Which Greek Islands Should You Visit?

If choosing among the Cyclades, Ionian, and Dodecanese feels like Greek to you, we can help locate the island paradise that suits your vacation personality.

Which Greek Islands Should You Visit?

We’ve narrowed it down to our 18 favorite.

Photo by Dimitri Koskinas/Shutterstock

The cradle of Western civilization teems with blue skies, gin-clear seas, and sun-bleached archaeological splendors. Artists and writers have always swooned for this land of poetic ruins and vibrant culture, set against rugged mountains, picturesque harbors, and coves of sugar-white sand. Today Greece attracts everyone from honeymooners to families, foodies, clubbers, history buffs, and seekers of wind-swept solitude.

With over 2,000 idyllic islands, visitors are certainly spoiled for choice. If you’re wondering which is the nicest Greek island to visit, or which is the prettiest or most popular, we have some answers. Take a flight from Athens’s Eleftherios Venizelos airport (ATH), a ferry from nearby Piraeus on the Saronic Gulf, or begin your journey on a Mediterranean cruise, and start island-hopping to discover the spot that best speaks to your soul with one of these 18 best islands Greece has to offer.

open-uri20220524-49-1lwnbgl

Our favorite Greek islands are dotted among the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

Illustration by Elizabeth See

Andros (Ándhros)

  • Highlights: architecture, beaches, coastal drives, footpaths, mountains, ruins, scenery, villages
  • Getting there: two-hour ferry from Rafina (near Athens)
  • Where to stay: We like Onar Andros, a locally run collection of cottages that offer a real escape from the day-to-day.
  • Book now: Onar Andros

This lush island attracts hikers with its wildflowers, mountains, coastal cliffs, lemon groves, and flowing streams (a rarity in the Cyclades). The Neolithic settlement at Strofilas, an archaeological site that dates back to 4500 B.C.E., is worth exploring. In more recent history, the island’s rich maritime culture led to wealthy shipowners packing Andros Town—aka “Chora” (you’ll notice that the largest town on many Greek islands is called Chora)—with neoclassical mansions. Watch for charming remnants of the Venetian era, like dovecote towers and dry-stone walls.

open-uri20190819-5768-vhybdc

Cephalonia is laid-back and a bit eccentric.

Photo by Shutterstock

Cephalonia (Kefaloniá)

  • Highlights: beaches, caves, culture, cuisine, forests, history, Italianate harbor villages, vineyards
  • Getting there: European flights; 55-minute flight ATH-EFL; interisland and international Italian ferries
  • Where to stay: Try Emelisse Nature Resort, a luxury retreat hidden among cypress and cedar trees beside the Ionian Sea.
  • Book now: Emelisse Nature Resort

The largest of the Ionian islands off Greece’s west coast, this enchanting, uncrowded place offers beach lovers coves with sandy beaches and azure seas. Always a bit stubborn, set apart, and eccentric, Cephalonia won hearts after Louis de Bernières’s 1994 novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin chronicled the island’s occupation during World War II. Today it’s celebrated for its laid-back lifestyle and excellent food, wine, and swimming beaches. Don’t miss Melissani, a turquoise underground lake illuminated by shafts of sunlight.

open-uri20220602-49-6n4958

Corfu is a mellow, island destination perfect for hiking and swimming at its many beaches.

Photo by proslgn

Corfu (Kérkyra)

  • Highlights: architecture, beaches, Italian cuisine, footpaths, history, scenery, UNESCO World Heritage site
  • Getting there: European flights; hour-long flight ATH-CFU; interisland and international Italian ferries
  • Where to stay: Bed down at Kontokali Bay Resort & Spa, which offers a family-friend luxury retreat not far from the town.
  • Book now: Kontokali Bay Resort & Spa

Mythology says Odysseus was shipwrecked on this lush, lovely Ionian isle. In more modern times, it blossomed into an intellectual and artistic hot spot. Untouched by Ottoman oppression, Corfu was influenced instead by its time under Venetian, French, and British rule. This mountainous region remains a mellow, unspoilt destination (outside of patches of garish package-holiday resorts). Hikers can explore its coastline, peaks, olive groves, and pastel hill towns on the 124-mile Corfu Trail. Fancy a more relaxing stroll? Wander the Old Town of Corfu, an elegant fortified port and UNESCO World Heritage site.

