A Greece vacation is not complete without visiting at least one of its many marvellous and delightful islands. However the quandary is, which to visit first?
If you are considering your first Greece vacation, you should think about a combination of Athens and a trip to one or more of the many Greek Islands. There are other possibilities for sure, but this combination is definitely a winner. Before suggesting some of the islands to visit, I need to point out that there are around 227 inhabited islands in Greece, some large, some small. Greece has been blessed with a collection of beautiful islands and I can’t think of another country that has developed their islands to cater to visitors the way Greece has. Don’t get the impression that all the Greek Islands are overdeveloped. I can remember walking around a few and hardly seeing anyone. However, that didn’t stop me from spending time on a clean, cultivated beach or sipping my favourite drink at a pleasant outdoor cafe.
There are two ways of reaching the Greek Islands on your Greece vacation. You either fly (although not many islands have airports) or you take a ferry from Athens to the island of your choice. To visit multiple islands, one option is to take a Greek Islands cruise. This will limit your time on each island, however, it does give you the opportunity to experience several. These cruises vary from one day to around one or two weeks. You can also fly or, if available, take a ferry between certain major islands. For purposes of this article, I include the accessibility from Athens of each island mentioned below.
One Day, Three Island Cruise from Athens
If you are strictly limited for time, which is a shame on a Greece vacation, then you can consider a one-day cruise to three interesting islands – Hydra, Poros, and Aegina – all located fairly close to Athens, in the Saronic Gulf. There are other one-day cruises with different itineraries but this combination is usual. You will have time ashore on each island to possibly have a quick swim, shop, or simply explore. Hydra is a car-free island and the only method of transportation here is by donkey. The cruise ship will arrive in the port of Hydra, which features narrow stone-paved streets and painted 18th Century houses, along with its backdrop of hills. The next port of call is Poros, a beautiful green island with its groves of pine and lemon trees. Again there are narrow picturesque cobblestone streets to explore. The waterfront is lively with its shops, cafes, and restaurants. The island of Aegina is the largest of the three and has numerous charming fishing villages and quiet beaches. The Temple of Aphaea Athena is the most important monument on Aegina and is designed along the lines of similar temples such as the Parthenon in Athens and the Poseidon at Cape Sounion.
Mykonos – The Island of Windmills
Mykonos, which belongs to the Cyclades group of islands, is one of the better-known islands and can be reached by both ferry and air from Athens. Although it has acquired a reputation as a fun place in which to spend time, there is much more to Mykonos than its nightlife and excellent beaches. The main town of Mykonos, also known as Chora, is very picturesque with its maze of narrow streets and harbour area. The streets are full of shops, boutiques, art galleries, cafes, bars, and restaurants. If you are looking for the most lively and active beaches, then head to Paradise Beach and Super Paradise Beach, where you will find more active lifestyle attractions plus nude and gay beach areas. I hasten to add that there are quite a few other beaches offering a more sedate vacation. At one end of Mykonos town is “Little Venice,” known for its picturesque medieval houses which literally hang over the edge of the sea. The sunset here is renowned and it is a good time to sit and drink your favourite beverage while watching the sun go down. The aforementioned windmills are a trademark of Mykonos. They are dotted around the island but most of them can be found around the town. They were originally built by the Venetians in the 16th century to mill flour. The Panagia Paraportiani, in the town, is a very impressive Byzantine-style church dating back to 1425, but not totally completed until the 17th century. There are several good museums in Mykonos and include the Archaeological Museum, the Folklore Museum, the Aegean Maritime Museum, and the Agricultural Museum. The names indicate exactly what is exhibited in each. If you want to get away from everything, go to Ano Mera, a small typical Greek village in the centre of the island which has a monastery and a few tavernas.
The Romantic Island of Santorini
Santorini, reachable by air and ferry from Athens, is again part of the Cyclades group of islands. It is an island that epitomizes the Greek island you might imagine as archetypal, with its white-washed houses and churches and blue sky. This very beautiful island was actually formed from a huge volcanic eruption which created a large lagoon in the middle of the island. It is consequently surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides. The capital is Fira, a town of proverbial white-washed houses. It lies on top of a series of high cliffs and it is where you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the island. Akrotiri is an ancient city dating back to the Minoan civilization (2700–1420 BC) which was rediscovered only 50 years ago when it was found under the volcanic ash from an earthquake in the 1600s BC. You can view three-storey buildings that survived, plus roads, drainage systems, and pottery. Oia is a very pretty village, again situated high on a top of a cliff overlooking the sea, with cave houses and restaurants built into the cliff edge. This is a place for white-washed blue domed churches and charming, traditional Cycladic houses. One of the most popular attractions in the town is sunset viewing. A special event every evening is the spectacle of watching the sunset as it lights up the houses. Santorini is also known for its wine production, due to its many vineyards scattered around the island.
