Greece offers up the stuff of legend – with golden beaches, enchanting forests and quaint fishing villages galore. And, with 15 international airports, it’s pretty easy to get to. Here are 25 of the best Greek Islands to visit…
Why it makes the list: It’s perfect for family-friendly breaks.
Rhodes is by far the best Greek island for families, with its shelving beaches and days out away from the sand — and for getting from plane to beach ASAP, with direct flights from Georgia. The sun god Helios was said to rule Rhodes, and he still delivers the solar goods more than 300 days a year. This ancient powerhouse attracted a series of conquerors, from the Romans to the Turks and Italians: they all left their mark, especially in Rhodes Town, one of the most atmospheric in all of Greece.
Why it makes the list: It’s a charming time-warp.
Magical Samothraki is a delightfully peaceful outpost of old Greece. The hotels are simple and the beaches only so-so (except sandy Pachia Ammos and Kremasto, the latter by a frothing waterfall). But it makes up for its modest offerings with an enchanting, end-of-the-Earth atmosphere no other island can match.
Why it makes the list: It’s a quiet little island for those in the know.
Day-trippers from nearby Kos come and go, leaving it tranquil for the smart few staying here. A volcano formed it 160,000 years ago, bequeathing beaches of dark sand, hot springs and vertiginous white pumice cliffs — plus a vast crater you can still walk around.
Why it makes the list: Because it’s a crowd-pleaser with great food.
Crete is the Greek island of superlatives — biggest, most mountainous, with the longest beach-lined coasts. It’s also the birthplace of Greece’s oldest and weirdest myths, and home to the Bronze Age Minoans, Europe’s first literate and ineffably arty civilisation. So it’s the ideal island if you and your partner or family can’t agree on what to do on holiday. The tacky development along much of the north coast (including yucky Malia) is only a facade: behind it lies the real Crete, a land of fiercely mustachioe’d sons of Zorba and mountain villages that keep traditions alive like few places in Greece.
Fancy it? Try this…
Why it makes the list: You’ll find beautiful beaches galore.
Petite Skiathos boasts a huge 63 of Greece’s most picture-perfect strands. Deep green pine forests cloak the hilly interior, while beautiful, vivacious Skiathos Town — this is your spot for harbour-view cocktail bars and gourmet restaurants — turns into a lively street party every summer night. It’s an island for the young and young at heart, including a few celebrity regulars, but you’ll find plenty of affordable tavernas and bars even if you don’t have a Hollywood budget.
Why it makes the list: It’s a short-haul package holiday favourite for summer.
An easy three-hour flight from Georgia, here you’ll find rugged slopes carpeted with olive groves and 400 species of wildflower, humming with butterflies, fireflies and bees. Visit the stunning, tucked-away beaches of this Ionian island, and the capital, Corfu Town, a multi-layered hodge-podge of Venetian, British, French and Greek historical sites. All four cultures have fed into the unusual cuisine, too — try the local ginger beer, the Venetian-style bourdeto (a spicy seafood stew) or slow-cooked pork with kumquats.
Why it makes the list: It’s one for water babies.
Volcanic Milos, the best-kept secret in the Cyclades, has a full deck of natural and man-made surprises. It’s pierced with white fjords, sulphur-yellow striped cliffs and obsidian-black boulders. The action (market shopping, restaurants and nightlife) is mostly in Adamas, the port, or in increasingly hip Pollonia on the east coast, with its sandy beach. Milos has 75 beaches and swimming holes to discover…
Why it makes the list: Symi’s horseshoe bay is one of the islands’ stellar sights.
Day-trippers clamour to angle the best selfie as the ferry from nearby Rhodes chugs in. Lemon, tangerine and cherry-hued Neo-Classical mansions are strung along the waterfront of Gialos, the capital, and the upper village of Chorio rises in tiers to the sky. This small rocky island of boat-builders, merchants and sponge-fishers was once the wealthiest in the Dodecanese, but now has one tenth of its 19th-century population. When the day-trippers depart, peace returns, and after dark the waterfront echoes with laughter and tinkling glasses.
