With their rich history, unrivalled beauty and sparkling seas, Greece’s islands are rightly mythologised
Greece has attracted visitors since antiquity – even the citizens of the Roman Empire were not immune to the charms of this cradle of Western civilisation. Great weather, diverse landscapes, a rich history, delicious food and a coastline lapped by the Aegean, Mediterranean and Ionian seas all add to the draw. The big mainland destinations of Halkidiki, Thessaloniki and the capital, Athens, take some beating, but the 200-plus inhabited islands in the archipelago are unique and each has its own distinctive character.
In spite of the financial difficulties Greece has faced in recent years, travellers continue to visit its sandy beaches, cosy coves and verdant olive groves. And there is no need to fix on one destination. Island hopping presents the opportunity to enjoy several islands in one trip. Here are five of our favourites, accessible by air and inter-island ferries.
This 90 sq km island in the Cyclades is known for its beach parties, expensive restaurants and general hedonistic vibe (it’s a favourite among the yacht crowd, celebs and the gay community). There are only a handful of taxis on this barren rock, which has little in the way of greenery in summer, but those who feel daring can rent a quad bike.
Mykonos Town is movie-set beautiful with cascading pink bougainvillea, blue-and-white painted streets, and little bars and tavernas that look over the sea. Opened in 2018, Kensho Psarou hotel has 29 rooms with terraces and hot tubs or plunge pools. Last year, Small Luxury Hotels of the World added the new Mykonos Riviera hotel to its collection. The Grace Mykonos, Bill and Coo, and Mykonos Blu are other noteworthy boutique options.
If you want to sunbathe peacefully on the beach all day, choose another island. Mykonos is the place to come for dancing in the sea after lunch at Nammos, ordering oversized bottles of Belvedere vodka at Scorpios beach club, and sunset drag shows at Jackie O’. Everywhere serves incredible food. Outside of April to October it becomes a lot quieter, with many places shutting down for the winter.
Santorini’s show-stopping sunsets are something to behold. Each day at dusk, people flock to the island’s west coast and perch along cliff sides to watch the sky explode into vibrant sherbet hues, with its volcanic crater, Nea Kameni, casting a dramatic silhouette.
A magnet for honeymooners and Instagram bloggers, Santorini is one of the Cyclades islands. Thanks to its distinctive volcanic environment, the island is full of intriguing places to explore: black sandy beaches, the sulphur hot springs that fizz at the foot of the Nea Kameni, and the craggy, molten surface of the crater itself.
A word of warning: the compact capital, Fira, is a popular cruise stop, and its cobbled streets can become crowded with tourists. As for those sunsets, Oia, the blue-domed town to the north of the island, gets packed full of people eager to witness the spectacle.
Fortunately, the island is brimming with boutique boltholes that allow for escape. Recent additions include Istoria Santorini, a contemporary 12-suite retreat set along the black sands of Perivolos Beach, and Canaves Oia Epitome, a secluded luxury resort just outside of Oia.
The largest of the Dodecanese islands, at about 1,400 sq km, Rhodes’ medieval city achieved UNESCO status in 1988. A labyrinth of cobbled alleyways, the Old Town is home to Gothic architectural gems such as the Palace of the Grand Masters, and the Street of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who formerly ruled the city.
Rhodes’ complex history – it also spent time under the rule of the Turks and Italians – means the island is also home to Byzantine churches and Roman ruins as well as Venetian forts and buildings from the Ottoman period. The New Town caters to those looking for beaches, bars and shopping, and the east coast is well known for the clifftop acropolis at Lindos. The countryside around Archangelos and the ruins of Ancient Kameiros are also worth exploring.
In May, the all-inclusive Grecotel resort on Kallithea beach will become the Grecotel LUX ME Rhodos, with its 276 rooms and 46 bungalows receiving a deluxe makeover.
The largest of the Greek islands, as you might expect, is also one of the most diverse. Across 8,336 sq km on the southern side of the Aegean Sea, quaint inland villages are sandwiched between turquoise beaches to the north, and coves, cliffs and canyons to the south.
Myth and legend are the stuff on which Greece is built and the island can claim more than its share of evocative tales and classical history – the Ideon Cave is believed to be the birthplace of Zeus, while the vestiges of the Minoan civilisation, which ruled about 4,000 years ago, are peppered all over the island.
Crete is a hit with hikers throughout the year thanks to its mountainous terrain and mild winters. A popular route is the 16km Samaria Gorge, a seven-hour walk that ends at the coastal village of Agia Roumeli. Finish that and you’ll be in need of a good meal – rest assured that the island’s cuisine is thought to be one of the healthiest in the world, with an emphasis on nutrient-packed organic produce, lashings of olive oil and little meat.
New openings this season include the 311-room Wyndham Grand Mirabello Bay in the coastal town of Agios Nikolaos. The Nana Princess hotel and its state-of-the-art spa opened in Hersonissos in June last year, while those looking for beachfront villas can now stay at Elounda Mare Hotel’s Minoan Palace, launched in August last year.
Part of the Ionian Islands, the “emerald isle” has a more European character than the rest of the archipelago. It has long been popular with travellers for its beaches, pastel-hued villages and lush olive groves.
The UNESCO-listed Corfu Old Town bears physical reminders of the island’s military history. Exploration of the town’s sea-facing fortresses, which protected the Venetian-ruled island from Ottoman sieges over four centuries, are highly recommended and bring an extra dimension to the postcard-pretty looks.
Elsewhere, you’ll spot the unmistakeable influence of 19th-century British rule – cricket is a popular sport here – while Greek mythology holds that a shipwrecked Odysseus washed up on Corfu’s shores.
For a luxury all-inclusive stay, the Ikos Dassia resort, which opened in May last year, has views of the Ionian Sea and a 600-metre private sandy beach. Travelling without kids? Adults-only options include the luxurious Marbella Nido Suite Hotel and Villas in Agios Ioannis Peristeron, which also opened in May.
British Airways and Easyjet fly direct to all five islands from London between April and October
Words: Hannah Brandler, Rose Dykins and Jenny Southan