20 Best Greek Islands: From Santorini to Sifnos with our ultimate travel guide
From awesome beaches to ancient myths, fab food to killer views, here are the best Greek islands getaways...
Think of a Greek island. What do you see? Snow-white houses and cool blue domes? Bobbing fishing boats and bougainvillea that truly pops?
Mmm. No brochure image fires the imagination like the Greek Islands. But there's more to them than brochure images.
Thousands of islands fan out in archipelagos like the Ionian, Cycladic and Dodecanese, carrying a surprising diversity. Food can be delicious. Ancient myths range from the journeys of Odysseus to the Minotour of Crete. Roman, Byzantine and Venetian histories are as richly layered as baklava, and of course, there are the iconic images of 20th century visitors like Lawrence Durrell and Jackie Onassis, who helped toss these hidden specks onto the tourism map.
Today, the Greek Islands are easier to get to than ever. Direct flights are increasing; ferries faster and more frequent. The downside, of course, is the threat of overtourism - as anyone seeking a sunset view from Oia in Santorini, caught in a scrum to get off a summer ferry, or terrorised by zooming quad-bikes will know.
Thirty-two million visitors are expected this year, double the figure for 2010, and you don't have to scratch far beneath the surface to find mounting problems with waste, water supplies, ugly development and infrastructure. But thankfully, there are some signs of a more sustainable future - recent caps on the number of cruise ship visitors to Santorini are a case in point.
So, how to find the best Greek Islands while avoiding the crowds?
Start with our guide (below). Travel in shoulder or off seasons - ferries don't run as frequently, but you'll find less crowds and sweeter temperatures.
Secondly, consider skipping or spending less time on over-subscribed islands like Santorini, Corfu and Mykonos, striking out instead for smaller, off-radar rocks where locals still have time to chat, food is genuinely homemade, and you could very well find a pebbly beach to yourself. Travelling like this spreads revenue more sustainably among the islands, too.
Do research; reap rewards. When people fall for the Greek Islands, they fall hard. Here's why. - Pól Ó Conghaile
1. Paxos, Ionian Islands
Best for: Soulful escapes.
Why: When I say Emiritis provides the wildest wow-moment in the Greek Islands, it's not because I have any particular expertise. It's because I have eyes. Tucked away along Paxos's western coast, getting here involves an intrepid drive and a scrambling descent along a rocky cliff path. Then... Boom! Chalky cliffs, creamy sands and deep blue waters appear like an IMAX reveal. That's just the beginning. Paxos may be a tiny speck in the sea, but its cute pebble beaches, shady pine forests, clear waters for snorkelling and small towns crammed with family restaurants dishing up zingy stuffed peppers and grilled fish tend to put spells on people. Oh, and it may also have the best ice-cream on the islands - at Matilda's in Lakka. You're welcome. - Pól Ó Conghaile
High: Its size. Paxos is around 10km long and 4km wide - perfect to explore without feeling any pressure to explore at all.
Low: It's quiet, and a 90-minute hydrofoil transfer from Corfu… but that discourages crowds.
2. Santorini, Cyclades
Best for: Couples.
Why: The supermodel of the Cyclades, Santorini is effortlessly, inescapably beautiful. Its unique appearance was formed by a volcanic eruption in the 16th century BC, leaving a C-shaped caldera, or crater, around the top of which several of the island’s prettiest small towns and villages are perched. Happily, the sun sinks right over this deep curve, leading to some of the most magnificent sunsets you’ll ever see, blazing with oranges, purples and pinks.
As a result, of course, it gets extremely crowded — Santorini is popular with honeymooners and couples, many of whom book into hotels carved into the cliffs for the best views. Beyond the sunsets, there are several other attractions, not least the capital, Fira, set high up on the crater. You can reach it either by cable car from the old port, or by donkey — still a popular choice for today’s visitors, as the 600 or so steps are slippery underfoot from hundreds of years of use. Here, among the mix of small, winding streets lined with cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops, and smart squares paved with marble slabs, you can also get to grips with some of the island’s history at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera (the old name for Santorini) or the Archeological Museum.
