Visitors are usually overwhelmed when it comes to “the Greek islands”. This article offers an introduction to the different Greek island groups, to help you plan your trip to Greece.
Introduction to the Greek Islands
Greece is said to have around 6,000 islands! This includes all islands and islets in the Mediterranean Sea which belong to Greece.
According to the 2011 census, 119 Greek islands were inhabited. Four of these islands had over 100,000 residents, and 40 had fewer than 100 residents. The exact number of the inhabited islands today is not certain.
There are six main Greek island groups, and two large standalone islands. Here is a list:
- Cyclades islands, in the Aegean Sea
- Ionian islands, in the Ionian Sea
- Saronic islands, in the Saronic Gulf
- Dodecanese islands, in the Aegean Sea
- Sporades islands, in the Aegean Sea
- North Aegean islands, in the Aegean Sea
- Evia, in the Aegean Sea
- Crete, in the Libyan Sea
Here is an introduction to the Greek island groups and islands in Greece.
1. The Cyclades Islands – Mykonos, Santorini, Paros, Naxos
The Cyclades are one of the most popular Greek island groups. They are located in the Aegean Sea, to the east of mainland Greece.
There are 33 main Cyclades islands, surrounded by dozens of smaller islets. In total, they are about 150 islands! Each one is unique, with different landscapes, customs, culinary traditions and overall vibe.
The most popular Cyclades are Santorini, Mykonos, Milos, Naxos, and Paros. There are also several others that you may not have heard of, like Andros, Tinos, Iraklia, Schinoussa and Kimolos. Here, you will experience the authentic Greek island life.
What are the Cyclades islands like?
The Cyclades are best known for their traditional architecture with the picturesque white-and-blue houses. The iconic Santorini sunsets with the blue domed churches are world-famous. There are no big cities, just small towns and villages.
This famous group of Greek islands has a long and rich history. This is where the Cycladic civilization flourished, and you will find archaeological sites and ancient ruins on most islands.
In terms of landscape, the Cyclades are famously dry and rocky. You will generally find low trees and bushes, and some islands are greener than others. Nevertheless, you won’t find the lush vegetation that you will see in the Sporades or the Ionian islands.
Most of the Cyclades islands, especially the most remote ones, have a wild feel to them. You will love them if you like barren nature, swimming and hiking. In addition, you can explore the numerous quaint villages and taste the locally made delicacies.
With that said, you will find an incredible number of boutique hotels and villas with pools on many of the Cyclades. In contrast, big resorts and large all-inclusive hotels are practically non-existent.
Check out our Cyclades travel guides available on Amazon!
- Our newest travel guide to Milos and Kimolos
- Travel guide to Andros and Tinos
- Travel guide to Schinoussa and Iraklia
Beaches in the Cyclades
All Cycladic islands have fantastic beaches with crystal clear waters. Many of them are ideal for families, as they are shallow and protected. Others are best suited for active travellers, or couples who prefer some quiet time in the sun.
The beaches in the Cyclades are very diverse. You will find some stunning, long sandy beaches on most islands, like Mykonos, Naxos, Milos, Andros, Sifnos and Serifos.
In addition, there are hundreds of pebbly beaches and rocky coves on all the islands. It’s easier to explore them on various sailing trips, but plenty of them can be reached by road.
Most of the Cyclades have beautiful hiking trails that you can explore. Many routes are signposted, so ask around when you visit. As an example, here is my experience hiking to the famous Kleftiko Bay in Milos.
How to get to the Cyclades
Travel options to the Cyclades islands include flights, and ferries. Not all islands have airports, and those who don’t are only accessible by sea.
Flights to the Cyclades
Out of all the inhabited Cyclades islands, six have airports.
Mykonos, Santorini and Paros have international airports. These islands are directly connected with many countries abroad. There are also domestic flights from Athens.
Milos, Naxos and Syros have domestic airports, where you can fly from Athens in about 40-50 minutes. Check out the local airlines, Aegean Airlines / Olympic Air and Sky Express, for information and tickets.
