Greece is the ideal destination for family holidays, as evidenced by its continuing popularity among British parents. Much of the transport is by boat, the weather is warm, the sea is inviting, and the people are hospitable and love kids. From the rugged mountains of the interior to archipelagos of tiny islands set in clear blue seas, there is a seemingly infinite variety of landscapes to explore. Mountains, sea, beaches, wild herbs, olive groves, tavernas, boats: although the ingredients remain the same, the contrasts and variety are phenomenal. Add the occasional Greek ruin or Byzantine church – a striking reminder of a lost civilisation that has frequently become an organic and much-loved part of the landscape, and you can't fail to fall head-over-heels in love. And with the current economic uncertainty, the Greek tourist industry needs you more than ever.
|Flying Time||3.75 hours|
|Carbon Footprint||1.93 tonnes CO2|
Head for the lush green Ionian Islands in the northwest, thickly wooded with olives and cypresses. They’re very popular with tourists, and have airports with direct flights from the UK. Corfu and Zakynthos, and to a lesser extent Kefalloniá, are very developed, but as with all Greek islands, this only applies to certain areas: tourist centres tend to cluster in one region (in all these islands, the main tourist resorts are in the south) while other parts are quiet and undiscovered. As soon as you leave the coast and drive into the interior (car-hire is cheap and distances are short), you leave tourist sunspots behind and enter the timeless world of the Greek village.
The northernmost island, Corfu, bears the imprint of England’s brief authority, and the Venetian atmosphere of Corfu Town (the Venetians colonised the island from 1386 to 1797) sits strangely with the incongruous cricket pitch in the town square. If you want to get away from the tourists, take a boat to the beautiful island of Paxos, green, wooded and underdeveloped. The historic buildings of the island of Kefalloniá were largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1953, but in the north the picturesque fishing village (another yachting favourite) of Fiskardo survives, with pastel-painted Venetian houses from the 18th century. From Lefkás, a short ferry journey away, it is possible to drive along a causeway to the mainland, and on to Preveza (see below).
If you’re flying to Athens, there are a number of islands easily reachable from there that may provide you with welcome peace after the hurly-burly of the capital – they’re green and pine-covered, with secluded bays and a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Hydra is the most picturesque, not least because no motorised vehicles are allowed: from the minute you sail into the multi-coloured harbour, you find yourself in a dream of long-lost Greece. Kids love the bikes and donkeys that provide the main form of transport along the island’s winding tracks, while parents love the tranquillity of car-free streets (it’s very rare in Greece to be far removed from the insistent puttering of scooters and motorbikes). Then there’s Spetse and Poros, playgrounds of Athenians, well endowed with pretty resorts and beachside tavernas perfect for family holidays.
Further afield, you can take a ferry from Piraeus or Raffina to the Cycladic Islands, scattered across the middle of the Aegean to the south of Athens. An ordinary ferry can take up to 12 hours to reach these, so with small children it’s best to opt for the more expensive high-speed ferries, which come replete with playrooms, games arcades, TV screens and restaurants (though of course you could just gaze out at the Aegean Sea). The Cycladic Islands are picture-book Greece, distinguished by blue-domed churches, hilltop windmills and the whitewashed cubist architecture of their towns and villages, where the dazzling white of the building-block architecture is relieved by the vibrant blues and greens of doors and window-frames and splashes of purple bougainvillea. Streets in the main towns are narrow, stone-paved and often barred to traffic (except for the ubiquitous scooters). In the heat of the day towns are sleepy under the relentless sun; by 5pm they buzz with activity as shop-owners set out their wares and the streets throng with promenading Greeks and tourists buying food and souvenirs, or just strolling around deciding where to eat later in the evening.
The Cycladic Islands are arid and austere, but like the rest of Greece they’re endowed with beaches to suit every taste. Distances between the islands are not great, and ferries ply their way back and forth on a complicated system of routes, which can be a challenge to comprehend. There are reasonably busy airports on the islands of Mykonos and – far to the south - Santorini. The latter is well worth visiting – its picturesque main town is perched on the rim of a vast underwater volcano that erupted c. 1450, sending tidal waves of destruction across the Aegean. Kids love the steep descent to the port in cable-cars (or, more alarmingly, by donkey), and there are numerous expeditions by boat into the caldera (though beware – volcanic islets smell sulphurous, and are still emitting steam from vents, a sign of ongoing volcanic activity).
