Instant expert: Greek islands
With wide-ranging natural beauty, pristine beaches and archaeological wonders sprinkled across their length and breadth, the Greek islands have earned a rock-solid position as a favourite among British holidaymakers. Whether you're island-hopping with a backpack, or jetting in for a fly-and-flop all-inclusive beach break, you'll be catered for here. But before you go, here are a few essential things you need to know about this stunning location.
Greek islands at a glance
Official language: Greek
Flying time from the UK: 3-4 hours
Time zone: GMT+2
Visas: Not required for British citizens
Tipping: Not obligatory in restaurants, but taxi drivers expect a 10% tip
10 things you need to know about the Greek islands
1. Greece has somewhere between 1,200 and 6,000 islands (depending on what you call an island; some are islets or rocky outcrops), but only 227 of them are inhabited - and only 78 have more than 100 people.
2. The largest Greek island, and the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean, is Crete; the next largest are Euboea, Lesbos and Rhodes.
3. The ancient Minoans, who flourished on Crete and its surrounding islands from 2,700-1,420 BC, built no walls or fortresses, yet enjoyed a peaceful and artistically evolved culture.
4. Many believe Santorini is all that remains of the legendary “lost continent” of Atlantis, an advanced civilisation that was, according to Plato, wiped out by an explosion and sank into the ocean.
5. Cretans love guns – they have the highest ratio of guns per person in the EU. Any social occasion is a reason to shoot; they even give each other a 21-gun salute on their birthdays. Despite this, crime in villages and small cities is almost non-existent.
6. The island of Patmos is thought to be where the apostle St John wrote the Book of Revelation.
7. Devout Christians make an annual pilgrimage to Tinos on 15 August to visit an icon of the Virgin Mary, many doing the entire 800-metre journey from the wharf on their hands and knees.
8. About 7% of the world’s marble comes from Greece, with trade originating on Paros 7,000 years ago.
9. You’ll see a lot of stuff painted blue in the Greek islands – doors, windowsills, church domes etc. Why? Thanks to an ancient belief that this particular shade of turquoise-blue keeps evil away.
10. Julius Caesar was once captured by Cilician pirates and held captive on the island of Farmakonisi. Outraged by the paltry sum they demanded as ransom, he returned to the island once released and crucified them. The island remains uninhabited today.
When to visit the Greek islands
With 250 days of sunshine per year, the Greek islands have a perennial appeal. The high season runs from around mid-April through late-October (for Crete, Rhodes and more southerly islands), with some islands (eg Skiathos) shutting down earlier. For discounted deals and milder weather, mid-May to late-June and September are best. July and August are the hottest and busiest months. In winter months, larger towns such as Chania on Crete or Hydra, near enough to Athens to stay lively, are the best options.
The Greek islands are best for…
Nature lovers. The islands abound with scenic, rugged beauty, including world-famous, pristine beaches.
Indiana Jones. Greece has more archaeological museums than any other country in the world, with over 100 museums on the islands alone, including the huge open-air archaeological sites on Delos, Santorini, Crete and others.
Healthy eaters. Greece has one of the leanest and healthiest Mediterranean diets, not least because olive trees have been cultivated commercially in Crete since 3,000 BC.
Batman. Greece has over 8,500 mysterious, fascinating caves, long used as sites of human (and bat) habitation. These sacred, mystical places are full of complex, hall-like geological structures, many with crystal-clear, deep-blue lakes and grottoes (such as those on Zakynthos and Kastellorizo).