Greek Island Hopping: A Guide for First-Timers

Greek Island Hopping: A Guide for First-Timers

  • Author’s Note: Milos and I are competing to see who can visit all the inhabited Greek islands first. I have visited at least two dozen Greek islands so far and over many years I’ve become an expert at creating Greek island-hopping itineraries.

This article will explain how best to organize your own Greek island hopping tour, by understanding the logistics, selecting the right base, managing the costs, and choosing the best time to come. It includes some smart island itineraries, tips on moving around, and locals’ wisdom on what and where to avoid during the high season. 

Whether you are a foreigner or a local, Greek island hopping is an adventure of a lifetime, an experience bringing together summer holidays with exploration and culture trips, visitors, and locals in a cosmopolitan summer insular vibe, fueled with great food and beaches.

The goal is to strike a balance between planning and spontaneity, enabling you to be immersed in each island’s distinct rhythm and beauty. So here is everything you need to know to make your holiday to the Greek islands a reality.

Things to know before traveling

Blending together all the highlights of several Greek islands in one itinerary is no easy feat, especially taking into consideration they are so many, and mostly quite far apart.

This is why several steps during the planning phase are essential in ensuring you get the most out of your visit:

Cyclades islands include different airports and daily ferries
Cyclades islands include different airports and daily ferries

📆 Plan well ahead – you will need quite a few flights, ferry connections and accommodation perfectly aligned to make the most of the hopping adventure. Start planning 4-6 months ahead.

🗺️ Know your Greek islands – Greek islands are not all in one archipelago, some are even in a completely different sea than the other.

Knowing what is where will help you a great deal in avoiding itineraries that are made of traveling between the islands, rather than enjoying them.

🏝️ Pick your base and go from there – unless you have more than two weeks of traveling, start by picking your must-see island and work your way from there.

Having a main base is essential to a good island hopping plan and avoiding spending time moving around.

Naoussa, Paros Island, Cyclades, Greece

🤿 Don’t over-organize it – make sure your itinerary leaves enough room for smooth vacationing and some unplanned activities while you are finally there.

Also, don’t pick too many islands and your Greek Odyssey becomes a tiring run instead of a beautiful adventure.

🛬 You can always return – be at peace that you will not cover everything you want; Greek islands are a lifetime destination.

So, what are the Greek island groups, and how are they interconnected?

According to the Greek National Tourism Organization, Greece is adorned with over 6000 thousand islands, out of which around 227 are inhabited.

Some are tiny one-road islands with just a few hundred local inhabitants (like Folegandros) and some are some of the biggest islands in the Mediterranean (like Crete). All of them are divided into island groups:

The Cyclades – the quintessential Greek islands, Cyclades are the home of white sugarcubed houses, windmills, whitewashed churches, and barren landscapes favored all around the world.

Tinos Chora, Tinos Island, Cyclades Group, Greece
Tinos Chora, Tinos Island, Cyclades Group, Greece

Located between Athens and Crete, the Cyclades are home to Santorini, Mykonos, and Naxos, some of the most popular destinations in Greece.

Best connections to: Athens, the Dodecanese group. 

The Dodecanese Islands – second most popular Greek island group with 15 major islands, including Rhodes, Patmos, Symi, and Kos, located along the coast of Turkey.

They are also the farthest ones from Athens and you can feel that in the air – they are less developed than Cyclades, with more sun and boosting wonderful Ottoman and Venetian heritage.

Lindos, Acropolis and Beach, Rhodes Island, Dodecanese Island Group, Greece

Best for late summer/autumn holidays.

Best connections to: Athens, the Cyclades, and North-Aegean islands.

The North-Aegean Islands – located between Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, and the Turkish coast, these islands are less touristy and much more local.

Their lush green landscapes and different architecture are also a stark contrast to the Cyclades.

Thassos Island, North-Aegean Islands Group,  Greece
Thassos Island, North-Aegean Islands Group, Greece

From northernmost Thassos and Samothraki, via up-and-coming Ikaria, to the most southwestern Samos, this group is yet to be discovered.

Best connections to: Northern Greece mainland (Thessaloniki and Kavala), the Dodecanese, and Athens.

The Ionian Islands – Greece’s westernmost island group is set in the Ionian Sea and is closer to Italy and the Adriatic than to Athens and the Aegean.

Its peculiar history meant they were never occupied by the Ottomans, hence a completely different vibe, architecture, and landscapes. The main island is Corfu, a true aristocratic island gem.

Beautiful rural Corfu, Ionian Islands Group, Greece
Beautiful rural Corfu, Ionian Islands Group, Greece

Best connections to: Northern Greece mainland (west coast), Italy (Bari, Ancona, Brindisi), and Athens (by airplane).

The Argosaronic Islands – closest to Athens and home to some of the poshest islands there is, this group is where the wealthy Athenians will have their summerhouses or where you can do your day trip island hopping while staying in the capital of Greece – Athens.

Hydra is my favorite island, with its cosmopolitan past, car-free town, and artistic flair. It was Leonard Cohen’s favorite island as well!

Hydra Island, Greece
Hydra Island, Greece

Best connections to: Athens.

The Sporades – the greenest of them all, Sporades is a small island group just below the town of Volos.

Famous for its scenic beaches, pine forests, and lovely food, they are also known worldwide as a setting for a Mamma Mia movie.

Best connections to: Mainland Greece (Volos), Athens.

Crete – an island so big it was an autonomous state in the Ottoman Empire.

Ammoudaki Beach, Southern Crete

Home of the Minoan culture, later conquered by the Crusaders, Venetians and Ottomans, Crete is quintessential Greece, full of lively mountain villages, spectacular beaches, historic towns, and the best food in Greece.

Best connections to: The Dodecanese, Cyclades, Athens. 

What is the best way to island hop in Greece?

Islands of the same group might be quite similar in terms of what you encounter – a central village called Chora, several smaller traditional villages, and monastery communities dotted around the island, with coves and beaches in between.

Aegina harbor and ferry port, Aegina Island, Greece
Aegina harbor and ferry port, Aegina Island, Greece

However, each has its particular historical development that contributed to its contemporary atmosphere, so no island is alike and you will get a sense of that after visiting a few of them.

Islands from different groups can be worlds apart, especially when counting the Ionian ones – food, landscapes and even dialects are different.

The ideal amount of time to spend island hopping island is 10 days (for 2-3 islands) or two to three weeks for up to 6 islands. My preference is a minimum of a week on an island unless it is tiny!

Read more about the best small Greek islands, and the best islands for families and couples:

So, how do you choose which islands to hop?

Choose the top 3 islands you would like to visit and work your way around them. If not possible, then see if you could connect two of them with another one that is close by.

Mykonos Chora, Mykonos Island, Greece

Covering only one island group is advisable for shorter holidays (up to 7-10 days).

TIP: Mykonos and Santorini are close-by and you can add another one or two that are more low-key, to relax after the hustle and bustle of the main islands. Consider adding Tinos or Naxos before returning to Athens.

How are the islands interconnected?

Most of the islands of the same group will be on the ferry routes of the big (national) or small (local) ferry lines. A General rule is that all the islands in the Aegean Sea are connected to Athens.

Ferries traveling from Athens to distant islands will call on many of the other islands in between, so you can hop on and off (for example a ferry from Athens to Santorini will stop on 7 other islands in between) or fly from Athens directly to your island hub and take ferry for the last leg.

TIP: Choose an island you can fly to/from and move around its island group by ferry. Not all islands have airports.

Here are our guides to island hopping in Greece by ferry:

The distance between islands

The distances between islands of the same group are not very big and can usually be covered in a couple of hours on a ferry.

Minoan lines, one of several Greek ferries sailing between Athens and Crete. Its an overnight journey.
Minoan Lines, one of several Greek ferries sailing between Athens and Crete. It’s an overnight journey.

However, not all islands are connected to all the others, and knowing your ferry hubs is essential to making a time-savvy itinerary. I always use for my planning and ferry ticket purchases.

The distances from Athens can be much more – up to a 24-hour ferry ride.

Ferry JourneyApproximate fast ferry travel time
Athens to Crete6 hours
Athens to Santorini4 hours, 45 mins
Athens to Rhodes15 hours, 40 mins
Athens to Mykonos2 hours, 40 mins
Athens to Aegina40 mins
Athens to Paros3 hours, 10 mins
Athens to Milos2 hours, 40 mins

Greek island hopping tours

If all this planning seems like too much work, there are some excellent multi-day Greek island tours. There are small group and private tours as well as more traditional cruise ship excursions.

Which Greek island base is best for hopping?

🏝️ The Cyclades: Santorini and/or Mikonos – from which you can visit many other smaller islands like Tinos, Naxos, Syros, or Milos.

TIP: My favorite island hopping tour in the Cyclades avoids the busy and flashy islands during the high season and includes landing on Naxos island, only to proceed to “Small Cyclades” – Iraklia, Koufonissi, Donoussa, Amorgos, and Schinoussa.

🏝️ The Dodecanese: Rhodes – with local and international flights and one of the best castles in Europe, Rhodes is fantastic to start with. From there it’s easy to visit Symi, Kassos, Karpathos, Patmos, and Astipalaia.

TIP: If not a fan of ferries, land in Rhodes and visit low key islands of Tilos and Halki are just around the corner.

🏝️ The Ionian Sea: Corfu – an island town that the former Greek royal family chose for its summer residence is all you want from an elegant and vibrant island hub. Proceed to calm Paxoi (Paxos) and Ithaka islands afterwards.

TIP: Watch Netflix’s TV show Maestro before heading to the Ionian islands.

How much does it cost to island hop in Greece?

💰 Budget travelers should look around 80-100€ a day, with accommodation, food and ferries included.

⛴️ Transportation expenses:

Ferry routes from Athens are around 20-100€, but moving between the islands is much more affordable (5-20€). Cars and motorbikes are charged extra.

✈️ Return domestic flights to Athens are around 100-200€, depending on the season and the time of booking.

Pollonia, Milos Island, Cyclades Group Greece
Pollonia, Milos Island, Cyclades Group Greece

🏨 Accommodation expenses:

Double rooms in budget hotels start from 40€ on smaller islands off-season, reaching thousands when it comes to suites with private pools around the Cycladic islands like Mykonos or Santorini during the high season.

🎭 Activities and food:

The Greek islands are becoming super popular, resulting in rising prices of everything you do there. However, local boat tours and family-owned taverns offer great value for money (15-20€ pp).

What is the best month for Greek island hopping?

European holiday month is August, so it’s best if you can avoid Greece during that period – crowds are present on every island and the prices soar.

☀️ The best months are June and September, followed by May and early July.