We are officially in the heart of summer but some are still looking for a place to go on vacation this year, you know, in this post-lockdown era when everyone is trying to recover from the first half of 2020 that took the whole world by storm.
Table of Contents
Greek island complexes
What is the right Greek island for you?
Top Island Suggestions
Thankfully, the Greek islands are one of the safest destinations in the world right now, something that is ideal for those hot summer days you’ve pictured yourself spending with a refreshing drink in your hand, sunbathing by the beach.
However, with about 6,000 islands and islets scattered across the Aegean and Ionian seas, of which 227 are inhabited, deciding which Greek island to visit is more difficult than one would expect. Not all people are looking for the same things when traveling to the Greek islands, and matters of preference are always subjective.
Regardless, here I will put together a guide on how to decide which Greek islands to visit, so you have a point of reference when trying to book those dream Greek island vacations you so desperately need and want.
It comes as no surprise whatsoever that Greece counts around 30 million international visitors annually, most of which choose the magnificent Greek islands for their holidays. As you probably already know, the most popular Greek islands include Santorini, Mykonos, Corfu, Zakynthos –or Zante- and Crete. Those islands are so popular, in fact, that they have their own international airports to which visitors from around the world can fly to directly, an advantage that makes the lives of travelers so much easier!
However, even if you’d like to visit a less popular and offbeat Greek destination, you can do so by hopping on a ferry that will take you to your desired island in just a few hours from the ports of Attica. Especially if it’s your first time in our country, traveling by ferry will offer you the opportunity to marvel at wondrous sea views you’ll never experience anywhere else in the whole, wide world, while you’ll even get the chance to see some of the most popular ports during various island stops.
One thing you should keep in mind before choosing any Greek island is that you should make a point to book your flights and ferry tickets as early as possible, because especially during the high-season months, availably can become an issue.
But where should you go? Here’s a list of the Greek islands you should visit divided geographically, depending on your taste and the type of vacations you want to experience.
If time matters, choose the Saronic Islands
Hydra Island - credits: S-F/Shutterstock.com
If the clock is ticking and the days you have to spend in Greece are limited, choosing an island near Athens is the wisest choice you can make. That’s when the Saronic islands come out to play. Famous for being within an hour –or a couple- from the port of Piraeus, Aegina, Poros, Hydra, and Spetses are beautiful and convenient; a winning combo if I’ve ever seen one!
And if that wasn’t enough, the islands of Hydra and Spetses are extremely picturesque, with cobbled alleys and old stone houses dominating the setting, and don’t require a car; you can go everywhere on foot or by taking a local taxi! Of course, the rest of the islands are not inferior in any way. Aegina is a personal favorite, with its authentic Greek island ambiance fooling everyone into thinking they’re way more than an hour away from the Greek capital.
Additionally, tiny Agkistri offers a lusciously vegetated landscape and an incredibly long beach, while Poros is known for its magnificent lemon forest that blooms during spring and smells incredible.
If partying is all that’s on your mind, choose the Cyclades
Mykonos Island - credits: javarman/Depositphotos.com
If you want to experience the famous Greek island nightlife while also having your eyes feast upon the trademark whitewashed houses with deep blue elements you’ve seen on postcards around the world, then the Cyclades islands are for you!
The islands of Mykonos and Ios, in particular, offer the wildest partying scene, with countless beach bars and nightclubs carrying long parties that most often last until 9-10 am! A little tamer but just as vibrant is Paros, with its cobbled streets, local boutiques, and delicious restaurants making the island a top destination to tourists for all the right reasons. Of course, one cannot talk about the Cyclades and leave out the one and only Santorini.
If you want to experience the best of Greece’s cuisine, choose Crete
Crete Island - credits: Neirfys/Depositphotos.com
Deserving a whole section on its own, no one can deny that Crete is in fact superior to any Greek island in regard to its local cuisine. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the island lacks in amazing landscapes and stunning beaches. On the contrary, the beach of Falassarna is hands down my favorite beach in all of Greece.