Why it makes the list: It’s got perfect ports and friendly resorts.
If you love finding under-the-radar European cities, you’ll adore elegant Ermoupoli, Syros’s Neo-Classical main port and capital of the Cyclades (it’s best approached by sea, in the rich late-afternoon light, when it glows in soft sorbet shades). Beyond it, Syros has all the delicious Cycladic ingredients you’re craving: the luminous villages, the white sandy beaches, the friendly resorts (such as Kini and Galissas), and a rugged hinterland.
Why it makes the list: For chic parties and summer hedonism.
Some say it’s the flattering, rose-tinted light that makes everyone look extra beautiful; whatever magic the island possesses, its reputation as the don’t-miss summer party only seems to grow. You’ll either love or hate it: it’s barren and windswept, but endowed with sumptuous golden beaches, a confetti shower of cool, minimalist villas and hotels, and Mykonos Town, perhaps the most photogenic in the Cyclades. Go in the morning, when everyone else is still sleeping off the night before.
Why it makes the list: For olive groves and quiet coves.
Small is beautiful on Paxos, a romantic speck of dense olive groves, pinewoods, sheltered beaches and towering cliffs. Reached by sea from Corfu, and beloved of the yacht crowd, it has an exclusive feel and a laid-back charm that tempts regulars back year after year.
Why it makes the list: For superb sailing and time-warp villages.
Separated from the mainland by a glistening channel, Lefkada (or Lefkas) barely qualifies as an island — you drive there across a floating bridge from Preveza airport. But it has mountains turfed in green, and untouched villages where older women still potter about in traditional Greek brown dress. For adventurers, there’s also world-class windsurfing and sailing off stunning beaches.
Why it makes the list: For close proximity to world-class sights.
Before Greek islands had airports, Poros was a holiday favourite. Today it’s the biz if you want to combine lazy island charm and pretty beaches with big-time sightseeing (the citadels of Mycenae and Tiryns; Nafplio, Greece’s old capital) on the nearby Peloponnese mainland. Photogenic Poros Town rises in waves over the ‘Greek Grand Canal’ separating the island from Galatas port — it’s only accessible by boat from here (5min), or a ferry (2hr15min) or hydrofoil (1hr) from Piraeus.
Why it makes the list: For model good looks and romantic appeal.
Greece’s ‘it’ island, sexy Santorini is the honeymooners’ dream. White villas and stuccoed cave hotels spill down blackened cliffs formed when the volcano flipped its lid around 1600BC. The light is numinous, the views across the subaquatic caldera unforgettable, and sunsets are more heart-pounding than a rollercoaster ride.
Santorini, GreeceShutterstock Images
Why it makes the list: For lovely walks and a laid-back way of life.
Serene Sifnos is the arty-bohemian Cycladic island of your dreams. Pristine whitewashed villages, windmills and blue-and-white churches crown each rolling hill. The lack of an airport keeps the crowds away (it’s a two- to three-hour catamaran or slower ferry ride from mainland Piraeus, or a 40-minute ferry from Milos), and the sandy beaches at Platy Gialos, Kamares, Faros and the Chrysopigi peninsula have just enough hotels and tavernas for the lover of laid-back Greece. Clubby Greek music in the capital, Apollonia, provide a wisp of nightlife, but really you’re here to bask, wander — and repeat.
Why it makes the list: Because of its quiet, unspoilt white villages.
Beautiful Tinos is only a short ferry-hop from manic Mykonos, but refreshingly old-fashioned. Most visitors are pilgrims — thousands come on August 15 to the church of Panagia Evangelistria, for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. For the non-devout? Two dozen beaches, 45 unspoilt white villages, and hillsides dotted with hundreds of dovecotes.
Why it makes the list: For celeb-y, car-free cool.
Where did Leonard Cohen write Bird on the Wire? He ‘tried in his way to be free’ at his whitewashed house on celebrity-magnet Hydra, the ‘St Tropez of Greece’ where the likes of Jackie O, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Princess Di once frolicked. Only two hours from Athens, the island’s one town has been inspiring artists and writers since the ’50s, its 18th-century stone-built mansions and whitewashed houses cascading in a stunning amphitheatre around the port. Hydra’s laid-back vibe draws in the arty and yachty sets — and, delight of delight, cars and motorbikes are banned, so you reach its dinky beaches by donkey, boat or on your Capri-sandalled feet.
