Both paradisiacal and rugged, the Greek Islands continue to reign supreme as some of Europe’s most coveted holidaying spots. From Crete to Santorini, here are 12 of the most beautiful islands that Greece has to offer.
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 Corfu’s backcountry remains undeniably gorgeous, it’s the human spots like the Angelokastro castle, the Vlacherna monastery and the Mandraki marina that really leave visitors gasping in disbelief. While you’re here, stay in a traditional 19th-century Corfiot villa in Sinarades that overlooks the whole island.
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 like Falasarna in the west, otherworldly at places like Elafonisi on the Libyan Sea, and bustling and lively nearer to Heraklion and the party strips of Malia. For a romantic island getaway, complete your trip with a stay at this chic country cottage for two in the village of Xirosterni.
Delos is one of the undisputed hotspots for exploring the remnants of the rich Greek past. Not only are great swaths of its 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 Leagu (which became the Athenian Empire). Complete your visit by hopping over to the island of Mykonos and staying in a two-storey townhouse overlooking the ocean.
Tiny little 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. Its celebrated 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. Sit out on your private balcony and sip a coffee whilst looking out over the Symi harbour with a stay at the Villa Irini.
A Grecian chart-topper of a destination if there ever was one, Santorini is the stuff of postcards and travel brochures. The island is home to the cubist villages of Oia and Fira, which cascade their way 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, like 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. Head to Oia in the north of the island and spend the night in a terracotta cave house with picture-perfect terrace views of the caldera.
Don’t underestimate sleepy little Chios on the beauty front. Granted, it doesn’t get the press that islands like Santorini or Corfu do, and it may not have the legendary sand beaches of Crete, but it certainly holds its own. This relatively large island, poking its way out into the Aegean Sea just off the Turkish coast, boasts 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. Perfect your relaxing holiday to Chios by staying in a secluded beachfront villa in the south of the island.
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 up sleepy fishing towns like 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 like Skala and Myrtos sit shrouded in walls of cypress trees and rugged rock formations. Live luxuriously on your trip with a stay at the aptly named Villa Amaaze, complete with an infinity pool overlooking the south coast of the island.
The heady, happening kingpin of the Cyclades Islands and one of the veritable gems of the Greek Aegean overall, Mykonos draws huge crowds of revelers 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. With sweeping panoramic views over Mykonos and the Aegean Sea, the Villa Chantall is the place to stay.
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 amidst 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 like kilometre-long (half a mile) Lambi and secluded Limnionas. There’s 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. Stay at a stylish house that is only a five-minute walk from the sea to enjoy your time in Kos island.
One of the more off-the-beaten-track destinations to hail in 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 boasts a sweeping inland of rugged mountains and high-perched villages, all encompassed by dense forests of juniper, olive and cypress trees. What’s more, its entire east coastline is a pretty series of hidden coves and quaint fishing villages that tout spots like Porto Katsiki and Kalamitsi Beach, and makeshift tavernas that brush up right to the turquoise shore. Enjoy a stop-off in paradise at a villa with unmatched coastal views and beach and pool access.
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 the east. Settle down in the most unique hideaway on the island, a tree house with a hot tub overlooking the island.
Sultry, sun-kissed Skiáthos has accumulated a loyal following since first coming to the fore of Aegean island tourism in the 1960s: the sort of people who would prefer to dispense with their Greek holiday altogether rather than betray their age-old friend on the fringes of the Northern Sporades. It’s easy to see why too, with this one’s sweeping backcountry of pine forests and shimmering ivory sands, its exquisite white-washed villages and its endless stretches of cerulean sea. If you’re sold on Skiáthos, be sure not to miss the rugged cliffs and rocky archways of Lalari in the north, or the crumbling Byzantine castles that pepper the towns all around. Next to Skiáthos town, indulge yourself in the relaxing ambiance of a stone country house with an olive tree garden and sea views.