Things to do in Greece
Greece's official currency is the Euro (ˆ), which replaced the drachma in January 2002.
Currency exchanges are common particularly in larger cities and in any touristed area. In addition to hard currency, they also accept traveler's checks. There are also automated currency exchange machines in some areas of the country, particularly at Athens airport. Most banks will also exchange euros for some currencies -such as the US Dollar and British Pound- often times at better rates than currency exchanges. Banks' commission fees for these exchanges are usually structured so that it's more economical to change larger sums than smaller. Usually, only the larger, international-standard hotels will exchange money for their guests.
But for minor exceptions (like the Athens Monastiraki district), bargaining is considered unpolite and it is quite ineffective.
Greek cuisine is a blend of indigenous traditions and foreign influences. Neighboring Italy and Turkey have left a major impact on Greek cuisine, and there are shared dishes with both of these nations. The traditional Greek diet is very Mediterranean, espousing vegetables, herbs, and grains native to the Mediterranean biome. Being a highly maritime nation, the Greeks incorporate plenty of seafood into their diet. The country is also a major producer and consumer of lamb; beef, pork, and especially chicken are also popular. Olive oil is a staple in Greek cooking, and lemon and tomatoes are common ingredients. Bread and wine are always served at the dinner table.
The cuisine in Greece can be radically different from what is offered in Greek restaurants around the world. Greek restaurants abroad tend to cater more to customer expectations rather than offer a truly authentic Greek dining experience. One example is the famous gyros (yee-ros), a common item on Greek menus outside Greece. While it is a popular fast-food item in Greece today, it is actually a relatively recent foreign import (adapted from the Turkish doner kebap ) and is considered by Greeks as junk food. It is never served in the home and is generally not found on the menus of non-fast-food restaurants.
Restaurants serving international cuisine have also made a presence in the country, offering various options such as Chinese, French, Italian, and international contemporary.
In Greece, vegetarianism never took off as a trend, and restaurants catering strictly to vegetarians are practically non-existent. However, Greeks traditionally eat less meat per capita than northern Europeans and North Americans, and there are countless vegetarian dishes in Greek cuisine. Greeks are meat and dairy eaters, but because such a large percentage of their diet consists of pulses, vegetables, greens and fruits, a vegan or vegetarian visitor will not have any difficulty in finding a huge variety of vegetarian food all over Greece. The Porto Club travel agency offers a number of tours designed for vegetarians and vegans.
Popular local dishes
The traditional fast foods are gyros , roast pork or chicken (and rarely beef) and fixings wrapped in a fried pita; souvlaki , grilled meat on a skewer; Greek dips such as tzatziki , made of strained yoghurt, olive oil, garlic and finely chopped cucumbers and dill or mint; and skordhalia, a garlic mashed potato dip which is usually served with deep fried salted cod.
With its extensive coastline and islands, Greece has excellent seafood. Try the grilled octopus and the achinosalata (sea-urchin eggs in lemon and olive oil). By law, frozen seafood must be marked as such on the menu. Fresh fish, sold by the kilo, can be very expensive; if you're watching your budget, be sure to ask how much your particular portion will cost before ordering it.
Greek salad (called "country salad" locally, "HorIAtiki"), a mix of tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese and onion – all sliced – plus some olives, and occasionally green bell pepper or other vegetables, usually garnished with oregano. Traditionally it is dressed only with olive oil; vinegrette or lettuce are added only in the most tourist-oriented restaurants.
- moussaka , a rich oven-baked dish of eggplant, minced meat, tomato and white sauce
- pastitsio , a variety of lasagna
- stifado , pieces of meat and onion in a wine and cinnamon stew
- spetzofai , braised sausage with pepper and tomatoes, a hearty dish originally from the Mt. Pelion region
- saganaki , fried semi-hard cheese
- paidakia , grilled lamb chops, are also popular. They tend to have a gamier taste and chewier texture than North American lamb chops, which you may or may not like
Fried potatoes (often listed on menus as chips ) are a naturalized Greek dish, found almost everywhere. They can be very good when freshly made and served still hot. Tzatziki is usually a good dip for them, though they are still good on their own.
For dessert, ask for baklava , tissue-thin layers of pastry with honey and chopped nuts; or galaktoboureko , a custard pie similar to mille feuille. Other pastries are also worth tasting. Another must-try is yogort with honey: yoghurts in Greece are really different from what you used to see at Danone stores: to start with, genuine yoghurt in Greece is has 10% of fat. Fruit such as watermelon is also a common summertime treat.
For breakfast , head to local bakeries ( fourno ) and try fresh tiropita , cheese pie; spanakopita , spinach pie; or bougatsa , custard filled pie, or even a ""horiatiko psomi", a traditional, crusty village type bread that is a household staple, and very tasty on its own too. All are delicious and popular among Greeks for quick breakfast eats. Each bakery does own rendition and you are never disappointed. Go to the next Kafeneion with them and have it there with a Greek coffee to be local.