If you are planning to take a domestic flight, book your tickets as early as you can. If you book well in advance, the airfare might actually be cheaper than a ferry ticket. Last minute prices can be very high.
People who prefer to avoid Athens can fly into an international airport on an island and fly out of another. Common combinations are Santorini and Mykonos, or Paros and Santorini.
Getting to the Cyclades on a ferry
Most of the Cyclades are only accessible by ferry. Several ferries depart on a daily basis from Piraeus, Rafina or Lavrio ports in Athens.
Travelling by ferry is the most popular way for Greek people, especially when they want to bring their vehicle. The main disadvantage is that the journey can take several hours on the slower ferries. As an example, it can take you eight or ten hours to get to some of the most remote islands like Amorgos or Folegandros.
There are plenty of ferry routes connecting the Cyclades islands to each other. A few examples are Naxos – Paros, Andros – Tinos, Tinos – Mykonos. Depending on the islands you choose, getting from one to another isn’t always straightforward.
You will also find connections between the Cyclades and Crete, the Dodecanese and the North Aegean islands.
Which is the best ferry to the Cyclades?
Choosing which ferry to travel on can be a daunting task if you have no experience of Greek ferries!
As a rule, the faster ferries are more expensive, and the slower ferries are cheaper. If you get seasick easily, it’s best to take one of the slower ferries, which are bigger and steadier. I prefer to avoid the smaller ferries myself, especially for longer trips.
You can see each ferry’s specs online, and decide for yourself. Here is my ridiculously long Greek ferry guide that should be helpful. I use Ferryscanner to check the ferries travelling to the Cyclades and book ferry tickets.
Explore the Cyclades on a sailing trip
Finally, some people opt for sailing trips around the Cyclades. If you are happy to stay on a sailing boat for a few days, this is by far the best way to see more of the beaches and secret coves.
People who are prone to seasickness might prefer to avoid multi-day trips. Instead, you could take a day cruise on your island of choice.
You can easily pre-book plenty of luxurious cruises on Mykonos and Santorini. For most other Cyclades, it’s actually best to have a look at day trips when you are on your destination. Often, there will be a small, inexpensive boat trip taking people to the best beaches on the island.
2. The Ionian Islands – Corfu, Zakynthos, Kefalonia
The Ionian islands have been popular with foreign visitors for several decades. Their lush vegetation, natural beauty, stunning beaches and cosmopolitan feel are unique. People visit from all over Europe and the world.
The best known Ionian islands are Corfu, Zakynthos and Kefallonia. In recent years, more and more people are discovering Lefkada, Paxi and Ithaca. Each of them is unique, and offers a different holiday style.
Most of the Ionian Islands are located to the west of mainland Greece, between Greece and Italy. They are surrounded by the Ionian Sea.
In addition, two of the Ionians, Kithira and Antikythera, are located between the Peloponnese and Crete.
These islands are called Eptanisa in Greek, which literally means “seven islands”. As you might expect, they are not just seven!
What are the Ionian islands like?
The landscape of the Ionian Islands is entirely different from the dusty, dry Cyclades. They are all lush and green, owing to the frequent rainfalls in autumn and winter. The sea temperature is higher than the Cyclades, and the water has a lovely turquoise – green colour.
Two of the most amazing features of the Ionian islands are the architecture and the culture. These islands have a different history from the rest of Greece, as they were not occupied by the Ottoman Empire.
Many of the buildings are Venetian, which gives those islands a very different feel.
As an example, Corfu town is full of Venetian architecture and amazing neoclassical buildings. There are also a few unique museums, like the Serbian Museum or the Museum of Asian Art.
If you have been to Mykonos, Tinos or Santorini in the past, you will think that Corfu, Kefalonia or Lefkada are in another country!
How to get to the Ionian Islands
There are direct flights to Corfu, Kefalonia and Zakynthos from several European airports. If you are already in Athens, you can take a short domestic flight to these three islands.
People travelling in their own vehicle can get a ferry to the Ionian islands from Patra, Kyllini or Igoumenitsa ports. Lefkada is an exception, as it’s connected to the mainland through a bridge.