Crete (Kríti)

  • Highlights: archaeology, beaches, food, hiking, history, museums, partying, rugged scenery, tradition
  • Getting there: European flights into Heraklion’s HER or Chania’s CHQ, 50- to 60-minute flights from ATH; nine-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland ferries
  • Where to stay: Part of the Historic Hotels of Europe, and built around an old olive mill, Kapsaliana Village Hotel is a singular combination of rustic charm and modern luxury featuring bright and airy rooms and a tranquil swimming pool.
  • Book now: Kapsaliana Village Hotel

Legends abound here: Zeus was born in a cave, Theseus slayed the Minotaur, and Daedalus and Icarus took flight. The landscape is equally dramatic with deep gorges, snowcapped peaks, and sandy shorelines. Europe’s first urban civilization flourished in Crete: The Bronze Age Minoans left a rich legacy of art and architecture, best experienced at Knossos. Trekkers shouldn’t miss the 10-mile long Samariá Gorge, a national park protecting endangered kri-kri goats, while nature lovers can watch loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on sandy beaches each summer.

open-uri20190819-19963-15vkcbw

They used to exile dissidents on Folegandros.

Photo by Shutterstock

Folegandros

  • Highlights: hiking, scenery, romance, traditional food, quiet
  • Getting there: 4.25-hour ferry from Piraeus (near Athens), interisland ferries
  • Where to stay: Try Anemi Hotel. Minimalist comfort and peaceful nights are the order of the day at this small, friendly spot, which also has the requisite pool—and poolside bar.
  • Book now: Anemi Hotel

This petite island at the southern edge of the Cyclades was once a place of exile for political prisoners and is now a beloved, off-the-beaten-track retreat where donkeys and goats scramble over sun-soaked hills. Expect sea, sand, and solitude here, plus a dreamy town that rivals Santorini’s Oia. Built in and around a medieval Venetian fort, the scenic village of Chora spills whitewashed buildings with blue shutters along a 650-foot sea cliff, towering over emerald waves. Foodies should try the thyme honey and matsata (pasta with rabbit ragù).

Hydra (Ýdhra)

  • Highlights: art, donkeys, hiking, no motor traffic, stone architecture
  • Getting there: no airport; AirLift helicopter to Kivotos islet, plus a three-minute sea taxi; 90-minute to two-hour high-speed catamarans from Piraeus (near Athens); two-hour private sea taxi
  • Where to stay: Four Seasons Hydra may not be part of that Four Seasons chain, but its eight well-appointed suites offer comfortable places to bed down, many with sea views. The hotel also has a beautiful wooden sailing ship for guests to enjoy.
  • Book now: Four Seasons Hydra

Within day-trip distance of Athens, this island off the Peloponnese is a tangle of marble-cobbled lanes, completely free of wheeled vehicles. Its tucked-away harbor remains one of Greece’s most picturesque waterfronts. Small wonder celebrities—from actress Sophia Loren to writer Arthur Miller and musician Leonard Cohen—have retreated there. Contemporary art enthusiasts should make time for the exhibits in a hauntingly beautiful repurposed slaughterhouse by the sea.

open-uri20190819-16326-zky20g

Small villages, hot springs, and crystalline coves are among the charms of Icaria.

