Eating for Less in Greece

Unless you’re a seasoned traveler, it’s easy to underestimate the costs of food on the road alongside hotels, plane fares, car rentals, and other “big” expenses. But restaurants and snacks can add up quickly and shrink your travel budget. Luckily, Greece has a wealth of low-cost dining options. You don’t want to miss out on the local cuisine—it’s one of the best reasons to visit the islands—but it does help to balance it out with occasional cheap eats.

An average visitor should expect to spend €15 to €40 ($20 to $50) per day on meals. You can spend more or less on a given day by alternating between cheap and pricey restaurants. One easy way to cut down is to get a hotel that offers at least one meal in the room price—it can save you at least few dollars a day.

As with any other country, big cities and tourist-heavy areas have more expensive dining options. However, anywhere in Greece you can usually find a neighborhood taverna—a small restaurant serving local cuisine for as little as €5 ($6.20). These aren’t just a last resort for shoestring travelers; they’re a must-try if you want a taste of authentic Greek, complete with the festive local atmosphere. Fast foods are also fairly common, but for a minuscule price gap you’re better off at a local diner.

Fine dining venues take center stage in Athens, but a bit of legwork can turn up some really good deals. The Plaka and Monastiraki neighborhoods have some of the best low-budget restaurants, where you can get a meal for the price of a pint of beer. Thessaloniki and Santorini can be even pricier than Athens; a cheap meal in Thessaloniki is around €10 to €15 ($12 to $20), and €15 to €20 ($20 to $25) in Santorini. One alternative is to go to a public market and eat on the go—if anything, it’ll give you more time to explore the area.

Halkidiki, one of the most popular coastal spots, is also among the cheapest areas when it comes to dining. Most hotels here offer at least one meal per day (usually breakfast), and during peak season all-inclusive rates are commonplace. There are also more local diners, and being on the coast, the produce tends to be fresher especially if you come at a good season. Expect to pay around €10 per person on food during your stay.

 

Winter in Greece

Experienced travelers are familiar with the winter dilemma: destinations are cold and offerings are sparse, but tickets and hotel rooms are half the price. Greece is no exception. While the winters are considerably mild compared to the rest of Europe, travelers still think twice out of fear that they’ll be stuck in their hotel rooms as the islands “close” for the season. It’s because of this misconception that visitors miss out on some of the best deals in Greece travel. As is often the case, a little research and flexibility can go a long way.

In Greece, it’s largely a matter of choosing your destination. Several of the winter “hotspots” are conveniently close to Athens; these include Hydra, Poros, Kea, Aegina, and Spetses. On most of these sites you can rent a bike to get around, or if you can afford a little more comfort, hire a cab to take you around the must-sees.  Walking and hiking enthusiasts should definitely check out Kea, which is known for its network of historic walking trails. Winter is actually the best time for hiking as it’s cool enough to enjoy a good breeze, but never too cold for comfort.

Santorini, being one of the most famous spots, has something to offer all year round. The same goes for other well-known sites like Mykonos, Crete, Rhodes and Naxos. In fact, some of the wealthier locals (and many expats) living in Athens spend their winters here, saying it’s their favourite season.

If it isn’t your first visit, you may also want to look into lesser-known islands that don’t thrive on tourism, such as Syros. Here, people go about their daily lives and do not seem to mind the dropping temperatures, keeping their bars, clubs, and restaurants open. On a relatively warm day, you’ll even see some of the terraces open and people dining al fresco. Although you might see the same thing in Athens, it’s a lot more common in the smaller islands, and the vibe is a lot more relaxed.

Finally, winter in Greece shares one advantage with other cities: good shopping. Around January and February, shops open up their seasonal sales, often putting winter and summer gear alongside each other. Souvenirs are also cheaper as it’s an off-peak season. And in Athens, the variety is much like that of New York or Paris, except that being an island, everything is clustered within a comfortable walking distance!

Exploring Greek Wildlife

A trend towards environmentally friendly travel has prompted Greece, like other popular destinations, to put its wildlife closer to center stage. Animal-loving visitors now have a plethora of choices when it comes to spotting critters, with many of the country’s national parks and cruise lines offering wildlife tours or at least putting a wildlife element in existing offers.

If you’re here mainly for the wildlife, your first stop should probably be the National Marine Park of the Sporades. Being part of a small island group, it centers on both land and water fauna, although the latter are arguably the bigger draw. Eco-friendly yacht tours offer rare opportunities to spot monk seals, striped dolphins, and whales practically small enough to play with.

Bird lovers will be pleased to know that there’s an active movement to protect Greece’s bird population. The Sporades is also a prime spot for bird spotting, as it hosts many of the country’s indigenous bird species. You may also want to pay a visit to the Hellenic Ornithological Society or pick up their comprehensive bird list, which can help make your visit more informative.

