What could be more relaxing than island-hopping in Greece? Nothing, really, provided that you have a plan. Greece has around 3,000 islands — only a few hundred are inhabited by humans — spread across the Aegean Sea and the Ionian Sea. To get started with planning a trip, you'll first need to understand the basics of transportation and other practical details about island-hopping. Then read on to find out more about the different island groups and what you can expect to find in each, from quiet beaches to ancient ruins. Grab a map and a boat schedule: you're ready to start planning your Greek island adventure.
Planning Your Trip
You're ready to island-hop. But how? Some travelers visit Greek islands on a cruise ship or an organized tour. But it's possible—and arguably more fun—to island-hop independently. A wide range of ferry boats and hydrofoils (speedboats) make frequent trips between and around the islands. Note that prices vary between companies, and schedules are subject to change, especially when there's inclement weather.
Many travelers choose to start their journeys on the islands of Syros or Naxos. If you have a week or two to spend, two great itineraries are as follows: starting in Syros, hop to Tinos, Mykonos, Kos, Leros, Patmos, Rhodes, and Santorini, then finish up on Anafi. Or begin your trip on Naxos, moving into Paros, Santorini, Amorgos, Astypalaia, and Ios, with a grand finale on Folegandros. If you only have a few days, the popular islands of Mykonos and Santorini have direct ferry connections from Athens.
Keep in mind that the Greek islands are incredibly popular and busy during the peak season of July through September. Even if you can't buy your boat tickets weeks or months ahead of time, you should consider booking accommodations well in advance.
Prone to seasickness? It's possible to skip the boat component altogether and island-hop by air. Shop around online, as budget carriers offer frequent promotions.
Soak Up Classic Island Charm on the Cyclades
You've seen these views in photos: white-washed houses, cats lying in the sun, pale cliffs jutting out of a deep blue sea. Now it's time to enjoy the classic pleasures of Greek islands in person on the Cycladic Islands, also known as the Cyclades. Southeast of the mainland, this island group comprises hundreds of islands (most are uninhabited) that form the shape of a circle around Delos, a sacred island that's considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Indeed, ancient Greek philosophers named the islands Cyclades because of that shape: kyklos means "circle."
By far the most popular destinations in the region are postcard-perfect Santorini, known for its winemaking traditions, and beautiful Mykonos, which doubles as the gateway to Delos. Tinos is known for its long history of sculpting, and Milos for its otherworldly rock formations.
Go Car-Free on the Saronic Islands
You'll have to take a boat to get there, and then a donkey to get around: Hydra, one of the Saronic Islands, doesn't allow any cars. (There's one exception, luckily: garbage trucks are permitted.) The absence of motor vehicles lends an old-world charm and a slower pace to this increasingly popular destination.
But there's plenty more to explore in this island group. Also called the Saronic Gulf Islands or Argosaronikos, they're the closest to Athens, and a couple of them — Aegina and Agistri — are located just an hour or less away from the capital city by high-speed boat. You'll feel far away from civilization when you're cycling around the quiet island of Spetses or wandering around temples on Aegina. Just try to go on a weekday instead of a weekend, when Athenians day-trip from the city.
Explore Mountains and Mythology on the Ionian Islands
The lovely island of Corfu is widely considered to the inspiration for the setting of The Tempest, Shakespeare's final play. There's no doubt the landscape, with its vibrant foliage, mountainous roads, abundant olive groves, and jaw-dropping sea views, could be the basis for a great work of literature.
Sleepy Corfu is one of the Ionian Islands (also known as the Heptanese), the island group that's closest to Italy and Albania. These islands have been ruled, at turns, by Venetians, Romans, Russians, French, and Austrians, to name just a few, and the diverse architectural styles you'll see in the islands' villages are a testament to that colorful history.
Sunbathe on a sandy cove or hike around limestone cliffs on Kefalonia, go for a kayak adventure in the Ionian Sea, rent a car and go for a self-guided adventure around Corfu, or explore the roots of Greek mythology on Ithaca.
Have more than a week to spend in the area? Try this eight-day itinerary sailing the Ionian Sea from Corfu.
Discover Athenians' Weekend Escape on the Sporades Islands
Where do Athenians go when they want to get out of town for the weekend? The Sporades Islands, located off the coast just east of the city. There's a charming story behind the name. According to legend, the gods created the islands by throwing handfuls of colored pebbles into the Aegean Sea: "Sporades" means "the scattered ones."
There's still lots of color on beautiful islands like Skiathos, known for the brilliant blue water of its sandy beaches, and the lush green landscapes of Skyros. You don't even have to get on a boat or a plane to access the large island of Evia: it's connected to mainland Greece by a bridge.
View Architectural Wonders on the Dodecanese Islands
Close to Turkey in the southeastern Aegean Sea, the Dodecanese Islands weren't always part of Greece. For a great part of history, through World War II, they were under Ottoman and then Venetian rule. That fact is evident in the eclectic architectural styles on view on the islands' towns and villages.
Most visitors make a beeline for the island of Rhodes, with an impressive medieval old town that's considered the historic capital of the island group. Don't miss the Street of the Knights, a road that looks just as it would have in the Middle Ages, leading to the magnificent Palace of the Grand Masters. Wandering around the old town, you'll see ancient marble statues and fountains, plus ornate mosques and hammams that remind you of the city's Ottoman heritage.
Elsewhere on islands like Karpathos and Kalymnos, there are beaches galore, and ideal weather for relaxing on them: the Dodecanese are known as the sunniest islands in Greece.
Get Away From the Crowds on the North Aegean Islands
The North Aegean Islands aren't as easily accessible as some of the other Greek island groups. And that's precisely what makes a visit here so pleasurable. Key attractions include Lesvos (also called Lesbos), home to the University of the Aegean, the birthplace of the poet Sappho, and the national capital of ouzo, Greece's favorite spirit.
On the island of Chios, a spectacular medieval settlement awaits intrepid travelers. The village of Mestá is a maze: towers, churches, and stone houses are all built tightly together, with the roods interconnected. It's a magical place to wander through, as if you were stepping back in time.
For more on Chios, Lesvos, and other destinations travelers often miss in Greece (but shouldn't), check out this article.
Explore Ruins and Villages on the Island of Crete
The largest island in Greece, Crete is a destination that's worth a whole vacation on its own. Minoans, the earliest advanced European civilization made their home here — predating the ancient Greeks — so there's plenty to see in terms of historic ruins.
Crete is also a natural wonderland. Hit the beach at Elafonisi, explore traditional villages, and take a hike through stunning Samaria Gorge, one of the longest gorges in Europe. In the White Mountains, pay a visit to Ideon Cave — it's the birthplace of Zeus, according to Greek mythology.
Working up an appetite with so much fresh air and exercise? Treat yourself to a glass of wine, fresh bread, locally produced olive oil, and more with this helpful food guide explaining the culinary traditions of Crete.