Photo by Shutterstock

Icaria (Ikaría)

  • Highlights: beaches, cuisine, nature, trails, panigyria festival, rock houses, village festivals
  • Getting there: 50-minute flight ATH-JIK, 6.5-hour ferry from Piraeus (near Athens), interisland ferries
  • Where to stay: Ikarian Endless Blue, a three-bedroom villa, does indeed offer views of seemingly endless blue, whether from the private swimming pool or the beach 150 steps away.
  • Book now: Ikarian Endless Blue

In legend, Icarus flew too close to the sun and plummeted into the ocean near this ironically wing-shaped island. A land of rivers, gorges, peaks, and high forests, it lures nature buffs with monopatia—informal routes linking villages—and hot springs. Icaria was once home to political dissidents, who won over the locals and introduced an eccentric, anti-establishment vibe that persists today. But the area is most famous for its residents’ longevity, with one in three Ikarians apparently living well into their 90s.

Kos (Cos)

  • Highlights: beaches, biking, nature, nightlife, ruins, scenery
  • Getting there: 55-minute flights ATH-KGS; 11.5-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland and international Turkish ferries
  • Where to stay: A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, Aqua Blu Boutique Hotel & Spa is set a short bike ride from Kos Town and the harbor and offers a quintessential luxury Grecian escape.
  • Book now: Aqua Blu Boutique Hotel & Spa

Sandy beaches girdle this lush Dodecanese idyll, just off Turkey’s Anatolian coast. For an easy-breezy, full-service holiday, turn to the three main resort areas: party-hearty Kardamena and the more chill Mastihari and Kamari. Away from these bustling areas, Kos unfurls fields, mountains, and a surprising amount of wilderness, punctuated by wildflowers and millennia-old toppled Corinthian columns.

open-uri20190819-13510-1509bq4

You won’t be bored with the landscape of Lefkada.

Photo by Natalia Budianska/Shutterstock

Lefkada (Lefkás)

  • Highlights: architecture, beaches, kitesurfing, mellow, rugged scenery, swimming, windsurfing
  • Getting there: European flights in summer; 55-minute flights ATH-PVK (12.5 miles north); 4.25-hour drive from Athens; interisland ferry and international Italian ferries
  • Where to stay: Porto Galini Seaside Resort & Spa is a five-star spot, spread over landscaped grounds with a pool and private beach, about seven miles from Lefkada Town.
  • Book now: Porto Galini Seaside Resort & Spa

The Ionian Sea shines almost neon blue here, offset by the craggy splendor of chalky interior mountains. This welcoming spot has pedestrian streets in Lefkada Town, where colonnades shade boutiques and trendy eateries. Due to constant earthquake threats, locals began building homes along the picturesque narrow alleys using wooden frames and colorful sheet-metal exteriors.

Lesbos (Lésvos)

  • Highlights: agriculture, beaches, hot springs, olive groves, mountains, traditional architecture
  • Getting there: 40-minute flight ATH-MJT; interisland and international Turkish ferries
  • Where to stay: Delfina Hotel and Bungalows dates back to 1961, but it’s been expanded and updated several times since, and has well-appointed rooms with sea or garden views as well as 57 bungalows.
  • Book now: Delfina Hotel and Bungalows

Greece’s third-largest island birthed the great lyric poet Sappho, along with Aesop and, more recently, Nobel-laureate poet Odysseus Elytis. Locals have also been nominated for the peace prize, thanks to their humanitarian efforts after 800,000 refugees and migrants arrived ashore in 2015. Expect a petrified forest and parched western plains giving way to salt marshes and postcard-perfect sandy beaches. Known for its olive oils and fine wines, Lesbos also produces the bulk of Greek ouzo.

