Safety in Greece

Since I have to answer questions regarding safety in Greece often, I put together some thoughts and advise based on my own personal experience. Just like the other pages of this site which contain my own views, these are offered as a supplement to your government's and other expert agencies' advice. A traveler should seek advice from many sources before he/she can formulate an opinion regarding their own safety in Greece.

This page contains general advice for every traveler. You will find advice related to the recent economic crisis here...


Crime in Greece

About ten years ago I had written in this space that "Greece is one of the safest countries in the world." But this is not true any longer. Through a meteoric rise and a thunderous crash of the economy in the last decade, Greece has changed for the worst in this respect.

To be fair, Greece is no different than any other southern European country in terms of safety, but the transformation, especially in Athens, has been very dramatic. Political violence is confound to the occasional demonstration (that can be easily avoided), and foreign visitors don't have to worry about being targeted because of their ethnicity. But petty crime, theft, burglaries, and robberies occur with much more frequency today than last decade, so visitors should exercise common sense precautions the same way they do when they visit any other European country.

It would be more appropriate to separate Athens, Patra, and Thessaloniki from the rest of Greece when we discuss safety. Once you depart from the biggest urban centers and especially if you visit smaller islands, you'll find that Greece is indeed a peaceful and relaxing place. I take trips around the country with my family and we have never felt threatened.

While driving in Greece can be hazardous in itself, when I drive with my family into a new and unknown city in Greece, I never-ever worry about taking a wrong turn into a dangerous part of town (there is not such thing in Greece,) something I could never say about other US and European cities.

 

Safety in Athens

Large cities like Athens have experienced an increase in crime during recent years, and there areas you should avoid when you visit. There are areas where drug use and exchange happens in the open, and unfortunately some of them are near, or even adjacent to places that tourists visit - all of them in the center of Athens.

You should avoid staying in hotels or walking through several areas downtown Athens.

You can cross off your travel map the area between the School of Law (I am not making it up) and the "Spiritual Center of Athens" in Massalias street, the streets of Marni and Stournari, Iasonos street, the entire area around Omonia square, and Menandrou street. They are well known junkie handouts where drug exchange and intravenous usage happens in broad daylight on benches, under trees, and apartment building recessed entrances. While murders and such violent crimes are still rare even in these areas, you will definetly feel uncomfortable walking around the above-mentioned streets.

You know the government has issues functioning when drug use takes place openly right next to one of the most visited sites of Athens: The National Archaeological Museum.

Tossitsa street flanks the beautiful museum with a nice (it its day) pedestrian area that has become an open air drug bazaar. If you visit the museum avoid venturing on this side of the building. That's the right hand side as you face the entrance of the building - the street to your left, Vasileos Irakleiou, is safe. Unfortunately, the entrance to the Epigraphic rooms of the museum is on Tositsa street so if you have to visit this part of the museum be a little more alert. The best way to enter the Archaeological museum is through the large open park in the front entrance and there is absolutely no safety concerns there, so don't cancel your visit to this amazing collection of ancient art because of side-street concerns.

If you are staying in a hotel in the center of Athens you should be extra cautious when you comme and go, especially late at night. If you have a choice, choose hotels that are close to the metro (subway). Locking valuables in safes at the hotel is always a good idea, and it goes without saying that you should be locking the door to your room and the balcony no matter what part of the world you are in.

Safety Tip

I use a money pouch when I travel to keep my passport, my credit cards and the bulk of my cash against my body at all times. The neck puches are convenient because you can quickly get to your artifacts when you need them, but the money belt under clothes on the waist is more stelth. If you use a waist pouch, avoid reaching for it constantly by keeping a small amount of cash on an easy to get to pocket. In terms of comfort, I prefer a pouch that attaches to my own belt like the one below on the left, but some of my friends swear by the neck passport pouch.

