Prepare to embark on a virtual journey to one of the world’s most enchanting destinations, a place where azure waters kiss the craggy shores of isolated coves, ancient myths come to life, and timeless traditions thrive amidst olive groves and vineyards.
The Greek Islands are a cornucopia of sensory delights, offering a rich tapestry of experiences that caters to all types of travelers. This guide aims to be your definitive companion, helping you navigate the idyllic labyrinth of over 200 inhabited islands, each with its own distinctive character and charm.
Whether you’re a history buff seeking the timeless ruins of the ancient world, a sun worshipper ready to bask on secluded beaches, or a foodie yearning for the zestful embrace of Mediterranean cuisine, there’s an island for you. Here, every sunset paints a different picture, and every local story adds a new layer to the rich cultural mosaic.
But the Greek Islands are more than just a destination; they represent a way of life that is deeply ingrained in the landscapes, the local culture, and the soul of its people. In this guide, we’ll unearth the very essence of these islands, moving beyond popular tourist routes to reveal hidden gems, local secrets, and vibrant traditions.
From the cosmopolitan allure of Mykonos and Santorini to the unspoiled beauty of lesser-known islands like Folegandros and Amorgos, from tasting the robust wines of Crete to dancing in the lively festivals of Ikaria, our journey promises to be as diverse and intriguing as the islands themselves.
Get ready to step off the beaten path and dive headfirst into the shimmering Aegean Sea of experiences that await you and get ready to fall in love with this spectacular corner of the world!
Greek Islands: An Overview
Greece’s stunning islands are strewn across the azure Aegean and Ionian seas like emeralds, each group offering a unique flavor and charm.
The Greek Archipelago includes about 6,000 islands and islets, out of which only 227 are inhabited.
These islands are broadly classified into seven principal groups. Here’s an overview of each group with its prominent islands:
Perhaps the most famous group, the Cyclades, are known for their stunning white architecture, beautiful beaches, and vibrant nightlife. These islands are the picture-perfect representation of Greece often depicted in postcards.
The main islands in this group include:
- Santorini: Renowned for its unique volcanic landscapes, breathtaking sunsets, and iconic blue-domed churches.
- Mykonos: Famous for its windmills, cosmopolitan lifestyle, and pulsating nightlife.
- Paros: A charming island known for traditional villages, beautiful beaches, and the famous Church of 100 Doors.
- Naxos: The largest of the Cyclades, offering vast sandy beaches and a significant historical site, the Portara.
Located off the west coast of mainland Greece, the Ionian Islands offer lush landscapes, white-sand beaches, and Italian-influenced architecture due to historical Venetian rule.
- Corfu: Known for its rich cultural heritage, stunning Venetian-style architecture, and the Old Fortress.
- Zante: Famous for the beautiful Navagio (Shipwreck) Beach and loggerhead turtle nesting spots.
- Kefalonia: The largest Ionian Island, known for the exotic Myrtos Beach and Melissani Cave.
Situated close to the Turkish coast, the Dodecanese Islands offer a blend of Greek and Middle Eastern influences.
Key islands include:
- Rhodes: Famous for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and its medieval Old Town.
- Kos: Known for its rich ancient Greek and Roman history, as well as its expansive beaches.
This group is known for their lush vegetation, clear waters, and golden beaches.
- Skiathos: Renowned for its bustling nightlife and over 60 beaches, including the famous Koukounaries Beach.
- Skopelos: Famous for its blue-green water, traditional Greek architecture, and as the shooting location for the film “Mamma Mia!”.
Easily accessible from Athens, the Saronic Islands are popular for short trips and weekend breaks.
- Aegina: Famous for its Temple of Aphaia and local production of pistachios.
- Hydra: Known for its preserved traditional architecture and absence of cars.
North Aegean Islands
These islands have a strong historical character, with Byzantine and Ottoman influences.
Key islands include:
- Lesbos: Known for its Petrified Forest and the production of Ouzo, a traditional Greek liqueur.