A popular drink is a frappe made with instant Nescafe, water, sugar , and sometimes milk. It is frothed and served over ice.
It's common to charge cover fee in cafes officially (i.e. stating it in a receipt), such as ˆ0.3 to ˆ2.0 per person, but if it's tending towards ˆ2.0 you should really consider eating somewhere else.
For things such as bread and fresh orange juice, the just-in-time principle is often used: bread or oranges are purchased by the cafe right after the first order is taken. So don't be surprised if your waiter returns to the cafe with a bag of oranges after accepting your order. And this is how fresh bread is guaranteed in most places.
McDonald's and Pizza Hut have made a significant presence in Greece over the past 15 years. However, they face strong competition from the popular local chains.
Goody's is the most popular fast-food chain in the country, offering a large variety of fast food meals, with numerous outlets throughout the country. A more recent chain is Everest which specializes in hand-held snacks. Flocafe is gaining popularity through its coffee and dessert items. There are also many independently-owned fast food businesses that offer typical fast food items, such as gyros. Many of these small businesses tend to be open late at night, and are popular with younger crowds on their way home from a night out.
Those wishing to partake of alcoholic beverages in Greece would be well advised to stick to the traditional domestic Greek products discussed below, which are freely available, mostly cheap by European standards, and usually of good quality. Any imported (i.e. non-Greek) alcoholic beverages are likely to be very expensive if genuine, and if cheap may well be "bomba," a locally distilled alcohol with flavorings which sometimes, especially in island bars catering to young people, masquerades as whiskey, gin, etc. If you drink it, you'll be very sorry.
Bomba does exist but in 30 years of drinking in Greece I have never been served any. Drink in respectable places where you can see the bartender mix your drink.
A glass of water is normally served with any drink you order; one glass for each drink. Sometimes you even get a glass of water first an then you are asked what you want to drink! If you dont get any or if they charge you for it, or if it's served in a bottle when you didn't ask for it, you just stepped into a tourist-trap !
Tap water in most places a traveler would go today is drinkable; if in doubt, ask your hotel. But often though technically drinkable it doesn't taste very good, especially on some small islands, and many travelers, like many Greeks, prefer to stick to bottled water.
To be able to purchase alcohol in Greece you must be 17, but there is no legal drinking age.
Greece, an ancient wine producing country, offer a wide variety of local wines, from indigenous and imported grape varieties, including fortified and even sparkling wines. Greek wines are generally not available on the international market, as production is relatively small, costs are quite high and little remains for export. However, in the past decade Greek wines have won many international prizes, with the rise of a new generation of wineries. Exports are rising as well.
Wine is most Greeks' drink of choice.
Almost every taverna has "barrel wine," usually local, which is usually of good quality and a bargain (6-8 EUR per kilo, but check this before ordering when you are in a touristy area!).
If they have it, try also the Imiglyko (Half-Sweet) red, even if sweet wine is usually not your preferred thing, it is diffrent from anything you know.
Retsina is a "resinated wine" with a strong, distinctive taste that can take some getting used to; the flavor comes from pine resin, which was once employed as a sealant for wine flasks and bottles. The most well-known and cheap-n-dirty is "Kourtaki Retsina".
Bottled wines have gotten increasingly more expensive; some that the beginner may find worth trying are whites from Santorini and reds from Naoussa and Drama.
Even if beer ( bira : ?????) is consumed all around the country, don't come to greece for the beer. The only local varieties widely available are Mythos and Alpha, but greeks drink mostly Northern European beers produced under license in Greece like Heineken and Amstel. Heineken is affectionally known as "green"; order it by saying "Mia Prasini."
On the quality front, there is also a microbrewery/restaurant called Craft (2 litre jug also available in large supermarkets), and new organic ber producers like Piraiki Zythopoiia.
The most famous indigenous Greek liquor is ouzo (????), an anise-flavored strong spirit (40%), which is transparent by itself but turns milky white when mixed with water. Locals do not drink ouzo with ice, but tourists generally do. A 200 mL bottle can be under ˆ2 in supermarkets and rarely goes above ˆ8 even in expensive restaurants. Mytilene (Lesbos) is particularly famous for its ouzo. A few to try are "Mini" and "Number 12," two of the most popular made in a middle-of-the-road style, "Sans Rival," one of the most strongly anise-flavored ones, "Arvanitis," much lighter, and the potent "Barba Yianni" and "Aphrodite," more expensive and much appreciated by connoisseurs.
Raki or tsikoudia is the Greek equivalent of the Italian grappa , produced by boiling the remainings of the grapes after the wine has been squeezed off. It is quite strong (35-40% of alcohol) and in the summer months it is served cold. It costs very little when one buys it in supermarkets or village stores.
Coffee is an important part of Greek culture.
The country is littered with kafeteries ( kafeteria singular) which are cafes that serve as popular hangouts for Greeks, especially among the under-35s. They tend to be pretty trendy -yet relaxed- and serve a variety of beverages from coffee, to wine, beer, spirits, as well as snacks, desserts, and ice cream. In the pleasant months of spring, summer, and fall, all kafeteries provide outdoor tables/seating and they are busiest with customers in the late afternoon and evening hours. Several kafeteries also double as bars.
