Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your Perfect Greek Islands Vacation
First-timers often describe their trip to "the Greek islands," as if they were one monolithic entity, easily popped into and out of and in between, like boutiques in a mall. It's only once a visitor gets to know the country that the magnitude and diversity of the archipelagos becomes clear. The truth is, there are more than 200 inhabited Greek isles (and about 6,000 islands total). Each inhabited island has its own character, from the white-and-blue houses on the Cyclades islands to the lush, green Ionian islands to the castle-lined Dodecanese islands.
Overall, Greece has six main island groups, plus a significant stand-alone: Crete. It's generally easiest to travel between islands within one group than to archipelago-hop. In this guide, we'll break down the best Greek islands to visit, including what each island group is known for, and how to travel within each archipelago.
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Getting Around the Greek Islands
While many of the Greek islands have airports, not all of them are international. Many of the islands are serviced solely by domestic carriers like Aegean Airlines, and you can only fly from neighboring islands or Athens. However, some of the most popular islands have international airports (like Crete, Santorini, and the like), where you can fly directly from cities in Europe or the Middle East.
Traveling by ferry makes island hopping simple, especially if you're staying within one archipelago. In the Cyclades Islands, Seajets is the high-speed ferry, though travelers can find all options (including less expensive ferries) via Greek Ferries. It is possible, of course, to rent a car in Athens — or on one of the islands — and drive it onto the ferry, essentially turning your island-hopping excursion into a seafaring road trip. However, it's simple to rent a car on each of the islands, too, provided you have an international driver's license with you.
When to Visit the Greek Isles
May, June, and September are great months to visit the Grecian isles if you're looking for nice weather but still hoping to avoid the crowds. The high season (mid-June to mid-September) offers more ferry routes and flight options. It's also when you'll find the most open restaurants and beach bars to choose from, but that comes with more tourists to compete with and higher prices. Each island group has its own weather to look into — Crete is warmest year-round, making it a great choice for late fall or winter. And while some islands, such as Hydra, are full of locals and see tourists year-round, others, such as Santorini, get very quiet in the off-season (November to March). Here, we've put together an overview of each group of islands (and the highlights of each archipelago) to help you plan your next Grecian adventure.
The Cyclades Islands
This archipelago is the most common first stop for American travelers in Greece, with two of the most-visited islands: Mykonos and Santorini. A group of 24 inhabited islands (and 220 total isles), this bunch looks like all the postcards of Greece you've seen: white churches with blue domes and pink bougainvillea vines shading secluded side streets.
Mykonos is known for its nightlife and see-and-be-seen beaches, but it also has a gorgeous Cycladic village in its center, with windmills and winding lanes that were meant to stymie pirates centuries ago. Santorini is romantic and luxurious, beloved by honeymooners lounging in their private pools overlooking the caldera. For those looking for alternatives to Mykonos and Santorini, options abound. Up-and-coming Milos has otherworldly beaches and the famed Kleftiko caves, Tinos is the site of a famous church to the Virgin Mary, and the rustic Lesser Cyclades (Koufonisia, Donousa, Schinoussa, and Iraklia) are great for camping. There are large islands, like Naxos and Syros, the archipelago's capital, and tiny ones with very little tourism, like Sikinos.
How to Travel the Cyclades Islands
The tourist season on the Cycladic islands runs from mid-April to mid-October (peaking in June, July, and August). If it's your first time in the area, you'll certainly want to start by visiting either Mykonos or Santorini. In Santorini, you'll find great wineries, like Venetsanos and Santo, while on Mykonos, it's the nightlife that will keep you coming back, with iconic clubs like Scorpios and Super Paradise. When exploring some of the smaller islands, like Ios, Folegandros, and Milos, swim, snorkel, and wander the fortress-like capital of each island whose cobbled alleyways are home to shops, galleries, bars, and tavernas (on most islands the main town is called "Chora"; on Milos, it's "Plaka"). And don't miss sailing adventures on the Cycladic islands — look into companies like Polco Sailing on Milos and Sunset Oia Cruises on Santorini.
Where to Stay
On Santorini, start your trip by staying amidst the iconic, cliffside white-and-blue houses of Oia at Andronis Luxury Suites. Next, move along the caldera to Imerovigli, where you'll find some of the most over-the-top and romantic hotels, including Andronis Concept Wellness Resort and Grace Hotel, Auberge Resorts Collection. Finally, stay a night in the old town of Pyrgos at Santorini Sky.
On Mykonos, start your vacation at The Wild Hotel by Interni, which has a luxurious boutique atmosphere and — best of all — a private beach open only to hotel guests. For more of a honeymoon experience, spend a few exceptionally romantic nights at Kalesma Mykonos, where each suite has its own infinity-edge pool.
Elsewhere in the Cyclades, look for luxury boutique hotels (many, like The Wild and Kalesma, will be family owned). Try Milos Breeze on Milos, Coco-Mat Eco Residences on Serifos, Calilo on Ios, and the Naxian Collection Luxury Villas & Suites on Naxos.
