From romantic to the party hubs to the completely underrated There are thousands of Greek islands no matter what criteria you define an “island” on. It is estimated that 122 to 277 of these islands are inhabited. Loosely, these Greek islands are divided into Cyclades group, North Aegean Islands, Argo-Saronic islands , Dodecanese islands, Sporades, and the Ionian islands. From being party hubs giving a close fight to Ibiza, to romantic getaways, to one of the most deeply rooted places of pilgrimage, these islands have it all. And millions of tourists visit these hundreds of islands every year making it extremely difficult task to decide which island you should visit to get a taste of authentic Greece or make the most out of your holidays. Those who live in Greece, and perennial travelers who have made it a point to pay homage to Greece every year came together to make a list of accessible, fun and authentic Greek islands, highlighting their key factors and differences that make them unique.
Santorini – one of the best Greek islands for first time visitors
It is not far-fetched to say that Santorini is the most popular of all Greek Islands, the celebrity that pulls all the cameras towards them, a landscape so famous that it has inspired interior designs of homes and cafes all across the globe. Photos of Santorini’s iconic white buildings over looking the sea have been plastered on backgrounds of laptops and mobiles nudging a sense of travel-lust in young couples from all corners of the world. Unlike many other travel destinations designed just for the Instagram feed, Santorini doesn’t disappoint in real life, in fact, one can argue that it looks better in real life than in photos.
Once a part of a larger circular island known as Strongili, the Santorini group of islands that we see today are the results of repeated volcanic eruption resulting in the collapse on the central part and formation of a caldera (unbroken crater). This gave rise to Santorini’s trademark dramatic wall like small rocky red volcanic cliffs falling abruptly to the sea. The white buildings rolling down these cliffs over looking the sea pulls in around half a million tourists per year on an average.
The capital of Santorini, Fira and the nearby villages of Firostefani, and Imerovigli with their markets, restaurants and stunning views are the popular attractions. Other attractions include going on a wine tour and trying Vinsanto made from local grapes as Santorini is one of the most important wine growing regions of Greece, taking cooking lessons, exploring the open-air cinema in Kamari, and visiting the archeological site of Akrotiri. You should definitely end your day by watching sunset from Oia.
Crete – one of the most diverse Greek islands
If you could shrink down the essence of Greece into an island, it would probably look something like Crete. The historical value of Crete cannot be overstated as it has seen empires come and go from Minoans to Roman Empire to Ottoman Empire before finally joining mainland Greece in 1913. One of the largest Greek islands, Crete’s geographical diversity ranges from snow capped peaks to quintessential Greek beaches which help generate about 20% of total tourism revenue of the entire nation.
So yeah, when it comes to best Greek islands to visit, you will be hard pressed to find a place as well rounded as Crete.
The Northern coast of the island has stunning beaches while the south has canyons and cliffs. Driving coast to coast, seeing the villages specially in the west in Amari valley or Apokoronas, boating, snorkeling in the waters by beaches like Ligres, Sougia, and Kedrodassos will be the best decision you will make on entire Greek islands. You can see the rich history in the frescoes of chapels and monasteries. If there is only one thing you can do in Crete, that should be trying the healthy and equally delicious Cretan cuisine which is composed entirely of local olive oil, meat, cheese, and wine.
Syros – one of the best Greek islands for unique food
Syros like Santorini is one of the Greek islands that is a part of the Cyclades. Often called as “Lady of Cyclades” it couldn’t be more different from Santorini. There are no slopes laden with beautiful white buildings or picturesque attractions specifically made to attract tourists.
This is one of those Greek islands that you come to soak in authentic Greek day to day life with a mixture of culture and religions which is evident in the stunning architecture of this island.
The rich history of Syros in regards to ship building can still be seen today in neighborhoods of
Poseidonia and Vaporia which also has the beautiful Orthodox church of St Nicholas of the Rich.
Orthodox and Catholics have been living here peacefully for centuries and it can be seen in Ermoupoli. The Venetian influence and architecture can be seen in St George’s Cathedral and the piazzas, and villas in Ermoupoli which also has a miniature of La Scala.
Food is also a major reason why you shouldn’t miss Syros as there are several Tavernas or restaurants that serve lip smacking sea food like sea urchin, lobster, fish and pasta with a Greek twist. Loukoumi which is the Greek version of Turkish delight is a rose tinted delicacy you must try. When all is said and done, beaches like Delfini, Varvarousa, and Aetos provide great views of the sea and soft sand to lounge and enjoy a relaxing sunny day.
Mykonos – one of the best Greek islands for party animals
Mykonos is one of the most glitzy, glamorous, and bold Greek islands. This Cycladic island with its vibrant nightlife and LGBTQ friendly venues gives a strong competition to Ibiza when it comes to hedonistic parties that run well into the sun rise. For people who want to spend their holidays in places that are teeming with life, colourful characters from all works of life, glamorous parties, people who don’t mind rubbing shoulder to shoulder with strangers on beaches, Mykonos is not just one of the best Greek islands but also one of the best places on Earth to have a upbeat holiday of your dreams.
