Understanding Greek island groups and the places that fit within them can be overwhelming. After all, it is estimated that there are approximately 6,000 islands in Greece!
This sounds like an awful lot of destinations to choose from when drafting out a Greek island-hopping adventure. But actually, fewer than 250 of these islands are actually inhabited.
Many of Greece´s uninhabited islets and islands are accessible, particularly if you rent or own a boat. They boast quiet, secluded beaches reminiscent of desert islands. You could visit Greece and its islands every year of your life and constantly be discovering new places.
Greek Island Groups
There are six main island groups in Greece. Namely, these are as follows:
- The Sporades
- The Cyclades
- Saronic Gulf
- The Dodecanese
- North Aegean islands
- The Ionian islands
The Greek Islands
Within these Greek island groups, you will find a plethora of different cultures and architectural types. Separately, the islands of Evia and Crete are the two largest in Greece.
They are not categorised within any Greek island groups. Evia is connected to the mainland by numerous road bridges.
The postcard image of a Greek island is typically that of a whitewashed house adorned with a blue roof, sitting against a backdrop of clear, cerulean waters. That’s a beautiful image. But it is more reminiscent of the Cyclades Greek island group than it is of Greek islands as a whole.
For instance, by contrast, buildings in the Ionian islands are built from stone with tiled roofs and brightly coloured fixtures. Sporades island villages are distinguished by their whitewashed buildings with red roofs and wooden balconies.
Generally speaking, you can travel to a range of Greek islands and still feel as though you are constantly uncovering new things about Greek culture and history. That’s the beauty of Greece and its islands.
The Sporades archipelago may well just be the most underrated of all of the Greek island groups. This is a collection of 24 islands that sit within the northeast Aegean.
Of the 24 islands here, only four are inhabited. Namely, Skopelos, Skyros, Alonissos, and Skiathos.
The Sporades are laden with dense pine forests, paradisiacal beaches, abundant hiking trails, and quaint villages. These islands tend to see a fraction of the annual tourists of say, Santorini or Mykonos.
This is, in part, due to the fact that the islands are not the easiest to get to. Charter flights run during the summer months to Skiathos. Otherwise, a combination of ferries, trains, and domestic flights is required, depending on where you are starting out in Greece.
These islands are the greenest in the Mediterranean. It may rain more here than on other Greek islands, but if it didn´t, nature here wouldn’t be so pristine.
Islands of the Sporades
- Tsougrias (uninhabited)
Skiathos is the most popular of the Sporades group. Thousands upon thousands of Greek and international holidaymakers flock here every summer.
But for good reason, Skiathos is beautiful. This little island is only 7 miles long and 4 miles wide. Within that small space, it boasts more than 60 beaches and coves.
Two of Skiathos´ beaches: Lalaria and Koukounaries have been repeatedly named as being the most beautiful in the world, in addition to among the most beautiful in Greece. Skiathos town is a bustling port with a plethora of restaurant and nightlife options for every taste and age.
The nearby island of Skopelos featured as the fictional island of Kalokairi in Mamma Mia. It has its fans, like any Greek island. However, Skopelos remains largely undeveloped and has thus far escaped the perils of over-tourism.
If you are looking for natural beauty and unserviced, wild beaches, Skopelos is a great shout. Spend a day swimming in the rugged coastal areas of Hovolo and Armenopetra, Neo Klima. No trip to Skopelos is complete without visiting the cliff-top church of Agios Ioannis Kastri, made infamous by its role in Mamma Mia.
Little Alonissos and Skyros are among the most remote islands in the region, often escaping the attention of tourists. The former sits within the largest protected marine park in Greece and is rapidly growing into a popular scuba destination.
Saronic Gulf Islands
Each of the Saronic islands is unique. Each one has a distinctly different culture to its neighbours. Despite their proximity to mainland Greece, they feel a million miles away from the chaos of modern life.
Some of the islands here feel somewhat frozen in a time warp. For instance, little Hydra has no cars or vehicles. They are not permitted here and people get around by donkey.
