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A first-timers guide to Greece

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

The view from Santorini caldera
Life on the rim of a sunken volcano: Santorini caldera

With crystal clear waters, bountiful sunshine, myriads of islands, and of course, the iconic white dwellings, Greece has become synonymous with a European summer beach holiday. So, let’s explore what Greece has to offer and if the hype is worth it.

I’ve explored four Greek islands and been to Athens twice in as many months. While that doesn’t make me an expert, far from it in fact with over 6000 islands spread across the Mediterranean Sea, I think it’s prudent to discuss what I’ve seen and done, particularly as these destinations are probably quite similar to most first-timers. From the high ridges of Santorini and the energetic allure of Mykonos, I’ve explored the blissful beaches of Kefalonia and wandered the idyllic streets of Paros. Below I explore each unique destination in more depth, so keep reading my guide to Greece and some of its islands!

From little Venice in Mykonos to the highs of Santorini

The Iconic Island Destinations:

When thinking of the Greek Islands, I’m sure Mykonos and Santorini will be some (if not the only) islands that spring to mind. Santorini particularly burst onto the social media scene with pictures of private pools perched on the edge of sheer cliffs boasting panoramic views of the sea far below. Accompanying this dreamy scenery one likely conjures images of the iconic white-clad Greek houses adorning the rim of the sunken — although still active — volcano. While all of this beautiful imagery is true, the reality is slightly different.

Those famous private pools you’ve seen are wildly expensive and many are not quite as secluded as you might think. These memorable moments could be shared with hundreds of visitors as they climb above and around your pool, looking down, in or directly at you while you try and soak up the strong Greek sun. In fairness, this isn’t all of them, but those ultra-secluded properties are so expensive they might as well not exist. Unless I won the lotto. In that case, I’ll take two.

Despite the price, Santorini is stunning. The sheer drop, expansive, rugged views and gorgeous little towns make Santorini a great flop-and-drop destination. I recommend staying in Imerovigli, it has its vertical town and is close enough to the main action in Oia but without quite the same crowds.

Santorini Highlights

Next up is Mykonos. Known as one of the social party islands, it too has areas to relax and unwind with Ornos a great small town walking distance from the port. Watching the kitesurfing as we traversed along the coast was a highlight, as well as taking a chartered boat out to visit nearby islands. The main town itself has some great shops and restaurants but like Santorini, these too come with a price tag. However, we found Mykonos more laid back than Santorini with less pressure to capture that perfect photo, despite similar sunset waterfront opportunities.


The Verdict of the Iconic Islands:

We chose to flop and drop at each, having a great time enjoying the weather and relaxing, but either could be a high-octane experience with lots of bars, restaurants, day trips and tours available. Don’t be fooled though, both are luxurious indulgences and sadly border on being overcrowded, despite us visiting at the end of the shoulder season. And, considering the influx of cash from tourism, little seems to filter down to improving infrastructure, solving the litter crisis or exploring sanitation and clean drinking water. Sadly, we found these issues across all four islands, appearing to be more of a national issue than localised to any specific island, if that makes it better. Nevertheless, they’re both great destinations with lots to offer, which is why I hope they can improve and tourism can continue to flourish. In saying that, if I had to pick just one to recommend it would be Santorini for the iconic views and better towns. However, there are other islands just as stunning but not as busy…

The Lesser Known Alternatives:

Kefalonia was my first experience in the country with this eastern landmass known as Greece’s “green” island. While this pales to the verdant fields of Ireland, it’s a nice change from the barren scorched Cyclades islands of Mykonos and Santorini. Kefalonia is also very large, so a car is essential if you want to properly explore the island’s myriads of beaches. And let me tell you, they have some stunning beaches, among the most picturesque I’ve seen in Europe. Also, not all the beaches in Greece are pebble, with some in Kefalonia boasting sand and even clay, which was unexpected but welcome. Between the mountainous cliffs and clear, crisp water, I enjoyed many a Greek salad accompanied by a cold beer (naturally) and would do so again in a heartbeat.

The view over a classic Kefalonian beach
The view over a classic Kefalonian beach

Paros too has some great beaches and while less dramatic than the mountainous scenes on Kefalonia, it boasts a beautiful village, sure to satisfy any Mama Mia urges. The island isn’t as large as Kefalonia but a lot of the attractions are spread out, so hiring a car is recommended. With a car, you can explore small fishing villages and more remote beaches frequented more commonly by locals. For me, Paros rivalled Kefalonia as the most local and authentic feel of the four islands and the least crowded of the bunch. Similarly, I found the main village in Paros the most picturesque and complete of any I've seen.

The streets and beaches of Paros

The Best of the Alternatives:

The islands of Kefalonia and Paros aren’t completely obscure but neither do they attract the plague-like swarms of tourists, which is great if you’re like me and become frustrated with crowds. Nevertheless, both are still very popular with the beaches in Kefalonia bordering on overcrowded, leaving the respective parking situation a logistical nightmare. So, if crowds are your dealbreaker, Paros is where I’d suggest with a beautiful town and lots to do and see. However, back to the wall, I’d still choose Kefalonia for those dramatic cliffside beaches.

Kefalonian sights

The Mainland:

No trip to Greece is complete without a trip to the capital. Athens has so much history, culture and atmosphere that by itself, it’s a true highlight, so be sure to add at least two nights here when you plan your summer holiday.

Touristing in Athens

For those visiting the centre of Athens, be sure to buy your Acropolis tickets in advance and get there early (before 10) before the literal swarm-like crowds (those pesky things again) put Santorini’s crowded streets to shame. The Acropolis Museum is also worthwhile and right next door. These together with some blissful wandering and shopping around Athens conclude a busy day in the capital. Then, to complete your Athens experience, I highly recommend a good sundowner at XFloor Rooftop by Electra with great views of the Pantheon.

However, for repeat offenders, those looking for a cheaper alternative, or if Athens is purely a stopover before catching the ferry to the islands, we enjoyed staying at the Piraeus Port by the marina. If you have a few hours to spare, there are some good walks along the coast as well as the obligatory gawking at the giant boats. For those willing, you can even venture across to the old Olympic area to marvel and despair (in equal measure) over the state of the facilities.

So, does Greece live up to the hype? The beaches, sunshine and scenery are excellent, especially combined with some very solid beers and nice food. However, the price tag and the state of the islands in terms of infrastructure and rubbish is unfortunate and saddening, but I wouldn’t say it’s a complete dealbreaker. At least not yet.

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