10 Greek Islands That Should Be at the Top of Your List

Jun 25, 2021

The Greek Islands. Few words inspire more travel wanderlust—the blue-domed roofs in Santorini, the sparkling white-washed walkways in Mykonos, the hidden golden beaches in Corfu, we could go on and on. But there are 6,000 islands splashed out across the Aegean and Ionian Seas, so where does a traveler even start?

We've pulled together 10 of our favorite Greek islands—some well-known and some worth discovering—along with our insider tips on how to get the most out of your getaway to these idyllic isles.

Mykonos

Getting There: It's about a 40-minute flight or five-hour ferry ride from Athens to Mykonos at the heart of the Cyclades islands, southeast of the Greek mainland.

Why You're Visiting: To celebrate summer like a celebrity. The party scene is one of the most famous in the world, with DJs keeping the bass thumping until dawn at beach clubs. The island is busiest during the summer months; for smaller crowds and lower prices, consider visiting in the spring or fall.

What You'll Be Doing: Spending time on one of the island's sun-kissed beaches. Maybe you're relaxing after pulling an all-nighter at Paradise or Super Paradise. Or maybe you want to try windsurfing on the "Island of the Winds", in which case, head to one of the more secluded beaches such as Kórfos or Kalafátis, where lessons and rentals are available.

Don't Leave Before You: Wander the narrow marble streets of the capital of Hóra, past the white-washed Cycladian buildings sprinkled with pops of purple from blooming bougainvillea trees. Find your way to Matoyánni Street for shopping in its designer boutiques and noshing at its quaint cafes. Before sunset, make your way over to the waterfront district of Alefkántra, aka "Little Venice", and find a balcony seat with a view of the often-photographed windmills of Kato Mili. 

Going the Extra Mile: For a crash course on Greek history, take the 30-minute ferry ride from Mykonos for a day trip to Delos. The mythological birthplace of Greek god Apollo and goddess Artemis, the entire island is an archaeological site, with millennia-old temple ruins.


Santorini

Getting There: Direct flights are available to Santorini from several European cities, including Rome, Paris, London, Munich, and of course, Athens. By ferry, it's a little less than three hours from Mykonos.

Why You're Visiting: Because Instagram sent you. Between the golden-hour sunsets and the blue-domed roofs contrasted with the all-white architecture perched on sea cliffs high above the Aegean, this island is the definition of picture perfect. Santorini is actually the largest of five islands that circle a dormant underwater volcano, with the caldera forming a bay between them.

What You'll Be Doing: Organizing your day around where you'll be at sunset. Your day could be spent on a cruise of the caldera, relaxing on the black sand Perissa or Perivolos beaches on the southeast side of the island, exploring the active archaeological dig of a Bronze Age village at Akrotiri (preserved by volcanic ash) or visiting vineyards across the island.

But when golden hour approaches you need to be perched somewhere facing west. Oia is the most famous (and crowded) spot, with its white buildings seemingly built right into the side of the hill. Get there early to grab a spot at The Castle of Agios Nikoloas for one of the world's best sunset views. For a more intimate experience, go to the preserved medieval village of Pyrgos at the island's highest point, where the panoramic view of the island from the 16th-century castle is tough to beat.

Don't Leave Before You: Drink the wine. The combination of the dry climate, cool humid nights, sea breezes and rich volcanic soil produces incredible wines unique to Santorini, and you'll find vineyards that date back millennia. Expect dry white wines that feature Assyrtiko grapes and sweet Vinsanto wines, made with aged sun-dried grapes. The growing conditions are also perfect the only-found-on-Santorini white aubergines (eggplant) as well as tomataki (cherry tomatoes), a thick-skinned intensely sweet tomato that makes a coveted, velvety tomato paste.

Going the Extra Mile: A short ferry ride from Santorini, Folegandros sees considerably fewer tourists, though it has charms all its own. Climb the zigzag pathway from the main city of Hora uphill to the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a white-washed basilica with impressive views of the island and Aegean, as well as a silver-plated Virgin Mary icon that is said to be miraculous.


Corfu

Getting There: A 90-minute ferry ride from the northwest Greek city of Igoumenitsa, Corfu is the farthest north of the Ionian islands, located off the west coast of Greece. Short flights are also available from Athens.

Why You're Visiting: To enjoy the bounty of the island's distinct flavors, which mix Greek and Venetian traditions and tastes. Ancient olive groves are prevalent across the island, as are citrus trees, yielding sweet oranges, lemons, tangerines and kumquats. The latter fruit is infused into a liqueur, making it the traditional drink of Corfu.