The Athens metro is the best way to move about in the city and violent crime is non-existent in its lines. Pick-pockets however are another matter. Based on media reports, pickpocketing has reached epidemic proportions in the Athens metro. Use extra caution when you stand in the crowd on the platform or in the train, and especially as you enter the car. Most pickpockets operate in crowded platforms and cars. A common trick is to use one person to impede your entrance on the train. As you frantically try to find your way around them before the doors close (probably pushing yourself) another person reaches into your pocket/backpack/purse from behind to relieve you of your wallet.

Remember that it's impossible to tell who is a pick-pocket just by their appearance. They can look like ordinary people, the kind of which you would never suspect; a well dressed young lady that looks like she is going to work; and elderly man who looks like your grandpa; a mid-aged man in professional overcoat; all could be either what they look like, or clever pick-pockets. Always place valuables in places that are hard for others to reach, preferably in front of one's body. There is no need to be paranoid at the train stations or the metro, where security is always nearby anyway, but there is no need to be naive either.

Women traveling alone should have no special problems, although they might be the object of desire for the Greek "kamakis" (men who spend their days courting foreign tourists with the goal of developing a fleeting relationship) who can be insistent, but are generally polite.

Car and especially motorcycle theft is rampant in Athens, so if you travel by car don't leave valuables in plain view in your vehicle, and park in as well lit areas as possible.

 

Walking around town

Walking is generally a healthy activity unless it takes place in a large Greek city like Athens.

There seem to be no laws giving pedestrians the right of way, and if they exist, they are completely ignored by vehicle drivers. Greek pedestrians know that they must never venture in front of a moving vehicle and drivers expect that the pedestrian will find a way to get out of their way so they won't even slow down. This can be dangerous for tourists who are accustomed to vehicles slowing down and stopping when pedestrians cross the street. Extra caution is adv iced when crossing a busy street because pedestrian crossing marks are completely invisible to Greek drivers.

Oddly enough, pedestrians are not safe even on roads where no vehicles are allowed. This is because many Greek motorcycle riders (mostly), and vehicles of all sizes, use the pedestrian streets as comfortable shortcuts to get to their destination faster.

Driving around Greece

As discussed in the Driving in Greece, and in Driving in Athens pages, commanding a vehicle on Greek roads can be one of the most hazardous activities a visitor can engage in.

Driving in the new highways is fairly safe, but in order to experience real Greece one must venture into the less traveled roads where the behavior of other Greek drivers, unexpected road conditions, insufficient signs, and stray animals of all kinds combine to transform a visitor's driving experience into a nightmare. Much caution must be exercised when behind the wheel in Greece.

Riding a motorcycle in Greece

The beauty of the Greek landscape, the hot summer climate, and the scenic roads make a motorcycle the perfect vehicle for getting around in Greece. It is also a favorite transportation mode of many Greeks who take advantage of the small dimensions of a motorcycle in order to drive through places where a car could not fit -- including driving between other fast moving cars at high speed rates. The good news is that most car drivers in Greece are always aware of the presence of the ubiquitous motorcycles, and they have learned to expect them in unusual places such as a mirror's blinds spot. In this sense it is fairly safe to drive a motorcycle in Greece, although the road condition in rural landscape can present many challenges for motorcyclists.

Rent-a-motorbike shops are present in every town in Greece, and many tourists find in motorbikes and mopeds the ideal mode of transportation. With reasonable precautions, they can be the perfect vehicle for small towns and islands.

Riding a bicycle in Greece

The mountainous terrain of Greece can be a formidable challenge for bicyclists. Extra precautions should be taken by anyone who plans a bike tour around Greece since the roads are not very accommodating, and the drivers of other vehicles are not accustomed to sharing the road with such light vehicles.

Existing at one's own risk

Greeks are accustomed to existing at their own risk. If someone falls in a large hole in the sidewalk it would be because they were not watching where they were stepping and not because the utility company crew who dug the hole neglected to signpost it sufficiently. From my experience of living in Greece for twenty years, and from visiting now every year, this is the norm although the views have changed in recent years and lawsuits are becoming more common for such occurrences.

