Your Greek islands guide
There are 6,000 of them strewn across the Aegean and Ionian Seas. Here are 10 of the best
If you see a tourism poster featuring a Greek island, there’s a good chances it is one of the Cyclades, south east of mainland Greee. With sandy beaches, signature white buildings and sparkling blue seas, it’s a perennially popular summer playground for Greek and international visitors alike.*
Crete, the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean, is a familiar package holiday destination – but don’t let that put you off. Now that Ryanair flies to Chania in the northwest of the island, you can avoid the teeming streets and beaches of tourist traps to the east such as Heraklion, Malia and Hersonissos, and enjoy a much more relaxed, picturesque side of the island.
Rich in mythology, the island is the legendary home of King Minos, the minotaur and the palace of Knossos, as well as Daedalus and Icarus (the son who flew too close to the sun). So there is more to engage the grey matter than where to position your beach towel.
At 260km in length, there’s plenty of it too. Base yourself amid the pretty Venetian houses of Rethymnon, or Chania itself, and make sorties to see such sights as the gorge of Samaria, the White Mountains, the fortress island former leper colony of Spinalonga and the mountain villages of the Lasithi plateau.
Antiquities: The Diktaean Cave near Psychro is known as the Bethlehem of ancient Greece; it’s the birthplace of Zeus.
Villas: Villa Athinais is a new villa sleeping eight in the quiet village of Gerani, 15km west of Chania. Situated on a hill, it has sea and mountain views, a pool and gardens. €3,185 a week in high season.
Greece’s most famous and fun island, Mykonos, is a piece of whitewashed heaven right at the centre of the Cyclades. It’s known for party glamour, so don’t worry if you arrive before noon to find no one around. Such is the legendary nightlife, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone up before lunch – other than fishermen mending nets on the water’s edge and bar owners busy cleaning up after last night’s shenanigans.
It isn’t all about partying though, there are sights to see too. The town’s Little Venice is a picturesque strip of 18th-century houses with colourful balconies hanging out over choppy seas. Look out for the traditional windmills and the town’s local oddity – its pelicans.
While there’s not much to the interior, other than bare rock, the maze-like streets of Mykonos town more than make up for it, particularly at night when it thumps like Ibiza. Bus or boat it to legendary Paradise and Super Paradise beaches – although, in high summer, you’ll be hard-pressed to find space to lie down. Known as the Island of the Winds, Mykonos is also great for sailing and surfing. But mainly for partying.
Antiquities: Let the party people sleep while you spend your days exploring the many archaeological sites, including Ftelia, on the northern coast, where excavations have unearthed settlements dating from 5,000BC. Don’t miss the short boat ride to nearby Delos, birthplace of Apollo. First inhabited in 3,000BC, the entire island is now an open museum.
Villas: Stay at the Villa Morpheus – named after the Greek god of dreams – a luxury south-facing property set above the bay of Agios Lazaros, with an infinity pool on the terrace and panoramic views. Located 4km from Mykonos town it sleeps eight and costs €14,000 per week in high season, including four hours of maid service each day. See mykonosvillas.com
Jacques Cousteau thought he would find the lost city of Atlantis at Santorini and you’d forgive him for deciding it was here rather than, say, the Isle of Man.
Where better to undertake research than a sun-drenched island soaring up out of deep blue seas with views so spectacular they turn even the town’s most modest “rent room” into a penthouse suite?
It’s no wonder the scenery is dramatic, the island was forged by volcanic activity dating to the 16th century BC and which left three-quarters of the island under water. It’s not great for small kids, due to the steep inclines, and it can also be somewhat uncomfortable watching donkeys struggling under the weight of fully grown adults making their regular trips uphill from the harbour to the main town, Fira.
Don’t miss the stunning village of Oia, to the north of Fira, whose terraced houses are hewn into the cliffs and which is regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in the world from which to enjoy the sunset.
Beaches are often volcanic black, which means they heat up often unbearably under bare feet. They also shelve very steeply. In Santorini, however, it’s all about finding a perch high up in the terrace of a bar or restaurant and enjoying spectacular views from such a height as to make the ferries arriving below look no bigger than goldfish in a pond.