What’s more, Crete is one of the most historically rich regions of our country, and therefore its archaeological sites are the perfect attraction to all history buffs out there. All in all, the birthplace of Zeus, which also happens to be the largest Greek island, is a people pleaser; visit it and you’ll never look back!
If you’re an architecture fanatic, chose the Ionian Islands
Kefalonia Island - credits: Andrew Mayovskyy/Shutterstock.com
After serving the foodies and history buff of you lot, it’s time to cater to the lovers of architecture. The beautiful Ionian Islands consist of Zakynthos, Ithaca, Corfu, Kefalonia, Lefkada, Paxoi, Kythira, Antikythera, Antipaxoi, Erikousa, Mathraki, Othoni, Meganisi, and Strofades. Clearly influenced by the Venetians, French, and British conquerors that have passed by its grounds, Corfu is a true architectural masterpiece combining the best elements of all past civilizations it has hosted.
Its unmatched aesthetic is also evident in its town that is painted in warm, sunset colors and exudes an old-time charm and a nostalgic vibe you cannot shake off. My all-time favorite island though is the magical island of Kefalonia, which combines luscious mountainous regions with incredible beaches, crystal-clear waters, and traditional Greek island elements that make it endearing to anyone who visits.
If you’re all about long, sandy beaches, choose the Dodecanese Islands
Symi Island - credits: Lubos K/Shutterstock.com
The least-known complex of islands in Greece happens to be one of the most beautiful one, with its islands retaining an authentic Greek island character that is increasingly more difficult to come across during recent years. The Dodecanese islands consist of Kos, Patmos, Agathonisi, Astypalaia, Chalki, Kalymnos, Karpathos, Kasos, Leipsoi, Leros, Nisyros, Symi, Tilos, Kastellorizo, Alimia, Arkoi, Chalki, Farmakonisi, Gyali, Kinaros, Levitha, Marathos, Nimos, Pserimos, Saria, Strongyli, Syrna, and Telendos, of which the first two are the most popular.
Legend has it, that Hippocrates himself, born on the island of Kos, used to take advantage of the healing properties of the thermal baths at Agios Fokas beach. The ultimate destination for experiencing an alternative side of the Greek islands, the Dodecanese are known for their long, sandy, and particularly quiet beaches that make everyone’s troubles magically disappear, and hide some of the most authentic and unknown Greek islands. If peace and tranquillity are what you crave from your vacations, look no further!
Beach bar - credits: DisobeyArt/Shutterstock.com
Greece’s nightlife is famous and its epicenter during summertime is the Greek islands. Zakynthos is the preferred destination in the Ionian Sea if you want to experience memorable party nights. In this beautiful isle, you can find everything you need to have a great time and dance yourself into the next morning, from jazz and blues bars to packed, loud clubs that play mainstream hits.
The Cyclades, which is a group of islands in the middle of the Aegean Sea, is full of beautiful destinations like Naxos, Koufonisia, Ios, Sifnos, Amorgos, and Paros. Despite those islands varying in size, they are all quite developed, as they host thousands of tourists -most of them young- every summer. The unlimited amount of bars, clubs, cafes, and gorgeous beaches offer a lot of choices for an unforgettable, fun night out.
Last but not least, we can’t make a list of cosmopolitan islands ideal for Millenials without mentioning the famous island of Mykonos. A part of the Cyclades, Mykonos is arguably among the most famous Greek islands, gathering n ever-expanding crowd of millennials seeking to live like tomorrow doesn't every summer. Mykonos has an abundance of loud beach bars, clubs, and live stages that host incredible parties with artists from all over the world. Dancing, partying, and drinking never seemed more inviting!
Ikaria island - credits: NDT/Shutterstock.com
Greece s a dream destination also for people who just want to unwind and spend their time in a calm, aesthetically pleasing setting with a tranquil ambiance and magical landscapes. Ithaca is an appealing destination for relaxing and living yourself a break from reality. Young and older people from all over the world visit the thermal baths of Ithaca that can allegedly cure arthritis, skin, and neurological diseases. Those who visit the island are sure to understand why Odysseus tried so hard to return to it!