What You'll Be Doing: Corfu is an island that feels more Mediterranean than distinctly Greek, due to centuries of conquest by various different cultures, especially the nearby Venetians. You'll see those architectural influences when you explore the historically preserved Old Town of Corfu, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Start in Spianada Square, the second-largest public square in Europe after the Square of Saint Mark in Venice. Nearby, the Old Fortress (circa 15th century) still stands guard over the surrounding sea from its perch on a peninsula. Between all that sightseeing, you'll want to plan a beach day, whether that's at a spot like Agios Gordios, the bustling beach scene along a wide sandy stretch on Corfu's west coast, or finding a more remote, unspoiled outpost such as Rovinia Beach, also on the island's west coast.

Don't Leave Before You: Join in a celebration -- whether that's a music event, culinary feast, carnival parade or a religious festival. (Bonus points if you're in Corfu for Greek Easter, as locals come from all over Greece to join the festivities.)

Going the Extra Mile: Not far off Corfu's southern coast, you'll find Paxoi and Antipaxoi, a pair of small laid-back island getaways with sea caves and gorgeous beaches. Voutoúmi on Antipaxoi should be on anyone's beach bucket list for its clear turquoise waters.


Crete

Getting There: As Greece's largest island, direct flight service is well established to Heraklion, Crete's largest city, with nonstops from many major European cities, including Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Berlin and Barcelona. Flights from Athens land in Heraklion, Chania and Sitia. Ferry routes reach Crete from other Greek islands (such as Santorini) or from mainland Greece.

Why You're Visiting: To cover all the Greek bases in one visit. Simply put, Crete has it all: Gorgeous beaches, dramatic landscapes, decadent local dishes and volumes of history. As the Greece's southernmost island, travelers visiting during the spring or fall might snag a few more weeks of warmer weather compared to the islands closer to the mainland.

What You'll Be Doing: Trying to figure out how to see and do it all. The island is separated into four regions: Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Lassithi (west to east), and a traveler could easily spend several days in each one. The good news, Crete is roughly half the size of Connecticut, so you can explore multiple areas in one visit. Beaches and history are the biggest draws, so let's start there.

If you stay on the western end of the island, a beach day on the pink sands of Elafonissi is highly recommended. Located about 50 miles southwest of Chania, a shallow lagoon separates the eastern, more developed beach from the western, more secluded beaches. On Crete's eastern tip about 60 miles from Agios Nikolaos is Vai beach, a crescent-shaped golden-sand beach positioned between azure waters and a wild date palm grove "planted" by the seeds discarded by Phoenician merchants thousands of years ago.

Crete was home to the Minoan civilization, which flourished on the island between 3000 B.C. and 1100 B.C. Start your history lesson at the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, to see treasures unearthed from Minoan palaces at Phaistos, Malia and other sites. Then head a few miles south to Knossos, the one-time palatial home of Minos from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Skip forward a few millennia and tour the walled Old Towns of Chania and Heraklion to see fountains, churches and monuments to Ottoman, Byzantine and Venetian rulers.

Don't Leave Before You: Try local food like kalitsounia (a delicious cheese pie) or dakos with fresh tomatoes, cheese and olive oil topped on a crunchy bread.

Going the Extra Mile: Stay on the island and hike the Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe and one of several on Crete. Get an early start from Xyloskalo (nearly 4,000 feet above sea level) for this 6- to 8-hour hike down the mountain through narrow passages surrounded by steep cliffs to the seaside town of Agia Rouméli. This journey is an arduous one; wear appropriate footwear and pack plenty of water and food.


Limnos

Getting There: This secluded island at the north of the Aegean Sea is best reached by a 50-minute flight from Athens (to Myrina, the capital), or a 4.5-hour ferry from Kavala in the north of Greece.

Why You're Visiting: Because few non-Greek tourists add it to their itineraries. On Limnos, you will have a peaceful, nature-focused getaway filled with pristine sandy beaches, bluer than blue water, stunning vistas, incredible wine and produce (thanks to the volcano that formed the land millions of years ago) and—if you’re visiting in winter—migrating flamingos.

What You'll Be Doing: Start by exploring the island’s capital (Myrina) and the abandoned 13th-century Venetian castle that overlooks the city. The 20-minute walk to the hilltop is worthwhile for the sea views alone, but you’re also likely to find deer grazing within the Kastro (castle) walls. 

You can spot flamingos at Lake Alyki or Lake Chortarolimni. But if you’re not visiting over the wet winter months, skip the dry lakes and instead visit the nearly-50-foot waterfalls near the village of Kaspakas.

For a day of seaside relaxation or watersports action, head to one of the island’s gorgeous Blue Flag beaches (awarded for environmentally responsible practices): Platy, Thanos, Richa Nera, Evgatis and Agios Ioannis.

