9 Things to Know Before Traveling to Greece

The Parthenon sitting atop the Acropolis, Athens, Greece
The Parthenon sitting atop the Acropolis, Athens, Greece

Greece is a country with a lot of natural beauty, unparalleled history, and an irreplaceable part in the foundation of western society. 

As with any foreign country, you are going to experience things that are very different to what you may be used to. For that reason, I put together this article on Things to Know Before Traveling to Greece. This is especially true in the time of covid, so I’ve included some covid-specific things to be aware of. 

After reading this article, you should be mentally prepared for most of what the country will throw at you, and thus be more able to appreciate what Greece has to offer! 

Fira, Santorini
Fira, Santorini

1. You’ll need a PLF to get in, and keep your vaccination cards handy

A PLF is a Personal Locator Form, and you need to keep it on your phone whenever you’re in Greece. Like the HES Code in Turkey, this is just a way for the Greek government and healthcare system to track your whereabouts in the case of covid infection. You also need to keep proof of vaccination on you, and masks ARE enforced. 

2. They use the euro

The euro is, as of December 2021, worth $1.13. You’ll find that things are generally about as expensive as back home, though meals can usually cost less.

3. English is not widely spoken

Bookshop owner in Monastiraki, Athens
Bookshop owner in Monastiraki, Athens

Outside of the hotels and maybe a few shop owners, English is not super widely spoken in Greece. The cyrillic alphabet is also completely different from English, and can be difficult to decipher if you don’t know it or a similar alphabet, like Russian. Be sure to know a few phrases and keep Google Translate close at hand. 

Useful phrases:

Yes = Ne

No = O-he

Hello = Geah sass

Good morning = Kalimera

Good afternoon = Kalispera

Thank you = Efharisto

Please = Parakalo

4. Everyone and their dog smokes

Greece is the #3 country in the world for tobacco use. 

I personally saw a guy take a drag from a cigarette as he was boarding a crowded bus, throw the butt on the ground, and then exhale the smoke after he got on.

Obviously, if you’re a smoker or if being around smokers doesn’t bother you, then don’t worry. But it is very prevalent there. 

5. If you want to get to know the “real” Greece, get out of Athens and Santorini.

Athens, despite all its history, is not a pretty city. It’s also not always a very nice city. Nothing against the average Athenian, but I think it does run counter to what most people might expect. The shadow of the Acropolis holds a lot of graffiti and generally drab, monotonous buildings. 

The people, as I mentioned, can be brusque and short on conversation, but there are of course exceptions. Our hotel hosts were delights and several of the restaurant owners were very patient with us. 

6. Greeks love their graffiti

Two men painting over graffiti on a street in Monastiraki, Athens
Two men painting over graffiti on a street in Monastiraki, Athens

Athens is probably the single most tagged-up city I’ve ever been to. I don’t know why, but in places like Athens, even in nice neighborhoods, there will be entire buildings where every square foot is taken up by graffiti. Even in the most popular tourist towns of Santorini, you will find alleyways and walls tagged up extensively. Doesn’t completely take away from the beauty, but it is pretty crazy.

7. There are many reasons to go in the off-season, but also some trade-offs

Prices are lower and, more importantly, crowds are a fraction of what they would be in the high season (May through October). 

For example, when Kristen and I took the bus from Fira up to Oia (also called Ia), the town most famous for its beautiful white stucco walls and blue domed churches, we were in for an unpleasant surprise. 

The town was dead. 

Worse than dead, 90% of the people there were all English-speaking tourists. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that–WE are English-speaking tourists, for one thing–but you travel to get an idea of how the local people live, and in Oia in November we just didn’t see that. Most restaurants will be closed for repairs, and the ones that are open are overpriced. 

Margaret, a local of Oia, whose family helped build this church in the 1850s
Margaret, a local of Oia, whose family helped build this church in the 1850s

8. Many flea markets do NOT haggle

Alley with shops in Monastiraki, Athens
Alley with shops in Monastiraki, Athens

Those who have frequented overseas flea markets may be used to the concept of haggling. 

So imagine my surprise when I went to Monastiraki, a trendy neighborhood in the shadow of the Acropolis known for its massive flea markets, and discovered that virtually no one haggled. Most everything has a fixed price, and indeed many shop owners will actually be mildly offended if you try and haggle. The one guy who did got a pair of sneakers for Kristen down from 28 euros to 25. Everyone else all but laughed us out of the stall. 

Having said that, many of the stalls do sell interesting things, and the prices are not absurdly high (though not much better than what you’d find in the US). 

9. Gyros are not traditional Greek food (I know, this shocked me, too)

Okay, let me back up. You can absolutely find gyros in Greece. But they’re not common at all. In fact, many restaurant owners will tell you that they do not consider gyros to be traditional Greek food. 

Which is, in a way, kind of true. The gyro (in Greek actually called gyros, pronounced “yee-rosh”) comes from the word “to turn,” which is a direct translation of the Turkish word, doner (you may have heard of doner kebaps). Doner, and its Greek counterpart gyros, refers to the large metal rod that holds up the big piece of meat and turns it slowly next to the fire. Doner kebaps have been eaten in the Middle East since the Ottoman days (read: hundreds of years), but really only gained popularity in Greece post-World War II. 

They made their way across the ocean into the US round about the 1960s, and so many of us will associate gyros as being a Greek food. Which is, well, not wrong. But don’t expect to go to Athens and find 27 restaurants on the same street all selling traditional gyros. They’re kind of hard to find, and the ones that do sell them will sell them in a decidedly American-style fast food fashion. 

Pro Tip: The baklava, on the other hand, is traditional, and is delicious. You can also try moussake and souvlaki, two very traditional Greek dishes. 

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3 Responses

  1. Greg Dorchak says:

    You had me at baklava. Good info here! Did you hit Minos?

  1. January 10, 2022

    […] trip to Greece is complete without a hop on over to the island of Santorini. While the island has been called […]

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