Imagine the quintessential postcard from the Greek Isles — would it feature white-washed, blue-domed churches; sun-scorched beaches lined with loungers; an unflinching sun over the sparkling Aegean? Naturally, there’s quite a bit more to the Greek Isles than these stock images. There are hundreds of islands to explore, each with its own personality. Just about every island boasts a unique element to inspire a repeat visit — the lonely cliffside church in Telendos, the crumbling columns of an ancient acropolis in Rhodes, a perfectly cooked fish at a harborside taverna in Syros.
Which island will suit you best? Read on for a look at the unique spirit of 10 Greek Isles, along with a few suggestions to help you choose the right one for your travel interests.
One administrative note — the typical tourist season in the Greek Isles runs from the end of April through early October with travel peaking during July and August. If you want to avoid the crowds without losing the brilliant weather, early June and early September are great times to go.
Best for: History buffs
While many of the Greek Isles are rife with historical intrigue, Rhodes is one of the most fascinating. Beyond being the location of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, the island features Europe’s largest inhabited medieval city (also called Rhodes), the whole of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remains of the island’s various masters — Byzantines, the Knights of St. John, Ottomans, Turks — are on full display. While the telltale signs of tourism run wild here (think “snack” shops and Zeus paraphernalia), you’ll find plenty of gems beyond the kitsch — like a 14th-century hospital now housing an archeological museum, the 16th-century Mosque of Suleyman, and the Byzantine Museum, housed in an 11th-century church. Also not to be missed are the ruins of the partially excavated Rhodian acropolis, located 35 miles away in the town of Lindos. Sitting some 300 feet above the water, the site includes the remains of a Temple of Athena dating back to the fourth B.C.
Kalymnos and Telendos
Best for: Windsurfers and rock climbers seeking adventure, visitors looking for less traveled islands
Besides being a strong draw for adventure travelers — particularly divers, winsurfers, and rock climbers eager to tackle the island’s limestone cliffs — off-the-grid Kalymnos is relatively unscathed by tourism. Its tooth-shaped sister island, Telendos, which was part of Kalymnos until an earthquake separated the two in the sixth century A.D., is even quieter. The water taxi from Myrties Beach to Telendos costs only a few euros, but the views of the jagged peak rising out of the Aegean are worth 10 times that. Onshore in Telendos, there’s a small strip of tavernas and some residences, but the buildings and houses quickly fall away, leaving the hiker with early Christian basilicas, a necropolis, and a secret white-washed church built right into a cliff. Don’t wander too far (unless you want to) — the far end of the island boasts a nudist beach.
Best for: Verdant foliage, incredible beaches, families, shoppers
Corfu, or Kerkyra in Greek, is part of the Ionian Islands, a grouping situated close to the Continental mainland that features lush green foliage, a sharp contrast to the dust-in-your-throat aridity of the Cyclades chain. The most fertile of the Greek Islands, Corfu is covered with olive trees, vineyards and wildflowers during the six-month “growing” season. All the tropical greenery makes for some of the world’s most striking beaches, some cut out of rocky tree-covered hillsides, others with secret coves. Like so many other Greek islands, the “old town” boasts its share of boutiques, cafes and historic sites — but where Corfu differs is its impressive cultural blend, with Byzantines, Venetians, Turks and other civilizations having left their mark in typical conqueror fashion. There’s even a French section, the Liston, an arcade lined with shops and cafes.
Best for: Culture vultures, partiers, gay and lesbian travelers
Postcard-perfect Mykonos is the destination of choice for celebrities, college kids, gay travelers and party animals — and with good reason. This tiny Greek island boasts some 20-odd spots for sunbathing (several with a clothing-optional emphasis, others blasting techno nonstop), trendy open-air tavernas and a cosmopolitan ambience. But while its reputation as pulsating party scene is deserved, there’s more to this rocky, white-washed island. There are a number of highly touted seaside restaurants, and day trippers can easily spend hours getting lost amongst the white and blue cubes in the Hora’s maze of cobbled streets (“Hora” is the generic name for the island’s main village). History buffs can take a 20-minute boat ride to the island of Delos to see the sprawling remains of its ancient city.
