Greek Islands Travel Guide

Greek Islands Travel Guide

Like the witch, Circe, who lured Odysseus to spend a while on the Greek islands, the images we see of clear blue and green water, golden sand beaches, and white-washed buildings covered in bougainvillea are our own 21st-century siren call – beguiling and seductive, begging us to flop on a beach and eat seafood at a beachside taverna.

And like Odysseus, you can set sail through the different Greek island chains with the help of this Greek Islands Travel Guide!

There are about 6000 Greek islands, islets, and atolls, but only 227 are inhabited. Many lack fresh water or enough vegetation to make subsistence possible.

Some were inhabited in Antiquity, but as trade routes changed and empires collapsed, they lay abandoned.

Overtourism is a real issue for the superstar islands in the Aegean Island chain, and climate change is making the summers hotter, and longer, and the weather less predictable, with more fires and floods than Greece has seen before.

The increasing transportation options in Greece and from international destinations means that getting to and around the Greek Islands has never been easier.

Firopotomos Beach, Milos Island, Greece
Firopotomos Beach, Milos Island, Greece

Island-hopping routes are expanding, but it is also possible to find gorgeous islands free of cruise ships where life is still delightfully slow and languid.

To help plan your Greek island hopping vacation, read our comprehensive guide to our favorite itineraries:

Here are some of our island destination guides.

Greek Island Groups

There are six Greek island groups:

  • The Ionian Islands
  • The Cyclades
  • North Aegean Islands
  • Northern Sporades Islands
  • Saronic Islands
  • Dodecanese Islands

Below is a map showing their location relative to the mainland and to Crete, Greece’s largest island, which is not part of an island group and is surrounded by the Sea of Crete.

Greek Islands Map

Greek Islands Map

Cyclades Islands

What the map doesn’t show very clearly is that of the 227 inhabited Greek islands, 200 of them belong to the Cyclades group.

The Cyclades are the most popular island group, not too far from Athens, and with short ferry distances between them, they are perfect for island hopping itineraries.

Little Venice, Mykonos island, Greece
Little Venice, Mykonos Island, Greece

Santorini and Mykonos are the standout islands – Santorini for its blue domes, whitewashed buildings, and sunsets, and Mykonos for its superb but tiny old town (Chora), and of course as one of the world’s most famous party destinations.

The Sacred Island of Delos is only 20 minutes by boat from Mykonos – the whole island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – it is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

The culture and vibe of each of the Cyclades islands are different and their interior villages are full of archaeological sites, Byzantine chapels, wineries, and picture-perfect villages.

family on Naxos Island, Greece
Naxos Island, Greece

Paros, Naxos, Milos, and Tinos are some of my very favorite places in the world – full of historic and unspoiled mountain villages, some wonderful archaeological sites, beautiful hiking opportunities, and strong and ongoing makers of crafts, jewelry, ceramics, and produce.

It’s hard to think of a holiday more beautiful, exciting, and relaxing, than sailing in the Aegean Sea, visiting the islands of the Cyclades group.

Ionian Islands

The Ionian Islands are a group of islands located in the Ionian Sea, west of mainland Greece. They are lushly forested which is very different to the more southern Greek island groups.

The seven main islands are Corfu, Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Lefkada, Ithaca, Paxos, and Kythira.

Corfu (Kerkyra), the most popular island, has a lovely Venetian old city, beautiful beaches, and vibrant nightlife in the summer months.

Agios Spyridonas beach in Palaiokastritsa town, Corfu Island, Greece
Agios Spyridonas Beach, Palaiokastritsa town, Corfu Island, Greece

Paxos seems to float just off the end of Corfu – in Greek mythology Poseidon stuck his trident into a corner of Crete to break it off, forming Paxos, so he and his wife could have some peace!

Zakynthos, also known as Zante, is famous for its stunning Blue Caves and Shipwreck Beach, one of the most photographed places in the world.

Kefalonia, the largest of the Ionian Islands, boasts beautiful beaches, picturesque villages, and the Melissani Cave but sees many fewer tourists than Corfu and Zakynthos.

The islands receive a lot of rainfall (which is why they’re so green!), but in summer, the sea temperature is a perfect 25°C (77°F), making it ideal for swimming and water sports.

Tripitos Arch, Paxos Island, Greece
Tripitos Arch, Paxos Island, Greece

You can fly internationally directly to airports in Corfu, Kefalonia, and Zakynthos. Igoumenitsa on the Greek mainland has many ferries each day across the small strait to Corfu.

The two most popular island-hopping routes among the Ionian Islands are:

  • Corfu — Paxos — Antipaxos
  • Kefalonia — Ithaca — Zakynthos

Dodecanese Islands

Dodecanese means ’12 islands’ but there are 15 large islands and 150 smaller ones in the Dodecanese Islands group.

These islands are the westernmost part of Greece islands and they signal that you’ve sailed to the eastern edge of the Sea of Crete, and to the southeastern Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.

Acropolis of Lindos, Rhodes Island, Greece
Acropolis of Lindos on beautiful Rhodes Island, Greece

These islands have had a fascinating and turbulent history and are chock-full of ancient citadels, castles, museums, and important archaeological sites and monuments.

The largest and most well-known of the Dodecanese islands is Rhodes, which is famous for its medieval Old Town and a statue it once erected, the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The other most popular Dodecanese islands are Kos, Patmos, Karpathos, and Symi, and these islands are unique and wonderful in different ways.

The best time to visit is from May to October when the weather is warm and sunny. This means you can have a Greek summer holiday in the shoulder seasons and still have warm sea temperatures.

The ferry ride from Athens to Rhodes is at least 12 hours but there are ferries that take up to 24 hours. It is much easier to fly!

Panormitis, Symi Island, Greece
Panormitis, Symi Island, Greece

There are regular flights from Athens to Rhodes and Kos, and there are many ferries plying the routes between the islands in the group. The ferries go onwards to the Cyclades, Crete, and some Turkish islands.

The three most popular Dodecanese island hopping itineraries are:

  1. Rhodes — Kos-Symi
  2. Patmos — Leros-Kalymnos
  3. Karpathos — Kassos


Crete is a beautiful and historically rich island located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. As the largest of the Greek islands, Crete has mountains, gorges, plateaus, fertile valleys, and beaches – lots of spectacular beaches!

Balos Beach, near Chania in Crete, Greece
Balos Beach near Chania, Crete, Greece

The island is also home to numerous ancient ruins and historical landmarks, making it an astonishingly rich destination for people who are interested in history and culture (as well as beaches!)

Tourism is a major part of Crete’s economy, with millions of visitors flocking to the island each year, especially to the cities of Chania, Rethymno, and Heraklion.

Visiting the archaeological site of the Minoan Palace of Knossos, hiking in Samaria Gorge, exploring the Venetian old town of Chania, and experiencing beach environments like Balos and Elafonissi make Crete an amazing place for all kinds of holidaymakers.

Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece
Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece

International airports in Heraklion, Chania, and Sitia have direct flights from many European and UK cities, as well as Athens and other Greek Islands.

Ferries from Athens take 6-8 hours, but only two hours on a fast ferry from Santorini.