While there are six thousand islands in Greece, only two hundred and twenty-seven of them are inhabited. But if you’re planning a Greek island hopping adventure, how do you go from over two hundred choices to a few islands that will make your travels the most fun, fit your budget, and help you see a variety of what Greek island life is like.
So many tourists overpack their Greek vacations and end up having to spend too much of their precious travel time on ferries and waiting in airports. One of the best parts of visiting the Balkans is that we have some of the most beautiful islands in the world, and many of them are in Greece.
Here’s our guide to some of the best islands Greece has to offer to help you choose which to add to your Greek island itinerary, along with tips on how to plan your trip itinerary, decide your accommodation style, and more.
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Greece’s Major Island Groups
Because Greece has so many islands, it’s helpful to understand a bit about their layout before creating an itinerary, since it’s easier to travel quickly between islands in the same chain.
Crete and Euboea
While most of the major tourist islands in Greece are part of island groups, both Crete and Euboea are not considered to be parts of islands chains but rather are stand-alone. Crete is the southernmost Greek island and is in the Mediterranean sea, while Euboea is so close to the mainland Greece that casual observers often mistake it for being part of mainland Europe and not a separate island.
The Cycladic Islands, or the Cyclades, are southeast of mainland Greece, situated in the Aegean sea. The largest of the Cycladic Islands is Naxos with Delos being considered the most important spiritual site. While there are over two hundred islands in the Cyclades, most are uninhabited. The most important islands for tourists are Amorgos, Delos, Ios, Milos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Folegandros, Syros, and Santoríni.
Though the name “Dodecanese Islands” literally means twelve islands, there are actually fifteen large islands in the group along with over a hundred and fifty smaller ones. Situated in the southeastern Aegean sea off the coast of Turkey, they are the southeastern most Greek islands. Most important for travelers to know are Rhodes, Kos, Patmos, Karpathos, and Tilos.
Located in the Ionian Sea west of mainland Greece, the Ionian Islands were historically known as the Heptanese, or the Seven Islands. The northernmost island is Corfu, off the coast of Albania. Other important islands for tourism include Lefkada, Kefalonia, and Zakynthos.
North Aegean Islands
Unlike the other island groups, the North Aegean islands aren’t a coherent island chain. Instead, they are a collection of disconnected islands in the northern Aegean Sea. Technically speaking, these include islands in both Greece and Turkey. The most famous for tourist purposes is Samos, but this island also includes the historically famous islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samothrace.
Saronic Gulf Islands
Named after the Saronic Gulf, these islands form an archipelago off the coast of Athens and are therefore the best islands to visit from Athens. Ferry service from Piraeus is some of the best year-round. There are seven main islands in the chain, with the most popular tourist destinations being Hydra, Poros, and Aegina.
Northeast of Euboea and east of mainland Greece, the Sporades consists of twenty-four islands; however, only four islands are inhabited year-round. Tourists are most often found on the islands of Skopelos, Alonnisos, and Skiathos.
The Best Greek Islands
In alphabetical order…
One of the islands located in the Saronic Gulf near Athens, I visited Aegina as part of an island hopping day cruise from Athens. Since the island is only 26 km (16 miles) from Athens by sea, it can be reached in just 40 minutes by air or 75 minutes by ferry. The main draw for tourists is to see the temple of Aphaia (Afea), which dates back to 500 BC. Aegina is great for day trips from Athens, history lovers, and travelers looking to visit some of the interior mountain villages.
AlonissosOne of the northern Sporades islands, Alonissos is a peaceful place to wind down and enjoy nature. The local population is only about two thousand, so there’s never really a time when the island is overcrowded, even in the high season. The island is known for its Old Villiage, locally called Chora, and the National Marine Park of Alonissos, the largest marine park in Europe and the habitat of the endangered Mediterranean Monk Seal.
The easternmost island in the Cyclades, Amorgos is especially popular with French tourists. Important spots include the capital, the town of Amorgos and the port harbor of Katapola. Bring comfortable shoes so you can take advantage of the seven footpaths on the island. Film lovers will want to swim on Ayia Anna beach where the movie “Big Blue” was filmed.
