Most trips to Greece are about hours sunbathing on the beach before watching long sunsets over local wine – and this is almost always done on one of the 6,000 islands. Granted, the Greek islands are hard to beat (you can find everything from volcanic cliffs to boujee resorts and secluded beaches to pine forests), but mainland Greece shouldn’t be overlooked, especially if you want a road trip.
Smooth, newly built roads cut through olive groves and alongside scenic coastlines and allow you to come closer to the country’s complex mix of history and modernity than you’d get on the tourist-centric islands. Here, new infrastructures surround the praised treasures of antiquity; large-scale agricultural production (for your olive oil and feta cheese) coexist with complete wilderness; abandoned stores and deserted marble quarries stand as silent monuments to economic crisis.
Late spring and early autumn are the best time to go — less hot and less crowded than summer — but when it comes to the route, there’s no right and wrong. My personal experience was driving 3,200 kilometres in a vast clockwise circle from Athens, with only the loose direction to follow. This approach gives you the most amount of freedom, but there are some things which you absolutely cannot miss on the road.
To the south-west of Athens, the Peloponnese peninsula is packed with celebrated destinations, and is itself enough for a decent road trip. The first wonder on the way is the 19th Century Corinth Canal, a strip of radiant blue water between epic walls. Corinth itself is worth a visit, with the ruins of the ancient city, temple of Apollo, and the fortifications of Acrocorinth (“Upper Corinth”).
The grand Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus is another must: acoustics here helped mic-less speakers address 14,000 spectators in the 2nd Century BC. A lot of names in the Peloponnese will sound familiar to you: Sparta from ancient history (although bits of it look strangely like a candy-coloured 1960s suburb), and Kalamata from the black salty olives (indeed, kilometres of silvery olive groves are all around).
And for the most grammable beach imaginable, head to Voidokilia, a perfect semi-circle of shoreline in Messinia in the Mediterranean area.
Ancient sacred sites and places of worship are the best insight into human history — and Greece has a fair few. They’re often tucked away from the urban centres, so getting there by car is the best way. The Dodona sanctuary in the north-west is worth a winding mountain drive: it arguably dates back to the second millennial BC, and was the home of the oldest Hellenic oracle. Traces of numerous cults and gods are layered here in moss-covered rocks, fragments of marble and oak roots — and can be enjoyed in the tranquility of the mountain scenery.
Much more famous is Delphi (a UNESCO World Heritage site), which is also worth a visit for its remarkably well-preserved sites of worship on the mighty mountain slope. Sadly though, the stream of tourists here never stops.
Gazing at Mount Olympus easily makes you understand why ancient Greeks believed that it was home to the Gods. The constantly changing luminous formations of clouds around its peak suggest there’s something there that the human mind can’t possibly comprehend. It’s fascinating enough from a distance: a grand backdrop to the vast fields, small villages and meadows of scarlet red poppies.
Driving up to see it up close can be tricky — the winding road is narrow and occasional protective sheep hound can be a bit of a challenge — but it’s worth it for the view of the peaceful slopes.
The trident-shaped peninsula of Halkidiki is still relatively under the radar as a holiday destination compared to the Greek islands, but has been on the rise in the last few years. It’s home to the country’s most beautiful beaches: prolonged stretches of golden sand and sapphire blue water, framed by mountains covered in lush forests. Any type of holiday is on offer here: from large ’70s-style hotels to small peaceful villages.
The north-east of Greece is a complex entanglement of different cultures. In the port-city of Thessaloniki, heritage from the Roman and Ottoman empires blend with the history of Orthodox Christianity and Alexander the Great, which mixes with ’70s and ’80s block-like architecture. On a drive towards the town of Xanthi, the feeling of the borderlands intensifies — the road slides past abandoned marble quarries, numerous tunnels and small villages in peaceful harbours. At the Xanthi market, the number of different languages spoken reminds the visitor that history was made here, in this ancient melting pot of cultures.