Greece is full of amazing things to see and do, but for Americans traveling to this beautiful country for the first time there are a few things that may be surprising and unexpected. If you’ve never been to Greece, your first visit there will be everything you imagine it to be, and more. You will experience beauty, culture, dramatic landscapes, ancient cities and even more ancient ruins, blue ocean waters, sidewalk cafes with fabulous food, cozy coffee shops with Greek coffee—I could go on and on about the wonders of Greece, and I do in the many blog posts I’ve written from our travels there. But the point of this article is to tell you about the things you don’t know about Greece that may take you by surprise on your first visit.
I’m writing about these unexpected norms of Greece because I believe that being aware and prepared will ensure that none of these surprises detract from all of the wonders of Greece. The most important thing to remember when visiting Greece, or any other country, is to be open to the things that are different. It may not always make sense to us why things are done the way they are, but these norms are rooted in years, decades, centuries, or even millenniums of cultural norms. So please be tolerant and enjoy the novelty of participating in a culture that is different than your own while you travel through Greece enjoying everything that makes it wonderful.
So, here are the 13 things that may surprise Americans when in Greece, starting with the most difficult adjustment (they get much easier after the first one!).
1. Don’t flush the toilet paper.
The first thing to know about Greece is that you can’t flush toilet paper. Not flushing toilet paper is probably the most difficult change for American’s to adjust to, but you will be surprised at how quickly it becomes normal. So many of the cities in Greece have been here for centuries. Because of this, they are fascinating to visit with their gorgeous architecture and amazing historical sites, but along with ancient amphitheaters and temples comes ancient plumbing. In order to preserve the aging infrastructure that is extremely difficult to replace, no toilet paper is flushed down the toilets. A lidded trash can will be placed next to the toilet to throw away the used toilet paper. In hotels or pensions, the trash bag is emptied every day. If staying in a VRBO, there will be a supply of trash bags so that you can discard when needed and replace with a fresh bag.
This is a difficult adjustment for Americans, but it is extremely important to do your part to not clog or damage the sewage systems. Most bathrooms around the country will have signs to remind you not to put paper in the toilet, but even if the sign isn’t there, assume you are to use the garbage can for the paper. It’s such a habit to drop the paper in the toilet, that if you don’t keep the thought at the front of your mind, you will muck this up! And though it seems disgusting to someone who has never had to do this before, you will adapt to it very quickly.
2. Graffiti is common throughout Greece, even in the historic parts of town.
It’s surprising how much graffiti is visible in historic and picturesque sections of nearly every town. It isn’t unusual to see graffiti right between two beautifully restored old buildings, or on the stone walls of walkways. The first time I noticed this was on a walk through a quaint neighborhood up to the Parthenon in Athens. The street was very narrow with lots of flowers and shrubs decorating the sides of beautiful old homes, but in the midst of it all would be a window shutter or a segment of wall covered in graffiti.
In the U.S. graffiti is often associated with rougher neighborhoods or as territorial markings of gangs. The thing to know about graffiti in Greece is that it is prevalent in many “safe” neighborhoods.
3. Driving customs include tailgating and parking on the wrong side of the street.
There were a few things that took some getting used to while driving in Greece. Here is a quick list of the most notable things to know if driving.
- Tailgating is common and typically not an act of aggression. Cars will come up very close behind you before changing lanes on the highway so that they are in the left passing lane for as short of a time as possible. On single lane roads, they will get up close behind you so they are ready to pass when an opportunity arises.
- Cars will pass you near corners, blind spots, intersections and when other cars are coming. The center of the road is often used for passing and you are expected to move out of the way of an oncoming car that is over the line to pass.
- Many streets are only wide enough for one small car, so you must look for cars coming before entering a narrow lane. If you do encounter a car and there isn’t enough room to squeeze by each other, then one of you will need to backup to the nearest place for one car to pull to the side or that’s wide enough for two cars.
- Center lines and speed limits seem to be suggestions only and not taken too seriously.
- Cars can park on either side of the street no matter which direction they are coming from, so it is not uncommon to see cars parked both directions on the same side of the street.
- Many roads and streets off the main highway will be single lane. Most of the roads in the countryside are wide enough so that two cars can go by each other only if you both hug the outside edge of the road.
4. Exchange rate at ATM’s is better than at the airport.
If you didn’t exchange your dollars for euros before getting on the plane to come to Greece, then you may want to consider using your debit card to get euros as opposed to the currency exchange booths at the airport. One hundred euros at the airport cost us $140 in October 2021, but at an ATM we only paid $124 for €100. The currency exchange at the airport will give you a better rate if you are converting $500 or more, but if you are converting less than that, it will be quite spendy for every $100 you convert to euros at the airport. Just be aware of the daily cash withdrawal limit on your debit card if you are in need of lots of cash for any reason. Most places will take credit cards, but we have stayed at a few hotels and VRBOs that requested we pay in cash instead of credit card as part of their rental terms due to the service rate they are charged to process US credit cards.
5. Carry euros for tips.
When using your credit card to pay at a restaurant, very rarely will you have a chance to add a tip, so carry change (€1 or €2 euro coins) or smaller bills (€5 euro bills) to leave as tips. The tipping rate is not as high as in the US, but a tip between 5% – 10% is still expected.
6. Carry euro coins for toll roads along with your credit card (if you are touring by car).
It’s important to know that the main roads in Greece are toll roads, so be prepared. Most will take a credit card, which is an easy swipe touchless CC processing—simple wave of your card over the processor and you are on your way again. There are some toll booths which do not take credit cards and require change, but these are few and far between in my experience.
