Step back in time with these Greek islands
There are 6,000 Greek islands, but only 227 are inhabited and an even smaller number get most of the attention and tourist traffic. While the usual suspects like Mykonos, Santorini, Corfu and Crete are iconic and Insta-worthy, there are other islands every bit as beautiful, but more remote and uncrowded. This means you'll get a glimpse of what Greece was like before tourism really took hold.
The best example of this could be the North Aegean islands, which are fully Greek—and worth the trip. The quickest way to get to these islands is via a one-hour flight from Athens or Thessaloniki, so they can easily be part of a larger Greek getaway. Read on for how best to explore and enjoy the simple life in these 11 islands.
Why you’re visiting: Agios Efstratios, or Ai Stratis, is full of friendly locals who are a bit cut off from the world. There are only 250 permanent residents, who will not only happily chat with you, but are kind enough to offer tours in their fishing boats to islands and beaches not accessible by land. While on board, you might even catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean seals that make their home in the sea caves.
What you’ll be doing: Eating fresh lobster, for here, this tasty crustacean is not as expensive as it is elsewhere in the Aegean. Once properly fueled, take a walk in the oak forest found in the southeast part of the island or head to the ruins of the ancient city on the hill of Agios Minas.
Why you’re visiting: History is the lure, as this is the birthplace of Homer as well as famous Greek politicians and writers. In addition to the mind, Chios nourishes the body with its beaches, food and industry. Mastic, the flavoring for many sweets and drinks (and also used in medicine, pharmaceuticals, dentistry and cosmetics), is produced here; it's often referred to as the white gold of Chios or the tears of Chios. Gathering mastic is such an ancient tradition here that UNESCO placed it on the "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" list in 2014.
What you’ll be doing: While you can certainly sit pretty here at Mavra Volia, the only beach with black sand on the island, there are plenty of action words to be found. Stroll the scented gardens and vast orange orchards at Kampos, a traditional settlement founded by Genoese invaders in the 14th century. Check out Nea Moni ("New Monastery"), one of the most important Byzantine monuments in Greece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Keep history alive in the present day by swimming at the beach of Daskalopetra (meaning "teaching stone"), where Homer sat and taught his students. Shop at the Aplotaria market, specializing in local products like citrus fruits and white Chios cheese. Drink Ariousios Oinos, a local red wine, or sip Mastiha, a digestive liquor, after eating striftaria (twisted) pasta with mushrooms. Catch the sunset while visiting the four traditional windmills.
Why you’re visiting: Fournoi is both the name of the archipelago and one of its two inhabited islands; Thymaina being the other. Along with traditional houses, mulberry trees and cobblestone alleys, the island of Fournoi is full of ancient ruins dating back to Ionian, Classical and Hellenistic times. Its shoreline also lends itself to numerous coves and beaches.
What you’ll be doing: If you know Greek, then you know "fournoi" means "bakery," and there are plenty of ways to eat your fill here. Be sure to also try the Fournoi honey as well as the local orange soda. Pack a picnic and head to beaches like Psili Ammos, Chrysomilia or Kamari; the latter is ideal for snorkeling as you can see remnants of ancient houses on the seabed. On land, archaeological attractions include the ancient marble quarry at Petrokopio, the ruins of an early temple in Kamari and the shrine to Poseidon at Agia Triada.
Why you’re visiting: Aside from its postcard-worthy views and seaside villages, Ikaria also holds scientific interest as a fountain of youth; the island is considered a world "blue zone," known for the longevity of its residents. Not only does one-third of the population live past the age of 90, but it's common for people here to reach 100 years old. In addition to physical activity, the Mediterranean diet, lack of stress and habits like napping mid-day and not smoking playing a role, there is scientific debate about geology being important too.
What you’ll be doing: Aside from marveling at the health of locals, visit fishing villages like Evdilos, Gialiskari, Avlaki and Karkinagri for fresh seafood. Depending on when you visit, plan on attending year-round traditional feasts that celebrate the name days of Christian Orthodox saints or other religious holidays.
Why you’re visiting: The third largest of the Greek islands, Lesvos has a laid-back vibe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its artistic contributions, like poets Sappho and Nobel Prize winner Odysseus Elytis, as well as a significant natural monument. Come here for the beaches, but stay for the hot springs, the olive oil and the ouzo.
