Last Updated on July 11, 2021 by Nina Ahmedow
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Greece is one of Europe’s top tourist destinations with 30 million tourists heading to the country each year (pre-COVID-19). From magnificent ancient sites and stunning beaches to picturesque villages and a lively nightlife, there are various reasons people choose to visit Greece. If you’re also planning a trip to this fascinating country there are a few things to know before traveling to Greece.
As someone who has been living in Greece for seven years, I can definitely help if you’re wondering what to know about traveling to Greece. Because even though Greece’s history is famous, its modern culture is not understood by everyone.
Let’s dive right into all the things to know before going to Greece.
21 Important Things to Know Before Traveling to Greece
If you’re wondering what to know before going to Greece I’m here to help. I’ve been living in Greece for a total of seven years now and am well-versed in the local culture. There are quite a few things that confuse tourists so I’m here to shed some light.
If you’re wondering if there are any specific laws in Greece for tourists don’t worry, there aren’t. But it’s best to be aware of cultural norms and odd facts. That way, you can make an informed decision about your trip and won’t be too confused if things are sometimes a little bit different than you are used to. Because even the most annoying things are a lot less of an issue if you are prepared for them.
Without further ado, here are the most important things to know about Greece before you go.
1. Greeks Are Poor Drivers
Many European countries have a reputation for their poor driving skills: Are French drivers, Italian drivers, or Maltese drivers the worst? In my opinion, the answer is very easy: Greeks are by far the worst drivers I have ever encountered on my travels. Traffic in Athens is particularly difficult to navigate, but even outside of the big cities, driving in Greece can be dangerous. In fact, Greece’s per vehicle rate of deadly accidents is twice that of Italy.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, many Greeks refuse to use a seat belt. Actually, you can even buy fake seat belt buckles in most gas stations so the alarm doesn’t go off when you don’t use your seat belt. Likewise, many Greeks drive their motorbikes or scooters without a helmet, often simply carrying the helmet on their arm instead. (Yes, you read that right.)
Drunk driving is another widespread problem in Greece, as is texting while driving, even on scooters. Greeks also don’t take the separation of lanes as seriously as people in other countries. So you may see people driving in the middle of the road rather than on the right as they should.
This type of reckless behavior combined with notoriously poor road quality and many winding roads make for a less than pleasant experience when driving. That doesn’t mean driving is impossible in Greece, but it’s important to be extra vigilant.
With that said, in many regions in Greece you will need to rent a car because it will be the best way to get around. The big cities obviously have public transport and so do some of the islands, but if you’re going for day trips and want a bit of flexibility you will need a car. The important thing is to simply be careful and not overestimate yourself when driving in Greece.
As a pedestrian, you should also always double-check for cars. It’s very common for three to five cars to run a red light before you can cross the street.
2. Greece Is More Than the Islands
Time and time again I see people’s Greece itineraries that only talk about a handful of islands. But there’s so much more to see in Greece than Santorini, Mykonos, or Crete. To really experience Greece make sure you spend time on the mainland as well.
From Ottoman history in Ioannina, the first Greek capital Nafplio, to the beaches around Kalamata, and the breathtaking monasteries of Meteora, there’s a lot to see in Greece that doesn’t involve island hopping.
If you’re going to Greece check out these fabulous tours and activities that GetYourGuide offers, and you’ll be sure to find something that none of your friends have seen before!
3. Accommodation Is Often Fully Booked
Greece is a popular but small destination so certain places can book out very quickly. Booking early also usually means you’ll get a better price. Whether you’re planning to book a hotel or a flight, the early bird catches the worm.
Try booking in the shoulder season or even the low season to get better deals and less crowded beaches and attractions!
4. Greece Is Not as Vegan-Friendly as You May Think
I have a very detailed post on what it’s like to be vegan in Greece. Please read it carefully if you’re vegan, and don’t let anyone try to convince you that νιστίσιμο (nistisimo = Orthodox fasting food) means vegan.
Likewise, donkey riding is sadly very common on some Greek islands and has even been turned into a tourist attraction. It’s very important to avoid riding donkeys on the Greek islands so that they will no longer be abused.
5. Greeks Don’t Flush Their Toilet Paper
I have a whole post about weird Greek bathroom habits, but for this post suffice it to say that you’re not supposed to flush your toilet paper in Greece. Instead, you have to throw it in a bin.
You will see signs for this in pretty much every bathroom, and the locals take it very seriously. As gross as it is, you’ll have to get used to it during your time in Greece.