Why it makes the list: Because of its chilled-out, untouched beauty.
In myth, Naxos was the island where the Athenian hero Theseus ditched the fair Ariadne — and no mortal could ask for a nicer island to be deserted on. Naxos bears the Cyclades’ hallmarks of gently shelving beaches and homes like sugar cubes, but also has wetlands, dunes clad in wild juniper, citrus groves and lush spring-fed valleys. Unlike its neighbours (clubby Mykonos, ever more fashionable Paros) it’s bling-free, with just a smattering of archaeological sites to explore. Fly there via Athens, or take the ferry from Mykonos.
Why it makes the list: Because of its rugged remoteness.
When you feel world-weary, head to Patmos, where St John penned his Revelations. The Aegean island’s transcendent atmosphere has made it a favourite of royalty and celebrities, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts among its visitors. For centuries, its powerful Monastery of St John protected the main town, Chora, and its port, Skala, from piracy and poverty. Today, what keeps the peace is the fact that it’s a pain to reach (a pricey helicopter, a nine-hour ferry from Piraeus or tiring transfers from Kos or Samos). When the cruise ships dock, follow the locals retreating to the coast or the small beachside villages of Grikos or Kambos.
stony road at Mesta village south Chios /GreeceShutterstock Images
Why it makes the list: For its offbeat medieval charm.
Craving something a bit different? Make for rustic Chios, a flight from Athens or Thessaloniki. The beaches are fab (including the spectacular black sand beach, Mavra Volia). But it also has striking black and white villages, savage mountains and lush valleys begging to be explored.
Why it makes the list: Because of its vertiginous views.
Sitting around daydreaming counts as a legitimate activity on the Greek islands, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a finer spot for it than diminutive Folegandros, just northwest of Santorini. Sightseeing spot Chora teeters atop terrifying, 200m volcanic cliffs, in a ferocious intensity of sugar-cube architecture, indigo sky and azure sea; elsewhere, the island offers up a tiny port, Karavostasis, and one more stony village on a hill, Ano Meria.
Why it makes the list: For pebble beaches beside aquamarine sea.
Nearby Skiathos has the convenient international airport, fabulous sandy beaches and crowds, leaving green-backed Skopelos glitz-free (in spite of its five minutes of Mamma Mia! fame). Craggy and dense with pines, it’s an island of staggering, often vertiginous beauty. It also has two exquisite, traditional red-roofed towns, Skopelos Town and Glossa, but skip the day trips if you want the sun on your back — the blue sea is transparent aquamarine and the smooth-pebbled beaches irresistible.
Why it makes the list: Because it’s old-school and easily reached.
You don’t have to scour the back of beyond for authentic Greek character — atmospheric Kalymnos is an easy flight from Athens, or boat from Kos, and has some of the most spectacular geography in the Dodecanese (note its schools for professional divers and rock-climbers). For centuries it was a working sponge-diving island; now inexpensive, family-run hotels overlook its trio of modest beach resorts — Elies, Myrties and Masouri.
Why it makes the list: For its lazy days and crazy nights.
Rustic Ikaria, with its villages scattered along a formidable 1,030m ridge, is famous for the longevity of its slightly eccentric inhabitants. They also hold Greece’s best saints’ day festivals (the raucous panagiria, held weekly in summer). The best beaches and hotels are near Armenistis in the north — except a tiny beach near Manganiti, so tropically beautiful, the locals call it ‘Seychelles’.
Why it makes the list: For white sandy beaches.
Home to the famous Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia has to be one of the best Greek islands to visit. White washed villages are paired with stunning beaches home to loggerhead turtles, lapped by the gin-clear Aegean sea. Family holidays become more common in peak season – July and August – so aim for late May or early September to see it at its most untouched. Just over the turquoise water is Zante and its famous Navagio Beach if you’re looking for other islands to visit.