With an incredible 6,000 islands and 227 inhabited, it can be hard to determine which of the islands are worth a visit when traveling to Greece. We’ve selected six of our favorites, that we believe no Greece visit is complete without. Santorini, Mykonos, Delos, Paros, and Naxos belong to the Cyclades Islands; while Crete and Samothrace are archaeological treasures lined by scenic, sandy beaches.
An island blown apart by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption 2,500 years ago, the resultant caldera has created an almost mystic aura surrounding Santorini’s unique natural beauty. Occupying a small, 12-mile crescent of land, we feel Santorini to be the one Cyclades Island that combines relaxation, entertainment, natural beauty, and ancient history. Santorini’s innumerable picturesque, quaint villages are a big plus for spending time here. The villages’ unique architecture of small white houses built on reddish cliffs along the volcanic beaches, makes for an extraordinary setting. It is important to note that although Santorini is pristinely gorgeous, that great beauty comes with a price: a lot of tourists. If visiting Santorini, you should be prepared to encounter tourists taking photos at every lookout point, even outside of the busy season. If interested in the lesser-known, but also beautiful, islands, continue reading about our other favorite ones!
Considered by many to be the chic, fashionable, and most status-conscious island of the Cyclades, it can be quite busy and crowded during the July through August peak “party” season. Hora, the island’s well-preserved port and capital features narrow alleys and whitewashed buildings overlooking the town’s iconic windmills. We recommend visiting the town’s waterfront “Little Venice” quarter during sunset as the setting is spectacular. During the summer season, the streets are overrun with hip boutiques, galleries, and numerous, loud local bars.
Our Favorite Lesser-Known, More Understated and Authentic Cyclades Islands
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Delos is a sacred place, where the twins Apollo, the God of light, and Artemis, the Goddess of hunting and the wild, were born. Because of this, in ancient times, no child was permitted to be born here, nor any person allowed to die here. In modern time, Delos has become a wealth of archaeological treasures ranging from the Archaic to the Classical to the Hellenistic periods. The island itself is a museum where no overnight visitors are allowed, so soak up all the treasures of this ancient place while you can.
Paros lies at the center of the Aegean Sea, 100 miles from Athens. This island is the preferred second home of many of Greece’s wealthiest families and as such, many prefer to keep this spot a secret. However, due to the opening of a few subtly luxurious hotels, Paros is moving into the spotlight. Easily accessible from mainland Greece, there are short, daily flights from Athens and numerous ferry options. The Greek poet Giorgos Seferis, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1963, described Paros as “the loveliest of all the Greek Islands”. Largely spared of the cruise ship hoards that invade islands such as Mykonos and Santorini, Paros offers a peaceful escape from that busyness. Among our favorite luxury, boutique properties on this island are the 33-suite Parilio Hotel, 100-room Summer Senses resort on the east coast of the island, and 15-room, adults-only Calme Boutique Hotel.
The largest of the Cyclades Island, we feel Naxos to be one of the most beautiful ones! Just a short ferry ride from the more famous Paros and Mykonos islands, Naxos is still relatively unknown, and therefore devoid of the usual tourist overcrowding in the peak season. The ancient past and strong influences of the Venetians and the Franks are responsible for the abundance of ancient sites here, including The Marble Gate of Portara, the statues of Kouros, and the temple of Demeter. Considered to be the “greenest” island of the Cyclades, Naxos boasts a beautiful natural landscape and features many hikes and walks through the rural villages, lush valley, beaches, and mountains (including the mythic Mount Zeus!).
The small island of Tinos, approximately fifteen-minutes by boat from Mykonos, has amazingly avoided overcrowded mass tourism and is a pleasant alternative to nearby Mykonos and Santorini. Best known for its Sacred Greek Orthodox Church, the Panagia Megalochari is a place of pilgrimage. Tinos offers beautiful landscapes, produces much of its own food, and has warm and inviting locals. They are committed to making their island a stark contrast from overcrowded Mykonos, in hopes of making it a place where visitors can go for a gratifying, authentic Greek island experience. Tinos is dotted with over forty marble-oriented villages on hidden bays, on terraced hillsides, and atop misty mountains.
This long, narrow island is dominated by daunting mountains that rise to 8,000 feet (Mount Ida), with much of the land unspoiled. Most people know of Crete as the birthplace of Zeus (“born” in Psychro Cave at Mount Dikti), yet the island was also once the center of the Minoan civilization during the Paleolithic Age, the earliest of European civilizations. In addition to stunning beaches and lagoons, Crete holds the famous archaeological sites of Knossos, 15th-century monasteries, and the gorge of Samaria.
Topped by Mount Saos, the highest mountain of all the Aegean Islands, ancient myths tell of Poseidon sitting on the peak to watch the War of Troy unfold. Here is where the Winged Victory of Samothrace, (our favorite sculpture and the inspiration for Rolls Royce’s Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament) was found. Though the statue is now held in Paris’ Louvre, there are still many things to see on Samothrace, including the Sanctuary of the Great Gods and the sulfur springs of Therma.