Greece is famous for its sandy beaches, volcanic islands, and stunning temples. It’s also known as the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, drama and the Olympic Games. The ancient Greeks made huge strides in a number of artistic and intellectual fields and produced many great thinkers and artists, including Homer, Plato, Sophocles and Aristotle.
There is a lot of culture to take in, if you get around to it between sampling delicious food and floating in sparkling azure waters. What is Greece known for? With a rich and lengthy history, here are just 27 things to start with:
Although there are hundreds of islands to choose from, Santorini wins hearts again and again, and is quite possibly the world’s most romantic location. One of the most photographed panoramas in Europe, its beautifully whitewashed buildings with their blue-domed roofs overlook a sparkling ocean. The island is now ring-shaped, making for dramatic cliff views, but the center of Santorini was once a volcano whose eruption was so violent it indirectly contributed to the fall of the Minoan Civilisation. Today the huge volcanic crater creates a lovely natural harbor, known for its beautifully black volcanic sand.
This anise-flavored liquor once brewed by industrious monks is one of Greece’s most beloved tipples. Not just an aperitif, it is frequently used in Greek cooking to flavor food and is often served up with Greek Meze. The funny thing about ouzo is, whether you like it or not, you will end up drinking it —lots of it. In addition to other Greek drinks such as Tsipouro, Raki, Mataxa and Rakomelo it is not unusual to be given free glasses of the stuff after dinner, particularly if you’re willing to chat with the café or bar owner late into the night. Which drink is favored depends on which island you are visiting and many Greek islands have their own breweries with their own local variations. For those who like to get a bit tipsy, quite a few ouzo distilleries have their own tours and tasting events. Yiamas! (Cheers!)
3. The Palace of Knossos
Four thousand years ago, when Athens and Sparta were still nothing special, the Minoan civilization was at its peak on the island of Crete. The Minoans themselves make for an interesting subject, although they are shrouded in mystery. Some theorize that they were a society entirely ruled by women, others that they engaged in human sacrifice. Either way, the great various palaces they left behind are some of Greece’s must-see attractions and king among them is the Palace of Knossos near Heraklion. The building itself covers over 150, 000 square feet, and although it is mostly in ruins, there a numerous wall-paintings and brightly colored frescoes to admire. The building itself is famous for having inspired the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur because of its maze-like structure which is said to resemble the fabled labyrinth.
Souvlaki comes from the Greek word for skewer, and whilst it is traditionally made of pork, you can now get almost anything on a stick. Probably the most famous dish in Greece, it is usually served with pita bread, fresh salad, and a variety of sauces, and it makes for a delicious and healthy form of fast food. The best way to eat them is a rolled up and stuffed inside a soft pita wrap with french fries, creating the world’s most decadent kebab. Tasty and typically sold for only a couple of euros ($3), you are guaranteed to consume your bodyweight in them.
In 555 BC the Athenian people decided to kick out their would-be dictators for the last time as they implemented one of history’s greatest social experiments: democracy. The democratic system they designed gave all free adult male citizens the right to vote, to stand in elections and to serve by lot as part of a number of government bodies.
This boon to freedom gave rise to an enormously creative period. Under Greek democracy, for the first time in human history people had both the right to, and the means to, think and create independently, without fear of political reprisals. The result was a huge boom in culture. The Greek golden age was only 200 years long, but it was one of the most productive 200 years in human history. If you visit Athens today you can still stand on the Pnyx, the hill where people gathered to vote on matters of state, to get panoramic views of the Acropolis.
6. Crusader Castles
Greece is best known for its ancient architecture, but it is also home to a number of epic medieval castles. Greece became a refuge for crusader knights who, tired of fighting losing battles in the Middle East, adopted a series of Greek islands as their own. Most famous of all, is the island of Rhodes, which was once ruled by the order of the Knights Hospitaller and is now littered with castles. If you do visit don’t miss the Palace of the Grand Master, which features mosaics dating back to ancient times. Once the site of an epic battle of East versus West, staring leisurely out to sea from the battlements is now the order of the day.
7. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
A timeless exploration of love and death set in the Second World War, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and the blockbuster film of the same name showcases some of the very best of Greece. The movie made the stunning and leafy island of Cephalonia famous, and the book is an absolute must beach-read if you head to Greece.
8. The Acropolis
The Acropolis in Athens is a global icon, topped with the world’s most famous temple – the Parthenon. Once used as a gunpowder store, and accidentally blown up during a siege in the 17th century, the enormous 45-foot high temple is still being pieced back together. Today it is almost fully repaired and it is truly a sight to behold.
The staircase up to the Parthenon is so well preserved and so grand, that it makes for a truly surreal pilgrimage following in the footsteps of the ancient Greek worshippers to the temple of Athena. In addition to the Parthenon, there are a number of other smaller temples dotting the grounds, as well as the legendary, though probably not original, sacred olive tree. The leafy slopes are home to several beautiful theaters, which make for welcome rest spots, and the almost intact theater – the Odeon of Herodes Atticus – is still used today for plays and operas.
9. Plate Smashing
Attending a Greek party or wedding can be a bit of a shock for visitors who aren’t used to the raucous way in which the Greeks celebrate. The Greeks have a love of life that is infectious, and unlike their European neighbours to the North — they are loud about it! Throwing plates and glasses against the floor and walls is a traditional way of celebrating. If you get the chance to do it, it is a lot of fun and very therapeutic. Don’t forget to shout opa!
Picking between picturesque Greek islands is hard (first world problems), but if you are narrowing down places to a greatest hits list, Delos is unique. It is impossible to stay on the island overnight, but you can get to it from its stunningly beautiful sister island, Mykonos. The entire area is one big preserved ancient site, set up as a museum. Legend has it that Artemis and Apollo were born here, and it subsequently became a very important sanctuary to the Gods. Known for its colonnades, mosaics and army of stray kittens, Delos is great way to step into Europe’s ancient past.
It’s creamy, it’s sweet, it’s made of pastry, its Greece’s world famous dessert. Frequently served for breakfast, this custard filled, heart-attack inducing slice of heaven is best enjoyed with a morning coffee. Born in Thessaloniki but served all over Greece, a number of variations on this traditional sweet treat have sprung up in cafes and restaurants across the country, and savoury versions are sometimes stuffed with meat or spinach.
12. Myths and Legends
Greece is known for its wealth of legends and every island in Greece has its own stories, adding heaps of atmosphere wherever you go. Many of Greece’s best legends feature its wily and disreputable cadre of Gods and Goddesses who meddle in the lives of mortals, and bicker over their tumultuous love affairs. The landscape is alive with myth here, from towering Mount Olympus in Northern Greece, to the tiny island of Ithaca home to the silver-tongued Odysseus, to the crystal blue Acheron river, the river to the underworld.
13. Lemnos Desert
If you wander inland near the village of Katalakkos on the island of Lemnos you might feel as if you’ve stumbled into the Sahara. Known for its sandy desert with its beautiful bright orange hues, here you can experience all the beauty of the rolling dunes — and all the joy of rolling down them at speed. Lemnos itself is seriously underrated and is one of the less touristy islands. It was once reputedly ruled by the race of fearsome Amazonian warrior women, although nowadays it is better known for its flamingos. Come here to sandboard in one of Europe’s only deserts.
14. The Olympic Games
The Greeks venerated the human body in their art and sculpture and were particularly fond of their muscular and athletic heroes. As a consequence, many ancient Greeks spent most of their down time in the gym or playing sports, and so it was that the Olympic games was born.
It must have been a pretty exciting spectacle, especially given almost all the events were performed naked. The Greeks showed some incredible prowess in their chosen events, and the Olympic swimming record set in 152 BC was only beaten by Michael Phelps in 2016! Sports enthusiasts can still visit the site of ancient Olympia today, bits of which are still standing, along with the excellent sporting museum.