The largest Greek island (and the southernmost, roughly halfway between Europe and Africa), Crete could be a country unto itself, with its own customs, climate, accent, and cuisine. Because there's so much to explore in Crete, generally travelers opt to focus their energy on the 160-mile-long island rather than straying to other archipelagos.
How to Travel on Crete
The island has two main airports, making Crete very easy to get to from Athens. Once on the island, you will want to rent a car; it takes about six hours to drive from one end of Crete to the other.
On Crete, explore beaches like Elafonissi, with its unparalleled pink sand, and Elounda, which is known for its five-star beach clubs. Hike the Samaria Gorge (which takes five to seven hours through streams and between cliffs), or walk through wildflowers along paths in the mountain villages. Visit the ruins of the Palace of Knossos, home of the Minoan empire (and the dreaded Minotaur monster), and the Boutaris winery if you're an oenophile interested in sampling Cretan wines. Finally, if you have time for a day trip, the isle of Spinalonga, off the coast of Elounda, is worth visiting for its wild beauty and tragic history — it was used as a colony for people affected by leprosy until the middle of the last century.
Where to Stay on Crete
A hillside of olive groves sloping down to sandy beaches, the Elounda peninsula has become something of a Cretan Riviera, lined with swanky resorts including Crete's only Relais & Chateaux property, the Elounda Mare, as well as one of Crete's newer hotels, Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa.
Outside of Heraklion is family-friendly, five-star, beachfront resort Amirandes, part of the national Grecotel chain (take a detour to have dinner on their farm, Agreco). Moving west, you'll find the well-preserved Venetian town of Rethymnon, and more historic boutique options like Kapsaliana Village Hotel, a transformed 18th-century olive press, and Casa Delfino, a renovated 17th-century mansion outside the port of Chania.
Saronic Gulf Islands
The closest island group to Athens is also home to some of the most scenic, under-the-radar isles. Hydra, Spetses, Poros, Aegina, and little Agistri are popular with Greek weekenders and European visitors, but are less known to Americans.
How to Travel the Saronic Gulf Islands
The Nantucket of Greece, car-free Hydra is tiny but mighty. Spetses has green pine trees, horse and carriages trotting along the waterfronts, and yachts parked in the harbor. Family-friendly Poros, with a large, cute town dominated by a clock tower and tree-shaded beaches, is popular with sailing aficionados. Aegina, the closest island to Athens, has a large port town, four sandy beaches, and its very own ruin, the temple of Athena Aphaia. Because the Saronic Gulf islands are so close to Athens, getting here is simple: A hydrofoil from the port of Piraeus ferries you from Athens to each of these destinations.
Where to Stay
Hydra and Spetses are brimming with converted captains' homes (we like the Cotommatae on Hydra and Orloff Resort on Spetses). On Poros, Sto Roloi is a collection of traditional island houses turned into holiday villas, while Sirene Blue Resort offers a more luxurious take on Poros accommodations. A private villa rental is also an option, especially on Aegina where weekend homes outshine the hotels. And the jewel in the crown of the Saronic Gulf is Spetses' harborfront Poseidonion Grand Hotel, established in 1914, which is just as grand as its name suggests.
The Ionian Islands
Lush and green, the Ionian Islands (also known as the "seven islands" or "Eptanissia") offer unique local culture, music, art, cuisine, and architecture. While the Ionians are known, first and foremost, for Corfu, the six other main islands hold their own and attract their fair share of tourists, too.
How to Travel the Ionian Islands
On Corfu, you'll want to wander the streets of Old Town, which is protected by UNESCO. Near Corfu, tiny Paxos is covered in olive trees, with three charming bays and a satellite island, Antipaxos, known for its translucent waters. Kefalonia, the largest island in size, has wild horses running around Mount Aenos in its center. Zakynthos is home to Shipwreck Beach, accessible only by sea, and iconic blue caves you can swim through. Lefkada, connected to the mainland by a bridge, has woodland villages in the middle and some of Greece's best beaches along its shores. Small Ithaka, known to Homer fans as the home of Odysseus, is still relatively undiscovered. Finally, Kythera is the outlier—it looks more Cycladic than Ionian and is more easily reached from the Peloponnese.
Corfu, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, and Kythera all have airports, which receive domestic flights from Athens as well as international charters and airlines.
Where to Stay
On Corfu, options range from modern luxury seaside resorts like the Grecotel Corfu Imperial to historic 18th-century estates in the Tuscan-like interior such as the Pelecas Country Club. Near Old Town, Banyan Tree recently opened their first European property on Corfu, and the gorgeous seaside enclave has 159 rooms and lavish pool villas.
On Kefalonia, there's ultra-modern Tesoro Blu in Skala, and the Emelisse Art Hotel is a gem outside the picture-perfect town of Fiscardo. Its sister property on Ithaka, the Perantzada, is a contemporary hotel within a 19th-century mansion on the harbor in Vathy. Little Paxos is all villa rentals and rooms to rent except for a few intimate hotels, like Paxos Beach and Paxos Club Resort & Spa. On Zakynthos, Porto Zante Villas & Spa is a swanky oasis on the busy eastern coast, and in the quiet north of the island, near the blue caves, Nobelos is a four-suite, family-run hotel beloved for its organic restaurant.
