With over 100 inhabited islands to choose from, Greece offers an array of experiences for every type of vacationer.
There is a singular image that dominates our popular imagination of the Greek islands: one of sparkling aquamarine water, winding cobblestoned streets, and whitewashed houses. Though not wrong, it is certainly not the only landscape to behold. Made up of over 6,000 islands scattered across the Aegean and Ionian seas, the Greek archipelago is an endlessly diverse constellation of landscapes, people, and ways of life. Depending on your idea of the perfect vacation—lounging on the beach, exploring ancient ruins, wining and dining, or something else altogether—there’s a Greek island for you. Read on for a comprehensive roundup of 5 especially stunning Greek islands, including specific recommendations for every kind of traveler.
When most people picture the Greek islands, they’re recalling postcards of Santorini. Arguably Greece’s most popular destination, Santorini has a lot to love, from romantic beaches and jaw-dropping sunsets to world-class vineyards and culinary delicacies. Though often simply referred to as “Santorini,” the area is actually a cluster of five islands—Thira, Thirasia, Aspronisi, Palea Kameni, and Nea Kameni—formed by centuries of volcanic eruptions. The largest eruption to date occurred some 3,500 years ago, leaving a stunning caldera (a sea-filled crater) in Santorini’s crescent-shaped bay. Sitting upon an active volcano, Santorini is marked by striking black sand beaches, red volcanic rocks, and jagged cliffs soaring above an azure sea. Best for: First-timers to the Greek islands
One of the most popular beaches in all of Santorini, Kamari Beach is located just southeast of Fira, the island’s capital. Covered with sand blackened by volcanic minerals, the sprawling beach is at the foot of the Mesa Vouno hill, an archaeological site featuring the ruins of Ancient Thira. After a few hours of midday sun, the black sand can get hot, so bring footwear if you walk along the shore in the late afternoon.
Hike from Fira to Oia
Find the most scenic views of the caldera along the walking path from Fira to Oia. A combination of paved roads, pedestrian streets, and dirt hiking trails, the 6-mile journey travels through the hillside towns of Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli, and Oia. Depending on how many stops you take, the trip takes around three hours to complete. For the view of a lifetime, plan your hike so that you get to Oia right at sunset.
From the city of Oia, walk 300 steps down into Amoudi Bay, a small fishing village set amid soaring red cliffs and crystal-clear water. Dine alfresco at one of the port’s no-frills tavernas and then swim to the nearby island of Saint Nicholas for cliff-jumping.
Wine Museum Koutsogiannopoulos
Though French and Italian wines get most of the attention, there is a long and illustrious history of viticulture (grape cultivation) in Greece. (According to Greek mythology, wine was first discovered by Dionysus, the son of Zeus and Semele.) At the Wine Museum Koutsogiannopoulos, a family-owned establishment located inside a cave, discover Santorini’s centuries-old winemaking tradition. Tour equipment dating to the 1600s and learn how the Koutsogiannopoulos family cultivates regional grapes into their award-winning Assyrtikos, a bone-dry white wine best enjoyed with local fish and cheeses.
Greek’s largest island, Crete features more than enough sights, activities, and experiences to easily justify spending your entire Greek holiday there. It blends the best of old and new: The site of the most famous Greek legends, it’s also the face of modern Greece. From the spectacular Mediterrenean light everywhere you look to the best examples of Greek cuisine you’ll ever find, it’s a true wonderland where all types of people can have the getaway of a lifetime. Best for: Virtually anyone
Europe’s oldest city, Knossos is an ancient treasure you can’t leave Greece without exploring. The capital of Minoan civilization and Crete’s largest Bronze Age archaeological site has so many facets, but the centerpiece is the Knossos Palace (which was partially reconstructed in the early 1900s).
The Venetian Ruins
For over four centuries, Crete was part of the Republic of Venice, and a number of remnants of that time still stand. Crete’s main cities were fortified with huge walls, many of which are still standing; and exploring these enormous walls — and the ancient winding streets within them — is a must.
It’s impossible to pick just one top beach in Crete, as there are so many stellar examples. Here are a few that are particularly dreamy: the beach at Vai, which borders a lush palm forest; Agia Roumeli’s dramatic black sand beachscapes; the almost unbelievably clear, crystal-like waters of Elafonisi; and Balos, a stunningly exotic lagoon.
