Greece is one of Europe’s most underrated winter holiday destinations. But perhaps not for long… As places like Meteora become Instagram hotspots, more and more people are flocking to see the “stone forest”.
I first heard about Meteora in Greece not from my Greek friends and family, but through Instagram. These days it feels like everyone wants to see the #beautifuldestinations and #speechlessplaces trending on Insta. From Arizona’s Antelope Canyon to France’s Lavender fields to Bali’s Rice Terraces, Norway’s Trolltunga, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon… and Greece’s Meteora!
While these places aren’t new, I’d argue that our #millennial interest in them is. Of course, budget air travel has played a huge role, but that still leaves the question of, where to? Although we didn’t use to come across #wanderlust travel images as often as we do today, isn’t it also true that not so long ago, they just weren’t as popular?
In the pre-Instagram era, if you asked a young person to choose between a weekend bar-hopping in, say, Benidorm or landscape sightseeing somewhere in… wherever. The choice was obvious. Benidorm! That’s right, bloody Benidorm. (For my American readers, Benidorm is to the Brits like what Cancun is to you.)
Ask the same question today and it’s the reverse. Finally, Benidorm and places like it are no longer the cool kids. Benidorm sits alone now in the cafeteria while Blue Lagoon is the new IT girl strutting with her Trolltunga, Rice Terrace, Salt Flats posse. Ok, maybe I took it a bit too far with Benidorm… Personally, I’ve never been. But I have been to equally sinister places such as Agia Napa, Marmaris and Albufeira, and most likely so have you.
Could Instagram really be responsible for such a paradigm shift away from the sun-sex-all-inclusive and towards a more (cultured?) appreciation for natural beauty and national treasures? While I can’t say exactly, I can tell you that I heard about Meteora through Instagram and heck, I decided to go!
Meteora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Central Greece, north of Athens and south of Thessaloniki. If visiting from Athens, the best way to get there is to take a short flight on a pray-to-god propeller plane to Ioannina. From there it’s about an hour and 45 minutes drive to the towering rocky wonder. Or you could make the
Where to Stay
Meteora sits above the city of Kalampaka and the charming village of Kastraki, which are two places you might choose to stay. The advantages are that you can take your time visiting the monasteries and stay for sunset without worrying about the roads getting dark on the way back. It’s also a good idea for hikers and photographers looking to take their time exploring the region.
About an hour’s drive away there is a Small Luxury Hotel called Grand Forest Metsovo (see
The hotel has an indoor and outdoor swimming pool, spa, and cosy lounge area for spending evenings by the central fireplace. The restaurant food is pretty good, although lacking in atmosphere. And the location is excellent, with a newly opened ski resort in the nearby town of Anilio. Popular activities include skiing, hiking, kayaking, rafting, mountain biking, horse riding
Visiting the Monasteries
From Kalampaka, there is just one road linking all the monasteries and viewpoints of Meteora. When I was still dreaming of my visit, I had imagined it taking hours to climb up and down the perilous rock columns in order to reach the monasteries perched on top. But, this being Greece, perhaps I should have guessed that would not be the case.
Visiting the monasteries of Meteora will not go as far as you’d think towards your daily exercise. Everything is easily accessible by car and as for the steps going up, suitable for all ages and abilities, including a surprising number of women in high heels. There are, however, a number of hiking trails, most of which start just outside the village of Kastraki for seeing the region by foot.
Although the monasteries are easy to visit today, it wasn’t always so. In fact, it was considered near-impossible back when the monks decided to build their monasteries. The difficulty of settling here in the 11th century was considered a testament of their faiths as well as a means of hiding from Turkish raiders. Until 1920, the only way to get resources and supplies up to the top was with baskets and pullies. Although these are still in use today, Great Meteora and Holy Trinity Monasteries now also have a cable car.
There were once 24 monasteries here, but many were destroyed over the centuries. Today only 6 remain and are open to the public. Typically, a different monastery is closed for each day of the week, so it’s best to check online when planning your visit.
