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Everyone has seen photos of the picture-perfect scenery that made the Greek Islands famous: whitewashed buildings in small, dreamy villages, views over the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean, secluded beaches, breathtaking sunsets over the sea. A trip to the Greek Islands, known for their stunning natural beauty, is a dream trip for many people. But did you know there are 230 inhabited islands in Greece? And different island groups, such as the Cyclades and the Dodecanese? So how do you decide which island(s) to visit? I compiled a list of the six best Greek Islands to visit, and I chose islands that you can easily visit during one single trip to Greece – so if you do have a couple of weeks to spare, I highly recommend an island hopping trip covering all six islands.
The showstopper: Santorini
If there’s one Greek island you’ve heard of, it is Santorini, the most famous of them all. You might be put of by the large number of tourists that visit Santorini every year, but remember: Santorini is popular for a reason. The white buildings with their bright blue roofs, perched onto hillsides with sweeping vistas over the Aegean Sea, are what this island is known for. Even though these days it is hard to find an untouched corner on the island, Santorini has been able to maintain its traditional Greek-ness.
Spend at least a couple of days here to take in the jaw-droppingly beautiful sunsets from Oia in the far north of the island, visit Fira, the capital, with its spectacular clifftop setting and delightful whitewashed buildings, stop at Red Beach with the remarkable backdrop of towering red rocks, and Eros Beach in the south to get away from the crowds.
How to get there: Santorini is a quick 30-min plane ride from Athens, but during high season, many European cities offer direct flights to Santorini. From Santorini, you can take a ferry to Naxos (about 1 hr 45 mins) or to Mykonos (about 2 – 2.5 hrs). You can find detailed information about all the ferry connections between the Greek islands here.
Where to stay: The best towns to stay in are the enchanting cliffside towns: Oia, Fira, Firostefani and Imerovigli. Be aware that the first two are especially popular and can get very crowded in the summer months. If you want a base away from the tourists, opt for the inland village of Pyrgos.
What to Know: Book your flights and ferry tickets as early as possible – both sell out during the summer months. A popular thing to do is to take a donkey ride up to the hilltop town of Fira, but be aware that these donkeys live in poor conditions.
The ‘happening place’: Mykonos
Santorini is the best place to start your Greek island hopping adventure, but Mykonos is an island that has a completely different feel. In short, Mykonos has it all – here you find beaches, party and traditional Greek life in the smaller villages that are scattered around the island.
In high season, this is Greece’s party island, but if you leave Mykonos Town, you can escape the crowds. Mykonos Town’s narrow cobbled alleys are best visited before noon, when most tourists are still in bed. That’s when you get to experience how truly charming this town still is, despite hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting the island every year. While Santorini is unbeatable when it comes to spectacular views, Mykonos wins when it comes to beaches. Kalo Livadi is the largest beach on the island, located on the south side, but only a 20-minute drive from Mikonos Town – the island is compact and easy to explore by car or scooter. Other beaches worth visiting are Ornos, Elia Beach, Agios Ioannis beach, Platis Gialos and Paraga Beach.
How to Get There: You can fly from Athens to Mykonos (40 mins), and during the summer months, many European cities offer direct flights as well. If you are island hopping, take the ferry from Santorini (2.5 hours). There are also daily ferry connections from Naxos (45 mins), Ios (1 hr 50 mins), Santorini (2 hrs 40 mins) and Crete (about 4 hrs 30 mins).
Where to stay: Mykonos Town is the happening place, but beware that in addition to all the tourists staying there, you’ll have to deal with the cruise ship crowds that arrive on a daily basis during high season. If crowds and noise into the wee hours of the morning aren’t your thing, you might want to stay on one of the beaches instead, for example Agios Stefanos or Ornos. Super Paradise and Elia are the most popular gay beaches. Ano Mera, a small village seven kilometers from Mykonos Town, is the best place to stay to get a true feel for traditional Greek island life.
What to know: If you’re looking for a good day-time party, head to Super Paradise Beach. If you’re not into partying, skip Mykonos in July and August. Lonely Planet has an excellent guide to Mykonos for first-timers.
The perfect island for relaxing: Kos
Kos is located further southeast in the Aegean Sea, not far from the Turkish coast, and after Rhodes the second most popular of the Dodecanese island group. Kos is known for its stunning 112-kilometer-long coast line that boasts around 20 serene beaches. The most significant landmark on the island are the ruins of the Asklepion, which were healing temples in ancient Greece. Kos Town is the most touristy town on the island with plenty of bars, restaurants, shops and hotels, but the other villages on the island have places to stay and tavernas to drink and eat as well.
How to get there: There are regular flights from Athens to Kos, and during the summer months also direct connections to several European cities. If you want to island hop, there is a ferry service from Santorini to Kos (4.5 hours), but it only runs twice a week, so plan accordingly.