Milos

  • Highlights: agritourism, archaeology, around 80 sweet beaches, diving, Hellenistic sculpture, museums, picturesque villages, scenery
  • Getting there: 45-minute flights ATH-MLO; three- to six-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland ferries
  • Where to stay: White Coast Pool Suites sits alone among white rocks by the glittering sea, and each suite has its own private infinity pool.
  • Book now: White Coast Pool Suites

Wrapped around a central volcanic caldera, this southwestern Cycladic beauty blends seascapes with subaquatic caves, hot springs, and elaborate, eroded rock formations. Milos is something of a household word, thanks to its most famous export: the Venus de Milo statue, now in Paris at the Louvre Museum. The island’s western half—and surrounding land masses—are protected as a nature preserve, harboring three endemic species: the Milos viper, rare Mediterranean monk seal, and alligator-shaped Milos wall lizard.

open-uri20190819-1795-1p6z8vh

Mykonos is popular for its nightlife but the villages and history should not be overlooked.

Photo by Sven Hansche/Shutterstock

Mykonos

  • Highlights: beaches, celebrities, gay clubs, nightlife, parties, thatched windmills, white-washed architecture
  • Getting there: seasonal European flights; 40-minute flights ATH-JMK; 4.5-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland ferries
  • Where to stay: Try the Santa Marina Mykonos, with 101 guest rooms and suites, 13 villas, a private sandy beach, infinity pools, and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
  • Book now: Santa Marina Mykonos

Think Ibiza—without the foam parties and the attitude. This dry, rugged Cycladic island lures in the hedonistic glitterati in high season, along with cruise-ship crowds—and it has the jacked-up prices to prove it. Still, it’s worth a visit to get lost in the white-washed maze of boho Mykonos Town (aka “Hora”) or head out to the archaeological wonders of Delos, one of Greece’s most important sites.

Naxos

  • Highlights: agriculture, architecture, cuisine, isolated beaches, history, lush landscape, ruins, mountain villages, rugged scenery
  • Getting there: 40-minute flights ATH-JNX; 3.5- to 4-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland ferries
  • Where to stay: Set above the Agios Prokopios beach, Kavos Boutique Hotel Naxos offers a number of comfortable suites, apartments, and villas with a multitude of places to sit with a book and a drink and gaze out over the sea.
  • Book now: Kavos Boutique Hotel Naxos

The largest and most abundantly green of the Cyclades, this island mixes Byzantine churches with Venetian towers and stronghold mansions. In the main town of Chora, watch for more modest homes along the stegasta (arched, narrow, sheltered streets). Escape the mass-tourism crowds by heading to the valleys, mountains, and stunning northern shore, where it’s still possible to experience the “great sweetness and tranquility” praised by Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece’s most revered novelist. Toast it with local kítron, a sweet citrus-leaf liqueur.

open-uri20190819-19963-z6sve9

This island is home to the flawless marble used to carve the Venus de Milo.

Photo by Shutterstock

Paros

  • Highlights: diving, drinking, hiking, kiteboarding, monasteries, nature, nightlife, ruins, villages, windsurfing
  • Getting there: 40-minute flights ATH-PAS, three- to five-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland ferries
  • Where to stay: Paros Bay Hotel has everything you’d expect from a Greek island retreat—white buildings, glistening pool, sea views, and Mediterranean cuisine—but at a fraction of the price of some other options.
  • Book now: Paros Bay Hotel

This large, hilly, and fertile island has been ruled by the Cretans, Minoans, Ionians, Arcadians, Macedonians, Romans, and Byzantines, among others. Seemingly the one constant through the centuries is the island’s pristine white marble, most notably carved into the Venus de Milo and Napoleon’s tomb. The capital Parikiá can get crowded and costly; try the port of Náoussa and the satellite island of Andíparos instead.

Patmos

  • Highlights: beaches, cosmopolitan vibe, monasteries, pilgrimages, tranquility, villages, welcoming residents, white-washed architecture, UNESCO World Heritage site
  • Getting there: 8- to 10.5-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland ferries
  • Where to stay: Family run Petra Hotel and Suites comprises just 11 rooms but they’re all exceptionally appointed and many have a sea view or an outdoor hot tub; the property also has a robust sustainability policy.
  • Book now: Petra Hotel and Suites

This hourglass-shaped Dodecanese outcropping lies in the Aegean Sea, off Turkey’s west coast. It remains popular among Christian pilgrims, drawn to the old settlement of Chorá by the fever-dream writing of the prophet John in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. The charming harbor of Skala also attracts fans, as do its cyan seas and volcanic hills, interrupted only by church and goat bells. Note: Patmos has no airport and thus no mass tourism still.

open-uri20190819-12053-1n2r663

Rhodes is a mad jumble of architecture styles and cultures.

