Greece, officially the Hellenic Republic (Greek: Ελληνική Δημοκρατία), also known as Hellas (Greek: Ελλάς), is a country located in Southeast Europe. Its population is approximately 10.7 million as of 2018; Athens is the nation’s capital and largest city, followed by Thessaloniki.
Situated on the southern tip of the Balkan Peninsula, Greece is located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It shares land borders with Albania to the northwest, North Macedonia and Bulgaria to the north, and Turkey to the northeast. The Aegean Sea lies to the east of the mainland, the Ionian Sea to the west, the Cretan Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. Greece has the longest coastline on the Mediterranean Basin and the 11th longest coastline in the world at 13,676 km (8,498 mi) in length, featuring many islands, of which 227 are inhabited. Eighty percent of Greece is mountainous, with Mount Olympus being the highest peak at 2,918 metres (9,573 ft). The country consists of nine traditional geographic regions: Macedonia, Central Greece, the Peloponnese, Thessaly, Epirus, the Aegean Islands (including the Dodecanese and Cyclades), Thrace, Crete, and the Ionian Islands.
Greece is considered the cradle of Western civilization, being the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy, Western literature, historiography, political science, major scientific and mathematical principles, Western drama and the Olympic Games. From the eighth century B.C., the Greeks were organized into various independent city-states, known as poleis (singular polis), which spanned the entire Mediterranean region and the Black Sea. Philip of Macedon united most of the Greek mainland in the fourth century BC, with his son Alexander the Great rapidly conquering much of the ancient world, from the eastern Mediterranean to India. Greece was annexed by Rome in the second century B.C., becoming an integral part of the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine Empire, which adopted the Greek language and culture. The Greek Orthodox Church, which emerged in the first century A.D., helped shape modern Greek identity and transmitted Greek traditions to the wider Orthodox World. After falling under Ottoman dominion in the mid-15th century, Greece emerged as a modern nation state in 1830 following a war of independence. The country’s rich historical legacy is reflected in part by its 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Greece features a vast number of islands – between 1,200 and 6,000, depending on the definition, 227 of which are inhabited – and is considered a non-contiguous transcontinental country. Crete is the largest and most populous island; Euboea, separated from the mainland by the 60 m-wide Euripus Strait, is the second largest, followed by Lesbos and Rhodes.
The Greek islands are traditionally grouped into the following clusters: the Argo-Saronic Islands in the Saronic gulf near Athens, the Cyclades, a large but dense collection occupying the central part of the Aegean Sea, the North Aegean islands, a loose grouping off the west coast of Turkey, the Dodecanese, another loose collection in the southeast between Crete and Turkey, the Sporades, a small tight group off the coast of northeast Euboea, and the Ionian Islands, located to the west of the mainland in the Ionian Sea.
Tourism in Greece
Tourism in Greece has been a key element of the economic activity in the country and is one of the country’s most important sectors. Greece has been a major tourist destination and attraction in Europe since the 1970s for its rich culture and history, which is reflected in large part by its 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, among the most in Europe and the world as well as for its long coastline, many islands, and beaches.
Greece attracted as much as 33 million visitors in 2018, up from 24 million in 2015, making Greece one of the most visited countries in Europe and the world, and contributing around 25% to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Its capital city Athens, as well as Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes, Corfu, Crete and Chalkidice are some of the country’s major tourist destinations.
In recent years, Greece has also promoted religious tourism and pilgrimages to regions with a significant historical religious presence, such as the monasteries in Meteora and Mount Athos, in cooperation with other countries.
Summers are usually hot and dry, while winters are generally mild and wet. Northern Greece can experience cold winters, while Southern Greece and the islands experience considerably milder winters.
Tourism in Greece traces its roots to ancient times. Cultural exchange took place between the Greek colonies of Magna Graeca and the young Roman Republic before Rome’s rise to dominance of the Western Mediterranean. When Greece was annexed by the Roman Empire centuries later, the cultural exchange that started between the two civilization triggered as a result a large number of Romans visiting the famous centers of Greek philosophy and science, such as Athens, Corinth and Thebes, partly because Greece had become a province of the Roman Empire and Greeks were granted Roman citizenship.
Tourism in modern-day Greece started to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s, in what became known as mass tourism. During that time, large-scale construction projects for hotels and other such facilities were undertaken, and the country saw an increase in international tourists over the years. International events such as the 2004 Summer Olympic Games and the Eurovision Song Contest 2006, both held in Athens, greatly helped to boost tourism in the country, while large-scale nationally funded cultural infrastructure such as the New Acropolis Museum also contributed to the flow of tourists in the country. Thessaloniki was the European Youth capital in 2014.
Greece also is one of Europe’s most popular LGBT tourist destinations, particularly its largest cities Athens and Thessaloniki and some of its islands such as Lesbos, Skiathos and Mykonos. The latter is a well-known Gay-friendly destination with many establishments catering for the LGBT community.
