By Jim Ferri
Azure seas lapping beautiful beaches…sugar-cube buildings…towns clinging to cliff tops… the Greek islands are places of which dreams are made.
There are seven groups of them, scattered in three seas around the Greek peninsula. Each group – in fact, pretty much each island – is quite different from the others.
Some are relatively arid, others covered with lush forest. The food on some has been influenced by the Italians, on others by the Turks. Some have an overabundance of hotels, others have few. Some are renown for their watersports, others for their nightlife.
There are about 1,400 islands in Greece that are large enough to be so designated, although only about 200 are inhabited. Still, though, that’s quite a number to sift through if you’re planning an island vacation.
To help you pick the best for that dream vacation, here’s our choice of the top 15. One last note: almost all the Greek islands have a nudist beach; the beaches listed here are those that are best for families.
If your dreams are of white sugar-cube-like buildings clinging to cliff tops, you’re likely thinking of the Cyclades. Scattered like stepping-stones from the Greece mainland to Crete, they’re the most popular group of islands in Greece. More than elsewhere they offer hypnotic views and light that delights photographers.
Some of them are reachable on direct flights from Europe, primarily the UK. Others can only be reached by ferry from Piraeus or neighboring islands, from which there are usually good connections.
- Its Appeal: archaeology, museums, nightlife, shopping, scenery, spa/luxe hotels, day trips
Arguably, Santorini is the most famous island in Greece. With white villages and blue-domed churches perched precariously atop soaring cliffs and an azure sea, the island is stunningly beautiful.
Present-day Santorini was formed by a volcanic eruption around 1450 BC that gave the island the crescent shape we see today. The sea below the cliffs where cruise ships drop anchor is actually the caldera of the volcano.
But if you’re looking for a beautiful island with gorgeous beaches, Santorini isn’t the place for you, since its volcanic black-sand beaches get too hot to walk on.
Still, though, it’s a beautiful place to visit. Thíra, or Firá, the main town perched on the cliff, is the island’s capital. It’s filled with boutiques and restaurants and packed with cruisers when ships drop anchor below. If you have a car or motorbike, or can join a cruise tour, explore other areas of the island. One must-see is the archeological site of Akrotiri, Greece’s Pompeii, where you can view the unique town in air-conditioned comfort.
En route you’ll see plenty of basket-shaped grapevines bent inwards to protect them from the sun and wind. Greece’s best white wines are made here, thanks to the fertile volcanic soil.
And don’t miss Santorini’s remarkable sunsets, for which it is well known. Although most people view them from Thíra, they are more spectacular when seen from the town of Oia on the northern end of the island.
- Its Appeal: archaeology, museums, nightlife, shopping, scenery, spa/luxe hotels, day trips
With its multicolored cliffs and unusual black rock formations, Milos is quite dramatic compared to other islands. Like Santorini, it sits on the rim of a caldera and has sugar-cube buildings and blue-domed churches. It also has the only early-Christian catacombs in Greece.
Unlike other Greek islands, the main city on Milos is not called Milos Town but Plaka. It is on a cliff top 2.5 miles from the port with streets so narrow they are closed to cars. The main sight to see in the town is the Archaeological Museum, which has a plaster copy of Venus de Milo – which was discovered on Milos.
Further afield you’ll find several picturesque fishing villages.
- Its Appeal: nightlife, shopping, beaches, spa/luxury hotels
You don’t come to hedonistic, cosmopolitan Mykonos if you’re looking for quiet and serenity. Mykonos is all about beaches, bars and dancing ‘til dawn, which makes Mykonos one of the most famous islands in the Cyclades. Hotels are plentiful and range from simple boutiques to the glamorous.
Mykonos Town itself is a tangle of narrow winding alleys lined with cube-shaped houses and shops, originally built to protect the city from both the wind and pirates. Its colorful and picturesque “Little Venice,” a restaurant- and taverna-filled waterside area of the old town, is very popular, especially come sunset.
