With thousands of years of history (and just as many islands to explore), Greece offers countless opportunities for adventure. If you're preparing for your first foray to the epicenter of the ancient world, check out these tips on traveling within the country, important info on visas, safety, etiquette, and more.

How big is Greece?

Greece is around 51,000 square miles, making it slightly smaller than the state of Alabama. The geography is split between the mainland and somewhere between 1,200 and 6,000 islands (depending on how you define an island) in the Ionian and Aegean seas.

Athens is about 300 miles from Thessaloniki, in the north; think an hour flight or roughly five-hour road trip. If you’re heading south to Crete from Athens - about 250 miles - you can also expect an hour plane ride or a 5-8 hour voyage via ferry. Traveling within island chains is easy thanks to ferries, hydrofoils, and catamarans and plethora of regional airports.

Do I need a visa?

Greece is visa-free for citizens traveling for up to 90 days from the EU and most countries in the Americas. Travelers from the US and Canada need only a passport valid for three months beyond the end of your anticipated trip.  

How do I get to Greece? 

Although there are a number of airports scattered on the mainland and islands, if Greece is your first stop from America, you will likely land at Athens International Airport. There are few direct flights to Athens from the US, but it’s an easy destination serviced by other hubs in the EU. You can expect regional year-round flights from Athens to the islands, many of which also offer seasonal international service from select European cities like London. Keep in mind, though, that it’s far cheaper to fly into an island from Athens than it is to return to the mainland, so consider sailing back to the capital after you’ve had your fill of sunshine and ouzo.

How do I get around in Greece?

Close to the Athens International Airport is the port of Piraeus, which serves as the jumping off point for Crete and a number of island chains in the Aegean, including the Dodecanese, Cyclades, and Northern Aegean islands. To reach the Ionian islands by ferry, you’ll likely ferry to Igoumenitsa (in Epirus) or Patras (on the Peloponnese).  If you're thinking of heading to Turkey or Italy after your jaunt in Greece and you're not in a rush, consider taking a gorgeous, albeit lengthy, trip by ferry. 

If you’re interested in utilizing public transit on the mainland, stick to buses and avoid the unreliable rail service. Although trains are cheap, they are slow and not as well maintained as other lines in Europe. However, buses are clean, affordable, and connect to a broad network of destinations throughout the country.  And thanks to urban refurbishment after the 2004 summer Olympics, Athens has an accessible, affordable and modern Metro that will take you to key points of interest and the port of Piraeus. Don't miss the outstanding archeological exhibits at stops like Monastiraki and Syntagma, featuring pieces unearthed during the subway's excavation and building process.

Looking to explore villages off the beaten path on the mainland? If you are not of the faint of heart, consider renting a car. But be sure to make your reservation before you arrive to ensure a 4 wheel drive vehicle up to the task of tackling daunting mountain roads. Drivers need to be over 21 years of age and you will need a valid license from your home country, as well as an International Driving Permit, which you can procure through automobile clubs like AAA.

How many days should I spend?

If you’re trying to decide how long of an itinerary to plan, take a look at this great article on how to plan the right vacation length for you. Ideally, you want to plan at least a week in Greece to take in the major ancient sites and spend some time island hopping and soaking up the sun. With so much to do, though, it’s easy to add on another week or two to take in the various island groups, cities and treasures of antiquity.

How strict is punctuality in Greece?

Time is somewhat relative in Greece, particularly when it comes to departure times for transportation. Trains, boats, buses, and ferries may have a printed schedule but can leave sporadically—and this often means an early or delayed departure. Plan on arriving at your port or station early (but not too early!) and maintain a sense of laid-back flexibility in the event your trip is pushed back by an hour or more.

The exception to this rule is in planning air-travel within Greece, particularly during the busy summer season. Give yourself a window of at least 2-hours to make connecting flights, leaving plenty of time to get through long lines and security at the airport.  

What is the currency?

Greece uses the Euro.

Are credit cards widely accepted? Will I need a PIN number?

Unlike other destinations in Europe, cash is king in Greece. While bigger hotels and many shops (especially in Athens and on more traveled islands) do accept credit cards, many restaurants and smaller businesses do not. In fact, some hotels may request a card to hold a reservation but require payment in cash, so be sure to check on payment process before you arrive.

ATMs are widely available in airports and bigger cities, but small towns and villages may only have one machine, which may or may not accept your debit card. To avoid snafus, it’s wise to travel with enough cash to get you through 24 hours. Greek ATMs also only accept 4-digit PINs; if yours is different, check with your bank to change your number before you depart.

Also, be aware that Greece, like other countries in the EU, has started to phase out magnetic-strip credit cards in favor of new Chip-and-PIN “Smart Cards.” If your magnetic-strip card is rejected, the cashier will manually enter your card number and will need the card’s PIN; if you don’t know yours offhand, contact your bank a few weeks before you head overseas, as some banks send PINs via snail mail.

What’s the weather like?

Depending on the time of year, Greece can swing from chilly winters to scorching hot summers that top 100°F (43°C). When planning your itinerary, plan to avoid stifling August heat waves and look instead at scheduling your vacation in late spring/early summer (mid-April through mid-June) and autumn (September through mid-October) to beat summer’s heat and tourist-packed high season.

Still trying to pick the ideal time to travel? Check out this article about the best times to visit Greece, with ideas on how to take advantage of all the seasons have to offer.

Can I get by with English alone?

Although Greeks speak Greek, you can absolutely get by on just English. English is widely spoken by those in the hospitality industry and heavily touristed areas, and since it's part of standard school curriculum, you’ll find that a majority of people under 40 speak it with varying proficiency. Road signs in big cities are typically bilingual, but if you’re heading further afield, it’s worth learning the Greek alphabet to help you navigate.

