Every year, thousands of travelers from all over the world flock to Greece every summer in search of sun, sand and adventure – and why wouldn’t you want to? With its idyllic islands, ancient history and mouth-watering cuisine, a holiday to Greece promises fun experiences and unforgettable memories.
But while sparkling sandy beaches, endless turquoise waters and winding streets guarded by whitewashed blue-domed buildings may be some of the first things that come to mind when imagining the Mediterranean country, Greece is actually so much more than its roots in global significance dating back centuries.
Whether you’re captivated by the beautiful language, steeped in tales of gods and their heroics, or mesmerized by the ruins of sacred sites, we’ve compiled a list of the 11 things this magical land is known for so you can stop research Greece and actually start experiencing it.
The Greeks were leaders in self-government in the ancient world, and were the first to create a democracy, using pieces of broken pottery as ballots when electing new representatives. The development in the 5th century BC in Athens, democracy gave a voice to the people and demonstrated that peace could be achieved through the transfer of power and that there was no need for violent uprisings or revolutions.
Invented by a man named Cleisthenes (also known as the “Father of Democracy”), democracy allowed true citizens of Athens to vote on matters such as passing laws and government representatives. And while the modern idea of democracy looks a little different, we have the ancient Greeks to thank for the orderly and just way most nations are governed today.
Some people travel to Greece solely for its traditional food, and for good reason. Greek cuisine takes its influence from the rest of the Mediterranean with meals that feature heavily seafood, grilled meats, cheese, fresh vegetables, olives and olive oil. Considered a fairly healthy and simple way to eat, the ancient Greeks ate seasonally, relying on bread dipped in olive oil, beans and other vegetables to sustain them throughout the year.
Today, Greek food has varied and can be enjoyed all year round. Some popular dishes include gyro (meat and vegetables topped with tzatziki and wrapped in pita bread), kleftiko (a lamb dish served with vegetables), keftedes (spicy meatballs), saganaki (pan-fried or grilled cheese) and spanakopita (spicy pastry filled with feta cheese and onion).
While many ancient Greeks believed that the world was created by the gods, it was not until the 6th century BCE that a new school of thought was proposed and circulated and the term “philosophy” was born. Philosophy centered around thinking with reason about a wide range of subjects, including astrology, politics, mathematics, and ethics.
Greece had many famous philosophers over the years and remains some of the most influential figures in philosophy and science to this day, helping to create modern civilization as we now know it. These famous philosophers include Pythagoras of Samos (inventor of the Pythagorean theorem), Socrates (a founder of philosophy), Plato (Socrates’ student), Aristotle (teacher of Alexander the Great), and Democritus (an advocate of freedom and equality). ).
4. The Greek Islands
We can’t make a list of the things Greece is best known for and not include its breathtaking islands. Featured on postcards, travel blogs and Instagram profiles the world over, the islands of Greece are truly something else.
Whether you fancy swimming through crystal clear waters, exploring secluded beaches, enjoying a cocktail or two while watching the sunset or wandering through ancient cities full of fascinating history, the Greek islands have something for everyone.
If you don’t mind sharing the incredible scenery of Greece’s most popular islands with thousands of other travelers, then visit Mykonos, Santorini and Crete. But if a slower, more relaxed island vibe is more your thing, adventure around the smaller and less populated islands of Paros, Milos and Thasos.
If you grew up watching Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules as everyone else did, then you will understand how captivating the stories of Greek mythology are. These myths, depicting gods, goddesses and everyday heroes in battle, performing rituals and sacrificial practices, were seen as a kind of religion by the ancient Greeks and were told as a way to make sense of the origin and nature of the world.
Whether you recognize the names of gods like Zeus (god of thunder), Apollo (god of sun and light) and Poseidon (god of the sea) from various Hollywood movies over the years, or you remember reading up on Achilles and Odysseus from Homer’s epic poem collection The Iliad and Odyssey school, there is no doubt that these fascinating mythological stories have influenced modern Western culture, art and literature to this day.
And the fact that these stories have survived through the centuries to have relevance and meaning in today’s society is pretty cool.