- Samos: Renowned for its wine production and the ancient Temple of Hera.
Although Crete is technically not a group but an individual island, its size and diversity demand separate mention. Crete is the largest island in Greece, known for its varied terrain, ancient archaeological sites, and fantastic beaches.
Each of these groups of islands offers a unique window into Greek culture, history, and natural beauty.
Choose your island adventure based on your preferences, and you’re sure to experience the magic of Greece!
Popular Greek Islands
Crete is Greece’s largest island and offers a diverse landscape, ranging from gentle plateaus dotted with windmills to canyons and mountains.
Hiking the Samaria Gorge, Europe’s longest at 16km (10 miles), takes travellers through the homeland of Crete’s famed wild goat, the kri-kri.
The island is known for its unique charm and varied attractions, suitable for all types of travellers.
Mykonos is a popular destination for party-goers and those seeking a vibrant nightlife.
Its picturesque white buildings with blue and pastel shutters create a quintessential Greek island atmosphere.
The island offers a mix of bustling beaches, high-end dining, and luxurious accommodations, making it a popular choice for a lively getaway.
Arguably the most popular Greek island, Santorini is best known for its stunning sunset views and luxurious accommodations.
This island, afloat in the Aegean Sea, east of the mainland, is iconic due to its white houses, blue and pastel shutters, and roofs.
Santorini offers an idyllic setting for a romantic getaway, with breathtaking vistas and unique attractions such as the volcanic caldera.
Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands, boasts a rich history, well-preserved medieval town, and beautiful sandy beaches.
The island is perfect for history enthusiasts who will enjoy exploring the Old Town, visiting the Palace of the Grand Masters, and strolling along the Street of the Knights.
Additionally, the island offers an array of outdoor activities, such as windsurfing and hiking.
Located in the Ionian Sea, Corfu is known for its lush green landscapes and Venetian-influenced architecture.
This island is perfect for families and those seeking a more laid-back vacation experience, offering a range of activities such as exploring historic sites, relaxing on picturesque beaches, or hiking in the island’s many olive groves.
Corfu’s rich cultural heritage also provides ample opportunity for visitors to immerse themselves in the traditional Greek way of life.
Greek Island Activities
Beaches and Swimming
The Greek islands are famous for their pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters.
On islands like Mykonos, beach lovers can enjoy some of the most famous stretches such as Paradise Beach and Super Paradise Beach.
For more family-oriented shores, Karpathos offers an abundance of shallow bays and sandy beaches ideal for children, as well as more secluded options like Apela and Kyra Panagia.
Steeped in rich history, the Greek islands offer a plethora of fascinating archaeological sites and ancient ruins.
For history buffs, Crete and Rhodes are major bucket-list locations. Crete’s capital, Heraklion, was named after the mythological hero Hercules, and is home to the magnificent Minoan Palace of Knossos.
Rhodes is famous for its well-preserved medieval city, with highlights including the Palace of the Grand Master and the Street of the Knights.
For adventurous travellers, the Greek islands offer a variety of outdoor activities, with hiking and cycling being popular choices.
Crete’s varied terrain provides opportunities for exploring winding canyons like the Samaria Gorge – Europe’s longest gorge at 16km – and encountering Crete’s unique kri-kri (wild goat).
Other islands like Naxos, Evia, and Thasos also boast excellent hiking and cycling trails across diverse landscapes.
Selected outdoor activities:
- Hiking the Samaria Gorge in Crete
- Mountain biking in Naxos
- Cycling across Evia’s diverse terrain
While Greece’s islands offer breathtaking natural beauty and historical exploration, a select few have cultivated a nightlife scene that draws partygoers from around the world.
Mykonos is arguably the most famous, boasting an international reputation with world-class clubs, lively beach bars, and vibrant events during the summer months.
Other islands, like Ios, also maintain a bustling nightlife atmosphere for those seeking a lively party experience.