It’s possible to reach the Ionian islands on a direct bus from Athens. The journey is quite long, as it includes the ferry crossing from the mainland, so it’s usually best to fly.
Island-hopping around the Ionian islands isn’t always straightforward. You can check all ferry routes and book your tickets on Ferryscanner.
Many visitors choose to go on a sailing trip around the Ionians. As the Ionian Sea is much calmer than the Aegean, they are an ideal island group to explore by sea.
As mentioned earlier, Kithira and Antikythera are not close to the other Ionians. You can reach Kithira on a short flight from Athens. Alternatively, you can take a ferry from Piraeus, a couple of ports in the Peloponnese and Crete.
Finally, it is possible to get to some of the Ionians on a ferry from Albania or Italy.
3. The Saronic / Argosaronic Islands – Hydra, Spetses, Aegina
The Saronic islands are very popular with visitors. They are located in the Saronic Gulf, which is between West Attica and the Peloponnese.
Of all the Greek island groups, the Saronic islands are the closest to Athens. In fact, you can even reach them on a day trip from Piraeus.
Most tourists visit Hydra, Spetses and Aegina. Other islands in this island group include Poros and Agistri, which are more low-key. There is also Salamina, where few people choose to go.
What are the Saronic islands like?
Although they are so close to each other, the Saronic islands are quite diverse.
Hydra and Spetses are both cosmopolitan and car-free. They are really picture-perfect islands, with impressive neoclassical architecture, but also quiet nature. They have a rich naval history, and you can visit several museums and old mansions.
Aegina is famous for the majestic temple of Aphaia, which was built around 500-490 BC. There are also interesting monasteries and churches. Several Athenians have summer houses in Aegina, so it gets busy during weekends.
Poros is one of the greenest Saronic islands, and it’s great if you want to take it easy and relax.
I like Agistri a lot, as it’s not very developed and it’s got some amazing beaches. It’s unthinkable that this little gem is so close to Athens!
If you have very limited time in Greece, but definitely want to go to one or two Greek islands, the Saronic islands are a great option. Santorini or Crete can wait for next time!
How do I get to the Saronic islands?
As this island group is so close to Athens, you can take a day trip that takes you to a few Saronic islands. Most companies include Hydra, Poros and Aegina in a one day sailing trip through the Saronic Gulf.
If you want to see as much as possible in one day, this is a good option. In addition, it can work out cheaper than visiting them individually on your own.
Otherwise, you can get a ferry or flying dolphin from Piraeus port. Now, the logistics of visiting two islands on your own might be too complex. So if you only have time for a day trip, it’s best to choose one of the islands.
The Saronic islands are fairly popular during the summer, as many Athenians go for the weekend. If you can visit on weekdays, you will probably enjoy it more. Eitherway, it’s best to book your tickets in advance on Ferryscanner.
4. The Dodecanese Islands – Rhodes, Kos and Patmos
The Dodecanese islands are in the Aegean Sea, quite far from mainland Greece. In fact, they are much closer to Turkey. The “Dodecanese” literally means “the 12 islands”. However, they are well over 60, of which about 20 are inhabited.
The most famous Dodecanese islands are Rhodes, Kos and Patmos. Other names you might come across are Karpathos, Kalymnos, Symi and Tilos.
The Dodecanese islands were the last island group to become part of today’s Greece. After long periods of occupation by the Knights Hospitaller and the Ottomans, they were occupied by the Italians in 1912. They were only officially released to Greece in 1948.
As a result, the Italian influence is prevalent. The Grand Palace in Rhodes is unlike anything else you will see in Greece. Miles away from Mykonos, Paros or any of the Sporades!
While some of the Dodecanese are popular and busy, others are quiet even in summer, and are ideal destinations if you want to relax.
All in all, get ready for some fantastic landscapes, medieval castles, interesting monasteries and beautiful, quaint villages.
How do I get to the Dodecanese?
