The Greek isles have it all. There are several island chains to consider for your Greek islands visit, visit one or hop to several! No matter what you decide, each island owns its distinct geographical charms, local cuisine and culture to discover. Here’s a look at the 10 Greek islands you should visit:
Hydra is a small and charming island that is a popular weekend escape for Athenians for good reason. In an hour or so via a fast ferry from Piraeus (Athens main port), you can find yourself in the picturesque cobbled paths of Hydra’s port town. What makes Hydra unique is it’s the only Greek island where cars and other wheeled vehicles are forbidden.
So, how do people get around? Donkeys are available for hire! In fact, donkeys and mules are the main means of transport for locals, and they are the best way to haul heavy luggage and goods from one point to another.
Whether you explore Hydra Town riding a friendly donkey or by foot, the island’s beautiful stone architecture and peaceful atmosphere seem a world away from the capital. There are lovely clothing and jewelry shops around the bustling harbor that is lined with cafes perfect for relaxing, people-watching and sipping a coffee or drink. If you want to experience its pretty beaches, small water taxis make stops around the island to drop you off and pick you up.
There’s a good reason that Santorini remains at the top of the list for anyone’s Greek islands visit. It’s famous for being simply stunning. Add the radiant sunsets that sweep brilliantly over its caldera and sea that surrounds it and the views are like nowhere else in the world.
Santorini is a unique formation of steep cliffs created after a volcanic explosion rocked the land mass some 3,600 years ago. Whitewashed cubist homes and churches top the cliff and then cascade down its slopes. Tucked within them, are luxury suites, hotels and rooms inspired by traditional dwellings, sea-facing whitewashed rooms shaped out of the volcanic rock.
The island is perfect for walks to enjoy the caldera view and pop in and out of its boutiques. Boating excursions that set off for the island’s coastline then around the inimitable caldera are also popular. As for beaches, Santorini is home to some of the most unique ones in Greece thanks to its volcanic history. The Red Beach features a cliff of reddish and amber tones – a beautiful contrast with the turquoise green and blue sea. For history buffs, exploring is the Akrotiri archeological site known as “the Greek Pompeii” is a fantastic glimpse into life around 1450 when the Minoan civilization was at its peak, that is, right before the volcanic eruption destroyed it.
With its nightlife energy, seasonal jet-set and luxury style, Mykonos remains one of the most notable cosmopolitan islands in the world. Gourmet restaurants feature celebrity Greek and internationally recognized chefs. Its pricey villas and hotels offer top accommodation. The world’s top DJs spin at the beach clubs each summer. Hollywood star sightings are common.
Plus, its boutiques offer world-class shopping in the island’s whitewashed and lively central village. But, Mykonos is not only for the rich and famous. The island has its traditional side. It’s easy to seek out the low-key charms of the island. There are lovely wineries, family run tavernas and beach restaurants with fantastic views.
The island is blessed with incredible beach options for every taste ranging from those that want a party crowd, jet-set crowd, a family atmosphere or simply no one at all around them. Also a must-see is the serene temple ruins on nearby Delos, the sacred uninhabited island of the ancients.
Recently named “The Most Delicious Greek Island” by Conde Nast Traveller, Sifnos is the ultimate destination to spend your Greek luxury holidays. The island is known for its local cuisine, made popular by local chef and famous cookbook author, Nicholas Tselementes. He sticks to traditional Sifniot cooking, which means using terracotta casserole dishes that have been produced on the island for centuries.
Aside from the cuisine, Sifnos has a very relaxing atmosphere. Stroll the capital of Apollonia and the old capital of Kastro – both whitewashed villages with all the charm you’d come to expect from the Greek islands. The beaches of Chrissopigi, Platys Gialos, and Vathy are all idyllic places to relax and enjoy the crystalline Mediterranean waters. Other than the Church of the Seven Martyrs and the Monastery of Panagia Chrissopigi, there isn’t much else in terms of sightseeing.
The best part? Sifnos is three hours by catamaran or five hours by ferry from Athens.
Although Paros has its own regular summer guest list of A-list celebrities like Tom Hanks (who owns a Parian villa), Paros keeps to its own authentic vibe.
It has a flourishing art community, family-owned tavernas and beautiful historic churches to explore. Its landscape is dotted with whitewashed windmills, cubist homes, an ancient main town and bustling little harbors.
Those who love Naxos really love it. Some say the land exudes a special energy, and that’s one reason why the island was chosen by the ancient Greeks as a cultural center. The impressive Portara, a massive marble doorway frame, dating back to ancient times, sits among ruins on an islet near Naxos Town. It is a fantastic site to see, especially during sunset. The Portara was once the doorway to a temple that was to be dedicated to the Greek God Apollo.
Being that it is the largest island in the Cycladic island chain, it’s also where great food, lovely beaches, charming villages, ancient sites, shopping and nightlife can be found in abundance. The main town is called Hora or Naxos Town and it is a pleasure to simply “get lost” in its charming whitewashed alleys where you’ll find cafes, restaurants, boutiques and shops. A day trip away from Hora takes you to beautiful beaches and lovely hiking trails. Also, villages like Apiranthos and Chalki are worth pottering in all afternoon. Naxians are also very proud of their local products. That’s because Naxos is more fertile than most of the other Cycladic islands and produces a wealth of olives, grapes, figs, citrus fruit, corn and potatoes. Local products like kitro or citron liqueur and varieties of Naxian cheese are all worth a try!
Serifos is an island perfect for those looking for a calm, scenic and traditional atmosphere. It’s a rugged island known for its historic mining sites. During a hike through Mega Livadi, you’ll get a glimpse into the past as you walk around abandoned and rusted mining carts, train tracks and even bridges. They all remain out in the open, a testament to its former industrial culture. It all remains a fitting addition to the island’s arid and wild land characteristics.
Serifos is ringed with magnificent beaches that haven’t been touched by hotel development or any kind of development at all. Locals like it that way. Meanwhile, its Hora or main town is one of the most unique in the Cycladic islands. It is built right a rocky hill that where the walls of a 15th century Venetian castle still stand. A ten-minute walk to the top of the hill opens up to the most panoramic views of the island and the sea. A walk back down among and through the narrow streets of the upper and lower Hora bring you past the island’s whitewashed cubed homes and to its charming squares where little shops, cafes and restaurants.
Zakynthos, or Zante in Italian, is an Ionian island off the west coast of Greece with a rocky coastline, turquoise waters and one very famous beach. Navagio or the Shipwreck Beach can only be reached by boat and is said to be one of the most photographed beaches in the world. There, a rusty shipwreck sits on a spectacular white rocky beach that contrasts beautifully against an intensely turquoise sea – all set against a background of dramatically steep rocky cliffs.
The infamous resort of Laganas is the main party town on the island. However, Zante’s natural wonders are just as big as an attraction for visitors. Two endangered species call Zante home, the loggerhead sea turtle and the monk seal. The island’s landscape is rich with natural wonders including the Blue Caves, Keri Caves and stretches of sandy beaches. For the foodie traveler, Zante offers rich local cuisine and is known for its olive oil, local wines and Greek cheeses.
Kefalonia, an island ringed with scenic bays and carved with lush mountainous slopes, is an island for the explorer. The landscape is known for Myrtos Bay which is a swirl of turquoise shades and sandy beaches surrounded by dramatic cliffs. The island is dotted with several picturesque villages including Fiskardo and Assos. One of the island’s highlights includes the natural phenomenon that is Drogarati Cave.
Take a boat ride to explore Melissani Lake and its cave where you can glide between walls of dazzling stalactites and stalagmites. Also fantastic to explore is Mt. Ainos, the only mountain range on a Greek island. There, wild horses roam free and incredible sea views are awaiting around the bend on its numerous hiking trails. Its beaches are simply stunning. Both visitors and locals love to spend their summer days at Platis Gialos, Petani, Myrthos, Xi, Scala and Antisamos, among other beaches.
As in Homer’s Odyssey, Ithaca has symbolized one’s return to their beloved home. Located just two kilometers northeast to its much larger island neighbor Kefalonia, Ithaca is one of the smallest in the Ionian island chain making it the ideal escape for those seeking a small island where everything is simply relaxed. That Ithacan scenery is comprised of lush green rolling hills dipping into small secluded bays.
Beaches range from sandy to rocky with some more organized while others remain untouched just as nature intended. The island has a mountainous landscape that is perfect for hiking and mountain biking. Ithaca’s main town is called Vathi. It is home to the island’s Maritime and Folkloric Museum as well as to the Archaeological Museum of Ithaca. Other villages are worth exploring including Perahori for its panoramic views. The village of Stavros has another archaeological museum exhibiting a first-century clay mask.
One of the Greek islands you should visit is the largest of the Dodecanese islands. Surrounded by aquamarine waters, Rhodes is a culture vulture’s dream escape with its 13th-century ramparts and the opulent Palace of the Grand Masters. The island has been settled by various civilizations throughout time which is apparent in its architecture.
Its most impressive ancient site is the Lindos Acropolis where a donkey can assist you up 292 steps — if you prefer not to hike up. The beautiful village surrounding it is lined with historic houses known as captains’ houses dating back to the 16th century.
About the Author
Native New Yorker Marissa Tejada is an author, travel writer and freelance journalist living in Athens, Greece and publishes her blog called Travel Greece, Travel Europe. Expat life also inspired her acclaimed romantic comedy novel Chasing Athens which is available on Amazon. Her favorite Cycladic island is Serifos, but she’s still in love with every Greek island beach. You can find her on Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook.
How many of the destinations on Marissa’s list would you love to head to for your upcoming Greek islands visit? Leave us your own suggestions for Greek islands you should visit in a comment below!