20 Aug GUIDE TO THE GREEK ISLANDS
Getting to the Greek islands for the annual pilgrimage otherwise known as “island-hopping” can be complicated business! Greece receives over 27 million tourists every year and for the majority of them the trip typically consists of 2-3 days in Athens followed by a week or so of an island holiday. Santorini and Mykonos are undoubtedly the main attraction but with over 220 (inhabited) islands in Greece, finding the ideal island for you can be tricky. The questions we hear most often from prospective visitors are “Which Greek island(s) should I visit/Which are the best Greek islands?”, “How do I get to Santorini/Mykonos/from Mykonos to Santorini?”, “How many days should I spend in Santorini/Mykonos?” or “When is the best time to visit the islands?” We are here to help and answer some of these questions through our short Guide to the Greek islands!
Which Greek islands to visit
The Greek islands can be summarized in seven main groups (though there are some small islands that don’t belong to any group). Every group is slightly different in terms of landscape, type of beaches and infrastructure. However, the weather on all Greek islands is pretty much the same though the ones closer to Africa e.g. Crete, Rhodes, do tend to get the highest temperatures. If you are looking for the Greek island “starter-pack” then we would recommend starting with some island hopping in the Cyclades where you should definitely visit Mykonos and Santorini. Other options could be Crete, Rhodes or some of the bigger islands in the Ionian such as Kefalonia, Corfu or Lefkada. If you have days to spare, then you can also visit some of the smaller islands nearby e.g. go to Ithaki (one of our favourites!) from Kefalonia or to Simi from Rhodes.
You can see the islands included in each group here:
- Cyclades: The most popular group of islands (56 of them) with the best infrastructure and world-class services. The quintessential Greek island experience with gorgeous beaches and white houses with blue windows! Primarily small, dry islands without lots of “green” and sometimes even lunar-like landscapes (e.g. Milos, Santorini). Easy to island-hop via ferry.
- Dodecanese: 12 islands along the coast with Turkey. Mostly large islands with lots of landscape variety and character. From many of the islands you can also take a direct ferry to Turkish cities along the coast, such as Bodrum, Cesme or Ayvalik.
- Crete: The biggest island in Greece with lots of beautiful hotels and resorts. You would need at least 2 weeks to explore all its beauties. Strong cultural identity and very distinctive cuisine!
- Sporades: Think Mama Mia! Green, picturesque islands with crystal blue waters
- Ioanian islands: On the west coast of Greece, close to Italy. Very green islands with some of the most beautiful and famous beaches (e.g. Navagio in Zakynthos, Myrtos in Kefalonia, Egremnoi in Lefkada). Very different style/feel to what you would find in the other groups.
- Northeastern Aegean islands: Some of the more ‘alternative’ and less popular islands. Harder to get to but less touristy and with lots of character.
- Evia: Very big island close to the coast of Greece that can also be accessed by car.
Getting to the Greek islands
Two main ways: by ferry or plane. Needless to say that ferries are usually slower than the advertised schedule and are often delayed. They are not always cheaper either (especially the speedboats) so if you are starting your trip in Athens, you may be better off flying. However, the boats almost never fill up so even if you book last minute you should be able to find space. The ferries are generally the best way to travel between islands of the same group (e.g. Santorini to Mykonos or Corfu to Lefkada). If you are looking to fly, then make sure you book your ticket well in advance as prices to some of the more popular islands can get seriously expensive (€300-400 return).
- Boat/Ferry: The busiest port in Greece is that of Piraeus in Athens. The ports of Lavrio and Rafina also serve some islands, primarily the Cyclades, Dodecanese, Crete and the Northeastern Aegean islands. For the Ionian islands, you need to take the boat either from the port of Astakos, Patra or Kyllini, all located in the western part of Greece. For the islands of Sporades, you can take a boat from the port of Agios Konstantinos in Volos (Central Greece). You can book tickets from most of these ports using this search engine.
- Airplane: This is the easiest way to get to the Greek islands. Many of the islands have an airport and are connected to the mainland primarily via direct flight to Athens or Thessaloniki. Some airlines also do “hopper” flights between key islands. The main airlines are Aegean (member of Star Alliance)/Olympic, Ellinair, Sky Express, Ryannair and Volotea. Remember that Greek island airports are usually very small with no lounges or anything really to write home about so don’t plan to spend too much time there. See below for easy links to book your flight and to read our reviews of some of these airlines:
Many European airlines, such as British airways, Lufthansa, Austrian, Easyjet and others also operate direct flights to some of the islands from major European hubs. A direct flight to Santorini or Mykonos is about 3-4 hours long from most European cities while from Athens flights to the islands are about 30-45 minutes. You can book your ticket using search engines such as this one.
How many days to spend on a Greek island
This is the million dollar question that’s very hard to answer as it obviously depends on your personal preferences and circumstances. As a rule of thumb, you should ask yourself: how much do you want to relax vs party/explore, can you spend half your day just sitting on the beach or by the pool and how much time do you have? Moving around the Greek islands can be an arduous process, especially if you are driving (the roads are not great) or taking the ferry (frequent delays). Therefore, if you are there to relax and don’t want to move around a lot then 4-5 days on some of the smaller islands should be good. However, if you are planning to go exploring or want to visit some of the much bigger islands (e.g. Crete, Rhodes, Lesbos, Chios) then you should probably aim for at least 6-7 days (Crete you probably need more). Bear in mind that on most Greek islands, even some of the bigger ones with more things to do/see, you will likely need to spend a big chunk of your time just going to the beach, lounging by the pool or sitting in the shade. That’s not because everyone else is doing it but because you won’t have the energy to do much else during the sweltering heat between 12pm-6pm. So if you are not a beach person, then either go during shoulder/off-season or spend fewer days.
The best time to visit the Greek islands
It all depends on what you are looking for but June and September are two of the best months as the crowds are smaller yet the weather is still great! You will also find better deals and availability at most hotels, airlines, car rentals etc. July and August (especially around the August 15th Greek bank holiday) are the busiest months so expect to pay a premium everywhere in return for endless sun, high temperatures and big crowds! On some of the smaller islands, such as Mykonos and Santorini, you will definitely notice the difference in crowds but then again, if you are there to party then that’s not a bad thing! Most islands, except for handful of popular ones (e.g Crete, Rhodes, Santorini), see a significant dip in tourists after the end of September. Also, many of the stores/restaurants/beach bars start to close in October. Most flights, including charter and seasonal ones from Europe or even the big Greek cities, usually reduce or stop after October. Overall, the season typically starts around Greek Easter (around April/May) and ends by October. For many of the smaller, less popular islands though the season can be very short and basically take up just August.
Other things to keep in mind
Getting around once you are on an island is not particularly easy. None of the islands have Uber, Lyft or any other similar service though some private car services have emerged on the more popular islands (e.g. SantoriniUber). Usually you have to rely either on the hotel transfer, public bus, taxi or your own car rental. Just keep in mind that the public bus network is not very advanced or frequent, especially on the smaller islands, and the buses can get horrifically busy. Taxis on the islands can be expensive as they usually don’t have a meter but are based on flat prices and there’s just not that many of them. In other words, if you leaving the bars in Mykonos late on a Saturday night expect to have to wait for a taxi. Your best bet is to ask your hotel whether they know of a reliable private car service that you can call throughout your stay.