Rhodes and Kos have international airports. There are plenty of flights from several countries in Europe, especially in summer. You may also find international flights to Karpathos.
Many of the remaining Dodecanese islands have domestic airports. You can take a short domestic flight to Kalymnos, Kasos, Kastellorizo, Leros and Astypalaia. There may be flight connections between the islands, so it’s worth doing some research.
For people who don’t mind long ferry rides, taking a ferry from Piraeus to any of the Dodecanese is an alternative option. However, most people will choose to fly to Rhodes or Kos, and use ferries for shorter trips to the smaller islands.
If you have a long vacation, you can fly to Kos, and island hop all the way to Rhodes, from where you can get your return flight home.
Finally, there are ferry connections between some of the Dodecanese islands and Turkey.
5. The Sporades Islands in Greece
The Sporades are a group of islands in the Aegean Sea. They are close to Volos and Pelion peninsula, to the east of mainland Greece.
The major Sporades islands are Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonissos and Skyros. In addition, there are also several minor, uninhabited islands.
The Sporades group increased in popularity because of the Mamma Mia movie. It was filmed in Skiathos, Skopelos and certain areas of Pelion. You can read more about it in my article on movies about Greece.
What are the Sporades islands like?
The best word to describe the Sporades is “green”. Wherever you go, the trees reach all the way to the beautiful beaches. The islands are famous for their natural beauty and gorgeous beaches.
Skiathos is the busiest of the major Sporades, and is famous for its intense night life. At the same time, it boasts pristine beaches, thick forests and long hiking trails. History buffs will be thrilled with the Venetian fortress in Skiathos town, Bourtzi, and the monasteries of Kounoupitsa and Evangelistria.
Skopelos is the second island in the Sporades island group. It is ideal for quiet, relaxed holidays. It combines stunning beaches, natural beauty, traditional quaint villages and plenty of island charm.
Alonissos is ideal if you like nature. The island is home to several rare species of animals and sea creatures, including seals, dolphins and even whales. You can visit the National Marine Park of Alonnisos, the largest protected marine area in Europe.
Finally, Skyros is the biggest of the Sporades, but also the least developed. It is another quiet Greek island, and a perfect choice to get away from it all. Explore its hiking trail network and the lovely, unspoilt beaches.
How do I get to the Sporades?
The easiest way to get to the Sporades islands is to fly to Skiathos, which has an international airport. Alternatively, you can catch a short domestic flight from Athens or Thessaloniki to Skyros.
Ferries to the Sporades run from Agios Konstantinos or Volos ports, in mainland Greece. In addition, Skyros is connected with Evia island, with ferries departing from Kymi port.
Skopelos and Alonissos are only accessible by ferry. You can reach them from the mainland, Skiathos or Skyros.
6. North Aegean Islands – Lesvos , Chios, Ikaria
The North Aegean islands are located in the Aegean Sea. They are close to Turkey, and some of them are connected by ferry with our neighbouring country.
While everyone knows about Santorini, Mykonos and Corfu, few people know the names of this group of 16 islands. Even among many Greek people, especially those from Athens, they are relatively unknown.
The largest and best known North Aegean islands are Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Lemnos. Ikaria and Samothraki are also popular, especially among alternative-minded people.
Looking at the map, you will see two North Aegean islands that are called Bozcaada and Gokceada. If the names don’t sound Greek to you, you are right. These two islands belong to Turkey, and we call them Imvros and Tenedos.
If you want to explore any of the North Aegean islands properly, it would be best to have several days. The landscapes are wild and rugged, and the beaches are stunning. In addition, there are dozens of traditional villages, each with their own style and architecture.
Visitors who travel to this island group will be rewarded with an authenticity that other areas of Greece have lost.
How to get to the North Aegean islands
Some of the North Aegean islands have airports. There are international flights to Lesvos, Samos and Lemnos from many European and Greek cities. Moreover, you can fly to Chios and Ikaria from several Greek airports.
Another option is to take a ferry from Piraeus. It will be a long, and often overnight, journey. Before you travel, check out ferry and flight connections between the islands.
