You have probably seen the postcard of whitewashed houses gathered together overlooking the endless blue waters of the Aegean Sea countless times, and rightly so. Greece is known for its abundance of unique islands, which every summer offer visitors a chance to unwind like nowhere else in the world.
Greece has more than 6000 islands and islets under its name. Of these islands, 227 are inhabited. All of them, nevertheless, are clustered in the Greek island groups.
Each has its own character. Some reflect a unique history or influences from antiquity to the middle ages, to modernity. Others combine Greek tradition with a sophisticated atmosphere. Yet most have bewitching beaches, coastal caves and world class cuisine. Without a doubt therefore, the Greek islands are the most unique on earth.
The main Greek island groups
There are six island groups in Greece to keep in mind:
The Cyclades, the Sporades, the Ionian islands, the Dodecanese, the Saronic Islands and the North Aegean Islands.
Each of these groups is unique in character, architectural style, influences and things to do.
The Cyclades: the jewel of the Aegean Sea
The Cyclades group is in the center of the Aegean Sea and is well-known for the iconic white houses and churches with blue domes that adorn its architecture.
This island group is comprised of around 220 islands. The main ones are Amorgos, Anafi, Andros, Antiparos, Delos, Ios, Kimolos, Kythnos, Milos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Folegandros, Serifos, Sifnos, Syros, Tinos, Thera or Santorini, Irakleia, Koufonisia, Schoinousa and Donousa.
The perfect way to explore the region is through ”island hopping”. That is because the islands are close together, even if distinct in character. Mykonos, for example, is a cosmopolitan island globally famous for its party vibes and modern hospitality businesses. On the other hand Tinos, only a hop, skip and jump away, offers a religious feel. Despite the differences however, everyone who visits succumbs to the island’s peace and tranquility.
A blend of mythology and adventure
The name “Cyclades” refers to the islands forming a circle (the name in English means: “circular islands”) around the sacred island of Delos.
For the history and culture lovers, Delos , which is in its entirety a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a living archaeological museum, with the ancient temple of Apollo well worth visiting!
The island, referred to as “the sacred island of Delos,” is where, as Greek mythology tells it, Leto gave birth to Zeus’ twins Artemis and Apollo. Mythological history has it that because of Hera’s jealousy of Zeus and Leto, she ordered all lands to shun Leto, making it difficult for her to find a place to give birth. Zeus however asked Poseidon to find a secret, safe place for Leto to give birth. To that end, she sought out the island of Delos, where she was able to ensure the life of her twins, Artemis and Apollo.
In view of this, the small, rocky island was declared by Callimachus in the third century BC to be “the most sacred of all islands” of Ancient Greece, and was dedicated to Apollo.
One of the most popular islands of the Cyclades is Santorini. This popular destination is known for its colorful volcanic stone backdrops and its white houses and winding streets climbing the cliffs, leading you to villages and breathtaking views.
For the adventurous at heart, something you want to be sure to check out is a tour of the volcano and caldera. Another tip for those visiting is to hike the path between the main towns Fira and Oia, and of course visit the Red Sand Beach that looks like a landscape on Mars.
Much can also be said about the Cycladic cuisine, of course. The San Mihali cheese of Syros or the Naxos version of gruyere are world famous, while the fava of Santorini is a unique local delicacy, as are the mouthwatering fried tomato balls of the island. Mykonos has great sausages, while the xynotyri (sour cheese) of Ios is not to be missed.
The Sporades islands: the ”scattered” islands of the Aegean
The name Sporades translates to “scattered”, which can broadly be applied to all islands outside of the Cyclades. The group is in the north-east of the Aegean.
This particular group consists of 24 islands. Four – Alonnisos, Skiathos, Skopelos and Skyros – are permanently inhabited.
Vast pine forests, huge olive groves and tall cypresses cover the small islands. According to legend, the islands were formed after the brothers Otus and Ephialtes of the Titans threw rocks.
Skiathos and Skopelos: the most popular islands of the Sporades
Two of the most well-liked islands in this group are Skiathos and Skopelos.
Skiathos is only 4 miles wide and no more than 7 miles long. Still, there are over 60 beaches to explore in that small space, the most popular being Koukounaries and Lalaria. The island is easily accessible, in contrast to the others, thanks to its small airport.
Another, Skopelos, is one of the many places across Greece that have never failed to enchant visitors throughout the decades. With its hilly, verdant landscapes and sparser crowds, it is a perennial draw for travelers from all over the world.
Skopelos is full of the traditional architecture of Greece, with whitewashed houses, terracotta-tiled rooves, blue-hued shutters and wooden balconies. Among its loveliest beaches are Kastani, Stafilos, and Panormos, all easily reachable from Skopelos Town.
This stunning Greek retreat was also the setting for one of the most engaging films of the last few years, “Mamma Mia!.” The universally beloved movie, with an iconic soundtrack by the band ABBA, turned it into the fictional island of “Kalokairi” for the original film in 2008.
The Greek Islands Of The Dodecanese Group
The Dodecanese island group is in the south-east of the Aegean, between the Cyclades and Turkey. It consists of 165 large and small islands, of which 26 have permanent residents.
The Dodecanese serve as a bridge between the East and the West, as the islands are very close to the Turkish coast. They have long, dry summers and lots of sunlight all year round.
The major islands in the group are Agathonisi, Astypalaia, Chalki, Kalymnos, Karpathos, Kasos, Kastellorizo, Kos, Lipsi, Leros, Nisyros, Patmos, Rhodes, Symi and Tilos.
Medieval architecture, romance and history
These islands are famous for medieval architecture, as well as their blend of history and romance, which permeates their small alleys.
Rhodes is the “medieval island” of Greece best known for its fortified port, seven gates, characteristic stag statue, and palace of the Grand Master. The Old Town lies inside ancient walls, but once outside them, you will find a more modern town which has cosmopolitan restaurants, shops, and bars.
Kos is also famous for its medieval architecture. On this island full of history, you can visit the ancient plane tree under which Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, used to teach. It is one of the oldest trees in Europe at more than 2500 years of age.
Patmos is a smaller and less busy island, though of great historical and religious importance. St John the Apostle was exiled here, and it is where he wrote the Revelation of Jesus Christ, the final book of the Bible.
Kalymnos, Prerimos and Karpathos are paradise islands, with beautiful beaches, seaside villages and breathtaking vistas. They each offer unforgettable hiking adventures, and picturesque villages that will take visitors on a journey back in time.
Saronic islands: the most sophisticated of all Greek island groups
This Greek island group is the most accessible from Athens. Many wealthy Athenians as well as Greek and international artists prefer to visit the islands of this group. Hydra, in particular, is a famous sanctuary for poets, writers and filmmakers, including Leonard Cohen and Axel Jensen. This group consists of the islands of Aegina, Salamina, Poros, Hydra, Spetses, Agistri, and Dokos.
One of the best thing about them is that they’re untouched by mass international tourism. That is perhaps because places like Hydra, for example, is car-free. Everyone who visits gets around by boat, on foot or even by mule, giving you a truly old-fashioned feeling. It provides one with the opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of modern everyday life.
Quaint alleys and 18th and 19th-century mansions typify the architecture, and the islands offer many beautiful bays and stunning beaches.
Hydra: where poets go to write
Hydra has been the most popular destination of the group since the 1960s. During that time, the island became a hub for international artists. One reason is because it combines elegance with a slow-paced lifestyle in a traditional setting. It was also the muse and longtime home of poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen.
Without a doubt, Hydra’s port is ideal for history lovers. Many of the critical battles of the War of Independence in 1821 occurred there. In fact, scars from some battles are still visible in the architecture.
Hydra’s beaches make it a great destination for summer trips, but its natural beauty and cosmopolitan town, filled with artisans’ shops, museums, and boutiques, make it the perfect spot for a short trip throughout the year.
Similarly, Spetses attracts visitors who seek to immerse themselves in the elegant and traditional setting of the island.
Ionian islands: the tropical islands of the Greek island groups
This group consists of Corfu, Zakynthos (Zante), Kefalonia, Lefkada, Paxos
Kythira, ithaki (Ithaca).
Their natural setting is the main factor that makes the islands of the Ionian completely different from any of the other Greek islands. Here, the rich greenery blends harmoniously with the turquoise of the sea and the blue of the sky, creating beautiful natural scenery reminiscent of a painting.
Some of the most photographed beaches in Greece
The beaches are characterized by limestone rock formations, sand and smooth pebbles. Visitors who have traveled extensively around the world say that the turquoise, cool, crystal-clear waters beat those of the Caribbean. While the beaches are surrounded by pine trees rather than palm trees, one could still say that these are the “tropical islands” of Greece.
The Ionian Sea’s beaches are numerous and have been photographed countless times. Shipwreck Beach on Zakynthos, the impressive Egremni Beach, the turquoise Porto Katsiki Beach of Lefkas, and Myrtos Beach of Kefalonia, are just some of the sandy stretches of heaven that make a holiday here unforgettable.
Yet there is more, of course. For example, the unbelievable “white” waters of Antipaxos, the lush greenery of Paxos with the little-known beaches of Ithaca that were the subject of Homer’s Ulysses. In addition, there is Marathonissi in the bay of Laganas on Zakynthos. Those are just a few of the sites that most deserve mentioning.
Strong Venetian influence
Another great characteristic of the Ionian islands is the Venetian presence in the architecture, the mellifluous speech of many locals, the musical influences, and even the food. For centuries, the islands of the Ionian belonged to the Venetians, and the western Mediterranean influence is still strong.
In terms of food, the Corfu pastitsada and sofrito are memorable dishes along with the island’s famous kumquat liqueur. Overall, all Ionian islands have cuisines influenced by their Venetian ancestors.
Corfu is one of the most famous islands, and it has a lot of history to its name. The old Corfu Town that is a World Heritage site is one of the most sophisticated towns in the Ionian island group.
Locals call the island Kerkyra, perhaps because according to mythology, it was the home of Kerkyra, the daughter of Asps, the river God. Kerkyra gave birth to Poseidon’s child, and from then, the Phaeacian race was born. Nevertheless, there is more to Corfu than mythology. Its history and architecture are also worth discovering.
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.
North Aegean islands: rich history, stunning beaches, strong local flavours
The North Aegean island group includes Thassos, Lesbos, Samos, Lemnos, Chios, Samothrace and Ikaria. They make up some of the largest islands in Greece. Many visitors skip these islands because of their distance, which helps them to retain a strong local character and tradition.
Chios, Ikaria and Samos are the most visited. Chios is popular for its unique cultivation of “Mastica” (Greek: μαστίχα) a gummy resin that seeps out of the Pistacia lentiscus tree. The island is also home to an abundance of traditional villages.
For the adventure seekers, Lemnos is an excellent spot for hiking and biking. Worth seeing is the rugged Terran, a volcanic island which, according to legend, is the Walden belonging to Hephaestus, the God of fire.
Ikaria belongs in the Blue Zone list, a collection of spots around the world where people are said to live longer and healthier lives.
Another island worth visiting is Lesbos, in particular for fans of the popular Greek drink Ouzo, as it is the home of the spirit.
Finally, we can’t leave out Samos, a picturesque location which is ideal for history and culture lovers as it is birthplace of Pythagoras, the famous Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician. The island is also home to many traditional taverns and provides visitors with traditional local dishes to die for.
Crete: a Greek island group on its own
Crete is Greece’s biggest island and one of the largest in the Mediterranean.
There are many unique things to enjoy in Crete, from two beautiful pink-sand beaches (out of the less than twelve that exist in the world) to ancient cities, medieval castles and culinary experiences.
Crete is famous for its ancient Minoan palaces of Knossos and Phaistos. Yet various other sites and museums also depict the island’s rich history.
The island also offers to visitors a delicious local cuisine to experience. It revolves around olive oil, special herbs and local cheeses, and grilled seafood and meat.
Heraklion, the capital of the Greek island of Crete, is an ancient city that perhaps is under-appreciated for its many attractions for the international traveler. From first-rate hotels with swimming pools and rooftop bars that look out over the city and the many villages around the ancient city, the Heraklion area has much to offer.
Perhaps best known for its stunning cathedrals, picturesque old towns, and first-class restaurants and boutiques, Crete is in the midst of the sea and at the heart of Greece’s ancient history. This was the place where the Minoan civilization flourished, and it boasts traditions that go back into time immemorial.
Europe’s oldest known civilization, which flourished on Crete between 2,700 BC and 1,450 BC, served as a trading center for gold, ceramics, and the precious spice and dye saffron.