To begin your Corfu adventure, take a day to explore Corfu Town, where a dizzying array of influences – Greek, Venetian and British – slowly reveal themselves as you wander through the old town’s labyrinthine streets. On the second day, rent a car to explore the island’s hilly landscape, traditional villages and stunning beaches.
A peripheral part of the ancient Greek world and the Byzantine Empire is that in 1401, Venice captured Corfu in and ruled over the island until 1797, when it was briefly taken over by the French. The British acquired it in 1815 and held it as a protectorate until 1864, when it was finally reunited with Greece. The centuries of rule under Venice, France and Britain are generally viewed as positive by the islanders, especially when compared to Ottoman rule in the rest of Greece. Today, Corfiots remain fiercely proud of their multicultural heritage, which is evident in the island’s architecture, food, culture and dialect.
Start your day with a traditional Greek breakfast – coffee and a pastry – at Starenio bakery on Guilford Street. The owner is one of the island’s most renowned bakers and his colourful shop includes a variety of typical Greek pies, including perennial favourite spanakopita (spinach pie). Take a seat at one of the outdoor tables amid the bougainvillea and street cats as you enjoy your breakfast.
The neighbourhood is called Porta Remounda and it’s a good place to get acquainted with Corfu’s eclectic mix of influences. After your Greek breakfast, wander into Dimarcheiou Square and check out the Old Town Hall, perhaps the most beautiful Venetian building on the island. Originally built as a social club in the late 17th century, it was converted into a theatre and opera house in 1720 when it played an important role in the foundation of the Greek classical music tradition. It was transformed into a town hall in 1892, although today the island’s administration is based elsewhere. To its right sits the Cathedral of San Giacomo, which serves the island’s 3,000-strong Catholic community, most of whom are descendants of Maltese labourers brought to the island by the British in the 19th century.
Wandering back up Guilford Street (named after a former British High Commissioner on the island), you’ll pass by two of Corfu’s most beautiful and historic buildings: the Ionian Parliament, which served as the island’s parliament during the British protectorate years, and the Ionian Academy which became modern Greece’s first university in 1824. Opposite the Academy stands the statue of Ioannis Kapodistrias, the local boy who became independent Greece’s first president.
Nearby lies the Archaeological Museum, where you can see some of Corfu’s ancient Greek pedigree on display. Even if archaeological museums are not your thing, it’s worth popping in to see the famous Gorgon pediment, a bas relief of Medusa and two wild cats that is extraordinary in both its size and the vividness of its depiction.
Wander back up the coastal road, taking in views of the Old Fortress, majestically perched on a hillside promontory. The grounds are free to enter – look out for the Parthenon-like Church of St George – but it’s worth buying a ticket €6 (£5.44) to climb to the top and admire both the fort’s defensive structure and the panoramic view, which takes in Corfu Town, the Greek and Albanian mainlands, the forested island of Vido and the sparkling Ionian Sea between.
The large square separating the Old Fortress and the Old Town is called Spianada and is split into two parts: a park-like southern section, and the northern half which is used as a cricket pitch. A legacy of British rule, cricket is hugely popular on the island and it’s common to see makeshift games taking place on the green. To the left of the cricket pitch lies Liston, perhaps Corfu Town’s most magnificent street. Modelled after the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, its elegant arcades are full of bars and cafés which seem perpetually busy. Want to feel really Corfiot? Order a tsitsibira (ginger beer) – another peculiar legacy of British rule here.
Near Liston, moving slightly into the old town, is a small square called Plateia Iroon, featuring a statue of George Theotokis, a Corfiot politician who served four times as Prime Minister of Greece. You’re now in the Kofineta neighbourhood, among the busiest in the old town. With a diverse mixture of secular and religious, Venetian and Neoclassical architecture, your eye will naturally be drawn to the magnificent pink facade of the Ionian Bank, which served as the central bank of Corfu until its unification with Greece. Today, it houses an interesting banknote museum (with free admission), which showcases the long, turbulent history of the drachma, one of the world’s oldest currencies. Just off the square lies the 16th-century Church of St Spyridon, the island’s patron saint. The town’s most important church, it contains the relics of the saint himself, and is often thronged with pilgrims, particularly from Russia. Join the pious to pay your respects, or simply admire the frescos by celebrated artist Panagiotis Doxaras.
Time for lunch? Your goal should be Marina’s Taverna, a traditional Corfiot taverna on Velissariou Street. The journey there, which involves navigating Corfu Town’s labyrinthine alleyways (known as kantounia in the local dialect) is part of the fun. Maps are largely useless and you will likely get lost. When you finally arrive at Marina’s, you’ll know you’ve earned it. Corfiot cuisine is quite different from the rest of Greece, with a northern Italian influence. Try a local speciality such as pastitsada (pasta served with rooster and tomato sauce) or bourdeto (fish cooked in a spicy red pepper sauce).