Don't Leave Before You: Check out the wild beauty of Limnos. Near Katalakkos you'll find Ammothines (or Desert of Limnos). Thought to be the only desert in Europe, this sand-covered landscape is constantly shifting in the winds from the nearby sea.

Seek out the volcanic “faraklo” (or bald head) rocks made of petrified lava. The tawny waves and orbs feel almost alien and are well-worth the journey to find them. To get to the Cape of Faraklo, head to the north of the island near Propouli. You’ll be following an unpaved path for part of the journey, so it might be best to get a map and directions from your hotel or a local.

Going the Extra Mile: To go way off the grid, hop a 1.5-hour ferry to Agios Efstratios (Ai Stratis to locals) where there are just 250 permanent residents. Visit for the sea caves, the warm-hearted people and an affordable lobster dinner.


Thasos

Getting There: Fly to Kavala airport in the north of Greece and take the 35-minute ferry from Keramoti.

Why You're Visiting: Thasos is one of Greece’s greenest islands—it has a forested mountainous interior great for hiking—but it’s also lined with myriad beaches (including the swimmable, sandy, pebbled, rocky and pine-tree lined varieties). There are impressive historical and archaeological draws worth visiting, and your travels here will be easy on the wallet (which makes it a nice pairing for the other premium-priced islands that might be on the itinerary).

What You'll Be Doing: Your ferry will arrive in the main town of Limenas where a sandy well-maintained beach, an archeological museum, a hilltop chapel with ocean vistas and a charming fishing harbor are worthy of a stop. From here, you could head to the west of the island which is built up with tourist resorts, or go east where there are fewer organized activities but also fewer crowds. Even the east’s most popular beaches (Hrysi Ammoudia and Skala Potamia) are peaceful. Don’t miss the Giola Lagoon in the southeast where a natural emerald pool has formed within a craggily cove (the Instagram likes will be worth the drive).

Also in the east, you’ll find the archaeological site of Aliki. Take a headland trail from the ruins of the ancient temple to a string of tavernas lining a beach; along the path, you’ll pass a submerged marble quarry that was actively mined until the 6th century. 

Don't Leave Before You: Make the extra effort to visit difficult-to-reach Marble Beach (Paralia Saliara) where, as the name suggests, the beach is made entirely of stunning white marble. When the crystal cerulean sea washes ashore the scene is not an inch short of magical.

Going the Extra Mile: Too often overlooked are the quaint inland villages of Thasos. Two that warrant a trip away from the water are Maries (you’ll find Agios Taxiarchis monastery there) and Theologos which served as the island’s capital in the medieval ages—go for the picturesque village, a folklore museum and to sample the village’s specialty dish: the broached goat.


Alonnisos

Getting There: There is no airport on Alonnisos, but you can pick up a ferry from the mainland in Volos. The closer option is the nearby island of Skiathos; a flight from Athens to Skiathos is about 30 minutes. Alonnisos does have frequent ferry connections to Skiathos and they take about two hours. There are no direct ferry routes from Athens to Alonnisos. 

Why You're Visiting: You prefer a nature walk to a bar crawl. The most remote of the Northern Sporades island group, Alonnisos is full of rugged natural landscapes and plenty of pine forests, olive groves and orchards. The most compelling sight might be below the surface of the sea, however. Greece's first underwater museum opened in the protected waters of the National Marine Park of Alonnisos and Northern Sporades, where divers can visit the Pristeria shipwreck of a merchant vessel from circa 425 B.C. Dubbed the "Parthenon of shipwrecks", this area just opened to recreational divers in 2021. Above the water, the park is a refuge for rare seabirds, dolphins and the Mediterranean monk seal

What You'll Be Doing: There’s no need to rush around on this serene island, where the locals are equally laid-back, but there is plenty to do. You can explore Hora, the old capital of the island, which still has a medieval castle. Relax on beaches like Agios Dimitrios, where snorkeling is encouraged, or Leftos Gialos, a cove with an old olive grove on its edge. Eat local specialties ranging from kakavia (fish soup) to fouskakia (traditional donuts). 

Don't Leave Before You: Try the black linguini with fresh tuna caught by the local fishermen. The tuna is smashed into little pieces and mixed in a frying pan with sauteed onions, tomatoes, peppers and grated cheese. The linguini is boiled and then added to the same frying pan, one by one.  

Going the Extra Mile: Take a day trip to explore the uninhabited islands around the National Marine Park. There’s a rare species of wild goat that breeds in Yioura. Ksiro has pristine sandy beaches. Kyra-Panagia is home to a 12th century monastery and one of the biggest natural harbors of the Mediterranean Sea. 