From its little port – said to be one of the most photographed in Greece – you can make easy excursions to nearby uninhabited Lesbos, one of Greece’s top archaeological sites.
- Its Appeal: wind- and kite-surfing, diving, nightlife, beaches
Paros is a popular island with plenty of boutiques, restaurants and golden beaches (for which it is well-known). It rivals Mykonos for its nightlife but is more family friendly.
Paros is famous for its beaches and watersports, and its wind- and kite-surfing are among the best in the Aegean. Its diving is also top-notch. Rent a car and experience towns and villages about the island.
Despite the influx of tourism, Paros retains its charm with its olive groves, vineyards and old hilltop villages. Among its treasures is the 6th-century Ekatontapyliani in Paroikiá, one of the oldest, still active churches in the world. Behind it is the Archaeological Museum.
Since Paros’s airport is small, its harbor can get quite busy, especially since it’s the hub of the Cycladic ferry system.
- Its Appeal: scenery, sailing, hiking, cycling
The island of Syros is relatively unvisited since it’s the commercial and administrative center of the Cyclades. But those who do travel here are often pleasantly surprised.
Ermoupoli, the largest city in the Cyclades, is charming. Elegant Neo-Classical marble mansions wrap around its harbor, making it one of the most atmospheric ports in the Greek islands. Its Apollo opera house, the oldest in Greece, was modeled after Milan’s La Scala. In the church of the Dormition of the Virgin, you’ll find a 16th -century icon painted by El Greco – and it wasn’t until 1983 that his signature was discovered on the piece.
If you’re in search of a seaside getaway, you’ll find beaches scattered about the island. The best is near the fishing village of Kini on its western shore.
- Its Appeal: scenery, beaches, hiking
Naxos is the largest island of the Cyclades group and also the greenest. First settled in 3,000 BC, it was the center of Cycladic civilization. It was once ruled by the Venetians, and there are still fortified Venetian towers scattered about the island. Its capital and Chora, Naxos Town, sits below a Venetian fortress.
But what Naxos is known for is its beaches. While most of the islands have beaches, many of them are crowded or organized with umbrellas and chaise lounges. You’ll usually only find them empty in the winter.
Naxos, however, is ringed with beautiful, secluded beaches, some miles long. While you can reach many of them via the island’s bus service, you’ll need a car to find the most isolated and near-empty ones. Your vehicle will also let you delve inland through the olive groves and picturesque villages that bolster the island’s deserved reputation for beauty.
- Its Appeal: food/restaurants
Sifnos doesn’t have an airport, which keeps the island serene, laid-back, and crowd-free. In fact, you can only reach Sifnos via a long ferry from Piraeus or a more comfortable 40-minute ride from Milos.
But while the island has the typical Cycladic white villages and sandy beaches, those aren’t what bring many people to the island. Sifnos is better known for its food. You can thank local chef Nicholas Tselementes, who wrote the first Greek book of recipes in 1910, for launching Sifnos’s reputation as a foodie island.
A post-dinner stroll is often an excellent companion to a fine meal, and the beautiful whitewashed villages all about the island are perfect for leisurely walks.
The Sporades Islands
The Sporades Islands are in the northwest Aegean, close to the eastern coast of Greece. Climatically, the weather here is cooler than in the Cyclades.
They’re quiet and wooded with pretty towns and good beaches, and instead of sugar-cube-like buildings, you’ll find northern Greek architecture with red-tiled roofs.
- Its Appeal: beaches, watersports, nightlife, restaurants, shopping
With an international airport, Skiathos is a mass-market destination that attracts a young crowd. Lush with pine forests, the island has more than 60 sandy beaches, plus one beautiful pebble beach.
Many of the island’s best beaches are accessible via bus from Skiathos Town; those that aren’t can be reached by hired boat. Exceptionally popular is postcard-worthy Koukounaries beach on the island’s southern tip, which has the best watersports on the island. Skiathos Town has many clubs, cocktail bars, and gourmet restaurants, including many that are affordable.
