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Finally ready for that dream trip to Greece? With a coastline longer than the United Kingdom’s and thousands of islands, the country is a great place to visit any time of year. But absent a last-minute flight deal (and they do come up, though nonstop options from the US are still limited), planning ahead is the way to go in order to make the most of your time in Greece.
The urban attractions of Athens thrum at full tilt all year long, while most Greek islands are at their best once winter has left the picture. Whether it’s sultry Mediterranean breezes you seek or the cheapest time to book that hotel room with a sea view in Mykonos, consider this your essential guide to planning a perfect trip to Greece.
The Best Weather in Greece
Generally, the best weather in Greece is what you’ll experience in May, June and September. Plenty of sunny days that aren’t too hot make May an ideal time for long, leisurely walks in Athens. By June, the beaches of the Aegean islands are warm enough for swimming and popular islands like Mykonos aren’t crowded yet.
July is when things get toasty and sometimes uncomfortably humid in Athens, and the city is crowded with tourists then, too. August, naturally, means great beach weather, and if you like your big cities to yourself then it’s also a fine time for Athens, as most Athenians ditch the capital.
September has lots of advantages (namely: fewer tourists), but the days are still long and warm and better yet, it’s less humid than in July and August. In Crete, the southernmost Greek island, you can go swimming well into October.
The Best Times to Visit Cities in Greece
The two biggest cities in Greece are the capital, Athens, and Thessaloniki. Both are destinations in their own right and for culture vultures there is really no bad time to go. In the peak summer season, major attractions in Athens such as the Acropolis Museum are more crowded than in wintertime, when on many days you’ll have even iconic places like the Acropolis largely to yourself. Winter in Athens is also a great time to check out lesser-known museums, tune up your Instagram or warm up in a luxe Turkish bath.
Generally speaking, think of April to June as the ideal times to explore Athens and other Greek cities including historic Nafplio. Thessaloniki is a vibrant city with a wealth of cultural attractions, but in the height of summer it gets so humid they actually have public fans in places to keep the air circulating.
Choose shoulder season months like October and May for an optimal experience there. Most island towns are empty of tourists from November until around the time of Greek Easter, but the main town in Corfu and the Cretan cities like Heraklion are up and running all year long.
When to Visit Greece for Events
From religious holidays to cultural festivals, there are plenty of events worth attending throughout the year.
Greek Orthodox Easter is the most important holiday in the Greek calendar by far. In 2019, Greek Easter falls on Sunday, April 28, but festivities actually begin the week prior on the Saturday of Lazarus. Easter is celebrated in different ways throughout the country, with many variations on the candlelit processions of Good Friday and Easter Sunday celebrations themselves — but you can count on plenty of lamb roasts and fireworks. Easter in Corfu is one of the most famous, but wherever you are in Greece during this time you can expect to experience at least some of the country’s very rich and colorful Easter traditions.
Summer is when most music and arts festivals are in full swing. The Athens and Epidaurus Festival is the country’s most prestigious annual summer arts festival, with events taking place at the ancient stone Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater (the Herodion) below the Acropolis as well as south of Athens at the amphitheater of Epidaurus, the best-preserved theater of the ancient world. Events include a mix of classic and contemporary (last summer, Bill Murray recited poetry in the Herodion) and are usually scheduled from late June to early August.
On the day of the August Full Moon Festival in Athens, museums and ancient sites are open in the evening free of charge until midnight.
Assumption is Aug. 15. It’s a public holiday in Greece and considered the “Summer Easter.” On this day, life in Athens pretty much grinds to a halt as Athenians dash off to the countryside or the islands. If you want to make sure you have a good place to stay anywhere outside of Athens on Aug. 15 or in the two weeks following, it’s increasingly essential that you plan and reserve ahead of time.
The prestigious Thessaloniki International Film Festival is usually held during the first part of November. And while they’re not exactly going to enrich anybody in cultural terms, Black Friday shopping events in November have recently taken Greeks by storm.
Christmas in Greece is nowhere near as big a deal as Greek Easter, but there are festive lights in the center of big cities like Athens. Also in Athens, New Year’s Eve means festive fireworks over the Acropolis.
