Somewhere Wonderful on the Greek Islands is Waiting
The Monastery of Paleokastritsa sits on a forested hill in Corfu | © imageBROKER / Alamy
There’s no better place to island hop than Greece, where 200 inhabited islands – each with a unique charm – await. Though many tourists come during the summer, these holiday spots guarantee a fun escape even during winter, with sunny beaches archaeological treasures and delicious food. To get you started, here are four Greek islands – Santorini, Crete, Corfu and Rhodes – to try, along with our top tips on where to stay.
Head to the village of Oia in Santorini to see classic white-washed buildings | © vivoo / Alamy
Arguably the most photogenic of the Greek islands, Santorini is frequented by thousands of tourists every year, who flock to the half-submerged caldera to snap that perfect sunset selfie. The Cycladic island, now a semicircle, used to be round before a volcanic eruption about 3,600 years ago sent some of it into the sea. Aside from spectacular sunsets and distinctive white-washed houses, Santorini is also known for having wild, black-sand beaches. These are shaped and scorched by the star of the island – the active volcano. Things to see and do in Santorini include swimming in sulphurous waters, trekking along scenic hiking routes and tasting traditional vinsanto wine at the local wineries.
The imposing Psiloritis mountain range in Crete provides an epic backdrop to the island | © GEORGIOS PAGOMENOS / Alamy
The largest and most populous of the Greek islands, Crete is known for its grandeur. The people here are proud of their delicious food, mesmerising beaches (such as the exotic Elafonissi) and long history, which includes Minoan palaces and Roman archaeological sites. Here, you’ll never run out of raki, the strong local spirit. This is served all night long at the numerous taverns, until you’re too drunk to go home or too hyped from the sounds of the Cretan lyra. Not to worry, a meze bite of Cretan cheese pie or a juicy dakos salad will have you back on your feet. Want more tips? Browse through our guide on the must-visit attractions in Crete.
Pack your swimsuit when you head to Corfu and take a dip at the double beach of Porto Timoni | © Aleh Varanishcha / Alamy Stock Photo
You might recognise this Ionian island from the ITV comedy-drama The Durrells, based on Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical books. What the British author and TV series get right is the astonishing natural landscape here. From emerald seas to dense pine, cypress and eucalypt forests brimming with hiking trails and unique fauna (including brightly coloured flamingos), Corfu is every naturalist’s dream. The island also has a rich cultural heritage, having spent many years under Venetian, French and British rule before uniting with Greece in 1864. Two Venetian fortresses, the magnificent Achilleion palace and the Monastery of Paleokastritsa are only some of the landmarks to visit. Don’t miss the little jewel of Corfu, the islet of Pontikonisi, which has the charming Byzantine Church of Pantokrator. Discover more of the highlights in our 48-hour guide to Corfu.
The Acropolis of Lindos is one of the main attractions in Rhodes | © frantic / Alamy
Medieval castles, ancient temples and the arresting Acropolis of Lindos immediately draw the attention in Rhodes. The Unesco-badged capital (also called Rhodes) is one of the oldest medieval towns in Europe, while much of the architecture was built when the island was ruled by the Knights Hospitaller (1309-1522). The medieval thoroughfare known as the Street of the Knights (Odós Ippotón) and the 14th-century Palace of the Grand Master add to the fairytale setting. Dreamy waterfalls, natural springs and the wild nightlife of Faliraki village are more reasons to visit.
The Greek islands are best-known for their marvellous beaches and excellent food. Yet each also comes with an amazing history, cultural heritage and natural beauty, present in every medieval castle, grandiose palace or protected natural park. We have extensive guides of the best things to see and do on Santorini, Crete, Corfu and Rhodes, but below, you will find the most impressive attraction each island offers. You might also want to explore the more offbeat side of Crete, with our guide to the most unusual things to do on the island.
