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As a kid, I spent nearly every summer with my family in Greece.
My parents immigrated to California from Greece in the 1980s, but they made sure I grew up learning about our family’s roots. We spent almost every summer of my childhood in Greece, where beach days were filled with that perfect turquoise Aegean Sea and big fresh bowls of horiatiki.
Friends now frequently ask me for advice on their Greece trips, but the only places they ever want to visit are Mykonos, Santorini, and Athens. My answer to them is always the same: You can experience so much of Greece’s incredible food, culture, and beaches without setting foot in its packed tourist destinations.
So, with the help of my lovely parents, I’ve brought you a list of seven incredible spots in Greece that hold some of our favorite memories.
Thessaloniki is a beautiful city packed with great food and incredible history.
Most of my summers in Greece were spent in Thessaloniki, where both of my parents grew up. It’s the second biggest city in the country after Athens and dates all the way back to 316 BC.
Ancient ruins can be seen in the city’s downtown area, along with the majestic Byzantine churches. But the most important landmark is the White Tower, which was built in the 15th century after Thessaloniki fell to the Ottomans. The White Tower now has an exhibition on the city’s history, and you can go up to the top for spectacular views from its balcony.
Thessaloniki is also packed with so many delicious tavernas and restaurants that the city recently landed on Time Magazine’s list of “The World’s Greatest Places of 2022.” My mom recommends visiting the Ladadika neighborhood at the city’s center for dinner, or going to Aretsou for views of the water. Try the bougasta — a Greek dessert of custard wrapped in phyllo — or koulouri, Greek sesame bread rings that were my mom’s childhood favorite.
“Walk in the Thessaloniki promenade to enjoy a sunset and, if the sky is clear, a perfect view of Mount Olympus,” she added.
I’ll let you in on a secret: The best beaches in Greece are actually in Halkidiki.
Sure, Santorini’s got those gorgeous white buildings, and Mykonos has the wild nightlife. But if you’re looking for an incredible beach vacation, you might be better off on the mainland.
Even as a kid, I remember being stunned by the beaches in Halkidiki. The sand is soft and white, the water is warm, and the colors of the sea are the brightest blues you’ll ever see. One summer my mom and uncle took me to a different beach every day, and she still loves to tell the story of how I gave all the Halkidiki beaches an “A++” because I loved them so much.
Halkidiki is near Thessaloniki, so it’s also a great place to visit if you want to combine a city escape with a beach destination. Plus, with so many local tavernas by the sea, you’re sure to have a great meal of octopus, ouzo on the rocks, and some calamari.
“If all you want for your vacation is to lie on a beach and listen to the waves, Halkidiki is your destination,” my mom said.
A trip to Meteora will give you an unforgettable hike.
Meteora is another childhood trip I’ll always remember. Located in central Greece, the Meteora monasteries — now a UNESCO World Heritage Site — are perched on huge cliffs that will take your breath away.
Orthodox Christian hermit monks first began coming to the cliffs of Meteora around the 9th century, looking for peace and isolation. In the 14th century, the first Meteora monastery was built, spearheading the beginning of the site’s monastic community, according to Visit Meteora. Six of the 24 monasteries remain active today with more than 60 nuns and monks.
“It’s absolutely amazing to realize that monks built these monasteries and lived there for centuries,” my mom said. “The unique rock formations and nice sunsets offer many photo opportunities. It’s a really special place that makes me feel close to heaven.”
Delphi is a dream destination for history lovers.
Ancient Greeks believed that Delphi was the “navel of the world.” The myth goes that Zeus released one eagle from the east and one from the west and the birds met in the middle at Delphi, where the famous oracle was built.
In addition to being an incredible archaeological site, Delphi also has a stunning natural backdrop. My mother said she still remembers the sweeping views of the valleys and the lovely olive trees in addition to the incredible ancient ruins.
“I loved visiting Delphi because of its history, but also because of the beautiful natural surroundings,” she added.
And how could you not be wowed by the birthplace of the Olympics?
For as long as I can remember, the Olympics have been a huge point of pride in our household. My parents always loved reminding me why Greece walks first in the Parade of Nations, and why the Greek flag is always flown during the closing ceremony.
So as a kid, it was incredibly special to visit Olympia, where the Olympics first began. The games were held in Olympia every four years from 776 BC to 393 AD, and ruins from the sporting events still stand there today.
“Olympia has always had an emotional impact on me,” my mom said. “To be able to walk in the same field where the Olympics started moved me very much when I visited for the first time.”
“I think this would be a special place for someone who loves sports or history,” she added.
Corfu is one of my family’s favorite islands in Greece.
I have this distinct memory of seeing beautiful candy-colored houses along the water in Corfu. The stunning city is a great option if you want to visit a beautiful Greek island without fighting hundreds of other tourists for a picture of the sunset.
Once under Venetian rule, the Italian influence is still apparent in much of Corfu’s beautiful architecture and delicious food. Along with stunning beaches, the island is known for its lush flora and fauna. My parents took my sister and me to Corfu when we were kids and said it was a great spot for family vacations.
My dad also recommends adding a trip to Ioannina on the way to Corfu to visit the stunning Perama Cave.
Rhodes is a stunning Greek island that feels straight out of the Middle Ages.
Ruled by the Knights of St. John from the 14th to 16th century, Rhodes still feels steeped in medieval history. I remember being wowed as a kid while walking past the majestic castles, under the stone arches, and through the tiny cobblestone alleys on the island’s Old Town.
Rhodes also has plenty of beautiful beaches, as well as Butterfly Valley — my mom’s favorite part of the island.