You might not be aware that Santorini also has several wineries; the biggest is Boutari, near Megalohori, with tours and tastings of its award-winning vintages, while Venetsanos has its own sunset terrace for sipping and sampling. In peak season, book well in advance. — Laura Millar
High: The 10km clifftop walk from Fira to Oia takes nearly three hours, and shouldn’t be done in peak sun, but it’s one of the most picturesque hikes you’ll ever take, with cafés and bars along the way!
Low: In July or August, you have no hope of getting a good view over the caldera for sunset from Oia... unless you arrive at least an hour beforehand, due to the crowds.
Read more on THEVOW.ie: Real honeymoon: Hannah and Richie in stunning Santorini
3. Naxos, Cyclades
Best for: Second visits.
Why: So you've seen Santorini. You've gotten messy in Mykonos, or taken the family to Rhodes. You felt the draw of the Greek Islands, and are ready to get more intrepid... without too many ferries. Welcome to Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades, the most varied and green, and also, I think, its best all-rounder. Naxos suits swimmers, walkers, bikers and windsurfers. It's perfect for those eager to explore in rental cars or bikes (don't miss Halki, its former Venetian capital, or the sleepy mountain town of Apiranthos). History buffs can seek out the stories of Zeus, Ariadne, Theseus and Dionysus, and those who love a good mosey and a meal will find the perfect fit in Naxos Town, its hilltop Kastro and the maze of little streets and shops on Old Market Street. Naxos is not wholly dependent on tourism, so July and August aside, it feels like visiting a living, breathing island... which isn't always a given in the Cyclades. - PÓC
High: Naxian potatoes. You can thank us later.
Low: By early October things get quiet, some facilities close and ferries dwindle. Plan accordingly.
4. Greek Cyprus
Best for: Nature lovers.
Why: Said to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek part of Cyprus (largely the southern two thirds of the island) is full of green, lush mountains, like the Troodos range with its highest peak, Mount Olympus, standing at nearly 2,000m. Resorts like Ayia Napa and Paphoshave have given it something of a party reputation, but it's a big enough island to absorb that… and offer far more. Snack on mezzes crammed with local Halloumi cheese, honey, olives and lemons, learn about lace making at Lefkara or sea turtles hatching on Lara Beach, or explore the stunning Akamas Peninsula National Park - not only full of beautiful woodland, flora and fauna, but said to be where Aphrodite met her lover Adonis. - LM
High: There are now year-round direct flights from Dublin, with Ryanair (Ryanair.com) to Paphos and Cobalt Air (cobalt.aero) to Larnaca.
Low: Those flights take over five hours. Also, be careful talking about local politics; the division between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is complicated.
5. Folegandros, Cyclades
Best for: Peace and quiet.
Why: One of Greece's lesser-known islands, Folegandros has not been spoiled by tourists. Hora, its main town, sits on a cliff 200m above sea level, and is home to an impressive, 13th-century Venetian castle. Spend your days strolling through its narrow, cobblestone streets, passing whitewashed, sugar-cube shaped houses, or gather in one of the squares for sunset. Local cuisine is a highlight, from matsata - handmade pasta with rooster or rabbit - to souroto, a strong goat's cheese. And here, they drink their raki with honey. The island has a few pebbly beaches, such as those at Agali, or the small fishing village of Karaovstassis, and several hiking trails. - Laura Millar
High: Climb up to the island's largest church, the Church of the Virgin Mary (Panagia) for breathtaking views over the sea.
Low: In off-season, there may be only two or three ferries a week from Athens or Santorini.
6. Mykonos, Cyclades
Best for: Party people.
Why: Mykonos has been attracting the bold and the beautiful since the 1950s and '60s, when Jackie Onassis, Brigitte Bardot and Grace Kelly came to sunbathe on its pretty beaches and wander the maze of streets in the picture-perfect main town, Hora (or Chora). Today, this gay-friendly, cosmopolitan isle attracts a different breed of celebrities on superyachts (recent visitors include the Kardashians and Beyoncé), all drawn to its smart, slick bars, superclubs and designer boutiques.