Crete is the largest island in Greece and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean, and there is more than enough to see here to stay on Crete for without adding in any other island. However, it’s also common to combine Crete with other popular islands like nearby Santorini.
The biggest decision when choosing Crete is where to stay on the island, as Chania, Heraklion, and Rethymnon are all popular choices with their own historic sites, gorgeous beaches, and charming streets. While not known particularly its vibrant nightlife scene, there are multiple clubs and bars open late if that’s your thing.
One of my favorite activities in Crete was climbing down to the gorgeous beach of Seitan Limania about an hour outside of Chania. For more, check out our guide to the best beaches in Crete and our Instagram guides to Chania, Rethymnon, and Heraklion.
Near Mykonos in the central Cyclades, Delos is one of the most important historical and mythical sites in Greece and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The birthplace of the Greek god Apollo, Delos sits alongside Delphi as one of the most spiritual places for the ancient Greeks.
Today there are fewer than thirty permanent inhabitants on the island, but it is a very popular place for tourists to come to visit while on Mykonos or in other parts of the Cyclades.
Separated from mainland Greece during an earthquake, Euboea now sits aside the continent as a stand-alone island. However, you’d be forgiven if you need to squint to see that it’s actually separate on the map.
Also known as Evia, Euboea is the second largest Greek island after Crete. Considered far more traditionally Balkan than some of the outer lying Greek islands, and you can actually reach it by two separate bridges from the mainland.
Because of its size, there are hordes of important historic sites, beaches, and small villages to visit. You really can’t make a wrong choice here.
Folegandros in the Cyclades is famous for its beautiful cliffs topped with traditional Cycladic houses atop them in the town of Chora. Because Folegandros is more lowkey and relaxed than other islands, the beaches have a disorganized and chill vibe that people fleeing the tourist traps on bigger islands will love. Make sure to save time for scuba diving and hiking.
Hydra is popular for Athenians and folks visiting Athens to pop over for a quick island getaway since it is easily accessible from the capital by hydrofoil or ferry. Located in the Saronic Gulf, the city is also popular among day cruises.
In 2007, National Geographic Traveler named Hydra first among the Greek islands and eleventh worldwide as the on its list of the most unique island in the world. Cars are not allowed (except for garbage trucks), so people get around the island by walking or taking one of the many donkeys or horses the serve as taxis.
Hydra is also a popular place for yachting. While on the island, I particularly enjoyed visiting the monasteries, sampling the local desserts, and walking along the harbor under the clock tower.
Part of the Cyclades, Ios is well known to the backpacking and digital nomad types who have turned this into a party and nightlife hotspot. Located near Santorini, Ios is covered in beautiful hills ideal for photography lovers. This island is also famous for its local cheese, which means that its basically a food-lover’s paradise. Make sure not to party too hard and leave some time for a trip to the archeological museum.
Karpathos is part of the Dodecanese Islands and located in the part of the Mediterranean that is known as the Carpathian Sea. There are ten villages and two ports on the island. The neighboring island of Saria used to be part of Karpathos, but they were separated by an earthquake and now Saria can be reached by tour boat. Highlights include the beaches of Apella and Kyra Panagia and the villages of Olympos and the capital of Pigadia.
The largest Ionian island, Kefalonia (or Cephalonia) is dotted with capes on the shore and mountains in the interior. Tourism here has a storied and illustrious past, as the children of the Royal Family of Greece used to vacation here at the early of the twentieth century. The rest of the world didn’t catch up with what these princes and princesses knew until the 1980s. The island is especially popular for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Off the coast of Turkey, Kos is the thirds largest of the Dodecanese Islands. Popular for its beaches and wildlife, activities include sunset horseback ride near the water, visiting the forests of Plaka to see the tortoises and peacocks, and water sports like paragliding and windsurfing. Save some energy for after dark, as Kos is known as a nightlife hotspot.
One of the Ionian Islands, Lefkada is actually connected to the mainland by a bridge, so it’s one of the few islands you can get to without the need for a ferry, boat, or plane. Famous beaches include Egremni, Kathisma and Porto Katsiki, but there are many gorgeous beaches and coves to find while you’re there. Nature lovers should seek out Dimossari Waterfalls where you can swim or simply take in the gorgeous views.
