From the blue-domed churches to the ancient ruins, celebrity hot-spots, glittering green seas and sizzling sands, there’s something uniquely magical about the Greek Islands, which are as numerous as they are unique. With more than 3,000 hours of sunshine a year (around 250 sunny days), it’s easy to find yourself gravitating to Greece year after year. I’m certainly hooked.
In this article I’ll introduce you to some of the best Greek Islands to visit from the hotspots, to the islands you’ve probably never heard about. At the end, I’ll include a quick guide to how to get around and a map so you can plan your island hopping.
When you think of Santorini, you’re probably thinking of the blue domed roofs atop whitewashed houses. But much more than that, the island of Santorini is a geological triumph; because it’s not quite an island at all. Santorini is actually the rim (caldera) of a sunken volcano. If you approach the town of Fira from a cruise ship, you’re faced with nearly 600 steps or a cable car that transports you to the top of the rim. Meanwhile, the beautiful town of Oia further north is famous for it’s stepped streets right on the caldera edge offering dreamy views out to sea and one of the most famous sunsets you’ll ever see. Sure, the crowds can strip the shine off the sunset experience but for most people Santorini is worth fighting the tourist masses, even in peak season.
For the sunset, first make sure you know what time it sets, then I’d suggest finding a bar to watch it. Standing in the streets, you’re at risk of getting an elbow in the face. Should you want a challenge, you can walk the caldera rim between Fira and Oia. It’s the fastest ways to escape the crowds and see the most dramatic views of the island all in one hike.
Santorini is also famous as a honeymoon island thanks to the wonderful hotels that dot the volcano rim – perched high, with sea views and infinity pools, the hotels of Santorini have romance written all over them. Whether you visit for a day or stay for a week, Santorini is typically at the top of many people’s lists.
Tip: If you have only a short time on Santorini, I suggest visiting Oia. It’s prettier than Fira and has fewer crowds during the day (but more at sunset). Best tour on Santorini: Island Cruise with Hot Springs.
You can read my full guide here: 18 Best Things To Do In Santorini, Geece
If Gucci handbag, matching bikini and sunglasses are the priority items on your Greek packing list, Mykonos is probably the island for you. Known locally as Hora, there’s something picture-perfect about the twisting alleys of Mykonos that has drawn the celebrities (and celeb-wannabes) and kept them there. And when I say kept them there, it can feel like it if you get trapped in the winding streets of the old-town sandwiched in between the cruise crowds. But, with vivid pink bougainvillea tumbling down snow-white buildings and a shimmering pearly-green sea as the backdrop, like Santorini, you can forgive the crowds because you want to be part of them.
Exploding your budget is perfectly possible on Mykonos with exclusive bars, clubs and restaurants available (if you can afford the fee and can get on the list). And even your average restaurant with sea views has prices elevated beyond proportions. However, that is the price of beauty, and there are still some free things to do on Mykonos. In fact, two of Mykonos’ highlights are completely free – wandering the old town, and paying a visit to the striking windmills that sit just a bit above the old town, facing out to sea.
Tip: If you decide to do for a dip in the sea that skirts the old town, watch your step. Thoughtless party-goers have strewn the pebble beach with broken glass.
You’re only ever going to day-trip to Delos because it’s a protected Archaeological site and tourists are not allowed to stay on this sacred island overnight. However, it’s worth a visit and is most accessible from neighbouring Mykonos. Delos is famous in Greek mythology as the birthplace of the twins Apollo and Artemis. Against that history, Delos became a very powerful trading port. Today, the sprawling UNESCO World Heritage site dates to the 3rd Century and although it’s mostly in ruins, with the eye of an expert guide, you can pick out the Doric columns, merchant houses and the Roman influences. Do take a sun protection and water as there is very little shade on the island. Book ahead, this is a popular Delos Tour from Mykonos.
Tip: if you’re lost with Greek Mythology, Stephen Fry has a great book – Mythos. He even narrates the Audible version.
Don’t let the words ‘large’ and ‘tourist resorts’ put you off. Kos is a surprisingly charming Greek Island. Most people visit to explore the beaches, for which Kos is famous, but if yoou’re stepping off a ship for the day, there is enough to captivate you in the old town.
Kos Town has several significant historical sights and even if history isn’t your thing, there’s a well-established cycle route with bike lanes that will take you past them all, making for a fun way to spend a few hours. The Castle of the Knights is a gigantic 15th century castle that sits in the Harbour and offers great views to sea and into Kos. Meanwhile, Hippocrates’ plane tree, where Hippocrates sat and taught his students, is also worth seeking out – it’s around 700 years old, making it one of the oldest trees in Europe.
