Beyond Athens. (And Athens is worth visiting, by the way!)
Beyond the tried-and-true in the guidebooks, there are endless unique places to visit in Greece.
The country has more than 6,000 islands and islets – plenty of quiet and romantic Greek islands with pinch-me-I’m-dreaming beaches to escape to.
And with thousands of years of history, Greece is also home to mythical sites and one-of-a-kind spiritual places to soothe the soul.
So if you’re keen to discover Greece’s unique, alternative and secret side, read on!
Unique places to visit in Greece
Unique Greek islands
One of the most unique places to visit in Greece is Ikaria.
This remote Greek island is located off the Turkish coast, about a 2-hour ferry ride from Mykonos.
Ikaria is unique for a very interesting reason – it’s one of the world’s five Blue Zones, places where people live longer and healthier than anywhere else.
The other Blue Zones are Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Sardinia (Italy) and Loma Linda (California).
One in three people on Ikaria lives to be over 90.
And they live well too.
No dementia. No depression. Few people get cancer. And there’s significantly less heart disease than what plagues North Americans.
So what’s Ikaria’s secret? The same recipe as for a great Greek getaway.
The Ikarians eat a good healthy diet – think fresh fish, locally grown wild greens, beans and lots of other vegetables.
The Ikarians also walk. They make love a lot (well into their old age too!). They’re not stressed about time. And they make their own organic red wine.
If you go, you’ll want to hang out on Faros Beach.
The sand-and-pebble beach boasts calm turquoise waters – with several nearby tavernas for quaffing some of that local wine.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the tiny island of Delos (less than 2 square miles in size) is covered with archaeological ruins dating from 300 BC.
While uninhabited today, Delos was once the most prosperous commercial center in ancient times.
The wealthy had grand villas with beautiful mosaic tile floors. The panther head in the House of Dionysos, for example, is remarkably well-preserved.
You can even see remains of the residents’ toilet rooms in these once-opulent villas – canals under the whole city took waste water out to sea.
To visit Delos, take an excursion boat from the nearby island of Mykonos.
Boats leave from the Mykonos harbor for half-day guided tours of Delos.
Talk about unique!
Santorini is the small island whose middle was blown out by a massive volcanic eruption in 1600 BC.
Any good Greece travel guide will tell you that walking along the edge of the caldera from the capital of Fira to the white sugar-cube village of Oia is one of the most pleasurable ways to take in the heart-stopping views.
Sailing offers a different viewpoint from which to enjoy Santorini’s scenery.
Booking with Sunset Oia, we joined four other couples aboard a swish catamaran.
From Oia, we cruised past the island’s craggy brown and white rocks to swim at a red sand beach.
For lunch, the crew barbecued huge shrimp and mussels, serving that with Greek salad featuring Santorini’s sweet juicy cherry tomatoes and unlimited goblets of wine.
We ended the day jumping off the boat to swim to underwater hot springs gushing up by the uninhabited lava islet of Nea Kameni.
The water was actually only luke-warm, but it was fun to slather on the red-brown sulphuric mud (said to be good for the skin).
Tip: To round out your unique Santorini experience, stay in a cave hotel like Ikies Traditional Houses.
Another unique Greek island, Milos is unspoiled – for now.
What you may not know is that this volcanic island has natural hot springs, ancient mines, spectacular rock formations, cute harbor towns with fishing boats bobbing offshore and – because of its local population – several good authentic restaurants.
When seeking out unique and non-touristy Greek islands, also take a look at Skyros.
A best-kept secret, Skyros is a quiet Greek island in the Sporades archipelago (which includes Skiathos, #9 below, and Skopelos).
Escape to Skyros for gorgeous beaches, snorkeling in crystal clear waters, charming cafés in the island’s sole town (Skyros town) – and even a sea cave transformed into a chapel.
English poet Rupert Brooke is buried in an olive grove on a hill on the island.
You’ll also want to see the unique and rare breed of Skyrian horses.
