Travels in Greece

Driving in Greece

Greece Highways and main motorways in Greece have come a long way in the last ten years or so. What used to be a truly frightening trip out of Athens has to a large extent been replaced with a relatively sedate highway experience similar to that in most western European countries.

Driving in Greek Cities
Driving on Greek Highways / Motorways
Driving on Greek secondary roads

Surviving the Greek Driving Experience

That being said, driving on Greek roads is not always for the faint hearted, and Greece continues to have the highest number of road fatalities per capita in countries of the ‘original’ European Union. Regardless of this, a car remains the best way to see much of what the greek countryside has to offer, and with a bit of preparation and patience a relatively stress free greek driving experience is possible.

Greek Driving Habits

Ok, let’s get the bad news out of the way. A larger than normal percentage of greek drivers are selfish, aggressive and really have absolutely no idea of what being a good responsible driver is all about. While the majority of this group is usually young and male, this odd behavior can span the generations and cross gender lines. Particularly bad habits which every visitor to Greece should be aware of include excessive speeding, minimal or no signaling for turns, very aggressive (reckless really) overtaking and a general distain for traffic regulations and for other drivers. These bad habits may be observed in both city and highway/motorway driving, but each environment has its own issues you should be aware of.

Driving in Greek Cities

City driving in Greece, especially in Athens or Thessaloniki, can be a pretty harrowing experience for those not used to it. Roads are often narrow, cars are parked everywhere, potholes are huge, signage is incomplete or simply wrong, motorcycles and other cars speed around like there is no tomorrow and nobody signals when they want to change lanes or even when they are actually planning on turning off the road for that matter.

To be honest, city driving is most times best left to a bus or taxi driver. There is simply no need to put yourself through the hassle of trying to avoid the various obstacles you will encounter while at the same time trying to follow the often misleading signs that are directing you (maybe) to where you want to go.

If you do need to drive in the city for whatever reason, keep the following things in mind:

  • Another driver flashing their lights at you can mean one of two things. It could mean they are offering to let you go first… or it could mean, I am coming, get out of the way! Now, it can be a bit difficult to determine which of the two meanings the other driver is intending to communicate, so be careful!
  • Many greek drivers run seriously red lights, it is a bit of a tradition. So it is best to have a quick look for a very late speeder before crossing a freshly green light at an intersection, especially late at night.
  • Pedestrian Tip 1: Unlike most countries, if you are crossing a road on a green light, and a car is turning across your path on a flashing orange light, the car thinks it has the right of way and will rarely stop. If you are in a car, please feel free to support pedestrians by stopping and allowing them to pass, but expect a volley of abuse from the less enlightened drivers behind you.
  • Pedestrian Tip #2: In the run up to the Olympic Games, Athens sprouted a number of the zebra pedestrian crosswalks. Don’t be fooled, these are only to be used when there are no cars around as they are completely ignored by drivers. And to all drivers, in this particular case you might be best advised to not follow your heart and stop for the pedestrians on a busy road, in this case it is too much of an accident risk, and hardly helps the pedestrians when one lane has stopped and the other one or two continues on at 80 km/h!

Driving on Greek Highways and Motorways

Highway driving between most major greek cities has become a lot better in the last 10 years with the opening of major new European grade motorways between Athens and Corinth, most of the Athens to Thessaloniki route and the recent opening of the Egnatia Odos which spans all of northern Greece. These motorways, all of which require tolls to be paid, are usually either 2 or 3 lane highways with an extra emergency lane on either side.

Slower drivers are advised to stay on the right, although the middle lane is often a good choice to avoid trucks, busses and other slow moving traffic. The speed limit is 120 km/h, you can safely go to 130 km/h if the road conditions allow it without causing yourself or others any worries.

Notice that we have said MOST major cities? There are some well known highways in Greece that are certainly not European grade. This famously includes large stretches of the Corinth to Patras motorway and the Patras – Pirgos – Kalamata highway. These highways are what people are referring to when they talk about the terrible greek motorways they have travelled on.

When we say they are not European grade, what exactly do we mean. Well, they are one lane in either direction, with an emergency lane on either side. What this means in practice is that they are one lane in each direction (half of the emergency lane and half of the normal lane) and another lane in the middle that is used by both sides to overtake. Does that sound dangerous? It is.

This is where the many fatal road accidents occur in Greece. And they are usually down to either excessive speed, overtaking on a corner or simply not judging the distance between you and the car in front of you that is overtaking in the opposite direction. Head on collisions are more common that they should be, and while it is fair enough to blame the state of the roads, drivers need to take responsibility for their own actions, a fact that many drivers seem to forget.

If you are driving on greek motorways and highways keep the following things in mind:

  • When not overtaking, keep your vehicle to the right as all other drivers will be doing. Many basically use the emergency lane as a full lane, but this does not leave much room for… emergencies! I prefer to straddle the white line dividing the main lane with the emergency lane which gives some room for evasive action on both your left and your right.
  • If you need to pass a truck or other slow moving vehicle, wait until the coast is clear, signal so that those in the opposite lane are aware of what you are doing, and pass the vehicle as quickly as possible. Do not pass slow vehicles on curves or on solid white lines!
  • If you are not sure if you can pass a vehicle or not, and you have 1,2,5,10 cars lined up behind and furiously flashing their lights, just slow down, pull over to the right at a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you and let them pass. Having idiots tailgating and flashing their lights at you at 120km/h with a huge articulated lorry in front of you which you are trying to pass is the most stressful thing I have ever experienced on Greek roads. If you are not up for a holiday full of stress and anger, just let them go and take an extra half an hour to get to wherever you are going.