Mykonos is well and truly discovered, and can get crowded and raucous in peak season, but it's not without Greek charm - strolling around Chora, you'll still stumble across tiny, candlelit, Orthodox chapels and small squares smothered in bright pink bougainvillea, creeping over the awnings of casual tavernas. Along the back alleys, weathered, head-scarved women sit on their front steps gossiping as they watch the world go by, and skinny cats pose for tourists in hope of a few scraps.
There's a choice of popular beaches; some, including Paradise and Super Paradise, allow nudity; others, such as Ornos and Platis Gialos, are more family-friendly. There are still traces of the island's past wheat-milling industry, in the shape of several windmills, the most impressive clustered close to Little Venice. Don't miss the daily passeggiata by Mykonos' most famous resident, Petros the pelican. - Laura Millar
High: Watch the sun go down from a waterfront bar in Little Venice, where the buildings rise up from the sea.
Low: The cost - when there are more D&G stores or expensive jewellers than grocery or souvenir shops, you know it's a pricey place. Prepare for bill shock!
7. Kefalonia, Ionian
Best for: Beaches.
Why: The largest of the Ionian Islands, Kefalonia is best known for its appearance in the best-selling novel (and subsequent film), Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Once a popular spot for the former Greek Royal family, the island is also a draw for Italians, who arrive by ferry due to its proximity to the country. Expect a relaxing, peaceful atmosphere (it has a population of around 40,000 and is easy to get around by car), and many Blue Flag beaches. The most famous is Myrtos, with its iconic, half-moon sweep of pale, golden sand, backed by dramatic, steep cliffs; but you'll also find fine, family-friendly stretches across the rest of the island, including Makris Gialos and Platis Gialos, close to the capital, Argostoli, which both have watersports facilities; or, for a sense of seclusion, the striking Platia Ammos, which can only be reached by a set of steps carved into the cliffs. - LM
High: Don't miss a boat trip into the Melissani Cave, lined with atmospheric stalactites, and filled with crystal-clear, turquoise water.
Low: The island is in an earthquake zone, so is prone to occasional quakes!
8. Milos, Cyclades
Best for: Rock stars.
Why: Greek Islands tend to follow a template - brown rock, white buildings, stony beaches. Milos is like a premium edition, with a psychedelic geology ranging from smooth waves of pumice stone to jagged stacks, super-colourful stratification and volcanic scars. It's said to have more beaches than any other Cycladic island, and some, like Fyriplaka and Sarakiniko, could be on different planets, never mind islands. Dotted around the coast, you'll also find Instagram-ready fishing villages like Klima, whose traditional, Lego-like syrmata houses are worth the journey alone. - PÓC
High: The Venus de Milo was discovered here... the site (though not the sculpture, which is in the Louvre) is near the stunning Roman ruins near Tripiti.
Low: The western half is a nature reserve, and inaccessible to drivers. See its coast by boat excursion.
9. Paros, Cyclades
Best for: Watersports.
Why: Not far from its neighbour, Naxos, this small island is best known for windsurfing; the Professional Windsurfing Association's World Cup was regularly held at one of its most beautiful beaches, New Golden Beach. Here, and at others like Golden Beach and Santa Maria, fans of watersports will find themselves in heaven, with kitesurfing, kiteboarding, waterskiing, jetskiing and surfing all on offer. - LM
High: Away from the sea, spend an afternoon and evening in the pretty port town of Naoussa.
Low: Avoid visiting in August, when it's busiest.
10. Rhodes, Dodecanese
Best for: Package holidaymakers.
Why: You could never describe Rhodes as off-radar. The most popular of the Dodecanese, with a widespread reputation for beaches and nightlife, it's one of the few Greek Islands available as a package holiday from Ireland (see 5 Greek Getaways, above). While those seeking slower, more immersive travel should give it a wide berth, Rhodes is a good start for families, and will reward those who research its history. Don't miss its lovely walled Old Town. - PÓC
High: Historical surprises include the Acropolis of Lindos, and it's not short on sandy beaches.
Low: With busy ferry ports and airports, the island gets absolutely jammers in peak season.
11. Corfu, Ionian
Best for: Families.