15. The Holy Trinity Monastery at Meteora
Greece’s medieval history is often overshadowed by its ancient past, but Greece has many spectacular buildings from the Byzantine era, particularly its mountaintop churches. White-washed and gleaming in the Greek sunshine, they are typically very dark inside, painted in dusty deep blues, and splashed with golden murals and icons. The best known and most spectacular of these is the Meteora monastery in Thessaloniki, built on a rocky outcrop which towers over the landscape, it allowed monks to truly get away from the world.
16. The Sirtaki Dance and Greek Music
The Sirtaki is a classic Greek folk dances which involves the linking of arms, made famous by the classic black and white movie, Zorba the Greek. The movie and book it is based on are a celebration of island life in Greece, which ideally involves drinking, laughing, eating and dancing. The music accompanying the famous dance is played on the Bouzouki, a traditional folk instrument from Greece, and it is not unusual to see people playing it live in Greek tavernas. Most people can immediately recognise Greek music, which frequently starts with a low twang and rapidly builds tempo until you and everyone around you is spinning around dramatically.
In ancient Greece people lived and died by the words of the famous oracle who lived at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Today we may raise our eyebrows at her suspiciously vague predictions, but in the ancient world her words were taken very seriously, and her advice sparked a lot of ancient drama. Today the site of ancient Delphi is well worth visiting and the temple complex itself is one of Greece’s best known, and best-preserved ancient sites. At the top of a fabulous hiking trail on mount Parnassus that leads you through some beautiful gorges and olive groves, the temple itself is on a vista overlooking some lovely countryside.
The wise know that the best time to visit Greece is when the wildflowers open in the spring. Although most of Greece is home to swathes of colourful blooms, there are a number of stand-out locations to visit. Flowers often run riot between ancient columns on many islands, and wild thyme and other herbs are particularly abundant on the hillsides in Greece. Skyros in particular is known for its abundant bursts of color. The Samara Gorge on Crete is also well known for its flowers, and is especially stunning in April, with hundreds of species man of which are unique to Crete.
19. Drama and literature
Among the Greek’s extensive list of achievements, they can claim the honor of having invented the theater. Originally intended as a religious festival to honor the Gods, plays were written as dramatic retellings of local myths. If you are interested in Greek tragedy, Sophocles is probably Greece’s most accessible playwright, and his grimdark tales of death, incest and royal rivalry are still a treat for those with a strong stomach. Epidaurus, the theatre on the Argolid is one of the countries’ best-preserved theaters, and plays are still performed there. For literature, Homer’s the Iliad, and the Odyssey are the first two books most people read in the Western canon. Originally written in dactylic hexameter, many modern editions now capture the poetry of the original.
Greek people have some of the longest life expectancies in the world, in part due to their wonderfully healthy, and totally delicious diet. Life is about balance however, and the Greeks do fast-food best. Everybody knows that crumbly feta salads and barbequed halloumi are two of Greece’s greatest inventions (move over democracy!) but the Greeks are also famous for their obsession with frying cheese. Saganaki, fried cheese, is traditionally made by frying cheese in a pan. More recently fast-food vans in Greece have started selling balls of cheese soaked in breadcrumbs or batter and plunged into the deep fat fryer. If you are in Greece don’t miss out on honey covered, fried feta cheese in puff pastry, a breakfast classic.
21. The Greek Language
It’s all Greek to me! Or is it? In spite of the famous proverb, most of us know more Greek than you’d think. Formal education in the West used to comprise of an in-depth understanding of the Greek and Latin languages, and early scientists used these ancient languages to create scientific terms and systems of classifications. As a result most academic language in English has Greek roots. We get words such as History, Geography, Mathematics, and Anthropology from Greek, and expressions such as “Eureka!” Greek for, “I’ve got it!” for when we have a good idea.
