All Articles 5 best cities to visit in Greece

5 best cities to visit in Greece

Here’s your go-to guide to the spots you don’t want to miss.

Amber Charmei
By Amber Charmei28 Mar 2024 8 minutes read
Aerial view of Chania with the amazing lighthouse, mosque, venetian shipyards, Crete, Greece
Chania on the island of Crete
Image: Gatsi/Getty Images

Cities rarely top the list on a Greek itinerary—many travelers just carve out a quick visit to Athens to see the Parthenon, then catch a ferry to the islands. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But as someone who traded my hometown of Manhattan for Thessaloniki and Athens two decades ago, I am here to tell you: You’re missing out. Visiting the best cities in Greece can add so much to a vacation. Hear me out: Besides the sights and museums, you can live like a local, lounging in cool cafes, checking out the contemporary restaurant scene, and shopping at artisan-run boutiques. Plus, some of these cities are cheaper than high-profile island destinations—and all have easy access to beaches, either right in town or within close reach.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to skip the islands. There are many cities that make a great addition to an itinerary—or a good jumping-off spot for island-hopping. Here are my favorite five cities to check out.

Athens: For classical antiquities and avant-garde art

Monastiraki square and Acropolis in Athens, Greece
Image: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Even without the Parthenon, the Acropolis Museum, the Ancient Agora, and the National Archaeological Museum—all magnificent places to see—Athens would make a worthy destination. The city’s urban energy is sharpened by its contrasts, like the untamed nature surrounding Mt. Lycabettus, where you can hike to the top (or take a funicular) to enjoy a view that extends from the Parthenon all the way to the port of Piraeus and the Saronic Gulf. And then there are all the neighborhoods to explore, from the counter-cultural haven of Exarchia (for great street art and vintage clothing shops) to the elite Kolonaki district (home to the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture and the Museum of Cycladic Art).

Highlights in the center of Athens include watching the Evzones (the changing of the guard) at Syntagma Square and checking out the catch of the day at the Varvakeios central market. On balmy summer nights, enjoy opera at the ancient Odeon of Herodes-Atticus near the Acropolis, a concert in the lively Gazi district, or a film under the stars at one of the city’s open-air cinemas, like Dexameni and Thisseon.

Where to eat: For a low-key dinner, Tanini Agapi Mou (which translates as “tannins, my love”) is a fun destination with natural and biodynamic Greek wines and snacks (cheeses, salads, bruschetta). Kolonaki’s Filippou serves classic homestyle dishes like beef stewed in tomato and wine or artichokes in an egg-lemon sauce, and the white tablecloths are a nice touch.

Hotel picks: Few hotels in Athens are as close to the Parthenon as the Herodion, in the serene Koukaki area. There’s a splendid view of the monument from its rooftop restaurant, as well as from some of the rooms. Elegant, minimalist Mona, converted from a 1950s textile factory in the sociable Psyrri district, is perfect for a design-forward stay.

Tip: As impressive as all the classical antiquities are, you don’t want to miss modern culture in Athens. A visit to the National Gallery gives a thorough introduction to the Greek art of the post-Byzantine era to the present (don’t miss the works of 20th-century masters like Tsarouchis and Moralis). The EMST, also known as the National Museum of Contemporary Art, is a great pick for avant-garde exhibitions, both Greek and international.

Thessaloniki: For a university town with ancient vibes

View of the Thessaloniki city, Greece
Image: bortnikau/Getty Images

Greece’s northern port city—five hours by car or train, or a very short flight from Athens—offers a completely different experience. While a distant second to Athens in population, in lifestyle and culture, it’s second to none. This youthful yet sophisticated university town has been millennia in the making, with monuments from three empires casually integrated into the urban fabric.

Highlights include the Roman Agora and the Rotunda, the many UNESCO-recognized Paleochristian and Byzantine monuments like Agia Sophia and Agios Dimitrios, and the Ottoman-era Alaca Imaret and Bey Hamam. A wealth of museums—from the superb Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Byzantine Culture to the MOMus Museum of Contemporary Art span pre-history through the avant-garde.

