10 Surprising Things About Greece
What to expect as a first-time traveler
Police stand by during a scheduled May Day protest.
All photography that's not credited is by me.
Greece is an amazing travel destination, and full of surprises. The history, beaches, nightlife, culture, food and people keep bringing travelers back year after year.
But what if you've never been to Greece? What if you're planning your first trip? What should you expect beyond the filtered Instagram posts and glossy travel magazine photos?
Look, Greece is my favorite place in the world, but I will be the first to tell you that it's not without it's...eccentricities. All are manageable, but some will take a bit of getting used to. In the interest of full disclosure, here are my top 10 surprises to be aware of when traveling to Greece.
While I think these are actually rather nice and cheerful, as graffiti goes, much of it is terrible.
The graffiti is ugly, and it's everywhere. It's baffling that a society as proud of itself as Greece's is seems fine with the endless defacement everywhere. Only churches and antiquities seem to be spared. To an outsider arriving for the first time, it's overwhelming and kind of hideous, and makes the otherwise beautiful city of Athens look dirtier than it actually is.
Now there's some beautiful street art as well, and sometimes even the regular graffiti can actually look really colorful and playful, in the right context. But I'm talking about the run-of-the-mill dumb graffiti, which seems to initially concentrate in the Exarchia neighborhood and metastasize out from there.
And the graffiti-makers are quite territorial! I saw some graffiti sprayed across the security grate of a small store, and the owner had removed some of it because it was covering some of his signage. Below it, in smaller letters, the graffiti dude had come back and added a few choice words for the shopkeeper about defacing his "art".
The irony is *chef's kiss*.
Oh dear. I'd really rather not talk about this, but you need to know about it, so let's just get through it together, shall we?
So with very rare exceptions, you can't flush toilet paper down the toilet in Greece. Not in private homes, not in lodgings. The pipes can't handle it.
(Although I wonder about the $1000+ a night luxe hotels. Are they really asking celebrities and foreign royals not to flush the paper? It seems doubtful. If you have any insight on this, please leave a comment below. I'm genuinely curious.)
Many hotels will have helpful signs in the bathroom as reminders. If you're not prepared for this, panic might well ensue.
What you will see is a small, covered, plastic-bag-lined pail near the toilet, which some members of my family have wryly taken to calling the "honey bucket". The used paper - hopefully folded up on itself discreetly so the person charged with emptying the bin isn't traumatized - goes in there. The bin is emptied daily and the lid fits tightly, so the bathrooms manage to stay fresh-smelling.
Despite Greece being a modern, vibrant country, apparently the pipes go back to a time when Agamemnon walked the earth. While the brilliant Minoans in Crete and Akrotiri around 2000 BCE had figured out indoor plumbing, possibly the whole "let's maybe make the pipes big enough to handle paper" thing hadn't been thought all the way through.
So please don't flush the paper, especially in people's homes. It may cause them or the folks down the line from them an expensive plumber's bill.
This one is really sad. The cities in Greece - and sometimes even smaller towns - have their share of beggars, homeless people, vagrants and the like. Many times it's Roma children, who are really hard to say no to. Sometimes it's a Roma mother with a baby on her hip, stopping by restaurant tables asking for change.
There are arguments on both sides as to why you should or should not give them money, and this article isn't going to get into the politics and policies around this. Just be aware of it so you're not rattled when it eventually happens.
Another thing to watch out for - while it's not begging - is more of a street scam. Some friendly person will approach you and maybe try to tie a handmade string bracelet on you, or give you a rose, or offer to let you take their photo. Once you have done any of these things, you will be expected to pay, and they can ask what they want at that point. A polite but firm "no" at the outset almost always does the trick.
4. Taxis go where it's convenient
Image by PXHere
So in the States, you hail a taxi, you get in, you tell them where you want to go, and they take you. Pretty straightforward.
In Greece - not so much. Are they sitting at a taxi stand but on break? Is the trip too long or too short? Do they just not feel like taking you to Kypseli right now? Is the cab pointed in the wrong direction?
Any of those reasons will be enough for the dreaded upward nod with raised eyebrows that signifies a big NO. "Δεν γίνεται." ("It can't be done.") And lest you think I'm exaggerating, all of those situations have happened to me.
The drivers won't let you in the cab until they've given you the OK that the trip is on. It's best to make sure you know what the fare will be before you get in the taxi, too - many taxis don't have meters, but the distances are generally known and the price can be sorted out before you get in. (Getting from the airport to the city center is different - it's a fixed rate, no matter what, so know it and you won't be cheated by the rare unscrupulous driver.)
Taxis at home may zip down endless side streets to avoid traffic and maybe bust out an illegal U-turn in a cheerfully perverse show of occupational pride just to get you where you need to go, but I had to quickly disabuse myself of the idea that Greek drivers had the least bit of interest in doing that.