There is a strict dress code to be aware of. Inside, men must wear long pants and women must wear calf-length skirts, which are provided at the entrance. Sleeveless tops and shirts are also not allowed. The entry fee is €3 per person for each monastery.
The Six Monasteries
- Great Meteoron: the oldest, largest, and most famous. The skulls of all monks that live and die here end up in the bone chamber.
- Varlaam: the second largest, just before the Great Meteoron Monastery, with a museum and the best toilets, apparently.
- Saint Stephen (Agios Stefanos): the only female nunnery, overlooking the city of Kalampaka.
- Holy Trinity (Agia Triada): featured in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only and the hardest to reach, with 130 steps to the top!
- Saint Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos): One of the smallest and least visited monasteries. It is the first along the road from Kastraki.
- Roussanou: converted to a convent in 1988 and accessed via the bottom or a small bridge on the other side of the peak.
In addition to the views from the monasteries, there are a couple of viewpoints worth pulling over for. Look out for cars parked on the side of the road between Roussanou and Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) Monasteries for some truly breathtaking views.
When to Go
There is no bad time to visit but the best time to go is probably outside of the summer season when the weather is milder. The seasonal colours during Spring or Fall make these months extra special for photographers. But for the Greeks, Meteora and the surrounding region is mostly a winter destination, popular over Christmas.
Where to Eat
You can’t go far wrong with a local Greek taverna, particularly in these parts. But two restaurants in particular that I recommend are To Xani in Trikala and To Koutouki
To Xani is a very popular place that gets incredibly busy with families due to a nearby Christmas fair. We came at the weekend and despite the restaurant being completely full, managed to get a table fairly quickly. However, it then took forever to be served as the staff
To Koutouki tou Nikola in Metsovo, on the other hand, turned out to be one of my top 3 most memorable dining experiences in Greece. It also came highly recommended and for that reason, I chose it for my birthday dinner. My husband called to make a reservation but was told they don’t take bookings. Yes, but it’s my wife’s birthday, he insisted. A birthday! Said the man on the phone. Well
We arrived in the quaint town of Metsovo around 8.30 pm, which is about 2 hours before the average Greek sits down for dinner, and headed straight to the restaurant. On our way, we passed by a lot of beautifully decorated restaurants and were a bit stumped when we first saw To Koutouki down a small side road.
What happened next is that we caught the eye of the waiter standing there in the doorway. And before we had a chance to think, were ushered inside. As the only couple dressed for a birthday and not a day of sheep herding, we were promptly escorted to our special table next to the fireplace. It all happened so quickly. We took our seats while still trying to get a look round this simplest of tavernas. And wondered, how embarrassing or rude would it be to leave right now?
Then George started to test and prod my doubt, are you really sure this is where you want to eat? On. Your. Birthday? My expression said it all. No, I’m not sure, but the place came recommended and so I… After a few minutes of awkward stares between us and the staff, we decided it was too late and that we’d give it a go.
The reason for this less than flattering introduction is that first of all, that’s what happened. But second, once the food came, all our doubts suddenly seemed incredibly ridiculous. From the fresh warm bread to the most incredible tzatziki dip to the melt-in-your-mouth lamb kleftiko smothered in local Metsovone cheese, it was foodie heaven. Or something even better than that. By the time the restaurant started filling up, we had already finished every plate on our table.
On our way out, we stopped to take some photos as a young couple was passing by. Have you been yet? They asked us. Just coming out now, we said, amazing food. Amazing, they affirmed, the best in town, and continued walking.
It’s a classic, never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover story. To Koutouki may not look like much, but it’s one of the best goddamn tavernas around. It’s a family-run shop with sweet and attentive service. They also have a fantastic selection of the best and rarest Greek music befitting of the finest taberna. If I wasn’t pregnant, it’s the type of place we would have eventually stumbled out of very late… After several carafes of Greek semi-sweet wine and lots and lots of tsipouro!