This archipelago offers some of the best hikes in Greece, with trails winding through the natural scenery of Poros, Aegina, and Agistri. The port at Hydra is considered as being the most beautiful in all of Greece. It was here where important battles took place during the Greek War for Independence in 1821.
Visitors to Hydra should take the time to venture further than Hydra port if they are to escape the crowds and day-trippers. Following the coastal path that leads from the port and out towards the fishing villages of Kamini and Vlychos is a pleasant way to do so.
Spetses is the farthest of the Saronic islands and floats within the Argolic Gulf. The population of this affluent island is concentrated in its namesake Spetses town.
Step outside of the island capital and Spetses is essentially one big national park. Come here out of season and you´ll find you have entire beaches and jaw-dropping coves all to yourself.
The islands of the Cyclades are perhaps the most renowned of the Greek island groups. Most Greece travel itineraries tend to include Santorini and Mykonos – two of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.
However, if your travel plans permit, you should absolutely try to venture more off the beaten path in the region and head to equally gorgeous, yet lesser-known islands such as Amorgos, Andros, and Folegandros.
There are 220 islands within this Greek island group. However, only a small percentage of these are actually inhabited. If you venture to the Cyclades islands besides Santorini and Mykonos, you will be rewarded with fewer crowds and lower prices.
Islands within the Cyclades
Exploring the Cyclades
Delos is a unique and fascinating historic island in the Cyclades. You should consider visiting on a day trip, particularly if you are basing yourself in nearby Santorini or Naxos.
The island is a UNESCO-protected heritage site with strong links to Greek mythology. Legend has it that it was here where the God Apollo and Goddess Artemis were born.
As such, the island is considered sacred ground. Nobody has ever been permitted to live here.
Today, it is essentially one huge open-air museum. Delos consists of the sun-bleached ruins of centuries-old temples, colonnaded walkways, and fascinating ancient statues.
Amorgos is an understated Cycladic island that has begun to increase in popularity in recent years. It can be found at the easternmost part of the archipelago, floating towards the Dodecanese.
Amorgos´ Chora is distinguishable by its gorgeous Venetian monuments, old churches, and narrow winding passageways and cobbled streets. Don’t miss Hozoviotissa Monastery while youŕe here.
This may well be one of the most gorgeous and dramatic religious structures in all of Greece. The monastery can be found perched atop a cliff. From this point, it offers incredible views across the island.
Mykonos remains one of Greece’s most infamous party islands. Nightlife and glamour aside, it does offer attractions that appeal to travellers of all interests and age groups.
Hike to the famous Kato Myloi windmills near the Chora, enjoy dinner and drinks in Little Venice, and sample wine and charcuterie selections at one of the island’s many organic vineyards. To avoid the crowds, consider visiting Santorini and Mykonos between October and May.
The Dodecanese archipelago can be found in the northwestern part of Greece. Here, they sit within the Aegean, just between Turkey and Greece.
There are 165 islands here, of which only 26 are inhabited. Kos and Rhodes are among the most popular travel destinations here. Similarly, the little island of Symi has become very much ¨in vogue¨ in recent years.
The Dodecanese are known for their medieval architecture and quiet beaches and coastlines. Indeed, many of the settlements and old fortifications are very well preserved. Most notably, Rhodes’s old town.
There are hundreds of islands contained within the Dodecanese archipelago, However, the twelve most popular are detailed above.
Rhodes is the largest island in the Dodecanese group. Unfortunately, some areas have become overly gentrified and are occupied predominantly by touristic resorts. Regardless, the island still has its charm.
Modern Rhodes sits at a fabulous juxtaposition of old meets new. Its UNESCO-protected old town is one of the very best examples of medieval architecture in all of Europe.
History of the Dodecanese
Various civilisations have lived on or conquered these lands throughout the centuries. Each has left its mark on the architecture and culture of the Dodecanese today.
It was the Venetians that first conquered the Dodecanese. They built impressive defensive castles and fortresses.
Almost every inhabited Dodecanese island has a fabulous, well-preserved Venetian castle that you can visit. In Rhodes, its the Palace of the Grand Master.