The Best Times to Explore the Greek Islands
The Best Times to Visit Mykonos and Santorini
What ultimately draws visitors to Santorini is the views over the volcanic caldera and not the beaches, and that appeal has fueled the island’s rise as a year-round destination. May and June are the best times to dodge the crowds but also enjoy some sun. Otherwise, it’s probably better to wait until after mid-September.
Mykonos is a bit trickier: in May and June (and again in September) you’ll have more elbow room at the island’s many beaches and posh beach bars, but to get a taste of the international razzle dazzle for which the place is most famous, July and August do rock to that inimitable Mediterranean island vibe. But it’s also a very expensive vibe. Unlike in Santorini, by the end of September it’s already very quiet again in Mykonos.
The Best Times to Visit Other Islands
Whether it’s Corfu in the Ionian Islands, Rhodes and Patmos in the Dodecanese archipelago, Paros and the other islands that make up the Cyclades or Crete, the best time of year for an island visit is generally going to be in June, July or September. Prices are lower and hotel rooms are more readily available in June and September, and you can count on warm weather in those months, too.
Loads of Greeks and other Europeans on summer holiday can make island travel in August a real challenge — and sometimes a downright headache. And many islands have their off-season charms: For example, the Saronic Islands near Athens like Hydra and Aegina are easy and fun to visit any time of year (but beach time is mainly May through September).
When to Visit Greece to Avoid Crowds
The tourism season in Greece typically gets going after Greek Easter, with shoulder season ramping up in May and the peak season stretching from the latter part of June into July and all of August. Increasingly, in places like Athens and Crete, September is now considered a high season month.
If you want to avoid crowds in Athens, time your summer travel for June or August instead of July. In the Cycladic archipelago (which includes Mykonos and Santorini), avoid July and August unless you don’t mind crowded ferries and higher prices.
In Crete, you can expect crowds at many beaches and in the cities of Heraklion and Chania from June right up until October, so consider June or early fall for Crete. By contrast, in Corfu where the beach season is not quite as long as in Crete, you’ll have an easier time avoiding crowds in September.
Winter in Athens tends to be cold and damp, but there are still many sunny days and exploring museums and ancient ruins in the absence of crowds and big tour groups can be quite cool.
The Cheapest Times to Visit Greece
Traveling to Greece is usually priciest during peak season, so if you’re looking to save, wait until the off-peak or shoulder seasons. The best hotel deals in Athens are going to be from early January through March, but weather is not at its best at that time. You can generally find good hotel deals in April, May, the first part of June and sometimes in September (but less so in Crete).
The shoulder seasons in Greece run from April through the first part of June, and then from about mid-September through mid-October.
Unsurprisingly, airfare is at its most expensive during the summer. July, specifically, is the priciest month when, according to the farecasting app Hopper, long-haul flight prices are around $1,090 round-trip. In May, that dips to $930 round-trip. But during the shoulder seasons and in winter, prices plunge accordingly.
Currently, all American airlines offer only seasonal nonstop flights to Athens and they tend to be expensive, but there’s often a workaround. Find a cheap ticket to either London Heathrow (LHR) or London Gatwick (LGW) and then find a flight that fits your schedule with Greek carrier Aegean: a Star Alliance member with several flights a day from London to Athens International Airport (ATH). Plus, you’ll typically get better service than you would from the British low-cost carriers, plus meals are included.
The most expensive time to book a hotel room in Athens is generally in the summer. The cheapest times are January (after the New Year holiday) and February. The most expensive time to book rooms in popular islands like Mykonos and Santorini is July and especially August.
If you’re planning to visit Mykonos in the summer, you should plan ahead as much as possible and if you find a deal (paid or points), grab it. Expect hotels on many Greek islands — not just Mykonos and Santorini but also ones like Syros and Sifnos — to be completely sold out over the Aug. 15 Assumption holiday and do not assume you’ll be able to find a deal, or anything really, on the spot during that extremely busy time.
In Crete’s largest city of Heraklion as well as elsewhere on the island, the high season now effectively runs through the whole month of September, making it wise to book ahead in Crete even for early fall travel.
Featured photo by Kartik Singhal/Unsplash.
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