Antiquities: The Minoan bronze age settlement at Akrotiri, near the island’s Red Beach, was deserted because of the eruption of a volcano, and was preserved by the same event. Like a mini Pompeii, it has multi-storey houses with frescoes, sewer systems, stone streets and squares and even items of furniture to see.
Villas: Check out this stunning minimalist villa, overlooking the caldera, with vaulted bedrooms, private veranda and spa, swimming pool with glass front and spectacular sea views. Located between Fira and Oia, it sleeps six people and costs €17,500 a week in high season. boutiquevillassantorini.gr
Lying in the sparkling seas half way between Mykonos and Santorini, and named for a flower – the violets that carpet the countryside here each spring – Ios is the island where the poet Homer is buried.
These days it attracts travellers of an age more likely to see Homer as a cartoon character than a poet. But don’t let the fun-loving hoards of youthes who descend on its main town put you off. The town itself, situated on the western side of the island, is a captivating mix of cubist architecture. Punctuated with windmills, churches and sky blue cupolas, it’s a picture-postcard scene not to be missed.
By day, follow the labyrinthine streets up to the town’s citadel to explore the castle and open-air theatre, the Odysseas Elytis, named after a Greek Nobel laureate. By night, wend your way back down via its heaving bars and late-night cafes.
It’s not all socialising. The mountainous island is loved by hikers and bikers too, who follow the shepherds’ paths that have latticed the interior since time immemorial and which reward the fit with stunning views.
Or go on a church hunt. The island has 365, one for every day of the year, including its most famous, Panayia Gremiotissa, perched on a cliff edge over the sea at the town’s highest point. Not a glamorous island – you won’t find any luxury hotels – it more than makes up for that with its laid-back feel.
Antiquities: The archeological site at Skarkos is one of the island’s earliest settlements, dating from 2,800BC.
Once you’ve seen the site, check out some of the finds from it at the island’s Archeological Museum.
Villas: For a totally secluded villa on its own beach, check out Sapounhoma. Built by a hippy and lived in full-time until recently by a couple of artists, it sits on 30 acres and is 12 minutes, down a bumpy road, from the nearest village. It sleeps eight and costs €6,600 per week in high season. See iosvilla.com
Anyone looking to combine a serious walking holiday with a serious beach one would do well to think of Paros. P for Paros, p for paths – the island is completely criss-crossed with them. Today, thanks to the repair and restoration work of the island’s authorities, the ancient tracks used by the locals are now promoted as one of the best ways to explore the island’s interior. Connecting traditional villages, breathtaking landscapes and wonderful beaches, there is certainly plenty of reason to explore.
Parikia, the island’s capital, has the region’s signature whitewashed cube houses and cobbled streets. To the north is Naoussa, a colourful village with the ruins of a Venetian fortress still standing guard at the entrance to its small harbour.
Or take the island’s best-known path, the hour-long Byzantine Road, from the tiny village of Prodromos up to the mountain village of Lefkes, at the island’s highest point through a surprisingly green landscape.
If you fancy exploring on horseback there are two equestrian centres on the island. If it’s watersports you’re after, Paros is another good spot for windsurfing. For a natural – and free – spa, check out the beach at Kaloyeros, where visitors cover their body with the local clay, let it dry in the sun and then wash it off in the sea, for super soft skin.
Antiquities: The island is famous for its Parian marble. The quarries at Marathi were in operation from the 3rd millennium BC up to the 19th century and can still be visited today.
Villas: HomeAway.com has a five-bedroom seafront villa on the eastern coast of Paros (ref 982145), which sleeps 10, from €2,500 a week. homeaway.com
An emerald gem in a sparkling sea, Naxos is unique among the typically rocky islands of the Cyclades for its lush greenery.
A large island – the biggest in the Cyclades – with serious mountains and deep, fertile valleys, it’s one of the few islands whose interior is almost as visually appealing as its coast.
It has a sense all of its own too. Because agriculture is the main industry here, rather than tourism, its tiny hillside villages carry on much as they have for aeons, unimpeded by the visitors that flock to its coasts each summer. As a result, it can seem much more traditional and old-fashioned than other islands.
