International Living’s Guide to the Greek Islands
By Lynn Roulo
Spanning three bodies of water and featuring well over 100 inhabited islands, Greece offers stunning variety when it comes to beach-dwelling options.
From the Ionian Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea, you could spend years island hopping and exploring without ever getting bored. Even within island clusters, each place has its own personality, unique character, and signature charm. Below we offer you a guide to the Greek islands, highlighting some of the major islands you might want to visit either for a holiday or when scouting out a new home.
Apart from the two largest islands of Crete and Evia, the Greek islands are grouped into six clusters:
- The Cyclades islands in the southeast Aegean Sea.
- The Ionian islands in the west near Italy.
- The Argo-Saronic islands, an Aegean Sea island cluster closest to Athens.
- The North Aegean islands in the east near Turkey.
- The Sporades islands near Volos (northern mainland Greece) in the western Aegean Sea.
- The Dodecanese islands in the southeast Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The Cyclades Islands
Located in the southeast Aegean Sea, this island cluster includes Mykonos, Santorini, Sifnos, Serifos, Naxos, Paros, Amorgos, Milos, and Folegandros.
- Santorini is one of the most visited and photogenic of Greece’s islands, and its signature caldera view in Oia is one of the most photographed places on earth. From all over the world, people flock to the steep lanes and cliffs to see breathtaking sunsets. If you want the classic Greek experience with white-washed buildings and blue domes, Santorini is your place, but try to go a little off-season to avoid the crushing crowds. Santorini is teeming with tourists and while it is visually beautiful, the fact that it is so crowded and geared toward visitors can take away from some of its charms.
- The party island of Mykonos is another popular marquee island in the Cyclades cluster, known for its world-class beaches, vibrant nightlife, high-end shopping, and glamor. If you like crowded dance clubs and superstar DJs, Mykonos is for you. But be warned: while it is easy to have a good time in Mykonos, it isn’t easy on your wallet. Mykonos is expensive, so if you are on a budget this might not be your island.
- Sifnos is considered the “foodie” island of Greece and if you are looking for a mellow vibe and amazing food, this stylish island is a great choice. Beyond the classic taverna recipes, you’ll find innovative, creative twists to traditional dishes. It’s also the pottery capital of the Aegean, so look out for original ceramic creations all over the island. With villages named Apollonia (after Apollo, the god of light) and Artemonas (after his sister Artemis, the goddess of the hunt), it is easy to weave a bit of Greek mythology into your stay.
- If finding the perfect beach is your goal, go to Milos. This lesser-known island, a favorite among Greeks, features some of the most interesting seaside towns you’ll find, offering both fully catered and completely remote beach options. Check out Sarakiniko for an other-worldly beach experience or some more traditional, but no less gorgeous, seaside locations like Firiplaka and Paleochori beaches.
- Naxos is the largest island in the Cyclades island cluster and has something for almost everyone’s tastes and preferences. Long beaches with shallow water make it a favorite for family holidays, and from exploring Greek mythology to kitesurfing, Naxos offers great variety. This island is also called the “King of Cheese” and with over 10,000 grazing cows, you’ll find many delicious, local cheese dishes.
The Ionian Islands
To the west in the Ionian Sea, are the islands of Corfu, Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Lefkada, Paxi, and Kythira.
- Corfu is where Italy meets Greece, and this colorful island blends the two cultures in the most charming way. Limoncello competes with raki and ouzo as the after-dinner drink, and it is one of the few Greek islands that is active year-round, offering one of the best Easter celebrations you’ll find in Greece. If you can’t decide between a trip to Italy or a trip to Greece, go to Corfu.
- Lefkada’s claim to fame is that you can drive to it, as it is connected to mainland Greece by a long causeway and floating bridge. Once there, you’ll find phenomenal beaches and charming mountain villages. Lefkada is nicknamed “the island of poets”, so be on the lookout for the literature and arts festivals they host on the island.
- Kefalonia is the largest of the Ioanian Islands and is famous for its stunning natural beauty and pristine beaches. It was the filming location for the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and some say that the Mycenaean gravesite in Tzanata is the resting place of the mythical hero Odysseus.
The Argo-Saronic Islands
For an easy day or weekend trip from Athens, the Argo-Saronic islands including Aegina, Hydra, Poros, Spetses, Salamis, and Agistri are ideal options.
- Aegina is one of the closest islands to Athens, and with a travel duration of between 40 to 75 minutes you’ll find numerous ferries running back and forth each day. The island includes the ancient Temple of Aphaia, as well as charming beaches and traditional fish tavernas. Because access from Athens is so easy, many people make day trips to this island.
- Hydra is another great island not far from Athens with a lively port featuring art galleries, a National Historical Archive Museum, and numerous restaurants, tavernas, bars, and cafes. Hydra is a “car-free” island meaning you can walk everywhere, giving the island a slow pace and Old World charm. It is also known for its wide range of hiking trails.
- Spetses is the furthest island from Athens in the Argo-Saronic island cluster and is known for its sophistication and style. Another car-free island, you’ll find bikes, walking trails, and even horse-drawn carriages to get around. The island features historical captains’ mansions, the Agios Nikolaos Monastery, and a museum dedicated to Laskarina Bouboulina, the island’s heroine from the Greek War of Independence in 1821.
- Agistri, less than one hour by ferry from Athens, is the smallest island in the Argo-Saronic cluster with a single bus line that runs in a continuous loop around the island with stops at the major beaches and villages. It is famous for its forests and vegetation, with 80% of the island being green. Because it is so tiny, it is easy to get around and offers visitors tranquility, quality beaches, and natural beauty.
The North Aegean Islands
In the northeast Aegean Sea near the coast of Turkey, you’ll find the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Limnos, Chios, Samothrace, and Ikaria.
- Ikaria is a low-key island made famous because it is a “blue zone” location, a place where a disproportionate percentage of the population lives to be over 100 years old. Ikaria is famous for its relaxed vibe, its tiny villages, and its “paniyiri” celebrations (or saints’ day festivals) where entire villages come together to eat and dance. If you want a place to rest and rejuvenate, come to Ikaria.
- Samos, just off the coast of Turkey, is famous for its wine as well as its UNESCO World Heritage Site the Temple of Hera. The island features waterfall walks, gorgeous beaches and, if you are feeling adventurous, you can take a ferry over to Turkey in less than one hour. Its beaches cater to all tastes, from pebbles to sand and from organized to remote.
- Chios is another island in close proximity to Turkey and is nicknamed “the mastic island” because of its exports from the mastic trees grown there. It is famous for its medieval villages and the 11th-century monastery of Nea Moni, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Sporades Islands
Located in the northeast in the Aegean Sea, you’ll find the Sporades islands including Skiathos, Skyros, Skopelos, and Alonissos.
- To the east of the port city of Volos lies Skiathos, one of the most popular of the Sporades Islands. Skiathos is where some scenes from Mama Mia! were filmed and, while it isn’t an island that is lively year-round, if you go during the open season of May to October you will be rewarded with amazing beaches, delicious tavernas, and a vibrant nightlife.
- Skyros is a small island in the Sporades grouping that is home to a unique breed of horse called the Skyran Pony. While visiting the island you can visit the Mouries Farm to see these tiny horses up close! Less touristy than some other Greek islands, Skyros has an ancient monastery and a medieval castle.
- Skopelos is called the Emerald Island and is one of the greenest islands in Greece, featuring pine trees that go all the way to the clear blue ocean water. The island has a folklore museum, several monasteries and, like Skiathos, was the location for several scenes from Mama Mia!
The Dodecanese Islands
In the eastern Mediterranean Sea below the North Aegean island cluster, you’ll find the Dodecanese islands, including the islands of Rhodes, Kos, Kalymnos, Patmos, Kastellorizo, and Symi.
- Rhodes is the administrative capital of the Dodecanese and is an island that is active year-round. Nicknamed the “Island of Roses,” Rhodes is famous for its natural beauty including the Rhododendron (rock rose), the Rodini Park, its medieval architecture, and its charming villages.
- After Rhodes, Kos is the second most visited island in the Dodecanese, welcoming over 1 million visitors per year. The island is geared for tourists and offers things like an eight-mile seaside bike path that runs from Faros beach to Psalidi beach. Kos is known for its vibrant nightlife, water sports, beautiful beaches, and all-inclusive resorts.
- Kastellorizo is the smallest island in the Dodecanese cluster, close to the coast of Turkey. Remote and somewhat difficult to reach, this tiny island offers an authentic Greek experience, a tranquil vibe, and ensures you won’t run into the tourist crowds of some of the bigger islands. Climb the 401 steps to reach the St. George of the Mountain Monastery and see the coast of Turkey, or stay near the sea and swim in the Blue Cave, a 246-foot long cave with stalactites that turn a brilliant shade of blue when the sun hits it just right.
If you are looking for an island that will hold your attention for months on end, Crete is a great choice. The biggest island in Greece and the 88th biggest island in the world, Crete has world-famous beaches, stunning mountains and gorges, a colorful history ranging from ancient Greek mythology (the Minotaur and the Labyrinth) to the famous Cretan resistance to the Nazis in World War II. Crete offers larger cities like Heraklion, Chania, and Rethymno, as well as tiny villages both in the mountains and by the sea. Featuring three airports, it is one of the only Greek islands that can support itself independently without tourism. It offers world-class attractions like the Palace of Knossos and Elafonisi pink-sanded beach. If you haven’t been to Crete, it is worth a visit.
Evia is the second largest island in Greece but because it is connected to the mainland by so many bridges and short ferry rides, it can be easy to forget it is an island. It’s easily accessible from Athens and features both gorgeous beaches and magical forests. Coming in at 1,422 square miles and the home of just under 200,000 people, it is known for its conference centers and luxury accommodations.
We’ve listed just 23 of the dozens of colorful, unique islands you’ll find in Greece. From popular to remote, from polished to raw and rugged, there really is something for everyone within the Greek islands. And whether you are seeking a relaxing holiday or a brand-new life, Greece has a way of meeting you just where you are and giving you just what you need.
Καλό ταξίδι! (Kalo taxidi!) Good journey!
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