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Dream up a wish list of everything you'd want from a Greek holiday: talcum-soft beaches, spectacular subtropical forests, tasty cuisine and a beautiful, historic Old Town to explore. Add wall-to-wall sunshine, and you'll find Corfu ticks pretty much every box.
This small Ionian island (only 40 miles long and 20 wide) is a highlight of many Mediterranean cruise itineraries, and it's not hard to see why. Corfu (known to the local Corfiots as Kerkyra) is one of Greece's most verdant and picturesque islands.
Its lush interior, well-watered by winter rains and smothered in fragrant pine forests and dense olive groves, is studded with charmingly old-fashioned rural villages, where the sleepy routine is occasionally enlivened by summer religious festivals (panegyria).
At such times, tempting food and craft stalls appear, a fairground atmosphere prevails and brass bands, known locally (and rather confusingly) as philharmonic orchestras, toot out foot-tapping tunes. The main festivals take place in July and August and, of course, over Easter. And if religion's not your thing, perhaps the two Corfu beer festivals, in July and October, will grab your attention.
Most time-strapped cruise visitors confine their visits to exploring Corfu Town on the island's east coast, and this delightful medieval enclave, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, certainly deserves the attention. You'll find historic fortresses and the vast Spianada Square (esplanade), which is the largest public square in the Balkans, as well as intriguing alleyways and spectacular statues and fountains (not to mention excellent shops and lively restaurants).
If your cruise schedule allows, or you've visited Corfu Town before, you'll find it very rewarding to venture farther afield. In its long history, Corfu has "belonged" to many invaders -- Byzantines, Venetians, France, Russia and Britain -- before returning to Greek rule in 1864, and all have left their cultural stamp. You'll see it in the esplanade's cricket pitch and the island's Byzantine churches, Italianate mansions and the elegant French Liston arcade.
It all blends into the fascinating jumble, which makes Corfu one of the best-known and best-loved islands of the Ionian archipelago.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon (Olympia) • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Positano (Amalfi) • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
Corfu's Old Town is by far the best place for souvenir hunters, with pretty wrought-iron garden lanterns and finely worked embroidered cloths making good buys.
With so many olive trees about, olive-wood ornaments and bottles of the excellent olive oil are also worth snapping up. Foodie friends might enjoy a bottle of kumquat liqueur or a jar of kumquat marmalade (made from the fruit trees introduced to Corfu by the Chinese at the end of the 17th century).
A legacy of British rule means many Corfiots speak at least a smattering of English, particularly in the shops and restaurants of the tourist-rich old town. You'll find an English section in most restaurant menus but may have difficulty finding a specific address, as street signs are rare, and those that exist are in Greek. If in doubt, ask a shopkeeper.
A friendly demeanor goes a long way, but it's also worth taking a phrasebook or language app along help. Emergency numbers worth knowing: 100 for police, 199 for fire and 166 for ambulance.
Good morning/Good day: Kalimera /Kalispera
My name is: Me lene
Thank you: efharisto
Do you speak English?: Milate Anglika?
How much is this?: Posa kostizi afto?
Where's the bathroom?: pu ine i tualetta?
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro is national currency in Greece. For the latest exchange rates, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
ATMs are easy to find (there are dozens in Corfu Town). You'll find them mainly in banks, but they also are located on streets and in some hotels and restaurants. Some of the outlying villages also have banks with machines, but if you're heading further afield, stock up on cash before you go. Many bars and restaurants still don't accept card payments.
Where You're Docked
Your ship will dock at the Neo Limani (New Port), which also accommodates ferries operating between Corfu and Italy, Greece and Albania.
The cruise terminal has a duty-free shop, car rental outlets and a welcome desk at which you can pick up a map and get local orientation tips. New Port is a working dock area.
By Shuttle: Most ships offer free (or reasonably priced) shuttle transfers to the Old Fortress area of Corfu Town, which is about two miles away.
By Taxi: A taxi stand sits outside the terminal building, but most drivers want to sell island tours. Negotiate the rate in advance. Establish that the fare is per cab, not per person, and pal up with other passengers for the best deals, particularly if you're planning a day at the beach.
Only use cabs with meters and a rate card clearly displayed, and check that the meter is on before you start. The fare shouldn't come to more than 10 euros per cab because Corfu Town is a short distance away.
By Bus: At the terminal, head left outside; the blue bus will say port. The fare to Corfu Town is about 1.50 euros one way. The green buses at New Port take you to sites around the island. Once you're in Corfu Town, the blue-coach suburban routes operate from San Rocco Square. Keep in mind that bus timings are erratic, and service can stop early in the evening. If in doubt, shuttle or cab it.