The hip hotels, restaurants, bars, on the sides of beaches which once used to welcome nudists now have everything you would imagine a rich supermodel could want: from nail salons to fitness centers to party venues with music booming 24×7. And supermodels, oiled up and jacked bodybuilders and rich crowd on super yachts are aplenty here. This is the ultimate party destination and you should definitely come with deep pockets.
Naxos – one of the best Greek islands for beaches
If the dizzying party lifestyle of Mykonos and attention grabbing beauty of Santorini isn’t your cup of tea, and you prefer something more understated but uncompromised, then Naxos is one of the best Greek islands to visit. Naxos is as all rounded as Crete but what Crete spreads over its massive area Naxos gathers in a small town feel. With its less adventurous, more relaxing vibes Naxos is the perfect destination to explore history and try new cuisine all the while healing your over worked soul.
The west coast of Naxos is paradise for beach lovers as it is sprinkled with miles of powdery beaches. Mikri Vigla is famous for water sports, visitors can enjoy horse riding on sandy beaches of Plaka, and shallow waters of Agios Prokopios and Agia Anna are great for families with young kids. There are so many laid back villages and unfinished statues in the hills of Naxos where you can simply relax and stroll around.
Since Naxos is more green than other Cycladic islands the food here is completely made from local ingredients. Vallindras Distillery on Halki’s main square is a great place to try the local citron liquor, while Ano Potamia village is a great place to try local wine and the famous arseniko cheese.
Kefalonia – one of the best Greek islands for families
The Kefalonia natives are always ready to crack a joke with their sharp wits but also among the most helpful people in all of Greek islands. This is the largest island on the Ionain sea and there is plenty to explore here from beautiful beaches that hide caves to mountains that are capped with fir trees. Driving around on one of the best maintained roads on Greek islands with breathtaking scenery of the sea, strolling around quaint villages and swimming in gin clear water with the fish, Kefalonia will make you drop your shoulders and relax.
When the day is sunny, take a row boat to the Melissani cave and experience what magic is like as the rays bounce off the blue waters. The beaches in Kefalonia are among the best beaches in all Greek islands like Myrtos with its clear water and an amazing view point, Horgota with its azure water changing to emerald green as it touches the shore that almost immediately rises up into pine covered hills, Dafnoudi and Emblissi beaches in Fiskardo that are great for snorkeling. Apart from beaches, visitors can also soak in the sleepy vibes of seaside villages like Assos and Fiskardo or travel up the Mount Ainos to the national park.
Rhodes is one of those Greek islands or even, one of those very rare places on Earth that seamlessly transition to and fro between medieval towns and architecture and modern cosmopolitan tourism giant. The transition is elegant and the turquoise bay along with beautiful villages makes it an irresistible holiday destination. It is the perfect place to soak up medieval history, take a relaxing stroll around clean markets and lazy around Greek coffee houses enjoying the sun and the views.
The Old Town of Rhodes which was mainly built by the Knights of the order of St John who lived here in early 14th century is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. Socrates market and the quaint neighborhoods around it will transport you back in time. The views from the acropolis at Lindos is stunning. While the inland has castles at hilltops and alpine forests and ancient ruins the south of Rhides contains great beaches like Glystra, Tsambika, and Fourni. Prasonisi where the Aegean sea meets the Mediterranean sea is popular for water sports.
Folegandros- one of the best Greek islands for hiking
Lying on the southern fringes of the Cyclades, Folegandros is a small, slow, laid back place. Is it the most popular of Greek islands? No, absolutely not. But its lack of popularity is not an accurate representation of just how soulful this island is.
Unlike many other Greek islands that have huge crowds on their beaches, Katergo beach in Folegandros is secluded with string currents which makes it a great place to sunbathe but not dive in. The pristine Livadaki beach follows the same trend of strong currents but the 2km.hike from Chruch of Agios is absolutely worth it. After all the sunbathing and beach hoping, the best way to end the day here is by climbing up the zig zag way from Plateia Pounta up to Church of Panagia to see the sun set as well as the stunning views of the Chora town.
Milos – one of the best Greek islands for couples
Not very long ago, the island of Milos was a secret shared only among the local people. However, the changing tide of time has steadily brought more and more eyes and popularity to this volcanic island. This is with good reason as Milos is one of the most exotic Greek islands with a lot of dramatic beaches, rock formations and picturesque villages.