Other safety concerns

Swimming in Greece is an activity that one performs at one's own risk. Very few beaches have a lifeguard on duty, or first aid facilities. The best beaches are a bit out of the way, so pay extra attention to the wind, the wave height, and the sea currents when you swim. In general, pay attention to what the locals are doing. They probably know the waters well, and they know when to swim, when to stay near the shore, and when not to worry. Common sense is usually the best advisor at a remote, unfamiliar beach.

Extra caution should be exercised when swimming near a rocky shore. A perfectly calm sea can produce a series of sudden swells if a large ferry passes offshore, and a bather can easily be tossed upon the sharp rocks. Swimming with company is always a good idea.

Small leisure boats near the shore are not only an nuisance, but also very dangerous. Greek captains of small power boats, water taxis, small ferries, and vessels of all kinds tend to wander dangerously near even the busiest beaches with seaming disregard for the swimmers. From my experience, small boats expect the bathers to get out of their way. Not every boat driver acts this way of course, but in Greece enough do, so they establish a norm. Some beaches have a little wood dock which could be a sign that small boats dock there. In some beaches for some strange reason the dock is built right in the middle of a beach that hosts thousands of bathers. To make matters worst, often buoys seem to be very ambiguous for the bathers and don't provide enough information in regards to safe areas for swimming.

The Heat

Greece can get very hot during the summer. It is not uncommon for the thermometer to hover around 40° C for days, and to even reach 45° (about 112° F) often. Planning outdoor activities like hiking or visiting open air archaeological sites during heat waves can be dangerous. During days when heat waves settle over the land, it is essential to limit outdoor activities and to drink plenty of water. Going to the beach provides a relief when the temperature reaches such heights, but an umbrella is essential in order to escape the direct sun rays. Children, and the elderly are especially vulnerable during the summer heat waves that seem to occur in the second part of July and the first half of August. When the thermometer reaches dangerous levels, the government issues warnings and makes available all air conditioned public building to everyone for relief.

Emergencies

In the unlikely event that you become the victim of crime, contact the Police by dialing 100. In case of a health emergency visit the nearest Hospital or Health Center, or dial 166.

Print this page with the Greek Emergency numbers (just in case), visit the Health and Emergencies in Greece page, and take a look a the links a the end of this page for information from other official agencies.

 

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General Travel Safety Advice

  • Use common sense. Go out with other friends and not alone whenever possible
  • Don’t wear expensive jewelry (don’t even bring it along for the trip)
  • Drink bottled water: make sure the bottle has not been opened.
  • Alcohol: don’t drink and if you do, drink less than you would be drinking back home. Don’t find yourself impaired at any time. At a bar, café, or club, always be aware where your drink is and make sure no one tampers with it. Don’t drink hard liquor.
  • Heat stroke/dehydration: Always keep a water bottle with you. Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. In archaeological sites bring two small bottles of water or one large one. They are not always available on site.
  • Swimming: Don’t swim alone or in areas where locals don’t frequent. There might be hidden dangers such as currents or contaminants.
  • Traffic: Be alert when on foot. Drivers in Greece don’t respect pedestrians. and they don’t stop for crosswalks. Be aware even when you cross with green light. Greek drivers are notorious for being aggressive behind the wheel and expect pedestrians to be out of their way.
  • Keep money and IDs away from view and be aware of pickpockets, especially in crowded places (tourist attractions, subways, busses, street performances, or when someone asks you for something/money/light/directions, etc).
  • Always let at least two people (your roommates) know where you are going to be when you are out by yourself. Take a cell phone along with you at all times. Make sure it’s charged.
  • Avoid demonstrations and political discussions with, or around locals.
  • In airplanes, hotels, boats, and other buildings, be aware of the nearest exit and safety procedures.
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