A volcanic island in the southern Cyclades, Milos is one of the closest tourist islands near Crete, making it a popular island to pair with that nearby tourism juggernaut. Historically important as the home of the Venus de Milo (now on display in the Louvre) and other important Hellenic statues, Milos boasts an art heritage that surpasses many parts of Greece. While there, make sure to head to Sarakinko beach, the most photographed place on Milos. Important cultural sites include the Roman catacombs and theatre and the towns of Klima and Plaka.
One of the three most well-known Greek islands worldwide (along with Crete and Santorini), Mykonos is popular for its vibrant nightlife and for being one of the most LGBT-friendly parts of Greece. While there, make sure to visit Mykonos town, walk around the old port, and see the famous old windmills in Chora. And while Mykonos is always a super trendy destination, many of my friends who work in travel still say that Mykonos is their favorite island, no matter how many they have been to. Check out this guide to Mykonos gay travel guide if you’re looking explore the island’s LGBT-friendly side.
The largest island in the Cyclades, Naxos is most famous for its Portara, the large marble door that’s been standing for twenty-five hundred years. Formerly part of a temple to the god Apollo, today it leads nowhere, but no visit to Naxos is complete without stopping by here. Other important cultural stops include the Chora Castle and the village of Naxos. Windsurfers will want to make sure Naxos is on their itinerary, as it is famous as one of the top places to windsurf in Greece.
Located in the middle of the Cyclades west of Naxos, Paros is popular with Greek tourists and outdoors enthusiasts. The island is known for its activities, like windsurfing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and yoga. Make sure to visit Nouassa, the little fishing village and the capital of Parikia. For history lovers, stop by the Church with the 100 Gates and the Frankish Castle.
Most people outside of Greece have heard of the Dodecanese island of Patmos in its Biblical context, as the site of the writings of the Book of Revelations and its author St. John of Patmos. The archeological sites associated with this have been incorporated into the UNESCO World Heritage Site The Historic Centre (Chorá) with the Monastery of Saint-John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse on the Island of Pátmos.
Besides visiting the UNESCO site, Patmos is also famous for its beautiful beaches and its charming capital city of Chora.
Poros is another popular stop from Athens in the Saronic Gulf, but it actually is the name for a pair of islands (Sphairia and Kalaureia). The most famous and important site on the island is the town of Poros, with its beautiful rust-roofed colored houses dotting the hillside above the town, leading to the iconic white clock.
Since it can be accessed by ferry from Athens or by cruise ship, Poros is a popular spot for a day trip or brief stop, but there’s so much to do here that it is worth spending a few days here if you can.
Rhodes is one of the most popular Greek islands to visit, and it can be positively crowded with tourists during the high season. However, we found that it was a great place to visit in late April/early May when the crowds haven’t descended on the island yet, but the weather is still fabulous and the beaches are gorgeous.
Beyond the beaches, visitors come to see the important historical sites, like the medieval town of Rhodes City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Acropolis in Lindos. Because Rhodes is so popular among British and German tourists, there are many direct flights from across Europe, especially from May to September.
This is a great island to use as a starting point since you can fly here and then move on via ferry to smaller Dodecanese islands like Patmos and Tilos. However, if you decide to stay and play here, there’s a ton of great things to do in Rhodes, so you won’t get bored!
Trying to decide between the popular island of Rhodes and Crete for your vacation? Here’s our guide to choosing between Crete or Rhodes for your trip.
Home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Pythagoreion and Heraion of Samos, Samos is a small but historically important island.
Prices on Samos have been affected by a tourism dip caused by the fact that 10% of Syrian migrants who go through Greece landed on Samos on their journey. However, this does not mean that Samos should be skipped. In fact, they need tourism dollars more than ever, both to recover from the financial loses and also to help the migrants who come on their shores.