Rent a moped and explore at your leisure. Like most of the Cyclades, it benefits from good winds, making it not just more pleasant than the thermometer would suggest, but great for kite and windsurfing. It also has long sandy beaches and is known for its food.
Because of its fertile fields, Naxos has the edge over some of its other Cycladean counterparts when it comes to variety of produce on offer. The island’s potatoes are reckoned to be the best in Greece. Naxos town is an atmospheric mix of medieval alleys whose balconies overflow with bougainvillea, with its waterfront a great spot for watching the nightly passeggiata.
To get away from the hustle and bustle, head north to the quiet village of Apollonas where the liveliest entertainment is watching little fish swim beside you as you dine at one of its waterside restaurants.
Antiquities: Naxos’s most famous ruin is the Portara, a 2,500-year-old doorway that once stood at the entrance to an unfinished temple. It faces Delos, Apollo’s birthplace, and scholars argue as to whether it was built in honour of him or of Dionysus, the god worshipped on Naxos.
Villas: Owners Direct has a villa on Naxos with sea views and its own private beach (ref: GR4048) . The four-bedroom modern property sleeps 12 in Moutsouna, in the east of the island, a quiet spot off the beaten track and perfect for families. €3,400 a week in high season. See ownersdirect.co.uk/greece
These islands lie to the west of central Greece and include Corfu, Paxos, Lefkada, Ithaca, Kefalonia, Zakynthos and Kythira. The only group of Greek islands not in the Aegean, they have a character all of their own. Due to their proximity to Italy, they have acted as stepping stones between Continental Europe and Greece for millennia. The light here is more mellow and, thanks to the fact that they get more rain, the islands tend to be greener than the Cyclades.
Arguably the best-known of the Ionian islands, Corfu is reckoned by some to be the most beautiful of all Greek islands. The capital, Corfu town, is built on a promontory and acts as graceful repository of all the architecture lavished upon it by its various occupiers, from arcaded buildings to its cricket pitch.
Byzantine churches cosy up to Georgian mansions while, in its Old Town, guarded at either end by a fortress, the legacy of the Venetians looms largest, with the pastel hues of its buildings and shutters more reminiscent of Italy than Greece.
The narrow streets of the old town, now on the Unesco World Heritage Site list, and the gardens of the Spianada – literally “flattened” – Square are ripe for lazy days of wandering and browsing.
Mass tourism has transformed much of the coastline, but the island is 60km long, so it’s easier than you might think to find quiet, unspoilt havens, inland and by the coast.
Some of its best-known resorts, including Paleokastritsa, in the west of the island, remain picturesque, despite development. Or bypass the lot and take the Corfu Trail instead, the 220km path (it zig zags) opened in 2001 that runs the length of the island taking in some of its most pristine interior.
Antiquities: Don’t miss the petrifying Gorgon Medusa sculpture at the town’s Archaeological Museum.
Villas: Villa Julia sits in a three-acre olive grove with views out over the sea to the mountains beyond. Near the village of Kassiopi, a lively resort on the north east of the island, the five-bedroom property sleeps up to 12 people and has an infinity pool, poolside barbecue and outdoor jacuzzi. It costs £557 (€677) per night in high season. corfu-villa.com/villa-julia
With its soaring cliffs and powder white sands, Zakynthos is one of the most dramatic of the Ionian islands, particularly as the rugged coast contrasts so completely with the green and fertile interior.
Known by the Venetians, and Falcon Holidays, as Zante, its nickname was “Flower of the East”. Flowers are still big part of the draw here – an estimated 7,000 species bloom here. It’s also home to some interesting fauna, having its own maritime preserve dedicated to the protection of loggerhead sea turtles, as well as to the local monk seals who use the island’s hidden coves and caves to give birth to their young.
The Ionian islands have a history of earthquakes, with a particularly devastating one having taken place in Zakynthos in 1953. Despite this, the main town’s beautifully reconstructed Venetian architecture has retained its appeal and the broad sweep of Solomos Square is still the town’s front parlour by night, as it has been for centuries.
