More than 6,000 islands and islets make up the Greek Islands, within the Ionian and Aegean Seas. But each island offers a different experience so which of the Greek holiday islands is perfect for you?
Only 227 of the Greek islands are inhabited but this still offers a fantastic choice and variety. And with a combined 7,500km of coastline, it’s no wonder that watersports and beach sports are high on the agenda. With sheltered coves, crystal clear seas, vast dunes, volcanic sands, deep forests, ancient sites and delicious food – it’s time to make your choice;
Mediterranean Sea Islands
Crete is the largest and most populated of all the Greek Islands. Located in the Mediterranean Sea, it is the fifth largest island in the Med and retains its own unique culture. Famed for being the birthplace of the earliest European civilisation, the Minoans settled here in c. 2700BC. With a rich diversity ranging from buzzing metropolitan cities to laidback hillside villages, there’s something here for everyone.
Heraklion is the capital city of Crete and the most famous landmark is The Minoan Palace of Knossos, where king Minos used to reside. Here the legends of both the Labyrinth and the Minotaur are revealed. Explore the Venetian Walls and the Venetian castle of Koules located in the historic harbour. Wander the pretty St. Minas Cathedral, explore the rich Minoan heritage within the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and take in the exhibits at the Museum of Natural History. The other large towns on Crete include Rethymno, Chania and Agios Nikolaos.
Within the Aegean Islands lies Greece’s second largest island, the little-known Euboea, which is actually just off the west coast of Turkey. With a chilled out vibe, activities here are centered around the beaches with excellent watersports facilities, try scuba diving and swimming on Euboea. Be warned that Chiliadou Beach at Steni is a nudist beach! Explore the ancient ruins of the Dragon House at Ochi Mountain and visit the pretty St. John the Russian Church at Khalkis.
The island of Lesbos is Greece’s third largest island and is known for its poets and writers. You too can be inspired by the diverse landscapes and easygoing culture. Explore the Molivos Castle and the carefully preserved Gattilusi Castle in the town of Molyvos. Don’t miss the interesting Natural History Museum and take a hike in the Petrified Forest of Lesbos.
Known as the birthplace of Pythagoras, Samos is small but well-connected. Hire a bike or walk the key sites around the capital Pythagorion, such as the Panagia Spiliani Monastery, the curious Archaeological Museum and ruins of the Temple of Hera (Heraion).
Rhodes is the largest island within the Dodecanese Islands and is popular with travellers drawn to the pristine beaches, multitude of rich archaeological sites and fascinating medieval town. One of the most beautiful beaches is St Pauls Bay at Lindos and keen surfers should head to Prasonisi Beach which is quieter. Lindos is also home to the ruins of the ancient Acropolis, Kleoboulous’s tomb and the ornate Church of the Assumption. The Colossus of Rhodes site is one of the orignal 7 ancient wonders. Rhodes City is still surrounded by its medieval wall and a walk of the Old Town reveals the Grandmaster´s castle and the historic Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. Explore the Archbishops Palace and take in the superb views atop the Rhodes Archaeological Museum. The Medieval City of Rhodes is of huge cultural importance and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Faliraki is the party town on Rhodes with 24/7 bars and clubs.
Quaint Symi offers a real change of pace in the Dodecanese. Think laidback traditional charm within the hilltop villages and small guesthouses. With one of the prettiest harbours in the Greek Islands, Symi offers plenty to do by day. Explore the Panormitis Monastery, visit the Archaeological & Folklore Museum and discover the Symi Museum housed within an impressive building.
The island of Kos is just 2.5 miles (4km) off the coast of Turkey and travellers are drawn to the 112km long coast which offers some fantastic beaches. Wander the Eleftherias Square of Kos Town, explore the ancient ruins of Asklepion and discover the Knights Templar Castle at Kos Town. Get away from the bustle with a hike in the Plaka Forest and cool off at the local Lido Waterpark at Mastichari.
Mykonos is a developed tourist island in the Greek Cyclades islands, although there are pockets of heritage attractions waiting to be discovered. Walk, shop and haggle along Little Venice and Matoyianni Street in Mykonos Town. Explore the local historical sights including the pretty Byzantine Church of Paraportiani, the quaint Windmills and the imposing Castle Panigirakis. Notable beaches include the main Platis Gialos Beach, Agios Stefanos Beach and the Elia Beach which attracts nudist sunbathers!
Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades islands and offers fantastic opportunities for watersports such as kitsesurfing and windsurfing. The beaches of Agios Prokopios, Plaka, Alyko and Agia Anna are the most popular. And for a chance of pace, try hiking the mountainous center of the island. Explore The Portara ruins of the 6BC marble gates in Naxos harbour. Explore the 13th century Kastro Castle and take in the local exhibits at the Venetian Museum.
The beautiful whitewashed villages on Santorini island have long been popular with tourists, and has just been named one of the top islands in the world, and rightly so. Landscapes are dotted with the iconic blue domes of the local churches and the pick of the beaches include Perissa Beach, Kamari Beach and secluded Thirasia Beach. Santorini offers some great walking trails and rich cultural sights, including the fascinating Museum of Prehistoric Thera, the 11th century CB remains of Ancient Thera and Akrotiri which was carefully preserved by volcanic ash.
The island of Skiathos was made famous thanks to the hugely popular Mamma Mia! movie. A multitude of pristine beaches await alongside Greek historic sites. Visit the Papadiamandis House which showcases the life and times of the local novelist Alexandros Papadiamantis. The exhibits depict life on Skiathos 150 years ago. Best beaches in Skiathos include the Koukounaries Beach, Mandraki Elias Beach and the ‘Hidden Beach’ at Koukounaries.
Lying off Greece’s west coast are the Ionian Islands and the largest is Kefalonia. With dense forests, steep mountains and sheer cliffs, Kefalonia is an adventure seekers dream destination! Pack your climbing boots to scale the heights and admire the beautiful natural landscapes from on high. Activities here are rich and varied and include descending into the underground cave system at Melisani Caves in Argostolion. Admire the traditional Monastery of Agios Gerasimos and visit the ancient St George’s Castle at Peratata.
The island of Corfu lies in the Adriatic Sea and presents a rich and varied culture thanks to past rule by the British and Venetians. Generally the north is quieter and more laidback and the south attracts a party-focussed crowd. Corfu Town offers 24/7 bars, clubs and eateries. Explore the former fishing village of Benitses, try walking the highest point at Mount Pantokrator and discover the pretty Sissi’s Palace of Achilleon at Gastouri. The Museum of Asian Art features over 1,000 works of Japanese and Chinese art and a visit to the breathtaking Church of Saint Spiridon is an absolute must! Corfu has also been confirmed as one of the cheapest destinations right now!
Also with the Ionian Islands is the island of Zakynthos (also called Zante), which offers much to both families and adventure travellers alike. History enthusiasts will also be in their element as the rich archaeological artefacts reveal that Zakynthos dates back to the Neolithic Age. Homer mentioned the island in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Travel around the island in a day either on an organised tour or by hire car and see the breathtaking sights and experiences for yourself.
By Julie Bowman