As with traveling any place abroad, it’s respectful to learn a few key Greek phrases to connect with locals in a polite way. "Please" (parakalo) and "thank you" (efharisto) are always great to start with. 

Is Greece a good destination for kids?

Break out the beach toys and mythology books—Greece is a fantastic destination if you’re traveling with little ones. The culture is warm and welcoming, and museums and historic sites offer ample kid-friendly programming. In fact, Greeks are so inclusive of youngsters that it’s not uncommon to see tykes in tavernas at 11 pm.

In addition to a number of aquatic activities and beach fun, there are medieval forts to explore in Corfu and Rhodes, a wonderful Natural History Museum on Crete, and hours of curated exhibits and play in Athens’s many museums and ruins. For some inspiration on the country’s must-see spots, take a look at this article, which includes some kid-friendly ideas like snorkeling, sailing, and learning about the ancient world.

Thinking about a family-focused vacation by the sea? Check out this 8-day adventure-filled trip to Naxos and Paros, filled with spectacular beach time, windsurfing, paddleboarding, and sandcastle-building on the azure of the Aegean.

Should I be concerned about safety?

According to the US State Department, Greece is considered safe and deemed a “Level One” destination, advising travelers to use “normal precautions.” In other words, exercise the same level of awareness and savviness you would in any other European nation. Safeguard yourself from pickpockets: don’t keep valuables in your back pocket, don’t let anyone “help” you at an ATM, and keep your wits about you in busy areas or scooter-heavy thoroughfares.

Do be aware of taxi scams, though. For some trips, particularly from the airport or the port of Piraeus, there are government-mandated fixed prices; however, sneaky drivers might quote you a different rate altogether. If traveling by cab, be sure to use legal yellow taxis, which have functioning meters and lights on their roofs. Beware drivers who say their meters are down, lest you have to shell out an exorbitant fee once you arrive at your destination. Play it safe by using official taxi queues at the airport, or download Beat, an app that will call a vetted cab for you in the city.

What should I pack?

Whether you’re planning to explore ancient sites or sack out on the beach, come to Greece prepared with some key items in your luggage. If your itinerary is heavy on cobblestone-lined cities and rocky ruins, pack good shoes and breathable clothing. Traveling in winter? Make sure to throw in an umbrella and lightweight raincoat. In warmer months, be sure to include warm-weather essentials like sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat to shield you, as many islands and archeological sites lack shade.

If you’re heading to the islands, pack some sturdy sandals for strolling around and perhaps some water shoes, particularly if you’re heading to the black, volcanic beaches of Santorini.

What is the food like?

If you love fresh ingredients, bold flavors, and a varied cuisine, Greek food will not disappoint. Expect briny olives from Kalamata, salty cheeses, fresh seafood, buttery lamb, peppery olive oils, and flaky treats wrapped in impossibly light phyllo dough. Greek cuisine epitomizes the bounty that the Mediterranean has to offer.

Greek breakfast always involves rich coffee and something simple like tiropita (a cheese-filled pastry), yogurt and honey, or fresh bread. Lunch and dinner can be as easy as a pita filled with lamb gyro or souvlaki or can be a drawn-out affair: think an elaborate spread of mezze (hot and cold appetizers, bites and dips), followed by salad, roasted meats or casseroles, and fresh bread. Linger over your meal while you sip anise-flavored ouzo or raki, a glass of bold local wine, or a regional beer from the blossoming microbrew scene.

In fact, grabbing a bite at a Greek bakery is one of our favorite ways to mingle with locals—read more about Greece's best cultural experiences here

What are standard mealtimes/open hours for restaurants?

When planning meal times and restaurant reservations, keep in mind that Greeks eat late. For lunch, this means 2 pm at the earliest; for dinner, crowds start trickling in after 9 pm (and even later once the heat dies down in summer months).

Is the tap water safe to drink?

Tap water is safe to drink on the mainland in larger cities like Athens and Thessaloniki, but stick to bottled water if you’re in a smaller town off the beaten track or if you’re exploring the islands.

What is the tipping culture in Greece?

Unlike some countries with standard tipping practices and rates, Greece has a variety of customs around gratuity. In restaurants, tipping is expected (particularly from tourists); expect to leave at least 5% and as much as 10% if you received great service. Make sure to check the bill, though: some restaurants round up, adding on a service charge, while others may tack on a small “cover charge” for bread and water.

Aim to leave tips for waiters in cash, as it’s common for servers to not receive gratuities left on credit card transactions. Tips are also generally expected by taxi drivers, tour guides, and hotel staff: think €1 per bag for porters, €1 per day for housekeepers, and a few Euros for the concierge if you get excellent service.

What type of electrical adapter/converter will I need?

As you would for other European destinations, come prepared with a travel adapter, and depending on your appliance, a voltage converter. Greece operates on a 230v standard voltage and 50Hz standard frequency and utilizes Type C “Europlug” and Type F “Schuko” two round-prong outlets.

Hair dryers are standard in hotels in Athens and more popular destinations, but if you’re heading to the islands, check in with your hotel before you depart, as some amenities aren’t as ubiquitous as they are on the mainland.

What’s the deal with Greek plumbing?

Because Greek sewage pipes are small - generally 50 millimeters in diameter - they clog easily with toilet paper. That’s why you’ll see signs all over Greece requesting that you throw away (rather than flush) your toilet paper. You’ll find handy bins to dispose of your toilet paper next to toilets, and fear not: bins typically have a lid and are emptied daily.