Otherwise, the streets of Kos Town are bustling with a tourist market, bars and restaurants. For beaches, Lambi beach is closest to the port (2km) with Tingaki Beach (10km) and Marmari Beach next closest, if you hire a bike. For those who plan to stay on Kos, the main beaches are clustered around the southwest of the island.
Tip: from the port, don’t forget to look out to sea – that closest land mass you see is Bodrum in Turkey and it’s possible to take a day trip. Just don’t forget your passport. Popular island hopping cruise from Kos: Full Day Boat Cruise to 3 Islands – visit Kalymnos, Plati, and Pserimos.
Corfu also has a wonderful mix of an historic old-town, beaches and popular tourist resorts. However, it’s still possible to plan a quiet escape, away from the crowds. Just head to Nikos & Vivi Studios. Located on the south-west of the island, near Perivoli, this guesthouse is family-run with views over olive groves, just a 5-minute walk from white-sand Santa Barbara beach. Nearby there is a sufficient smattering of restaurants, cafe and bars – just enough to keep you fed, watered and entertained, but just the right amount that you can sit back and switch off for a while. Eat, beach, sleep, repeat.
Looking for something more lively? Corfu has some very large tourist resorts if you’re after an all-inclusive beach break (Kavos is popular). There’s also the old town which is large and focused on tourism, but has managed to retain its Greek charm. Don’t miss the Old Fort.
Tip: For a spot a little less crowded, head south of the Old Town to Benitses where restaurants line the beach road. For excellent local Greek food, try Taverna Oraies Benitses. Popular Island Hopping Tour from Corfu: Visit Antipaxos, Paxos and the Blue Caves
Milos is on the cusp of losing its ‘hidden gem’ status, since Travel + Leisure have recently added it to their list of best islands in Greece. So, visit sooner rather than later. Milos is beautiful not just because it’s small and relatively unknown. Milos has some of the most dramatic beaches in Greece, from luna landscapes to fishing villages to rock jumping and cave swimming. The best way to explore Milos is by hiring the car (or taking a day tour). The island is tiny and most stops are just 10-minutes drive away but you the island is a mass of winding, hilly roads with no pavements for walking. The top spots if you’re beach hopping are: Pollonia fishing village with beautiful water for swimming; Sarakoniko for its lunar-white rock formations and caves; and Papafraga beach which is great for swimming and also has caves.
Despite the lure of its beaches, Milos is most famous as the location where the stone for the Venus de Milo statue came from. Although the famous statue of the Greek god Aphrodites now lives in the Louvre in Paris, you can take a tour of the island’s mining sites. Don’t worry, you’ll stop at some of the beaches too so it won’t be a dull tour.
Tip: Head to Mandrakia beach for Medusa cafe, which is one of the most popular restaurants on Milos. Famous for its fresh squid, this cute taverna is worth the wait if you have time. Also at Mandrakia, don’t miss the traditional fishing houses – the fishermen pull their boats into the lower level and live on the upper level. Popular cruise around Milos: Kleftiko Sailing Cruise with Snorkelling.
I’ve also written Your Complete Travel Guide to Milos, Greece.
With one of the major attractions on Patmos being The Cave of The Apocalypse, you instantly know this Greek island is a little different from the others. The Holy Island, which is a significant site for Christian pilgrimage, has two main attractions. First, visit the cave, which is half way up the hillside between the port and the capital. There, it is thought that the Book of Revelations was delivered to John the Apostle by a higher voice in the in the 1st Century AD.
The second sight is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. John the Theologian. Perched at the top of the hill in the capital, Chora, the monastery has some of the most dramatic views on Patmos with the Aegean sea ahead and flour mills dotted along the hilltop. The walk to the monastery winds you through the streets of the tiny capital, with plenty of cafes and souvenir shops along the way. At the monastery, don’t miss the small museum with ancient treasures nestled inside.
Religious or not, Patmos is a stunning, seahorse shaped island that stretches only 12.5 km. There are plenty of hills to tackle so take a guided tour or prepare for a hike. Skala Village is a beautiful area to wander close to the port while Chora, the island capital is packed with winding alleys. If you prefer to skip the sightseeing, Patmos has some very relaxed, crowd-free beach. Try Kambos Beach (main image), a €10 taxi ride from the port. For €15 you can hire a plush sun lounger complete with umbrella at Atmos Bar. You’ll get an ice bucket of still and sparkling water included.
Tip: Because religion hasn’t joined the 21st century, women (but not men) must wear a long skirt or trousers to enter each religious site. Don’t worry: if you forget, you’ll be handed something to cover your legs.
