Greek Island Guide

Greek Island Guide

With their iconic whitewashed villages, mouthwatering cuisine, and beautiful beaches with ample opportunities to swim in crystal-clear blue waters, it’s no wonder that the Greek Islands are on the bucket lists of many travelers. But with over 6,000 islets and islands, 227 of which are inhabited, how do you decide where to go? Fortunately, there’s an island for everyone whether you’re looking for beach parties and nightlife, family-friendly activities, or a tranquil setting ideal for romance and sunset watching. Some are within easy reach of Athens, accessed by ferry and even doable for day trips, while others are best reached by plane. No matter what you’re dreaming of, our Greek Island Guide can help you enjoy the perfect Greece private tour

View of islands from Santorini

The Greek Island Groups

The Greek Islands are clustered into six different groups, each with its own unique character from the landscapes and architecture to the cuisine, and typically they share some similarities too.

View of Navagio Beach

Ionian

The Ionians include many small, uninhabited islets, but the main islands are Corfu, Ithaca, Kefalonia, Lefkada, Zakynthos, Kythira, and Paxos. They’re known for their lush greenery, beautiful beaches, and architectural beauty. An archipelago rich in colors, the vegetation harmoniously blends with the bright blue sky and the turquoise of the sea, looking like a painting. Some say these are the country’s “tropical islands” only instead of palm trees, they’re surrounded by pines. The beaches include stretches with smooth pebbles and sands, many with limestone rock formations, edged by crystal-clear, Easter egg blue water often compared to the Caribbean. That includes the famous Shipwreck Beach on Zakynthos with a rusting skeleton of a vessel tucked into a cove between two dramatic cliffs.

Kokkari Fishing Village, Samos

North Aegean

As the North Aegean island group is farther from the mainland, most visitors skip them. It includes the larger islands of Ikaria, Lesvos, Thasos, Samos, Chios, Limnos, and Samothrace, and the small islands of Fournoi, Agios Minas, Agios Efstratios, Antipsara, Oinousses, Thymaina, Samiopoula, and Psara. As they’re less visited as compared to many of the other Greek islands, they’ve managed to retain their authentic local character. The unspoiled beauty is also like no other, with incredible landscapes, uncrowded beaches, charming villages, and rich history. Ikaria is one of the most visited, along with Samos and Chios. It may best be known for being on the Blue Zone list, destinations across the globe where residents are said to live longer and enjoy healthier lives.

Skiathos beach

Northern Sporades

Made up of 24 islands, four of which are permanently inhabited, Skopelos, Skiathos, Alonnisos, and Skyros, the Sporades are located off the east coast of mainland Greece in the northwest Aegean. All provide a blissful ambiance with picturesque beaches, vast olive groves, pine forests, and tall cypresses, with Skiathos and Skopelos the most popular. Skiathos is just four miles wide and seven miles long, but it’s home to over 60 beaches. Explore the rich history, including a castle, monastery, and churches, and after dark, buzzing nightlife at upscale cocktail bars and venues with DJs spinning long into the night. Skopelos was the main island used for filming “Mamma Mia.” It’s hilly and lush with idyllic beaches and abundant marine life.

View of town on Hydra

Saronic

The Saronic Islands are the closest to Athens. If you’re visiting the Greek capital and only have limited time to spend on an island, you’ll want to choose one in this group which includes Spetses, Hydra, Poros, and Aegina. Hydra is a sanctuary for filmmakers, writers, and artists, providing the chance to go back in time as it’s virtually vehicle-free. Instead of the hum of car engines and motorcycle roars, you’ll hear the sounds of donkeys trotting by. It’s the perfect place to get away from it all, relax, enjoy colorful sunsets and delicious cuisine. Nature and beauty abound on Spetses, the island of aromas with many pine and lemon trees, and photogenic beaches framed by crystal-clear blue water.

