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Greek Island Groups – Everything You Need to Know
Did you know that Greece has around 600 islands to its name? That’s pretty overwhelming when you consider many of them are packed with plenty of things to see and do! Of course, there are countless uninhabited islands, but knowing about the ones you can visit means you can choose the best island for your needs.
We should never overlook the beauty of the mainland, but there’s no denying that the Greek islands have summer relaxation written all over them.
The Greek Cyclades
The first thing you need to know about the Cyclades group is that it’s enormous. There are around 220 islands in this group, and most of them are wild and uninhabited. However, the ones you can visit include:
- Mykonos – Best for partying
- Santorini – Best for views
- Paros – Best for beaches
- Delos – Best for history
- Ios – Best for off the beaten track
- Kimolos – Best for adventure
You’ll probably instantly recognize the top two, at least. Santorini is one of the most visited spots globally, and we’ve all seen those photographs from a high hillside, white-washed buildings, and blue-domed churches adorning the landscape. Mykonos is another famous island, and it’s become renowned for being the top place to party in the Greek islands over the last couple of years.
But, the lack of knowledge about the other islands in his huge group shouldn’t put you off from heading to some of the islands you haven’t heard of. Island hopping is a big thing in Greece, and you can quickly check out a few different islands within the space of one break if you’re ferry savvy. For instance, Andros and Amorgos are simply beautiful islands with that wild and untamed feel. You’ll literally feel like you’ve landed on a castaway island.
If it’s beaches you’re after, then Paros is a great choice. You’ll also find stunning beaches on Mykonos, but perhaps you’re not after a party vibe. If that’s the case, chilled out Paros has a calmer and more relaxed feel, with sandy beaches to relax on all day long. The water is clear and calm and ideal for swimming.
Maybe it’s history you want to check out. If that’s the case when heading to Delos. You can easily head here from Santorini on a day trip. This is reputed to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, huge names in Greek mythology. It is a UNESCO heritage site, and it’s a great spot to check out simply to say you’ve been if nothing else. You won’t find anyone living on this island because of the sacred ground, so everyone who visits is there for the history.
Alternatively, check out Amorgos, which is the most eastern island in the group. Here you’ll find winding streets, old buildings, churches, and architecture going back to Venetian times. The views from here are also impressive.
Of course, Santorini and Mykonos are two of the most famous, so we have to talk about those.
Mykonos has hit the headlines over the last few years as being a party island. However, it’s not a party island that’s particularly low quality. You’ll find many footballers and A-listers head here for their summer holidays. There is something for everyone nightlife-wise, but you can also find a quieter side of the island, with excellent restaurants and places to chill after dark.
The beaches on Mykonos are also beautiful and ideal for days spent chilling after a heavy night or simply enjoying the view before you.
As for Santorini, what can we say? It’s one of the most stunningly beautiful sights you’ll ever set your eyes on! However, it is a bustling island that is becoming overrun with tourists during the main summer season. As such, it might be an idea to avoid June to September.
The island is made of two main towns, called Fira and Oia. Both towns sit high on the hillsides and offer stunning views – be sure to check out the sunsets! Beaches on Santorini are pebbled with different colored stones depending upon which side of the island you’re facing. Because a volcanic eruption formed Santorini, the landscape is quite rugged, surprising many first-time visitors to the island.
The Sporades In Greece
You might not have heard of this particular island group, at least in comparison to the last group we talked about. However, this group is pretty large in its own right and consists of 24 islands. Out of those, only four are inhabited. They are:
- Skiathos – Best for summer holidays
- Skopelos – Best for film buffs (Mamma Mia!)
- Alonissos – Best for off the beaten track
- Skyros – Best for scuba diving
The most notable of those islands in terms of tourism is Skiathos. In terms of summer tourism, this is the only island you’ll find direct flights to during the main season; that shouldn’t stop you from island hopping to the others by ferry, however.
These islands are packed with nature, and that’s probably because you’ll usually see a bit more rain in these islands than in the others. There are many hiking trails and pine forests to explore, but there are also beautiful beaches to spend your time on too.
Let’s talk about Skiathos for a moment, as this is the most popular island in this group.
This island is packed during the summer season, and that’s probably because it’s soo small. The island is only 4 miles in width and no more than 7 miles long! There are over 60 beaches to explore in that small space, so you probably won’t find yourself having to share a beach towel space with someone you don’t know, as there are plenty of spots to choose from. Yet, Koukounaries and Lalaria are two of the most popular and most stunning beaches on the island.