As you approach Syros, you’ll likely be captivated by the dramatic scenery of twin hills topped by twin churches. If you’re up for a challenge, the hills are begging to be climbed, with a Greek Orthodox Church on top of one and the Catholic St George’s Cathedral on top of the other. Not up for a hike? There are just enough sights to keep you entertained. The port is located in the (tiny) capital of Ermoupoli. A short walk from the port you will find the Town Hall and Apollo Theatre, which is as grand as Milan’s Scala opera house.
But perhaps the real beauty is found the way Syros invites you to unwind. Step off your yacht (or ferry) for breakfast at one of the port-lined cafés, spend the day wandering around the meandering hills, stop for an iced drink in a shady spot. Then, however your day has sprawled out, relax with a long feast at a Greek Taverna after the sun goes down.
Tip: Syros has great swimming platforms within the port area – one is located behind Hotel Hermes. Another is right at the tip end of the port. Slip off the platforms into the sea for a refreshing escape from the heat. Travel away from the port and Syros has beautiful beaches to explore.
With Mykonos to the north and Santorini to the south, many people sail past Paros and neighbouring Naxos (below) which is a shame because both islands are packed with Greek charm yet devoid of Greek tourist crowds. You don’t need to leave the port town of Parika to enjoy Paros – it’s one charming bar, cafe, boutique and restaurant after another. But you should leave Parika because Paros has some stunning beaches. Since the crowds are so thin and the locals so accommodating, its worth hiring a quad bike to explore Paros; navigating the roads is easy. Armed with four wheels, you can spent the day beach hopping. No need to even referr to a map – just see a stretch of sea or beach and heading that way, wind and salt air in your hair. It’s days like these, absent the pushing and shoving of other tourists, that serve up the best memories of the Greek Islands.
If you’re looking for a ‘blue and white’ island to rival Santorini, but without the crowds, visit Naxos. Like many islands in Greece, the port of Naxos is situated in the capital, Hora, which is a swirl of winding whitewashed alleys. Don’t miss the Kastro, a Venetian neighbourhood within Hora, which is the most picturesque part complete with tumbling pink bougainvillaea and the remains of the old fortified castle, Tower of Sanoudos. That said, it’s difficult not to find yourself in Kastro – just wander from the port and you’ll find yourself pleasantly lost in the streets in no time.
Tip: Try the fresh squid for lunch overlooking the port. The food and prices on Naxos alone are enough to merit a stop, if only for a short while.
There’s really only one reason to go to Ios, and that’s to party. Sure, this small Greek Island is oh so cute and there are cultural things to do, but for the most part, the island has gained a reputation as a place for hedonism, and as such it draws the European backpacking crowd by the boat-load. With beach clubs serving up chilled caipirinhas and base beats All Day All Night, Ios is the place to get your party on. Ios is a lot of fun, even if you stay for a day and take your hangover to a more subdued island the next day. Just stay safe – all that booze plus sun plus water can be trouble. Remember – the plan is to made good memories only.
How to get around the Greek Islands
You have two main choices for getting around the Greek Islands. I’ve tried both and the choice comes down to travel style and budget.
Take a cruise – this is the easy option and a fantastic way to see a lot of islands in a short space of time, without having to waste time on ferry schedules and getting yourself around. Instead, you mainly sail at night. I took a cruise on a beautiful luxury yacht, Running on Waves – here’s my review. Prices start at €1,680 ($2,049/£1,546) per person for a week, including all meals. I can’t recommend this cruise enough (it’s the tall sail boat in the image above). I took the Aegean Cruise with stops in Athens, Syros, Delos, Mykonos, Patmos, Kos, Santorini, Milos.
Greek ferries – the cheaper but more time consuming way to get around is by using the Greek ferries. The are several companies offering many, many routes. I did my route planning using Lonely Planet’s Greek Islands travel guide. It gives you a good starting place for which islands connect easily, port information etc. You could trawl the Internet for this info, but the Guidebook is a more focused place to begin planning your itinerary and will save you a lot of research time.
Tips for departing from Athens
Athens is a great base for starting your Greek Island hopping. Spend at least a day there so you can see the Acropolis. I stayed at the 3-star Arion Athens Hotel which was in the perfect spot in Monastaraki for bars and restaurants and has rooftop terrace views of the Acropolis. After my island hopping, I stayed at 4-star The Stanley, which had a gorgeous roof-top pool and acropolis views. Just secure your sunbed early as its popular. Uber is available in Athens and works well.
Map of the best Greek Islands
Check out my Google Map of the Best Greek Islands.
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