The 9 Best Greek Islands: Your Cheat Sheet on Where to Go in Greece

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Your Greek island vacation dream may start like this: You see a gorgeous photo of white cube houses, stunning blue sea, and winding cobblestone streets, and you know you have to see it in person. But then the research begins, and you realize there are thousands of Greek islands, and you don't know your Cyclades from your Dodecanese. Not to fret. We've done the legwork for you and identified the nine best and most popular Greek islands to help you narrow down your options. And we've also outlined what's great about them, the easiest ways to get to them (plus how to hop between them, when possible), and where to stay once you get there. Those hoping for beach weather will certainly find it in the summertime, which is high season -- though visitors can expect nice weather in May, June, September, and October as well (plus slightly more reasonable prices).

The Cyclades

1. Santorini

Santorini is arguably the most famous of the Greek islands, and for good reason. Not only is there never a shortage of things to do in Santorini, but the island is also a postcard-perfect destination with the famous Cycladic architecture people often associate with the Greek islands. The whitewashed buildings are often adorned with blue accent shutters or doors, creating a color palette that reflects the sky and sea, and built into rugged cliffs that slope toward the water.

How to Get There: The easiest way to get to Santorini is to fly from Athens. It’s a 45-minute trip by plane, there are frequent flights every day, and prices are usually in the $50 to $150 range round-trip. (Those who book on a budget airline like Ryanair should note that checking a bag can add on to the price tag, however.) To go by ferry, take the metro from Athens to Piraeus (about a 30-minute trip), and get the ferry at the port there. The high-speed ferries take five hours to reach Santorini and are around $120 round-trip. Slower ferries (including overnight options) take eight hours and are smoother rides; fares for these are a bit cheaper, around $85 round-trip. Major ferry companies include Blue Star, Seajets, and Hellenic Seaways. Some ferries allow cars.

What to Do: Many travelers to Santorini are content to relax, read, dine, explore cute towns, and soak up the amazing views. However, there are actually some great sights here besides the vistas. Specifically, the Archaeological Museum of Thera, the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, the Minoan Bronze Age ruins at the Akrotiri Archaeological Site, and the Santorini Volcano (visitors typically book a tour that includes a boat trip to the volcanic island, Nea Kameni, and a guided hike). There is a cable car from Fira down to the port where ships depart, or travelers can make the steep walk. (Some opt for donkey rides, but it’s worth knowing that the donkeys are not treated well.)

Where to Stay: Many visitors to Santorini are honeymooners or couples, and there are scores of luxury hotels here designed with romance in mind. Most of these are located in and around the charming cliffside towns of Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli, and Oia, which have adorable traditional (if touristy) villages and stunning views of the sunken caldera and volcano. Oia, located on the island’s northwestern tip, is well-known for its superlative sunset views — though expect selfie-stick wielding crowds at the best vantage points during the summer. Luckily, sunsets can be enjoyed from all of these towns, not just Oia (as well as from sunset cruises); for a truly relaxing experience, book a hotel with a sunset view, such as Lilium Villas Santorini in Fira or Art Maisons Luxury Santorini Hotels Aspaki & Oia Castle. Many hotels also offer romantic extras like private plunge pools or in-room hot tubs (such as the Pegasus Suites & Spa in Imerovigli). Though Santorini isn’t as known for its sandy shores as Mykonos, those seeking the beach should head to the island’s eastern coast, where hotels such as Cavo Bianco offer close proximity.

2. Mykonos

When it comes to popularity among the Greek Islands, Mykonos is a close second to Santorini. Mykonos Town is as charming and idyllic as any villages found in the Greek islands, and like Santorini, Mykonos has plenty of stunning luxury hotels on offer. But while some hotels do have a stunning outlook over the Aegean, in general, Mykonos isn’t as known for its views as Santorini. It is known, however, for its beautiful sandy beaches and hopping nightlife scene.

How to Get There: It’s a 40-minute flight from Athens to Mykonos, and round-trip flights range from around $50 to $250. While it’s certainly possible to score flights on the lower end of the range if you have flexible dates, prices skew a little bit higher than the flights to Santorini. For those coming by ferry, fast ferries (not available year-round) take around two and a half hours, and slow ferries take around five hours. Round-trip tickets range from around $50 to $150. One advantage of the ferries is that it is often possible to book a same-day ticket, which can be harder with flights (though ferries do occasionally sell out). Santorini and Mykonos are two and a half hours apart via ferry. As of summer 2017, there are no direct flights between the islands, though Condor Air has offered this route in the past.

What to Do: For most, Mykonos is all about exploring the various beaches and exploring Mykonos Town. But the ancient ruins at Delos, a small island off of Mykonos, are well worth an excursion. In Mykonos Town, Little Venice is a hip waterfront district that’s worth a stop, and the windmills above the town are a popular spot to snag a photo.

Where to Stay: The majority of Mykonos hotels are located in or near Mykonos Town, or along the beaches on the south shore. Those who want to spend their time exploring the adorable cobblestone alleyways of Mykonos Town, sampling its restaurants, and hitting up its nightlife (which can be hopping in high season) may prefer this location; some of the hotels a bit outside of town can also have gorgeous Aegean views, like Cavo Tagoo. If the beach is a priority, consider a stay along popular stretches of sand like Platys Gialos, Ornos, Elia Beach, Paraga, or Psarou. Petasos Beach Hotel & Spa has a terrific location right in between Platis Gialos and Psarou beaches. Myconian Villa Collection overlooks Elia Beach, and is a five-minute walk from a private section on the sand.

3. Paros

Paros lies in between Mykonos and Santorini. It’s larger in size than its two famous neighbors but gets fewer visitors, contributing to a more laid-back feel, not to mention lower prices. But it’s still plenty picturesque, and beaches here are nicer than on Santorini. It’s still among the more popular Greek islands, though, so don’t expect to have the place to yourself.

How to Get There: There are daily 40-minute flights from Athens, though there aren’t as many per day as there are to Santorini or Mykonos. Flight prices tend to be more expensive, between $100 and $200. Rather than flying straight to Paros, many hit up Santorini or Mykonos first and take the ferry. It’s a two-hour ferry ride from Santorini and round-trip prices are around $50 to $100. The ferry to Mykonos takes around 45 minutes and a round-trip ticket costs a little under $100. There are also ferries to Paros from Athens.

What to Do: Like Mykonos, Paros has a thriving party scene. It’s also a popular kitesurfing and windsurfing spot. Beach-hopping is the main activity here, although historic Panayia Ekatondapiliani church in Parikia is well worth a visit, as is the Archaeological Museum.

Where to Stay: Parikia and Naoussa are the two main destinations here. The former is the capital and the ferry port, featuring a large and charming old town. Naoussa is smaller and also quaint (though it can get full of tourists in high season), with a charming old fishing harbor and lots of seafood restaurants. Both are near excellent beaches, but Paros’ size means there are many beaches to explore all over the island, including the popular Golden Beach. Lefkes is a traditional inland town that is worth a visit. Senia Hotel is a charming family-run option right above Piperi Beach, within a five-minute walk of the shops and restaurants in Naoussa.

Hotels in this story

4. Naxos

Naxos is directly to the east of Paros, and the largest island of the Cyclades. Paros and Naxos have a lot in common, including nice beaches, although Paros has more ferry connections and better bus service, while Naxos has a more mountainous interior, more villages to visit, and slightly less tourism development and nightlife.

How to Get There: There are a few flights per day to Naxos, and the trip takes 40 minutes. Prices are in the $150 to $200 range. There are multiple ferries per day from Paros, and the trip takes 25 to 45 minutes and costs around $25 to $60 round-trip. Ferries from Athens are four to five hours, and Naxos also has ferries to other Greek islands, including Mykonos and Santorini.

What to Do: As on Paros, for most days center around the beach, and both kitesurfing and windsurfing can be enjoyed here. But there are also several interesting archaeological sights, principally the Portara, nearly all that’s left of the Temple of Apollo, and the ruins of the Temple of Demeter.

Where to Stay: Most visitors tend to stay in either Naxos, the main town, or along one of the west coast beaches, such as Agios Prokopios, Plaka, or Agia Anna. Iria Beach Art Hotel is a lovely, intimate option right on Agia Anna beach.

5. Ios

Ios, to the south of Paros and Naxos and just to the north of Santorini, has a renowned nightlife scene and is home to the famous Mylopotas Beach.

How to Get There: Santorini may be known for its sweeping views, but its beaches aren’t particularly impressive. Ios is a popular stopover for travelers to Santorini hoping to tack on a bit of beach time, and the ferry ride between the islands takes anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour and 30 minutes, depending on the ferry. Note that sailings aren’t as frequent as they are between other islands. Round-trip prices are around $20 to $80. There are also ferry routes from the Port of Piraeus in Athens, as well as Mykonos, Paros, and Naxos. There is no airport on Ios.

What to Do: Chora is a charming traditional village by day and a nightlife hot spot come evening. Travelers also explore the island’s various beaches, and visit the Archaeological Museum, Homer’s (alleged) tomb, or the ruins of an old Byzantine castle, Paleokastro. Cultural events are often held at the open-air Odysseas Elytis Amphitheater.

Where to Stay: Most hotels are located in near the main village of Chora, or along nearby Mylopotas Beach. Ios Palace Hotel is one of the island’s best upscale options, and has stunning views over Mylopotas Bay.

Cretan Islands

6. Crete

Crete is the largest and one of the most budget-friendly Greek islands. Hotel prices tend to be cheaper here than somewhere like Mykonos or Santorini, and food is cheaper, too, as Crete produces more of its own than some of the smaller islands, where most things have to be shipped in. It has a diverse range of experiences to offer, from bustling seaside towns to sandy beaches to fascinating Bronze Age history.

How to Get There: The easiest and fastest way to get to Crete is to fly from Athens; it’s a 50-minute flight to either Heraklion (prices are around $100 to $150 round-trip) or Chania (prices are about $60 to $100 round-trip). Crete is to the south of the Cyclades and it’s a long ferry ride, though there are overnight options from Athens available, usually departing at 9 or 10 p.m. and arriving around 6 a.m. Round-trip prices are around $80.

