Driving in Greece – Essential tips on Greek driving from a local

Driving in Greece is a great way to explore the country, but there’s a few things you need to know first. These tips for driving in Greece include rules, habits, hiring a car, what to expect and more!

If you want to get off the beaten track in Greece, the best way is to rent a car. You may have heard, however, that Greeks drive like crazy and you should avoid driving if you can. Our guide to driving in Greece, written by a local and an expat, will help you decide.

Driving in Greece

Let’s face it – having your own means of transportation in Greece is great. Using public transportation might be more hassle-free, but you’ll generally have to skip places that you can only reach with a car. Plus, even though transportation strikes in Greece aren’t all that frequent, they might affect part of your trip.

 

If you have a valid driver’s license, you could consider renting a car and driving around Greece. This way you will be able to stop wherever you want, take detours and experience small villages and places that you wouldn’t see on a bus or a train.

Driving in Greece - A mountain road

Note that if your license was not issued in the EU, you will have to get an International Driver’s License. This is actually really important. Although technically you might get away with not having one, in case of an accident you wouldn’t be covered. So if you are planning to drive in Greece, make sure you get your International Driver’s License before your trip.

Remember that Greeks drive on the right side of the road. If you have never driven on the right side of the road before, it might be best to allow for some time getting used to it, rather than planning a long itinerary on your first day.

Hiring a car in Greece

As we have our own car, we have only hired a car in Greece a couple of times. This was when it was cheaper to fly to an island and rent a car for a day, rather than bring our own car on the ferry from Piraeus.

In order to hire a car in Greece you will need to have a valid driver’s license, which was obtained at least a year ago. You will also need to be over 21 years old, or 25 for some types of cars. Some companies might also have an upper age limit, so you should check it out before you proceed. In general, we suggest that you read each company’s policy very carefully before renting a car in Greece, including the fine print.

A credit card will be required to secure your booking. Depending on the company, a certain amount may be kept from your card, and returned when you bring the car back to the company.

Although stick shift cars are the norm in Greece, automatic cars might be available upon request, though the choice of makes and models might be limited.

As for the model, you should choose a model that you feel comfortable in, but remember that a very big car might be difficult to navigate around the narrow island roads – more on this below.

Also, do not drive on dirt roads unless you have rented a 4WD. Otherwise, if you run into trouble, the insurance will be void and you will be charged.

Driving in Greece - A road on a Greek island

According to Greek laws, children up to 12 years old should have a child’s seat. If your child is under 12 years old but over 36kg, check with the company, as children’s seats are designed up to this weight. Make sure you reserve the child’s seat at the time of booking, as otherwise you may not find one.

Finally, if you are coming to Greece in winter and planning to drive in mountainous areas, you should have snow chains with you. These are required by law, so make sure your car company can provide them.

Do Greeks really drive like crazy?

Depending on who you ask, you will probably get different answers. Vanessa was born here, and she is pretty used to the Greek driving style, including the crazy motorbikes speeding around Athens.

Dave, on the other hand, has cycled and driven in many, many countries, and he has definitely formed an opinion about Greek drivers.

To sum our thoughts up, we would say that no, Greeks don’t drive like crazy. However, they are really not the most considerate drivers, and you need to pay full attention when driving in Greece. The best advice we have is to drive defensively, and in case of doubt, just let the locals go first.

Rules when driving in Greece

In terms of roads and road conduct, Greece has come a very long way since the 80s. Vanessa’s memories go back to times when no one was wearing seatbelts and highways looked like local roads. Still, not everything is perfect, and despite the hefty fines, Greek drivers still break the law now and then.

Driving in Greece - A tunnel on the highway

Here are some examples of driving behaviour that are not uncommon in Greece:

  • Changing lanes on a main road or highway without using the indicators
  • Going the wrong way on a one-way street
  • Going in reverse for a long distance
  • Stopping in the middle of the street, even on a main road, without a warning – an example is when people stop to buy something from a shop or a kiosk
  • Beeping at the car in front as soon as the light turns green
  • Parking on the pavement, or anywhere for that matter
  • Talking on a mobile phone while driving
  • Speeding over the limit

While all of the above are illegal, you might see one or more of these things happening while driving around Greece. Our advice is to stay away from such behaviour, however be prepared to have these experiences, possibly more than once. For an insight into why laws in Greece are considered more like guidelines by the locals, see our post on Greek customs and Habits!