The jewel in Greece’s crown, many visitors are eager to see the Acropolis and leave, in order to head to Greece’s breezier islands, but Athens has a wealth of sites for people looking to stay a bit longer. The birthplace of democracy and once known for its large maritime empire stretching across the Aegean, the wealth generated through its ocean trade paid for some magnificent temples and monuments.
The most fully intact temple in the whole of Greece, the Temple of Hephaistos can be found in the Agora Archaeological park, surrounded by poppies and other wildflowers, and home to nesting sparrows. The Agora park often surprises tourists due to how much of the ancient city is still standing and there are many other similar ancient sites scattered around the city. The Pnyx, the site where the ancients came to vote, and the Aeropagus, the location of the ancient lawcourts, are situated on the hills rising around the Acropolis and many people still gather on them in the evenings to watch the sunset over the ocean with a beer.
Greece’s Mediterranean climate is stifling in the big city, and Athens is famous for getting unbelievably hot during the summer. Locals know that the ideal place to be at midday is in the stunning Botanical Gardens which are lined with wisteria and filled with the scent of lemon trees in the summer. Failing that, maybe the best place to be is chilled out having an ouzo in the picturesque cobbled streets of the Plaka neighborhood.
Philosophy in Greek means the love of wisdom, and philosophising was a favourite pastime of the ancient Greeks. Pick up a copy of Plato or Aristotle, for some of Philosophy’s greatest hits, and spend time contemplating some of the questions they raised such as: what is knowledge? What is love? What is justice? You can still visit the site of Plato’s Academy in the Agora Park in Athens, although nowadays it is populated by wandering tortoises rather than mindful philosophers.
Greece is known for its Moussaka. Eggplants, ground meat, cheese, Moussaka is Greece’s most famous national dish, although it was actually invented in Medieval Baghdad. Delicious and creamy with many alternate and vegetarian variations, you cannot fail to love this dish. For best results accompany with red wine at an authentic Greek taverna.
25. Alexander the Great
Born in what was ancient Macedonia, and now modern Greece, Alexander the Great is known as one of history’s greatest generals. Conquering most of the known world, and defeating the seemingly unvanquishable Persian Empire, Alexander earned immortality before promptly kicking the bucket at the early age of 32. Alexander’s exploits are well-chronicled for those interested in learning more about the history of the daring military hero. Or, alternatively, you could just watch the movie with Colin Farrell in it instead.
26. The Greek Islands
Greece has over 6000 islands, of which 220 are inhabited. Perhaps the best thing to do in Greece is to hire a boat and get to know one collection of islands well. The most popular island chains generally fall into four distinct groups: The arid and ancient Cyclades, the most popular islands for visitors, and home to the world-famous Cycladic figurines; these islands feature the stereotypical white and blue houses covered with bright pink flowers you find on postcards.
The Sporades, to the North East, known for being heavily forested and more tranquil. Mama Mia fans will recognize the lovely island of Skopelos here.
The Ionian Islands, on the Italy facing side of Greece. The influence of Italian culture is strong here, and these islands were owned by Venice for centuries. Corfu is the best-known island in this group.
In the South East is the Dodecanese, the island group closest to Turkey, and subject to many wars in the Medieval period. The buildings here have heavy Ottoman and Venetian influences, and the food and culture is known for having a twang of Turkish flavor.
27. Sparta and the 300
The warlike society of Sparta, nemesis of ancient Athens, was one of the great powers of the ancient world. Its men lived in barracks, and its women learned to fight like the men. Sparta itself is quite small and was never much to look at, even in ancient times, although it does have an important archaeological museum. Today most people know about Sparta from the grisly CGI-come-shiny-abs-filled movie the 300 which tells the true story of how 300 Spartans held out against an enormous invading Persian army, buying time for the rest of Greece to defend itself. One of the most pivotal events in human history, there is a monument to this day at the site of ancient Thermopylae commemorating History’s best underdog tale.
Is there anything else that Greece is known for? Share it in the comment box below!