What you’ll be doing: The word "Lesvos" means "forested" or "woody" and along with the estimated 11 million olive trees on the island, no better evidence of the name can be found than in the Petrified Forest. Thanks to volcanic eruptions over 20 million years ago, visitors today can observe the trunks, roots, leaves and fruits of trees of a bygone era. Another way to appreciate history is to soak in the thermal springs in places like Thermi, Polichnitos, Lisvori and Eftalou. Celebrate Greek traditions with a visit to Plomari, the birthplace of ouzo, and partake in a drink or two; true aficionados can visit the two ouzo museums (Barbayanni Ouzo and World of Ouzo).
Why you’re visiting: Full of interesting landscapes, Limnos (or Lemnos) not only has beaches, but also waterfalls, wetlands, rock formations and even sand dunes. As you explore these terrains, you'll see elaborate stone masonry throughout the villages, and maybe spot some local deer roaming around.
What you’ll be doing: Keros Beach is not only popular for watersports like kitesurfing and surfing, but also camping; rent a luxury safari tent or bungalow and wake up to picturesque scenes and the envy of your friends. For more impressive views, make the trek to the chapel of Panagia Kakaviotissa, founded in 1416 and used as a shelter for hermits and monks; nestled in a rock cavity near the village of Thanos, the chapel's mountainside setting is unforgettable. If you climb to the 13th century Byzantine castle overlooking the capital city of Myrina, you'll see even more history inside, that being the ruins of a mosque dating back to the Ottoman occupation.
Why you’re visiting: Those who are passionate about seafaring will feel right at home in Oinousses, where many Greek ship owners are from and return each summer to their villas and mansions. This cluster of nine small islands and islets is a protected area, full of quiet beaches and coves for swimming—as well as desert islands.
What you’ll be doing: Hop in a canoe and paddle around the desert islands; if you're feeling really adventurous, you can spend the night on one of its beaches. The Maritime Museum displays the blueprints of early 20th century sailing ships and steamboats that helped launch the island into the international shipping world.
Why you’re visiting: An important island during the Greek Revolution of 1821 thanks to its commercial fleet, Psara still greets visitors to its harbor today with its "Freedom or Death" flag. Cannons, fortresses and windmills are found alongside newer houses in the village here.
What you’ll be doing: Pay homage to residents of Psara who perished during the Revolution by visiting Mavri Rachi; the monument is also a serene place to watch the sunset. Hike the 60 steps to the Church of Agios Nikolaos or head to the Monastery of the Dormition of Virgin Mary to see rare manuscripts and religious books.
Why you’re visiting: Whether you realize it or not, Samos contributed a great deal to your math homework. The great mathematician Pythagoras hailed from this island, along with philosopher Epicurus and the astronomer Aristarchus. Full of mountains, caves and ravines for daytime exploration, Samos also has a bit of a nightlife.
What you’ll be doing: Samos was considered the spiritual center of the ancient Mediterranean world and is home to two UNESCO monuments on the island: the fortified ancient city of Pythagoreion and the Heraion of Samos, a sanctuary to the goddess Hera. If you don't have the energy to hike the full 13.5 miles up Mount Kerkis, don't despair; it's not far up the trail to see the Cave of Pythagoras, where he was said to have hidden for 10 years before his exile. Relax with some locally made sweet wine at the many taverns on the island. If you're lucky, you'll catch a waterfront dance party.
Why you’re visiting: Nature lovers, rejoice! Samothrace is still an untouched wilderness where Mother Nature is queen and the highest mountain in the Aegean, Mount Saos, can be found. You'll catch scents of thyme, oregano and other herbs as the breeze blows past. You'll hear the soft murmur of streams and the louder thunder of waterfalls. You'll see migratory birds resting at different wetlands. This is where you go to find peace.
What you’ll be doing: Outdoor adventures are on the menu here in Samothrace. Mountain biking, paragliding, rafting, kayaking and diving are just some of the activities that await. If you prefer soaking in thermal springs (in the appropriately named village of Therma), you can do that too. And if you prefer your solitude with a bit of history, visit the Sanctuary of the Great Gods in Paleopolis, which was once the home of the marble statue of Nike, known as the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Why you’re visiting: Popular with mainland Greeks and tourists alike, Thasos offers a wide variety of options. With their crystal clear water, beaches beckon, while the hiking trails through mountainous lush greenery also hold sway. The sheer number of churches and monasteries invite visitors to explore history and culture, as do the ancient ruins. Put simply, Thasos is a little bit of everything, but showcases the best of the North Aegean islands.
What you’ll be doing: Immerse yourself in the local events, particularly in the summertime; attend a festival or try to attend a show in the ancient theater. Choose from family-friendly beaches with shallow water (such as Paradise or Psilli Ammos) or go to a less crowded option like Agia Anna or Glyfoneri beach. Spend time in the picturesque villages of Potamia and Panagia, sharing a smile with a stranger over some Thasian wine.