Hotels and Resorts
The Greek Islands offer a wide range of hotels and resorts for tourists to choose from. Some of the top luxury hotels in Greece include Perivolas and Grace on Santorini, Calilo on Ios, and Amanzoe in the Peloponnese region. For a unique experience, travellers can consider boutique-art hotels, such as Asomaton in Athens, which features paintings curated by Greek-American artist Philip Tsiaras.
For those on a budget, there are numerous affordable hotels available. Visitors can refer to travel guides, such as Rough Guides, to find recommended accommodations suitable for various preferences and budgets.
Villas and Apartments
Travelling with a group or seeking more privacy? Villas and apartments can be an excellent choice. They are available across the islands, often featuring spacious living areas, private pools, and stunning views. These accommodations vary in price and amenities, and can be rented directly from homeowners or through popular rental platforms, such as Airbnb. It is essential to research and compare options in advance to secure the best deal.
Some popular areas to consider for villa and apartment rentals include:
- Crete: renowned for its diverse landscapes, rich history, and vibrant culture.
- Milos: famous for its exceptional beaches and picturesque villages.
- Santorini: a sought-after island with iconic views and romantic sunsets.
For backpackers and budget-conscious travellers, hostels are an attractive accommodation alternative in the Greek Islands. Hostels typically offer dormitory-style rooms and shared facilities, perfect for those looking to save money and meet fellow travellers. Many hostels also provide private rooms for those seeking additional comfort and privacy.
Several resources, such as HostelWorld, can help travellers find and book hostels on the Greek Islands. Keep in mind that the quality, atmosphere, and facilities of hostels can vary, making it crucial to check reviews and ratings before making a choice.
Cuisine and Local Delicacies
The Greek Islands are rich in culinary delicacies, offering a diverse selection of dishes to satisfy any palate. Some of the must-try dishes include:
- Garides saganaki: A delicious Greek dish of shrimp cooked in a pan with tomato sauce, herbs, spices, and feta cheese. This dish is usually on the spicy side, as most recipes include fresh chili. The feta cheese gives it a creamy texture and enhances its flavour considerably.
- Kokoretsi: A popular rotisserie dish, especially during Easter. This dish is made of lamb or goat intestines, heart, liver, and the meat of other organs, wrapped in caul fat (or lace fat) and by yards of cleaned intestines.
- Splinadero: A very popular sausage, mainly consumed in the Thessaly region.
- Dakos: A Cretan dish of twice-baked barley rusk topped with tomato, mizithra cheese, and a large drizzle of olive oil.
In addition, visitors should not miss sampling an array of Crete’s cheeses and honey, which are known for their remarkable flavours.
Greek Islands are also known for their local beverages, offering a wide variety of refreshing and distinct drinks to accompany their meals. Some notable intoxicating beverages include:
- Ouzo: A traditional Greek spirit with a strong anise flavour, typically enjoyed as an aperitif. It is often served with a small plate of meze, which consists of small bites of various local dishes.
- Tsipouro: Another widely consumed Greek spirit, typically distilled from grapes. This clear liquor is usually enjoyed neat or on the rocks and accompanied by a variety of meze.
- Raki: A Cretan drink, similar to tsipouro, and often served as a welcome gesture to guests. It is distilled from grapes and served either chilled or at room temperature.
- Local wines: The Greek Islands, especially Crete and Santorini, are renowned for their wineries and vineyards, offering a diverse selection of local wines. Make sure to sample some of the islands’ exceptional red and white wines that are often paired with the vibrant flavours of Greek cuisine.
Transportation and Accessibility
Ferries and Boats
Ferries serve as the primary mode of transportation between most Greek islands. Regular schedules connect the islands to mainland Greece and among the island groups themselves, such as the Cyclades and Ionian islands. Ferry services range from standard passenger carriers to more luxurious high-speed catamarans, with various options to suit travellers’ needs and budgets.
