Here the Gods will always stride the heights of Olympus and Parnassus, and Homer’s heroes still cross wine-dark waters to adventure on myriad islands. This year, Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, is Europe’s Cultural Capital.
Area:50,961 square miles (smaller than Alabama).Population:10,100,000 (Athens, 3,027,000; Thessaloniki, 706,000).Language:Greek.
Athensis the wellspring of Western civilization, where the Parthenon crowns the Acropolis. Other ancient glories include the Temple of the Olympian Zeus; Hadrian’s Arch; the Theater of Dionysus, where the works of such classical dramatists as Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes were first performed; and the ancient Odeon of Herod Atticus, show place each summer of the Athens Festival. The center of modern Athens is Syntagma (Constitution) Square.
Piraeus, the port of Athens, is the embarkation point for the Greek islands and other Mediterranean destinations.
The Peloponneseis the peninsula where the Olympic Games were first held inOlympiain 776 BC, and where the ruins ofMycenae, 600 years old when the Parthenon was built, emerge from the landscape.Spartaonce was the mightiest of the city-states. InCorinth, the ruins of the Agora and the Temple of Apollo are still visible.
InThessaloniki, the second-largest city, the green-domed 8th- century church of Aghia Sophia has beautiful mosaics, dating to Byzantine times. Modern additions to the city include the Byzantine Museum and the Megaron Mousikis concert hall. The Archaeological Museum displays riches of Philip, Alexander and other Macedonian kings drawn from excavations at nearby Pella (capital of Macedonia in the 4th century B.C.), Vergina, and the sacred city of Dion.
Cretewas home to Europe’s 3000 B.C. civilization, the Minoan, whose traces are displayed at the spectacular Palace of Knossos, among the world’s greatest ancient sites.
Rhodes, largest of the Dodecanese isles, resounds with crusader derring-do in the medieval walled capital. The Knights of the Order of St. John were established here in 1309. Nearby isLindos, graced by an 11th-century BC Dorian citadel on a magnificent acropolis. Fine sand beaches, excellent hotels and night life make this one of the most popular islands.
Mykonos, in the Cyclades, with its starkly beautiful landscape, has lured visitors since the beginning of time. It has some of Greece’s best beaches, adventurous night life, cosmopolitan flair and excellent restaurants.
Santoriniis a dramatic experience with volcanic-ash beaches and a star-shaped crater within an enormous lagoon bordered by five islands. The lagoon was created by a tremendous volcanic explosion in 1628 B.C.
Acropolis, Athens. The rock of the Acropolis has been inhabited since Neolithic times. Today’s citadel is the work of Pericles, about 440 BC The Parthenon, which dominates the scene, was the first temple to be built and was dedicated to Athena. The museum contains many sculptures, reliefs and statues. At the foot of the Acropolis is the Agora, the marketplace of Socrates’ time and the site of current excavation.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Finds of excavations from throughout Greece, including ceramics, sculptures, metalwork, objects of gold and various miniatures. Highlights include the Mycenaean collection, circa 1500 to 1100 BC, and such major statuary asPoseidon of Artemision, the marble group of Aphrodite and Pan from Delos, andMarathon Boy.
Knossos Archaeological Site, Iraklion, Crete. Knossos was occupied before 3000 BC and was the center of Minoan civilization. Legend tells of King Minos and the site of the labyrinth that Daedalus built to house the Minotaur. Objects of pewter, alabaster, gold and silver abound.
Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki. This new museum opens with an exhibit of nearly 600 Byzantine and post-Byzantine religious and historic relics from the 10th-century monastery at Mount Athos.
Delphi Museum, Delphi. Close to the foot of Mount Parnassus and seat of the greatest oracle of ancient Greece, a priestess whose prophecies guided kings.
Olympia. Important archaeological site where the Olympics originated in the 8th century BC.
Akrotiri, Santorini. Site of a highly developed Bronze Age civilization which was well preserved after the volcanic explosion. Ancient houses with plumbing and frescoes.
Meteora, near Kalambaka. Byzantine monasteries, 600 years old, were built by ascetic monks atop dizzyingly beautiful formations of rock, some more than 2,000 feet high.