Visitors are often overwhelmed when it comes to “the Greek islands”, and rightly so. This article offers a quick introduction to the Greek islands, to help you plan your trip in Greece.
Introduction to the Greek Islands
Greece is said to have around 6,000 islands. The exact number of the inhabited islands is yet to be defined, but it’s probably around a couple of hundred. According to the census in 2011, some islands had a population of less than 10 people!
There are six main groups of islands in Greece, along with a few standalone islands. Those groups are located in different areas of the country. With very few exceptions, there are no direct ferry or flight connections between the different groups of islands.
Before you plan your island vacation in Greece, you should explore a map of Greece, and see where each island is in reference to each other.
If you have limited time in Greece, it’s best to stick to one or maximum two groups of islands, to avoid long and costly journeys from one group to the other.
Here are the most important island groups and islands in Greece.
1. The Cyclades islands in Greece
The Cyclades are a group of 33 main and several minor islands in the Aegean Sea, to the east of the mainland.
The Cyclades are famous for their picturesque white-and-blue houses and crystal clear waters. With a few exceptions, they are generally dry and rocky, and not much grows there.
There are some stunning sandy and pebbly beaches, rocky coves and cliffs. Many of the Cyclades have beautiful hiking trails that you can explore.
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When is the best time to go to the Cyclades?
The Cycladic islands tend to be very windy over July and August, due to the seasonal Meltemi winds. At the same time, they can also be pretty crowded. We would suggest visiting outside these months if you can.
September is probably the best time to go, as the sea is warmer and the majority of the tourist crowds are gone. June is also a good time of year to go to the Cyclades.
If you are not super interested in swimming, you can visit in spring, when nature will be at its best. As for winter, most of the Cyclades, especially the most faraway ones, will be very quiet, so they might not be the best place to go in Greece.
Santorini is an exception, as it has a very long season. In fact, we suggest going to Santorini outside summer, as in our opinion the beaches in Santorini are nothing special.
As for those who insist that Santorini has great beaches, they have probably never been to any of the best beaches in Greece!
How do I get to the Cyclades?
You can get to the Cyclades islands from Piraeus, Rafina and Lavrio ports in Athens. While many of them are directly connected to each other, you will find that the ferry routes are very specific.
Getting from one Cycladic island to another can be a logistics nightmare, or just very expensive.
Most of the Cyclades are only accessible by ferry, and you should allow for several hours if you want to get to the most remote ones.
Choosing which ferry to travel on can be a daunting task if you have no experience of Greek ferries, and understandably so!
There are all sorts of ferries travelling to the Cyclades, and you can check them out and book your tickets at Ferryhopper.
As a rule, the faster ferries will be more expensive, and the slower ferries will be cheaper. If you get seasick easily, it’s best to take one of the slower ferries, which are bigger and steadier.
You can see each ferry’s specs online, and decide for yourself. In general, you may want to avoid the very small boats, especially for a relatively long trip.
Some of the most popular Cyclades have international and local airports. If you are planning to fly in or out of Santorini or Mykonos, we suggest booking your tickets as early as you can, as prices can get very high.
If you book well in advance, the airfare might actually be cheaper than a ferry ticket.
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. If you are prone to seasickness though, it’s best avoided!
Further reading: How many days in Santorini do you need?
2. The Ionian Islands
The Ionian Islands, called Eptanisa in Greek, are located to the west of the mainland, between Greece and Italy. Corfu, Zakynthos and Kefallonia are among the most popular, but Lefkada, Ithaca and Paxi are famous as well.
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.
How do I get to the Ionian Islands?
There are direct flights to some of the Ionian Islands from several European airports. There are also domestic flights to most of them from the Athens airport.
An alternative way to get from Athens to the Ionian Islands is the bus, which takes you all the way to your island of choice. The bus ride can be quite long, as it includes the ferry crossing from the mainland. If you have limited time it’s best to fly.
An exception is Lefkada, which is connected to the mainland through a bridge. If you rent a car to explore Western Greece, by all means add Lefkada in your Greece itinerary.
Getting from one Ionian island to the other might not be as straightforward as you’d think. It’s always best to check the ferry routes before your trip, as they tend to change over the years.
An alternative is to go on a sailing trip around the Ionians. As they are not as windy as the Cyclades, it is actually an ideal way to explore this beautiful area of Greece.
3. Hydra and the Saronic / Argosaronic Islands
These small islands are fairly popular with visitors, not least because they are very close to Piraeus and therefore ideal for a day trip from Athens. Most tourists visit Aegina, Hydra or Spetses, but you could also take a short ferry ride to Poros or Agistri. There is also Salamina, where very few people choose to go.
Hydra is quite famous for being a car-free island, and it’s really a picture-perfect place. Aegina is more built up, as several Athenians have summer houses there. We liked Agistri a lot, as it’s not very developed and it’s got some pretty amazing beaches. It’s a little gem, and so close to Athens!
If you have very limited time in Greece, but definitely want to go to an island, the Saronic islands are ideal. Santorini or Crete can wait for next time!
How do I get to the Saronic islands?
It is possible to take a one-day tour that takes you to several of these islands, which actually works out cheaper than visiting them individually on your own. If you want to see as much as possible in one day, this might be a good option.
Otherwise, you can get a ferry or flying dolphin from Piraeus port. If you want to do a day trip, it’s best to just choose one of the islands and spend the whole day, returning to Piraeus in the evening. The logistics of visiting two islands on your own might be too complex.