Mykonos windmills

Cyclades

The Cyclades are located at the heart of the Aegean, widely regarded as some of the best islands to visit in Greece with whitewashed architecture and sun-drenched landscapes. The archipelago includes popular islands like Santorini, Naxos, Mykonos, Milos, Paros, Andros, Folegrandros, and Serifos, among others. As they’re close together, a small-ship island-hopping cruise is a great way to explore or perhaps stay on several different islands during one trip. Santorini is one of the most famous and one of the busiest, renowned for its stunning caldera and glorious sunsets while being a top spot for honeymooners. Cosmopolitan Mykonos is famous for its party vibes, while Naxos boasts a booming foodie scene, mountains for hiking, and some of the country’s best beaches.

Anthony Quinn Bay Rhodes

Dodecanese

Located in the southeastern Aegean Sea between the Cyclades and the Anatolian Peninsula in Turkey, the Dodecanese include 165 islands, 26 of which are inhabited. Some of the most well-known include Rhodes, Kos, Symi, Patmos, and Karpathos. This island group is renowned for its ancient archaeological sites, medieval castles, and beautiful beaches. In addition to traditional farmhouses seen in the villages, there are many homes that have a unique Venetian style, dating to the Venetian occupation. Rhodes is the most visited, famous for its beach resorts and Old Town surrounded by ancient walls. Kos also offers rich history and medieval architecture while hosting the ancient, over 2,500-year-old plane tree under which the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates, used to teach.

Paros street

Choosing the Right Greek Island

Choosing the right Greek island or islands for your visit can feel overwhelming with so many to choose from. There is no one “best island” for your Greece vacation as not every traveler is looking for the same things. It’s a matter of preferences, such as whether you’re looking for a party island, outdoor adventures, romance, relaxation, or maybe a bit of all the above. Some islands boast renowned food scenes while others have more ancient sites to discover. You’ll also want to consider your budget. Santorini and Mykonos tend to be the most expensive. Despite its popularity, Crete is one of the cheaper islands to visit as well as being the largest, offering a diverse array of terrain and activities.

Oia, Santorini with iconic blue roofs

Popular Greek Islands

Santorini

One of the most famous and most-visited of the Greek islands, Santorini is a stunning vision. The village of Oia with its whitewashed homes and blue-domed churches spilling down the caldera cliffs splashed across countless viral images of Greece online. It’s a top spot for honeymoons with countless luxury resorts and wine enthusiasts can enjoy tasty wine produced from grapes grown in the volcanic soil. Sunset sailing, a wide range of water sports, and hiking, particularly the trek between Oia and Fira, are all popular too. There’s even an ancient settlement referred to as Santorini’s Pompeii that provides a look at life some 3,700 years ago. The beaches are unique, including some velvety black sands and even an unusual red stretch.

Mykonos at night

Mykonos

Renowned for its white, powdery sand beaches, high-end resorts, beach parties, upscale shopping, and world-class dining, cosmopolitan Mykonos tends to draw an affluent crowd. During the summer, many come to party on the sand and in the clubs, dancing ’til dawn. But there’s a lot more here to discover, including the famous windmills in Little Venice, while off-road tours will take you to some of the more hidden spots delivering panoramic views. Sunbathing, swimming, kitesurfing, hiking, and biking are all popular here too. The sacred island of Delos can be reached via boat tour to explore one of the country’s most important archaeological sites. The ruins date to the 5th and 4th century BC and include the Propylaea and Sanctuary of Apollo.

Crete

Crete

As the largest Greek island, Crete offers a little bit of everything. The landscapes are diverse with everything from towering mountains, with the tallest peak at over 8,000 feet, to caves, rugged canyons, and sandy beaches edged by crystal-clear turquoise water, some with pink stretches. There’s plenty of history to explore, including Minoan ruins like the famous Knossos Palace abandoned in 1450 BC with gorgeous frescoes, vast columns, and elaborate water and drainage systems all still visible. The south coast is known for its tranquil seaside villages providing a more peaceful stay, while the mountainous interior boasts traditional villages with whitewashed homes, and the north coast is home to major destinations like Chania, Heraklion, and Rethymon, with many museums and shopping venues.

