The islands are an integral part of any visit to Greece. Some travelers even devote their entire Greek vacation to exploring them. But with more than 150 inhabited islands to choose from, as well as a few uninhabited ones, deciding where to go can be a bit bewildering.
Some islands are known for their comely beaches, some for their sunsets, some for their fascinating history, some for their drunken hedonism. It is fairly easy to hop back and forth between them via regular ferry services, but where to go? Where to begin?
Reviewing the great variety of the Greek islands is impossible in such a short article, but to get you started here is a list of eight of the country’s finest.
If you only have time for one Greek Island, go to Santorini. Its beauty is almost overwhelming.
Santorini, also known as Thira, is a volcanic island in the Cyclades group of the Greek islands. Its archipelago once formed a single island, but a massive eruption changed all that in 1500 BCE. The volcano’s crater is still active and can be visited.
Santorini is most famous for its astonishing panoramic views. The sunsets from the little village of Oia, in particular, are said to best in the world. Fira, the capital, is a bustling and picturesque town of white cobblestone streets full of shops, taverns, hotels and cafes, extending over cliffs that drop 250 meters to the sea below.
The island’s romantic aura attracts many Europeans honeymooners, but you’ll enjoy yourself if you come alone or with friends. It’s easy to get around the island on cheap, rentable scooters or 4-wheelers, and there are also plenty of beaches to spend the days, including the beach of Perissa, the black pebble beach of Kamari, and the white and red beach. Be sure not to miss Akrotiri, in the south, an ancient Minoan town preserved in volcanic ash like Pompeii. It is roughly 3500 years old and one of the island’s must-sees.
Read more about Santorini
Most tourists come to the Greek islands to party. If this describes you, then head to either Mykonos or Ios.
Mykonos has a solid reputation as a haven for wild European pleasure-seekers. Along with Ibiza and Grand Canary Island, Mykonos is also probably the most popular gay holiday destination in Europe. Despite its vibrant club scene, however, Mykonos has still managed to retain much of its authentic character.
Mykonos is also the most cosmopolitan of the Greek party islands, and it also one of the most visited, meaning you should be prepared for loud dance clubs and over-priced merchandise. If all the partying has become to much for you, take a day off to visit the Mykonos windmills, one of the island’s most-recognized landmarks, or Little Venice in Mykonos Town, a district famous for its medieval houses and colorful wooden balconies.
Mykonos tends to be extremely crowded in July and August. The best time to visit is mid-May through June or September through mid-October.
Ios is another party island, but of an very different character. Ios is the Mykonos for budget travelers, where you won’t be scoffed at if you show up to a bar in your swimming trunks.
It is a short ferry ride from Santorini and can easily be visited in combination with it. The island has has regularly been voted in various polls as having one of the “Top 10 beaches in Europe”, and boasts 75 km of white sandy beaches and turquoise coastline.
The nightlife is concentrated around the main square in the main village of Hora. During the day Hora is a quiet and traditional Greek village, but by night it transforms into a party zone.
For those who want to shun the nightlife, the village of Chora is pleasant and peaceful in the early evening, with plenty of excellent restaurants to relax and enjoy the sunset. Close to Hora, Milopotas Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches on Ios. Most travelers shack up here in the cheap accommodation offered by the nearby Far Out Village & Camping, and congregate on the beach until nightfall, when a bus comes down from Hora to take them to the bars.
Crete is one of Greece’s most beautiful islands, and has long been a cynosure for hikers and history buffs. At approximately 260-km long and 60-km wide, it is the largest of the Greek islands, and its gorgeous terrain is one of the most varied, ranging from fertile coastal plains to rugged mountains and bustling metropolitan cities.
Crete was the center of the Minoan civilization from 2600-1150 BCE and the birthplace of myths such as King Minos and the Minotaur. The ruins of the ancient Minoan civilization can be visited at the archaeological sites at Knossos, Phaistos, Gournia and Mallia, and in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Architectural remnants of past colonizers of the island — Roman, Turkish, etc. — are also scattered throughout the land.
Walking and trekking tours are Crete’s most popular activities. Hiking the Samaria Gorge, which is Europe’s longest at 16km, is a popular trek that takes you through the homeland of the wild kri kri goat.
Rhodes is one of the most popular islands in Greece due to its mix of beaches and archaeological sites, including its impressive medieval old town. Though there are tranquil corners of the island one can escape to, if crowds irritate you then Rhodes is probably not for you. Its popularity does, however, brings certain advantages: accommodation on Rhodes can often be had for a relatively low price.
Rhodes also has one of the longest and most intriguing histories of any place in the world. The island was mentioned by Homer, and the Knights of Saint John ruled here during the crusades, followed by the Knights Templar, who controlled the island for two centuries until it was subsumed into the Ottoman Empire in 1523. Due to its geographically-strategic legacy, there are plenty of castles and fortifications to explore throughout the island.
For the modern visitor, Rhodes boasts 300+ sunny days a year and is a major attraction for clubers, sun-seekers and beach bums. The east side of the island has almost continuous sandy beaches while those on the west are mostly stony, but also windy and ideal for surfing and kite-boarding. The north coast hosts a lively resort and club scene, while the south offers a bit more a more laid-back vibe.
Corfu, the northernmost of the Ionian Islands, is the perfect mix of pleasure, history and culture. It is ideal for almost any genre of visitor, including families with children.
For the literary-minded, you can actually stay in the house in Kalami where Lawrence Durrell wrote Prospero’s Cell. For the trekker, Corfu offers some of the best hiking in the islands, including the Corfu Trail, a 222-km long footpath that passes through Perithia, Corfu’s oldest village, and covers the full length of the island. Corfu is also known for its fine beaches, and the solid infrastructure makes it a great place to tour on wheels. There are many traditional villages to visit, including Roda, a popular but relaxed town on Corfu’s northern coast, and Benitses, an old fishing village-cum-tourist resort on the east coast.
Lesvos is the dark horse among the Greek islands. Isolated, far across the Aegean near the Turkish coast, it is not often highlighted in guidebooks as an essential destination, and is particularly ignored by those who don’t have the time to make the journey. But many rewards await those who do.
Well-known for its quality ouzos (it produces some 70 percent of all Greek ouzos) and for its writers, painters and poets — including the ancient poet Sappho, whose poems gave rise to the word “lesbian” — Lesvos is a place for those who want a more nuanced island experience.
You won’t find the same die-hard partying as you do on most of the other islands, but you will find a land infused with a unique culture that has been admired since antiquity. The capital, Mytilene displays an eclectic variety of architectural styles and makes for a fine base, but Molivos has the most popular attractions, including the Gattilusi Castle, as well as the well-preserved traditional architecture of the town itself. Also notable is Eressos, Sapppho’s birthplace, which attracts many homosexual couples.
With a permanent population of fewer than 50, Greece’s southernmost island is a lot like many Greek islands were a few decades ago, before extensive tourist development. Gavdos isn’t easy to get to or to leave from, but if it’s seclusion you want, there is no better place.
Gavdos has an extensive history. It has even been identified as a possible site of the mythical Ogygia, where Kalypso held Odysseus prisoner in Homer’s Odyssey.
You can sleep on the beaches if you want (something that is discouraged on most other islands) and two of the beaches, Agios Ioannis and Potamos, are some of the finest in the Mediterranean.
In the summer total people on the island can rise above 3500, most of whom are campers, but services for tourists are still very basic, so come prepared.
- David Jennings