Off Season Travel to Greece
Sometimes I get e-mails from people in a state of panic because they have just booked their tickets to Greece
for November and they read somewhere that the islands close for the winter. They
imagine themselves huddled in the bitter cold watching the ferry that won't
return for a week sail out of the bay and not a hotel or restaurant in
sight that has not been boarded up like Charleston, SC before a hurricane.
Let me be the first to dispel the myth
that the islands actually close. They don't. People live on these islands
and life goes on year round. Some of them it can get pretty quiet and most
of the big resorts are closed because it does not make economic sense to
keep a 300 room hotel open for the twenty or so tourists who may show up.
But there are hotels open on every island and restaurants too. In fact
because the restaurants that the locals eat at are the only ones that are
open, you are more likely to find good food because all the tourist restaurants
are closed for the off-season.
But before you throw your mask, snorkel and sun-screen into a bag and snap up one of those cheap off-season airline
tickets to Athens you must be warned that while the weather will be generally
pretty nice whenever you go, the months of December through March it can
get cold and rainy. It can also be warm and sunny, in fact there is a very
good possibility of that. But these months are better for hiking and exploring
then for laying out on the beach catching rays. Not to suggest that it
won't be warm enough for that, but you can't count on it being sunny and warm every
day of your holiday in January unless you are one of those special people
who attract good weather wherever you go.
For people who want to go to the Greek islands in winter I suggest the island of Kea which has perhaps the best system of walking trails, most of them ancient, that connect the port and the capital to the beaches, settlements, spring fed fountains and ancient cities on the island through some of the most beautiful terrain and some of the most spectacular views in Greece. These trails are marked with numbers so all you have to do is choose a number and follow it. Kea has the feel of a more traditional far away island than one which you can get to from the center of Athens within two hours on a good day with a 45 minute drive to Lavrion and a 55 minute ferry boat ride. Kea has a large winter population so shops, cafes and restaurants are open. There are a number of year round hotels including Red Tractor Farms Guesthouse, a working farm that is right in the port of Korissia which offers hikes and there activities for its guests. For those spending a few days on Kea a car is not essential but it is very useful for exploring the far away places. But there are taxis that run back and forth between the port of Korissia and the capital, Ioulida and you can arrange to have one pick you up at the end of your walk if it does not end in either of these places. The Piatsa is a cozy little restaurant in Ioulida, open year round, and a nice place to warm up while spending a few hours with several glasses of tsipuro and home-style Greek cooking. Kalofagadon is open on weekends and serves some of the best paidaikia and provatina in Greece. There are several nice cafes, fish tavernas and psistarias in the port which make waiting for the boat a pleasure when it is time to go home. Visit my Kea website.
If you stay in the Saronic Islands of Hydra, Spetses, Poros and Aegina
which are very close to are open in the winter, have a lot fewer tourists and are much more beautiful than they are in the summer. Plus they have daily ferry connections to each other which you won't find in the Cyclades or going between island groups. You can also cross over to the Argolis Peninsula where you can
rent a car, take a bus or hire
a cab and visit places like Nafplio, Corinth, Mycenae, Epidavros and the
archaeological sites of the Peloponessos which is an exciting area to spend your winter holiday if you want to skip the islands altogether. Older experienced travelers who visit Greece year after year often settle on exploring the mainland in the off-season as the antidote for those summers of eating and drinking and sunning themselves on the islands when they were young.
Islands like Santorini get visitors all year round as does Mykonos, Sifnos, Paros,
Crete, Rhodes, Syros,
Lesvos and just about every island that can be reached by daily ferry or
flight. Many of the foreigners who live in Mykonos, Skiathos, Rhodes and
Hydra rent their houses in the summer and return in September and stay
through May and many of them will insist that it is the winter months that
they like the best. If you are an artist, poet or a person who can live
on their thoughts a Greek island in winter can be like paradise. The island
of Syros (photo)which is not dependant upon tourism has a rich atmosphere in the
winter since the town of Hermoupolis is the capital of the Cyclades and
people come there to do business. Islands with large cities like Rhodes,
Lesvos, and Crete are like cities anywhere. They don't close for the winter.
Life just changes. People spend more time indoors, but the restaurants
and cafes, bars and clubs are still open and on warm sunny days people
still sit outside to eat and drink, at least in the day. The same goes
Getting between islands that are not on the same ferry line can be challenging in the winter. Independent travelers who have booked hotels in Crete and Santorini in November through March have
been sadly disappointed to discover there was only one boat a week between the two islands and not on the day they needed it. The same for Santorini and Mykonos. So my advice for those who want to visit the islands
in the winter is to choose one island. And if possible wait until you get to Athens before you book your hotel and ferry so that you know how the weather will be. One option is to fill out my Create-an-itinerary form and ask the agency to book your hotel in Athens for the beginning and the end of your trip and book the island portion when you are in Athens or close enough to then to know what the
weather will be. Hotels and ferries will not be full so booking at the last minute is usually not a problem.
Athens in the Winter
|In my opinion Athens is a great place to be in the winter. Maybe the best place in the world if you are not an Athenian and staying in a nicely heated hotel. When people ask me what they should do in Greece
December through March I tell them to base themselves in Athens and experience the nightlife
of the city. Athens comes alive beginning in September and stays that way
until summer, with sidewalk cafes full of people, restaurants supporting
an army of live musicians and a club-life that rivals any city in America.
Use the days to walk around exploring and see the archaeological sites and museums of the city and to do day-trips
and overnights to places like Delphi, Nafplio, Kalavrita, Meteora, the
Spas of Edipsos with George The Famous Taxi Driver or with a rental car and of course the nearby islands of Aegina, Poros and Hydra.
(The One-Day Saronic Island Cruise goes 364 days a year!)
Let me not forget to mention the shopping in Athens which is like New York
or Paris except everything is within walking distance of your hotel and
during the January and February sales you will find stuff you won't find
in your local mall (and some things you will) for prices that would make
it worth a trip every year. With the prices so cheap these days due to the crisis you could come to Athens and buy your wardrobe for the year and the money you will save will pay for your airfare. If you love to shop you will love Athens in
the winter where even in the midst of a financial depression people still go out clothes shopping.
And if you have kids and they are tired of shopping, museums, archaeological sites and restaurants you can take them to the roof of the Ledra Marriott Hotel for ice-skating with a view of the acropolis.
|It is also during the off season that
you can enjoy nature to it's fullest by going mountain-climbing, white-water
rafting, kayaking, horseback-riding, biking and trekking through the hills
and gorges of the Peloponesos and Northern Greece and witnessing some of
the most beautiful and breathtaking places on the planet. Walking through
Greece in the spring you will see more wildflowers and wild birds then
you ever knew existed. Lesvos for example is a paradise for bird-watchers
and flower lovers and you can say the same for just about anywhere on the
mainland. There are jeep tours through the back roads to places that most
tourists and travel agents don't even know exist. The weather the majority
of the time is perfect for exploring those places that are too hot to visit
in July and August.
Greek Archaeology Sites and Museums in Winter
|Even in the summer the lines to museums and archaeological sites are not so bad as say going to the Louvre in Paris. Chances are you won't have to stand in line more than five or ten minutes even on a crowded day. But in the winter there are no lines at any of the sites or museums. You just buy a ticket and walk in and
you pretty much have the place to yourself give or take a few stray tourists and maybe a school field trip from another country.
But the most wonderful thing is how green the ruins are after the rains have begun to fall. The dusty paths through the Ancient and Roman Agora and Kerameikos have become a verdant green and you just want to roll in it. The trails around and through Philliappos Hill are covered in Greece and people picnicking or drinking wine when the weather is nice. Even the Acropolis
has grass growing on it! And this scene is repeated at ancient sites all over the country. If you are going to Greece for the archaeology then the off-season is the time to come because not only is everything green, which makes the marble stones look even more white, but there are fewer people to get in the way of your photos!