The most-visited region of Greece is that of Central Macedonia in northern Greece, near some of the most popular attractions in the country such as Halkidiki, Mount Olympus, Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki. In 2009, Central Macedonia welcomed 3.6 million tourists, or 18% of the total number of tourists who visited Greece that year, followed by Attica (2.6 million) and the Peloponnese (1.8 million). Northern Greece is the country’s most-visited region, with 6.5 million tourists, while Central Greece comes second with 6.3 million.
The culture of Greece has evolved over thousands of years, beginning in Mycenaean Greece and continuing most notably into Classical Greece, through the influence of the Roman Empire and its Greek Eastern continuation, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Other cultures and nations, such as the Latin and Frankish states, the Ottoman Empire, the Venetian Republic, the Genoese Republic, and the British Empire have also left their influence on modern Greek culture, although historians credit the Greek War of Independence with revitalizing Greece and giving birth to a single, cohesive entity of its multi-faceted culture.
Greek cuisine is characteristic of the healthy Mediterranean diet, which is epitomized by dishes of Crete. Greek cuisine incorporates fresh ingredients into a variety of local dishes such as moussaka, pastitsio, classic Greek salad, fasolada, spanakopita and souvlaki. Some dishes can be traced back to ancient Greece like skordalia (a thick purée of walnuts, almonds, crushed garlic and olive oil), lentil soup, retsina (white or rosé wine sealed with pine resin) and pasteli (candy bar with sesame seeds baked with honey). Throughout Greece people often enjoy eating from small dishes such as meze with various dips such as tzatziki, grilled octopus and small fish, feta cheese, dolmades (rice, currants and pine kernels wrapped in vine leaves), various pulses, olives and cheese. Olive oil is added to almost every dish.
Some sweet desserts include melomakarona, diples and galaktoboureko, and drinks such as ouzo, metaxa and a variety of wines including retsina. Greek cuisine differs widely from different parts of the mainland and from island to island. It uses some flavorings more often than other Mediterranean cuisines: oregano, mint, garlic, onion, dill and bay laurel leaves. Other common herbs and spices include basil, thyme and fennel seed. Many Greek recipes, especially in the northern parts of the country, use “sweet” spices in combination with meat, for example cinnamon and cloves in stews.
The numerous gods of the ancient Greek religion as well as the mythical heroes and events of the ancient Greek epics (The Odyssey and The Iliad) and other pieces of art and literature from the time make up what is nowadays colloquially referred to as Greek mythology. Apart from serving a religious function, the mythology of the ancient Greek world also served a cosmological role as it was meant to try to explain how the world was formed and operated.
Apart from these twelve gods, Greeks also had a variety of other mystical beliefs, such as nymphs and other magical creatures.
Public holidays and festivals
According to Greek law, every Sunday of the year is a public holiday. Since the late ’70s, Saturday also is a non-school and not working day. In addition, there are four mandatory official public holidays: 25 March (Greek Independence Day), Easter Monday, 15 August (Assumption or Dormition of the Holy Virgin), and 25 December (Christmas). 1 May (Labour Day) and 28 October (Ohi Day) are regulated by law as being optional but it is customary for employees to be given the day off. There are, however, more public holidays celebrated in Greece than are announced by the Ministry of Labour each year as either obligatory or optional. The list of these non-fixed national holidays rarely changes and has not changed in recent decades, giving a total of eleven national holidays each year.
In addition to the national holidays, there are public holidays that are not celebrated nationwide, but only by a specific professional group or a local community. For example, many municipalities have a “Patron Saint” parallel to “Name Days”, or a “Liberation Day”. On such days it is customary for schools to take the day off.
Notable festivals, beyond the religious fests, include Patras Carnival, Athens Festival and various local wine festivals. The city of Thessaloniki is also home of several festivals and events. The Thessaloniki International Film Festival is one of the most important film festivals in Southern Europe.
Land and climate
Greece has a Mediterranean climate along its coasts and islands. Once inland, many areas and cities experience a continental climate.
The climate of Greece is primarily Mediterranean, featuring mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. This climate occurs at all coastal locations, including Athens, the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, Crete, the Peloponnese, the Ionian Islands and parts of the Central Continental Greece region. The Pindus mountain range strongly affects the climate of the country, as areas to the west of the range are considerably wetter on average (due to greater exposure to south-westerly systems bringing in moisture) than the areas lying to the east of the range (due to a rain shadow effect).
The mountainous areas of Northwestern Greece (parts of Epirus, Central Greece, Thessaly, Western Macedonia) as well as in the mountainous central parts of Peloponnese – including parts of the regional units of Achaea, Arcadia and Laconia – feature an Alpine climate with heavy snowfalls. The inland parts of northern Greece, in Central Macedonia and East Macedonia and Thrace feature a temperate climate with cold, damp winters and hot, dry summers with frequent thunderstorms. Snowfalls occur every year in the mountains and northern areas, and brief snowfalls are not unknown even in low-lying southern areas, such as Athens.