These 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.
4. Rhodes and the Dodecanese
The Dodecanese are as far away from mainland Greece as it gets, and very close to Turkey. While the Dodecanese literally means “the 12 islands”, they are actually well over 60, of which just over 20 are inhabited.
The most famous of the Dodecanese are Rhodes, Kos and Patmos. Other names you might come across are Karpathos, Tilos, Symi and Kalymnos.
The Dodecanese were the last group of islands 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, and were only officially released to Greece in 1948.
The Italian influence is prevalent, and the Grand Palace in Rhodes is unlike anything else you will see in Greece.
While some of these islands are popular and busy, others are quiet even in summer, and are ideal destinations if you want to relax. Be prepared for some fantastic landscapes, medieval castles, interesting monasteries and beautiful, quaint villages.
How do I get to the Dodecanese?
Getting to the Dodecanese can be a bit of an adventure, as ferry rides from Piraeus are very long. It’s probably easier to fly to Rhodes or Kos. Apart from domestic flights, there are several international flights from European airports into these two islands, so it’s worth doing some research.
Once you are on Rhodes or Kos, you can then take a ferry to some of 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.
5. The Sporades Islands in Greece
The Sporades are a group of islands to the east of the mainland, close to Volos and Pelion peninsula.
The major Sporades islands are Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros, while there are also several minor, uninhabited islands.
They became quite famous because of the Mamma Mia movie, which was filmed in Skiathos and Skopelos.
The Sporades are very green islands, with trees reaching all the way to the beautiful beaches. Skiathos is busier, while Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros are quieter.
Alonnisos is ideal if you like nature, and it’s home to the National Marine Park of Alonnisos, the largest protected marine area in Europe.
The island hosts several rare species of animals and sea creatures, including seals, dolphins and (guess what!) even whales.
How do I get to the Sporades?
Getting to Sporades can be a bit time consuming, especially if you want to get to the more remote ones. The easiest way is to fly to Skiathos or Skyros, that both have airports.
Alternatively, you can take a ferry from Agios Konstantinos or Volos ports, in mainland Greece, or Kymi port in Evia island. Skopelos and Alonnisos are only accessible by sea through the mainland or Skiathos.
6. Lesvos and the Islands of Northeastern Aegean
While everyone knows about Santorini and Corfu, not many people know the names of this big group of islands.
They are located in the Aegean Sea, close to Turkey, and some of them are connected by ferry with our neighbouring country. The biggest and best known islands are Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Ikaria.
Most of these islands are fairly big, and it would be best to hire a car to get around. The landscapes are wild and rugged, and the beaches are stunning.
If you decide to visit the islands of the Northeastern Aegean, you will experience an authenticity that other areas of Greece have lost.
Two of the islands in that area belong to Turkey, so don’t be surprised by the non-Greek sounding names. They are called Imvros / Bozcaada and Tenedos / Gokceada.
How do I get to Lesvos and the nearby islands?
Some of these islands have airports, where you can fly into from Athens, or possibly on a charter flight in summer. The other option is to take a ferry from Piraeus, just be prepared for a long journey.
7. Evia island
Just an hour’s drive from Athens, you will find Evia island, which is Greece’s second biggest island. 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 nice and relaxed, even in August.
If you are looking to visit picturesque towns and villages, Evia might not be your best bet. At the same time, it’s a really authentic, relaxed place to visit, and it’s easily accessible as it’s so close to Athens and connected through an awesome bridge.
Apart from getting there, you will most likely need a car if you want to experience Evia. Many people have heard that they should avoid driving in Greece. While we disagree, if you decide to drive around Evia be prepared for some winding mountain roads!
8. Crete in Greece
We have saved the best for last – but we might be biased, as we have visited many, many times. Crete is Greece’s biggest island, and in our opinion it’s one of the most interesting and diverse places in our country.
Crete has it all – amazing beaches, wild mountains, deep gorges, archaeological and historical sites, great people and some of the best food and raki we’ve ever had.
Allow yourself several days to immerse yourself into the culture and the customs of this fantastic island.
In our opinion, going to Crete for just 2-3 days isn’t really worth it – try to stay at least a week, and be prepared to drive around.
If you are a slow traveller, by all means stick with Crete for the duration of your trip, and you are very unlikely to be disappointed.
At the same time, if you just want to tick Chania and Knossos off your list, by all means go – but you will be missing out on the lovely coastal towns on the south, the pretty, authentic mountain villages, and some of the loveliest landscapes in Greece.
How can I get to Crete?
You can get to Crete by ferry from Piraeus, or by a short flight from the Athens airport. Additionally, there are several flights from European airports, especially in summer.
The ports and airports in Crete are located close to the two biggest cities, Heraklion and Chania. Both these cities are worth visiting in our opinion. You may find some reports stating that Heraklion is ugly – we disagree, plus the archaeological museum is superb!
Island hopping in Greece
Depending on your style of travelling, you may want to do some island-hopping in Greece. We like slow travelling ourselves, so we won’t recommend trying to visit more than two (or maximum three) islands in a week. Most islands deserve a few days or a week on their own.
When it comes to island hopping in Greece, it makes sense to try and stick to islands in the same group, which are preferably close to each other. Here is an article we wrote on island hopping in Greece on a budget – we hope it helps!
An introduction to the Greek Islands
Have you been to any of the Greek islands? Which one, and what did you think? Let us know in the comments!