- Its Appeal: beaches, watersports, sailing, cycling
Since Skopelos lacks an airport, it attracts a smaller crowd than neighboring Skiathos. Mountainous, craggy and pine-covered, it is an island of beautiful landscapes, aquamarine seascapes, and smooth-pebbled beaches.
The streets of Skopelos Town are lined with old mansions and more than 120 churches, with the old town sitting higher on the hill than the new. A 13th-century castle built on the site of the town’s 5th-century BC acropolis tops it all. If you travel to the north end of the island, you might recognize the small church of Agios Ioannis, near the village of Glossa, from the wedding scene in Mamma Mia!
The North Aegean Islands
Near the Turkish coast north of the Dodecanese, the Northeast Aegean islands are mostly mountainous and heavily wooded. Their beaches range from so-so to very good, and their port towns are generally lively.
- Its Appeal: beaches, watersports, museums
Chios, an island with rugged mountains, lush valleys, and splendid beaches, is the birthplace of Homer. It also was once the only place in the world where mastic bushes grew, mastic sap being the old ingredient in chewing gum.
Most buildings on the island date from the late 19th century since an earthquake in 1881 severely damaged the island. What did survive though were 20 villages known as Mastic Villages, built by the island’s Genoese rulers as protections against pirates and the Turks.
At Nea Moni, an 11th-century Byzantine church and monastery (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) about 7 miles west of Chios town, you’ll learn about the horrific history of the island and the massacre by the Turks.
The Ionian Islands
The Ionians are the greenest of all the Greek islands, and also the coolest and wettest. With beautiful olive groves, vineyards, and forests they are spectacular. There are three major islands in the group – Corfu, Paxos, Kefallonian – but you’ll find beautiful architecture only on Corfu. Many of the building on the other islands have been destroyed by earthquakes.
- Its Appeal: day trips, watersports, nightlife, hiking, golf, beaches, food/restaurants, scenery
Corfu is easy to get to, and affordable. Its capital of Corfu Town is a delightful British, French, Italian and Greek mashup, which you see in its architecture, culture, and cuisine. The island has many excellent hotels and restaurants and plenty of beach resorts, as well. The island is known for its 400 species of wildflowers that blanket the island each spring.
Two landmarks in Corfu Town are the Old Fortress and the New Fortress, both built by the Venetians just 30 years apart. You’ll also find the old British cricket field smack in the middle of town as well as many other remnants of the island’s feudal past. But also take day trips outside the city. Visit Achílleion Palace, built for Empress Elizabeth of Austria so she could escape the pressures of Vienna. Drive on to Palaiokastrítsa, a popular resort area on the island’s west coast and visit the Moní Theotókou monastery on the headland. Everywhere you go, you’ll be enveloped by spectacular scenery.
The Saronic Gulf Islands
The Saronic Gulf Islands, or the Argo-Saronics, as they’re often called, are closest to Athens. This makes them perfect for a day trip from the capital, and also as a weekend getaway for Athenians. Their strong point is their historic towns; just don’t expect to find gorgeous beaches.
- Its Appeal: art, nightlife, food/restaurants, shopping
The little port of Hydra, only two hours from Athens, is lively year-round, not just during the high summer season.
Over the years Hydra has been a celebrity magnet drawing the likes of Jackie O, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Today it continues to attract writers, artists, and yachters. And the best news of all? Hydra is car- and motorbike-free. The only local transportation is via donkey.
Nights out in Hydra are all about eating, drinking and people watching. And at night while the international set sits in the chic cafes around the harbor, traditional Greek life continues in the tavernas up on the hillside.
