The old port of Crete, the whitewashed buildings of Santorini, the ancient city of Athens, the Shakespearean allure of Corfu: many of Greece's most popular destinations need no introduction. But where to go if you want to get off the beaten path in Greece — and what are the places you'll miss if you stick to a standard itinerary? Whether you're interested in island-hopping or viewing medieval architecture, read on for a list of lesser-known places that are worth a visit.
Discover an Uncrowded Island Paradise on Hydra
Many travelers dream of finding peace and quiet in a Greek paradise. But crowds can be a problem on the most popular islands — about 30 are considered major tourist destinations, including Santorini and Mykonos, particularly in high season. Luckily, Greece has hundreds of other inhabited islands, and low-key Hydra, part of the Saronic Islands, is both fascinating and quiet
Theatre fans, this one's for you: Hydra's harbor was built in the shape of an amphitheater. Colorful boats bob in the water on the "stage," while the "orchestra" is occupied with busy restaurants, shops, cafés, and art galleries. Stone-lined streets lead steeply up to the "balconies," where stately mansions look out over the water. But you'll have to hike there yourself, or catch a ride on a local donkey: no cars are allowed on the island. The ban on motor vehicles is a large part of what makes Hydra so peaceful. (There's one exception: garbage trucks are allowed.)
The main town itself sees more international visitors than the rest of the island so venture out on foot, bicycle, or on horseback to villages like tiny Mandraki, Palamadis, and Episkopi for a glimpse of the island's charm and slow pace. In addition to empty beaches and lovely scenery, the island is home to six Orthodox monasteries (one that dates to the 10th century) and more than 300 churches. Its history and natural beauty are notable, but Hydra also has a political claim to fame: five of the country's prime ministers were born here.
Try Ouzo and Delve Into Greek History on Lesvos
Lesvos, which also goes by Lesbos or Mitilini, is an island off the coast of Turkey. As the home of the University of the Aegean, it has a large student population (read between the lines: lively nightlife) and the excellent Teriade Museum that showcases the work of Greek artists.
Thanks to Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who was born here — and who was known for her passionate lyrical poetry about women — Lesvos draws literary and LGBT travelers who often make the journey to her hometown of Eresos. Also on the island is Plomari, deemed the world capital of ouzo (Greece's famed anise-flavored spirit). If you've never tried ouzo before, one of the bars in the village is the perfect place for an initiation.
Observe Wildlife and Sip Wine on Alonissos
Alonissos, in the North Aegean, is a magnet for travelers interested in marine life. It's home to the National Marine Park of Alonissos and Northern Sporades, where you can take a boat ride to observe dolphins, seabirds, and rare Mediterranean monk seals in their natural habitat. On dry land, Alonissos is also a great place to walk or hike: the landscapes full of pine forests, orchards, and olive groves are quiet and beautiful.
And when the boat ride or hike is over? You're in the right place: Alonissos is famous for its wine-making history. The name of the capital city, Patitiri, means "wine press" in Greek. Unfortunately, many of the island's vineyards were devastated by a major earthquake in 1965. But local enthusiasm for wine hasn't changed. Find a charming outdoor café near the stone-lined waterfront by the harbor and try a local variety like Nemea or Naoussa: both are dry red wines that pair well with local specialties like grilled figs with honey.
Find out more about traditional Greek cuisine on this recommended six-day food tour of Crete.
Explore One of Europe's Best-Preserved Fortresses in Mestá
If you never miss an episode of Game of Thrones, you'll want to visit Mestá. Located on the island of Chios, the village is a wonderfully preserved example of medieval architecture. Step through the so-called "Door of the Captain" into this spectacular settlement. Since Mestá was built for defensive purposes, the village is a maze: castle towers, historic churches, and old stone houses are clustered tightly together, with all of the roofs interconnected. Livádi is the only open square in the village. It's the perfect place to sit down and soak up Mestá's fairy tale-style magic.
Interested in Greek antiquity? Try this recommended tour of mythical Athens.
Pitch a Tent and Feast on Clams on Ammouliani
During summer, bypass the cruise ship crowds and head for Ammouliani (also known as Amoliani), a pristine island located off the coast of the Halkidiki peninsula. Locals rave about its tranquil beaches — the area doesn't see much in the way of international tourism — and its possible to camp right on the sand. Didn't bring a tent? Not to worry; you can easily rent one in town.
And the experience might just rank among your greatest hits of a Greek vacation. Falling asleep under the stars, then waking up at sunrise and going for a dip in the crystal blue water: these are travel moments you won't soon forget. For lunch, try a plate of steamed clams at one of the relaxed restaurants on the waterfront, then go for a guided boat ride around Mount Athos.
If you'd rather sleep in a cave or a castle, check out this article about unique lodging options in Greece.