As the largest island among the Cyclades group, Naxos offers a breadth of sights for all ages and interests, from lazy beach days and scenic hikes to ancient landmarks and traditional villages. Less nightlife-oriented than the archipelago’s other popular destinations, Naxos abounds with daytime adventures. Make sure to sample the local cheese, produce, and Kitron (a famous fruit liqueur), products of the region’s thriving agricultural infrastructure. Best for: Sightseeing
Agios Prokopios Beach
Just outside the island’s capital, Agios Prokopios Beach is known throughout Greece as a top destination for golden sand, bright aquamarine sea, and year-round water sports including windsurfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving. Umbrellas, sun beds, and visitor stations are scattered everywhere except the north end of the beach, an ornamentation-free section reserved for nature purists.
Arguably the most famous landmark in all of Naxos, the Portara is a 26-foot- (7.9-meter)-tall marble doorway located on a man-made islet off the main port. Built around 530 BC, the structure was originally commissioned as part of a massive temple, but ongoing political upheaval halted construction and the temple never materialized. The stately monument is worth seeing up-close, although it’s visible from the landing port as soon as you arrive.
Castle of Naxos
In the heart of the “chora,” or main town, stands the Castle of Naxos, a sprawling Venetian estate dating to 1207. A sight to behold in its own right, the castle houses more marvelous monuments inside its gates, including the Ursulines School and Merchant Academy founded by Jesuit monks, Catholic Cathedral, and Archaeological Museum of Naxos.
Neighbored by the ever-popular Mykonos and Santorini, Milos is a small, little-known gem nestled deep in the Aegean Sea. With over 70 beaches—more than any other Cycladic island— Milos is famous for the myriad coves, caves, and dramatic rock formations edging its coastline. Beyond the beach, the island is rife with significant cultural landmarks, including the site where the world-famous Venus de Milo was discovered, ancient Christian catacombs, and abandoned mining complexes dating back centuries. Best for: Beach lovers
Perhaps more well-known than the island of Milos itself, Sarakiniko Beach is a topographical marvel. Marked by elongated slabs of smooth, ivory-white pumice, sandstone, and volcanic rock, this unusual “beach” is often compared to the moon. There is a shallow, crystalline bay for swimming, but visitors often spend most of their time exploring the cascading rock formations.
For a quintessential beach day, look no further than Firiplaka Beach. Sheltered from the coastal winds by soaring volcanic cliffs, it has all the classic trappings of a destination shoreline: warm, shallow water lapping up onto bright white sand; sunbathers lounging under clusters of umbrella stations; and snorkelers exploring a smattering of caves and lagoons.
If you’ve looked up Milos, chances are you’ve come across photographs of Klima. Famous for a row of colorfully painted houses (called “syrmata”) lining the small bay, this charming fishing village is a perfect place to stop for a photo and find handmade trinkets to bring home (many of the syrmata double as shops selling handmade wares by local craftsmen).
As beautiful as the more famous Greek islands but without the crowds, Syros is a spectacular choice for those who want an authentic Greek experience but in the most low-key way possible. It’s secluded and serene, but still has all the qualities people travel to this part of the world for, from historic sites to beyond-pristine beaches. Best for: Seclusion off the beaten path
Established during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s as a major trading center connecting east to west, Hermoupolis (Ermoupoli) stuns visitors to this day with its amphitheatrical set layout, neoclassical buildings, stately churches, and colorful mansions. There are many architectural wonders to explore, but be sure to start with the Agios Nikolaos Church (unmistakable with its bold blue dome), the Apollo Theatre, and the Town Hall (the city’s centerpiece, with charming cafes all around).
The original settlement of Syros — which the Venetians built in the 13th century as a fortified citadel — Ano Syros is resplendent with medieval architecture and archeological treasures. It’s crowned by the spectacular Agios Georgios Cathedral (visit later in the day and savor the spectacular sunset views from the summit), and below is a maze of enchanting alleys.
Despite its diminutive size, Syros has some stunningly unspoiled beaches. One of the most spectacular is Galissas. Set in a cove on Syros’ western coast, its tranquil feel and picturesque blue waters are everything you dream of when you think of a dream Greek vacation.
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