Coffee can also be made espresso-style, French press (mainly at hotels), and with modern filter technology. The latter is sometimes known as gallikos ("French") which can lead to some confusion with the press method. It is best to ask for filtrou , which refers unambiguously to filter coffee. It is best not to ask for black coffee , as it is unlikely that anyone will understand what you are asking for.
Espresso or cappuccino fredo are also gaining popularity. Espresso fredo is simply espresso + ice (no milk or foam); cappuccino fredo may be served from mousse containers, not prepared just-in-time; be careful to check.
In mass-sector taverns and cafe, iced tea typically means instant; ask twice if you prefer real brewed ice tea.
If you enjoy the local traditions and charm, unhurried rhythm of living, small, family-run pensions are the best way to enrich your experience. Owners and personnel there are friendly and open-minded, compared to the impersonal service you normally encounter in large hotels.
If you have a bigger budget, renting a villa is a luxurious and splendid idea. They are normally near or on the beach and provide more space and a great view.
It should be noted that in Greece hotels, especially in the islands but also even in Athens and other big cities, tend to be simple establishments. Rooms are typically small, and bathrooms smaller, with the shower often a hand-held sprayer; if there is a bath-tub, it's often a sit-bath. Sometimes in the most basic places shower curtains are lacking. Closets are often inadequate, and sometimes there is only a wardrobe. On the plus side, such hotels typically have a balcony (though sometimes tiny) or veranda, either private or a large one shared by all the rooms (but these are usually spacious enough not to feel cramped.) Standards of cleanliness are usually good, even in the simpler places. Those who want more luxurious accommodation can usually find it in cities and on the more popular islands but should check the hotel's quality in reliable sources to be sure of what they're getting.
Most Greek hotels now, even the smaller ones, have web sites and will take bookings by email, though sometimes fax is a more reliable way to communicate. There are also numerous Greek and international hotel booking services which will make bookings, and sometimes these are cheaper, or have rooms available when the hotel itself says it's sold out. If you're not really particular about choosing a hotel, you can usually find a place on a walk-in basis without too much trouble on all but the most crowded islands, where rooms can be difficult to find at the peak of the season, and even in the shoulder season on weekends and major holidays. If you do get stuck for a room, try a local travel agency (preferably one endorsed by a reputable guidebook) or alternatively, ask at a cafe whether the owner knows of any rooms for rent; often they do.
On some islands, though this varies from place to place, the owners of accommodations will meet arriving ferries to offer rooms. Often they'll have a van there to transport you from the port, and will have brochures to show you. These places are perfectly legitimate, they're sometimes among the best value places. You can negotiate prices, especially when there are a lot of them trying to fill their rooms, and prices in the range of 20-25 EUR for a room or even a studio is not uncommon in mid-season. BUT they could be anywhere from a few steps away from the port to a mile out of town, so before accepting such an offer it's best to be sure you get a good idea of its location.
Places listed in the guide books tend to be booked up in advance and usually get more expensive as soon as they know they are in there!
Greek rooms typically have air conditioning nowadays. If this is important to you, ask before booking. Some rooms in old traditional buildings with thick stone walls may not need it. Televisions are also common, though the picture may be too fuzzy to be much use, and if you get the set to work you may find it receives programs only in Greek. Room phones are rare in the less expensive places.
The main problem you're likely to encounter with a Greek hotel room is noise. Soundproofing is rare except in the most expensive hotels. Anything on a road is likely to suffer from traffic noise, and even at hotels not on a major road you may find that that "footpath" outside is used as a superhighway by Greece's notoriously loud motorbikes. And tavernas and clubs nearby can generate decibels. If you're concerned about noise, it makes sense to choose your hotel's location carefully. The quietest ones are likely to be in an old part of the town or village accessible only by stairs which counter the prevailing "if I can drive it there I will drive it there" car and motorbike philosophy.
In addition to hotels, almost every popular Greek destination offers self-catering accommodations called studios or sometimes apartments -- the terms are pretty much interchangeable. Often these are run by hotels: a hotel may include some self-catering units, or the managers of a hotel may also run a separate building of self-catering apartments. Though not listed very often in travel guides, these studios are most certainly a viable option for many travelers. Typically, a studio consists of one large room, usually larger than a hotel room (though sometimes there are multiple rooms,) with a sink, small refrigerator, and two-burner hot-plate. They usually have a private balcony or veranda, a television, and air conditioning, though rarely a room phone and almost never internet access. In contrast to a hotel, they lack a front desk, there is no breakfast or other food service, and there may be maid service only once every two or three days. Studios are often in quieter and more scenic locations than hotels. For those who don't require the full services of a hotel, studios can be an attractive alternative offering better accommodations for the money, and the chance to economize on food by preparing some meals yourself.