Using a mobile phone is actually allowed if a Bluetooth device is used. It’s also allowed to use it in speaker mode, provided that the phone is placed in a special phone holder in the car. Hands-free mode while using headphones is not allowed. If you are using your mobile to read Google Maps, make sure you leave this with the person sitting next to you!

Traffic lights in Greece

Like in most countries, traffic lights in Greece have three colours – red, yellow and green. Pedestrian traffic lights only have red and green, and in a couple of places in Athens there is even a countdown timer.

In terms of respecting the traffic lights in Greece, it’s fair to say that it’s not uncommon for drivers to go through with a yellow, or even a red light. Even though fines are very high, you may occasionally see this happen, especially in Athens and Thessaloniki. When you are driving, you should avoid it by all means!

At the same time, if you are the first car waiting for the traffic light to turn green, don’t assume that it’s fine to go as soon as it does. It’s best to check right and left before you put your foot on the accelerator, as the driver on the other side might have just crossed a red light.

Cars vs pedestrians in Greece

With the exception of a few towns, like Trikala and Kalamata, drivers in Greece DO NOT STOP at the zebra crossings. We can’t stress this enough.

If you stop for a pedestrian to cross the street, you are seriously risking a bump at your rear. Greek drivers simply won’t stop for pedestrians. We are always surprised when they do.

Driving in Greece - Taxis in Athens

In bigger cities, this may actually include traffic lights, especially when there is a right or left turn. You will often see that there will be a yellow flashing light for the driver, and a green light for the pedestrian.

In theory, this gives priority to the pedestrian, but in practice many drivers won’t stop and the car will go through first. If you are the pedestrian, it might be best to wait patiently.

Last but not least – jay walking is supposed to be illegal. Sometimes though, it’s the only way to cross a street!

Driving on the highways in Greece

In the past couple of decades, many of the national roads and highways in Greece have been rebuilt to very high standards. There are several highways in Greece, all brand new, safe and modern, and some minor national roads are currently under construction.

Driving in Greece - A highway in Greece

However, there is a small catch. Most of these amazing highways were constructed by a bunch of private companies. As a result, they have tolls, which can be quite substantial .

To give you an example, in 2019, the tolls from Athens to Thessaloniki cost just over 33 euro, and the tolls from Athens to Kalamata cost about 16.5 euro. The benefit of the high tolls is that you might find no traffic at all on the highways, especially if you are driving off season or on weekdays.

Tolls can be paid by either cash or card, however we recommend having some cash just in case. Note that most of the toll booths are reserved for pass holders, and make sure that you go to the booth with the blue man.

Driving in Greece - Toll station on the highway

By law, maximum speed on the highways is 130 km/hour, though many of the signs you will see show a speed limit of 120. In practice, you will very rarely have any issues with the police if you go slightly over the speed limit, but we recommend that you stick to the legal speed as shown on the signs.

Driving on the national roads in Greece

These are minor roads, connecting different areas of the country or the smaller towns. These roads can be a bit hit and miss. Some of them might be freshly paved, but some others may be in serious need of repairs.

Driving in Greece - Regional road in bad condition

If you are driving at night, don’t expect these roads to be well-lit, or even lit at all. Make sure your front lights are good, or just don’t drive at night if you don’t feel like it!

The speed limit on national roads generally varies from 90-110 km/hour, but pay attention to the familiar red-and-white signs. If you are passing through a town or village, you should know that the speed limit is 50 km/hour, unless otherwise stated.

Driving on the islands and rural areas in Greece

This is where it all becomes fun – or scary, depending on what you are used to! The roads on the islands and the rural areas in Greece are in stark contrast with the modern, wide highways.

Driving in Greece - Dirt road in Milos Greece

If you want to drive around the islands or on mountainous areas, be prepared for steep inclines, sharp turns, narrow roads, driving on cliff sides and many, many dirt roads. If the road is really narrow and you have a blind spot, it’s a good idea to beep your horn slightly, in order to warn cars coming from the opposite direction.

While driving in rural areas, you may come across cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, chicken and even snakes! You are also likely to meet some Greek cats and dogs, not always accompanied by their masters.

Driving in Greece - A cow on the street

Tip – although Google maps generally work fine while driving in Greece, remember that a dirt road and a paved road don’t look all that different on the screen of a mobile phone!

