Updated: Jun 22, 2020
The Acropolis? Mykonos? Both are swell, but even in the crazy summer of 2020 if you go there you won't be alone. So here's looking at you, (relative) solitude...
Even in this gray new age where social distancing is de rigueur and masks are the new must, places that you would think might be crowd-free won't be empty. Because keeping the Instagrammers at bay would be like asking all the Lady Gaga wannabes out there to stop shooting videos at Joshua Tree: not going to happen. So why not clear one hurdle from the get-go by going to places that were never crowded to begin with? Here are seven crowd-free alternatives to Greece's tourist hotspots.
1. Milos: like Santorini, but wilder
This Greek island stunner is less poster child for Cycladic sizzle, more about serenity. Like the celebrated and in summer overcrowded island of Santorini (which may no longer be "overtouristy" but it's guaranteed you'll never be alone there), Milos is volcanic in origin. Unique geology has endowed the island with a wealth of gorgeous beaches, including Sarakiniko with its surreal white landscapes.
"Where have you been? 'cause I never see you out!" -- Rihanna, singer
In antiquity the Athenians weren't very nice to the denizens of Milos, but they sure adore the place now. Milos is about a three-hour ferry ride from Piraeus.
2. Karpathos: ravishing & remote
While Rhodes is the biggest and most popular of Greece's Dodecanese Islands, it's also the most touristy (although its medieval history really shines) and you can hit the highlights hassle-free on a quality cruise. Your alternative? The second largest island of the Dodecanese: Karpathos. While Patmos, another island in this Aegean archipelago, has attained more of a following as an in spot in recent years, slender Karpathos is even more remote and has excellent beaches, too.
3. Thessaloniki: the anti-Barcelona
There is a mountain of history in this soulful, untouristy metropolis: Roman and Byzantine ruins, Christian heritage (Apostle Paul brought the first message of Christianity here) and a rich and fascinating Jewish history, too. On a lighter note, there are so many good restaurants and cafes that shifting Thessaloniki to front and center on your itinerary is almost an imperative. Happily, the absence of tourist ink about Thessaloniki means crowds are never a thing here. Note: the White Tower, pictured, does not actually tilt (unless you're on your third shot of retsina or other fine Grecian libation).
4. Temple of Aphaia: the anti-Acropolis
Okay, so it's not that this place which according to the Internet "is located within a sanctuary complex dedicated to the goddess Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina, in the Saronic Gulf" is against the Acropolis, but it does complement it. According to that same Internet, the temple rates a 4.6, while the Parthenon—which it closely resembles—just edged it out with 4.8. Aegina is also (as the Internet notes!) an island so you know, you might run into bits of scenery that look like this:
Now, we're not going to tell you what we think of dumdum Google rating ancient monuments (is that really necessary?) but we are going to tell you to check out the very cool Temple of Aphaia and small museum next to it. Aegina itself is a nifty little boat ride from hot Athens too, and they grow their own pistachios.
5. Spetses: pint-sized island glamour
Spetses may hold the title of poshest of the Saronic islands—Garbo was here in the '60s and superyachts are a fixture in its gentle aquamarine waters—but the small island also holds a vaunted place in history because of its prominent role in the Greek War of Independence. With few exceptions there are no cars here, and the beaches are better than those on rocky, somewhat overhyped Hydra nearby. Pretty port, too.
6. Lefkada: scenic splendor & ferry-free
Lefkada is a Greek island in the Ionian Sea—or is it? This large almost-island north of Kefalonia and south of Corfu is actually connected to the Greek mainland by a long causeway, and there is even evidence to suggest there was a rudimentary one in antiquity. The poetess Sappho is said to have committed suicide here and the island may actually have been the real Ithaca of Homer's Odyssey. In the Peloponnesian War, Lefkada aligned with Sparta. Its landscapes are rugged and verdant and the beaches at places like Kalamitsi and Porto Katsiki can hold their own against Sardinia's best. And no fuss with crowded planes or ferries—to get to Lefkada all you have to do is drive.
7. Serifos: the Cycladic surprise
Serifos is a small (though not tiny) Cycladic island located in the Aegean Sea south of Kythnos and north of the better-known Sifnos. Though quite rugged and barren, Serifos is endowed with a number of very good beaches. And no big chain hotels here: the islanders like to keep things small and simple. Fun fact: Serifos helped the Athenians beat back the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. To get a sense of the island vibe in 2020 A.D., check out their cool website here.
Coda: There's something about Nafpaktos
Nafpaktos is a historically significant town in western Greece, on the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth. In the 15th century the Venetians held sway here and they called it Lepanto, a named etched in the annals of Western Civilization for it was in these waters where the epic Battle of Lepanto was fought in 1571. Only the year prior Venetian Cyprus had fallen to the Turk, but on October 7, 1571, the galleons of the Holy League beat back the Ottoman fleet decisively and thousands of Christian slaves were freed. While pretty Nafplion in the Peloponnese tends to generate more guidebook ink (mainly because it was the first capital of modern Greece), it also gets more crowded because of it. Nafpaktos, with its sleepy round harbor full of ancient mariner's tales and sundry secrets, gets our vote as a fine, crowd-free alternative.
©2020 Anthony Grant/Greek Column