Climb to the ridge of an active volcano in Santorini
© Hackenberg-Photo-Cologne / Alamy
Thousands of years ago, a volcanic eruption destroyed large chunks of Santorini. While some of the land disappeared forever, others can still be seen in the Aegean. The most notable are Palea and Nea Kameni. Take a boat trip from Santorini to these uninhabited islets and climb the volcano ridge for a super-close look at its fuming crater. Organised tours from Fira town will guide you through the ins and outs of this fascinating volcano and even let you swim in the sulphur-filled hot springs in Palea. Don’t wear a white swimsuit – the sulphur will stain it yellow.
Visit the Palace of Knossos in Crete
Historical Landmark, Architectural Landmark
© Georgios Kritsotakis / Alamy
Like to learn more about the Minoan civilisation? There’s no better place to start than Knossos. The archaeological site is the largest in Crete, and is said to be the oldest city in Europe. The highlight is the Palace of Knossos, a brilliant example of Minoan architecture that largely documents the Minoan lifestyle here during the Bronze Age. An important political and social hub at the time, Knossos was the seat of the legendary King Minos. The palace is believed to have been built towards the end of the second millennium BCE, before it was destroyed by an earthquake around 1700BCE and rebuilt shortly after. It was definitively ruined by fire in 1350BCE, but relics still showcase the luxurious materials and advanced building techniques used back then.
Stroll around the Old Town of Corfu
Between the two fortresses in Corfu, the Unesco-listed Old Town brings the opulent era of kings, countesses and noblemen to life. Well-preserved neoclassical houses in pale yellow capture the influence of the British on the island, while the narrow, winding alleyways of the Campiello quarter echo the streets of Naples. Among cobbled squares and Byzantine churches, you will find stores selling handcrafted items and local products such as honey or the intense kumquat liqueur. Enjoy a cup of coffee at the open-air cafes on the elegant Liston Arcade or cross the bridge to the sixth-century Old Fortress and take in superb coastal views from up high.
Discover the Valley of Butterflies in Rhodes
© Panther Media GmbH / Alamy
It’s not often you come across an entire valley filled with butterflies. Yet in this natural reserve in the village of Kalamona – about 26km (16mi) from the town of Rhodes – thousands of caterpillars escape their cocoons and transform into the rare panaxia quadripunctaria (or jersey tiger) butterflies between June and September. The dreamy reserve features lily ponds and waterfalls, along with wooden bridges on various parts of Pelekanos river that passes through the valley. The sight of the grey butterflies sleeping on trees is enchanting. When they’re awake, they appear to form an orange cloud. The valley provides the butterflies with the ideal environment to reproduce. Make sure to avoid whistling or clapping as that might scare them away.
Ikies, for a boutique base in Santorini
Courtesy of Ikies / Hotels.com
Perched on the edge of the picturesque village of Oia, the Ikies boutique hotel stands out for its panoramic caldera views and minimalist white interiors. Each of the 11 suites, maisonettes and studios comes with a private balcony or patio. The comfortable sunbeds by the outdoor pool will have you chilled for hours, a glass of sweet vinsanto wine undoubtedly helping the relaxation. Other amenities include a spa tub and a steam room, while you can also treat yourself and significant other to the romantic package. This includes champagne breakfasts, sunset cocktails and two massages of your choice.
Domes of Elounda, for a coastal hangout in Crete
Domes of Elounda, Autograph Collection, Crete | Courtesy of Domes of Elounda, Autograph Collection, Crete / Expedia
In the heart of the quiet coastal town of Agios Nikolaos, Domes of Elounda seems like the perfect deluxe hideout in Crete. The 118 sophisticated suites and villas overlook the vast blue sea, while most of them come with a private pool. You will also find four outdoor pools and a private beach. Each apartment has a living area and a private furnished balcony or patio. Remember to pass by the spa for a series of massages, body treatments and facials. The beautiful island of Spinalonga, once a community for people with Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy) is only a five-minute drive away.
Corfu Holiday Palace, for decadence in Kanoni
Courtesy of Delfino Blu Boutique Hotel / Expedia
Probably the most glamourous hotel in Corfu, the five-star Corfu Holiday Palace is surrounded by a lush garden of pine and cypress trees, herbs and flowers. This historic property in Kanoni (only 4km/2.5mi from Corfu town) houses 256 rooms and an ultra-modern outdoor pool overlooking the Ionian Sea and the Pontikonisi islet. There’s also a funicular on the pool level leading straight to the beach underneath the hotel. If you’re more of the athletic type, try the outdoor tennis court, or head to the nearby Golf Club Course of Corfu
, housed in a magical natural habitat with tree groves and ponds. Feel free to unwind at the steam room in the luxurious spa and wellness centre.
