By Rick Steves
With their picture perfect whitewashed villages and plenty of opportunities to swim, eat and gaze at the deep blue Aegean, the Greek islands deserve every bit of their fame.
Admittedly, I prefer to spend the majority of my Greek vacations visiting the country's incredible wealth of ancient sights. (That's why I focused minein the bustling capital ofAthensand Greece's "heartland", thePeloponnese(where - compared to the islands - prices are much lower, tourism is less stifling, and travelers have more exciting opportunities to peel off layers of history.) But like everyone, I appreciate a healthy dose of relaxing island time, and a visit to Greece isn't complete without at least one island stay.
Greece's roughly 3,000 islands and islets (of which 227 are inhabited) are scattered far and wide across the eastern Mediterranean. Most are in the Aegean (south and east of mainland Greece), with a few in the Ionian Sea (west of mainland). The islands are divided into clusters:
Thationian islands,closer to Albania and Italy than to Athens, Greece's northwestern gateway to the Adriatic Sea and the rest of Europe - they had more foreign invaders and rulers (fromVenice,France,Great Britain, Russia,Austria, and so on) than anywhere else in the country. The main island is Corfu (Kerkyra in Greek), with a bustling, architecturally diverse capital and a lush, green islandscape dotted with sights and beaches.
ThatIslands in the Saronic Gulf(Argosaronikos), conveniently located between the Peloponnese and Athens, exudes plenty of island charm and gives you a chance to get away from it all without really going far.Hydra,My favorite is in this group.
ThatSporades,just east of Athens, are dominated by the vast island of Euboea, connected to the mainland by a bridge. Densely forested and less touristy by international visitors, the Sporades are a popular and convenient weekend getaway for Athenians.
ThatCyclades Islands(or simply Cyclades) - a little further south, between Athens and Crete - are the prototypical "Greek Islands" with chalk-white houses with stained window sills and doors; rocky, sun-kissed landscapes; gorgeous beaches; old-fashioned white windmills crowned with tufts of grass like unkempt hair; and an almost overwhelming influx of international visitors.MykonosandSantorini are the two best and most famous of the Cyclades. Near Mykonos is the archaeological site ofDelos(one of the most important sites of antiquity).
Thatdodecanese Islands,on the sunny, southeastern end of the Greek lands, are more rural and less developed than the Cyclades. your close toTurkeyand historical ties to Venice give them a hybrid Turkish-Venetian flair (though the population is primarily ethnic Greek, these islands only merged with Greece after World War II). Rhodes is the largest of these islands, with an attractive and very authentic old town.
ThatNorth Aegean Islands,relatively unspoilt and remote, lying roughly between Turkey and Thessaloniki (at the northern end of mainland Greece). The southernmost of these, Samos, is a particularly convenient stepping stone to Turkey as it is very close to the Turkish port city of Kuşadası (near the notable ancient site of Ephesus).
Creteis Greece's largest island and is effectively a mini-state in its own right (in fact it was an autonomous state within the Ottoman Empire from 1897 to 1913). While many of Greece's smaller islands deserve a day or two of fun in the sun, Crete could keep even a busy traveler busy for a week or more. Historically, Crete was home to the Minoans - the earliest European civilization that emerged around 1950 BC. reached its apogee centuries before the "Ancient Greeks" of Athens. While Crete's modern capital, Heraklion, is drab and uninviting, the rest of the island offers a fascinating array of attractions: Minoan ruins, scenic mountains, enticing beaches, characteristic rustic villages, and dramatic caves and gorges (including the famousSamaria Gorge).
Choosing an island
Hydrais my favourite, thanks to the fast connections to Athens and the Peloponnese, the relaxed car-free ambience, the easily accessible beaches and the charming port that invites you to linger. Two of the most popular Greek islands are Mykonos and Santorini; both are relatively well connected to Athens.Mykonosfeatures a delightful fishing village dotted with windmills, bathed in white and populated by a hard-partying international crowd enjoying its many beaches and detouring to the ruins at nearby Delos.Santoriniis the most geologically interesting of all the Greek islands and arguably the most picturesque, with idyllic villages perched on the rim of a collapsed and flooded volcanic crater, a handful of impressive wineries, and enough sights and activities to keep travelers busy.
While each Greek island claims its own personality and fame, most offer the same basic ingredients: a charming fishing village, once humble and poor, now a finely tuned machine to cater to (and collect money from) a steady stream of tourists; a rugged interior and bumpy roads connecting coastal bays; attractive beaches with umbrellas and sun loungers for hire run by taverns and hotels; maybe a few dusty museums collecting old artefacts or pieces of local folklore; and occasionally a good or even great ancient site to visit.
Many islands have a capital city, sometimes named after the island itself, sometimes called Chora or Hora (Xώρα), literally meaning 'village'. This is generally the hub for transportation, both to other islands (port for passenger ferries and cruise ships) and within the island (bus station and taxi rank). Some islands - like Rhodes, Corfu and Crete - have sizable cities as capitals.
Getting Around the Greek Islands
Many passenger boats traverse the Aegean, making it quick and fairly easy to get to your island vacation. However, be warned that gathering ferry information takes some work as routes can be covered by multiple companies and schedules change frequently. Check online timetables before your trip and confirm details with any travel agency (or several, as you can get slightly different information from different agencies) upon arrival in Greece. Keep in mind that departures can be canceled due to bad weather (rather out of season).
Consider flying to save time. Compared to ships, flights are less likely to experience delays or cancellations, tend to offer more frequent connections and are much faster - but often more expensive. Two major Greek airlines offer daily flights from Athens to many Greek islandsOlympic AirlinesandAegean Airlines. Also considerAstra AirlinesandSky-Express. If you're traveling to far-flung islands like Mykonos or Santorini — which have small airports — check flights with these airlines, which can be surprisingly affordable (and save you the long boat ride). If you shop online at least a few weeks in advance, you might be able to get a bargain.
The Greek islands are made for cruising and are a major destination for cruise ships. If you're on a cruise, your challenge is to beat the hordes: you'll arrive in town at exactly the same time as 2,000 other visitors, all hoping to get the maximum amount of sightseeing, shopping, or beach time in one day . Start as early as possible and explore the back roads and beaches if the main road gets too crowded.
Unless you're cruising, it's a good idea to be aware of when the ships are scheduled to show up. Visit off-the-beaten-path attractions or beaches when ships are in port—when you return to town in the afternoon, cruise passengers will be loaded up for departure.
Accommodations in the Greek islands range from rustic to rusticthe roomto designer hotels with spectacular views. Even remote islands get busy with tourists in the summer, so there are plenty of options.
At the busiest times (July–September, peak in August), visitors can have more beds; Book well in advance to make your choice of accommodation. Expect inflated prices (sometimes severely) in high season - prices can more than double in the most popular destinations like Mykonos and Santorini, even for budget hotels. When demand is high, prices for other services such as rental cars and dining out also increase. The best combination of still good weather, fewer crowds and cheaper prices can be found just before or after these busy times.
Whenever you visit us, enjoy your time here and simply indulge in the Greek islands. With few exceptions, the "sights" (museums and ruins) aren't worth the hassle - you're here to relax on the beach and explore the charming towns. Make the best out of it.