Naxos

Getting There: Flights are available from Athens, as well as ferries from the mainland and islands such as Santorini.

Why You're Visiting: While its more famous Cycladian neighbors Mykonos, Santorini and Paros get all the buzz, Naxos offers very similar experiences -- with much fewer tourists. The island is wrapped by sandy beaches, with an interior full of farms, olive groves and traditional villages. You'll find more Greek vacationers here, leading to a more authentic (and less pricey) experience.

What You'll Be Doing: Eating and eating some more. The island has some of the best growing conditions in the Cyclades, so expect farm-to-table or sea-to-shore goodness at restaurants and tavernas. Pick up a few almonds to snack on while you wander through the maze-like alleys of Naxos Town. At dinner, get an extra order of fries (the potatoes are famous here) and don't skip the cheese course: you'll want to try the graviera and arseniko (both hard cheeses), plus sour cheeses xinomyzithra and xinotyro. Wash it down with a shot or two of the traditional citrus liqueur Kitro.

Don't Leave Before You: Visit the beaches on the island's West Coast near Naxos Town. Plaka Beach is considered one of the best beaches in Greece with a nearly 3-mile uninterrupted stretch of golden sand. The north end has more restaurants and amenities, go to the south end for a quieter beach day. The calm wind-protected waters of Agios Georgios and Agios Prokopios are good for families with smaller children. Naxos is also well-known as a site for watersports, so if you want to go kitesurfing or windsurfing, head to the north side of Mikri Vigla beach.

Going the Extra Mile: Paros is a short boat ride away from Naxos, and is quickly climbing up the lists of favorite Greek islands for its picturesque white-washed homes, daytime activities (who's up for horseback riding on the beach?) and energetic nightlife


Kythera

Getting There: Listed as one of the Ionian islands, Kythera is off the southern coast of the Peloponnese, and is actually closer to Crete. Seasonal ferry service is available from Athens (as are flights), with more regular service from nearby mainland towns of Gythelo and Neapoli, and from Chania in Crete.

Why You're Visiting: To go off the beaten path. You won't find big tourist crowds here, which for many visitors is the main draw. 

What You'll Be Doing: The island is the fabled birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Bring someone special with you to wander through picturesque seaside fishing villages, hike ancient footpaths, relax on the secluded beaches and indulge on fresh seafood at local tavernas.

Don't Leave Before You: Check out the medieval Venetian Castle rising above the main town. with views over the Ionian, Aegean and Cretan Seas. (Tip: You want to be here for sunset.)

Going the Extra Mile: Hire a boat to visit the sea cave on the rocky island of Chytra just off the southern coast of the island. Go in the afternoon, when the sunlight lights up the cave and you can swim in the emerald water. Don't be surprised if you share the moment with a few seals. The islet is also famed for its yellow flowers called "sempreviva" (always alive), which can survive for a very long time without water.


Rhodes

Getting There: As one of the busiest airports in Greece, domestic and international flights are available from 111 airports around the world. A flight from Athens takes about 50 minutes. You can also reach Rhodes by ferry from Crete, Kos, Patmos, Leros, Simi and Athens, but some of these routes take up to 18 hours. 

Why You're Visiting: For the history dating back to 407 B.C. The largest and most important of the Dodecanese islands thanks to its strategic position, Rhodes became a massive trading center in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was home to the Colossus of Rhodes, which was an 108-foot statue of the Greek sun-god Helios and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, before it was destroyed in an earthquake in 226 B.C.  

What You'll Be Doing: Walking around the maze of cobblestoned streets in the medieval Old Town of Rhodes, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you’ll see more than 24 centuries of history amid ancient Roman ruins, a Byzantine church, an Ottoman mosque, the Knight’s Quarter, traditional fountains, shops and more scattered throughout the walled city. Don’t expect a grid layout; there are roughly 200 streets and alleys to get lost in. Check out Sokratous Street, a lively shopping area that has the feel of an Eastern bazaar.  

Don't Leave Before You: Visit Lindos, on the southeast corner of the island, which is about an hour’s drive from Rhodes city center. Above the town rises the acropolis of Lindos, whose walls enclose a temple once dedicated to the goddess Athena Lindia. You can reach the ruins of this ancient citadel by foot or by donkey. 

Going the Extra Mile: Take a day trip to Kastellorizo (officially Megisti), the easternmost island of Greece. Approximately 300 people live on the island today but the a walk through the town and the neighborhoods of neo-classical houses reveal the former prosperity of the island. Head to the “Blue Cave”, a sea cave in the southeast of the island accessible only by boat during calm waters. 


Ready to go? Greece is open to vaccinated American travelers. Find travel inspiration for your Greece vacation, pick your favorite islands and remember these travel tips.

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