Why is Greece famous? That’s a BIG question. There are actually loads of reasons why this balmy corner of the Mediterranean Sea looms so large in the public consciousness; lots of things that mean it’s usually known from Massachusetts to Melbourne, Tokyo to Tallahassee.
In this guide, we’ll touch on just a few – seven to be exact – reasons why the home of feta and Zorba is one for the headlines. We’ll reveal the secrets of the national kitchen, the enthralling tales of ancient history and myth, and the totemic literary creations that have helped to put and keep it in the limelight for millennia.
There’s also some room for a special mention of the jaw-droppingly stunning places that make Greece such a famous location. That could mean the soaring sides of Santorini or the sparkling beaches of the Ionian chain. Anyway, let’s begin: Why is Greece famous?
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Why is Greece famous for its food? Well, because the cuisine here is one of the tastiest that ever did grace planet Earth! Characterized by its seasonality and simplicity, cooking at this south end of Europe is all about harnessing the freshness of the Mediterranean, be it in the seafood or in the sun-ripened tomatoes that are dropped into those taste-bud-exciting Greek salads.
Greece can offer up some seriously famous dishes to rival the likes of Italian pizza and French ratatouille. Moussaka is one of the best-known, a layered pie of minced meat and grilled eggplant with a bechamel top. But there’s also WAY more than that, from salty saganaki cheese served with a zingy spring lemon off the tree to bitter horta greens that come with a dousing of olive oil.
Talking of olive oil, Greek cooking is made fantastic mainly thanks to the bounty of the land and the water. Chefs have access to some of the freshest ingredients going in this part of the world. You can pick oranges straight off the branch, get olive oil from the presses, pluck mountain thyme and rosemary from your garden. You name it, it’s available!
Greece has one of the oldest stories in the world. The tale of the nation reaches far back to the age of the heroes and the mythic battles of Troy and beyond. Most historians agree that some conception of Greek national identity emerged in solid form around the 500s BC, when the Persian emperors attempted to invade, uniting the different city states under one banner and a shared purpose.
Today, the relics of the bygone eras of Greece are strewn all over the country. Visitors get to encounter UNESCO sites and ancient digs that are unquestionably some of the most totemic on the globe. Athens on its own is packed with 2,500-year-old temples, Roman ruins, and medieval Christian sites, and there’s a wonderworld of things in the greater country for the culture buff to get stuck into.
Here are just a few of the historic highlights of Greece for us…
- The Parthenon – What is Greece famous for? The Parthenon. The most iconic landmark arguably in Europe, this is the old core of ancient Athens. It’s on a hill in the middle of the capital and now has its own award-winning museum exhibit right next door.
- Mycenae – Thehome of Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. This site stands on a great mount on the plains of Argos, in the Peloponnese, complete with lion-carved gates and tomb complexes.
- Epidaurus – An ancient hospital complex with an incredible theater.
- Delphi – This religious sanctuary in the mountains of northern Greece was once home to the oracle, a soothsayer who used to advise the Greek kings after breathing hallucinogenic fumes from an underground volcano. It’s true!
Why is Greece famous? Ask 10 people that and there’s a good chance that at least nine of them will mention the beaches. But then that’s to be expected in a country that counts over 6,000 islands, 227 inhabited islands, more than 15,000 kilometers of coastline, and destinations in four separate seas, right? Right.
Picking out the highlights of the Greek beach world is like trying to pick the best episode of Sopranos. AKA: Not easy. But we’ll give it a go…
First up is Crete. The largest isle in the Aegean Sea, it’s got all types of sands, from the white-tinged lagoon of Balos on the far northwest coast to the pink-hued bays of Elafonisi in the south (some say that looks more Bermuda than south Europe!). Then there’s Mykonos, an island of yacht-speckled harbors and coves that buzz with life, and Rhodes, the isle of the east that has long, windblown runs of sand beneath white-painted villages.
Over in the west, meanwhile, the Ionian chain is something else. Its beaches are often pure basalt color and sit below soaring cliffs that lurch straight out of a turquoise sea. Highlights in those parts include the duo of Antipaxos and Paxos, and the gorgeous isle of Ithaka, where the beaches are all linked by ancient donkey paths through the pine woods.
A lot of the focus is, understandably, on the beaches in Greece. From the gleaming bays of Chalkadiki in the north to the palm-ringed sands of Crete in the south, there’s just so many of them. But look up in the land of feta and moussaka and the chances are you’ll spot mountains. They’re everywhere, scoring the landscapes from the Peloponnese to the Cycladic islands.
Some of the mountains in Greece are downright iconic. Take Mount Olympus – you’ve heard of that, right? At some 2,917 meters above sea level, it’s the highest peak in the country. You can see it soaring in flutted stone bluffs and jagged tops above the border of Thessaly in the north of the country. There’s plenty of hiking to be done on and around Olympus, but its fame really stems from its central location in the myths of ancient Greece – it was said to be the home of the gods and even Zeus himself.
Other massifs here hide other ancient treasures, while some are just downright tempting for would-be trekkers. There’s majestic Mount Parnassus near Delphi, which has the historic home of the oracle and temples to Apollo. There are the Lefka Ori of Crete – barren and wild and dotted with rustic villages that you can hike between.
The birth of democracy took place in Athens some 2,500 years ago. It came after a string of tumultuous decades which saw bloody infighting between aristocratic groups, and, before that, a number of tyrannical kings. The idea was simple: Give power to the people to ensure the peaceful and participatory transfer of power between one regime to the next.
It’s certainly true that the democracy of ancient Athens isn’t quite the democracy we know today. For starters, women, children, and slaves were not considered worthy citizens, so they didn’t get the vote. On top of that, Athenian democracy was highly participatory. If you were a male of a certain age and a certain wealth, there was a good chance that you’d find yourself a part of the actual government at some stage in your life.
But for all its differences, the fact remains that Athenian democracy is the cornerstone on which much of Western Civilization and its politics is founded. Everything from public voting to public speaking emerged from this change in the system in one city in Greece.
Island hopping in Greece is one of the bucket-list experiences of Europe. Yep, it’s up there with scaling the Eiffel Tower and Interrailing. You just have to do it at some point in your life, because it rarely disappoints and offers a gateway to not just one but a whole host of some of the most stunning isles on the planet.
Island hopping itineraries can be short or long. They can last months or days. You can do them on public ferries or with your own yacht (hello, jet setter!). They can take you from one end of Greece to the other or just focus on a single island chain. It’s the versatility and the freedom that makes them such an awesome thing to do.
Popular island-hopping routes go through the middle of the Cyclades, stopping at the soaring volcanic cliffs of Santorini (more on that one below) and the party isle of Ios. Another well-sailed odyssey connects up the Ionian islands in the west, but that’s best done if you have your own charter since ferries are harder to come by. What awaits in those parts? The turtle-trodden beaches of Zante, the sleepy harbors of Lefkada, the pine-haloed bays of Kefalonia – the list goes on and on!
Ya’ll seen Zorba, right? Come on, of course you have. It’s quintessential Greek stuff. The loveable yet elusive hero with his whitewashed Foustanella clothing and fancy appendages, swashbuckling his way through the island of Crete. No? Well…get reading because it’s one of the most iconic stories ever told in this island nation!
Anyway, the point here is that Zorba is often associated with his famous dancing. It was actually invented for the film version of the Zorba tale, choreographed way back in the 1960s. Now known as the sirtaki, it involves rows of people stepping back and forth while wrapped arm in arm. The Greeks LOVE to do a rendition, so don’t be surprised to see the front of house in your taverna getting groovy between meals.
There are also a number of other dances that Greece is famous for. Take the hasapiko, a wild medieval dance that’s supposed to be performed by sword-wielding knights and butchers. Then there’s the pentozali, another Cretan favorite that’s about spinning rows of dancers in concentric circles. Oh, and who could forget the kalamatianos, Greece’s and Cyprus’s festive get-together dance?
If we had to pin down one island that Greece is famous for, Santorini would be it. Set on the collapsed cone of an ancient volcano, the land here soars out from the heart of the Aegean Sea in sheer-cut walls of red and brown stone. At its top, villages of pure-white cottages and Orthodox churches with gleaming teal domes cluster around the edges, while dusty mountains dotted with vineyards await inland.
Santorini has sort of made its name as the romantic hub of the country. Honeymooners now flock here for sunsets that are all but guaranteed to tug at the heart strings, not to mention some seriously gorgeous hotels built into the caves around towns like Fira and Oia, infinity pools creeping out to offer views of the cobalt Aegean below.
Tempted? You and millions of others. Yep, Santorini is a bit of a victim of its own success. Hordes of travelers come between May and August to get their fix. That’s why we’d say to plan to arrive in the early spring or around October if you must. Or consider going to an alternative island in the vicinity – both Folegandros and Anafi are great options.
Greek literature resounds through the ages like the work of very few countries. Homer set the tone when he recorded his epics way back in the 8th century BC. He gave the world the enthralling stories of The Iliad and the The Odyssey, telling the tumultuous, tragic, comic, and altogether human chronicles of the greatest war in history, the Trojan War.
After that, lyricists like Sappho broke boundaries with erotic verses about female love, while philosophers and dramatists crafted works that are still taught and pondered in universities and schools to this day. We’re talking the likes of Sophocles, of Plato, of Euripides, and Aristophanes; names that every Classics undergrad dreams of.
Later on, Greece was to become a muse for more modern literature. The isle of Kefalonia provides the melancholic and majestic backdrop to the 1994 novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Berniere, a darkly romantic tale of WWII resistance and strife. Then there’s our aforementioned Zorba the Greek (1946), a Nostromo-esque biographic of a pirate-like Cretan dancer and maverick. There are loads of pages to get through.
Why is Greece famous? Our conclusion
Why is Greece famous? Greece is famous for quite a lot of things! From the sparkling beaches of the Cyclades isles to the rich literary narrative of the ancient epic poets, the soaring cliffs of Santorini to the tasty food that’s served day in, day out in the tavernas, this nation has one of the most striking identities of the lot! It’s got arguably the very best sands in Europe (sorry, Algarve), soaring peaks where they say gods reside, and a local kitchen that you’ll be thinking about from the moment you bite into that first saganakai cheese!