It’s a relaxed city, possibly because most of its younger tourists don’t venture beyond Lagunas on the southwest coast, the island’s party capital.
Antiquities: The devastating earthquake of 1953 left only three buildings standing in the island’s main town. One of the best places to view the rebuilt version is from the ruins of the Venetian Castle, at the town’s highest point.
Villas: Assimi, a super-swish villa near Agios Nikolaos, 30km north of Zakynthos town, is high enough on a rocky outcrop to offer views of the sunrise and the sunset and has a master suite with glass on two sides to make that most of that fact. It also has an infinity pool, cool white marble floors throughout and costs from £667/€813 per person for a seven-night stay, based on 12 sharing. peligoni.com
Unfortunately now forever associated with a somewhat gormless looking Nicolas Cage, the dramatic island of Kefalonia is much more than the star of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, it’s a celebrity in its own right. Not for its architecture – it too was ravaged by the 1953 earthquake – but for its natural talents. Think soaring cliffs, steep mountains quilted in fir trees and gleaming white beaches. Make the most of its dramatic topography with hikes through Mount Ainos National Park, whose mountain tops out at 1,600m. Chances are you’ll be familiar with its most famous beach, the much photographed Myrtos, an arc of white pebbles backed by limestone cliffs.
Or go celebrity-watching at trendy Fiscardo, known as the St Tropez of Greece. The picturesque fishing village in the very north of the island is more interesting still in that it gives you a glimpse of how the island once looked, as it alone survived the earthquake untouched.
The capital, Argostoli, is an attractive working port where fishing boats jostle with smart yachts and a nice promenade for people watching.
Antiquities: Assos castle on the northwest coast, 36km north of Argostoli, is the largest in Greece. Its 2km of walls, reinforced with bastions, run almost entirely around the Assos peninsula. Built in the 16th century the prison was in use until 1953. Today, it’s all about the views.
Villas: Stay in Villa Gaèta, high among the cypress trees within walking distance of Fiscardo. The three-bed property sleeps six, has a pool and panoramic views to the islands of Ithaca and Lefkas, from €2,649 in July. See uniquevillaskefalonia.co.uk/2518
Off the coast of western Turkey, this archipelago – whose name refers to the fact that there are 12 of them – has been taken back and forth with gusto down through the ages. In the last century alone it was occupied by Turks, Italians and Germans. Indeed, only in 1947 were they formally returned to Greece. It’s no wonder so many were attracted to them, given their location in Greece’s sunny southeast Aegean.
The medieval city of Rhodes, on the northern tip of the island, is not to be missed. The old town was built by the Order of St John of Jerusalem, the “Hospitallers”. After the order had lost its last Crusading foothold in Palestine, it arrived here in 1309 and, over the next 200 years, set about transforming the city into a formidable stronghold – before sailing off into the sunset, or at least, to Malta.
As with so many Greek islands, over time Turks and Italians came and went, putting their own stamp on its architecture, leaving cobbled streets with gothic towers standing beside mosques and public baths.
It’s not so much a sense of time standing still you get here, as much as time darting all over the place at once. It’s what makes it such as worthy member of the Unesco World Heritage Site club.
If it’s heaving clubs and nightlife you’re after, head for Faliraki on the northeastern tip of the island, where cheap and cheerful is the order of the day.
For a quieter option, head for picturesque Lindos, a whitewashed, cobblestoned, low-rise resort town mid way down the island’s west coast, with a good variety of restaurants and three bays offering clear water and safe bathing. As well as restrictions on unsightly development, it benefits from regulations regarding traffic and noise pollution too.
Antiquities: There’s no sign of any Colossus but you will find the Acropolis of Rhodes on Monte Smith Hill, 3km outside the city centre, on a serene site which includes a Temple of Apollo, a classical stadium and an ancient amphitheatre.
Villas: Sandpiper is a two-bedroom seaside villa in a quiet location on St Nicholas Bay, halfway between Lindos and Pefkos. Sleeping four, it has a garden, terrace with barbecue and a swimming pool and is priced from €1,100 a week in July.