Corfu beach

Corfu

Located just west of mainland Greece, Corfu is the greenest and most popular of the Ionian islands. With quite a bit more rain than other islands, it boasts a diverse array of plant life and emerald-covered mountains that dip down to white sandy beaches with brilliant blue water. Combined with cascading waterfalls and bird-filled lagoons, it’s a nature lover’s paradise. Outdoor adventurers, honeymooners, and foodies will all enjoy it here too. Hikers can explore the 93-mile Corfu Trail, spanning the entire length of the island. The villages and cities are fun to wander, with whitewashed buildings, grand Venetian architecture, enticing shops and eateries. Corfu Town is a thriving metropolis where you’ll see influence from the centuries of Venetian, French, and British rule.

Lindos Beach in Rhodes

Rhodes

Rhodes offers an excellent mix of rich history and spectacular landscapes, with everything from mountains, lush valleys, and waterfalls to sandy beaches. Medieval Rhodes Town is one of the hot spots with its castle-like Palace of the Grand Masters and magnificent Venetian buildings. Walking the maze of cobbled streets is like a walk back in time to the days of the Byzantine Empire. You’ll find some of the best beaches in Pefkos, with soft golden sands backed by pine trees, while Ialyssos Beach is popular for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Hiking can be enjoyed on Mount Attavyros, Rhodes’ highest mountain, while the Valley of the Butterflies in the Petaloudes area is home to bubbling streams and waterfalls while offering encounters with countless colorful butterflies.

Famous Zakynthos beach

Zakynthos

Zakynthos may best be known for its beach with the rusty skeleton of a shipwreck nestled between two cliffs and framed by electric blue waters. Located in the Ionian Islands, it’s also one of the greenest islands in Greece with its north and west coasts mountainous, including steep cliffs that rise hundreds of feet from the sea. There are many gorgeous beaches here, from secluded stretches to lively spots with loungers and umbrellas. Banana Beach is ideal for water sports – the largest stretch on the island, with opportunities for paddleboarding, sea kayaking, jet-skiing, parasailing, swimming, and more. It also hosts beach bears selling light bites and cold drinks. Loggerhead turtles can often be seen in Laganas Bay when swimming or snorkeling.

Hydra town

Lesser-known Greek Islands

Hydra

A great destination for those who want to get away from it all, Hydra is a peaceful, virtually vehicle-free island with transport by boat, donkey, or on foot. Part of the Saronic Islands, it’s one of the closest to Athens yet it’s retained its charming character as one of the most unspoiled gems. New buildings can’t be constructed, only old ones can be restored which helps to limit growth. Visitors can marvel at beautiful 18th and 19th-century mansions, laid out around the horseshoe-shaped harbor, many of which now serve as museums. Hike scenic paths winding to sea views and monasteries, and enjoy beautiful, mostly pebble beaches surrounded by greenery for relaxing and water sports like kayaking, snorkeling, and diving.

Milos beach

Milos

Milos is where the Venus de Milo statue was discovered but today it may best be known for its beaches, with more than 75 along its shores, including some of the most stunning in Greece, like Sarakiniko. The lunar-like landscape features smooth, white volcanic rock for sunbathing while beautifully contrasted against brilliant blue waters. There are natural hot springs to soak in around the island, while Lakkos baths are part of a spa housed in a cave. Discover hidden treasures by exploring the island on foot or via a 4X4 tour. There are also sailing tours that provide a perspective from the water, stopping for a swim inside the caves. In hilltop Plaka, enjoy the whitewashed architecture, gulf, and sunset views.