Crete – The Island That Offers Everything
If you fly or take the ferry to Crete, the largest Greek island, you will find yourself with a wide choice of activities, on your Greece vacation, regardless of your interests. It has ancient archaeological sites, great beaches, and superb scenery ranging from mountains to green valleys and steep gorges. The capital, Heraklion, is located between two mountain ranges. There is a Venetian fortress on the harbour walls built in the early 1500s, Venetian mansions, and a number of Byzantine churches to view. The Palace of Knossos, just outside of the city, is a Minoan archaeological site, once the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. You can see a maze of workrooms, living spaces, and storerooms. The Heraklion Archaeological Museum houses some excellent treasures in its collection, from the Neolithic era to Roman times, plus an extensive Minoan collection. Another city is Chania, which hasn’t changed much from the time of the Venetian rule of Crete (13th to 17th centuries). Remnants of Venetian and Turkish architecture are to be found with some of the old townhouses now restored. The old town is a maze of alleyways which contain the aforementioned Venetian mansions and churches. When it comes to beaches, Crete has so many from which to choose. Some of the best beaches include Elafonisi, with its white sand tinged pink by coral, Matala Beach, famous in the 1960s and 1970s as a hippie haven, now perfect for families, and Falassarna, with its large sandy beach, again ideal for families. There are many other beach areas too numerous to mention.
Rhodes – The Island of the Knights
Rhodes, in the Dodecanese group of islands, and again, accessible by air or ferry from Athens, has one of the best preserved medieval towns anywhere, with buildings that date back to Crusader times. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem conquered Rhodes and built fortifications to protect the city. You will have heard of the Colossus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that once stood in Rhodes’ harbour. Unfortunately, it is no longer. Other architectural influences came from the Ottoman Empire and the Italians. The latter rebuilt some wonderful edifices including the Palace of the Grand Master, a Byzantine fortress built at the end of 7th Century AD and used later as a summer residence for Mussolini, and the reconstructed cobblestoned Street of the Knights, one of the best preserved medieval streets in Europe. No wonder the centre of Rhodes is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Down the coast lies Kallithea, a cosmopolitan holiday resort bustling with hotels lining Faliraki beach. The main attraction here is the Roman baths. Another resort is Ialissos, known for its windsurfing, kite surfing, and sailing. Afandou has beautiful sandy beaches and an 18-hole golf course. Then, there is the highest mountain in Rhodes, the imposing Mount Ataviros, where amazing views of the island are available.
The Green Island of Corfu
Corfu, one of the Ionian Islands, can be reached by air from Athens. The north of the island is more mountainous and the beaches are pebbly. The south of the island tends to have sandier beaches. The old town of Corfu has a number of historical sites. Strolling through the maze of narrow cobbled streets, with stairways and passages, gives you the feeling of being in Genoa or Naples. It is said that the Esplanade, built by Napoleon to resemble the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, is one of the most beautiful streets in Greece. The Paleo Frourio (Old Fortress) was built by the Venetians in the 16th century. From its ramparts, you can enjoy wonderful views of the town, even as far as the mountains in Albania. The Palace of St. Michael and St. George is an elegant 19th Century Regency palace which houses the Museum of Asian Art. The museum has a collection of Asian porcelains, Japanese prints, Indian sculptures, and Tibetan temple art. Outside of the town, you can visit Corfu’s oldest village, Perithia, situated beneath a mountain. It consists of 8 churches, all owned by one family, and 130 houses, and is now a preserved village and a perfect example of Venetian architecture, with its houses made of stone. Perithia is a “Designated Area of Natural Beauty.” Benitses is a very old, picturesque fishing village. It is also a resort with many taverns, cafes, and bars. A walk around the narrow paved streets will reveal its traditional character. Around the village, you will find several beaches ideal for families. In addition, there are numerous other beaches in Corfu.
Looking for a Lesser Known and Quieter Greek Island?
There are quite a number of lesser-known islands which you can explore on your Greece vacation, and I have chosen three that fit the bill for a less commercial but rewarding escape.
Naxos, in the Cyclades group of islands, is accessible by air or ferry from Athens. On arrival by ferry, the first thing you see is the striking, unfinished Temple of Apollo, Naxos’ best-known landmark. It is an island with white sandy beaches and is a centre for diving, snorkeling, windsurfing and, naturally, swimming. There are small fishing villages featuring cobblestone streets to explore, Byzantine churches to visit, and neoclassical mansions and Venetian towers to view. The lush interior is great for hiking and walking in the spring, with wildflowers in the countryside. The Della Rocca-Barozzi Venetian Museum is located in an old 13th century tower house. On a visit here, you will see how the original owners lived, what they wore, and how they furnished their rooms. In Naxos, there are no loud bars and it is perfect for both families and individuals looking for a slower pace.
Patmos, in the Dodecanese group of islands, is accessible by ferry from Athens. This is a small island with wonderful scenery which has inspired artists and writers in the past, and is a nature lovers’ destination. The Apostle John supposedly received the Revelations on the island when he was living in a cave which is now called the Cave of the Apocalypse. The island doesn’t offer a lot in the way of beaches. The town of Chora, with its old houses and narrow streets, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are small villages worth visiting.
Tinos, also in the Cyclades group of islands, is reached by ferry from Athens. I remember once asking an expert on Greece to recommend a peaceful and noncommercial island for me to visit. He suggested Tinos. I arrived there by ferry and noticed that a large number of my fellow passengers were dressed in black as if in mourning. When we docked in Tinos, these passengers literally crawled off the ship on hands and knees and, as I found out afterwards, were making their way like this to one of Greece’s holiest shrines. I had arrived at the time of a pilgrimage. However, as a non-pilgrim, I soon learned that Tinos was more than a religious destination. The beaches are great and it is an island of natural beauty. The countryside is littered with tiny villages, hidden bays, and mountainous terrain. Tinos is known for producing sculptors. Their works are on display in churches, as fountains, and in the village of Pyrgos, where there is the Museum of Marble Crafts.
4-5 Day Iconic Aegean: Greek Islands & Turkey Highlights Cruise: Athens to Athens