Around sunset, everyone heads to the glamorous Belle-Epoque seafront for a volta—Greece’s answer to Italy’s passeggiata. Later in the evening, join locals at the bars and tavernas in the Ladadika neighborhood to see why Thessaloniki is known for nightlife.

Where to eat: Bougatsa (a flaky sweet or savory pie) is a favorite morning treat, especially from Bantis. For lunch, it’s hard to find a more satisfying meal than crisp fried salt cod with skordalia (a zesty garlic spread) served on a sheet of paper at either of the two Bakaliarakia locations by the harbor. For a sweet taste of Asia Minor, visit Chatzis Dairy in the central Modiano Market. Try the kazan dibi—a thick, caramelized buffalo milk pudding.

Hotel picks: The elegant Electra Palace, overlooking central Aristotelous Square and the sea, is worth the splurge. Zeus is Loose, also central, has huge windows looking over a park. It’s a sociable choice, with a rooftop bar and dorm rooms with bunk beds and shared baths (though you can also book a double with a private baths).

Tip: Thessaloniki is the ideal urban basecamp for a variety of experiences. Halkidiki, just an hour’s drive down the coastline, has famously dreamy beaches, like Kavourotrypes. Meanwhile, the world of Alexander the Great still dazzles at Ancient Pella and the Museum of the Royal Tombs at Aigai, each also an hour away by car. Want to go island hopping? Ferries connect Thessaloniki with some of the best islands in the North Aegean: Chios, Samos, Lesvos, and Limnos.

Chania: For Cretan character in a Venetian setting

Chania, Old Venetian Harbour, Crete
Image: elzauer/Getty Images

My family has a summer home in Chania. Yet no matter how many times I visit, I can’t get enough of the photogenic Venetian Harbor, with its tangle of romantic, jasmine-scented alleys.

Despite its popularity with visitors, Chania still retains a strong sense of place, particularly in districts like Splanzia (just east of the port) or in lush, aristocratic Chalepa (a short taxi ride or pleasant walk to the east). Here, amid birdsong and neoclassical mansions, you’ll find the new Archaeological Museum, the Russian-style Church of Mary Magdalene in its large garden, and the Museum-Residence of Eleftherios Venizelos, a key figure in the history of modern Greece.

Nearly every afternoon in summer, you’ll find me at the elegant old cafe in the Municipal Garden, where locals love to gather to read the paper, sip thick Greek coffee served in a copper briki, and socialize under the trees. The beautiful outdoor Municipal Cinema, also in the garden, shows film in their original language with Greek subtitles.

Where to eat: Locals take a break from their errands for a Cretan-style bougatsa—here, it’s filled with tangy cheese and topped with sugar. I love Bougatsa Chania, which is right across from the post office, in case you have postcards to mail. For a traditional Cretan lunch or dinner, Mezedoscholeio is a good value. Reviewers rave about the lamb and the baked feta. Try to snag one of the tables on the patio.

Hotel picks: In a Venetian building, Splanzia Boutique Hotel hits high marks for atmosphere and a homemade breakfast served in the courtyard. Want to save money? I recommend the friendly Kumba Hostel, a short stroll from Koum Kapi Beach—you can book a double room with a private bath, or for deep savings, there are shared, dorm-style spaces.

Tip: The Samaria Gorge is unforgettable. Hikers set out for Xyloskalo (elevation 4,035 feet) close to dawn. From there, they begin the 10-mile descent to Agia Roumeli on the south coast, a village so isolated by rugged terrain that it can’t be reached by car. After a dip in the Libyan sea, a boat takes you to Sfakia for transfer back to Chania.

Rhodes Town: For medieval splendor and island-hopping

Greece, Dodecanese, Rhodes, Ipocratous square
Image: Tuul & Bruno Morandi/Getty Images

The medieval Old Town of Rhodes is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was once home to the Knights of Rhodes (later known as the Knights of Malta). Highlights include the Palace of the Grand Master—magical on a warm evening—and the Street of the Knights.

