Greece boasts thousands of islands and islets scattered across the Aegean, Adriatic and Mediterranean seas but only about 150 are populated. From Santorini to Crete, we explore some of the more famous islands and offer tips for avoiding the crush of tourists who flock there each summer.
Santorini (Cyclades Group) – Balcony of a Submerged Volcano
Tourists flock to Santorini, seduced by the white-washed houses, volcanic black cliffs and dazzling blue seas. However, the crush of tourists in Fira, Santorini’s capital, and Oia can easily diminish the island’s charms and make you yearn to “get away.” The small village of Imerovigli, perched on the highest point of the island’s volcanic rim, offers an escape. In days gone by, its commanding views allowed residents to spot approaching pirate ships. Today, it’s more useful for surveying incoming yachts and cruise ships. The quiet cliffside village is home to a few small restaurants, tavernas and plenty of traditional architecture along its labyrinthine streets. Its main attractions, however, are stunning views and Aegean sunsets without all the jostling. A 30-minute walk from central Fira or a lovely two-to-three-hour stroll from Oia along the caldera, Imerovigli provides a tranquil retreat from the touristed buzz of the rest of the island—with lesser prices to boot. After beaching in Kamari, shopping in Fira and browsing and dining in Oia, make Imerovigli your nocturnal hub of escape for quiet nights of Grecian dreams.
For more information, visit our Santorini Travel Guide
Santorini (Cyclades) – Outdoor Cinema
After exploring the beauties of Santorini by day and indulging in a romantic sunset and dinner overlooking the sea, a great evening alternative to the bars and discos might be the open-air Cinema Kamari. Modeled after the open-roofed theaters of ancient Greece, outdoor cinemas became popular in Greece with the advent of film. First screened in central squares of Greek towns and villages, films later graduated to cinemas that emerged throughout the country. Featuring English movies with Greek subtitles, and some theater productions and concerts from time to time, the small Cinema Kamari is already alluring from the outside. Behind stone walls and an iron gate, it serves up plenty of local charm in an outdoor garden fringed with palms and bougainvillea. Find a deck chair and make yourself at home sipping on wine or local beer served at the bar, or spring for some popcorn at intermission. Owners will even call for a cab to take you home at evening’s end.
Delos (Cyclades) – Sacred Site of Artemis & Apollo
Only a few miles from the island of Mykonos, a prominent site considered sacred to ancient Greeks is still accorded the reverence of being largely untouched by modernity. Devoid of automobiles, accommodation and commercialism, Delos is a footpath of ruins inhabited only by sun, air and wind. As the mythological birthplace of Apollo (god of sun, music, poetry, prophecy, healing, plague and truth) and his twin sister Artemis (goddess of the hunt), its status as a sanctuary led Athenians to call for purification of the island beginning in 540 B.C., forbidding birth and death to take place on the island. Delos later developed into a key Mediterranean port and cosmopolitan trading center in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. under the Romans. Today, the island has less than 20 inhabitants — all archaeologists — who work on excavation sites unearthing temples and sanctuaries dedicated to the gods as well as private residences with mosaics, frescoes, fountains and courtyards. The structures of Delos greatly influenced architecture of the Greco-Roman period and make a fascinating open-air museum. Besides a cafeteria, the indoor museum houses the famous marble lions excavated on the site. Catch a ferry from Mykonos and hire a guide to make the most out of an excursion. The island is only viewable for six hours during the day, closing to visitors at 3 p.m.
Sifnos (Cyclades) – Footpaths through Whitewashed Idyll
Once known for its silver and gold mines, the island of Sifnos is now a cultural jewel. Picturesque whitewashed towns, beaches, monasteries and, amazingly, 365 churches decorate this island that savors its traditional way of life. Extensive footpaths travel between idyllic towns and lead up to hills and monasteries making Sifnos an excellent walking destination. Explore the village of Artemonas, where Venetian and neo-classical mansions stand between traditional Cycladic houses and the island’s best bakeries. Then, take a walk to the medieval village of Kastro. Built as a Venetian fortress and serving as the island’s capital until 1836, Kastro is a step back in time. Clinging to a domed rock overlooking the sea on three sides, it mesmerizes with narrow labyrinthine streets lined with blue and white houses, colorful doors and gardens, stone benches, Roman urns, pillars, wooden balconies and classic vistas, not to mention windmills, goats and donkeys. Settle in for a drink at a taverna to take in Greek life. From there, take a hike or a donkey ride to the highly photogenic Panagia Poulati, a vivid white church topped with a classic blue dome, before dipping into the sea at the rocky beach, a local favorite. In Vahti, on the other side of the island, try a traditional restaurant like Manolis, for delicious clay-oven food. Chickpeas are an island specialty. Treasure hunters should be sure to stop at a tsikaladia (pottery workshop) to view a craft for which Sifnos is renowned. The island’s most revered traditional pottery master, Kostas Depastas, resides in the isolated northern outpost of Heronissos and still digs his own clay and collects the wood to fire his kiln.