I should also take a second to say that I've had some of the best conversations with some of the nicest Greek taxi drivers in my travels. Most are excellent, hard-working and good company on a long ride. I'm not ragging on them. Just be aware that they do things a little differently.
Greeks love to make their opinions known, and sometimes their opinions are so strong that tear gas gets involved.
There has been at least one protest in Athens every single time I've been there. Most are in the city center, at Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament building, but they can happen just about anywhere. Most just involve some harmless marching and chanting through bull horns, but occasionally things can get a bit sporty.
During the economic troubles of the previous decade, mass protests were quite common, and frequently involved riot police and Molotov cocktails. Our hotel would let us know about them in advance, and it was strongly suggested we don't go into the center of town that particular night.
Now that those particular troubles are pretty much over, there are still occasional protests of varying levels of concern (though most are not a problem).
A short, peaceful protest on Athinas Street in Monastiraki.
I have no idea what they were protesting about.
Case in point - I was at Syntagma Square on May Day. I had planned to see the Sunday changing of the guard, and both my cousin and I had forgotten that it was May Day - a big left wing/workers' holiday. The first act were the center-left party, which was quite tame; the second group a couple hours later were the communists; red hammer and sickle flags waving, and the third were the anarchists, all in black and some with balaclavas over their faces.
And I was walking right in the middle of them at times, safe as houses. Granted, the Greek police were about in case things got out of hand, but things were peaceful as far as I could see, and my experience wasn't scary at all. It just took a little longer to get from place to place.
6. Floors start at 0
This one still trips me up my first couple times in a Greek elevator. The ground floor is Floor 0. Go up one floor, and it's Floor 1. It's not the 2nd floor, even though it's on the second storey.
Not a huge issue, but one to be aware of so you're not like me, cluelessly peering out at the wrong floor half the time.
7. There's ALWAYS scaffolding on the Acropolis
The Parthenon has been undergoing painstaking repairs and restoration for decades. I expect that will continue for the foreseeable future. When planning your photos, be aware of this. The back of the building (the north side, towards the flag pole) generally has less construction going on, so if you're looking for a more pristine view, that's where you're more likely to find it.
This shows the less under-construction end of the Parthenon. This photo was taken in 2016, and the work moves around the building,
so it may or may not be as "clear" when you visit.
Also, that goofball who's really happy to be at the Acropolis likely won't be in your shot.
8. Driving and Traffic
Oy. The traffic.
I will happily drive on the islands, but I refuse to drive in Athens. It's frankly nuts. I come from a state notorious for it's belligerent drivers (we're called Massholes for a reason), and even I'm cowed by the velocity and aggression of the Greeks.
The abrupt merging, the speed, the sudden buzzing appearance of swerving motorbikes, the quick turns around small, tight corners...my life has flashed before my eyes more than once. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I'm strictly a taxi or walking gal in town. I know travelers who are completely fine with it. That's great. I am not.
And pedestrians do not have the right of way. Cross only when the crossing signal tells you to and be quick about it, because they WILL mow you down.
Speaking of... Motorbikes are everywhere, because they're cheap and can zip around the narrow streets easily. They can appear out of nowhere, so be extra-vigilant, even on sidewalks. They have no problem riding up on the pavement if it's on the way.
10. Seafood is served au naturale
The seafood in Greece is exquisite! There is nothing better than sitting at an outdoor taverna, enjoying some incredibly fresh fish and maybe a glass of ouzo and gazing out over the Aegean.
Just know that if you order seafood, most of the time, it will be served in it's natural state. That means fish with the heads on and their dead white eyes still in. You will have to work around the little bones. Some tiny fish are deep fried, and you're meant to eat them whole like French fries - bones, head and all.
The shrimp and prawns will have usually their heads, legs and tails intact. There are small shrimp that are also deep fried and eaten whole, but I find the feathery little legs going down my throat to be deeply unpleasant. Live and learn.
The octopus or calamari might involve whole curling, suction-cupped tentacles.
Feeling snacky yet?
If you're hoping for a sanitized-looking meal that is mostly unrecognizable from the sea creature it came from, you may be traumatized. Go in expecting a dish that bears resemblance to one you'd get your local seafood franchise and you may end up with something that looks like a collection of Cthulu's college roommates. You've been warned.
All that said, give some new things a try! My sister swore she couldn't even look at a fish with it's head still on, but before long was cheerily tearing into a whole μπαρμπούνι (red mullet) with her bare hands. I'm generally fine with all of it (except the hairy little shrimp) but be aware of it beforehand so you don't need to send a bewildered waiter back to the kitchen with your plate.
Travel should be about some adventure as well as relaxation, so learn to take the new stuff in stride. If you're a patient and open traveler, you'll likely adapt to most things - if not everything - on this list. If nothing else, your experiences will make for great travel stories when you get home, and that's half the fun.
Want more Greek travel ideas? Take a look at our Travel section for articles and photo galleries!
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