Greeks love Hydra. 18th-century sea captain mansions and whitewashed houses cascade down the hills around the port, providing an amphitheater-like appearance. Historic buildings have morphed into boutique hotels and art galleries, and jewelry shops are plentiful. It’s all earned Hydra the reputation as the Greek St. Tropez.
Located on the southeast Aegean close to Turkey, the Dodecanese are all about the ancient world. “Dodeca” is the Greek word for “twelve” and there are twelve islands in this group, which is the furthest from the Greek mainland.
- Its Appeal: day trips, nightlife, shopping, beaches
Rhodes is a great place to vacation with family, and there are all-inclusive resorts scattered on beaches all around the island.
In Greek mythology, Rhodes was sacred to Helios, the sun God. And for a good reason: the island has more than 300 days of sunshine annually. Rhodes consistently draws vacationers to its sandy beaches and is especially popular with British travelers, the reason there are inexpensive direct flights from many UK airports.
Rhodes was conquered by many, including the Romans, Turks, Italians, and the Knights of St. John, the latter before they moved to Malta. Each has left their mark on the island. You’ll find this is especially true in atmospheric Rhodes Town, which is unlike any other city in Europe.
There’s plenty of history here, so you leave yourself plenty of time to explore. Walk along the medieval cobblestone lanes of the old town (a World Heritage Site) from the Palace of the Grand Master to the inns of the crusader knights. You’ll find Greece’s oldest synagogue here, along with Orthodox and Catholic churches and mosques. Be sure also to visit the whitewashed town of Lindos, about a 45-minute taxi ride to the south, where you can walk or take a donkey up to its amazing acropolis.
- Its Appeal: day trips, beaches, watersports, hiking, scenery
Patmos town is UNESCO listed but what makes it so appealing is its relative inaccessibility. There is no airport, and it’s a nine-hour ferry ride from Piraeus, or an expensive helicopter ride, or a boat transfer from Kos or Samos. The most famous traveler here was St. John, for it was on Patmos where he wrote his Revelations. For centuries the famous and powerful monastery of St. John, with 18th-century mansions snuggled around its 50-foot-high walls, protected the main town from piracy.
This is the island to be away from it all and just laze your days away on the beach and at beachside tavernas.
- Its Appeal: beaches, sailing, watersports, nightlife, day trips
As far back as the Romans, Kos was a resort. It has sandy beaches, a medieval castle, a Roman villa and a very good, and recently renovated archaeology museum. Kos is the birthplace Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, and here you can even sit where Hippocrates did, under the large plane tree. You’ll also find the ruins of a 400BC healing sanctuary, the Asklepion, run by Hippocrates’s followers, reached by a small train from Kos Town.
The Big Island: Crete
- Its Appeal: beaches, diving, hiking, bird watching, archaeology, food/restaurants, nightlife, scenery, museums, day trips
Crete is the biggest island with, naturally, the longest coast of beaches. Most of the island’s resorts are along its northern and western shores.
If you want to visit the islands earlier or later in the year, this is the place to go. That’s because Crete’s south coast stays warmer and sunnier than the other Greek islands in April and October.
Crete’s history goes back 8000 years. Outside the capital of Heraklion (mid-island on the north coast) is the Minoan palace of Knossos. The vast archaeological site dates back thousands of years to the Minoan civilization. It doesn’t look much until you actually get inside – then myth comes to life. You’ll also find an extensive collection of Minoan art in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Tradition survives in the villages of Crete more than in most other places in Greece. All over the island, you’ll find sleepy villages, plus ancient cities and historic monasteries, and remote and beautiful beaches.
The towns of Chania (on the northwest coast) and Rethymno (about halfway between Chania and Heraklion) are attractive Greek-Venetian-Turkish mash-ups that are popular with travelers.
Another big draw for travelers is Crete’s cuisine, with most of the produce grown on the island. You may enjoy some of the good local wines as well.
Lastly, Crete is not a place you go and see it all in a week or so. It has high and rugged mountains with poor roads. Stick to one area and enjoy it.