While there’s no guarantee that 2021 will bring any more certainty than the dismal year we’re soon to (thankfully) discard, a new calendar year means it’s time to start planning.
Greece is brimming with possibilities that stretch beyond the classic sea and sun holiday.
With hundreds of islands and mountains galore, pretty much anywhere the compass points in Greece will reveal tempting places for relaxation, adventure and everything in between.
1. Be revolutionary
2021 is a big year for Greece as it marks the bicentennial of the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, the war that Greek revolutionaries waged against the Ottoman Empire.
Look for commemorative events happening at various locations around Greece, or simply take advantage of the anniversary to add extra context to your visits of places like picturesque Nafplio, the first capital of modern Greece, and tiny Spetses island, which was home to the Greek war heroine Laskarina Bouboulina.
2. Wine tourism is happening
It’s been said before that what reveals the genius loci of a place is light – and while that definitely applies to Greece, so does wine.
As the birthplace of wine-drinking for celebratory and ceremonial purposes, it’s fitting that Greece, with upwards of 1300 wineries and 33 regions with PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, is experiencing a boom in “oenotourism.”
Santorini is famous for its assyrtiko wine, and a popular island for winery visits whether or not it’s the ventema (vine harvest) time.
3. Visit both Acropolises (what?)
Okay, so the Acropolis of Athens needs no introduction, but such is its prominence that it obscures other ancient citadels in Greece like the Acrocorinth, which looms over the ruins of the ancient city-state of Corinth with a mix of ancient Mycenaean, Greek, Byzantine and Venetian ramparts.
The view of the Isthmus of Corinth from the top of the rock is spectacular. You can pair your visit with a jaunt to the beach at Loutraki, famous for its hot springs, or take a dip in the lovely Limni Vouliagmenis lagoon nearby.
4. Explore some “secret” ruins
Most visitors to Athens take in the classic ancient sites like the Parthenon, ruins of the ancient Athenian Agora and Panathenaic Stadium. Stunners all, but give yourself an extra day to take in lesser-known sites like the archaeological site of Kerameikos, which includes some fascinating early Athenian fortifications as well as monumental funerary sculptures.
Piraeus, the port of Athens, has some amazing ‘secret’ ancient sites too, as I recently discovered.
5. Explore Attica
The region of Attica, a huge mountainous peninsula that juts into the Aegean Sea, is best known as the location of Athens but there is more to explore than the capital.
Between the glitzy southern suburb of Glyfada and iconic Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion there’s the Athens Riviera, a vast stretch of coast peppered with small resort towns and beaches.
The roads are excellent (rent a car if you can) and you’ll feel like you’re on a distant island without ever stepping foot in a boat!
6. Take a “Volcano boat” around the Milos coast
Last summer Tom Hanks was spotted splashing around the warm blue waters of Poliegos — not an island you can normally get to, as it’s inhabited only by a few lucky goats (as in, the kind with horns).
But it’s located very close to the better-known Milos, another Aegean island geological marvel on account of its volcanic origins. You can get up close to the marvelous coasts of both islands by taking a ride on The Volcano, a high-speed Italian-made, 15-meter long inflatable boat with just 25 seats.
Excursions take in beautiful spots around Milos like the Kleftiko sea stacks and a “secret” beach on Poliegos; you can also make a round of Poliegos and Milos with a fun Polco sail cruise.
7. Visit Mani (before everyone else does)
If you haven’t heard of Mani don’t worry: you’re hearing about it now.
It’s the middle southern peninsula of mainland Greece and is known for its raw beauty, proud locals and villages made of stone that are sometimes so close to the sea’s edge you can practically jump from your hotel balcony into the water (but don’t).
This is a remote region but one well-connected by highways. There isn’t a huge hotel inventory, so if the photos of rocky shores and sapphire blue sea tempt you, remember you’re not the only one to fall under the spell – so book early.
8. Go climb a rock
Greece’s rugged terrain makes it a perfect setting for tons of outdoor activities that have nothing to do with the beach, like rock climbing.
In the southeast Peloponnese, the climbing park of Leonidio is a big draw on account of the dramatic Kokkinovrachos, or Red Cliff that towers above the seaside town of Leonidio.
In the Aegean Sea, the island of Kalymnos is renowned as a climbing destination while for bouldering there are the scenic boulders of Volax on Tinos island.
9. Take surfing lessons in Paros
Paros is one of the largest of the Cycladic islands and has plenty of fine beaches primed for watersport activities.
Head to Santa Maria for diving and wakeboarding, Punta for waterskiing and Golden Beach for surfing and windsurfing — the surf instructors at Golden Beach are some of the most experienced in Greece.
10. Hike a volcano in Nisyros
The small island of Nisyros near Rhodes has not one, but three volcanic craters. Though steam emanates from the ksephysitres, or vents, they’re safe to hike around.
Nisyros also has a charming harbor town, Mandraki, and dramatic black sand beaches that are generally free of crowds.
11. Ecotourism in Crete
The island of Crete has 54 areas that are part of the NATURA 2000 network of sites with protected biodiversity.
Despite this designation, some locales such as Elafonisi and Balos were veering toward overtourism — but that was before the pandemic.
In 2021 you’ll be able to visit those natural spots and others like the Xerokambos wetland and coastal landscape from Dermatos to Tsoutsouras in eastern Asterousia (in southern Crete) without all the crowds.