By Car: If your ship's in for a long time and you're feeling adventurous, you could rent a car. You'll find desks at the airport, and one long-established company,Sunrise, is located at Ethnikis Andístasis 6, by New Port.
Online bookings must be made at least 36 hours ahead of your visit to Corfu, and you must be older than 21 with a valid driver's licence of at least one year's standing.
Watch Out For
Don't expect crossings to be respected, and look out for cars zooming suddenly out of side roads. If you dare to drive, beware reckless passing and center-of-the-road hogs.
If you're visiting a church or monastery, respect dress codes. Women should take along a scarf to cover their arms or head and avoid short skirts; men should ditch wearing shorts unless planning a day at the beach.
Siesta time runs between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. (known locally as mikro ypno).
Corfu Town is one of the largest "living" medieval towns in Greece and a delightful maze of winding streets and alleys lined with excellent shops and restaurants. All shopping tastes are catered for there; sophisticated jewelry and designer outlets vie for attention with boutiques selling locally made dresses and lacy jackets, and craft stores featuring pretty embroidered cloths.
The Old Fortress and New Fortress are located to the east and west, respectively, of Corfu Town. The 6th century, Byzantine Old Fortress (open 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and closed Monday) offers magnificent views of the sea; its entrance is near the esplanade. To get in, you cross a short bridge across a moat lined with small fishing boats. The New Fortress (open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily) overlooks the town and was built in the 16th century by Corfu's Venetian rulers.
Enjoy coffee or lunch at one of the cafes that line the elegant French-style Liston Arcade (at the front of the shopping and restaurant district near Spianada Square). Just behind there, Ayios Spyridon (St. Spyridon's Church) is also worth exploring. It's one of the most important in the Ionian islands and the final resting place of Corfu's patron saint, whose body is contained in a sarcophagus.
The Asian Art Museum is fascinating to look around and well worth making time to visit. Housed in a former palace, the museum contains a vast collection of Oriental artifacts amassed by two Greek diplomats and features exhibits from China, Japan, Tibet, the Gandhara Kingdom (now Eastern Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan), Cambodia and Thailand . (49100 Palaia Anaktora; open 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
The Byzantine Museum, located in the Church of Antivouniotissa, has a spectacular interior as well as a fabulous collection of Byzantine icons. Admission is 2 euros. (Old Fortress 40; open 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday, open 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday)
Been There, Done That
Step back in time with a visit to the Achilleion Palace, a striking neoclassical mansion in the village of Gastouri, about 10 miles south of Corfu Town. Built in the late 1890s by Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, the residence was named for the mythical Greek hero Achilles, and its manicured gardens are dominated by a gigantic bronze sculpture of him. But the highlight of this grand palace is its lovely Colonnade of the Muses, a black-and-white tiled terrace lined with statues of gods, heroes, muses, poets and philosophers. Admission is 7 euros. (Open 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily)
Splash out on a trip to Aqualand. This vast waterpark, just west of Corfu Town, features many exciting rides, vast pools and acres of green space. A visit there will be a big hit with families and anybody young at heart. (Agios Ioannis; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from mid-May through October)
Visit Pondikonisi (Mouse Island) and Vlaherna, two tiny islands about 30 minutes' walk -- or a No. 2 bus ride -- along the coast from Corfu Town (past Mon Repos beach). The view across to the islands from Kanoni, where you'll find pleasant cafes, is spectacular, and you can walk along a causeway to Vlaherna and catch a boat from there to Mouse Island for about 2 euros per person. Vlaherna is worth seeing because it is almost completely covered by the stunning white Venetian monastery of Panagia Vlahernon, while Mouse Island has a tiny Byzantine chapel.
Head for the north coast of Corfu and visit the pastel-painted 18th century Paleokastritsa Monastery, which has a stunning clifftop setting overlooking the Ionian Sea beaches. It also has a fine collection of ancient icons, including one of the Virgin Mary which dates from the 12th century. (Open 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily)
Take a hike along a stretch of the lovely Corfu Trail, which meanders around the island and makes the most of its stunning and varied topography. It would take you about 10 days to cover its entire 137-mile length at the gentle pace needed to take it all in, but at least you can make a start.
Corfu is home to some of the best beaches in Greece, so you have plenty of options for a lazy day in the sun.
Most Convenient: Mon Repos offers soft sand, a taverna and changing rooms. The beach is about a 20-minute walk (or a short tourist-train ride) along the promenade south of Corfu Town. Mon Repos is also popular because history buffs can head off to explore the nearby Mon Repos estate (also known as Paleopolis). This contains the palace in which the British Queen's Consort, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was born, as well as the remains of Roman baths, a Doric temple and an early Christian basilica. Be warned, signage is poor, and parts of the grounds are quite overgrown. Entrance costs 3 euros; free admission for students, seniors and those younger than 18. (Open 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, closed Mondays)
Best for Escaping the Crowds: Agios Georgios agon, in the northwest, offers calm, clean water and is peaceful even in peak season. Although it's a cab ride away, it's worth considering if you hate crowds. It also has tavernas, windsurfing and scuba diving, so what's not to like?