For nightlife and shopping, Skiathos Town is a fantastic spot. The port area is cosmopolitan and has something for everyone, and you’ll find many spots to grab a bargain to take back home too.
If you’re a Mamma Mia fan, then you have to venture over to Skopelos. Named Kalokairi in the film, this is the filming spot for the popular movie, and while you do get many hardcore fans hopping over to check it out, it’s never genuinely bustling. However, it is as beautiful as it was in the film. Of course, you have to head up that rather large hill (by donkey if you want) to check out Agios Ioannis Kastri, the church where the end-of-movie wedding took place.
Those who want to venture further afield and spend days surrounded by peace and quiet would be best to check out Alonissos; however, if you’re a scuba diving fan, then Skyros is for you. While it’s still pretty underdeveloped, that’s not a bad thing. It’s calm and quiet, but the fact it sits in a large protected marine park means that the scuba diving here is fantastic.
The Greek Dodecanese
The Dodecanese is another group that contains some very well-known islands. This group is situated in the glittering Aegean, and some of its islands are close to mainland Turkey. In fact, you can take a day trip from Turkey to two of the islands in this group!
This group comprises 165 islands, yet only 26 are inhabited and visitable. Without a doubt, two of the most famous islands in the Dodecanese are Rhodes and Kos. These are the two islands that you’ll find many Turkish visitors checking out on a day trip, as they’re the closest to Turkey itself. However, Symi is a very popular spot these days, albeit a very small island. Of course, if you’re visiting Kos or Rhodes, that also means you can visit Turkey for the day too, namely Bodrum from Kos or Marmaris from Rhodes.
This group includes the following islands:
- Rhodes – Best for shopping and partying
- Kos – Best for visiting Turkey
- Symi – Best for architecture and culture
- Patmos – Best for religious sites
Let’s talk about Rhodes first, as this is the most popular and largest of all the islands. Rhodes Town sits towards the north of the island and is a beautiful mixture of old and new. The Old Town sits within well-preserved castle walls and is lapped by the pristine waters of the Aegean. However, just venture out of those walls, and you’ll find cosmopolitan restaurants, shops, and bars.
You can also head south-east and visit the famous resort of Faliraki, famous for its clubs and partying vibe. While it’s not as bustling as it was a few years ago, it still sees its fair share of visitors during the summer months, mostly relaxing on the beautiful beaches during the day, after a long night the evening before!
The great thing about the Dodecanese is the history. Because many different historical groups have conquered the islands and moved on throughout its history, that means you’ll see nods to each and the architecture they left behind. Be sure to check out the Palace of the Grand Master if you’re in Rhodes, as this shows some of the best examples of Venetian style.
Patmos is a smaller, less-visited island, but it’s becoming ever popular thanks to the fact that St John the Apostle is said to have lived here, and it is on the island where he wrote the New Testament of the Bible.
However, Symi has become quite popular over the last few years, and you’ll be able to check out some beautiful architecture here while enjoying beautiful beaches at the same time. There is also a music festival that takes place every year and that often attracts many visitors and music lovers. If you are visiting Semi, be sure to check out Pedi, located on the coast.
The Saronic Islands In Greece
You’ll find many people from the mainland visiting the Saronic islands at the weekends and especially during the summer months. This is because these islands are located close to Athens, and there are easy ferry links between them and the mainland. It takes just two hours to get from Athens to the islands themselves.
The island within this lesser-known group include:
- Hydra – Best for an old-world feel and history
- Poros – Best for scenery
- Salamis (Salamina)
The best thing about the Saronic Islands is that they’re not as affected by mass international tourism. For instance, Hydra has no cars on the island, and everyone gets around either on foot, cycle or even by donkey. It’s a feel that’s not only historic but totally stripped back, and that can be a great chance from the hustle and bustle of everyday life back home.
History lovers will undoubtedly enjoy Hydra and its port. During the War of Independence in 1821, most of the key battles took place here, and you can still see the scars in the well-preserved architecture and historical monuments. The port itself is also magnificent and a great place to sit and watch the world go by.
For anyone who adores nature and hiking in particular, the Saronic Islands are ideal. The islands are very green and have fantastic options for getting out into the arms of Mother Nature. There are great treks on Aegina, Agistri, and Poros, with Poros perhaps having some of the best scenery of them all.
While you won’t find parties, huge shopping malls, and mass tourism on these islands, you will find relaxation and beauty – isn’t that what holidays are all about?
