Why you should visit Greece now
Despite the current economic situation, the Greek people welcome travelers as an important part of their economy. In fact, one great way to help Greece is to visit now. Stay in some of my favorite places—Athens, the southwest region of the country, and the island of Ikaria—and I know you’ll come home looking at life a little differently. The economy may be in ruins, but the Greek spirit lives on. Opa!
My parents were born and raised in Greece making it a distinct part of my heritage. And while it’s such a conflicted place—a mix of old and new, ancient and 21st century—there’s something magical about the Greek people and how they live. Here in the U.S., our day-to-day lives are often focused on doing and achieving. The Greek lifestyle is about enjoying each moment.
Start with the Acropolis. First, spring for a hotel that has a view of the ancient citadel. It’s lit up at night and the view is amazing. Second, plan some time at the Acropolis Museum. I’ve been to a lot of museums all over the world, and it really is one of the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. It’s not what you would expect. It’s open air with a glass floor. Through the floor, you can see an excavation of ancient Greece, including some remarkable Greek pillars. Third, have lunch at the museum. Seriously. It's more than just a typical museum cafeteria. They have the best gourmet Greek food, and they serve really good wine and beer. You can sit out on a big open patio with a view that looks up at the Acropolis.
Next, check out some of the beaches. They are unexpected as well in that the water is clean and warm, and the sand is nice. They’re not your typical city beaches. Glyfáda and Voúla are just two areas along the southern coast that make up part of what’s more recently become known as the Athens Riviera.
Finally, even though I’m generally not a big farmers’ market guy, you have to hit the Athens Central Market. You’ll find trade from the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa. Nuts and spices. Huge octopus, fish, meat. It’s like walking into the Parthenon in 490 B.C. It’s chaotic and overwhelming, but you could spend hours in there just tripping around (in a good way).
In southwest Greece, the town of Pylos feels a bit like an island, but actually it sits right on the water at Navarino Bay. It was here in 1827, during the Greek War of Independence, that an allied French, Russian and British force destroyed a Turkish and Egyptian armada in the Battle of Navarino, causing such a defeat that the Turks began to evacuate Greece.
I know I said I wasn’t much of a farmers’ market guy, but the second market you have to visit in Greece is the one in Kalamata, the capital of Messenia and second largest city by population in the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece.
The market is huge, about five acres. And you’ll find every food you can imagine here. Amazing black olives, of course. But also meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, spices, Turkish delights, sesame-covered sweet pastellis, pastries, souvlaki, sea salts.
When I hit the Kalamata market, I look for two items in particular: the grapefruit-sized peaches and octopus. Grilled octopus has my heart.
The main town has a very welcoming feel. Young and old will dance outside at midnight and on into the early morning, after lots of ouzo. It’s casual enough to wear shorts to dinner—and if you get hot, you can just jump in the ocean.
About seven miles from Pylos is Voidokilia Beach. The name means “cow’s belly” in Greek, and the curve of the beach looks like a giant Greek omega. It’s on the Ionian Sea—most people think of the Aegean Sea when they think of Greece, but the Ionian is equally amazing. Above the beach sits Nestor’s Cave (a bat cave) and some thirteenth-century castle ruins. It’s worth the hike up. Try some windsurfing and snorkeling in the area, or even mountain biking in the nearby mountains of Messenia.
Trade in your beaches for the waterfalls and pools that run through Polilimnio Gorge. It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean come alive.
Swim under cascading water and through multiple turquoise-colored pools into super cool caves, or jump off a cliff into the largest and deepest pool at the very top. You have to earn all this beauty though with a 90-minute hike into it, including some rock scrambling.
My teenage kids love it here—of course, they also love the lower drinking age in all of Greece.
My dad is from mainland Greece, but my mother is from the island of Ikaria. It’s a primitive and rustic place—no high-end lodging here—but it’s known as one of the world’s Blue Zones, where people live the longest. Ikaria has the highest concentration of individuals who have lived over the age of 100.
And those people are living every day until the very end. Everyone on the island is into festivities and community, so every night is basically an open-air party. Family and friends, the yayas with the papous, along with the kids. When you visit, you’ll hear about the golden triangle, which is “bed sheet to beach towel to napkin,” in other words, “sleep, go to the beach, then go have a good meal and some wine.”
Recently, I talked with one 104-year-old woman, a seamstress who was trying to grow her business. At 104! She walked six miles to the bank to get a loan, and you know what they told her? They said, “We have a policy. We don't lend money to anyone over 103.” (She had to get her son to co-sign.) These aren’t your typical centenarians, which is probably why a tagline of sort for Ikaria is “an island where people forget to die.”