Greece is meant for exploring, and not just by ferry. With your vehicle – rented or otherwise – there is a wealth of history, culture and, yes, beaches to savor.
Away from relying solely on buses and boats, opportunities to leave crowds behind are myriad. Here are five of our favorite road trips in Greece that traverse the fabric of the country’s mainland and islands.
Get local insight on destinations all over the world with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Wander through the small fishing villages around the short loop on Serifos © Cavan Images / Getty Images
Greek islands road trip
Best road trip for beaches
Athens–Paros; 180km (112 miles) total driving, not including sea travel
Although you may think of exploring Greek islands as a sea trip, you’ll need wheels to properly explore and enjoy most of these rocky isles. This is particularly true with beaches, where the best – and least crowded – ones may only be reachable by car.
Few parts of Greece are more iconic than the Cyclades, where the islands dotting the Aegean are the stuff of holiday fantasies. Start this trip in Athens, where the port of Piraeus is your gateway to what awaits. Begin on raw and rugged Serifos – less visited than many of its neighbors, it offers the perfect break from the usual hubbub of life. It has one main road that loops around the island, so your only real decision is whether to go clockwise or the reverse. Discover little fishing villages barely touched by tourism and long, sandy beaches in sheltered coves lapped by impossibly azure waters.
Just next door – and within sight of Serifos – Sifnos exemplifies the distinct personalities that each of the Cycladic islands possesses. It’s popular with visitors and has a well-deserved reputation for its food traditions with many high-end and creative tavernas and restaurants. The roads radiate out from the central town of Apollonia. Follow these short and twisty routes down to a variety of seafront villages with well-developed beach scenes.
Make your final stop on the large and varied island of Paros, which rewards drivers with a plethora of beaches, mountain villages and shimmering hillsides of olive trees.
Planning Tip: Your big decision on this trip is whether to use the same vehicle for the entire trip or to rent a car on each island. If you’re driving your own vehicle, you may appreciate its familiarity as you go from one island to the next. However, while many ferries transport cars, the costs can be high, and available vehicle slots may fill up even as there remains room for passengers. If hiring a car in Greece, it’s better in terms of price and hassle to just hire one separately on each island.
Scout new ways to explore the planet’s wildest places with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. The best way to explore Greece’s history and mythology is by car © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images
Best road trip for the wonders of the classical world
Athens–Ancient Olympia; 590km (367 miles)
Much of the best of Greece’s classic mythology and history is best visited by car. This trip starts in Athens – of course, you must take a moment to visit the Parthenon – and winds around the mainland and the Peloponnese Peninsula, with stops at sites of legend and lore.
It’s an easy drive northwest to Ancient Delphi, situated on a breathtaking site overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. Here the fabled oracle was the spiritual center of Ancient Greece when it was at its most powerful. Drive south to Nafplio in the Peloponnese, where you can split your time between a trifecta of sights: the acropolis at Tiryns, the citadel of Ancient Mycenae and the 2500-year-old theater at Epidavros.
Finally, see where modern athletic competitions trace back their roots at Ancient Olympia. Walk amidst the reconstructed stadium that hosted the first Olympic games in 776 BCE and was the site of competitions for an extraordinary 1000 years.
Best road trip for a quick visit
Athens–Marathon; 136km (85 miles)
Visitors to Greece are usually in a hurry to head out from Athens to the islands – and with good reason. But if you’re on a short visit or just looking for a change of pace from the capital, Attica – the water-surrounded region with Athens at its center – will reward visitors who would like to sample excellent beaches, ancient monuments and expanses of natural beauty.
Some 17km (10.5 miles) southeast of Athens, Glyfada is a tiny suburb that marks the start of the so-called Apollo Coast (or Athenian Riviera, depending on whose marketing material you favor). Small beaches backed by upscale clubs and more isolated strands on coves favored by nudists dot the coast. Pause for a cultural moment at the gleaming marble Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion.
