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Known for its idyllic islands, blue and white buildings, beautiful beaches and gorgeous sunsets, Greece is one of the most popular destinations to visit in Europe.
Yet it’s more than just a tourist destination – Greece is also famous for introducing many things to the world, including democracy, medicine, mathematics and philosophy. A lot of the world’s olive oil comes from Greece, and feta cheese is an exclusive product of the country.
In this article we’ll take a look at everything Greece is known for, including landmarks, produce and moments in history.
Greece is home to around 6,000 islands and islets, although only 227 of them are inhabited. Each island has its own identity and charm, but generally the islands are famed for their picturesque towns, beautiful beaches and sparkling blue waters. Many of them can be reached directly by ferry from Athens, and some even have their own airports.
The most famous islands in Greece are probably Mykonos and Santorini (part of the Cyclades islands), although there are many other islands to discover.
With six main island chains to explore – the Cyclades, the Ionian islands, the Sporades, the Dodecanese, the Saronic Islands and the North Aegean Islands – you could spend months island hopping in Greece and still not manage to see it all.
Built on a rocky outcrop above the city of Athens, The Acropolis is an ancient monumental complex that was dedicated to classical Greek thought and art.
Notable buildings inside the complex include the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaia and the temple of Athena Nike. Most of the monuments were built in the 5th century BC under Pericles and have survived across centuries through wars, bombardments, explosions, earthquakes, fires and other disasters.
Greece is known for its pretty old towns with whitewashed buildings and painted blue doors. These colors are especially popular in the Cyclades Islands, such as Santorini, Mykonos, Paros, Milos and Naxos.
White and blue are the colors of the Greek flag, with white representing the sky and blue representing the sea. But there are also practical reasons why the houses are painted with these colors.
Houses were originally painted with white limestone because it had antibacterial qualities, which helped to disinfect homes and prevent outbreaks of diseases such as cholera. White is also a cooling color, so it would prevent homes from getting too hot in the summer heat.
Doors and shutters were painted blue because it was the cheapest paint color available, and fishermen would use the paint left over from painting their boats.
Ouzo is basically the local firewater in Greece. It’s an anise-flavored aperitif that comes from grapes and is often consumed after dinner. Throughout Greece you’ll find ouzeries, where ouzo is consumed alongside meze (small plates of food).
Ouzo was first commercially distilled in 1856 and is exclusively produced by Greece and Cyprus. In 2006, the Greek government won the exclusive rights to use the product name ouzo, so it can’t be made anywhere else.
This fiery drink is made from the leftover remnants of wine production, and is typically distilled in copper pot stills. Its aniseed, black licorice flavor is very strong, a bit like sambuca or raki.
Ouzo is usually served neat, without ice, in a tubular, thick-bottomed glass called a kanoakia. Sometimes people will add water to dilute it, which turns it a milky white color.
Greece is famous for producing feta cheese, which is popular all over the world and is often crumbled on salads. This brined white cheese is made from sheep’s milk or from a combination of sheep and goat’s milk.
Feta is exclusively produced in Greece and has a soft, crumbly texture, with no skin. It’s especially popular in Greek dishes such as Greek salad and spinach and feta pie (Spanakopita).
In tavernas all over Greece you’ll see souvlaki on the menu, which consists of pieces of meat (usually pork, chicken, beef or lamb) grilled on a skewer. Souvlaki is often served on a plate with fries, pita and salad.
You’ll also see lots of takeaway spots selling gyros, which consist of slices of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, served inside a pita bread with tomato, lettuce, onion, potato fries and tzatziki. Gyros are absolutely delicious and make for a great late night snack after the bars are closed!
Moussaka is a famous Greek dish that contains layers of eggplant, potatoes and ground beef in a rich tomato sauce. The dish is topped off with creamy bechamel sauce and baked in the oven, forming the ultimate comfort dish.
The modern version was originally created by the French-trained Greek chef Nikolaos Tselementes in the 1920s and you’ll see it on almost every menu in Greece.
Greece is home to Meteora, which is a magnificent rock formation that hosts a large complex of Eastern Orthodox monasteries. Located on the Greek mainland close to the village of Kastraki, Meteora features giant rock pillars with six monasteries perched on top of the sandstone cliffs.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the country’s most famous attractions and its name means “lofty” or “elevated”.
Greeks are known for smashing plates at celebrations, particularly weddings. Originally plates were smashed at funerals as a way to deal with loss, and the custom came to signal both endings and beginnings.
In addition to contributing democracy, philosophy and medicine to the western world, Greece also gave us the Olympic Games.
The Ancient Olympic Games started in 776 BC and were held every four years in Olympia. Athletes from Greek city-states would participate in a series of athletic competitions and were often given olive leaf wreaths or crowns as prizes.
