Spring (April-May) and autumn (late September-October) are our favourite times, being moderately warm (typically 20-30 celsius) and much quieter than midsummer. Spring is great for wild flowers and lush landscapes; autumn for warm seas. If you are restricted to school summer holidays, we'd recommend July over August – which sees swarms of holiday-makers and proportionately higher prices. If you're worried about the heat (which can reach 40 celsius on a hot day in Crete, for example), consider heading up to the mountains of the mainland; here, it's 5-10 degrees cooler in summer - and, in winter, can snow quite heavily. Hotels often close or renovate over the winter – some have no central heating - but most aim to reopen for Greek Easter, at which point they fill rapidly for the holiday period.
Key Greek festivals include Orthodox Easter and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (15 August), plus a host of local saints’ days which provide an excuse for a summer night of dancing and feasting. On major feast days, transport and public services go haywire; try and avoid travel around Athens over any festive weekend, and to/from the islands around 15 August.
This is usually a bit later than western European Easter:
2016 - Easter Sunday - May 1st
2017 - Easter Sunday - April 16th (same as western Easter)
2018 - Easter Sunday - April 8th
The biggest festival in the Orthodox calendar prompts a nationwide exodus to the country for socialising and church-going, followed by fireworks and feasting. It usually coincides with some lovely spring weather, and makes a wonderful focal point of any holiday.
New Year’s Day: January 1 (public holiday)
Epiphany: January 6 (a crucifix is thrown into the sea and retrieved by boys)
Carnival (Apokriés): 60-40 days before Easter (huge parade in Patras, festivities in Athens, ‘goat-dance’ on Skyros)
Clean Monday (Kathari Deftera): Last Monday before Lent (kite-flying throughout Greece)
Lent (Sarakostí) and Holy Week (Megali Evdomáda): 40-1 days before Easter (fasting, church-going)
Independence Day: March 25 (costumed parades)
St George’s Day: April 23 – can vary (rural service, feast and dancing; also start of summer pastures for transhumants)
May Day: May 1 (flower-picking, wreath-making)
Greek Easter (Pascha): Date varies from 0-5 weeks after western Easter (see below)
St Constantine: May 21 (firewalking in Macedonian villages)
Pentecost (Whitsun)50 days after Easter (long weekend)
Prophet Elijah (Ilias): July 20 (mountaintop celebrations and fires, notably on Mt Taygetus)
St Paraskevi: July 26 (feasts in Epirus villages)
Transfiguration of Christ (Metamorfosi): August 6 (feasts in Evia & elsewhere)
Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Dekapentávgousto): August 15 (the biggest summer exeat - Greeks return to their home village or make pilgrimmages e.g. to Tinos)
Birth of the Virgin Mary (Genisi): September 8 (rural service and feast)
St Demetrius: October 26 (new wine tasted, also end of summer pastures)
Ochi Day: October 28 (parades to celebrate Metaxa's historic “No!” to Mussolini)
St Nikolaos: December 6 (services at coastal chapels)
Christmas: December 25 (public and religious holiday, but less commercial than in western Europe)
New Year’s Eve: December 31 (nightlong services, parties and card-playing)
BY AIR: The main carriers include:
GETTING AROUND ATHENS:
Athens International airport (ATH) is about 45-90 minutes into the centre. The metro or suburban railway are the fastest ways to travel. You can take the metro line 3 to Monastiraki Station (Plaka area). The suburban railway line runs from the airport to the central rail station (Stathmos Larissis) and the port of Pireas. The X93 and X95 bus services connect the airport with Syntagma Square. Taxis can often be slower than the train. We recommend hiring a car to explore mainland Greece. The rail network OSE is limited, slow and often late, but the routes are scenic, especially in the Peloponnese.
THE ISLANDS: BY AIR
Olympic Air and Aegean Airlines offer seats between Athens and to all islands which have an airport and to airports around mainland Greece.
THE ISLANDS: BY SEA
If you are island-hopping in the Cyclades, there are regular ferries and hydrofoils to and between all major islands. Hydrofoils are quicker than ferries and cost about twice as much. Most services start from Athens’ main port, Pireaus (for central-southern Cyclades, Dodecanese, Crete, Argo-Saronic and eastern Peloponnese); a few leave from Athens' second port Rafina (for Andros-Tinos-Mykonos-Syros), while the tiny island of Kea is served exclusively by Lavrion port. The southern Ionian islands (Kefalonia, Zakinthos) are served by boats from Patras or Kimi on the Peloponnese; the central and northern ones (Ithaka, Corfu, Paxos) from other mainland ports. Try a site like Open Seas or Ferries in Greece.
GETTING AROUND EACH ISLAND
You may want to hire a car, jeep, quad bike or moped; if the latter, then check the brakes and insist on a helmet. Remember that riding two to a moped halves the cost, but doubles your chance of a puncture. Every island has several rental outlets.
Buses can be useful for exploring the island; buses tend to meet ferries at the port and shuttle up to the main town and sometimes elsewhere too. On Crete there is a good bus network linking the main cities of the north coast (Hania - Rethymnon - Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos), as well as a reasonable village network.
Taxis are not expensive. On Crete we have heard good things about Crete Taxi and Easy Taxi: taxi booking services with good English who charge a small handling fee over and above the prescribed rates.
No vaccinations are required. EU citizens are entitled to reciprocal state medical care in Greece (take your EHIC card), but hospitals can be chaotic. Of course, additional medical insurance is recommended. There are good, English-speaking (and English/US-trained) private doctors and dentists throughout Greece.
In summer, take mosquito repellent and use strong suntan cream. Avoid the midday sun in summer (when you are in or by the sea, its effects are not so apparent) and drink plenty of water. Water is generally safe but in coastal areas is heavily chlorinated. Cheap bottled mineral water is widely available.
It is customary to tip 10% or to round up generously at restaurants, and to round up to (say) the nearest 5 Euros when paying for taxis and other services (but not anything with a printed price on).