With 230 inhabited islands out of about 6000, it’s no wonder that most travelers wanting to visit the beautiful islands of Greece for the first time are overwhelmed by so many choices. They are incredibly diverse in landscape, so if you want to get the complete experience you should try to visit more than just one or two. So, what are the best Greek islands to visit? Well, the answer depends a lot on the time and budget you have, the time of year you’re eyeing, and what interests you most.
Before you decide on which islands to visit, there are a few things you should know that can impact your choices. First ask yourself the following questions. Are you a first time visitor to Greece? Do you like lazy days on the beach or active water sports? Are you a history and culture nut? Is sampling a wide range of local cuisine important? Do you prefer to go with the masses or do you like quiet hikes in the natural wilderness?
The islands are grouped into seven main clusters spread out over the Aegean and Ionian Seas that surround the mainland. The following list has the best islands to be visited in each group and should help you plan your first Greek island hopping trip.
The Cyclades Group
The first four islands in our list are located in the Cyclades. It is the most popular group of islands and also the most diverse. It can get very crowded in the peak summer months of July and August, so to really enjoy what these islands have to offer, try to go in May, June or September. These islands have the most varied accommodations across all budgets, so it won't be difficult to find something to your liking.
How would you like to wake up on the rim of a volcano one morning and look forward to the most famous sunset in the world in the evening? If there’s just one island that you have time to visit in Greece, it’s probably Santorini. It’s the farthest one in the Cyclades group of islands from Athens and can be reached by air or sea. However, the seven hour ferry journey is completely worth it as you stop at various other worthwhile ports in the group before entering the turquoise lagoon of Santorini. Ahead are steep lava cliffs dotted with brilliant white houses and blue domed churches.
Santorini was once a normal volcanic island called Kallisti that was home to a Minoan settlement until about 1600 BC. A violent volcano then buried the town and caused the center of the island to collapse into the ocean, creating the caldera which quickly filled up with sea water. The accompanying tsunami is what is thought to have destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete. Some speculate that Santorini was the inspiration for Plato’s mythical lost city of Atlantis, and you can visit the perfectly preserved ruins of Akrotiri town that was excavated in the 1960s to see just why.
What was eventually left of Kallisti was the crescent shaped right rim of the caldera, which is current day Santorini or Thíra, and two islets on the other side.
This ancient phenomenon has made the views from the island cliffs over the caldera unbeatable. Taking walks through the villages gives you a glimpse of traditional island life and you’ll get lots of photo opportunities at every turn.
While Santorini isn’t known for its beaches, there are a few that are unlike any found on the other islands. You’ll find rust-colored sand on one beach, black on another and eerie looking boulders on another.
Naxos is the home of the Cyclades’ highest peak, Mt. Zeus, and the island is said to be the childhood home of the king of the gods, Zeus, and of the god of wine, Dionysus. In fact, this island is steeped in ancient history and myth. It is the only Cycladic island to have been continuously settled since the 4th century BC.
The Portara is a massive marble doorway to an unfinished 6th century temple dedicated to Apollo and it offers visitors spectacular views over the harbor and whitewashed homes. There’s also a magnificent 13th century castle and several Venetian mansions to remind you of past affluence. When you’ve finished touring Naxos, you can unwind on one of several good sandy beaches that circle all around.
3. Mykonos with a day trip to Delos
The Cyclades encircle a small island called Delos, which is not inhabited but welcomes plenty of visitors from nearby Mykonos during the day. It is a nice antidote to the excesses of Mykonos as it is the most important archaeological site in the Cyclades. It is the mythical birthplace of twin gods Apollo and Artemis and the oldest temples here are from the 8th century BC.
The Athenians controlled Delos from the 5th century BC and it became one of Greece’s most important religious and financial centers in Hellenistic times. Merchants from far off lands built their own statues of gods but Apollo remained the most important one. Prosperity continued until the 3rd century AD, when trade routes shifted and the ancient religious significance of the region declined.