The North Aegean, and specifically the alternative island of Ikaria, is a great choice for those who prefer spending their days on the beach and spending their nights dancing in traditional 'panigiria' and not in common bars and clubs. The islands where time stops if you find yourself in Ikaria forget your big city ways and embrace the nonchalant attitude and easy-going vibe of the locals.
The Dodecanese is another group of islands in the Aegean Sea, where you can get a taste of the island life in places such as Symi, a mountainous, gorgeous island. What's more, Astipalaia is a small island between the Cyclades and the Dodecanese and is home to 300 people; when visiting it, you feel like it is your own private island paradise! Despite the majority of islands of the Cyclades being cosmopolitan, some of them -which are less-known- are rather quiet and peaceful. Those are Kythnos, Anafi, and Donousa and they are all worth visiting due to their astonishing beauty and the calm sensation they provoke.
For history buffs
Knossos palace in the city of Heraklion - credits: KevTate999/Depositphotos.com
Everyone and their dog knows that Greece has a rich heritage and is a country full of important archaeological sites and museums. If you want to spend your summer swimming and sunbathing, but you’d also like to learn about the history of ancient civilizations, the Greek islands are right up your street! Venetian and Frankish castles can be found in Zakynthos and Corfu in the Ionian Sea, and in Paros and Rhodes in the Aegean. Most of these places retain the style and architecture of the old towns, so strolling along the cities will be fascinating. But the opportunities to admire the remnants of older civilizations don’t end in the cities’ limits.
Additionally, destinations such as Kithyra and Santorini are full of excavations that reveal their vast history. Ancient sites blend perfectly with newer temples, buildings, and castles to create a dazzling spectacle. Crete is also a huge island with an even bigger history. A few kilometers outside the city of Heraklion, you will find Knossos, the oldest European city. Palaces, paintings on the walls, and incredible constructions create a landscape like no other.
For business travelers
Kea Island - credits: Milan Gonda/Shutterstock.com
The plethora of Greek islands allows business travelers the opportunity to make quick trips and enjoy the beautiful sea, while also working and being close to airports and big cities. Places like Aegina, Hydra, Spetses, Poros, and Kea offer all luxuries that any bigger island would while at the same time they are easy to access and within close proximity to the Greek capital. Kefalonia, Corfu, Rhodes, and Lesvos are much bigger islands with international airports and a more cosmopolitan vibe for those who prefer working, but also combining work with exciting and eventful vacations.
For experience seekers
Navagio in Zakynthos - credits: gorillaimages/Shutterstock.com
Visiting Greece is a huge experience on its own. For those who seek more than mind-blowing views and fun nights, Greece has to offer adrenaline boosts in the form of extreme sports. Even in small islands like Anafi and Milos, tourists can go hiking and trek on the mountains admiring the sunset above the blue, Greek sea.
The best view has to be the one in Lefkada while paragliding above that gorgeous island of the Ionian Sea. On the horizon, you’ll be able to see Zakynthos where people often indulge in base jumping.
In Santorini, tourists dive into the underwater parts of the isle where they visit dark caves and colorful riffs. Rock climbers travel on the quaint island of Kalymnos every year to explore its land. Windsurfing in Paros is the greatest way to exploit the windy weather of the Greek islands.
Top Island Suggestions
If you want me to be even more specific, here are my suggestions of the top 5 Greek islands you should visit that are not the ones you usually hear about. Please keep in mind that the following Greek islands are just indicative examples, so make sure to not restrict yourself to just those destinations, but rather explore your options before making an educated decision.
Let’s start with the most popular of the bunch. Known as the Greek island favored by families with children, not only because most of the beaches are sandy and shallow, allowing safe swimming, but also because of the wide offering of things to do that will keep your little ones entertained, Naxos is a sight to behold.