Other organizations are also worth a visit if you’re up for a change of pace or even some volunteer work. The Lesbian Wildlife Hospital, for example, takes in volunteer veterinarians and helpers. Many rare animals are brought in for specialized care, so it’s also a good place to see endangered or rare species without intruding into their natural habitats.

One of the most active and widespread organizations is Archelon, which devotes itself to the preservation of Caretta caretta. This endangered turtle species has dwindled in number as beach tourism pushed them out of their natural habitats, but this is now changing. On many beaches, sea turtle nests are clearly marked so people can avoid them, and tourists are reminded to put away their sunbeds to leave a clear path for the turtles. Breeding season is a great time to come as volunteers offer information sessions and tours to help you get to know these animals better.

Of course, you don’t have to go far to mingle with local wildlife. The famous donkey rides allow you to get up close with one of Greece’s best-loved animals. Their work is strictly regulated by the government, so you can be sure there’s no abuse or mistreatment involved. Santorini is the most famous place for a donkey ride, but you won’t miss them in other popular spots like Athens and Crete.

Northern Greece: Little-Known Treasures

We often talk of the Greek islands—it’s all about whether to see Crete or Corfu, Delphi or Santorini. But mainland Greece, a far bigger territory up north, is just as much an attraction as its seaside neighbours. Like the islands, it’s got history, nature, cuisine, and everything that makes Greece one of the world’s top destinations.

History in northern Greece is a patchwork of victories and losses, with the Slavs, Turks, and Byzantines having occupied at some point and other regimes, such as the Romans and the Illyrians, having had shorter reigns. Traces of these can be found in the strongholds, castles, churches, and monuments scattered around the region today.

Greece owes much of its historical resilience to its landscape. Up north, in particular, mountain ranges and gorges—one of them, the 12-km Vikos Gorge, is thought to be the deepest in the world—have kept attackers at bay for centuries. Even today, some of them are notoriously hard to reach, though they remain open to tourists.

Natural attractions, including beaches, are also abundant around these parts. Although the coastline doesn’t quite match the beaches of the south, the Ionian Sea offers a great alternative with its beautiful crystal-blue waters and the Epirot Mountains providing a scenic backdrop. Most of these mountains are part of the Pindos range, and at its centre is the national park built around the gorge. Here you’ll find glittering mountain lakes, flower fields, and a vast range of flora and fauna, many of them endemic to Greece. River otters, foxes, and brown bears are some of the more common sights.

When you’re ready for more modern-day fare, branch off into one of the towns and mingle with the locals—preferably over some local drinks. Thessaloniki is Greece’s second city, and it’s famous for its restaurants and lively nightlife. Nearby is Ioannina, a university town where you’ll find equally lively residents, a number of historic spots, and a lake with a miniature island.

Egnatia Odos, a stretch of the European highway connecting Greece, Turkey, and Italy, has made northern Greece more accessible since its opening in 2009. The 420-mile stretch is an easy, scenic drive, so much that you don’t really notice how long you’ve gone until you see the next town or notice that the landscapes have changed. If you’ve got a few days to kill, this part of the archipelago is certainly worth your time.

Exploring Southern Crete

One out of four people who visit Greece every year make at least one stop on Crete, the country’s biggest island. Interestingly, most tourists just see half of the island, and it’s not just because of its size. Crete is cut cleanly in half by a rugged mountain range, such that going from one side to the other is often more trouble than the typical tourist would like.

Northern Crete, being closer to common entry points and packed with more attractions, tends to be more crowded. Most visitors are happy to spend the entirety of their stay here. But if you’re looking for some peace and quiet, the south may be more to your liking. You get the usuals—museums, ruins, mountain views—on a smaller scale, but you get to explore them at a more leisurely pace.

Southern Crete offers an impressive display of Cretan culture, from the cuisine (said to be the world’s healthiest) to the music to the unforgettable hospitality of its people. Loutro is a charming little settlement with traditional white houses, and Paleohora boasts a laid-back musical culture where some local is always putting on a show. Mantinades, short verses sung to fiddle music, is definitely worth checking out.

If you’re into history, you’ll want to explore the numerous strongholds and old settlements, a mark of the Cretans’ rebellious history. Sfakia, located in a quiet port village, was never conquered and even today is beautifully isolated. To the east is another castle, Frangokastello, this one located on a beach and offering one of the best views in the continent—whether from afar or up close.

Beach lovers are probably southern Crete’s biggest market. Its coast is dotted with some of Greece’s finest beaches, including Elafonisi Beach with its famous soft pink sands in the southwest. Unless it’s the peak of summer, this is where you’re most likely to find a quiet place to read, take a nap, or just take in the scenery.

Of course, there’s also the food—if you’re even the least bit health-conscious, you’ll be happy with the selection here. Cretans are said to be the healthiest people on the planet, thanks to their all-natural, low-cholesterol diet and active lifestyles. There’s lots of seafood and vegetables, and the meats are meticulously prepared to keep them lean and soft yet flavourful. While you’re there, grab a bottle of their famous olive oil and bring a bit of Crete home with you!