Further to the south – 2hrs by high-speed ferry – lies Crete. This large and fiercely independent island is a world of its own, proud of its rugged landscape and hardy inhabitants. It’s the birthplace of Minoan civilization, and kids – who love tales of the minotaur and the labyrinth – may enjoy visiting the partially restored Bronze Age palace of Knossos (see our guest blog Blood, Guts and Gore in Ancient Greece). Much of the north coast has been heavily developed, and if you want to avoid drunken English teenagers you should steer clear of the area around Mallia and, to a lesser extent, Maleme. Chania, with its beautiful Venetian harbour, is by far the prettiest town on the north-west coast, but it swarms with visitors in summer. Agios Nikólaos, in the northeast, is set in a dramatic harbour and is a thriving family resort. But if you cross the soaring White Mountains that run like a spine along the centre of Crete, you will enter a different world – one of peaceful mountain villages, dramatic gorges and wild landscapes populated only by goats and swirling mists. Many of the villages on the precipitous south coast of Crete are hard to reach by road, but you can hop along the southern coast in the small caiques that ply these routes and enjoy an altogether more tranquil view of the island.
Travel west of Crete and you’ll come to Rhodes, at the southern end of the Dodecanese. This group of a dozen islands is spread in a great arc across the southern Aegean, with some islands – notably Kastellórizo – just a stone’s throw from the coast of Turkey. The most developed islands in the group are Rhodes in the south and, about halfway up, Kos. Both have had an eventful history and bear the clear signs of invasion and occupation – crusader castles, city walls, Ottoman mosques. Rhodes Town is a beautifully preserved medieval citadel, while Kos Town is well endowed with classical remains. Package tourism is well developed on both Rhodes and Kos, and families will probably find the tourist area around Faliráki, south of Rhodes Town, quite challenging. But it is an easy matter to escape, either into the interior or further down the coast, and there is always a good balance to be struck between the facilities kids love (funfairs, water-parks, horse-riding, water-sports and so on) and solitude.
There are a number of more obscure Dodecanese islands – Tilos, Leros, Lipsi, Kalymnos – that can be reached by boat, and this is perfect island-hopping territory. It is never a problem to find rooms on these beautiful and varied islands, but tourism is low-key and laidback. The island populations are small, and the tourist season is comparatively short (June–Sept), as many of the summer inhabitants retreat to Athens for the winter months.
To the north you will encounter the bigger, more imposing, islands of Lesbos, Lemnos, Samos and Chios. All of these – Lesbos in particular – have their own economy and substantial winter populations, and they are not entirely dependent on tourism. They offer a fascinating blend of modern Greek towns, ancient architecture, beaches, extraordinary landscapes (the petrified forest of Lesbos is famous), and striking remnants of the architecture left by the Genoese and Ottoman merchants who were based here. Further north still is Thásos, a pine-covered island rightly admired for its ancient ruins and honey; the island literally buzzes (don’t go if you're allergic to bee-stings!).
Directly west is the last island group, the Sporades. This consists of four main islands: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros. Many Athenians visit them in summer because of their more temperate climate. They are intensely green, and richly endowed with cove-like, wooded inlets and sandy beaches. Skiathos has its own airport and is the most developed, but many parts of the island cannot be reached by road. All these islands are tranquil retreats, with beautiful beaches, picturesque main towns and unspoilt interiors.
If you’re travelling with small children, think carefully before exploring the mainland. The Acropolis in Athens can’t fail to impress, but the city is crowded and hectic and can be hard work. The interior of Greece is rich with classical remains and Byzantine architecture, but it is rugged and inaccessible. Head instead for parts of the mainland that are served by local airports: Preveza, Kalamata, Volos and the Halkidiki peninsula, which is accessible from Thessalonika airport. If you stay within reasonably close range of these airports, you will minimise the long-distance driving across the mountainous interior, which, although undeniably awe-inspiring, can test the patience of younger passengers.
The Halkidiki peninsula is the most developed part of the mainland; many package-holiday companies can take you to the Kassándra peninsula, while the neighbouring Sithonía is much wilder, with plenty of unspoilt beaches in the south. The third ‘finger’ is Mount Athos, a holy site for the Greeks, forbidden to women. Day-long boat cruises creep along the coast of Mount Athos, and some of its 20 monasteries are visible, but that is probably as near as most tourists get.
Further to the west is Pilion, another fantastic peninsula, reasonably close to the large port of Volos. The high mountains of Pilion are thickly covered with deciduous trees, and there are many traditional villages with tall stone-built houses perched on the hillside and narrow cobbled streets. The mountain villages are ideal places for a drink or lunch accompanied by panoramic views. Down on the coast, the scenery is reassuringly Aegean, and flotilla-style sailing holidays abound. The beautiful sandy resort of Plataniá, on the southern tip, is a good jumping-off point for the Sporades.
Preveza is on the north-western side of the Greek mainland; from here it is a short drive up the coast to Igoumenitsa and the Albanian border. This is a lush area with red-tiled, stone-built villages nestling along the coast and rivers running down from the mountains (the ancient River Styx is here). Coastal villages such as Párga have stunning natural harbours and are yachting havens; at night the waterside tavernas are packed with diners, many fresh off the boats.
See also our guide to the Peloponnese peninsula of southern mainland Greece.
Greeks love small children, and the relaxed family atmosphere of Greek tavernas is ideally suited to family holidays with young kids. You’re never far from a taverna: they’re perched on seaside promontories, spread across pavements and piazzas, and hidden in secret gardens. Often no more than a ramshackle collection of rickety tables and brightly painted chairs, they’re festooned with flowers – frequently growing out of discarded olive-oil cans – and always inviting.
Food is served throughout the day, and every Greek taverna carries a standard menu of child-friendly food – pasta, barbecued meat, calamari, chips, salad. While your children are happily stoking up, you can enjoy a more eclectic range of treats, from stifado (a rich beef stew cooked in red wine with shallots) to kleftiko (oven-baked lamb), saganaki (oven-baked mussels with cheese) and briam (slow-braised mixed vegetables). Fresh Greek salads are ubiquitous, as is charcoal-grilled meat – chicken, pork and lamb. The ingredients are fresh and the food is laced with the herbs – thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram – that grow wild everywhere.
Many restaurants serve local village wine by the carafe for just a few euros. And there is always retsina, local white wine scented with pine resin, which you’ll either love or loathe. Round off your meal with ouzo, a distilled liquor with a distinctive aniseed flavour, drunk – frequently diluted with ice or water – all over Greece.
Schedule family holidays in Greece between May and October. On many of the more remote islands, the season does not begin until June, but if you can find somewhere to stay in May, grab the opportunity – the weather is just beginning to warm up and the islands are green and flower-bedecked after the winter rains.
By July and August many parts of Greece are baking in relentless heat, and you might do well to opt for the northern island groups or the mainland. September and October are mellow, golden months – beaches are lapped by warm seas, and winter seems reassuringly distant.
Most scheduled flights from the UK to Greece come into Athens or Thessalonika airports, but in the tourist season there are charter and low-cost flights to many of the main island groups and smaller mainland cities.
From island airports, transfer times to resorts – except on the very biggest islands – are mercifully short. If you’re travelling independently, however, you may need to reach islands by boat or hydrofoil, and you may find yourself island-hopping, between islands comparatively close to each other. This is one of the great pleasures of any Greek holiday, though – children love the bustle of small island harbours, as somnolent ports are transformed, in the run-up to the ferry’s arrival, by the hustle and bustle of travellers and traders. When the ferry finally arrives (often impressively on schedule), there’s 15 minutes of mayhem as cars, mopeds, trucks carrying anything from marble to cattle, and foot passengers are disgorged on to the quayside, to be met by a throng of relatives, workmen and (very civilized) touts offering rooms. If you’re travelling on the boat, your kids (and you) will enjoy the thrill of discovery as they begin to discern, from the deck, terrain, villages, beaches, landmarks and hotels.
Greece remains one of the best-value destinations for family holidays in Europe, with prices falling over the few years, partly as a result of the country's financial turmoil. But with some smaller establishments closing down as a result of those problems, you're well advised to make sure you are properly covered for all eventualities.
Greece offers everything from pretty self-catering villas that allow families plenty of flexibility – see our partner Meon Villas – to ultra-family-friendly resort hotels with kids’ clubs and world-class resorts.
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