Nafplion and the Argolis During the Winter
|The Argolis is not only the most historically rich area of Greece but it is also one of the warmest. The grow oranges here in the winter time. The famous archaeological sites of Myceneae and Epidavros are here and Corinth and Ancient Nemea are both nearby, not to mention the temples, sanctuaries and ancient cities that
you have never heard of scattered around. The old town of Nafplion is probably the most beautiful town in Greece and
rivals many old historical European towns. It is also rich in nightlife with great restaurants, bars and cafes that are popular with young and old, and plenty of shops on sreets that are closed to automobile traffic. With a large port area Nafplion is like being on an island that you can drive to and it is one of the most popular places to go for Athenians during the winter. If you want to go somewhere in the winter that is almost as lively as an island in the summer where you don't have to worry about a
rough ferry ride where you can explore much of the Peloponessos visit my Guide to Nafplion and the Argolis.
Christmas in Greece
Going to Greece for the holidays has been a wonderful experience every time we have done it. My first impression was that the reason there is so little tourism in Athens over Christmas is because the Greeks are keeping all the fun to themselves. Christmas in Athens is as festive a time as you will find anywhere with
the streets full of shoppers, Christmas lights allover the city and Syntagma Square has a giant Christmas tree and throngs of families with children
buying balloons and cotton candy and riding on the tiny ponies that dot the square, each one with the most unconvincing Santa you have ever seen. Ermou Street, the main pedestrian shopping street of Athens is full of musicians, clowns, mimes, jugglers and all kinds of entertainment.
The outdoor cafes put out their giant heaters for the colder days and evenings but in Greece cold is a relative term. Your reaction to a Greek winter will most likely be "You call this winter?" You may even look in amusement
at how the Athenians are bundled up while you have shed layers until you are down to your t-shirt. If you have spent summer holidays on the islands you are almost certain to run into someone you know from a restaurant or hotel there who has come to Athens for the holidays. Even Christmas Day the cafes and restaurants are open and thriving as are many of the shops in Monastiraki and Plaka. The downtown tavernas, psistarias, bars and clubs do a good business over the holidays when much of the action moves
inside and if you are looking to hear live Greek music with your meal you are more likely to find it in the winter in Athens than in the summer. New Years eve is like New Years Eve everywhere with the young people going out to party and the old people staying home and entertaining friends and family. Epiphany is on January 6th. In various harbors they throw a cross into the sea and boys dive for it. You can watch it on TV where they show the ceremony from many different harbors, rivers and lakes around Greece
you can go down to the harbor and see it in person. For more see my Christmas in Greece Photo Essay.
Apokreas: Greece's Carnival Season
One of the best times to be in Greece is during the last two weeks of Apokreas when people are having as much fun as they can before they have to fast the 40 days before Easter. There are carnival parades and festivities all over Greece, particularly in Patra, Rethymnon Crete, the island of Skyros and the Athens neighborhood of Moschaton.
But every town and city celebrates carnival by going out to eat and drink and party and the Plaka, Psiri and Gazi areas of Athens
are as good a place as any to celebrate. Day and night you will see people in colorful costumes and the bars and clubs do a good business but the biggest night for me is Tsichno Pempti when it seems everyone in Greece goes to their favorite taverna for grilled meat and the last big carnivorous binge before tapering down to the lentin foods. It is the Thursday before the next to last weekend of Apokreas and if you want a day to arrive and make the most of carnival season this would be the day. But you better make
reservations or get to your favorite taverna early if you want a seat.
The final two weeks of Apokreas culminate in the last big weekend when it seems all of Athens is dressed up and wandering the parts of the city known for nightlife. Friday and Saturday are crazy and few people get home before dawn so it is no surprise that Sunday is much more laid back as people are recuperating with coffee and frappe
at the outdoor cafes if the weather is nice, though this usually leads to ouzo and mezedes and for some hearty souls one final night
of Dionysian celebration before heading home exhausted to begin lent. But is is not over yet because on Clean Monday all of Athens is out again to fill the cafes and to fly their kites from the hills around the Acropolis and any open space they can find. For more see my Apokreas Page
Easter in Greece
I have said it many times on my website and to my friends that Easter is my favorite time to be in Greece. In a way it is the cusp of the tourist season and people who own bars and restaurants on the islands leave Athens and go to get ready to open for Easter when it is a tradition to return to your village or if you don't have a village go to a
friend's village or your favorite island to celebrate the death and ressurrection of Christ. Usually the best Easters
are when it falls late in April rather than early because the chances of warmer weather, and even the possibility of dipping a toe or more in the sea are better. But either way the ceremonies that lead up to Saturday night's Easter Service and the roasting of lamb on Easter Sunday make this a wonderful time to be in Greece. The mountains and hills are green and alive with wildflowers and not just on the islands, even in Athens there is green coming out of every crack and crevice in the archaeological sites and
sidewalks. See Easter in Greece
Skiing and Birdwatching in Greece
Perhaps one of the biggest secrets is the skiing in Greece. The fact that few people realize that a land comprised
almost entirely of mountains is a great skiing destination is kind of surprising,
but the fact is that the popularity of summer tourism has made winter tourism
and skiing an afterthought. Places like Kalavrita, Pelion, Delphi, the
Peloponessos, Evrytania, Macedonia, and Epirus have ski centers and mountain
refuges that look like Swiss Chalets with ski lifts and a variety of downhill
and cross-country runs. Skiing has become so popular that there are weekends and even weekdays that you have to make a reservation well in advance to find a room in one of the beautiful ski resorts of Arachova where you can ski all day on Mount Parnassus and then go for an ouzo and meze on the shore of the Corinthian Gulf and on some days even go for a short swim. For more information on skiing see Skiing
in Greece or see Fantasy Travel's Ski Package
On the other side of the coin few people realize that winter and the off-season is one of the most fun times to go sailing as Stefan Ritscher explains in his article on Winter Sailing in Greece
For bird lovers, you know that the late winter and early spring are the best time to go bird-watching on the island of Lesvos and the marshlands and waterways all over Greece. And of course I don't need to mention that this is when all the wildflowers are in bloom and Greece becomes an explosion of
colors. In a way it is interesting that people who come in the summer come back and tell people Greece is the most
beautiful place they have ever been. And yet they are there when the sun has been already shining for several months straight and most of the flowers and plants have been turned into a crispy brown, awaiting the winter rains. They have not seen Greece at it's most beautiful. A trip to Greece in the off-season may change their traveling habits forever, once the children grow up and move out.
Summary and Sites for Winter in Greece:
|On this page I have put together information and links to destinations and companies that specialize in winter tourism.
When I say 'winter' I mean it the way the Greeks do on the last days of
August when they say goodbye to their friends at the pier as they board
the ferry to Pireaus. "Kalo Himona" they say as they hug their friends
and family who they won't see again until next Easter. "Have a good winter"
is what it means. So when I say winter I mean any season in Greece that
is not summer. Throw in September and May and I will go out on a limb and
say that 'winter' is the best time to be in Greece. Go between October
and April and you will find the cheapest airline fares and reduced hotel
rates so that Greece becomes a bargain that would be tough to beat.
See my new page on Off-season Travel in Greece with suggested itineraries and more helpful information.
Fantasy Travel has put together several winter programs that take advantage of the low off-season rates to islands like Mykonos, Santorini and Crete which enables you to experience these popular islands without the tourists who normally fill them. See Fantasy Travel's Winter Programs
Apokreas is one of the most exciting times to be in Greece, particularly Athens, Patras, Rethymnon-Crete and the island of Skyros which hold big celebrations. Apokreas is Carnival Season and usually takes place around the end of February. If you love to eat, drink, meet people and experience Athens at its most fun time, see Apokreas: Carnival
in Greece. After that there is 40 days of fasting which not everyone does in case you are worried that you won't be able to find souvlaki. Many Greeks don't really fast until the last few days of lent and then they go wild at Easter which for me is the best time to be in Greece, especially when it falls on the last week of April or the first week of May. See my Easter in Greece pages.
The island of Kea is an hour from nearby Lavrion by ferry and is a good all-season island because of its miles and miles of ancient footpaths. Clearly marked and kept up by the municipality some of them tend to get overgrown in the winter but are still quite passable. The Red Tractor
Farms Guesthouse not only has comfortable rooms with fireplaces but they also provide guests with seasonal activities like olive-picking and production, wine-making and traditional crafts of the island.
leads nature tours around the island and he and his wife Marcie serve as your hosts. The guesthouse is a fie minute walk to the shops, cafes and tavernas of Kea's port. If you want a taste of a real Greek island in the off-season visit the Red Tractor Farms Guesthouse
I love spending Christmas in Greece. The nightlife in Athens is spectacular as usual and the tavernas are full of people, music and great food and of course the Santas and their ponies in Syntagma. The archaeological sites are closed on the 25th and 26th but there are still restaurants and cafes open and when the weather is nice the Athenians
wander around the city taking walks,
in cafes, eating and enjoying the holidays. New Years there is always something going on in the clubs or live music in the main squares. A Day-trip or overnight to Nafplio and the Argolis can be just as festive and maybe even a degree or two warmer. The Hotel Attalos is a cozy, warm and friendly as you can get and the winter rates are pretty good so there are always fellow winter travelers
around. Thats where I stay because you can walk everywhere and they have free wireless for your laptop and free highspeed wireless computers for those who did not bring a laptop. For more see Christmas in Athens, Greece
Booking Hotels in the Winter
The most important thing I can tell you about booking a hotel for the off-season is that if you go to an island make sure it has heat. Most of the hotels on the islands were built for summer tourism and though most air-conditioning units are also heaters, if a room in a concrete hotel or even a traditional
stone building has been empty and unheated for a number of days or weeks it takes awhile to get the dampness out. So you want a hotel that stays open every winter,
not just this winter because they did not make enough money over the summer. The best way to find them is through a Greek travel agent because they have experience and know which hotels will be cozy and warm. It can also work to your advantage if you have them book your hotel in Athens for the first few days and then book the rest of your holiday when you see how the weather will be during your stay. No
sense in going to an island during two days of rain when the sun is shining in Nafplion, Delphi, Meteora or Athens. If you plan to go to places like Arachova, Kalavrita, Pelion or other ski destinations you can use Booking.com's Hotel Search for those areas and pretty much tell which hotels are built for winter tourism. (A fireplace
is a good tip-off). For Athens all the hotels are comfortable in the winter and prices are reduced so see my Athens Hotels Page. For the rest of Greece see my Hotels of Greece pages. I also recommend doing one of Fantasy Travel's Winter Programs if you are the type who wants
everything set up and well
organized before you get there. They can also arrange ski trips as can George the Famous Taxi Driver.
Links for Winter Travel in Greece:
Daytours and Overnight
Trekking, Rafting, Skiing, Walking, Climbing,
Kayaking, Horseback Riding, bike and Jeep Tours through the Wilderness
Guide to ski centers
Fantasy Travel's Ski Package
The Island of Rhodes has the mildest winter climate and the longest tourist season of any of the islands. Lots to see and do as well. See www.greecetravel.com/rhodes
Islands near Athens
to Visit a Greek Island
Easter in Greece
You can find many hotels on the islands that are open in the winter through Booking.com by clicking on the link and putting in your dates.
Fantasy Travel has winter programs and discounted winter rates for hotels too. See www.fantasytravelofgreece.com
Services and Agencies
Aegean Thesaurus Travel
the Famous Taxi Driver
Rent A Car
Other Helpful stuff
Travel Index Page
Greece Programs for Winter
Winter in Meteora, Delphi and the Greek Islands featuring Naxos and Santorini
See Also Matt's Guide to Off Season Travel for more itineraries
Winter Light - Combines Athens-Crete-Santorini