You can get a glimpse of what life must have been like for Delos’ wealthy inhabitants by climbing the path to Mt. Kythnos. The lavish dwellings feature colorful mosaics and are surrounded by pretty courtyards that housed their own cisterns. Remains of theaters and shrines to foreign gods, like the Egyptian Serapis and Isis, are other interesting sights. The Sanctuary of Apollo and the Terrace of the Lions are two often photographed sights.
Some of its beaches can only be accessed by boat and you can find lots of pretty and secluded coves and sea caves if you take a tour of any section of the coastline. Some beaches lie in the shadow of towering rock cliffs, while another looks like it could be the surface of another planet. You can also find beaches where the water is warm as they’re fed by underground mineral springs. This island is also a favorite of divers.
Crete was once the cradle of the Minoan civilization, so history lovers should not miss this island. Sometime in the 3rd millennium BC, a race of people highly advanced in engineering and the arts and culture migrated to Crete and built magnificent palace complexes and developed their own unique pottery and silverware. Earthquakes destroyed the complexes in 1700 BC but the Minoans rebuilt them while also spreading to other parts of the island. They were again destroyed in 1450 BC by what many thought was a massive tsunami triggered by the eruption of the Santorini volcano.
The Myceneans arrived soon after and its strength declined rapidly, as it was untouched by the classical Greek influence of the mainland and was not a part of the Macedonian empire later on. It was later ruled by the Romans, Byzantines and Venetians.
This rich history has given us 12 excavated Minoan towns and palaces to explore along with an excellent archaeological museum. The famous frescoes are a must see as they are quite different from Cycladic and ancient Egyptian artwork. You’ll also find Venetian fortresses, Byzantine monasteries and ancient mosques.
For those looking for Crete’s natural beauty, there are plenty of beaches to relax on. The quieter ones lie on the east and south coasts. The interior is rugged with mountain ranges and fertile plains. The Samaria Gorge, which is the longest in Europe, is excellent for hiking.
Crete is open to tourists the longest, so you can leave it as your last stop on your island hopping adventure.
Skiathos is the most famous island in this group, but it is also over crowded throughout the tourist season. Skopelos, however, is just as beautiful but less overrun with tourists. Famed for being one of the film locations in Mama Mia, it may just be the greenest of all Greek islands. You’ll find plenty of wildlife in its forests but you’ll also be able to relax on some beautiful beaches. Skopelos was once a Minoan outpost and is also home to numerous churches, convents and monasteries.
The result of this rich history is the presence of many fine museums and galleries and you can expect to eat some very good Italian influenced Greek meals too.
Corfu or Kerkyra starts with dramatic mountains on the east and west coasts in the north, which turns into gentle plains towards the south. Corfu gets a ton of rain and a very short “open” season where summer is slightly cooler than in the rest of the country, so it’s often the most crowded island in Greece. The north is very touristy and cosmopolitan, with beaches and resorts packed from June to September. However, you can still find parts that are virtually untouched by tourism if you go off the beaten track.
This very green island has the longest olive growing season and vast vineyards cover large tracts of land. The island is also blessed with great fruit and vegetable farms in the countryside.
In addition to the stunning beaches and scenic mountain vistas, Corfu Town is where you’ll find two large fortresses, palazzos and churches.
The medieval old town of Rhodes in the Dodecanese is very close to the coast of Turkey and is charming if also very touristy. Beach fanatics and bar crawlers will feel right at home here.
To start your tour, take the cobble stoned Street of the Knights that leads to a massive fortress called the Palace of the Grand Masters which was built by the Knights of St. John in the 14th century. From the harbour you can see the spot where the Colossus of Rhodes is thought to have stood. The Acropolis of Lindos, just outside the town, showcases different periods of architecture with a medieval castle, a Byzantine chapel and a Roman temple. The Classical Greeks built the upper terraces around 300 BC. From here you can see all around the island’s spectacular coastline.
While these are some of the best Greek islands to visit, there are many more that are just as wonderful and less overrun by tourism. Many return visitors to Greece choose to go to the lesser known islands for a more relaxed vacation. Once you’ve chosen which ones to visit, the next thing to do is plan your itinerary and decide if you want to island hop independently or take a package tour.
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