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Which Greek Islands Are Right for You?

By Amanda Castleman

08.21.19

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Our guide to choosing the best Greek island for you will have you navigating these cerulean seas like an ancient mariner.

Photo by Dimitri Koskinas/Shutterstock

Our guide to choosing the best Greek island for you will have you navigating these cerulean seas like an ancient mariner.

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.

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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. We’ve picked 18 of the most outstanding destinations the country has to offer. Take a flight from Athens’s Eleftherios Venizelos airport (ATH) or a ferry from nearby Piraeus on the Saronic Gulf, and start island-hopping to discover the spot that best speaks to your soul.

Andros (Ándhros)

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.

Highlights: architecture, beaches, coastal drives, footpaths, mountains, ruins, scenery, villages

Getting there: two-hour ferry from Rafina (near Athens) 

Cephalonia is laid-back and a bit eccentric.

Cephalonia (Kefaloniá)

The largest of the Ionian islands lounging 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.

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

Corfu (Kérkyra)

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.

Highlights: architecture, beaches, Italian cuisine, footpaths, history, scenery, UNESCO World Heritage

Getting there: European flights; hour-long flight ATH-CFU; interisland and international Italian ferries

Crete (Kríti)

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.

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

They used to exile dissidents on this island.

Folegandros

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).

Highlights: hiking, scenery, romance, traditional food, quiet

Getting there: 4.25-hour ferry from Piraeus (near Athens), interisland ferries 

Hydra (Ýdhra)

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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.

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

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

Icaria (Ikaría)

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 living well into their 90s.

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

Kos (Cos)

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.

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 

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

Lefkada (Lefkás)

Greeks sliced across the Isthmus of Corinth in 1893, creating this island. 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.

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

Lesbos (Lésvos)

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 washed 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.

Highlights: agriculture, beaches, hot springs, olive groves, mountains, not heavily touristed, traditional architecture

Getting there: 40-minute flight ATH-MJT; interisland and international Turkish ferries 

Milos

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.

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

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

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.

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

Naxos

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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.

Highlights: agriculture, architecture, cuisine, isolated beaches, history, lush landscape, ruins, mountain villages, rugged scenery

Getting there: 40-minute flights ATH-JNX; 3.5- to four-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland ferries 

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

Paros

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.

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

Patmos

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.

Highlights: beaches, cosmopolitan vibe, monasteries, pilgrimages, tranquility, villages, welcoming residents, white-washed architecture, UNESCO World Heritage site

Getting there: no airport, eight- to 10.5-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland ferries

Rhodes is a mad jumble of architecture styles and cultures.

Rhodes (Ródhos)  

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.

Highlights: beaches, cuisine, diving, history, medieval architecture, nightlife, ruins, UNESCO World Heritage 

Getting there: seasonal European flights; one-hour flights ATH-RHO, 11- to 17-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens), interisland and international Turkish ferries

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.

Highlights: cuisine, hiking, ruins, scenery, winetasting, white-washed architecture

Getting there: European flights; 45-minute flights ATH-JTR; 5.5- to eight-hour ferries from Piraeus (near Athens); interisland ferries

Skiathos 

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.

Highlights: beaches, churches, hiking, scenery, monasteries

Getting there: summer European flights; 40-minute flights ATH-JSI; interisland ferries

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