7. The Greek island of Evia (Euboea)
Just an hour’s drive from Athens, you will find Evia, Greece’s second largest island. It is connected with the mainland through a bridge.
Why more tourists don’t visit Evia remains a mystery. This beautiful island has some lovely landscapes and is full of forests and wild beaches. The atmosphere is quiet and relaxed, even in August.
If you are looking for picturesque towns and villages, or for crazy nightlife, Evia might not be your best bet. However, it’s a really authentic, relaxed place to spend a few days by the beach.
Looking at the map of Evia, you will notice that there is a bay separating Evia from the mainland. This is the best place to go swimming, especially if you have a family. The beaches on the Aegean Sea they can get very exposed to the winds.
If you want to experience Evia, it’s best to rent a car. Many people have heard that they should avoid driving in Greece. As I’m Greek, I loved driving around the winding mountain roads of around Evia!
8. Crete in Greece
I have saved the best for last. Crete is Greece’s largest island, which I’ve visited many, many times. In my opinion it’s one of the most interesting and diverse places in Greece.
Crete has it all – amazing beaches, wild mountains, deep gorges, archaeological and historical sites, great people and some of the best food and raki I’ve ever had.
In my opinion, going to Crete for just 2-3 days isn’t really worth it. Try to stay for at least a week, and be prepared to drive around. Allow yourself several days to immerse yourself into the culture and the customs of this fantastic island.
If you are a slow traveller, just stay in Crete for the duration of your trip. You will discover a whole new world, and perhaps a new life philosophy.
Where to go in Crete
There is no right answer to this question. As Crete is so big, it depends on what you like doing, and ultimately, on how much time you have.
Two of the most popular places in Crete are the two biggest cities, Heraklion and Chania. They are both on the north coast of Crete, about two hours away from each other. Both of them offer plenty of history, culture and delicious food.
Among the most popular attractions in Crete are the archaeological sites of Knossos, Festos, Gortyna and Matala. In addition, you will find ruins of Venetian castles, but also signs of the Ottoman occupation. The Spinalonga castle is an iconic, almost eerie place to visit.
In terms of natural beauty, Crete is hard to beat. There are incredible beaches, wild gorges and several caves all around the island. You will also find lovely coastal towns on the south, pretty, authentic mountain villages, and some of the loveliest landscapes in Greece.
How to get to Crete
Your travel options to Crete include flights and ferries. Greece’s largest island has two international airports, in Heraklion and Chania. There are flights from many European airports to both. Some visitors choose to fly into one, and fly out of the other.
If you are in Athens already, you can catch a short flight from the Athens airport. Alternatively, you can get an overnight ferry from Piraeus to either Chania or Heraklion ports. Book your tickets at Ferryscanner.
Crete is connected with some of the Cyclades, like Santorini and Milos. There’s also a very slow ferry that can get you to some of the Dodecanese islands, including Rhodes, a few times per week.
Visiting different Greek island groups – Island hopping in Greece
Most visitors who come to Greece will want to visit more than one islands. Often, these islands are in different island groups.
Now, while Greece is a small country, travelling between two or more island groups isn’t always easy. There are few direct ferry or flight connections between the different groups. If you are flying, you will often need to connect in Athens.
Before you plan a Greek island vacation, check the map of Greece. Then you can see where each island group is in reference to the others.
If, like most visitors, you only have a few days in Greece, it’s best to stick to one or maximum two island groups. This will help you avoid long (and costly) journeys from one group to the other.
Here are some good combinations of popular islands to visit, in random order:
- Santorini, Naxos, Paros
- Santorini, Milos, Crete
- Tinos, Mykonos, Naxos
- Corfu, Paxi
- One or two of the Sporades and Evia
- Kithira, Crete
- Rhodes, Karpathos, Kos
As an example, Santorini, Corfu, Aegina and Crete are in four different Greek island groups. Visiting them on the same trip would be not only time-consuming, but also quite expensive.
For more ideas, check my article on island hopping in Greece on a budget.
