Greece’s island chains are like a string of pearls hanging from the neck of the Peloponnese, running from the Ionian nearly to the Bosphorus. Some of the pearls are big and gaudy, some smaller and more delicate. But each sparkles in its own way.
Here are 5 of the most amazing Greek islands. Some you’ve undoubtedly heard about; others have yet to become a hit with tourists.
If Ithaca sounds familiar, it’s not just because there’s a city in New York state by that name; it was also the home of the legendary Odysseus, the protagonist of Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus himself may or may not have existed, but the island over which he presided is very real, and an ideal retreat for travelers in search of beauty and isolation both.
Ithaca lies in the Ionian Sea off Greece’s west coast. With a population of less than 4,000, the island is noted as the ideal low-key island getaway. Its beaches are both beautiful and secluded. Indeed, many aren’t accessible by land, so it may be a good idea to rent a boat. With a little luck (or, you know, a map), you can find a sheltered beach in a bay and have it all to yourself!
Possibly the best of these ‘secret’ beaches is Afales, which is backed by a white rock cliff-face. The waters are an enticing blue-green and the sands a pristine white — just mind the rocks!
As you might imagine, the best way to reach Ithaca is by ferry from the mainland, or by renting a boat yourself. The largest towns (read: villages) where you can dock on the island are Vathi (the main center), Kioni, and Frikes.
We pass now from myth to history, from obscurity to prominence. Rhodes is one of Greece’s most popular tourist islands, but that’s for good reason. Its combination of gravel beaches, seemingly endless sunshine, and historical significance have made it a perennial favorite. So if you’re looking for somewhere quiet and out of the way, Rhodes may not be for you.
Setting climate aside, Rhodes’ greatest natural resource is probably its history. The island has been inhabited since at least the Bronze Age. In Ancient Greece, it was an influential center of trade and commerce; it was later controlled in turn by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Crusading Knights of Saint John, each new conquering civilization in turn leaving its distinctive impress.
You can arrive via ferry, but Rhodes also has an international airport. And Greece has one of the best airlines in the world (Aegean) so treat yourself if you can. Once you get there, you can rely on buses to explore (the transit hub is the capital city, which is conveniently also named Rhodes). But it’s probably best to rent a car if you can afford it.
You can lounge on the beach, since virtually every day in Rhodes is warm and sunny. Or you can check out some of the island’s many archaeological sites. There are Ancient Greek remains at Kameiros, and Medieval structures at Filerimos. But there’s also plenty of Crusader history in the old city of Rhodes itself — a palace, fortifications, and the Street of Knights, a perfectly preserved Medieval avenue.
If you don’t mind a bit of a touristy vibe, Rhodes is very much worth your time. But if you’re looking to break out of the bubble, Syros might be more your speed. It’s only 80 miles or so south of Athens, but completely off the beaten path. If you crave an authentic look at island life in the balmy Aegean, Syros will serve you a heaping helping.
Mark and Elizabeth Rudd of Compass & Fork tell us that Syros is truly underrated. “It is blissfully uncrowded,” they say, “has great food and wine, beautiful white sand beaches and is very affordable. Unlike much of Europe, Syros was undamaged during both the World Wars.”
The island’s proximity to Athens makes it fairly easy to catch a ferry. If you’re staying a while, you can rent a car when you arrive (or, if you’re staying in one spot, a bicycle), but Syros is prime scooter territory. Just make sure you grab one with some giddeeup because it can get hilly!
Many of Syros’ beaches are lined with pebbles rather than sand. The sandy beaches will undoubtedly be busier, but perhaps easier on your footsies.
Apart from beach bumming, you should make a point of exploring the capital, Ermoupolis. With its narrow streets and colorful shoreline, it has an almost Venetian quality (though it’s much smaller), and is particularly mesmerizing at sunset.
Who knew a place named after a many-headed serpentine monster could be so charming? Hyrdra is another close neighbour of Athens, making it easily accessible for day trippers out of Greece’s capital. After all, it’s only about 40 miles away by ferry.
One thing you’ll notice immediately is that motorized transportation is forbidden on Hydra (with the exception of government vehicles like garbage trucks and firetrucks). That means there’s no traffic congestion, but also no taxis, vespas, or scooters for your convenience. If you want to venture outside of the main town, you’ll have to hire a horse, mule, donkey, or taxi boat. However, this prohibition really does a lot to keep Hydra quaint and restful — even though it’s one of the most popular day trips for Athenians, and tourism is very much the big industry here.
Hydra isn’t especially well-known for its beaches; the coast here tends to be rocky, though the water is blue and inviting. This island is more famous for its arts and jewellery, its historic cathedrals, and its seafood. For such a lightly-populated islet, Hydra has many high-quality restaurants. If you’re anxious to spend, don’t worry — there are definitely some fancy options. If you’re anxious to save — there’s plenty for you too.
Finally, if you’re looking for an oasis that’s truly under-explored, you won’t find a better example in the Greek islands than Paxos. Outshone by its more famous neighbor Corfu, Paxos is quite small and difficult to reach. In fact, the only way to visit is by going through Corfu, so you may as well see both in one go. You can fly into Corfu, then take a ferry to Paxos.
This may sound like a lot of work, but the benefit of isolation is finding a place where you can truly unwind, away from the noise and clamor of Mediterranean cruise liners and the scores of tourists they bring with them.
There’s no need to rent a car here provided you’re in Gaios, the main town, since you can walk or bus to most points of interest. The main island has an area of less than 30 square miles, but a lot of it is quite rural. Though the population is less than 2,500, expect to receive a famously warm welcome from the locals.
There are plenty of sleepy beach towns for you to enjoy on Paxos (Loggos, Lakka etc.), and you’ll leave this little hideaway feeling rested and recharged.
Whatever you’re looking for — history, food, peace and quiet — there’s a Greek island just waiting for you. Happy trails… err, sails?