The Ottomans conquered the archipelago in the 15th century. They built impressive mosques with towering minarets, hammams (bathhouses), and libraries. Many of these can be observed in Rhodes’s old town and around the island.
Patmos island has interesting religious links. It is supposedly here where Apostle St John lived out his final years and wrote the New Testament. As a result, it has become one of Greece’s biggest Orthodox Christian pilgrimage sites.
Symi is a mountainous island in the Dodecanese known for its colourful houses, its stunning beaches, and its annual music festival. The architecture here is distinctly different from much of the archipelago – Symi town is lined with grand neoclassical mansions.
There are many picturesque villages and beaches located within walking distance of Symi town. Notably, the seaside town of Pedi is situated 2km east of Symi village, and the breathtaking cove of Emporio is 3km west.
The Ionian islands sit off the west coast of Greece, where they float in the namesake Ionian sea. Igoumenitsa port acts as a gateway to the Ionian from the Greek mainland.
Corfu (Kerkyra) and Zakynthos (Zante) are arguably the most touristic of the fourteen islands. But if you know where to go, and you avoid travelling during the months of July and August, its easy enough to escape the package tourism crowds.
- Kerkyra (Corfu)
- Paxos and Antipaxos
- Zakynthos (Zante)
The island of Corfu is locally known as ¨Kerkyra¨. This modern Greek name has roots in mythology.
Kerkyra (Corfu), the Ionian
Kerkyra was the nymph daughter of the river-god Asopos. She captured the heart of Poseidon who made love to her on the island. She gave birth to the race of the Phaeacians.
In ancient times, Corfu was an important trade centre and naval hub occupied by the Phoenicians. It was invaded and conquered by a number of civilisations in the millennia that followed.
The Macedonians, Spartans, Illyrians, Romans, Normans, and Venetians all controlled this island at one point. The Venetian rule was a particularly prosperous period for Corfu.
Hence why much of Corfu’s old town consists of Venetian-style buildings, and why some areas are more reminiscent of Italy than they are of Greece! Today, meandering through Corfu’s old town is a highlight of any Ionian adventure.
So too, is visiting the beaches of Paleokastritsa or watching the planes come in to land in Kanoni. From Corfu, it is easy to sail out to nearby Paxos and Antipaxos.
Paxos awaits at the southern tip of Corfu and is one of Greece’s least commercial islands. Its villages, hotels, and restaurants are upscale and sophisticated, yet without any air of pretension.
If you follow the coastal road from the capital of Gaios to the village of Mongonissi, you will find a plethora of hidden beaches and coves. Don´t miss the opportunity to sail across to Antipaxos.
It is home to translucent turquoise waters that would have you thinking you’re in the heart of the Caribbean. Vrika and Vatoumi beaches are the perfect spots to indulge in some much-deserved R&R.
Other Ionian islands
Ithaca is famous in Greek culture as being the birthplace of Odysseus (Ulysses), the hero in Homer’s Odyssey. But Ithaca today is more than just stories and myths. It is also a relative unknown as far as international tourism goes.
The main town of Ithaca is Vathi. If you head to the northern part of the island, there are also numerous idyllic villages and beaches. The natural bay of Vathy is among the most beautiful ports of Greece.
Zakynthos (Zante) is known for its incredible natural landscapes. Navagio beach is one of the most famous spots on the island – home to a 1980s shipwreck. The beach rests in a sandy cove framed by cliffs.
Summer in Zakynthos is synonymous with the idea of raucous British tourists and wild nightlife. However, opt to base yourself in the north of the island and you leave the chaos and over-tourism behind. Here you’ll find forested wilderness and traditional rural villages.
The North Aegean Islands
The North Aegean islands have a culture and charm all of their own. They are actually closer to Turkey than they are to mainland Greece.
Indeed, it is possible to take excursions to some of these islands from Bodrum and other coastal destinations in the Turkish Riviera. There are vast distances between some of the islands in this group – for instance, the northern island of Thassos appears closer to Thessaloniki, Halkidiki, and the Sporades than it does to its sister islands.
North Aegean Islands
- Agios Efstratios
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Safe travels! Geia sou! Melissa xo