Tolls seemed to range between €1 and €3 at most locations, and it cost us about €8 to €10 for a 3 hour driving trip across the Peloponnese in October 2021. You do have the option of choosing roads that do not require tolls, but beware as these roads can be very narrow and some are in rough shape. The toll highways are in excellent condition, very rarely congested, and often we had the entire road to ourselves.
7. Cats and dogs roam most cities freely.
Cats especially are everywhere. You will see them perched on ledges, curled up in doorways, sitting under your dining table waiting for you to drop a morsal. In the smaller towns, most are clean and healthy and usually friendly. But beware, they are not declawed and may take a swipe at you if you startle them by trying to pet them too quickly. In Athens, a lot of the cats are clean and healthy, but I noticed here more than anywhere else the cats that were a bit sickly looking.
Dogs also wander the streets and sidewalks of many cities. They are friendly and typically leave you alone if you are on foot. If you are on a motorcycle or driving by in a car, watch out because some of them find it very entertaining to nip at the heels of motorcyclists and charge cars. In all the kilometers we’ve driven around Greece, I’ve only once seen a dog who suffered the consequences of misjudging his motorized opponent.
If you are staying directly in the city, you will likely hear the cats howling during the night at some point, and possibly the barking of a dog. The barking tends to stop quite quickly, but the cats can cause a ruckus for quite some time. If you are used to city noises, it probably won’t phase you. And if you are not used to city noises, then the cats will only be part of the noises that will be distracting to you.
I do love cats and dogs, however I don’t always like the smell. The cat urine smell can be quite prominent at times, but most felines do seem to restrict their business to the streets as I’ve never noticed a cat urine smell on café cushions. We’ve even seen some exceptionally brilliant cats who are courteous enough to squat over the sidewalk grates to do their business, as witnessed in Nafplio.
8. Receipts are not routinely brought to your table at the end of the meal.
Receipts are either left at your table at the start of your meal, or you have to wave down the server to indicate when you are ready for your receipt. Most of the time, the receipt will be placed in a little cup on your table when your food is delivered. This doesn’t mean they don’t want you to order anything else or that they want you to leave as soon as possible—it’s just the way things are done. And as you order more items, such as dessert, another round of drinks, or an after-dinner coffee, they just add more receipts to the cup. When you are ready to leave, you will need to catch the attention of your server, usually by holding up the receipts with the cash or credit card.
If you are paying by credit card, it is helpful if you hold it up to show the server at the same time you are signaling to pay as they will need to grab the hand-held credit card processor to bring to your table.
The server will not ask if you are ready for your receipt – they will wait for you to tell them you are ready for the receipt. If a receipt is not left at the table as you order each course, then you will need to let the server know when you are ready to pay. While dining in Greece, we’ve never had a server just casually drop off the receipt when we appear to be finished with the meal, and never have they asked if we are ready for the receipt, as is often done in the U.S.
9. Coffee is king in Greece, and you better know what you are ordering!
Coffee shops are plentiful and extensive coffee menus are typical at most restaurants. If you are not an expert in all the different types of coffee options (espresso, latte, Greek, Americano…) then check out this article on coffee for the uninitiated to learn the basics. You will want to have at least one or two types of coffee drinks that you are familiar with enough to order because if you just ask for “a coffee” all you’ll get is a mystified stare as though you ordered “a meal” for your dinner entre. If the barista is savvy about American tourists, they will gently ask you “Which one?” with only a tiny hint of disdain in their tone. My go-to coffee orders now are cappuccino with no sugar, which is coffee with steamed and frothed milk. If I am not wanting the added heaviness of the frothed milk or I want a plain coffee to go with dessert, then I order a double espresso, which will be a tiny cup of very strong coffee. Both of these options are usually available in decaf.
If you are not a coffee drinker, hot tea is available in many places, but the choices are often limited to black or green, and possibly one other special blend. (More on tea below.)
10. Unsweetened iced tea is not available anywhere—much to my chagrin as this is my drink of choice.
I am an avid iced tea drinker, and I only drink unsweetened iced tea. When home, I drink about a pitcher of home-brewed iced tea each day. After a couple days of traveling, I feel like I’m going through iced tea withdrawals, but it is impossible to get anything other than sweet tea here. Almost all of it is Fuze Tea or Arizona Iced Tea, both of which have sweeteners added. I did get one bottle of tea that said it had zero sugar only to have my dreams dashed because it was artificially sweetened with one of those horrible no-calorie sugar replacements.
If I get to the breaking point, I will order a hot tea and a glass of ice, let the tea sit until it’s cool, then pour it over the ice for a quick fix of unsweetened iced tea. And if I get really desperate, I know that I can find an unsweetened green ice tea at the airport in Athens.
11. Village hotels may require a walk with your luggage to get to them.
The old villages have narrow streets that either don’t allow cars, or if a car can squeeze through the street, no parking is allowed. Because of this, you may have to haul/pull/drag your luggage for several blocks to get to your hotel. In Santorini, and likely many of the other islands, the walk to your hotel or rented cave house may be many blocks but there are porters that will haul your luggage for you up and down the steep stairs to get to your hillside accommodations on the island. So when packing, remember that you may have to hike a distance with your luggage when visiting certain areas.
12. Turn off the electricity when leaving your hotel room.
Another thing to know is that many hotels will ask that you flip a switch when you leave your room that shuts the power off to the room completely. Even if you turn off all of the lights, they still request that you turn off the electricity to the room while you are out. The switch is always right next to the door and easy to access.
13. Most bathrooms do not have electrical sockets.
As Americans, we are used to plugging in our hairdryers, electric shavers, and curling irons at the bathroom counter. This will be not the case in Greece. The sockets will be outside of the bathroom, sometimes near the bathroom door, and sometimes near a small table or counter in the main bedroom. Also, be prepared for a minimal amount of counter space in the bathrooms.