The last recorded celebration of the games was in AD 393 and it’s believed they came to an end under Theodosius II. The competition was then resurrected many years later in the form of the Modern Olympic Games, which first took place in Athens in 1896.
Ancient Greeks loved to tell myths and stories that featured deitites, heroes, monsters and various mythological creatures. Popular figures included gods like Zeus, Appollo and Poseidon, as well as goddesses like Aphrodite, Athena and Artemis.
The myths were used to explain the origins of the world as well as what people saw around them. One popular myth is Pandora’s Box, which tells the story of Pandora, the first woman on Earth. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create her from clay, and gods bestowed her with various qualities. Some gods gifted her intelligence, femininity and skill, while others made her deceitful, stubborn and curious.
She was given a precious box and was told not to open it. She wed a Titan called Epimetheus and Zeus gave a precious box as a wedding gift. He told them never to open the box if they wanted to live happily ever after, but eventually Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her.
She opened the box and out came disease, hunger, pain, death and other evils, which were released up on the world. She quickly closed the box and hope remained inside. The myth teaches us to resist temptation and be happy with what we’re given.
Greece is famous for producing many important philosophers, including Aristotle, Protagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus.
Ancient Greek philosophy was first developed in the 6th century BC, when philosophers started to try to make sense of the world using reason. It all began with Thales of Miletus, who came up with a system called the First Cause of observable phenomena, and suggested that the First Cause of existence was water.
His followers continued his studies and initiated a form of reason known as philosophy to explain all natural phenomena and life events, without resorting to mythological explanations.
The real watershed moment though, came with Socrates, who is responsible for shifting the main focus of philosophy from cosmology to ethics and morality.
Mathematics as we know it is largely the result of studies started by the Pythagoreans in the 6th century BC. They coined the term mathematics from the ancient Greek μάθημα (mathema), which means “subject of instruction”.
The most notable Greek mathematician was Pythagoras, who developed the pythagorean theorem. If you studied mathematics in school it’s likely you were taught this theorem:
In any right-angle triangle the square of the longest side (the hypotenuse) is equal to the sum of the squares of the two other sides.
When visiting Greece you’ll notice that the Greek alphabet looks very different to the English alphabet, although road signs usually have both English and Greek.
The Greek alphabet has been in existence since the late 9th century or early 8th century BCE and is derived from the earlier Phoenician alphabet. It consists of 24 letters, which are ordered from alpha to omega:
Α α, Β β, Γ γ, Δ δ, Ε ε, Ζ ζ, Η η, Θ θ, Ι ι, Κ κ, Λ λ, Μ μ, Ν ν, Ξ ξ, Ο ο, Π π, Ρ ρ, Σ σ/ς, Τ τ, Υ υ, Φ φ, Χ χ, Ψ ψ, Ω ω.
Located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in mainland Greece, the Sanctuary of Delphi is an ancient sanctuary that was home to the god Apollo and his prophesying priestess, the Pythia. Today the ruins are a popular tourist attraction and many people visit as a day trip from Athens.
In ancient times, Delphi was the religious center of Greece and it was known as the “navel of the world”. Development of the sanctuary began in the 8th century BC and pilgrims from all over Greece would visit the site to take part in a ritual and receive an oracle from the Pythia.
Highlights of Delphi include the Temple of Apollo and the ancient theater, which could accommodate around 4,500 spectators and provided a magnificent view of the entire sanctuary and the valley below.
Olive oil is an integral part of Greek cuisine and Greece produces some of the best olive oil in the world. Ancient Greeks used olive oil for medicinal purposes and also used it as a cosmetic to moisturize their skin and hair.
According to archaeologists, olive trees were first cultivated in Crete in the Early Minoean era. Today, olive trees are found all over Greece and the country is one of the world’s biggest olive oil exporters. Greece produces more than 430,000 tons of olive oil each year, and around 75% of that is Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Greece is known for inventing democracy and Athens had the first known democratic system in the world. In 507 B.C. Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced political reforms called demokratia, which meant “rule by the people”.
The political system lasted for only two centuries and yet it had profound effects on the future governance of countries around the world. It was different from modern day democracy in that adult male citizens (no women or slaves) were required to take an active part in government.
Each year 500 citizens were selected to serve in the government for a one year term. During that year they were responsible for controlling the political process and making new laws. When a new law was proposed, all the citizens of Athens had the right to vote on it at an assembly.
Greece is a country with a very rich history and has certainly contributed many things to the world. It’s also an incredibly beautiful destination, with some truly spectacular islands and picturesque towns.
If you’re planning your first visit to Greece, you can’t go wrong with the classic Athens-Mykonos-Santorini itinerary. Explore the acropolis and the parthenon in Athens, watch the sun go down over Oia in Santorini and soak up the sun on the beaches of Mykonos…it’s a trip you won’t forget!
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