Spetses town

Spetses

Spetses is only two hours from Athens, referred to as the “island of aromas” with its fragrant lemon and pine trees while nature and beauty abound. There are postcard-perfect beaches and on the west side, a cave with a small, sandy beach, stalagmites, and clear aquamarine water for swimming. Wander through the Old Port with its neoclassical, classical, and modern buildings constructed in harmony with the landscape. Learn more about the island’s past in the Spetses Museum, set within an 18th-century home showcasing its historical and folklore heritage from the Classical, Roman, and Byzantine eras. The island has a wonderfully laid-back, tranquil atmosphere with cars banned in the main town and transport mostly by horse and buggy, bicycle, or on foot.

Folegandros

Folegandros

One of the most unspoiled islands in the Cyclades, Folegandros lies just northwest of Santorini yet it provides a tranquil escape from the tourist crowds and massive cruise ships. There are no luxury resorts or Michelin-starred restaurants, but you’ll find historic windmills spinning in the sea breeze, goats scurrying up the hills, plenty of nature, and breathtaking scenery. It can be enjoyed while relaxing on a beach (often with only a handful of other people) or hiking remote trails. In Chora, the largest settlement, motorized vehicles aren’t permitted, making it especially enjoyable to stroll the cobbled streets with their whitewashed buildings. Visit lovely squares, browse tiny shops, dine and drink in cozy cafes, and discover thousand-year-old homes in Kastro, the oldest area.

Patmos windmill

Patmos

Remote and secluded, Patmos is part of the Dodecanese near Turkey, best known as the sacred island where Saint John wrote the Book of Revelations, the closing pages of the New Testament. Guided tours can bring you to explore the Cave of the Apocalypse and the Monastery of Saint John is open for public visits. Located on hilltop Chora, while you’re here you can also gaze up at traditional whitewashed homes and magnificent mansions like the 1522 Sophouliou mansion. The mountainous interior with lush forests is ideal for hiking and there are beautiful beaches of all types, including some hidden in coves edging the clear azure sea. Sandy Livadi Geranou is ideal for swimming with calm water sheltered from the wind.

Tinos town

Tinos

Tinos is only 20 minutes by ferry from Mykonos but it’s like a totally different world with traditional culture and a much more tranquil feel, including pristine, quiet beaches ideal for swimming and water sports. Much less developed than many of its neighbors, the reason many come is the Church of Panagia Meglaochari, a popular Greek pilgrimage site on a hill above Chora. In 1823, a nun was said to have discovered an icon of the Virgin Mary praying. Considered a miracle, it was placed inside the church and today pilgrims leave offerings that represent their wishes. Learn more about the island and its traditions in museums like the Museum of Tinian Artists, the Chalepas Museum, and the Museum of Marble Crafts.

Skopelos beach

Best Time to Visit the Greek Islands

While it’s possible to visit most Greek Islands year-round, in the winter the smaller islands virtually shut down so you’ll want to choose one of the larger islands like Corfu or Crete. The best time to go overall is between April and October, with mid-June through mid-September the peak of the tourist season. Summer brings the warmest temperatures and the most action, with the popular islands busy, often hosting beach parties while offering buzzing nightlife. Sailing and swimming will be especially enjoyable now with abundant sunshine and the sea around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid the biggest crowds while still enjoying pleasant weather ideal for hiking and exploring historic sites between April and early June, and late September through mid-October.

Rhodes yacht

Getting Around the Greek Islands

The most convenient and perhaps most memorable way to get around the Greek Islands is on a small-ship cruise. The more intimate size of the vessels means they typically visit both popular islands and hidden gems with smaller ports and harbors that big ships can’t reach. Taking one of these cruises also means you won’t have to constantly unpack and pack again. But it’s also possible to island-hop on your own by ferry with times between islands ranging from two to four hours, depending on whether you take the regular or high-speed ferries. It’s also possible to fly between the islands. While it’s usually pricier than the ferry, it will be faster and you might be able to visit more destinations.

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