The beach of Sarakiniko is locally known as Lunar as the northern winds shape the white volcanic rocks and caves into something otherworldly. Backed by red volcanic cliffs, the Paleochori beach has thermal springs and is an excellent spot for water sports. Milos also has many archeological treasures like the catacombs of Melos, Archeological Museum of Milos, Ancient Theater and catacombs and the Venus de Milo, the Hellenistic period statue of Aphrodite which sits in the Louvre was found here!
Sifnos – one of the best Greek islands for authentic Greek food
The gold and silver mines here may have exhausted long ago in 5th Century BC but Sifnos is an underrated gem siting barely 3 to 5 hours ferry ride from Athens (depends upon what kind of a ferry you take). Unlike many other islands in and around Cyclades, Sifnos has managed to keep a low profile and save itself from over tourism. It is thus one of those Greek islands where you can feel (and taste) authentic Greek life with a low key night life.
Sifnos is mostly mountainous in terrain and has a lot of valleys and surprisingly for its size, quote a lot of beaches too. The southern side of Sifnos is well connected with bus routes and has Platys Gialos beach with its tavernas, watersports, Chrissopigi beach with its rock platforms and a monastery, and Kamares beach. The northern side, although not as easily accessible as the southern, has some secluded beaches for great privacy.
However, sunbathing isn’t the only thing you can do in Sifnos as this island is famous for ceramics and pottery. The local houses are decorated with pottery and terracotta clay chimney and towns like Artemon have neo classical houses and whitewashed narrow streets.
Another thing Sifnos is greatly known for is the cuisine and it is the birth place of Nikolaos Tselementes, the famous Greek chef who published Greece’s first cook book in 1932, revolutionizing Greek food with the mixture of Eastern and Western techniques. On Sunday lunch, don’t forget to try revithada, a chickpea stew that is slow cooked all Saturday night long. Lovers of cheesecake will absolutely love melopita and local cookies.
Corfu – one of the best Greek islands for green landscape
Corfu is like a diva: high maintenance, old money vibes with certain amount of arrogant swagger. When you scratch deeper, you will find that this island has been the lighthouse of intellectualism for the entire nation of Greece, proud of its artistic heritage and bearing symbols of centuries of wars fought over the strategic positioning. Many Greek islands are beautiful but only few posses the pizzazz of this Ionian island.
There is an elegance here that comes from the mixture of Venetian, French, English and even Russian influence throughout centuries. The Old Town is Corfu’s main attraction where you can walk around the picturesque Liston Arcade and see the British built Palace of St Micheal and St George which now houses the Corfu Museum of Asian Art, the Venetian built Palaio Frourio towards the east, and other landmarks like Church of Agios Spyridon, Achilleion Palace.
The North Coast of Corfu has the famous Canal d’Amour (Love Channel) and you can find many other crowded to secluded beaches like Glyfada, Dasia, Ermones, and Halikounas. Kavos beach is one of the most well equipped beaches in Corfu and the water is shallow enough for families to enjoy together.
Hydra – one of the best Greek islands for art lovers
One of the most cosmopolitan Greek islands, Hydra (He-dra) is famous among international visitors as well as Athenians as Hydra is merely a two hour ferry ride from the capital of Greece. Upon arriving here, you will quickly realize that this beautiful island seems to be running on 0.5x speed; there are no cars here and your luggage to the hotel is carried by donkeys and mules. Don’t come to Hydra with “2 days to see xyz sites” mentality, come to Hydra to reel back your racing mind and anxious soul.
The cobblestoned harbour of Hydra showcase the old lavish mansions that point out to how influential this island once was. Canons, busts of old admirals, and their houses remind visitors of the old naval history. The Lazaros Koundouriotis Historical Mansion with its original architecture, furniture and paintings along with the monastery is the main attraction by the harbour.
Serifos – one of the most rugged and wild Greek islands
Serifos is one of those Greek islands where the classical chic vibe of Cyclades mingles with untamed nature on rugged hills. This theme of once an industrial center which is now abandoned continues with the empty mines, wild beaches and ruined monasteries. The Old Town with its sugar cube buildings and but no fancy hotels is where most people rotate their activities around.
However, Serifos is also a great place for hiking and exploring old churches along the way. The abandoned mine in Megalo Livadi with its old tracks and carts also has some renovated cottages that once belonged to miners. Grias Castle and the Monastery of Taxiarches built in 1572 are sites to explore Serifo’s history while Kalo Ampeli, Sikamia, and Agios Sostis are beaches which offer absolutely nothing other than what a beach should: sand and sea.
Paxos and Antipaxos – one of the best Greek islands for getting away and recharging
Lying 15 km south of a more famous island, Corfu Paxos and its little brother Antipaxos are small, only accessible and have managed to retain their idyllic ports, beautiful villages from the shadow of over tourism. Paxos is barely 13km north to south and has a really dramatic landscape complete with beaches facing mainland Greece, olive grooves, and rugged cliffs with caves. Antipaxos is even smaller at barely 4kms of length, has fantastic beaches along the coastline and a vineyard. One of the most tranquil Greek islands, Antipaxos is where you come to truly get away from day to day life and gear down in luxury.