The whole southwestern part of the island, from the beach of Ag. George to St. Prokopi, Agia Anna, Plaka, and Pyrgaki, offers everything you could possibly ask for: crystal clear waters, organized, sandy beaches, and traditional taverns offering mouth-watering local dishes after your swimming endeavors.
A visit to Naxos Town in the afternoon is a must, as well as an evening walk in the green mountain villages of Apeiranthos and Filoti that maintain their traditional character. As for the sights that will impress history enthusiasts and children alike? The archaeological ruin of Portara is the first thing you’ll see when you enter the island, while the giant Kouros in Melanes is sure to impress even the most demanding of visitors.
Although it is hardly ever talked about, Tinos is one of the most misunderstood islands, because in the minds of many it is connected exclusively to the Christian churches that have made it famous. And yet, it is a quiet island, with beautiful beaches, geological interest, and traditional settlements that are ideal for a walk, while its beaches offer a wide variety of water sports that will satisfy those looking for an adrenaline rush!
For swimming, families prefer the beaches found on the southern part of the island, from Ag. Fokas to the beach of Ag. Ioannis Porto, as those are organized, sandy, and convenient. However, if you are looking for more exotic landscapes, Kolimbithra and Kionia are the ones for you. In the settlement of Kionia, you will find the archaeological site of the sanctuary of Poseidon and Amphitrite.
Nicknamed as ‘the mistress of the Cyclades’, the island of Syros is a cultural hub that combines beauty and sophistication. With amazing beaches, remarkable attractions and reasonable prices, I can’t think of a single reason why you shouldn’t visit it! The capital of the island, which also happens to be the capital of the Cyclades in general, is Ermoupolis, a stunning town that will leave you awestruck the first time you rest your eyes upon it; its mansions, its alleys full of shops, and the central Miaouli square are only some of its beauties.
The island may not be famous for its exotic beaches, however, Galissas and Poseidonia/De la Gracia are incredible! Syros’ selling point for me though, is the little district of Ano Syros, the old town of the island. The cobbled alleys, the Markos Vamvakaris Museum, and the breath-taking view out to the sea make for a setting that is sure to be unforgettable!
Milos is famous for its lace-like coast that hosts over 75 small and large beaches. With crystal clear, deep blue waters, colorful sculpted rocks, and white-gold sandy beaches, you are sure to be thrilled by the sight. Due to the volcanic origin of its soil, Milos has an impressive morphology that offers diversity.
On the island, you can find both beaches with white sand and bays with pebbles surrounded by, white, red, yellow, or even black rocks. Additionally, in the traditional fishing village of Klima, the picturesque two-story houses with the intensely colored shutters and doors, as well as the cute fishing boats, compose a colorful and picturesque setting that looks like it has come straight out of a fairytale.
Amorgos is the easternmost island of the Cyclades. It is in its privileged geographical position and its naturally protected port, the port of Katapola, that Amorgos owes its cultural development since antiquity. Amorgos Town –or Chora- remains, if not the most beautiful, one of the most beautiful towns of the Cyclades, and it is located high above Katapola.
For a spectacular swim, take the road to Vroutsi and you’ll stumble upon the small but gorgeous beach of Agia Anna, one of the most popular destinations on the island. Don’t forget to plan a visit to the astonishing Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa, hooked like an eagle's nest on the steep cliffs. It does require a rather tiring climb, but it is more than worth the effort!
I think the guide above will help you determine the best Greek islands to visit with little to no effort of your own. Especially after those long COVID-19-filled months, the pressure to take full advantage of your annual leave and plan the perfect holidays is one more than it has ever been! Luckily, when it comes to the Greek islands, choosing your destination is like choosing between bars of gold: no matter which one you pick, the outcome can’t be anything but brilliant!
Alternatively, you can also choose to not limit yourself to only one destination but a few of them by embarking on a Greek island-hopping adventure!
Are you ready to have the time of your life and spend your days with sun on your skin, salt on your hair, happiness in your heart, and freedom on your mind?