Driving in Athens and other Greek cities

To be honest, we would advise against driving in the bigger cities in Greece. Athens and Thessaloniki in particular can get quite crazy in terms of traffic.

Apart from cars, vans and buses, there are a number of two-wheeled vehicles, motorbikes, motorcycles, vespas and mopeds, often going in between car lanes. Congestion can also be pretty bad, especially on days when public transportation is on strike.

Driving in Greece - Athens traffic

While in Athens, it’s best to take the Athens metro or a taxi. If you are visiting Thessaloniki, most of the city is walkable, and you can also use the bus network which is much less complex than the network in Athens.

If you need to rent a car in Athens or Thessaloniki, consider renting it from the airport. We’ve also heard that some companies in Athens can actually get one of their employees to drive you out of the centre!

Another issue with the bigger cities is parking. Assuming that you’d need to drive into the centre, you will soon find out that it can be really hard to get a parking spot. An exception is August, when many locals leave for their holidays.

Other popular cities with huge parking problems are Chania and, to a lesser extent, Heraklion. By all means rent a car to go around Crete, but if you are staying in Chania make sure you book a hotel with parking space. For more on parking, see below.

Road signs in Greece

Depending on where you are from, chances are that road signs in Greece may be slightly different. One thing that will be different is that names might be in two languages – Greek and English.

Driving in Greece - A road sign

Note that Greek names are sometimes translated into English in a way that you might not be familiar with. As an example, while every visitor knows the word “Athens”, there are signs with the word “Athina”, which is actually what we call our capital. Similarly, Piraeus might also be Pireas, and so on.

If you are driving in rural areas, you will often find that everything is only in Greek. There’s only one suggestion – try and learn the Greek alphabet before your trip!

Driving in Greece - A road sign

Priority and right of way

By default, vehicles coming from the right always have priority, unless there is a traffic light or an octagonal Stop sign. This also applies on roundabouts – the car entering the roundabout has the right of way, unless they have a Stop sign.

(Dave’s note – WHY WHY WHY are there stop signs at roundabouts. It doesn’t make sense!! Ok, rant over).

Driving in Greece - Highways

If you are moving in a roundabout and want to exit, make sure you have your indicator on, and move swiftly towards the exit. It might feel scary at first, but you will  hopefully get used to it. Additionally, if the cars entering the roundabout to your right have an octagonal sign, you know that they need to stop and let you go first.

Parking in Greece

Parking is something you should consider carefully when driving in Greece, as it varies a lot throughout the country.

First of all, we suggest that you book hotels or apartments with private parking, wherever possible. In some areas this won’t be necessary, but it’s better to have your designated parking space.

Driving in Greece - Cars parked on the pavement

Archaeological sites around Greece generally have their own parking areas. Athens is obviously an exception, and you would be mad if you wanted to get to the Acropolis in a rented car.

When it comes to smaller towns and villages, there are often designated parking areas, and we encourage you to use them. While parking on the street is generally possible, it might be regulated in certain areas. Some cities, like Thessaloniki and Chania mentioned above, have terrible parking problems, so we strongly suggest exploring them on foot or by bus.

Parking fines can be rather hefty by Greek standards. What is even worse is that they can be very confusing to deal with, as the parking ticket will be in Greek.  Paying a fine may be a long process. Our advice – avoid getting a fine!

With all that in mind, you will be surprised at the creativity, not to mention the nerve, of locals when it comes to parking spaces. You might see vehicles parked literally everywhere – on the pavement, at a street corner, right underneath a “no parking” sign. You will often see cars with the hazard lights on, having stopped right in the middle of the street. This is Greece, after all!

Emergency numbers – Road assistance

While we hope you won’t need to use any emergency numbers while driving in Greece, it’s always best to have them available.

Driving in Greece - Road in bad condition

The European Emergency Number, 112, is a unique number you can contact in the EU in case of emergency. At the time of writing (October 2019) its use hasn’t been fully implemented in Greece. Alternative numbers you could use are 100 (police), 166 (ambulance service), 199 (fire brigade). Make sure you ask your car rental company for any other numbers you could use in case of emergency.

Driving in Greece – Your thoughts

Essential tips for driving in Greece from a local

Have you ever driven in Greece? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!

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