Photo by Lukasz Puch/Shutterstock

Rhodes (Ródhos)

  • Highlights: beaches, cuisine, diving, history, medieval architecture, nightlife, ruins, UNESCO World Heritage site
  • Getting there: seasonal European flights; one-hour flights ATH-RHO, 11- to 17-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens), interisland and international Turkish ferries
  • Where to stay: Kókkini Porta Rossa has been turned from a derelict house in the heart of Rhodes’s old town into a charming boutique hotel, where the walls reverberate with 700 years of history and days begin with a sumptuous multicourse breakfast and end with free winetasting.
  • Book now: Kókkini Porta Rossa

The capital of the Dodecanese, this island ranks among its largest and has the most historical swagger. Rhodes (“Ro-dos”) spans Europe and the East and blends the two in a glorious jumble. Wander the medieval city of Rhodes Town, fortified by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it mixes palaces, synagogues, Byzantine churches, Roman ruins, and Ottoman mosques with one of the world’s most staggering ensembles of Gothic architecture. Then head south to postcard-perfect Lindos, where white houses climb from a turquoise bay towards an ancient acropolis. While this time-traveling mélange tends to be the main draw, Rhodes also has a buzzy party scene and excellent scuba descents among its underwater caves, ancient artifacts, and WWII shipwrecks.

Santorini

  • Highlights: cuisine, hiking, ruins, scenery, winetasting, white-washed architecture
  • Getting there: Take a 45-minute flight from ATH-JTR, 5.5- to 8-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens), or an interisland ferry
  • Where to stay: When you picture Santorini, those white buildings tumbling into the sea that signify somewhere far from daily life, you’re basically conjuring the multi-award-winning Canaves Oia Boutique Hotel. It’s not cheap, but you may as well do the island right.
  • Book now: Canaves Oia Santorini

Azure domes and white-washed walls cling to a crescent of sheer, rust-red volcanic cliffs. The star of the Cyclades occupies the remaining quarter of an ancient crater, blasted apart by the most powerful eruption in human history and then breached by the turquoise sea. In its depths are Minoan ruins, which romantics—including Plato—claim were part of Atlantis. Today the island is better known for romantic sunsets and schooner trips to islands in the still-simmering caldera. Toast it all with the bright local white wine, assyrtiko, which has hints of flint, lemon, and passion fruit.

Skiathos

  • Highlights: beaches, churches, hiking, scenery, monasteries
  • Getting there: Take a 40-minute flight from ATH-JSI or an interisland ferry.
  • Where to stay: 75 rooms blend into the pine-covered hillside at the Atrium Hotel—try to nab a suite with access to a hot tub or infinity pool.
  • Book now: Atrium Hotel

Welcome to Mamma Mia! country, where the Sporades islands lounge off Greece’s eastern coast. The sacred meets the profane here on this hilly island blanketed in pines and olive trees, with churches and nightclubs competing for attention. Expect cobblestones and narrow white-washed alleys in the picturesque port of Skiathos Town. Over 70 beaches pocket the island’s stunning coastline, many with golden sand (and an overabundance of European package–tourists in high season). Water babies can escape the madding crowds at Alonnisos, the nation’s first marine park and Europe’s largest. It protects the endangered Mediterranean monk seal and offers great swimming, diving, and bird-watching.

This article was originally published in August 2019 and was updated in May 2022. Tim Chester contributed reporting.

>>Next: Now Is the Time to Plan a Summer Vacation in Greece

More From AFAR