The Most Beautiful Greek Islands

Hedonistic Mykonos is one of the most popular Greek islands
Hedonistic Mykonos is one of the most popular Greek islands | © Joana Kruse / Alamy Stock Photo
Joseph Richard Francis

Both paradisiacal and rugged, the Greek islands continue to reign supreme as some of the most coveted holidaying spots in Europe. From Crete to Santorini, here are the most popular islands that Greece has to offer.

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Corfu, for historic sites and scenic backcountry

The mythic stomping ground of Poseidon and the home of the ancient Phaeacians bursts forth from its place in the Ionian Sea in a medley of sandy stretches and pebbly coves, Unesco-attested villages and chiselled cliffs. But while the backcountry of Corfu remains undeniably gorgeous, it’s the human spots such as the Angelokastro castle, the Vlacherna monastery and the Mandraki marina that really leave visitors gasping in disbelief.

Crete, for port towns and stunning beaches

The mythic stomping ground of Poseidon and the home of the ancient Phaeacians bursts forth from its place in the Ionian Sea in a medley of sandy stretches and pebbly coves, Unesco-attested villages and chiselled cliffs. But while the backcountry of Corfu remains undeniably gorgeous, it’s the human spots such as the Angelokastro castle, the Vlacherna monastery and the Mandraki marina that really leave visitors gasping in disbelief.

Crete, for port towns and stunning beaches

Crete is a patchwork of crumbling ancient harbours and charming Venetian port towns laden with bubbling tavernas. The island has glorious olive groves, sun-kissed peaks and sheer-cut canyons. Then there are the beaches, which are wild and rugged at spots such as Falasarna in the west, otherworldly at places such as Elafonisi on the Libyan Sea, and bustling and lively nearer to Heraklion and the party strips of Malia.

Delos, for ancient ruins

Delos is one of the undisputed hotspots for exploring the remnants of the rich Greek past. Not only are great swaths of lands designated under a Unesco World Heritage title, but it’s also home to more archaeological digs and ancient ruins than any other island in the region. Among them lie the Naxian Terrace of the Lions and the mighty Delos Theatre. There is also a fantastic archaeological museum, which chronicles the mythical history of the island as the supposed birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, and its subsequent place at the heart of the Delian League (which became the Athenian Empire).

Symi, for a picture-perfect harbour view

Tiny Symi is just a pinprick on the map of the Greek Aegean, and yet it’s hailed as one of the most beautiful islands around. The pièce de résistance is the kaleidoscopically colourful harbour of Symi and Ano Symi town, which glows in ice-cream hues of yellow, pink, blue and ochre below the Aegean sun and between walls of dusty, untouched coastal mountains. Of course, there are also plenty of hidden beaches, where the aromas of fresh shrimp dishes from nearby tavernas twist through cypress groves and light breezes roll in from Turkey in the east.

Santorini, for that iconic sunset snap

A Grecian chart-topper of a destination if there ever were one, Santorini is the stuff of postcards and travel brochures. The island is home to the cubist villages of Oia and Fira, which cascade over the volcanic cliffs of the island in streaks of brilliant white and specks of Greek blue. There are also some seriously fascinating historical spots here, such as the Museum of Prehistoric Thera and the archaeological dig site at Minoan Akrotiri, while others will come to explore the famous scuba diving sites that pepper the rugged shorelines, or to taste the Turkish-influenced cuisine.

Chios, for untouched coastline

Don’t underestimate sleepy little Chios on the beauty front. Granted, it doesn’t get the press that islands such as Santorini or Corfu do, and it may not have the legendary sandy beaches of Crete, but it certainly holds its own. This relatively large island, poking into the Aegean Sea just off the Turkish coast, has charming medieval hill villages, a truly untouched shoreline and sweeping inland vistas of arid, shrub-dotted valleys. When the backcountry gets a little too beautiful to handle, you can always seek out the exquisite mosaics of the Nea Moni monastery, a Unesco World Heritage site from the days of Constantine IX.

Kefalonia, for diverse natural landscapes

The largest of the Ionian Isles, Kefalonia is a veritable paradise for nature lovers and travellers in search of authentic bucolic life in this idyllic corner of the Mediterranean. Famously eulogised by Louis de Bernières in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the island offers sleepy fishing towns such as Argostoli and Fiskardo, swaths of aromatic olive plantations and the soaring heights of fir-clad Mount Ainos. However, unquestionably the biggest pull here is the startling majesty of the coastline, where sheer, chalk-white cliffs melt into crystal-clear waters, and glimmering beaches such as Skala and Myrtos sit shrouded in walls of cypress trees and rugged rock formations.

Mykonos, for partying into the morning

The heady, happening kingpin of the Cyclades islands and one of the veritable gems of the Greek Aegean overall, Mykonos draws huge crowds of revellers and sun-seekers throughout peak season. Daily speedboat connections and half-hour flights from Athens do well to bolster the traffic even more. While the main draw of this one will probably always be the hedonistic interior of Mykonos town (hailed now as the Ibiza of Greece), there are also the charming Chora windmills to spot, along with the warming sands of Elias Beach and the mysterious white-washed monasteries of Ano Mera.

Kos, for verdant scenery and a taste of Turkey

Down the far-flung reaches of the Dodecanese, just a short boat ride from the bubbling streets of Turkish Bodrum in the east, the island of Kos shimmers like a jewel amid the waters of the Aegean Sea. Its backcountry is a verdant patchwork of fig fields and olive groves, peppered with the occasional arching backbones of rugged mountain peaks and windswept sand dunes that give way to beaches such as the popular Lambi and secluded Limnionas. There are also authentic Turkish and Greek eats to be had here, lurking between the ancient remnants and Genoese castles of historic Kos town in the north.

Lefkada, for a quiet Ionian getaway

One of the more off-the-beaten-track destinations to hail from the waters of the Ionian Sea, Lefkada is a laid-back getaway that’s perfect for travellers looking to catch a glimpse of rural Greek island life. As one of the larger enclaves in the Ionian archipelago, it has a sweeping inland of rugged mountains and high-perched villages, all encompassed by dense forests of juniper, olive and cypress trees. What’s more, the entire east coastline is a pretty series of hidden coves and quaint fishing villages that tout spots such as Porto Katsiki and Kalamitsi Beach, and makeshift tavernas that brush right up to the turquoise shore.

Zakynthos, for nature lovers and revellers

Home to the striking Shipwreck Bay and the legendary partying streets of Laganas and Kalamaki, Zakynthos remains one of the most versatile destinations for holidaymakers hitting the Greek islands. For nature lovers, the wild mountains of the north and the turtle beaches, rustic tavernas and rocky coves of the Vassilikos Peninsula are perfect choices, while party-goers and younger folk would do well to head for the bustling towns of the south and east.

Skiathos, for white sand beaches and pretty villages

Sultry, sun-kissed Skiathos has accumulated a loyal following since first coming to the fore of Aegean island tourism in the 1960s, beloved by the sort of people who would rather dispense with their Greek holiday altogether than betray their age-old friend on the fringes of the northern Sporades. It’s easy to see why too, with a sweeping backcountry of pine forests and shimmering ivory sands, exquisite white-washed villages and endless stretches of cerulean sea. If you’re sold on Skiathos, be sure not to miss the rugged cliffs and rocky archways of Lalaria in the north, or the crumbling Byzantine castles that pepper the towns all around.

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