From ideologies to iconic architecture, there’s a reason why Greece is one of the most visited countries in Europe.
Every year, thousands of travellers from all over the world flock to Greece each summer in search of sun, sand, and adventure – and why wouldn’t you? With its idyllic islands, ancient history, and mouthwatering cuisine, a holiday to Greece promises fun experiences and unforgettable memories.
But while glittering sandy beaches, endless turquoise water, and winding streets guarded by white-washed, blue-domed buildings might be some of the first things that come to mind when picturing the Mediterranean country, Greece is actually so much more than that with its roots in global significance going back centuries.
Whether you’re captivated by the beautiful language, transfixed by tales of gods and their heroics, or fascinated by the ruins of sacred places, we’ve put together a list of the 11 things this magical country is known for so you can stop researching Greece and actually start experiencing it.
Leading the way when it came to self-rule government in the ancient world, the Greeks were the first ones to create a democracy and used bits of broken pottery as voting ballots when electing new representatives. Developing in the 5th century BC in Athens, democracy gave a voice to the people and demonstrated that peace could be achieved when transferring 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 enabled 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 ordered and fair way most nations are ruled by today.
Some people travel to Greece purely for its traditional food, and with good reason. Greek cuisine takes its influences from the rest of the Mediterranean with meals that heavily feature seafood, grilled meats, cheese, fresh vegetables, olives, and olive oil. Considered to be a fairly healthy and simple way of eating, ancient Greeks ate by way of the seasons, relying on bread dipped in olive oil, beans, and other vegetables to sustain them throughout the year.
Nowadays, Greek food has diversified 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 (seasoned meatballs), saganaki (pan-fried or grilled cheese), and spanakopita (savoury pastry filled with feta cheese and onions).
While many ancient Greeks believed the world was created by the gods, it wasn’t until the 6th Century BCE that a new line of thinking was suggested and circulated, and the term “philosophy” was born. Philosophy centered around thinking with reason on a wide range of topics including astrology, politics, mathematics, and ethics.
Greece had many famous philosophers over the years and remain 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 (the inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem), Socrates (a founding father of philosophy), Plato (Socrates’ student), Aristotle (teacher of Alexander the Great), and Democritus (an advocate for liberty and equality).
4. The Greek Islands
We can’t make a list of the things Greece is most known for and not include its breathtaking islands. Featured on postcards, travel blogs, and Instagram profiles the world over, Greece’s islands are truly something else.
Whether you fancy swimming through crystal-clear water, exploring secluded beaches, enjoying a cocktail or two while watching the sunset or wandering through ancient towns full of fascinating history, the Greek Islands have a little something for everyone.
If you don’t mind sharing the incredible scenery of Greece’s most popular islands with thousands of other travellers then you have to visit Mykonos, Santorini, and Crete. But, if a slower-paced, laidback 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 like everyone else did, then you’ll understand how captivating the stories of Greek mythology are. Depicting gods, goddesses, and everyday heroes in battle, performing rituals, and sacrificial practices, these myths were seen as a sort 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 such as 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 collection of poems the Iliad and the Odyssey at school, there’s no doubt these fascinating mythological stories have influenced modern western culture, arts, and literature to this day.
And the fact that these stories have survived through the centuries to hold relevance and significance in today’s society is pretty cool.
The ancient Greeks were one of the oldest civilizations on Earth and the same can be said for the Greek language. Claiming the title of one of the first Indo-European languages ever written, the Greek language is a fascinating one with the longest history of alphabetic graphology ever recorded. But make no mistake, the Greek language isn’t easy to learn.
The Greek language has three genders (male, female, and neutral) 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 such as ‘Can I pay with a credit card?’ (Μπορώ Να Πληρώσω Με Πιστωτική Κάρτα) and ‘how long to get to the airport?’ (Πόσο Μακριά Είναι Το Αεροδρόμιο).
While mastering the Greek language might be extremely tricky, it’s also extremely satisfying so taking the time out to learn some useful words and phrases before your Greek adventure begins 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’re coming up with ideas such as democracy and philosophy, you’re bound to leave hundreds of sacred places and historical sites that have seen political battles, 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, Greek is a history lover’s dream. Wander the Parthenon, built for Athena (the goddess of wisdom) in the 5th century BC, stare up at the columned temples visible at the Acropolis of Rhodes, and explore the Palace of the Grand Master with its medieval style architecture, museums, and exhibitions.
Greece, and more specifically Mykonos and Santorini, is known to have a wild and pulsating nightlife but you can’t have an electric nightlife scene without the alcohol to match. That 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 all over Greece and is used as a toasting drink to celebrate special occasions.
Described as dry and anise-flavoured, ouzo will definitely put hair on your chest thanks to its rectified 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 you can about this exclusively Greek product, visit the ouzo museum or the ouzo distillery in Plomari in Lesbos.
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 regions so that they were closer to God, these monasteries were used as places of meditation, offering a simplistic and sacred haven in which to pray.
Whether you want to set your sights on the majestic monasteries of Meteora perched on giant, vertical rocks, make your way around the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hosios Loukas Holy Monastery in Distomo, or marvel at the distinct architecture and holy atmosphere of the Megalo Spileo Monastery in Kalavryta, Greece isn’t short on breathtaking monasteries for you to explore.
While Greece’s natural beauty can’t be denied, this country’s manmade beauty is also something to ooh and aah over thanks to the unique and distinctive style of architecture its buildings, places of worship, and houses were built in. Featuring 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 Olympian Zeus in Athens, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in the Acropolis, the Temple of Artemis in Corfu, and the Stoa of Attalos in Agora. Oh, and you have to catch a glimpse of the white-washed and blue-domed houses found in most cities in Greece. It’s simply a rite of passage.
11. The Olympic Games
We might 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 started? We’ve already talked about mythology and its spot in ancient Greek civilization but it’s because of Zeus that the first Olympic Games were ever held in 776 BC.
What began as a way to honour the god of thunder soon 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 deemed to be a pagan spectacle by the then Emperor of Byzantium Theodosius.
But these Olympic Games looked a lot different to the ones we watch today with artistic competitions featuring sculptors and poets, tethrippon – a carriage race run with four horses – and pankration (an interesting combination of boxing and wrestling) all part of the program.