Santorini in the Cyclades is actually a small group of islands in itself, consisting of Thíra, Thirassiá, Asproníssi, Palea and Nea Kaméni. Considered by many to be one of the most romantic vacation spots in the world, it’s chock full of love birds and girls in flowy Instagram-approved dresses. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing if you’re traveling solo or with friends. Besides watching the best sunsets in the world, Santorini has a ton to offer for thrill seekers, like cliff jumping, volcano climbing, and quad biking. Oh, and they have sunset wine tours.
The westernmost island in the Sporades, Skiathos is also the busiest. Even though it is popular with tourists, they’re spread out across its sixty beaches, so it never feels too crowded the way some of the most popular islands can be in high season. This and it’s lower prices are two of the reasons that Greeks prefer it over Santorini or Mykonos. This is also a popular island for nightlife.
Part of the Sporades Islands, Skopelos is considered to be one of the greenest islands in the Aegean sea. Because of this, one of the main activities for visitors is hiking, although active travelers can also enjoy kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, and scuba diving. Culture lovers will cherish the artisan shops that specialize in pottery and the local tavernas overlooking the water.
Take care to see the Sendoukia Pirate Graves and the Panagitsa of Pyrgos, considered “the most romantic church” in Greece. This island is also popular with Mama Mia fans since the movie was filmed here.
I haven’t gotten the pleasure of visiting Syros yet, but so many of my travel writer friends have visited and reported back about their wonderful trips, so now I can’t wait to go! Located in the Cyclades, Syros is working on increasing its tourism profile now, making this a perfect time to visit before the rest of the world learns what they’ve been missing. Check out my friend Chris’s video about his time on the island:
Seriously, it’s special to learn about an island before everyone else does. Time to book a trip here before the world catches up!
Accessible only by ferry from Rhodes, tiny Tilos is truly a hidden gem. Covered in beautiful rocky beaches, the island also boasts lovely tavernas, a medieval castle, and an important Greek Orthodox Monastery, and the lovely port town of Livadia. Make sure to check out the deserted village of Mikro Chorio and Charkadio Cave.
Nicknamed the “flower of the Levant, Zakynthos is the third largest Ionian island and is famous for its stunning beaches and scuba diving sites. It’s most famous site might be Navagio beach, which is surrounded by cliffs and is accessible only by boat, but there are also numerous caves and sandy beaches along with a historic castle and lighthouse.
While some of the island has been slightly ruined by the hordes of prepackaged tours that pop in and out, there is plenty for you to discover on your own if you choose your own adventure. Check out the inland and west coast areas to get off the beaten path.
We also think that Zakynthos is one of the best Greek islands for families, so it’s definitely much more than a party island!
Best Greek Islands Map
Should You Book a Greek Island Hopping Tour or Plan Your Trip on Your Own?
There are two ways to plan your travels through the Greek islands: you can book a pre-organized island hopping tour or you can plan your own.
Popular prearranged tours include cruises, sailing trips, and day trips from Athens. This can be a great option for families, first-time travelers, or folks who are especially busy and want to enjoy the freedom of not having to worry about the details.
Alternatively, building your own itinerary is perfect for travelers who want to get off the beaten path, create unique itineraries, or spend longer in one place.
How to Travel to the Greek Islands
Greece has over thirty commercial airports, most of which are located across the islands, making it super simple to start your trip wherever you’d like.
Many choose to start their trip to Greece in Athens and then move on to the islands, but there are also direct flights from Europe to many of the larger islands, so it is possible to skip mainland Greece if you’d prefer (although we love Athens and think it shouldn’t be skipped)!
If you do start in Athens, you can take a ferry to most islands, although on my last trip to the Greek islands, I found it more convenient to fly from Athens to Crete instead of taking the ferry. How you get to the Greek islands depends entirely on how you start your trip and which island you want to begin with.
How to Travel Between Greek Islands
Once on an island, there are three main ways to travel between them (unless you’re on a packaged tour and traveling by ship). Greek ferries are the most common way to travel between islands, but it’s also worth it to compare the timetable and prices against flight prices.
For example, I found it more convenient and only slightly more expensive to fly between Crete and Rhodes on my last trip, rather than take a ferry.
