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Greek Islands destination guide
Greek Islands, Greece
With more than 2,000 to choose from, there’s a Greek island for every mood, budget or occasion.
From the cliff-hanging hamlets of volcanic Santorini to the glamorous five-star resorts of Mykonos, the ancient ruins of rugged Crete to the traditional medieval villages of Chios, each island has its own distinct character. But all share pristine beaches, brilliant sunlight, a laid-back lifestyle where time slows to a crawl, and that quintessential, undefinable ‘Greek Island’ experience that’s impossible to get anywhere else.
Drift off to the sound of cicadas, eat fresh lobster with sand between your toes, stay up all night dancing beneath the stars – these classic islands are a place to instantly unwind.
Editor: Individual Greek island guides coming soon – stay tuned…
Greece’s islands are divided into geographical groups.
The Cyclades have a barren beauty, with whitewashed villages perched on cliffs that plunge to turquoise seas. The lush, tranquil Ionian islands reflect their proximity to Italy.
The Dodecanese, closer to Turkey, are an intriguing mix of medieval villages and majestic monasteries.
The far-flung North Aegean islands are throwbacks to a time before tourism, while the glamorous isles of the Argo-Saronic Gulf are a playground for Athenian weekenders.
The islands vary considerably in their character and their appeal, and what type of holiday they offer the visitor, so it’s important to choose the right one to suit.
Culture & Customs
Even the most developed islands have maintained a traditional way of life, dominated by family ties and seasonal rituals. Siestas are sacrosanct and meals are eaten late.
The influence of the Greek Orthodox church is ever present, from whitewashed chapels to cliff-top monasteries where baptisms, weddings and panegyria (saint’s day festivals) take place.
This doesn’t stop locals enjoying a late-night lifestyle, though, accompanied by impromptu music, song and dance, and where children are always welcome.
Food & Drink
Each island group has a distinct cuisine, influenced by geography and colonial legacy (Italianate dishes in the Ionian, Turkish spices in the Dodecanese).
Across the isles, food is always wonderfully simple and seasonal. Seafood is surprisingly expensive considering that fishing is a mainstay of the local economy.
On larger islands with indigenous agriculture, you’ll find delicious locally reared lamb and goat, fresh cheeses, briny olives and potent wine or raki (Greek grappa).
It’s hard to avoid – or resist – the ubiquitous Greek salad. An ouzo-meze is a time-honoured aperitif – aniseed-infused spirit served with saucers of olives, cheese, salted fish or grilled octopus.
See John’s round-up of the best traditional Greek foods you must try in Greece for a comprehensive summary of some of the mouth-watering culinary delights on offer across the region.
When to go
The tourist season is short – typically May to September. Peak season (accompanied by price spikes) is July and August. The islands are inundated with Greeks in August – best avoided.
The weather is warm enough to swim from June to late September (the sea might be too chilly for some in May and October, but these are the perfect months for rambling).
Most hotels and restaurants close from November to March, when ferries and flights are also reduced to a skeleton service.
Getting there and away
Athens airport is the main gateway, with connecting flights to many of the islands, but many European airlines also offer direct flights into island airports. Ferry connections from Athens and between the islands can be mind-bogglingly complicated (and alarmingly expensive). Check routes and get the best deals at Greek Ferries.
Ferries for most islands depart from Piraeus in Athens (for the Ionian islands, you’ll have to get to the port of Patras, three hours west of Athens).
Several islands have airports, with domestic flights from Athens; some are also served by international charter flights during the summer.
Public transport systems are woefully basic on most islands, so you’ll probably need to hire a moped or car, unless you’re an avid walker. Alternatively, charter your own boat.
Where to stay
There is a surprising diversity amongst the islands – from what leisure activities are available, the numbers and types of tourists, and even the ambience. And while there are charms (and sometimes some less than charming aspects) to all of them, it’s wise to do your research before selecting as they offer very different experiences.
To appreciate the variety of the Greek archipelago and enjoy secluded coves all to yourself, charter your own sailing boat and explore as many islands as you can.
Health & Safety
Crime rates are extremely low on the Greek islands. It’s generally safe to walk around even very late at night. Women travelling alone rarely get hassled, apart from the unwanted attentions of the local kamaki (literally ‘harpoon’ – out to spear a foreign girlfriend).
Do wear sunscreen at all times – the sun can be fierce despite the deceptive sea breezes – and make sure you’re armed with mosquito repellent after dark.
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