feline friends coming in and out of the restaurant as you eat dinner. We didn’t see any that were aggressive or meowing for food, but they will hang around your table patiently for a little bit before moving one.
Have you been to Greece? Tell me you recommendations in the comments below!