6. Greeks Are Not Usually on Time
This has to be one of the most important things to know before you go to Greece. There are many countries in the world with strict schedules that people adhere to, where you can expect everything to happen on time.
Greece is not one of those countries. On the contrary, most commonly here in Greece people are not on time. While in many cases you won’t necessarily care as a tourist, it can affect you negatively. For example, buses are very often late, and you might miss a connection because of that.
In order to have things run smoothly during your stay in Greece, it’s best to plan for some delays. If things go as planned you’ll only win some extra time. But if the bus is not on time you won’t mind because you were already expecting to wait a bit longer.
7. There Are a Lot of Strikes
Greeks go on strike very frequently. The financial crisis has had a very negative impact on the population, and sadly politicians don’t tend to pay much attention to them. That’s why Greeks often have to go on strike to make their voices heard.
Don’t expect public transport or ferries to run when you are here. Wednesdays and Thursdays seem to be particularly popular for strikes, so you may want to book your flights so that you don’t arrive or leave on one of those weekdays.
8. Opening Hours Are Different
You may be used to going shopping in the afternoon or on the weekend. That’s not always possible in Greece.
As a general rule, shops are closed on Sundays and on national holidays (there are some exceptions around Christmas).
But not only that, on Mondays and Wednesdays most shops and even pharmacies close at around 3 pm. This does not include grocery shops or big international stores which are still open until 9 pm. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays smaller shops close between 2:30 pm and 5:30 pm.
9. Greece Isn’t an Accessible Country
If you have a disability you should plan very carefully if you’re thinking about visiting Greece. Even the capital Athens, is going to be extremely difficult to navigate.
Most of the sidewalks are either in poor condition or parked with cars so you won’t be able to use them throughout most of the country. It is extremely uncommon to see disabled people, and it’s easy to understand why. (For tips on traveling as a wheelchair user check out my friend Emma’s blog! She explores plenty of destinations in her wheelchair and has the best tips and tricks for you.)
As a sidenote, all of this also means that you’d do best to leave your high heels at home as you’ll probably struggle to walk in them in Greece.
10. Tipping Is Not a Thing in Greece
It’s quite uncommon for Greeks to tip. However, if people know you’re a tourist they might expect you to tip them nonetheless. Given that service in Greece is often quite poor (it can easily take half an hour until a waiter even acknowledges you) you shouldn’t let anyone guilt-trip you into tipping.
If you’re really satisfied with the service it’s of course always a nice idea to leave a tip, but tipping in Greece is completely up to you.
11. Most Greeks Know English
Greeks are quite used to hearing and speaking English. The language is taught in all Greek middle and high schools, English-language movies are not dubbed, and tourism is a big industry in Greece. That means that even elderly people in big cities or tourist destinations will know enough English to answer any simple questions you may have.
You may feel like you should learn a few words, and while this will certainly be appreciated by some Greeks, it can irritate others. Tourists don’t usually pronounce things properly or use the correct pronouns, so there’s even a risk of being rude. For example, the greeting γειά σου (pronounced yah-soo) is only for individuals you know well, never for strangers, and certainly not for the receptionist at a hotel.
As sweet as your intentions may be, sometimes it’s best to stick to English. Keep your attempts at speaking Greek to a minimum or practice ahead of time so you don’t make the barista’s life harder when trying to order a coffee in Greek.
12. Avoid the Summer
Wait, what? Isn’t Greece a summer destination? Well, the answer is difficult.
You can definitely expect to have a summery feel throughout most of Greece during much of the year. But the summer months of July and August usually get uncomfortably hot and are also very expensive. If you’re from a colder country you’ll still consider Greece beautifully warm in May, June, and September, and visiting Greece in March, April, or October can also be very pleasant. Plus you’ll encounter fewer tourists and will pay less.
If you do come in the summer make sure to pack your sunscreen and avoid the mid-day sun. It can be unbearably hot, and if you’re not used to it it can be quite dangerous. Also keep drinking lots and lots of water!
13. You May Need Cash
Americans traveling to Greece may find this one difficult to get used to as they don’t often use cash anymore. Paying by debit card is not uncommon in Greece, but some smaller shops in little towns or villages only take cash. Try to always have euros on hand so you can pay small shop owners in cash.
In big cities you won’t usually have a problem paying by credit card, but even there, smaller shops may not have a machine, or it may simply be broken.