The ancient Greeks were one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, and the same can be said of the Greek language. Claiming the title of one of the first Indo-European languages ever written, the Greek language is a fascinating language with the longest history of alphabetic graphology ever recorded. But make no mistake, the Greek language is not easy to learn.
The Greek language has three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), so remembering the correct form of a particular word can be a nightmare. It’s also not closely related to any other world language, especially English, so good luck trying to figure out how to pronounce phrases like “Can I pay with a credit card?” (Μπορώ Να Πληρώσω Με Πιστοτική Κάρτα) and ‘how long will it take to get to the airport?’ (The airport is far away).
Although mastering the Greek language can be extremely difficult, it is also extremely rewarding, so take the time to learn some useful words and phrases before your Greek adventure begins, it will definitely come in handy.
7. Ancient ruins
As far as ancient civilizations go, the Greeks are up there with the oldest of them, and when you bring in ideas like democracy and philosophy, you’re bound to leave hundreds of sacred sites and historical sites that have seen political struggles, cultural practices and centuries of prayers in your wake.
From the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens to the ancient city of Kamiros along the northwest coast of Rhodes, Greece is a history lover’s dream. Wander the Parthenon, built for Athena (goddess of wisdom) in the 5th century BC, gaze up at the pillared temples visible at the Rhodes Acropolis, and explore the Grand Master’s Palace with its medieval architecture, museums and exhibitions.
Greece, and more specifically Mykonos and Santorini, is known for having a wild and vibrant nightlife, but you can’t have an electric nightlife scene without the alcohol. This is where ouzo comes in. Said to have originated in the 14th century by a group of monks on Mount Athos, this popular aperitif is widely consumed throughout Greece and is used as a toast to celebrate special occasions.
Described as dry and anise-flavored, ouzo is sure to raise hairs on your chest thanks to its corrected spirit status (a highly concentrated and purified ethanol) and is usually served with fresh fish, olives and feta cheese. If you want to learn as much as possible about this exclusively Greek product, visit the ouzo museum or the ouzo distillery in Plomari on Lesvos.
Greece boasts a rich, religious history, and one of the ways to physically see how important religion was to the ancient Greeks – and learn more about their ancient practices and rituals – is through the many monasteries scattered around the country. Often built on steep cliffs and rocky slopes in mountainous areas to be closer to God, these monasteries were used as places of meditation and offered a simplistic and sacred retreat in which to pray.
Whether you want to set your sights on the majestic monasteries of Meteora perched on giant vertical cliffs, tour the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Holy Monastery of Hosios Loukas in Distomo, or marvel at the distinctive architecture and sacred atmosphere in Megalo Spileo Monastery in Kalavryta, Greece has no shortage of breathtaking monasteries for you to explore.
While Greece’s natural beauty cannot be denied, this country’s man-made beauty is also something to be excited about thanks to the unique and distinctive architectural style its buildings, places of worship and houses were built in. With styles such as Doric, Ionic and Corinthian (think stone columns and ornate capitals), Greek architecture was planned around logic and order, with every little detail having a specific function.
If you want to appreciate Greek architecture in all its glory, visit the Temple of Zeus in Athens, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on the Acropolis, the Temple of Artemis in Corfu and the Stoa of Attalos in the Agora. Oh, and you have to catch a glimpse of the whitewashed and blue domed houses found in most cities in Greece. It is simply a rite of passage.
11. The Olympic Games
We may be glued to our screens when the modern Olympic Games roll around every four years, but do you actually know how, when and where it all started? We have already talked about mythology and its place in ancient Greek civilization, but it is because of Zeus that the first ever Olympic Games were held in 776 BC.
What began as a way to honor the god of thunder quickly became a way for Greece’s most talented athletes to come together and participate in a competition that would be celebrated for thousands of years until it was considered a pagan spectacle by the then emperor of Byzantium Theodosius.
But these Olympic Games looked very different to the ones we see today with artistic competitions featuring sculptors and poets, tethrippon – a four-horse chariot race – and pankration (an interesting combination of boxing and wrestling) all part of the programme.