If you are planning an escape to the Mediterranean, your mind is perhaps drifting off to the idea of wandering along pristine beaches, wading in cerulean waters and tucking into succulent Greek salads as you eye up the hunky waiter named Stavros. Though the scenery and weather are two major appeals of
Living in this beautiful country for the past year and a half with a Greek partner has given me some unique opportunities and insights into the culture which I will share with you here.
- 1 Sing Your Heart Out at a Bouzoukia
- 2 Play Backgammon and Sip Freddo Espressos at Local Coffee Shops
- 3 Throw Coins to Street Musicians
- 4 Celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter
- 5 Learn a Traditional Greek Dance
- 6 Try Making Moussaka
- 7 Attend a Big Fat Greek Wedding
- 8 Haggle at the Local Farmer’s Markets
- 9 Drink Tsipouro in a Taverna Until the Early Hours
- 10 Smash Some Plates in Plaka
- 11 Take a Weekend Break to a Secret Greek Island
- 12 Scoff a Greek Sunday Lunch
Sing Your Heart Out at a Bouzoukia
As far as Greek nightlife goes, bouzoukias are a local favourite. Pretty much every suburb in major Greek towns and cities boasts a bouzoukia. These live music venues host both famous Greek singers, and local performers. Envisage people dancing on tables, jugs of ouzo and tsipouro being passed (and spilled) left, right and centre, and animated traditional Greek dancing. You can’t really get more Greek than this. Who cares if you don’t have a clue what they are singing about. Make up random Greek sounding words and shout “oppa” every now and then and you will fit in a treat! (I jest).
Live music shows hosted at bouzoukias rarely get going until the early hours of around 1-2am. In other words, the times when us westerners are usually stumbling home from the bars with a questionable kebab, the Greeks are just getting started. Expect to leave at 7-8am just in time for breakfast.
Play Backgammon and Sip Freddo Espressos at Local Coffee Shops
Coffee culture is huge in Greece. In Athens and the major Greek cities especially, new coffee shops are opening up every few weeks and occupy virtually every corner. Regardless of what time of day it is – be it 9 o’clock in the morning or 11 o’clock at night, you will find that the coffee shops are absolutely packed with groups of young friends drinking freddo espresso.
Backgammon has become something of the “traditional” game to play alongside getting your caffeine fix. The modern, “trendy” way to enjoy coffee in Greece is to order it iced or “freddo”. Order a freddo cappuccino medium and thank me later. You can also try the “traditional” Greek coffee which is essentially the same as Turkish/Arabic coffee – strong, bitter and brewed in a copper biriki.
Throw Coins to Street Musicians
If you opt to rent an apartment or an airbnb in an area of Greece that is more residential than touristic (for example, my beloved Pagrati neighbourhood in Athens), you may be lucky enough to witness this charming Greek tradition. Accordian players and singers often wander the streets of residential areas in the daytime singing old Greek love songs as yiayias (Greek old ladies) watch from their balconies and toss coins. Throw them 50 cents or a euro and you may just get a private serenade.
Celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter
The Greek Orthodox Easter run on a different schedule to the “typical” Christian/Catholic Easter. It also brings with it some unique and beautiful traditions that are interesting to participate in, should you travel to Greece during this time.
Anyone can go along to an Anastasi liturgy (Saturday midnight church service), provided that they are respectful. One of the most notable places to enjoy this is at the quaint little church that sits atop Mount Lycabettus in Athens. Join thousands of devotees in their religious ceremony, then enjoy the firework display that takes place over the city afterwards.
Another beautiful tradition is the candle-lit procession that moves through the streets of the cities after the Anastasi liturgy. In Greek homes, people paint eggs and play “tsourgrisma” – a game where two people forcefully smash their hard boiled egg against the other person’s to see who will have the best luck.
Learn a Traditional Greek Dance
Greek dancing has to be one of the biggest, most renowned aspects of the culture. The classic “Zorbas the Greek” is probably the first thing that springs to mind, however there are in fact hundreds of traditional dances. At weddings, family events and festivals, it is not uncommon to be dragged into joining in. It even happens at local taverns if a particularly beloved song comes on! Each region of the country has its own dance and music style, and the steps to classic dances varies depending on where you are. In Athens and other large cities, you can take classes to learn Greek dances.
Try Making Moussaka
A great way to get to understand the culture of a country is through its food. With sumptuous marinated meats, delicious fresh salads, and unique homemade dishes like
Attend a Big Fat Greek Wedding
Greeks are still very traditional in comparison to the west and marriages are a huge cause for celebration. If you are lucky enough to have Greek friends or relatives and be invited to such an event, it will likely be something that you never forget. Greek traditional weddings are every bit as grand and loud as in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. Unique customs and practices are interesting to witness – such as spitting on the bride and groom for good luck (!), throwing money on the marital bed, and the bride writing the names of her single male friends on the bottom of her shoe to break the curse of them being single and unlucky in love.
Haggle at the Local Farmer’s Markets
Most neighbourhoods in Greek towns and cities host “laiki” markets. These are small farmers markets that are held on a certain day of the week, every week. The majority of the locals prefer to shop here for their fruits, vegetables and dairy produce as opposed to at the supermarket. Shopping at a laiki guarantees fresher products at a better value. Some markets also double as flea markets where people can purchase second hand clothes and other items. If you are staying in self-catered accommodation during your Greece trip, try your hand at haggling at one of these markets.
Drink Tsipouro in a Taverna Until the Early Hours
Greeks are renowned for their fun-loving and laid back approach to living. The economy may not be perfect, but people are not going to let that get in their way of having a good time. Greece has its clubs and chic bars, sure, but a popular way to enjoy good times and good conversations with friends is by chatting and drinking in tavernas until the early hours. Local tavernas are also incredibly cheap, with dishes costing just a few euros each. Order a few jugs of ouzo or tsipouro for the table and enjoy an evening with friends that doesn’t break the bank.
Smash Some Plates in Plaka
People often associate plate smashing with Greek celebrations but the reality is, this activity is seldom carried out any more. After all, buying all that china just to throw it violently on the floor ain’t exactly cheap! That said, in certain restaurants in places like Athens’ Plaka district, Santorini, Mykonos and Rhodes, plate smashing does take place. It’s performed mostly for the benefits of the tourists, sure, but it’s one way to see this tradition up close.
Take a Weekend Break to a Secret Greek Island
All around the globe, people daydream of watching the sunset in Santorini, of partying it up in Mykonos, or of relaxing on the beaches of Zakynthos. Meanwhile, the Greeks keep the best of their islands to themselves. In total, Greece has a whopping 6000 islands, of which only 227 are actually inhabited. Many of these islands are every bit as beautiful as the popular destinations, but with a small fraction of the tourists.
When things get a little balmy and unbearable in Athens over the hot summer months, locals board ships at Piraeus and head to the islands of Aegina, Poros, Hydra and Koufonisia for a day or two. Ask locals for advice and recommendations, and try and get off the tourist trail for a few days. As far as Greek experiences go, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Scoff a Greek Sunday Lunch
Meal times in Greece often involve homemade dishes that have been lovingly prepared with fresh ingredients. On Sundays however, families go all out to prepare something a little extra special. Specific dishes vary, but commonly this may be something like perfectly marinated roasted lamb served with lemon potatoes and vegetables. If you don’t have Greek friends or relatives to invite you to such an occasion, don’t worry – there are plenty of homestyle restaurants that recreate the same dishes to excellent quality.
Have you travelled to or lived in Greece? Any Greek experiences you’d add to this list?