Why: A great mix of resorts, beaches and sights makes this lush, leafy island - birthplace of the Duke of Edinburgh, and setting for Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals - a fit for all ages. Start in Corfu Town, which still bears evidence of Venetian rule with its classic fortresses, churches and palaces. Its Old Town is designated a UNESCO heritage site as a result; graceful, crumbling, pastel-coloured buildings line the polished stone streets, opening into squares like the main one - the lively, elegant Spianada. Kids will love rockpooling in the pretty fishing village of Palaiokastritsa, where Odysseus is said to have disembarked, and with possibly the most vivid, clear water. Visiting the monastery which sits on a hill above the bay will offer splendid views. - LM
High: Tour the beautiful palace of Achilleion, the summer home of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, which also has alluring gardens.
Low: Avoid Kavos, which still has a reputation for loutish behaviour by young Brits.
12. Sifnos Cyclades
Best for: Foodies.
Why: Small, but perfectly formed, Sifnos is home to a surprisingly rich food scene. Think chickpea balls, creamy Manoura cheese (a byproduct of Feta), slow-cooked goat stews, velvety sweet loukoumi (Turkish Delight), or lightly battered calamari needing just a squeeze of lemon. Work up an appetite along over 100km of walking trails, or with a stroll from Kastro to the ridiculously scenic Church of Seven Martyrs. - PÓC
13. Delos, Cyclades
Best for: History-lovers.
Why: Delos, located just a few miles from Mykonos, is believed to be the place where Apollo, god of light, was born. It's one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological sites in Greece, full of the remains of ancient temples - including one to Dionysus, god of wine - statues and sculptures. This was a sacred, religious centre for centuries (in fact, the Cyclades takes its name from the Greek 'kiklos' because its islands circle Delos), and in 1990, UNESCO inscribed it onto the World Heritage List. Daytrips from Mykonos are a must. - LM
High: Don't miss the striking Terrace of the Lions, with its life-size statues of these big cats which used to guard the Sacred Way to the Sanctuary of Apollo.
Low: Delos is a visit-only archaeological site without any accommodation facilities, so staying overnight is not possible.
Best For: Honeymooners, hikers and party people.
Why: Imagine the Beara Peninsula in West Cork given a makeover with a giant blowtorch and you have something of the hulking physical presence and diverse landscapes of Crete. Large enough to withstand anything mass tourism throws at it, Crete's fascinating history is ever present, even as you sip your pina colada on the Palm Beach at Vai or shake your booty at Yanni's Rock Bar in Agios Nikolas. This is by far the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, with white sandy beaches, gorgeous mountains, magnificent gorges and traditional villages, while coastal towns like 'Ag-Nik' are party central during summer for the 18-35 set. The island's history is multi-layered, with buildings from all who came through - from the ancient Minoans to the 20th-century German paratroopers. - Conor Power
High: The Palace at Knossos. The Minoan structure feels more like a city made up of inter-connected rooms and buildings than a palace, but exerts a powerful presence. Late afternoon is the best time to wander its ruins and feel the Bronze Age vibes. No matter what you come to Crete for, don't leave without seeing this.
Low: The birthplace of Zeus at the Diktaean Cave on Mount Dikti is billed as a top sight to see but I'd rather have gone to a beachside bar instead of stumbling around an ill-lit cave where a non-existent Greek God was allegedly born.
15. Andros, Cyclades
Best for: Walkers.
Why: With over 300km of hiking trails, many of which have only been opened up over the past few years, this island is made for walkers. Hardy types should brave the 100km Andros route, which runs from north to south and crosses mountain ranges, staying at small villages along the way, or pick from a range of day hikes. With sights such as waterfalls, monasteries, crags, caves and beaches on your chosen journey, there's something for every age and level. - LM
High: Take a drive up to Vourkoti, the highest village in the Cyclades.
Low: Some dirt roads make driving challenging.
16. Zakynthos, Ionian
Best for: Thrill-seekers.
Why: Mass (and sometimes messy) tourism dominates the south and southeastern parts of Zakynthos, also known as Zante, but there are more strings to its bow. The island attracts many divers — one of the most popular dives is to the wreck of the HMS Perseus, a British submarine sunk by an Italian mine during WW2. The nearby, uninhabited islet of Marathonisi is one of the main nesting zones for loggerhead turtles, and snorkellers can spot octopus and parrotfish too. BASE jumpers can now land on Navagio beach (above), famous for another wreck — which ran aground in 1980. But you can, of course, see it from ground/sea level too. — LM
High: Take a boat tour of the aptly named blue grottoes, named for the reflection of the colour of the water. And don’t miss the handicrafts of Volimes.
