What’s not to love about the Greek islands, scattered like seeds across electric-blue seas? From spectacular food and impossibly cosy cafes, to secluded beaches, the Greek islands may all be knockout, but which are not-to-be-missed? Here we sort out the great from the good in our defining list of the best Greek islands…
Even if you haven’t been to Santorini, you’ve probably seen the pictures. Gawping tourists from Greek island cruises line up to capture the distinctive whitewashed stone homes, the blue rooftops, and the pristine waters – a glittering shade of azure – as the sun sets behind the island’s volcanic crater. In fact, if you type Greece tourist attractions into Google, Santorini – one of the most popular Greek islands to visit – will always pop up. But don’t let the crowds put you off: this is an isle of extreme beauty. Hop in a boat and venture to the fiery crater of Nea Kameni, wallow in the hot springs at Palia Kameni, and explore the boutiques, the swath of art galleries and the archaeological sites of Thira and Akrotiri. Cap off each day with an ouzo and olives, perched in the warm breeze, with the gobsmackingly idyllic views rolling out in each and every direction. You won’t be disappointed.
Sultry afternoons on the Greek islands are all about the good life: long, lazy lunches, padding along the shorelines, and flicking through a book. And they’ve never looked better than when lounging on St Paul’s Bay in the small and charmingly pretty village of Lindos. The location is touristy – passengers from Greek island cruises saturate its cobbled lanes some mornings – but this is no trap. Spend sleepy days lying spread-eagled on the golden sands, take a cooling dip in water as clear as gin, and park yourself at the beachside café that serves up just-caught sea bass and crispy chips. Once the day-trippers have left, seek out spot-on local dishes at one of the rooftop tavernas in the shadow of the acropolis for a guaranteed atmospheric meal.
Stuck for where to go in Greece? If it’s beaches that pulls on your heartstrings, then Skiathos will hit the mark: there are more than 50 here, making it one of the best Greek islands for yawning bays and pretty coves. For a hidden patch of sand away from the revelry of the island’s buzzing resorts, make a beeline for Lygaries on the north coast: think waters in shifting blues and soft waves licking super-soft sand. At the end of a dirt track, it’s not easy to reach, but for a beach that’s relatively quiet, where the pace of life is slow and the ambiance is chilled, Lygaries is hard to beat.
Don’t be discouraged by the island’s heady reputation as the hedonistic HQ of the 18-30s crowd. Leave the southern touristy resorts behind, and you’ll be rewarded with a rugged interior dotted with sleepy villages, towering cliffs, spectacular coves, and turquoise water that’ll knock your socks off. Beach buffs would be mad to miss a boat trip to the exceptionally beautiful Navagio beach (shipwreck beach) – a favourite Greece tourist attraction, its electric blue waters, chalky cliffs and white sands have been captured countless times for Greece holiday brochures. For a different take on the island, dive with turtles in the Keri Caves, or watch as they nest on Gerakas Beach, protected by the island’s National Marine Park.
If you’re looking for that off-the-tourist-trail experience from your Greece holiday, this island – a nine-hour ferry ride from Athens – fits the bill. With hidden bays, where few loungers line the pebbles, to calm waters and pretty hillsides smothered in heather and pine, there’s something beautifully wild about Patmos. Explore the intriguing Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Theologian, pad about the whitewashed village of Chora with its clutch of handsome boutiques, and catch some rays during a lazy day on Petra Beach. Something that’s guaranteed to please and for a taste of bona fide Greek island hopping, sail to the tiny neighbouring isle of Marathi and sit cheeky-by-jowl with billionaires and yachties at Pantelis restaurant, where the scene is old-school cool and the seafood is perpetually excellent.
As long hot summer days descend on Hydra, so do the pleasure-seeking glitterati. If air-kissing and musing over Champagne and iced cocktails isn’t your bag, Hydra remains, at its core, one of the best Greek islands for a chilled-out escape. Think wonderfully clear deep waters, ripe for snorkelling and lazy days on bobbing boats; a buzzy waterfront with prime people-watching; and some swanky hotels and bars: it’s a fun little pit-stop whilst Greek island hopping and a guaranteed good time. The beaches are few and far between, and are pebbly, but when you’re mingling with the arty crowd over aperol and almonds, you won’t give a hoot. And the best bit? No cars or scooters are allowed, making Hydra one of those failsafe spots on a Greek island hopping route for true escapism.
There’s nothing shy and retiring about this swanky island. The stomping ground of millionaires and high-rollers who disembark whilst Greek island hopping, Mykonos gushes with glamour, from trendy beach bars, to super-stylish hotels that would make even an A-lister swoon. Especially brilliant is the island’s foodie scene: from superb plates of local seafood to international restaurants that’d rival anything in London. But the one place that’s unmissable – and notoriously hard to bag a table – is Kiki’s Tavern on Agios Sostis. There’s always a queue, and there’s no phone number for reservations, but arrive early and you’ll be treated to some fabulous grilled dishes. And when you’re done eating and mingling with the yachties, flop in a hammock and pull out your Greek islands map to decide on your next stop.