Where to stay: Kos is home to a number of beautiful little villages, such as Kardamena, Antimachia, Pyli, Marmari, Tingaki, Kefalos, Mastihari and Zia. It’s up to you if you want to stay on the coast or in one of the typical Greek villages in the center of the island. There are plenty of hotels all over the island, including several upscale all-inclusive resorts right by the ocean, such as the Akti Palace near Kardamena.
What to know: Kos is a relatively flat island, which makes it perfect for cycling. If you enjoy a good, scenic bike ride, this is your island!
The most traditional island: Naxos
If you are looking to experience authentic rural Greek life, you will adore Naxos. This island has gorgeous beaches, interesting ruins and ancient cities, and dozens of traditional villages – 46 to be precise. You can simply spend your days driving around the islands, stopping in one of the villages for a coffee or a beer, wander around the tranquil streets, marvel at the pristine stone churches and spend the rest of the day relaxing on a secluded beach. Not many visitors take the time to actually stop in the villages rather than just pass through them, which is why most of them still feel completely untouched by tourism.
How to get there: You can fly from Athens (40 mins) or arrive by ferry from Paros (25- 45 mins), Mykonos (45 mins), or Santorini (2 hrs).
Where to stay: Naxos, the main town, is a popular base for visitors, as are the western beaches, like Plaka, Agia Anna and Agios Prokopios.
What to know: Don’t miss Naxos’ Temple of Apollo: Portara. The giant marble gate and only remaining part of an unfinished temple of Apollo that dates back to 530 BC. Also worth visiting is the temple of Demeter just outside the village of Sangri which was builti n the 6th century BC. The village of Kinidaros has the best bakery on the island, Chalki has the best artisanal jam. At the Vallindras distillery in Halki you can try the local citron liquor kitron.
The best beach getaway: Milos
Milos’ claim to fame is the statue of Aphrodite, also known as the Venus De Milo, which can be found in the Louvre Museum. While the island might have lost its most famous inhabitant, it is still home to 70 (!) scenic beaches and a coastline that is swoon-worthy in many parts. Don’t miss the unique cliff structures at Sarakiniko Beach, the crystal clear waters at Kleftiko Beach, the narrow swimming hole at Papagragas Beach, Sikia Cave (only accessible from the sea) and the remote Agathia Beach. You can spend a week here visiting three beaches every day and still only see a small portion of the island’s diverse beach-scapes, which range from golden sand to black sand, from rocky to shell beaches, from long-stretched bays to tiny coves, from turquoise to cobalt blue waters. Milos is still a bit under the radar, which means you have to share these lovely beaches with considerably less visitors than some of the more famous neighboring islands.
How to get there: There are ferries between Milos and Santorini (2.5 hours), Milos and Folegandros (1 hour), Milos and Naxos (around 4 hours).
Where to stay: Adamas is the busiest settlement and port of Milos, with a nice promenade and many hotels and restaurants. Pollenia is a smaller fishing village, quieter than Adamas but still with many restaurants and amenities. Plaka offers a picture-perfect Greek village and the best sunsets on the island.
What to know: Don’t miss Paliochori (three beaches with colorful rock fromations and sea water that is heated by underwater mineral springs in various places), the distinctive white volcanic rock at Sarakiniko Beach, and the sea cave of Papagragas with its crystalline waters. The sunset in the quaint village of Plaka is often compared to Santorini’s famous sunsets. The villages of Klima and Tripitis are also worth a visit.
The hidden gem: Folegandros
Folegandros means ‘iron hard’ – and looking at this barren island where you find barely any trees it is easy to see where the name comes from. Folegandros is often compared to Santorini, because just like on the most popular Cycladian island, you find villages with whitewashed houses and bright blue doors here, and stunning vistas over the azure blue Mediterranean. The reason Folegandros isn’t overrun with tourists yet is that it is harder to get here – no direct flights, and ferries aren’t as frequent as on the more popular Greek islands. If solitude, an island off the tourist path, and traditional villages are what you are looking for, Folegandros is for you. Chora, the main village on the island, offers plenty of opportunities to just sit and watch the world go by – in one of the three squares, one of the many tavernas, or one of the many cafes. For a spectacular photo opportunity, head up to Panagia church for sunrise or sunset.
How to get there: Ferries run between Folegandros and Santorini (1 hour), Folegandros and Milos (between 1 hour and 2.5 hours), Folegandros and Mykonos (4-5 hrs), Folegandros and Naxos (4-5 hrs)
Where to stay: Chora, the main settlement on Folegandros, is the best place to stay because it has lots of bars, cafés and restaurants. The quieter port village of Karavostasis also has a few hotels and vacation rentals.
What to know: Don’t expect sandy beaches here – most of the beaches are rocky and pebbly, and reached by walking down rocky footpaths. Ambeli, Livadaki and Katergo shouldn’t be missed. Angali beach and bay is also worth a visit.