Low: Zakynthos has a reputation as a Club 18-30 style destination. That reputation is deserved.
17. Aegina, Saronic Gulf
Best for: Day-trippers.
Why: Short on time? The Saronic Gulf islands are closest to Athens, and can be visited by daytrip or on short cruises. Time things to avoid arriving with Atheneian weekenders - Aegina is a good introduction, with smaller Angistri nearby. It's famous for pistachios, too. - PÓC
High: It's an hour or less by ferry from Pireaus.
Low: Its proximity to Athens removes some of the splendid isolation central to the Greek Islands.
18. Kos, Dodecanese
Best for: Direct travel.
Why: Similar to Rhodes, Kos is available to Irish holidaymakers as a package, making it an easy entry point to the Greek Islands - especially for families seeking all-inclusive options. The island has catered to charters for decades, so don't expect slow tourism here - rather, treat it as an easy introduction to craggy landscapes, lively tavernas and ancient Greek ruins... with some of the best beaches in the Dodecanese to boot. - PÓC
High: Kos Town is a good bet for independent travellers, or the mountain town of Asfendiou.
Low: It all feels very touristy in summer.
19. Amorgos, Cyclades
Best for: Snorkellers.
Why: Ever since watching The Big Blue, Luc Besson's iconic movie about competing freedivers - much of which was filmed on this off-radar island - I've been smitten. It's not just the azure water; highlights also include a droll-inducing Hora (main town) and the heart-in-mouth cliff-face monastery of Hozoviotissa. - PÓC
Do it: Getting there involves a six-hour 'fast' ferry from Athens.
20. Skopelos, Sporades
Best for: Nature lovers (and Abba fans).
Why: Set just off the Greek mainland in the northwest Aegean, its turquoise water, blue and white buildings, classic tavernas and quiet coves made Skopelos the filming location for hit film Mamma Mia! in 2007. Today, you’ll find quiet beaches, simple food and accommodation, thick greenery and a relaxing atmosphere; Skopelos Town is brimming with bars and restaurants. — LM
High: Visit the Mamma Mia! wedding chapel of Agios Ioannis, perched 100m above the sea on a rocky outcrop.
Low: You’ll need a car, as the best beaches are a good 15-to-60-minute drive from town and buses only run seasonally.
5 great Greek island getaways
1. Creative Crete
Sunway (sunway.ie) does a 16-day adventure tour of Greece from Athens to Santorini, days eight to twelve of which are set on Crete - including the Old Town of Chania, a hike and a cooking class. Prices from €2,769pp departing in September.
2. Rock up in Rhodes
TUI (tuiholidays.ie) offers a range of packages to Kos and Rhodes, including a family deal (2+2) at the three-star Hotel Sun Palace in Rhodes (a Splashworld resort) from €2,549 in September. Lead-in prices for Kos start from €539pp.
Sunvil (sunvil.co.uk) is a UK tour operator specialising in Cyprus and the Greek Islands. It does tailor-made itineraries, so you can pick and choose, but samples include a week on Sifnos and Milos from £969/€1,102pp, or nine nights on Naxos, Paros and Santorini from £1,113/€1,265pp with Ryanair flights, ferries and island transfers, based on travel in October.
4. Cruise Control
Cassidy Travel (cassidytravel.ie) has a seven-night all-inclusive cruise on MSC Musica this September, starting in Venice and visiting Santorini, Athens and Corfu, among other stops, from €3,889 for two sharing, including flights from Dublin.
5. Crash out in Corfu
Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Corfu, and ClickAndGo.com has packages including a week at two-star apartments in Messonghi from €602pp, or the five-star Marbella Nido Suites Hotel in Agios Ioannis from €1,317pp, in September.
For more info, see visitgreece.gr or Matt Barrett's excellent greektravel.com. Seajets (seajets.gr) operates ferries from Athens.
NB: All prices subject to availability.