When looking for ferry schedules, note that ferries from Athens technically leave from Piraeus. Also, Greek ferry prices can be on the pricey side, so don’t skip checking competing flight prices.
In addition, check competing hydrofoils, especially if you’re leaving from Athens. If you’re planning to travel in July or August, make sure to book any ferry or hydrofoil travel in advance to avoid finding that the trip you need is sold out.
How to Create Your Greek Island Hopping Itinerary
Determining which islands to include on your schedule can be tough, but remember this: no matter which islands you see (or don’t see), you’re going to have a great time! Popular itinerary options include picking a major island like Rhodes and then seeing some of the nearby smaller islands like Tilos by ferry.
Alternatively, some choose to see the major islands back to back, like combing Santorini, Crete, and Mykonos on one trip. There are no right or wrong itinerary ideas, provided you check the logistics of getting between them.
Once you know which islands you’d like to see and when you’ll be going to Greece, you can start nailing down your specific itinerary. In order to create a travel schedule that allows enough time to enjoy each island but still get in some variety, you’ll need to check the flight or ferry schedules between islands, decide on your accommodations, and estimate the ground transportation time after arrival.
Double check times between cities if flying in and out of different airports. We made this mistake in Crete and found we didn’t plan enough time to get from Chania to Heraklion by bus, losing a day of sightseeing in Heraklion.
Determining Your Island Accommodations
Something important to consider when choosing your accommodations is how far away from the main towns you’d like to be. In Rhodes, we stayed in Rhodes City proper and took a bus to the beaches in Lindos. Luckily, we found that traveling from Rhodes to Lindos is convenient.
However, in Chania, we stayed a little ways away from the city, enjoying having a private villa and quick beach access, and we used taxis and buses to get into the city. It depends on your travel style, and you can always mix it up from island to island.
It’s also important to consider your budget and travel style before you book anything. The islands have all types of accommodations, from rustic private inns to hostels to boutique hotels. There’s also the option to look for an apartment, house rental, or Airbnb.
I’ve stayed in different styles of accommodations, and I loved our private villa in Crete (which ended up being only $25 per person per night since we had a large group). I also found great deals in Rhodes. To get a great deal, it really comes down to booking early or traveling in the shoulder season.
We found that wherever we were, the islands were looking to open everything on May 1. Thus traveling the last two weeks of April provided some amazing deals and great weather.
The Best Islands Near Athens
For those who want to spend the majority of their time in Athens but still get a taste of island life, you have a few great options since there are several islands that can be visited as day trips from Athens.
During my first trip to Greece, I went on a day cruise that visited Poros, Hydra, and Aegina. This was perfect since I had an apartment in the city for the month and I didn’t want to stay on the islands, but I wanted to get away from the crowds for a bit and enjoy some of the last of the good weather that year.
If you want to stay for a couple of days on an island near Greece, I would suggest Hydra. I absolutely loved the cute harbor and sweet little port town. There are eight islands within two hours of the city, so it’s very easy to combine a trip to Athens with some island time.
You can also look into visiting one of the larger, more popular islands by plane and staying for just a night or two.
More Greece Travel Resources
Headed to Greece? If this is your first trip, check out our guide to planning a trip to Greece, which covers everything you need to know from vaccines to visas to planning your itinerary.
If you’re still trying to plan your itinerary, we have posts to help you decide where to go in Greece along with a guide to when to go to Greece and the best Greek souvenirs to pick up while you’re here!
Finally, since you don’t want to hit up Greece without indulging in the amazing cuisine, here’s our guide to the best Greek food to try during your trip.
Planning a Trip to Greece? Don’t Forget about Travel Insurance!
Make sure you always travel to Greece with a valid travel insurance policy. Travel here includes outdoor activities and travel to highly touristed sites. You need to be covered in case you have an accident or fall victim to theft. Travel insurance will help you recover your expenses and continue to enjoy your trip.
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Have you been Greek island hopping or are you planning a Greek island vacation? If so, share your tips or questions below!
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Stephanie has been living in and traveling around the Balkans for the past three years. She’s written for National Geographic Online, appeared on CNN Arabic and in the New York Times, and ridden more Balkan buses than is good for a person.