Just outside the old city walls, Rhodes is packed with a variety of sights from different eras.Charming Mandraki Harbour was once the site of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Very close to it, you’ll find the National Theater of Rhodes—a stellar example of Italian modernism. Across the street from the theater, by the Muslim cemetery and the Mosque of Mourat Reis, is a (hidden) highlight: the Villa Cleobulus, Lawrence Durrell’s home after WWII. The setting is just as he described it in Reflections on a Marine Venus (the perfect read before a visit to Rhodes), while the Marine Venus herself is now located at Rhodes’ Archaeological Museum.

Where to eat: A piece of sweet or savory phyllo pie fresh from the wood oven at Fournariko makes a perfect breakfast on the go. For dinner, 4 Rodies is a favorite with locals and visitors alike thanks to its homestyle dishes (don’t miss the dolmadiakia—stuffed vine leaves) and plenty of vegetarian options.

Where to stay: On a recent visit, I stayed at the spacious A33 Rhodes Old Town House with a large group of friends. It’s full of character—think, a pebble mosaic floor in the hall, exposed stone walls, and a velvet-cushioned reading nook. Solo travelers and couples might prefer the atmospheric 10GR Boutique Hotel and Wine Bar, in a historic stone building with a modern design.

Tip: All over Greece, KTEL buses run between towns and cities. At the KTEL station near Liberty Gate, you’ll find buses that will take you to fabulous beaches like Anthony Quinn Bay, about half an hour from Rhodes Town. I liked it so much that I threw away a plane ticket to spend two extra days here, snorkeling with colorful minnows and reading under the pines.

Corfu Town: For aristocratic glamour with an Italian (sometimes French, sometimes British) accent

The Old Town at sunset, Corfu Town, Corfu, Greece
Image: David C Tomlinson/Getty Images

Corfu Town, with its pretty Venetian Fortress, neoclassical houses, and warm palette of ochres and dusky pinks, offers a Greek-island experience with an extra hit of glamour. The Old Town, punctuated by the tall belfry of the 16th-century Church of Saint Spyridon, is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Landmarks from French and British rule give Corfu Town a cosmopolitan mood, especially around Spiananda Square. At the north end is the Regency-style Palace of St. Michael and St. George, now the Corfu Museum of Asian Art, with one of the finest collections in Europe. Meanwhile, along the western edge of the square, the early 19th-century Liston (Corfu’s famous Rue-du-Rivoli-like colonnade built during French rule) makes a great setting for a morning espresso or afternoon spritz. Even in sports, Corfu has an international flavor—you might see a friendly cricket match in the square.

Where to eat: With its fairy lights and beautifully set tables, the courtyard of the Venetian Well makes a dreamy setting for enjoying a five- or seven-course tasting menu of dishes like rockfish risotto and braised lamb with apricot and cured lemon. To try Corfu’s Italian-influenced dishes, like bordetto (fish with a zesty tomato sauce) or sofrito (beef in sauce of garlic, vinegar, and wine), visit Rouvas.

Hotel picks: Its central location and modern rooms, some with stellar views of Spianada Square, make the Arcadion Hotel a very good choice. The Angsana Corfu, about six miles south of Corfu Town, has a massive infinity pool overlooking the Ionian sea.

Tip: I love to come here during Easter week to see Corfu’s elaborate celebrations including a staged earthquake at the Church of Virgin Mary of the Foreigners (held on the morning of Holy Saturday), followed later by the “botides”—when Corfiots throw large clay vessels off balconies (watch your head!). But this is a wildly popular time to visit, so book early.

Amber Charmei
Amber Charmei was a 15-year-old with a backpack and a tattered copy of "The Colossus of Maroussi" when she first came to Greece from downtown NYC in the 1980s, hopping ferries around the Dodecanese and sleeping on stacks of kilims. After graduate studies in Art and Architectural history, she traded Manhattan for Thessaloniki for an urban experience with a deeper backstory and better swimming. With a Greek family and a bilingual life, she writes from a place of connection for the culture magazine Greece Is, other publications, and several guidebooks, with a focus on promoting positive travel.