Casa Cook, for a boho break in Rhodes
Courtesy of Casa Cook Rhodes
Neighbouring the imposing Tsambika mountain in Kolymbia, Casa Cook Rhodes is the bohemian sanctuary you didn’t know you needed. Bamboo and terracotta-coloured furnishings, poolside hammocks and mellow house music in the background give off a Moroccan vibe. The laid-back rooms feature private verandas, all leading to the shared outdoor pool, while the suites have access to private pools. Inspired by the nomadic lifestyle, Casa Cook also offers yoga sessions, and relaxed dinners at the Kitchen Club – an all-day hangout spot. The golden Tsambika Beach and the green oasis of Seven Springs lie a 15-minute drive away.
Selene, for prize-winning fare in Fira, Santorini
Hotel Restaurant, Mediterranean
Courtesy of Katikies Garden hotel / Expedia
The grand interiors of the award-winning Selene restaurant hardly allude to the catholic monastery formerly found on its premises. Yet inside the Katikies Garden hotel, which now houses Selene, the air feels just as mystical. The restaurant has been around for about 35 years (it was previously in the village of Pyrgos) and has gradually transformed its cuisine from international to traditional, now with a contemporary, fine-dining spin. The culinary heritage of Santorini and rare local ingredients have been given new life in the menu of renowned chef Ettore Botrini. Don’t miss the steamed mackerel with broth stew and ladotyri cheese, and, for dessert, the divine yogurt cremeux, with the slow-cooked grapes in bitter almond, verjus sorbet and oinomelo sauce.
7 Thalasses, for classic Cretan dishes in Rethymno
Restaurant, Mediterranean, $$$
Each of the four major cities and many villages in Crete offers a great range of fancy restaurants or cosy little taverns. Right by the sea, in Rethymno town on the north coast, the refined 7 Thalasses (meaning seven seas in Greek) is a good place to start. The menu, by chefs Giorgos Michelakis and Panagiotis Apokoroniotakis, celebrates Cretan-Mediterranean cuisine through a wide selection of seafood and several meat dishes. The seafood moussaka with prawns and summer vegetables is an exquisite alternative to the popular Greek dish. For a more cosmopolitan culinary experience, do have a look at the extensive sushi menu.
Venetsianiko Pigadi, for Corfiot cuisine in the Old Town
Restaurant with Rooms, Contemporary, Greek, $$$
Found in Kremasti square, one of the most attractive on the island, and just across from the 16th-century church of Panagia Kremasti, Venetsianiko Pigadi (or Venetian Well) should be your go-to place for exceptional Corfiot cuisine. The restaurant is housed in a grand yet inviting Venetian manor and takes its name from the elaborate Venetian well in the middle of the square. The romantic, Renaissance-style decor is enhanced by the blooming bougainvillea and the white attire of the waiters. The tasting experience is also sublime. Try the Corfiot pastitsada with open ravioli or the tagliata veal with wild mushrooms and pair it with a glass of Italian wine from the Venetian Well Cellar.
Sissitio, for signature cocktails in Rhodes
Restaurant, Mediterranean, Asian, $$$
A few feet from the Palace of the Grand Master in the Old Town of Rhodes, Sissitio borrows the medieval allure of its surroundings. The bar-restaurant borders the Mosque of Suleiman, which was built following the occupation of Rhodes by the Ottomans in 1522 (now hosting temporary art exhibitions and cultural events). At the spacious, pebbled courtyard you can try signature cocktails, such as vermouth infused with rose petals or masticha paired with Rhodian sparkling wine. The restaurant serves Mediterranean dishes – like the pitaroudia (local beignets) with mushrooms – and delectable Asian ones, or a mix of both, such as the calamari sushi with strawberry dressing.