After lunch, it’s time for another coffee. Pick up a frappe (an iced coffee ubiquitous throughout Greece), wander down to the old port and follow the coastal road back towards town. If you’re feeling adventurous, duck into Campiello, Corfu’s oldest and most disorientating neighbourhood. There are no shops here, just homes and narrow alleyways that seem to lead you in circles. The neighbourhood is often empty, with tourist hordes distracted down in Liston, and it’s a good place to simply relax, soak up the vibe and take photos.
Should you feel like a swim, drop down into Faliraki, a picturesque spot below the coastal road. Though there are a few bits of beach here, you’re better off just following the locals and jumping off the side of the pier. Otherwise, continue back to town until you reach the imposing neoclassical Palace of St Michael and St George, built as the residence for the British High Commissioner. Today it houses one of Europe’s foremost Asian art museums. The collection was established by Grigoris Manos, a former Greek diplomat, and encompasses a huge array of artworks and artefacts from all regions of Asia, presented with all the care and professionalism of a metropolitan museum.
Evenings are made for wandering the old town, which becomes even more evocative with the disorientating lustre of the bright shop windows and the odd screeches of local martins and swallows echoing through the kantounia. Be a true Corfiot and ask your friends to meet you at Pentofanaro, a five-pronged lamppost at the lower end of Liston.
Fancy a quick snack? Try Piperi in Vrachlioti Square for the best gyros in town (they also do a vegetarian version made with a falafel-style filling). Looking for a more romantic meal? Make your way to the Venetian Well, a hidden gem that sits in an atmospheric small square in the heart of the old town. Rightfully renowned among Corfiots, it pushes traditional Corfiot cuisine in intriguing directions with nods towards western Europe and Asia.
Drinking options are plenty in the old town. Enjoy a local beer at Mikro Café, with its chairs and tables cascading down uneven steps, or in the refined yet loud environs of local favourite Bristol. For something very Greek, head to the tsipouradika (Tsipouro tavern) by the old port. Tsipouro is a translucent Greek spirit similar to raki, which is often consumed in small glasses with ice. At a tsipouradiko customers traditionally alternate between bottles of the spirit and small trays of mezedes (finger food) until they can neither eat more nor stand up. Live music and dancing are common, as is passing out from the inebriation. The two best places to sample this Greek rite of passage are Berdes and Bakalogatos, both on Prosalendou Street.
You might well be a little hungover, so head to Dell’Acque by Dimarcheiou Square for the best brunch in town: eggs on toast, pancakes and fruit smoothies are just some of the comfort foods on offer. In order to best explore the rest of the island on a day trip, you’re going to need your own set of wheels, so grab a taxi from Pentofanaro to the airport (about 10 minutes, costing €15 (£13.58) and rent a car from there. It would be impossible to see all of the island in one day, but you can get a feel for the island’s geography, beaches and village life with the following itinerary.
Start by driving to Pelekas, a beautiful hilltop village 20-minutes west of the airport. It’s full of pretty vernacular architecture, some cafés, restaurants and one quirky shop, Witch House, selling handmade ceramics and jewellery. Pop in to see what spooky wares owner Katerina is currently working on. Perhaps the most notable spot in the village is the Kaiser’s Throne. Corfu was a popular summer retreat for Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany who, although based in the Achilleion – a garish Neoclassical palace just south of Corfu Town – considered Pelekas to have the most beautiful views on the island. His old throne is now a viewing platform, and the view hasn’t changed much since it left the Kaiser spellbound over a century ago.
Having absorbed the view, you may decide it’s time for a swim. Luckily the sandy beaches near Pelekas are some of the best on the island. You have four options: Kontogialos, Glyfada, Gialiskari or Myrtiotissa. The first two are easier to reach, but more developed, with beach bars and restaurants encroaching onto the sand. The latter are more remote, but serene, with Myrtiotissa often visited by nudists.
After your swim, head north to the vast (by Greek island standards) plains of the Ropa Valley and stop at Ladokolla in the workaday farming village of Temploni. With its rustic ambience and large menu (including plentiful vegetarian options), it’s a place to restore yourself before you head out on more adventures.
After lunch, continue on to Palaiokastritsa, arguably Corfu’s most dramatic spot. As you descend the winding road, your breath will be taken by the sight of numerous bays and their sparkling blue waters. In high season, this place is packed. But you should still find time for a swim, or take a boat tour to see the Blue Eye, a haunting turquoise circle of water hidden in one of the grottos. Keep an eye out too, for a peculiarly shaped rock jutting out of the sea near one of the bays – local legend has it that this is the mythical petrified ship of Odysseus.
Wind your way back up Palaiokastritsas road and head to the village of Afionas, about 40 minutes to the north. For a final dinner go to Evdemon, a family taverna that strikes the perfect balance between gourmet and home cooking. It also boasts perhaps the best sunset view on the island, with a terrace gazing out over the Diapontia archipelago. It’s an unforgettable way to spend your last night on the island.