Best for: Resort seekers, partiers looking for a good time without the pretension of Mykonos
Easily accessible via ferry from Athens, Paros is unsurprisingly a major hotspot for European travelers. Offering a little bit of everything you’d expect from a Greek island, Paros has plenty of resorts and campsites, numerous excellent beaches, great seafood and a relaxed yet thriving nightlife. There are several well-attended festivals each year, the biggest being a mid-August Assumption of the Virgin Mary, complete with fireworks, a parade, music and dance. Paros is another great island to explore by motorized vehicle. Drive inland to Lefkes, a traditional Greek village that’s set in a natural, 1,000-foot-high amphitheater. No cars are allowed in the town, so you’ll have to hoof it through narrow cobbled streets that zigzag past a mix of cubist and Venetian buildings to the immaculately lined marble Church of Agia Triada. A paved path from the Byzantine period connects Lefkes with the beachside village of Podromo.
Best for: History buffs, those looking for an incredibly diverse Greek island, those with more time to visit
Crete is the largest Greek Island, and its capital, Heraklion, is a bustling modern metropolis with a population of 650,000. Somehow this urban environment works seamlessly alongside the island’s mytho-historical status as the birthplace of Zeus and the seat of power of King Minos. Nation-like in its size and diversity, Crete’s appeal lies in its ability to be all things to all visitors. Adventurous outdoorsy types can hike the fabled Samaria Gorge, beach bums can sunbathe at the palm forest-backed Vai Beach, and history buffs can visit any number of archeological sites, like the reconstructed ruins of Knossos Palace. The massive size of the island means it’s best explored over many days.
Best for: Isolated beaches; Venetian architecture; foodies; travelers looking for a taste of a working, self-sustaining Greek island
Pulling into the harbor in Syros’ capital of Ermopouli provides a pleasurable jolt. Syros is actually the capital of the Cyclades, but in contrast to the island chain’s typical cubist architecture, the buildings here are Venetian, a kaleidoscope of peaches, yellows, pinks and oranges, many with small porticos. And it feels totally different too; it’s a working Greek island where Greeks actually live — and more importantly eat — and the local vibe elevates the level of cuisine (and brings down the price). Try the grilled octopus, a local specialty. Outside the capital, the isolated northern beaches are not to be missed for solitude seekers. These desolate rugged beaches are hewn out of the rock, forming semi-circular harbors accessible only by boat or demanding cliffside hike.
Best for: Nature lovers, walkers and hikers
Part of the Sporades chain in the Northwest Aegean, Skopelos is one of the most verdant of all Greek Isles, covered in pine forests, olive groves, plum orchards and wildflowers. The island is home to reptiles, dozens of species of birds (native and migratory) and, most notably, the monk seal — for which Skopelos is a prime breeding spot. Of course there are also the obligatory beaches, both of the traditional sunbed/umbrella tourist variety and the lonely, off-the-beaten-path sort, and religious sites stretching back into antiquity. Bring it all together and you have the ideal setting for a ramble, with several tour outfits — like British ex-pat Heather Parsons — taking walkers along the island’s excellent paths.
Best for: Families, resort seekers, history buffs
The small island of Kos is an ideal place to rent an open-topped car or motor scooter (remember, if you’re not an E.U. national, some rental agencies may require an international driving permit). A winding drive along the rocky coastline will take you to the family-friendly Agios Fokas beach, a casual sunbed-and-umbrella-style spot. Park up top, then descend a wide path cut into a cliff and you’ll end up at a natural hot spring, complete with saline buoyancy. For history enthusiasts, the father of medicine, Hippocrates, was born on the island, and a few miles from the harbor are the ruins of an Aesclepion, or ancient healing center. It’s a tranquil spot, set up on a hill and surrounded by pine trees.
Best for: Romantic travelers, honeymooners, landscape photographers
It’s hard to describe just how spectacular the views are in Santorini. If you sail into the main harbor — actually a massive crater formed by a volcanic eruption in 1,450 B.C. — your eyes will widen at the sight of the capital of Fira set on a cliffside hundreds of feet above. Ride the gondola to the top, saunter up on a donkey or hoof it up the stairs. Then gaze in awe down over the blindingly white hotels, restaurants and residences to the sparkling Aegean Sea below. Beyond the breathtaking views, Santorini also boasts the impressive archeological site of Akrotiri, which was engulfed by lava during the aforementioned eruption. Excavations have revealed frescoes and structures dating back 3,500 years.
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