Best for Getting Back to Nature: Halikounas, south of Corfu Town on the island's southeast coast, is one of Corfu's most unspoiled beaches. Famous for its birdlife, it's also a haven for naturists, so be prepared to get an eyeful and an all-over tan. The downside of its wild beauty is that there isn't much to do but swim, enjoy the peace and watch the birds. If you take a taxi, be sure to book it for the return journey, too.
If you go to a Corfu restaurant expecting to find only typical Greek staples like moussaka and dolmades on the menu, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise. Corfiot specialities are very different from those of mainland Greece. Consider the island's history, and you realize why.
Like its architecture, Corfu's cuisine reflects the many invaders who, down the centuries, strove to make the island their own. So, local specialties like pastitsado (a beef and tomato stew served with pasta), Bourou-Bourou (vegetable and pasta soup) and savoro (fish fried with rosemary) reflect the island's Venetian heritage, while the local fondness for charcuterie and vinous dishes like sofrito (beef in white wine) comes from the French.
What of the British? Well, they bequeathed the Corfiots a love of puddings -- though they made a style entirely their own. Over coffee, tuck into mandolato (a delicious black and white nougat), tiganites (sweet doughnuts) or sykomaitha (spiced fig cakes). Or enjoy ice cream, flavored by local fruits (including the ubiquitous kumquat).
Wash it down with wine from one of the island's small vineyards like Kakotrygis, a light dry white, or Petrokoritho, a gutsy red. And if you'd like to see where chefs get their ingredients, check out Corfu Town's fish and vegetable market outside New Fort (open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily). Some stallholders cook fresh-caught fish, so you can do as the locals do and enjoy a tasty lunch on the hoof.
If you prefer to just wander about to see what you fancy, Kapodistriou Street and the Liston area itself are good hunting grounds for the hungry, as they are crammed with restaurants and tavernas. Just check the menus, have a peek inside and make your choice.
Restaurant Rex was founded in 1932, and the family restaurant offers traditional goodies -- like souvlaki, fried country sausages, chicken with kumquat sauce and Grandmother's Spinach Pie -- at reasonable prices (around 12 euros for a main course). (Kapodistriou 66, behind the Liston arcade; open noon until late daily)
Family-owned Bellissimo comes highly recommended. Lively and alfresco, it's a big hit because of its affordability, warm and friendly atmosphere and unpretentious menu (which includes homemade pizza). (On Plateia Lemonia; open 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
Bakalogatos scores highly for those seeking meals made with home-grown ingredients. The restaurant serves only Greek wine and locally sourced food. (Alpiou 23; open from noon daily)
Staying in Touch
Some Corfu cafes offer Wi-Fi, but they may charge a small fee to give you their network password. More reliable than wandering around with your mobile device is using an Internet cafe. You'll find two in Corfu Town: Cybercafecorfu at I. Gardikioti 3 and Cafeonline at Kapodistriou 28 (behind Liston arcade).
Best for Beach-Lovers: The Corfu Resort Getaway tour takes you to northern Corfu for some serious splashdown time at two popular seaside resorts: Kalamaki Beach (extensive, sandy and great for families; it offers shallow waters and good facilities) and Kassiopi, a lovely village resort built around a small but spectacular bay at the island's northeastern tip. You'll get two hours at leisure in each resort, so remember to take your swimsuit and sunscreen, plus enough cash to pay for lunch, drinks and a lounger. This excursion is good choice if you've a family to entertain, less so if you dislike crowded beaches
Best for Active Travelers: Cruise and Swim takes you on a 90-minute sailing around the coast of Corfu to the remote beach of Limnopoula, where the crew prepare lunch with wine while you swim and relax. After lunch, you sail to the seaside village of Kassiopi and have time for a stroll ashore before heading for another swim in the bay of Aghios Arsenios. Note that you have to be fairly fit -- able to climb a stepladder, wade ashore and swim off the boat in deep water.
Best for Families: An easy way to have some fun is to take a Waterpark Tour to Aqualand, which has 36 different waterslides and 15 adventure pools and is split into three zones for different age groups. While lunch is not included, there are bars and fast-food outlets in the park. Use of showers, changing rooms and loungers is included. If your kids are keen to enjoy the rides, it's advisable to do them in the morning as lines can build in the afternoon (when ticket discounts apply).
For More Information
On the Web: Greek National Tourism Organization
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--Updated by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor