Greece’s necklace of gem-like islands, strung across the Aegean and Ionian Seas, have become one of Europe’s top holiday destinations. But the sheer number – over 2,000 – means there are still plenty of calm coves and uncrowded historic sites to discover. The bigger islands, such as Crete and Corfu, are palimpsests of millennia of European civilizations, and remnants of Minoan, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and of course Hellenistic history can be found on many of the smaller ones too. Traveling through the five described here immerses you in all the best these beautiful fragments of Greece have to offer: white sand beaches, sites of mythic inspiration, fantastic food and sun-dazzled mountain scenery.
Mykonos is one of the stars of the Cyclades, an archetypal archipelago of sun-bathed sand-and-forest islands scattered across the glittering Aegean Sea. One of the first to develop a concentrated tourist infrastructure, the immense swell of well-heeled tourists during Mykonos’ peak season can be a little overwhelming. However, there’s a reason, and in fact, many reasons, that people flock here. Sandstone cliffs and scrubby fields roll down to the soft sun-warmed white sand of Elias Beach, lapped by the blue Aegean. Villages of white cubist houses enclose maze-like streets, beautiful to stroll, lined with cafes, bars and shops selling sublime food and delicious drink to a lounging crowd. Mykonos has some of the best nightlife in the Greek islands, and is also good for windsurfing, diving, hiking and admiring the quintessentially picturesque landscape. In fact, it’s pretty much got everything, packed into one sea-surrounded isle – just be prepared to pay for it in the peak season.
Another gem-like isle in the Cyclades group, Ios boasts several of the highlights that have made Mykonos so popular, but is far less flooded with holidaymakers. Known for years as a party island, it has increasingly grown into a destination suited to everyone. But if it’s drink-fueled adventures that you’re after, the town of Hora remains one of the best places in Greece to find them, with a cosmopolitan bar and club scene spiraled around the main square making it easy to swagger or stagger from venue to venue. This concentration of party life means, despite the island’s reputation, that Ios’ other white-hued hilltop villages are remarkably quiet. The town of Chora is a tranquil, postcard-pretty weave of streets and squares, studded with jewelry and clothing shops and with a number of great restaurants. And fringing Ios are 75km of beautiful beaches, including two of Europe’s finest, Mylopotas and Manganari.
The southernmost of the Cyclades, Santorini’s stunning volcanic landscape has fired the imaginations of writers and artists through 2,500 years of recorded creation. Fringed by multi-colored cliffs scything diagonally down into the Aegean Sea and topped with jumbled white villages clinging to hardened sun-baked strata, the island’s jagged appearance reflects its dramatic creation: a formerly single island, cradle of the Minoan civilization, it was ripped apart by one of the most violent volcanic explosions in European history. Once the ash settled, what was left was a main clump of rock surrounded by displaced fragments, at the heart of which is a giant rectangular lagoon enclosed by 1,000-foot cliffs. If this incredible landscape, truly unique in Europe, isn’t enough to draw you, then consider its array of human-made attractions: superb wine, ancient Minoan settlements, the best cuisine in the Cyclades, a lively art scene and perhaps the most gloriously situated outdoor cafe scene on the continent.
After hopping around the compact isles of the Cyclades, disembarking onto Cretan soil can feel like stepping out onto a whole new continent. The largest of the Greek isles, Crete’s architecture and archaeology form a tapestry which is woven from a host of ancient civilizations. Stumble across Roman aqueducts, Byzantine churches, North African mosques, Venetian fortresses and, of course, Knossos Palace, the capital of Crete’s Minoan civilization and home of the virgin-munching Minotaur. Crete’s natural world is sublime, too, not only its border of beautiful white-sand beaches but its interior of evergreen forests, rocky mountain peaks and jagged brook-cut gorges, composing a terrific hiking terrain ideal for escaping the town-based tourist hordes. History, nature and myth intersect in the island’s incredible cave formations, many of the most beautiful of which were sacred to the Minoans, while Dikteon Cave is the legendary birthplace of Zeus. The island also has a distinctive and famously healthy culinary scene, a salutary balance to the oceanic quantities of booze it’s easy to consume while relaxing in the innumerable bars and cafes lining the streets of the island’s gorgeous villages.
From Crete, move from the Aegean to the Italy-lapping Ionian Sea to reach Corfu. This is the land of Homeric legend, of Venetian heritage, of rolling mountains and dramatic, sharp-edged coastlines. It’s a large island with a varied terrain: the rugged north containing lots of great hiking routes and spectacular views among its sea-backdropped mountains, while the south has a softer landscape fringed by beautiful beaches. The island’s history is woven together at The Old Fortress, with its visible Byzantine and Venetian architectural styles. The largest settlement is Corfu Town, which has a gorgeous winding Old Town and a selection of engaging museums and a lively cultural scene. Great food, a laid-back lifestyle, stunning scenery and a varied history etched on the surface of the isle make Corfu the perfect place to bring your island hopping adventures to a peaceful close.