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.
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.
Greek island complexes
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 island complex of the Cyclades is for you!
The islands of Mykonos and Ios, in particular, offer the wildest partying scene, with countless beach bars and night clubs 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.
The most luxurious destination in Greece along with Mykonos, Santorini stands out due to its unique geography and the active volcano that attracts curious crowds worldwide.
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.
The scenic village of Assos and the beautifully wild beach of Myrtos are, in my opinion, two of the island’s highlights you should certainly visit if given the chance.
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!
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.
What’s more, a visit to the cave of Gastria, the waterfalls near the beach of Livada, is also worth your while and can be combined with a visit to the mountainous villages of Pyrgos and Volakas.
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 which Greek island is the right for you 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?