- Tickets can be purchased online, at the port, or via travel agencies.
- Most ferries allow passengers to bring cars on board, which is useful for travellers exploring multiple islands.
- Be mindful of seasonal changes in schedules, as off-peak season services are less frequent.
Air travel is an efficient and comfortable option for getting to and between some Greek islands. Major islands such as Santorini, Mykonos, and Crete have their own airports, offering flights to and from Athens as well as select international destinations. Smaller islands may be served by regional airlines or connected via Athens.
- Booking flight tickets in advance is recommended, particularly during peak season.
- Some islands may not be served directly by air, so ferry connections should be considered for added flexibility.
Car and Scooter Rentals
Car and scooter rentals offer visitors the freedom to explore the islands at their own pace. As many islands feature compact and easily navigable landscapes, self-driven vehicles can be an enjoyable and practical way to access the various attractions.
- International travellers are advised to carry an international driving licence when renting vehicles.
- On smaller islands with limited rental options, consider reserving your vehicle in advance to prevent disappointment.
- Always be cautious on local roads and abide by local traffic regulations.
Best Time to Visit
The peak season for visiting the Greek Islands is during the summer months, specifically from late June to the middle or end of September. This is when tourists flock to the islands, attracted by the warm weather and beautiful beach scenes. During these months, temperatures usually range from 20-35 degrees Celsius (70-95 degrees Fahrenheit) with plenty of sunshine. However, keep in mind that it can be crowded during this time, and the prices for accommodations and other services might be higher than usual.
If you are looking for a more peaceful experience with fewer crowds, it’s a good idea to visit the Greek Islands during the shoulder seasons, which are from May to early June and from late September to October. During these months, the weather is still pleasant, but there are fewer tourists, making it easier to enjoy and explore the islands at a more relaxed pace.
One significant advantage of visiting during the off-season is that you can find better deals on accommodations, as well as more availability in top-rated hotels and restaurants. Although some activities and attractions might have limited availability during these months, most of the main tourist sites will still be open for you to enjoy.
Travel Tips and Safety
Health and Vaccinations
Before travelling to the Greek Islands, it’s essential to make sure you are up-to-date with your routine vaccinations, such as MMR (measles-mumps-rubella), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, varicella (chickenpox), polio, and the yearly flu shot. There are no specific vaccinations required for travellers to the Greek Islands. However, it’s advisable to consult your doctor or a travel health specialist about recommended options.
When visiting the islands, make sure you have a well-stocked first-aid kit and bring any prescription medications you may need. While pharmacies are available on most islands, it’s crucial to have the essentials on hand in case medical services are not as accessible as on the mainland.
Etiquette and Customs
Greek people are known for their hospitality, so respecting their customs and traditions is essential when visiting their beautiful islands. Here are some essential etiquette tips to follow:
- Greetings: Shake hands when meeting someone for the first time and say “Yassas” (hello) or “Kalimera” (good morning). Close friends and family members will usually greet each other with a hug or a kiss on both cheeks.
- Dress code: While there is no strict dress code for tourists, it’s essential to dress modestly, especially when visiting churches and monasteries. Wear long pants or skirts and cover your shoulders in these religious sites.
- Tipping: Tipping is customary in Greece, with a 10% tip being standard for restaurants, tour guides, and taxi drivers. However, do not leave the tip on the table; hand it directly to your server.
- Photography: Be mindful of taking pictures in and around churches and monasteries, as photography may be prohibited or restricted in some of these religious sites. Always ask for permission before taking photos.
- Beach etiquette: Topless sunbathing and nudity are generally not accepted on Greek beaches, so ensure you wear appropriate swimwear.
By following these essential travel tips and respecting local customs, your experience in the Greek Islands will be both enjoyable and safe.
Eleni Vasiliadis, a native of the picturesque island of Corfu and co-founder of Greek Island, is a seasoned traveller, accomplished writer, and passionate advocate for Greek culture and cuisine.