Following the craggy shore northeast, finish your drive at Marathon – yes, that Marathon – where Pheidippides began his run to Athens with news of military victory. Today, it’s a comfortable and beachy suburb, where the greatest challenge you’ll face is choosing between its many seafront tavernas.
Pause your Crete road trip to enjoy one of the island’s numerous uncrowded beaches © SolStock / Getty Images
The magnificent island of Crete
Best road trip for exploring a Mediterranean highlight
Iraklio–Hania; 280km (174 miles)
Geographically very much separate from the rest of Greece but culturally a core part of the nation, Crete is unmissable. The Mediterranean’s fifth largest island (right after Corsica) is a panoply of historical sights, areas of superb natural beauty, hidden and uncrowded beaches and soaring peaks that seem almost Alpine in their grandeur.
Start in the eastern city of Iraklio and go immediately south to the ancient Minoan Palace of Knossos. Get lost within this sprawling complex where the links to the past are tangible. Drive west to the holy site of Moni Arkadiou, a 16th-century monastery that embodies the indomitable Cretan spirit. Here you can understand how invaders from the Romans to the Turks to the Nazis, with dozens more in between, found their dreams of conquest shattered by the island’s fiercely independent spirit.
Drive through the sheer cliffs, high mountain passes and deep gorges down to the south coast, where the beach town of Sougia remains untouched by mass tourism. Get a ferry or take a hike to ancient sites and even more remote beaches.
Finally, head north to Hania, the evocative port town that oozes history within its Venetian-era walls.
Planning Tip: Distances on Crete can be deceiving. That seemingly short 60km (37-mile) jaunt from the touristy north to the untrammeled south will take much longer than you might expect. Roads curve sharply through the deeply eroded landscape, and the going can be very slow. And don’t expect many roadside signs to offer guidance; Cretans have yet to see a sign they didn’t shoot full of holes, a local source of pride and spirit.
A drive into the Zagorohoria region will lead you to traditional villages tucked away in pristine mountains © Posnov / Getty Images
Best road trip to get off the beaten path
Thessaloniki–Sithonia; 880km (547 miles)
Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, is a wonderfully under-visited center for history, art, great food and intoxicating nightlife. Start here exploring the nation’s north, which borders a diverse range of neighboring countries and bears the influences of Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, Turks, and many more.
Drive southwest to the fabled peak of Mt Olympus, Greece’s highest. A spiritual heart of the nation, you can drive up to its loftier elevations and go for hikes, both easy and world-class.
Stay in the mountains as you go west into the Zagorohoria region, which is dotted by tiny villages that have carried on across the millennia. Circle back towards Thessaloniki and finish your road trip at the unheralded but unmissable beaches of the Halkidiki Peninsula. Plunge deep into the very southeastern tip of remote Sithonia.
Tips for driving in Greece
Although Greece follows EU conventions for driving regulations, there are some valuable things to remember as you drive around.
- Road and directional signs are only sporadically provided. After seeing directional signs for sights and towns on numerous minor roads, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. A major junction may have no signage and be easily missed, so stay aware of where you are using your mapping app.
- With your mapping app, download the data for the area you’ll be exploring in advance so that just when you fear you’re lost, you won’t discover that there’s no cell signal and that now you’re truly lost. Cell signals are often spotty at best in the countryside.
- In rural areas, most (if not all) gas (petrol) stations may be closed on Sundays, so fill up on Saturday, assuming there won’t be another opportunity until Monday.
- If you hire a car, reserve far in advance if you’re traveling in summer, particularly in August. Fleets can get entirely booked up, and rates can skyrocket. Note that small local operations can offer both the best rates and the friendliest service. You can find them using mapping apps. It’s worth shopping around a bit for a rental car; don’t just settle for some familiar international brand. And, although technically not required in Greece, bring an International Driver’s Permit as some small rental firms may ask for one.