What to Do: Knossos is one of Crete’s many interesting cultural attractions. Spinalonga — an island off of the town of Plaka — is home to a historical fortress and leper colony; boats depart from Plaka, Elounda, and Agios Nikolaus. Samaria Gorge National Park offers stunning scenery and adventurous hiking; it’s an especially popular day trip for those staying near Chania or Rethymnon.

Where to Stay: Crete’s size means there are no shortage of options on where to stay. Heraklion, the capital, is home to the ferry port, an airport, and Knossos, Crete’s most famous archaeological site (home to the Bronze Age Minoan palace ruins often associated with the labyrinth and Minotaur of legend). There are high concentrations of seaside tourist resorts around Agios Nikolaus, Elounda, Malia, and especially Hersonissos. The first two have more higher-end resort options, while Malia is known for its party scene, and Hersonissos is the busiest and most developed area. Blue Palace, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa is an elegant seaside option a five-minute walk outside of Plaka.

Dodecanese Islands

7. Rhodes

For those seeking sunshine in the Mediterranean beyond July and August, Rhodes delivers, with 300 days of sunshine a year. Rhodes is an extremely developed tourist destination, but there’s still charm and natural beauty to be found. There are beautiful beaches (some sandy, some pebbly), and a number of impressive historic and archaeological sights.

How to Get There: There are daily one-hour flights from Athens ranging from around $70 to $100 in summer months. There are also non-stop four-hour flights available directly from Heathrow Airport in London ranging from $100 to $300 round-trip. There are a variety of ferry options, including a one-hour ferry to Marmaris in Turkey for around $80 round-trip.

What to Do: Some of the most popular attractions include the Old City in Rhodes Town (home to the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes); the acropolis ruins in Lindos; and of course, the island’s various beaches.

Where to Stay: The best places to stay are arguably Rhodes Town, for its impressive Old Town inside the medieval citadel; Faliraki, for its long, busy, sandy beach and water park; and Lindos, for its charming pedestrian hillside village and sandy beaches. The sandy beaches on Rhodes tend to get very crowded. A cute boutique pick in Rhodes Town is Spirit of the Knights Boutique Hotel, with six medieval-themed rooms, and Lindos Blu is a lovely adult-only luxury option outside of Lindos.

8. Kos

Kos follows Rhodes in both size and popularity among the Dodecanese Islands. It also offers ample sunshine and resort development.

How to Get There: There are daily flights to Kos from Athens, and it’s also possibly to fly directly from Frankfurt. Flights from Athens take 50 minutes and cost around $110 to $150 round-trip. There are ferries to Kos from Athens, Rhodes, Patmos, and Santorini available, as well as from nearby Bodrum, Turkey — among other options.

What to Do: Kos’ most famous attraction is the Asklepion, an ancient center of healing and temple complex located  outside of Kos Town.

Where to Stay: The most popular destinations on Kos include Kos Town (home to the Castle of the Knights of Saint john, plus lots of restaurants, shops, and bars); Kardamena (a small town with vibrant nightlife, plus a good smattering of nearby beach resorts); Kefalos (home to some of the island’s best beaches); and Marmari (featuring a popular, long, sandy beach on the north coast). Michelangelo Resort and Spa is a stunning upscale option on the beach within a 15-minute drive of Kos Town.

Ionian Islands

9. Corfu

Corfu is the northernmost island on this list, located off the northwestern coast of Greece near the border with Albania, and just across the Ionian Sea from Italy. It has been conquered by multiple foreign powers over the centuries, contributing to its unique multicultural heritage today. Though there’s plenty of resort development, Corfu is a bit quieter and more relaxed than other Greek Islands, and also has a more forested landscape.

How to Get There: It’s an hour-long flight from Athens to Corfu, and prices are around $100 to $200 round-trip. There’s also ferries between Corfu and several destinations in Italy, a rather special feature for travelers hoping to visit both countries. The closest stop in Italy is Otranto, a ferry ride of two hours and 30 minutes (around $230 round-trip).

What to Do: Visiting Corfu Old Town, with its pedestrian-only narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants, plus its historic fortress, is a must. The villages of Kassiopi and Paleokastritsa also get high marks; the local monastery in Paleokastritsa is worth a visit.

Where to Stay: Resorts can be found along Corfu’s entire coastline, but especially to the north and south of Corfu Town. Akrotiri Beach Hotel is an excellent mid-range option in Paleokastritsa with sweeping sea views, with direct access to a pebbly beach and a location a 20-minute drive north of Corfu Town.

Our Favorite Must-Bring Item for Greece: Ancient Greek Sandals

Keep on theme with the white cube buildings by snagging yourself the Niki Sandal from the ever-so-fitting brand Ancient Greek Sandals. Handcrafted in Greece using traditional techniques, these sandals are the real deal for your Greek islands vacation.

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Update 7/5: This article was amended to clarify the size of Naxos.

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