The Greek Ionian Islands
Sitting in the Ionian Sea, as the name would suggest, these islands enjoy clear water, fantastic weather, and fantastic tourism options during the summer months. There are 14 islands in his group, with Corfu and Zakynthos being two of the most popular. From June to September, these two islands, in particular, are extremely busy with direct flights from many European cities, but if you want a quieter break, you can easily take a ferry over to one of the lesser-known islands in the group.
Within the Ionian Island group, you will find:
- Corfu – Best for partying
- Zakynthos (Zante) – Best for beaches and partying
- Kefalonia – Best for beaches
- Paxos – Best for seclusion
- Ithaki (Ithaca) – Best for mythology
Corfu is definitely one of the most famous islands, and it has a lot of history to its name.
The island is known as Kerkyra locally, and it is said to be the home of Kerkyra, the daughter of Asps, the river God. Kerkyra gave birth to Poseidon’s child, and from the Phaeacian race was born. Of course, there is more to Corfu than mythology as there is also a lot of history and architecture. But, what many people visit Corfu for is partying and summer vibes.
If you want to stay on Corfu, thanks to the lower cost of accommodation, it’s easy to island-hop from there, including Paxos. This island sits off the very southern portion of Corfu. It is a small and underdeveloped island, but that’s what gives it major charm. You’ll find local restaurants with a family feel, less touristic hotels, and an extremely enticing and generally low-key feel. The beaches on Paxos are also stunningly beautiful and never crowded.
Ithaki, or Ithaca, is another island that is famous for its mythology. This is reputed to be the birthplace of Odysseus, but it also has impressive beaches too! Be sure to check out Vathy, a stunning port town.
Of course, we have to speak about Zakynthos or Zante. If you have ever seen a postcard picture of a shipwreck on a beach, surrounded by white sand, blue sea, and high cliffs, that’s Zante, nor Navagio Beach, to be more specific.
If you want to party, Zante will give you what you want, as well as fantastic food, beaches, and shopping opportunities. If you want to avoid the crowds, perhaps visit outside of the primary summer season as there isn’t much space to be had during July and August!
The North Aegean Islands In Greece
Last but certainly not least, we have the North Aegean Islands. These islands sit closer to Turkey than they do Greece, and as with Kos and Rhodes, you can take day trips by ferry back and forth. However, island hopping between this particular group of Greek Islands can be difficult as there are large distances to cover.
The islands within this group include:
- Lesbos – Best for alcohol!
- Samos – Best for history
- Lemnos – Best for adventure
- Chios – Best for nature
- Ikaria – Best for beaches
Thanks to their location, there is a lot of history to be found in this group of islands. They were also important during the War of Independence, and again, you’ll find ruins and relics to check out. All of the islands in this group are stunningly beautiful, and the waters surrounding them are crystal clear. That means plentiful beach time!
Lemnos is ideal for adventure fans. It’s an excellent spot for walking, hiking, biking, and check out the rugged Terran. This is a volcanic island, and it is also said to be the Walden belonging to Hephaestus, the God of fire. There are also many fishing opportunities here and plenty of small villages to check out along the way. Another natural island to visit is Chios, home to mastic trees. You can walk around all the different villages and check out the nature and architecture left behind from days gone by.
If you like ouzo, the famous Greek drink, then be sure to check out Lesbos, which is the home of the alcoholic spirit. It’s not a drink to take lightly, so make sure you pay it respect and don’t drink too much!
However, if beach time is all you’re after, you simply have to go to Ikaria. The beaches here look like something from the Caribbean, and the waters are so unbelievably clear, you won’t be able to fathom it!
Of course, Samos is an island we can’t avoid mentioning. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s ideal for history and culture. This is the birthplace of Pythagoras. So, if you’re a maths fan, you have to visit this island! Even if you’re not into numbers, the island has plenty of history to check out, as well as some divine food too. You simply must head to one of the island’s tavernas and enjoy some locally caught fish or meze – with a glass of ouzo, of course!
After these 6 groups, you also have the two islands of Evia and Crete – the two biggest Greek Islands.
Crete is Greece’s biggest island and one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean. A super-popular island destination, this is a place where you could spend a week or more exploring beaches and ancient sites.
Be aware that Crete is a pretty large island, though, and you might need a rental car or join some kind of guided tour to get around and see the top sights beyond the coastal cities.
Evia – Euboea
Evia is the second biggest island in the country, very easy to reach from Athens as it is also known as Euboea. Less touristic than Crete, Evia is a huge Greek Island part of the Aegean group not far from the mainland. Evia is a tranquil destination that — just as Crete — needs a lot of days to be explored and appreciated.