Crete – Celestial Observatory, Art Workshop & Hillside Walks
Tucked within the dry hills of far southeastern Crete, the sleepy village of Agios-Stefanos is a remnant of old Greece still untouched by commercialization. Turn north in the fishing/beach village of Makri Yialos (Makrigialos) and within 15 minutes you’ll come upon donkeys, goats, a church, local taverns, ocean views, vast skies and the slow and simple Greek way of life still enjoyed by about 200 residents—plus two transplants from Belgium who came to live their starry Greek dreams. Building an observatory on the terrace of their home to study and ponder the cosmos, and an artist’s workshop to fashion impressions and create new ones, Filip and Chantal Feys-Debrebandere now welcome others to do the same. Spend an evening as an amateur astronomer at Sasteria, their public observatory, scanning the brilliant night skies with high-powered telescopes under the tutelage of Filip, a passionate student of the heavens. As a nature enthusiast, he also leads guided day walks through the local Greek landscape following ancient goat and donkey paths through old villages and steep gorges to show visitors the beauties of Crete. Go for an evening of stargazing, a morning of hiking or a week of artistic expression as you explore the tiny town and its environs, sketching or painting locals and countryside in an artful Greek escape.
Crete – Traditional Center of Gastronomy
The Cretan diet (also known as the Mediterranean diet) is legendary for its nutritional benefits promoting health and longevity. Consisting of products produced naturally on the island, it primarily consists of olive oil, cereals, legumes, vegetables and fruit with a healthy supplement of milk, cheese, eggs and fish. Red wine at mealtime completes this ideal menu meant to be savored in a slow and relaxed manner. Two thousand feet above sea level at the foot of the White Mountains in the tiny village of Drakona, such culinary harmony can be achieved. Stelios Trilirakis creates edible marvels of old Crete on the farm he inherited from his grandfather. At his Café-Taverna Ntounias (Dounias) you can sample some of everything he grows, including wines, olives, herbs, cheese and yoghurt fresh off the land or from the cow. Whatever isn’t grown there comes from the village or the regional cooperative shop. Poke into the traditional kitchen where Stelios cooks and dine outside on the terrace overlooking the hillside to bask in simple Cretan serenity. Living longer is a welcome side effect.
Karpathos (Dodecanese Group) – A Remote Time Capsule
This island of streams, pine forests, olive groves, vineyards, mountains and sea caves northeast of Crete has been inhabited since the Neolithic Era and continues to preserve deep-rooted traditions. Journey to the remote mountain village of Olymposand fall under the spell of the ancients. Located at the end of a dirt road among 75 windmills that used to produce flour, the ancient village still has four working windmills grinding wheat and barley to make bread. Its hidden position behind a ridge of Mt. Profitis Ilias once provided a sanctuary from pirates and has helped preserve the town’s rich customs. Residents clad in traditional attire speak an old dialect and continue to fashion traditional handicrafts. Amazing sunsets that rival Santorini’s come without the crowds. Have a seat at Milos Taverna beneath one of the working windmills to sample delicious village specialties like zucchini flowers while surveying breathtaking views. As hard as it will be to drag yourself away, pristine beaches and villages dotted with monasteries, churches and whitewashed houses are all around the island. Local festivals that showcase the island’s folklore traditions further invoke the Greek dream of yesteryear.
- July 26 & 27: St. Panteleimon (Agios Panteleimonas), Saria Island just north of Karpathos
- August 15: Panagia, Olympos
- August 28 & 29: St. John’s, Vroukounda (an ancient settlement)
- September 5: St. Zacharias, Saria Island
Rhodes (Dodecanese) – Fish Spa
The garra rufa species of fish has been nicknamed “Doctor Fish” for its unique reputation as a foot healer. Originating in Turkey where a bather discovered improvements to psoriasis after fish nibbled at his skin, this natural podiatry method to remove dead skin cells and leave feet smooth and refreshed has been used in the Middle East for hundreds of years. Spa sessions start with a foot washing to remove dirt, cream and chemicals that may harm the fish. Patrons then submerge their feet in fishbowls — actual aquariums with filtration systems that keep the water constantly purified. Hundreds of the tiny two-inch fish then go to work nibbling, peeling and rejuvenating tired skin. As the garra rufa feast, they release enzymatic secretions found to regenerate skin faster. Lest anyone be afraid of injury, these fish have no teeth and simply massage skin with their mouths, providing a sensation of painless tingling akin to a bubbling Jacuzzi jet. Following a 30-minute course of fish treatment, beauticians then massage feet with moisturizing cream. Aside from its benefits for treating psoriasis, eczema and dry skin and improving circulation, it’s a unique way to recuperate for 30 minutes after walking the many historical sites of Rhodes (e.g., Acropolis, Palace of Grand Master of Knights and the ancient ruins of Rhodes and Lindos). Give it a try — and help feed the fish!
Kalymnos (Dodecanese) – Island of the Sponge Divers
For 500 years, Kalymnian divers have harvested sponges from the seabed by hand. Although the sea sponges are not as plentiful as they once were, they’re still a mainstay of the island’s economy. Considered more durable and better for bathing than synthetic sponges, natural sponges soak up more water and foster self-cleaning within their intricate system of canals. The capital and main port of Pothia serves as home to Greece’s sponge-fishing fleet and harbors several sponge factories/warehouses and the Museum of Marine Life & Findings, part of which is dedicated to sponge fishing. Beyond the sea, the island’s rocky and mountainous terrain attracts climbers and cave explorers to its limestone cliffs, not to mention oregano and thyme, which infuse the famous Kalymnian honey with its characteristic fragrant flavor. Beaches (both sandy and pebbled) around the island and several small ports and towns, red-domed churches, castles, a fortress, small museums and a 4th-century settlement all connected by the main road are also worth exploring. Have a seat at a café or taverna, sip some anama (the local wine), nibble on traditional delicacies like Mirmizeli (barley flour bread infused with olive, oil, tomato and cheese), Mytzithra (Greek cheese) or Fouskes (clam) and enjoy the small-time, traditional flavor and friendliness of the island that draws many to return. The main beach enclave is Masouri, the closest point for a day trip to nearby Telendos Island and the best place to catch a glowing sunset.
For more information, visit: kalymnosinfo.com
Patmos (Dodecanese) – Island of Faith & Revelation
What Delphi is to oracles and Greek mythology, Patmos is to Christian tradition. It is here on the former Roman penal island where St. John, exiled for doing Christian missionary work (ca. 95 A.D.), penned the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian bible. The sacred Cave of Revelation where John had his vision of the Apocalypse lies underneath the massive Monastery of St. John, viewable from all parts of the island. Warning the faithful to resist emperor worship and to stand firm in coming persecution during the final days, John’s writings also reflect the Roman tyranny against Christians in his day. Historically and spiritually significant, Patmos imbues a pervasive spirit of devotion and faith rather than commercialism. Along with the fascinating cave and panoramic views, the incredible fortress-monastery contains a chapel with gorgeous 11th-century frescoes and a treasury filled with valuable icons, saintly relics, textiles and manuscripts—including the earliest original copy of the Gospel of Mark. Island beaches and green hills graced with fruit and olive groves encourage long walks and spiritual reflection, making Patmos a worthy place for a pilgrimage. At the beginning of September, the International Festival of Religious Music features choirs, orchestras, and musical ensembles that perform in the haunting Cave of the Apocalypse.
Ikaria (Eastern Aegean Group) – Greek Culinary, Language & Culture Courses
Ikaria is worth exploring to find the secret of its inhabitants famed longevity. You might start by joining Diane Kochilas Cooking Classes and Culinary Tours. As an acclaimed cookbook author, culinary teacher, consultant, weekly food columnist and restaurant critic for the country’s largest newspaper, Diane’s philosophy is to promote the healthful, flavorful, simple and friendly foods of Greece. Learn to work with Greek classics like phyllo (paper-thin sheets of pastry dough), fish, olive oils, wine, cheese, honey and mezes (small snack dishes) while immersed in Greek culture. Classes in Diane’s lovely stone house in the ancient village of Agios Dimitris come with fantastic views of the Aegean, while accommodations at a beach not far away let you commune with the sea. Visits to local food artisans, shepherds, beekeepers and fisherman, and excursions to markets, island hot springs, festivals and historical sites blend with cooking lunch and dinners to enjoy al fresco in the garden. For those seeking language skills, the Hellenic Cultural Center offers courses in Greek language along with cultural activities and excursions.
Lesvos (Eastern Aegean) – Eating, Drinking, Birdwatching & Thermals
The third largest Greek island lies close to the coastline of Turkey. Free from the mass tourism experienced by other islands, Lesvos is a place to find genuine Greece in all manner of sights and experiences. Delve into the scene by tasting the local ouzo—an anise-flavored aperitif that is a symbol of Greek culture—and the sardines, for which the island is famous. Plomari on the southern coast famously distills the strongest ouzo and takes great pride in its tradition, marked by a weeklong Ouzo Festival at the end of July and an accompanying joie de vivre in its citizens. Kaloni, set on the northern end of the Bay of Kaloni, is the nature and birdwatching capital of Greece. A myriad of wildflowers and the country’s best sardines, fished directly from the bay, make it even more of a draw. If you miss Kaloni’s Sardine Festival in the first weekend of August, try the excellent seafood and sardines (raw, fried or grilled) at Medusa Restaurant at the harbor. If your body requires healing, the thermal spas and bathhouses at Eftalou, Polychnitou, Skala Thermi and Yeros treat a host of ailments from rheumatism, sciatica, cirrhosis and arthritis to skin and circulatory issues. Archaeological sites, churches, monasteries, beaches, museums and a petrified forest on this marvelous island complete the scene to keep most anyone happily occupied.
Skyros (North Sporades) – Island of Myth, Craft & Pottery
Legend says that Achilles was hidden by his mother and dressed as a girl in King Lycomedes’ castle on Skyros to avoid the Trojan War. Legends and traditions make Skyros a draw for seekers of ancient and mythological Greece, not to mention those looking for beaches. Skyros Town (also called Chora) was built behind a steep rock in the Middle Ages to ensure that pirate ships couldn’t see it from the sea. It houses almost 80% of the island’s population and features beautiful Cycladic-style dwellings (whitewashed cubic houses with flat roofs) built into the steep slopes of the acropolis topped by the Aghios Georgios Monastery (962 A.D.) within the Lycomedes Fortress ruins. Winding cobblestone streets and traditional heritage items like pottery and wood furniture make for plenty of photo opportunities. The Archaeological Museum provides wonderful examples of Mycenaean pottery discovered on the island along with the interior of a house donated by the owner, while the private Manos Faltaits Folk Museum displays the mythology and history of Skyros. Outside the city, Skyros is a beacon of green. Covered partly by dense pine forest, the island’s main occupations are agriculture (with noteworthy local products that include feta cheese, wild honey and fava), sheep and goat breeding and traditional crafts still made the old-fashioned way. The semi-wild and endangered Skyros Ponies roam the interior of the island. Legend has it that Alexander the Great used them in his conquests. Indulge in the island’s taverns and the fantastic desserts and pies, and take a pottery or woodcarving course to immerse yourself fully in Skyrian heritage.
For more information, visit: http://arctravel.gr/category/choose-a-vacation/islands/skyros-art-tradition/
Corfu (Ionian Islands) – An Empress’ Escape
Hugging mainland Greece’s western coast, Corfu has been often intertwined with foreign control and influence. Said to be obsessed with beauty, the free-spirited and troubled Empress of Austria (Elisabeth of Bavaria, nicknamed Sissi, 1837-1898) fell in love with the island. Grief-struck when the crown prince, her only son and heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, died in an apparent murder-suicide with his mistress in 1889, Elisabeth erected a palace on her beloved Corfu as solace. Dedicated to the Greek hero Achilles, whom Sissi believed best represented the Greek spirit, beauty and strength, Achilleion Palace (Sissi’s Palace) became the Empress’s summer residence until her murder in 1898. The palace later belonged to German emperor Wilhelm II, and in 1921 served as the birthplace of England’s Prince Philip, current husband of Queen Elizabeth. Located in the village of Gastouri, about 10 miles south of Corfu town, the splendid Italianate building is decorated inside and out with neo-classical statues, including representations of Achilles erected by both Elisabeth and Wilhelm. While Elisabeth’s version tragically depicts the dying hero with the arrow in his heel, Wilhem’s edition stands strong and triumphant. Tour the stellar gardens that are filled with Greek gods and goddesses flanked by coastal and mountain views worthy of the immortals.
Corfu (Ionian Islands) – Sailing the Seas of Odysseus
The image of sailing through the Greek islands has long captured the whimsy of visitors, many of whom opt for cruises or yacht charters to see the collection of wonders. For those who wish to captain a vessel themselves, a stint at the British-owned Corfu Sea School might fulfill the fantasy. As the oldest Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Training Centre in Greece, the sailing school provides a complete range of practical sail cruising and powerboat courses. Complete novices or experienced sailors can take part in two- to five-day courses aboard modern, fully equipped yachts and powerboats. Set sail from Gouvia Marina, only 15 minutes north of Corfu’s main airport, and overnight at different ports and anchorages in the Ionian Sea. When guests aren’t anchored somewhere in a deserted cove or sailing past dolphins, turtles and exotic Ionian islands, Gouvia Marina offers all the accoutrements of modern civilization, including showers, pool, laundry and Internet access.
Travel Tips: Greece
When to visit. How to get there. What to wear. Before you go, read these travel tips for the Greek Islands first.
Stay in a Yposkafo—A Cave to Call Home
Plain dwellings carved into the cliffs used to be a popular method of building in Santorini to protect poorer residents from the elements. These unique cave houses featured curved architecture molded to the volcanic rock, providing excellent insulation. Two separate rooms (living area/kitchen and bedroom—one behind the other) were separated by a wall with openings to let light filter through both rooms. Renowned architects have converted many of these cave houses to hotels that offer an idealized glimpse into a past way life. Dome-like roofs, narrow facades, long indoor spaces and traditional décor and furniture make for an enticing stay to commune with the volcanic caldera and the primal heritage of the island. Do an Internet search for Santorini “cave houses,” “hyposkafa” (also, yposkafo) or “canaves” to find these specialized hotels or rentals.
Greek restaurant bills often include a “cover charge” —normally about a euro—for table setting, bread and tap water. This is standard but separate from the service charge. Ask for the bill (usually a necessity since waiters don’t interrupt people from lingering) to determine if a service charge has been added. If so, round up to the higher whole number and add a few euros to leave on the table or in the tray or folder provided. If the bill states service isn’t included, tip between 10 and 20 percent. For taxis, simply round up the fare to the nearest euro. Keep in mind there is an extra official charge for handling heavy luggage and responding to calls or departing to/from airports or rail stations. Toilet room attendants should be tipped about 50 euro cents. Remember, nothing is strictly by the book in Greece, so use discretion.
Although ferries are the best way to island hop, the complex Greek ferry system stymies many a traveler. With no definitive schedule or route resource, and schedules that rapidly change, it’s difficult to make concrete plans. Inter-island ferries run within island chains, not necessarily according to geographical proximity and may cancel or run late for a myriad of reasons. Patience and flexibility are key to navigating the system—and always have a back-up plan. The “most reliable” time of year for ferry travel is high summer when ferries step up routes and schedules to meet demand. Buying tickets through a travel agent near the port is often the best bet. The nearer you are to the dock of departure, the more reliable the schedules.
Try these online resources:
- Greek Travel Pages
- Greek Island Hopping – the accompanying guidebook offers the most comprehensive attempt at Greek ferry schedules, vessels and island information.
Types of Greek Columns
Columns appear almost everywhere in the splendid architecture of Greece. Besides differences in the shaft and base, the design of the capital (the crown or top) marks the most obvious feature that sets Greek columns apart from one another.
Doric – the simplest and oldest of the group (7th-century B.C.), Doric columns have no base and feature capitals with a circle topped by a square.
Ionic – taller in the shaft than Doric and topped with a scroll design that resembles the horns of a ram; columns stand on a rounded base and were introduced to Greece around 500 B.C.
Corinthian – the most elaborate of the three column styles feature an inverted bell shape with decorative flowers and leaves in the capital design; Corinthian columns appeared on the scene around 400 B.C. and are the most slender
Think casual and comfortable in the Greek islands. Sturdy walking shoes are a must to canvas archaeological sites, monasteries, churches, caves, walking paths and villages with uneven pavement. From May to October, temperatures can range from 21°C to 33°C (70°–91°F) or higher. Pack sunglasses and a hat to ward off the intense sun, plus flip-flops and a sarong or light overwear to cover up if you stray from the seaside on your day at the beach. Respect codes of modesty by covering your shoulders and legs when visiting monasteries, churches and villages. Capris, skirts, T-shirts and casual dresses in light cottons and silks do well for such occasions and as eveningwear, coupled with flats or wedges. Men can wear khaki pants (long or short) and polo shirts, if not T-shirts. Pack a light sweater for summer evenings in case you feel chilled after a hot day. Spring and winter travelers should think in layers.
Currency & Financial Times
The Greek financial crisis has led to uncertain times. Although nothing is sure, travelers may potentially benefit from a stronger exchange rate against the euro. Less visitors may also prompt better prices to entice tourists. That said, strikes, cuts and delays in transportation and services (e.g., business and site opening hours) could interfere with travel plans, particularly if Greece departs from the euro. In a very fluid situation, travelers should keep abreast of unfolding events. Avoid making plans too far ahead, steer clear of Athens where tensions run highest and build in extra time and back-up plans to account for any interruptions. If all fails, order up some ouzu (Greece’s famous aperitif), recline on a terrace overlooking the sea and ponder the thought that being “stranded” in the Greek Islands may not be such a bad thing.
Greek meli (honey), particularly thyme honey, has delicious distinctive flavors and makes a fabulous souvenir to share at home. The Attki brand (with the blue label) is top notch and worth its price. The Greeks also love their olives. As the largest consumers of olive oil in the world, locals incorporate it heavily in their healthy diet and beauty regimens. Ranking first in the world for top-quality oil productions, about 85% of Greek olive oil is extra-virgin, meaning pure juice from the first pressing of olives without any added chemicals or water for processing. Purchase plain olives fresh from the barrel (not canned) shortly before departure. Local produce stands, roadside stands and markets are the best places to buy these local goodies, if not from the farm itself. Place your edibles in sealable plastic bags—wrapped in a towel if in a glass container—and pack in your checked luggage!
The hours from around 2 to 5 pm (mostly after 3 pm) are designated as “hours of popular quiet” in much of Greece. During this period of the day, locals withdraw for a midday meal and a nap, or to spend time with family, and it’s considered bad manners to interrupt. During summer, this siesta period may be later (4 – 6 p.m.) due to the intense midday heat. No hard and fast rules apply to the time the siesta starts and ends; it varies in different parts of Greece. Besides expecting some business closures during these hours, visitors should respect that locals may be napping. Try and keep the noise down, and maybe even try some cultural immersion with a nap of your own.
The Seasons of the Islands
The islands’ peak season from mid-July to end of August feature hot, breezy days and lots of visitors and activity. The strong Aegean Sea Winds, called Meltemi, and the Ionian Sea Winds blow in July and August and vary in intensity by region. Shoulder seasons (April to mid-June, and September to Nov.) bring cheaper prices, milder temperatures and less crowds, but changeable weather and more intermittent ferry service. The low season, from November to April, is virtually dead, and the more remote islands may not even have ferry service. Before mid-May or after early October, don’t expect outdoor dining on the northern Greek islands, which will probably be too cold. Average temperatures in the more southerly Crete and Rhodes:
- Dec. – Mar.: 11–13°C (52–55°F)
- Apr. – May: 16–20°C (61–68°F)
- July – Aug: 26–27°C (79–81°F)
- Sept. – Nov.: 16–24°C (61–75°F)