Driving on Greek secondary roads

Finally we come to driving on secondary roads in Greece. Secondary roads can cover anything from something similar to the above mentioned 2 lane highways all the way down to small twisty mountain roads. For secondary roads similar to 2 lane highways, the same precautions as above apply. For smaller secondary roads, speed is almost always going to be what gets you in trouble and if you drive at appropriate speeds you will not have many problems. Keep in mind that:

  • Greek is a mountainous country, and mountain roads are twisty! Be careful of hairpin turns, especially in the dark, sometimes clear signage indicating sharp turns is not available.
  • In and around villages (which is everywhere off the main roads really) be aware of people and/or livestock on the roads and be courteous.
  • If a crazy driver passes you almost running you off the road, ignore them. It is (some) locals who drive like this, and they will not take kindly having tourists tell them how to drive on THEIR roads.

There you have it, driving in Greece in a nutshell. It seems scary, and the truth is that sometimes it is scary, but having your own vehicle to explore the villages and out of the way places of wherever it is your are visiting in Greece is really the way to go if you want to get off the beaten track. Just keep our tips in mind, drive safely and courteously and try to avoid the cities where possible!


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Related Travels in Greece

Been to Greece recently? Have something to add? Leave a comment!

2 responses so far

  • Jim Trianta, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:59 am

    Just to add..

    (I’m from Autralia and we drive on the opposite side of the road, as well).

    I have just got back (July 2009) from driving in the southern Greek mainland, Crete, Mykonos and Santorini (& entering /leaving Athens) and I can ABSOLUTELY verify all of the above.

    Even though driving in Greece is ‘character building’ to say the least, the thing I experienced was that if you maintain your ‘cool’ , indicate what you want to do, don’t hesitate, and drive within the speed limit you will be basically OK. Reason being is that no one wants to hit you and they will back off.

    Also, if after a while the ‘character building’ gets to you and you wish to aggravate the local drivers all you need to is keep within (or under) the speed limit. By staying within the speed limit (it keeps you safe) but it UTTERLY frustrates the Greek drivers. It’s amazing, in their daily life Greeks will take all the time in the world to actually complete a task ( I have Greek relatives) but when it comes to driving they want to get to their destination ‘yesterday’ (my nephew was doing 140km/h in the inner north of Athens – scared the kaka out of me and my family… made him slow down.).
    The Greeks believe the the speed limit signs are a decoration or they can’t read Greco/Roman numerical characters.

    Overall, to see Greece properly, drive, you won’t regret it.

    PS. For competely INSANE local drivers you need to go to Lake Como (Italy), this where I got my batism of fire driving in Southern Europe…but that’s another story…

  • Rachel Brown, Jul 16, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    We were pleasantly surprised by our driving experience on the west coast of the Peloponnesus (Pirgos-Kyllini). Maybe it’s because we were expecting the worst, but we found that the roads were good and the drivers were reasonable for the most part. Even on the island of Zakynthos, just off the coast, the driving was okay, although some of the mountain roads were endorphin-inducing (i.e. scary) and some of the village roads were a wee bit narrow.

    We were also impressed with the way Greeks in general don’t lose their cool on the road, even when one driver cuts another driver off. Nothing personal, you know? In Canada, people would be yelling at each other and shaking their fists out their windows.

    We even had a driver flash his lights to warn us that there were police up ahead. That’s considerate driving.

  • tony, Nov 2, 2010 at 12:35 am

    I am a Greek who lives in Canada .

    I have driven all over the world and have to admit the best fun I ever had was driving in Italy and in Greece.

    I am sorry to say to all the safety zealots but it is great to drive in a Countries were the car is King!

    No pedestrian fumbling across the road taking up valuable road space I drove a high powered Mercedes that got respect from all the other drivers and pedestrians alike.

    I especially loved the Corinth to Patras road way were you can pass down the middle.
    Try to get some of the brain dead North American drivers to figure that one out!

    Long live the Southern Mediterranean way of life
    and driving !!

  • admin, Nov 2, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Well Tony, as a Canadian living in Greece I will reply from the other side.

    Greece has the highest per capita road fatalities in the (expanded) European Union. This is not something to be proud of! And that Corinth – Patras highway that I have the unfortunate experience of driving on quite often on the way down to Katakolon is a nightmare. They are slowly (very slowly) making it into a 2 lane divided highway, but for the last xx years we have had to contend with 2 lanes no divide and passing in the middle as you say. And we have to pay tolls for that pleasure!

    I guess if I had a nice powerful mercedes that can go from 80-140 in 4 seconds to pass those lumbering goods vehicles things might be a bit better, unfortunately my loaded down Fiat with 2 kids in the back doesn’t accelerate that fast. The grass is always greener I guess!