A region paradisiacal and wild, pristine and rugged, whimsical and wondrous, the Greek Islands continue to reign supreme as some of Europe’s most coveted holidaying spots. Take a look at this selection of the 12 most beautiful islands 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 beautiful sand stretches and pebbly coves, UNESCO-attested villages sculpted by the hands of Venetian, Byzantine and the British Empire alike, and chiseled cliffs draped with tops of leafy foliage. But while Corfu’s backcountry remains undeniably gorgeous, it’s the human spots like Angelokastro castle, the Vlacheraina monastery and Mandraki marina that really leave visitors gasping with disbelief.
Crete is a patchwork of crumbling ancient harbors, charming Venetian port towns laden with bubbling tavernas. The island has endless seas of olive groves that glow greener than any others in Greece, soaring, sun-kissed peaks and sheer-cut canyons from mythical Mount Ida, the rugged depths of Samariá Gorge and the gleaming ridges of Lefka Ori. Then there are the beaches; 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.
Delos is one of the undisputed hot spots for exploring the remnants of the rich Greek past. Not only are great swaths of its lands designated under a UNESCO 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, dedicated in 600 BC, 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-come-Athenian Empire.
Tiny little Symi is just a pinprick on the map of the Greek Aegean, 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 on offer, where the aromas of fresh shrimp dishes from nearby tavernas twist through cypress groves and light breezes roll in from Turkey in the east.
A Grecian chart-topper of a destination if there ever was one, Santorini is the stuff of postcards and travel brochures the Aegean over. Home to the iconic 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, they keep watch over the scintillating waters that now surround Nea Kameni in the heart of the submerged Caldera bay. 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 for the tastebud-tingling Turkish-influenced cuisine.
Don’t underestimate sleepy little Chios on the beauty front. Granted it doesn’t get the press of islands like Santorini or Corfu, and it may not have the legendary sand beaches of Crete, but it certainly holds its own. This relatively large island found 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 just a little too beautiful to handle, there are always the exquisite mosaics of the Nea Moni monastery to seek out, a UNESCO World Heritage Site from the days of Constantine IX.
The largest of the Ionian Isles, Kefalonia is a veritable paradise for nature lovers and travelers in search of authentic bucolic life in this idyllic corner of the Mediterranean. Famously eulogized by Louis de Bernières in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the island offers up sleepy fishing towns like Argostoli and Fiskardo, huge 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.
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 speed boat 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.
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 kilometer-long 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.
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 travelers 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 touts spots like Porto Katsiki and Kalamitsi Beach, and makeshift tavernas that brush up right to the turquoise shore.
Home to the iconic Shipwreck Bay, where looming walls of ivory white rock allow access only via the aquamarine waters out at sea, 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.
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 emerald green pine forests and shimmering ivory sands, its exquisite white washed villages and 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.