14. You Don’t Have to Take the Ferry
While it’s true that ferries are the traditional way to move between the mainland and the islands this isn’t always the cheapest option, and it’s definitely not the most comfortable one. Many Greek islands have airports that you can get to from Athens or another Greek airport.
So if you’re simply trying to reach one particular island and not doing island hopping you don’t need to spend 9 hours on a ferry and spend even more money than you would on a plane that will take you to the same place in half an hour.
15. Haggling Is Not a Thing in Greece Anymore
One of the biggest misconceptions I see is that tourists think that haggling is a regular practice in Greece. This is a very outdated view. While it is true that in some souvenir shops you can negotiate a better price than the tourist price you’ll be told, this is not a general rule, and you shouldn’t simply offer half the price of what you were told. This can be extremely rude, especially given the poor economic situation in Greece.
While many things are certainly overpriced and you can find them much cheaper in other countries, this is often due to the fact that VAT in Greece is quite high compared to other EU countries. If you don’t think an item is worth its price you’re free to look elsewhere. Perhaps the shop owner will offer a lower price, but don’t initiate haggling yourself.
16. Greeks Still Behave Properly When They Drink
One of my top Greece travel tips for people from the northern regions of Europe would be to make sure to watch your alcohol intake. While Greeks drink strong alcohols you won’t find the type of behavior that is sadly common in countries like the UK or Germany where people get so uncontrollably drunk they don’t know what they’re doing.
Please remember that even if you come here and spend money that doesn’t give you the right to get so drunk that you throw up on the street and cause an inconvenience to the local population.
17. You Can’t Miss the Archaeological Sites
I’ll let you in on a secret: I don’t care about archaeology. I find ancient stones boring, I can’t get excited about a piece of an ancient spoon, and even all the archaeologists I have met in my life were boring people. Pretty much everywhere I go I completely skip the archaeological museum and only look at archaeological sites if they take like 15 minutes to look at and admission is free.
However, there are some exceptions to this, and Greece is one of them. The archaeological sites in the country are absolutely extraordinary. From the incredible Parthenon to the impressive artifacts in the National Archaeological Museum, you absolutely can’t skip the archaeological sites in Greece.
18. Greeks Love Their Coffee
One of the top things to know when traveling to Greece is that Greeks love coffee, whether it’s 10°C or 43°C outside. And in order to make it bearable in the heat, they have created innovative cold versions of the drink. From cappuccino freddo to espresso freddo and frappe, you can still enjoy your coffee while trying to stay cool in the Greek summer heat.
You’ll see tons of young Greek people walking around with their freddo or frappe and fewer people drinking fresh juice or other refreshments.
19. The Beaches Really Are Breathtaking
Even the simplest Greek beach will wow you with its beautiful turquoise waters if you don’t happen to be from a similarly blessed country.
While there are beautiful mountainous regions that are worth visiting in Greece, I can’t deny that the country’s beaches are beyond beautiful and deserve at least one day trip if you even remotely enjoy the sea.
20. Many Islands Face Water Shortages
This is one of the most important things to know before visiting Greece because it really affects the local population. Many Greek islands face water shortages so please do your best to make sure you don’t waste any of the water.
Usually, the little water that the islands do have is reserved for basic necessities like showering and cooking, so it’s best not to drink tap water on the islands. Bottled water is extremely cheap in Greece, and to make this a bit more eco-friendly you can buy larger amounts and refill your smaller reusable bottle.
21. You’ll Get Numerous Small Receipts at Restaurants
In Greece, you’ll get a receipt for every single order you make at a restaurant. That means that if you order your meals first you will receive them together with the receipt. If you then decide to order dessert you’ll be served your dessert with a new receipt that only lists the desserts. When you want to pay you’ll have to ask for the total bill.
So don’t worry, the fact that you’ll get a bill right away doesn’t mean that you’re expected to pay and leave immediately. In fact, Greeks have a habit of staying in bars and restaurants for hours without ever ordering dessert or another drink. Personally, I’d advise against this because it takes up a seat, and someone else who might bring additional income can’t sit down. But nobody in Greece will have a problem if you do stay without ordering again.
So these were my 21 things to know about traveling to Greece. Let me know in the comments if you can think of anything else I should add. I hope you enjoyed these honest Greece tips and they help you prepare for your trip. If you want to know what to pack for Greece I have a post on how to pack light for Europe, and the principles in it are certainly valid for Greece.