The Sporades Islands
There are 24 of these green islands off of the northeastern coast of mainland Greece, but only four are inhabited — and if you've seen "Mamma Mia," you know what they look like. Dark green pine trees, white churches, and lots of sand, rocks, and singing. It's all part of the Sporades experience.
How to Travel the Sporades Islands
Buzzy Skiathos is famous for its gold-sand beaches and nightlife, while low-key Skopelos is a natural paradise of white pebble coves, oak forests, monasteries, traditional villages, and lots of shipwrecks off the coast in the National Marine Park. Alonissos is at the center of the National Marine Park, a great base for fishing, bird-watching, and spotting the protected Mediterranean monk seal. Finally, Skyros is known for its ceramics and local crafts, churches, and gorgeous Chora, a mountaintop capital crowned by a Venetian castle.
To get to the Sporades Islands, there are direct flights from Athens to Skiathos and Skyros. Skiathos is also served by a ferry from Thessaloniki. In summer, hydrofoils sail to all four islands from the port of Agios Konstantinos on the mainland. Each of the Sporades connects to the other by ferry or boat.
On these four islands, tourism is all about sailing, swimming, mountain biking, sea kayaking, and hiking. Hit the beaches — Skiathos's swanky Ambelakia to see and be seen, Skyros's Kalamitsa for wind-surfing, Skopelos's Hovolo for pine-scented breezes. And above all, do not miss sailing, swimming, or scuba diving in the National Marine Archaeological Park.
Where to Stay
There are villas to rent all over the islands (like the ones with private pools run by Poikilma Villas on Alonissos). For a more full-service hotel, try the family-run Atrium Hotel above Agia Paraskevi beach in Skiathos, or the Adrina Resort on the beach in Skopelos.
The Northeast Aegean Islands
This collection of 13 islands (the five most notable being Ikaria, Samos, Limnos, Lesvos, and Chios) are the area of Greece closest to Turkey. For your journey here, you'll be richly rewarded with incredible beaches and natural wonders (a petrified forest on Lesvos, volcanic rocks and sand dunes on Limnos, and thermal springs on Ikaria).
How to Travel the Northeast Aegean Islands
Limnos, Lesvos (also known as Mytilene), and Samos all have international airports, and Chios and Ikaria have domestic ones. There are several ferries from the port of Piraeus in Athens that can take you to these islands as well.
Visit the archaeological sites of the Temple of Hera on Samos, the acropolis on Thassos, the ancient city of Ifestia on Limnos, and the magnificent castle atop Lesvos. While these islands are known for their history, they're also known for their water sports. Keros Beach on Limnos is one of the best places to kite or windsurf in Europe. As for swimming, it's hard to beat the Seitani coves on Samos, Kipos beach on Samothrace, white-sand Seychelles on Ikaria, and Vatera on Lesvos.
Where to Stay
Time-travel back to when Genovese nobility ruled Chios and stay at the majestic Argentikon Luxury Suites in a 16th-century estate. Sleep above popular Tsamadou beach at the Armonia Bay Hotel on Samos, overlooking the sea at Toxotis Villas on Ikaria, or on the beach in a luxury safari tent through Surf Club Limnos.
The Dodecanese Islands
This archipelago gets its name from the Greek number 12 (dodeca) because it contains — you guessed it — 12 main islands and multiple smaller ones. Rhodes and Kos are the two largest islands, while the smaller 10 are quieter and less discovered.
How to Travel the Dodecanese Islands
Rhodes and Kos have international airports (making them popular with charter flights from England and Germany), and Astypalaia, Kalymnos, and Karpathos receive domestic flights. All 12 main islands are served by ferries from the port of Athens, Piraeus.
Rhodes is known for its beautifully preserved walled city with Crusader castles and an ancient synagogue. And in the town of Lindos, there's an ancient Greek acropolis at the top of the hill, a medieval village in the middle, and a modern town on the beach at the bottom. On adjacent islands, you'll want to visit the mansions of Kassos, the brightly painted houses of Kastelorizo, and the hilltop Chora of Astypalea, one of the prettiest fortified villages in all of Greece. For a more active Greek isles experience, retreat to Karpathos to hike or windsurf, or scuba dive amid the World War II wrecks on Leros.
Where to Stay
On Rhodes, soak in the atmosphere at Melenos Lindos, a 17th-century building with a pebbled mosaic roof deck offering sea views, set into the hill just under the Acropolis. On Astypalaia, the island's breathtaking Chora is both the inspiration for, and the location of, Pylaia Hotel, which has a pool, spa, and ocean views from the Plori restaurant at its peak. And finally, on Patmos, overlooking the sea (and the famous Kalikatsou rock), luxe Petra Hotel and Suites is equally convenient to the beach and the Monastery of St. John.