Frequently asked questions about the Greek islands
Visitors often ask the following questions:
When is the best time to go to the Greek islands?
Most people visit the Greek islands in summer, when the weather is warm. This is also the most popular time of year with cruises. As a result, the islands are busier, especially in July and August. Accommodation is also more expensive.
In addition, the islands in the Aegean Sea tend to be windy in July and August, due to the seasonal Meltemi winds. If you’ve been to the Cyclades in summer, you will have experienced these strong, annoying winds.
Most people will agree that the best time to go to the Greek islands is in September. The sea is warm, and the majority of the tourist crowds are gone after the peak season of August.
I also love going to the islands in June, when the days are long and the season is just starting. The only issue is that the sea is much colder! Most foreign visitors, especially those from colder countries, will be fine.
If swimming is not a top priority, you can visit in spring. The weather is mild and nature is at its best. This is the best time to hike around the Greek islands. You can also visit the numerous archaeological sites without the extreme summer temperatures and crowds. Finally, if you time your trip to coincide with Greek Easter, you can observe our unique traditions.
What are the Greek islands like in autumn and winter?
In winter, most of the Greek islands will be very quiet and you can enjoy the peaceful island life. There will be more things to do on large islands like Crete, Corfu, Naxos, Paros and Rhodes.
Santorini is also an exception, as the summer season extends well into autumn. In fact, I suggest going to Santorini outside summer, as the beaches are nothing special.
I know people who insist that Santorini has great beaches – sorry but I don’t agree! Here are some of the best beaches in Greece.
What should I pack for the Greek Islands?
If you are going to the Greek islands in the summer season, you won’t need to pack too much! You can comfortably travel around the islands for weeks with just a carry-on. This will make travel easier if you are flying.
You will only need light clothes, swimwear, good shoes, sunglasses and a hat. Also, a light cardigan, more for the air-condition in ferries and planes. I have written a guide on what to pack for Greece for each season – check it out!
Which Greek island is best to visit?
This really depends on what you are interested in. As an example, if you are after parties, some of the best islands to visit are Mykonos and Ios. If you want to see unique landscapes and views, Santorini and Milos are both great.
If your main interest is history, go to Crete, Rhodes or Corfu. And if all you want is to relax on the beach, try some of the smaller islands, like Schinoussa, Donousa, Halki or Symi.
What are the top 10 Greek islands?
Everyone’s top-10 Greek islands will be slightly different. Islands that often feature among the best Greek islands are Santorini, Mykonos, Paros, Naxos, Crete, Hydra, Corfu, Zakynthos, Skiathos and Rhodes.
How many Greek islands are there?
According to the 2011 census, there are 119 inhabited islands in Greece. The total number of Greek islands depends on what counts as “an island”. Two numbers often quoted are 1,200 and 6,000, but the Hellenic Military Geographical Service quotes around 30,000 islands and islets!
Which is the prettiest and quietest Greek island?
Many Greek islands are pretty and quiet. A few examples are Kythira, Lemnos, Halki, Symi, Alonissos, Anafi, Sikinos, Kimolos and Ithaca.
Which Greek island is the least touristy?
There are a number of Greek islands that are quite remote and hard to get to, and hence they are less touristy. Examples include Sikinos, Anafi, Telendos, Pserimos, Agathonisi, Gavdos, Agios Efstratios and Thirasia.
Which is the cheapest Greek island to visit?
Most Greek islands are quite affordable, especially if you avoid August, when accommodation prices tend to increase. Budget islands include Naxos, Paros, Ios, Andros, Crete, Lesvos, Samos, Agistri and Evia.
An introduction to the Greek Islands
I hope this introduction to the Greek islands was helpful! Which ones sound more appealing? I’d love to know what you thought – please leave a comment below!
Hi! I am Vanessa, a travel writer from Athens. I love summer, sea activities and exploring the Greek islands. Our islands are so many, so I have yet to visit them all, but I’ve been to a few dozens. They are all unique and different to each other, and I will never get tired of exploring them! For any questions, you can get in touch on the Real Greek Experiences FB page and FB group.