Located in western Thessaly, the UNESCO-listed monastery complex of Meteora includes 30 historical Eastern Orthodox monasteries, six of which are still in use and open to the public.
These are perched on top of extraordinary rock formations reaching as high as 400 meters that are best described as free-standing cliffs — familiar to anyone who’s seen the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Some of the monasteries date as far back as the 11th century.
Mountainous Andros is the northernmost of the Cycladic island chain (which also includes Santorini and Mykonos) and as such, it’s an easy hop of under two hours from the mainland port of Rafina to the island’s port at Gavrio.
But the main town or chora is the eponymous Andros on the other side of the island. It’s a stately town with many neoclassical mansions built for local shipowners. Andros has a proud maritime heritage and many sailors from the island partook in the Greek Revolution right from the start.
There are also some great beaches such as Tis Grias to Pidima, or The Old Lady’s Jump.
14. Castle island of Monemvasia
Rock your Instagram with a visit to this semi-secret citadel in the southern reaches of the Peloponnese. There’s just one entrance to the Byzantine fortress, which clings to an elevated island plateau connected to the mainland by a short causeway.
The fortress dates to around 583, when locals needed to fend off Saracen raids. The walled lower town is a tangle of ancient houses, narrow cobbled streets and tiny chapels interspersed with lively shops and cafes.
A path leads to the upper town with castle ruins, the Agia Sofia church and breathtaking views of the Mediterranean.
15. See the Mikres Kiklades
If you’re Greek you’ve probably heard of Keros, Irakleia, Schinousa, Kouphonisia and Donousa — but if you’re not then chances are those island names are unfamiliar.
The Mikres Kiklades, or Little Cyclades, are as the name indicates a cluster of small islands located south and east of Naxos, the largest Cycladic island.
These sunny holiday spots are best-known for what they don’t have: big hotels, shopping malls and airports. But they do have plenty of beautiful beaches and authentic Greek island flavor. Book hotel stays far ahead, as options are not always numerous.
16. Get your yum on in Sifnos, Syros, Santorini
Every region and island in Greece is known for certain crops and culinary traditions, giving travel anywhere in the country great gustatory appeal. There’s Santorini for its tomatoes, for example, and Sifnos for its capers as well as star-studded eateries like Omega3 Fish & Wine Bar (Scarlett Johansson’s a fan).
Both islands along with Syros are enjoying a growing reputation as gourmet getaways and in all three you can dine gorgeously: that is, dig into great, locally-sourced food served in breezy island settings.
Calm, airport-free Patmos is tucked into the northwestern part of the Dodecanese archipelago and has an alluring 63 kilometers of coastline that create a ribbon of beaches and hidden coves, encircling a heavenly landscape with rugged peaks that rise over hidden green valleys.
The ancient settlement of Chora is one of the best preserved in the Aegean, having evolved without interruption since the 12th century and some of the former merchants’ houses are now home to posh restaurants and cafes.
But the spiritual heart of Chora and indeed of Patmos is the Cave of the Apocalypse where tradition holds that John the Apostle wrote the Book of Revelation, the final (and somewhat ominous) book of the New Testament.
Along with the Monastery of St. John the Theologian it forms a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
18. Crete for Beach Idylls
Crete is not only the largest of the Greek islands, but thanks to its southerly location it also has the longest beach season.
To find the best ones you’ll need to rent a car and of course a good place to stay comes in handy.
Some hotels and resorts that didn’t open in 2020 due to the pandemic are already looking ahead to 2021, which means early planners shouldn’t hesitate.
Near Chania, consider splurging on a luxe villa, while a fine resort on the south coast called Irini Mare also serves some of the best food on the island. They even make their own olive oil.
19. Rediscover Mykonos (yes, Mykonos)
In 2021 you’ll be hearing a lot about tourism “repositioning” from the Mediterranean countries that have traditionally leaned on sea and sun tourism, but let’s face it, sometimes you just need to chill out with some sand between your toes.
Few Greek islands serve up the sand as deliciously as Mykonos — true, there are more beautiful beaches in Greece but due to its manageable size and sheer number of beaches Mykonos makes those seaside hols a snap.
The island’s got chic seaside settings galore but Mykonos is all about options: you could also experience the beach on horseback.
Just remember to plan a trip to Mykonos in May, June or September to dodge the crowds.
20. Serifos and Ios
Serifos is a centrally located Aegean island known for its stark landscapes, scenic hilltop Chora, or main town and lots of lovely beaches such as Yianema, Sykamia and Psili Ammos.
Larger Ios is located due north of Santorini and features a mix of unspoiled beaches and smattering of cosmopolitan beach clubs.
As with many of the Greek islands, stay for at least a few days if you can and try to rent a car to see things at a more leisurely pace.
This sunny port city, famous for its tsipouradhika or traditional tavernas, is capital of the mineral-rich Magnesia region of Thessaly, located about midway between Athens and Thessaloniki.
It’s on the Pagastikos Gulf opposite the lush Pelion peninsula that juts into the Aegean Sea.
Volos is the Greek city nearest to Mount Pelion, which is considered by many to be the most stunning region of Greece.
In town, check out the Italian-designed Historic Railway Station of Volos; you can also plan for a scenic ride on the Pelion train, a throwback to 1896 when this narrow gauge railway first entered into service.
Based in Athens, Anthony Grant also edits the Greek Column.