Ithaca – one of the best Greek islands for lone time
Generally accepted as the Ithaca from Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, this Greek island has become a symbol of The destination of solace and the journey one carries out to reach it. It will come as a surprise for many that this beautiful island is quite undiscovered by majority of tourists that come to Greek islands so much so that you may find yourself utterly alone in the hillsides wandering around the ruins of Odysseus’ home.
The beautiful Dexa Beach with its emerald waters is believed to be the place where Odysseus landed after 20 years of treacherous journey back home from the Trojan War. Hike to Alalkomenes to find the ancient ruins of Ithaca’s acropolis or drive beach to beach and snorkel in Sarakiniko bay. The Panagia Kathariotissa Monastery provides stunning views of Ithaca, and Kefalonia through its vivid red windows.
Tinos – one of the most holy Greek islands
There is so much that Tinos is famous for: the iconic pilgrimage of Church of Annunciation with its icon of Our Lady of Tinos which is said to have powers of healing, Exobourgo mountain with the ruins of Venetian era fortress, around 50 villages, hundreds and hundreds of ornate dovecotes, Temple of Poseidon, its unique marble sculpting tradition…..just so much to soak in.
The art is seen everywhere in Tinos. There are around 650 dovecotes made with lithograph covered limestone, you can also take part in marble sculpting classes apart from seeing works from famous artists like Giannoulis Halepas, Dimitris Filippis and the Fitali brothers. Tinos is also one of those Greek islands where you can try your hand at extreme sports like bouldering in Volax, scuba diving and slightly less extreme surfing at Megali Kolymbithra.
Symi – one of the most colorful Greek islands
The arrival on Symi is just as beautiful as the stay. Upon arrival at Gialos you will be greeted by a vista of multicolored homes, bright yellow with contrasting red, salmon, turquoise, grey coloured neo-classical homes which will immediately stand out from so many other Greek islands with their signature sugar cube white buildings. Gialos has loads of noteworthy landmarks like the 17th Century Timiou Prodromou Monastery, Clock Tower, and the Fish Market
The rich aristocratic vibes continue as you climb 500 steps above to Ano Symi. Roam around the Horio and see the mansions and visit the Archeological And Folklore Museum, the Monastery of Taxiarchis Michael Panormitis. The perfect way to end the day would be to roam to Kastro and soak in the views of the Aegean sea.
Patmos – one of the most important Greek islands for pilgrimage
Patmos is often called “The Jerusalem of the Aegean” and needless to say its connection with religion is
deep and holds a special place for pilgrimage even among other religiously significant Greek islands. This
Dodecanese island has The Cave of the Apocalypse where it is believed that St John the Divine received his visions that he transcribed in the Book of Revelation. Established in 1088 above the Hora is the Monastery of St John the Theologian where the Holy Light arrives from Jerusalem on the night of Resurrection on Easter. The Hora is also a great place to see neoclassical and Gothic architecture making Patmos one of the most regal Greek islands.
Zakynthos – one of the best Greek islands for budget traveling
It can be quite tricky to talk about Zakynthos. The Venetian used to call it “The Flower of the Orient”, a named based on the olive grooves, and lemon trees that covered the whole Island. With the onset of millions of tourists to Greek islands each year, the Southern side of Zakynthos (or Zante in Italian) has felt the full force of cash grab tourism. Don’t get me wrong, the beaches are still gorgeous, the turquoise water runs to caves, Laganas Beach has loggerhead turtles laying their eggs on its soft sand between July and August, the town of Laganas has clubs, bars and pubs on Tsilivi, and the whole shazam.
However, to see the real Zakynthos, you will have to leave the touristy South behind. Explore the wild interiors of the island, hike to stony villages nestled among pine forests. Most of the western coast is mountainous plateau and tiwards the Southwestern end you will see rugged cliffs drop into the stunning blue Ionian sea, a sight worth leaving all the entertainment behind.
Astypalea – one of the best off the beaten path Greek islands
Astypalea known as the “Butterfly of the Aegean” has the elegant poise of Cycladic islands in its architecture but actually is a part of Dodecanese island chain! You cannot really escape tourists in any of the several Greek islands but for people looking for off the beaten path, Astypalea is the place to visit.
Astropalia, the islands main town (Chorá) has everything you expect of a Cycladic town: whitewashed homes, well-kept narrow passages, windmills and a majestic castle that was built in the 13th century. Below the castle is Astypalea’s main religious center: the church of Panagia Portaitissa built by Saint Anthimos who also brought a copy of the icon of Panagia Portaitissa from Mount Athos. Every year on August 15th, there is a festival around the church.