Almost extinct, they look like regular horses, but shorter (about 3+ feet high). You can meet them at the Skyros Island Horse Trust, dedicated to saving the breed.
Unique hidden gems in Greece
If we were 17th century Venetians, we’d have to cross a drawbridge (or wade through the sea) to enter Monemvasia.
Today a modern causeway links the medieval fortress town, built atop a steep rock islet, with the Greek Peloponnese mainland.
Yet Monemvasia itself still evokes the past – a web of car-free cobblestone paths, just wide enough for a donkey pulling a wagon, winds past gold-tinged houses that date back to the Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman empires.
We visited Monemvasia on a Greek cruise.
It’s also possible, however to visit the town on a road trip from Athens, as Monemvasia is located on the mainland.
We admired the gold-leaf icons in the town’s historic Greek Orthodox churches. Sampled the famous sweet Malmsey wine that originated here (and relaxed over iced cappuccinos). Swam in the cool waters at a pebble beach just outside the town’s walls.
And dreamed of ways we could plan a return visit, so we could stay longer next time…
Is this the perfect Greek island?
Ribboned by gorges, waterfalls and valleys, Kythira (or Kythera) is one of the most beautiful islands in Greece.
Lying off the southern tip of the Peloponnese Peninsula, Kythira has much to offer if you make the effort to get there.
(Few international visitors go to Kythira because the journey is lengthy and bothersome, e.g., a 7-hour ferry ride from Athens. Indeed, the Peloponnese Peninsula is one of the most underrated places in Greece.)
But once you get to Kythira, you can visit castles and hike up to fortresses left behind by the Venetians.
Wonderful swimming spots include pebble beaches plus idyllic freshwater ponds splashed by waterfalls in the forests.
The island boasts several charming villages too, each retaining their own traditional characters – Mylopotamos is set around a duck pond.
No doubt about it! Kythira is one of the best places to visit in Greece for a memorable trip, off the beaten track.
Maybe Kefalonia is the most beautiful Greek island.
It’s most famous (if you know your Greek facts) for being the place where the movie “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” was filmed.
If you seek picturesque waterfront villages, look no further than Asos on the northeast coast.
The 16th century Asos Castle perches on a rocky hill above the town.
Just down the road, Myrtos Beach beckons – the beach dazzles with its marble and limestone pebbles.
Step out into the pine and fir forests in Mount Ainos National Park for picture-perfect views over the Ionian Sea and the Peloponnese.
Or if beaches are your preferred reward, hike to pristine hidden beaches like Kimilia Beach in the northern part of the island.
Unique romantic places in Greece
Remember Mama Mia with Meryl Streep?
It was filmed on this hilly pine-covered island (and nearby Skopelos).
Difficult to get to (which just makes it all the more attractive), Skiathos is beautiful – one of the best Greek islands for couples.
It’s not untouched by tourism though.
With more than 60 beaches and fine hotels, it’s on the tourist radar.
Still, its pine forests threaded with hiking trails and boat-only accessible beaches call out to couples looking to get off the beaten path.
Note: May, June and September are the best months to visit Skiathos. July and August are busy, and it’s known for its nightlife then too.
Close to Santorini (#3 above) – but soooo much quieter – is Folegandros.
A small Greek island, it’s only 8 miles long. But it scores high on the romance scale! (Anemi Hotel is honeymoon-worthy.)
Beaches are oh-so-pretty and practically deserted.
Footpaths wind around the island, making it a pleasure to walk.
And one of Folegandros’ three small towns, Chora, is car-free.
Must do: Climb the stone zig-zag path up to the Church of Panagia (a 15-minute walk). It boasts a unique (and glorious!) location at the top of a rocky hill above Chora.
One of the most beautiful cities in Greece, Rethymnon (or Rethymno) is the third largest city in Crete. (Crete is the largest Greek island.)
Built on a cape “on the boundary between calmness and fierceness,” as local writer Pantelis Prevelakis poetically described it, Rethymnon is bordered by a long sandy beach on one side and a rocky coastline on the other.
Rethymnon boasts a wonderful old harbor and a massive Venetian fortress.
By the harbor, its centuries-old Venetian-Ottoman quarter is a maze of narrow flagstone streets, graceful wood-balconied houses, shops and ornate Venetian monuments.
What’s lovely to see is that this Old Town is full of local life.
Women embroider while sitting on doorsteps, students drink coffee and play tavli (backgammon) in cafés and children kick balls in the alleys.
Avli, a 16th century Venetian villa, has gorgeous suites for a romantic stay in the heart of the Old Town.
Other unique places in Greece
12) Mount Athos
One of the most secret places in Greece is Mount Athos.
A peninsula with steep cliffs climbing up from the sea, Mount Athos is dominated by a tall mountain in the middle, with clouds crowning the top.
At one time, it was home to some 40 monasteries.
Today, there are 20 Orthodox monasteries on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is an autonomous Greek state (like the Vatican).
Because of its profoundly devotional nature, it’s a haven for those seeking a spiritual retreat.
We didn’t actually set foot on Mount Athos, but cruised slowly by (boats have to keep a distance of over 1,500 feet away).
To visit, you have to request permission from your own consulate, get recommendations about your good character and supply reasons why you want to visit – and then you can only visit Mount Athos for three days.
What makes Mount Athos one of the most unique places to visit in Greece (if you can get in) is that no women are ever permitted entry.
In fact – get this – while the self-sustaining monasteries have farms, female animals are even prohibited too!
13) Ancient ruins of Philippi
Philippi is all about gold, wine, murder, mayhem, Alexander the Great and St. Paul.
Intrigued? Then read our post on the ancient Philippi ruins.
If you’ve ever seen photos of Meteora, you’ll agree that it’s one of the most interesting places in Greece.
Starting in the 11th century, several remarkable Byzantine monasteries and nunneries were built in Meteora – which means “suspended in air.”
Monks and nuns still live in these monasteries and nunneries, perched atop towering sandstone rock pillars over 1,200 feet high.
The Great Meteoron Monastery is the oldest and largest of the monasteries. It houses priceless Byzantine-era manuscripts and an ossuary with the skulls of monks who lived there.
The only thing is that we had to jostle with hundreds upon hundreds of tourists all wanting to eye this popular site, which detracted from our experience. We visited Meteora in high summer.
Tip: To avoid the crowds, we’d suggest timing your visit for the off-season – maybe late October or even November?
If you dig ancient Greek history, Mycenae is calling to you.
The ancient city of Mycenae was the center of the highly developed Mycenaean civilization, which Homer wrote about in the Iliad around 850 B.C.
King Agamemnon was buried here with all his gold treasures. (His brother’s wife Helen was the lovely lady taken to Troy by Paris, igniting the Trojan War.)
But there’s no real gold to be seen – the treasure had already been looted when Heinrich Schliemann first excavated the site in 1874.
Schliemann was the person who discovered Troy, proving that Homer’s heroic epic poems were rooted in reality.
All that remains today inside Agamemnon’s huge, rounded limestone tomb (which would have looked like a grassy mound centuries ago) is black soot clinging to the walls, remnants of the cooking fires lit by medieval occupants when they lived here.
Last words on off-the-beaten-path Greece and unique Greek places
So there you have it – our guide on the most unique and special places in Greece.
Some like Santorini are definitely on the tourist path.
But if you’re wondering where to go in Greece off the beaten path, a “Hidden Greece” also beckons with less-trodden wonders.
Ikaria whispers longevity secrets. Monemvasia hides in medieval shadows. Skyros summons with secluded beaches.
Each is a one-of-a-kind gem, a unique chapter in Greece’s endless storybook.
Do you have a favorite unique place in Greece? Let us know! You can comment below.
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Photo credits: 4 to 6, 16 to 18, 31, 34, 38, 40 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase