We all dream of a sunny break somewhere in the Greek Islands, but the sheer variety on offer can sometimes seem bewildering. To help you, here’s our guide to our Top 5 Greek Islands, giving a little glimpse of what each has to offer.
According to tradition, Patmos is where St John wrote the Book of Revelations. Don’t let that colour your perception of this tiny island, however – it can be a paradise.
To begin, it has plenty of pretty, patrolled beaches, perfect for families – our picks are Agriolivádi and Vagiá, each with beachside taverna and activities and water-sports hire – the island breezes make it perfect for windsurfing.
The island’s main settlement is Patmos town, a maze of white-washed houses clustered around the Monastery of St John the Divine. It’s the perfect place for wandering after the hottest hours of the day and makes for great pictures. You will also find plenty of tiny shops selling household wares and art – the town has a long, long history of producing decorative wares. In the evening, when you’re hungry, head to Vagelis on the main square for traditional platters of grilled meat and salad, washed down with ouzo.
When you’re feeling energetic, head up the hill to the monastery. Built in the 11th century much like a fortress, children will love exploring its various winding passages and chambers, while adults will be in awe of the frescos and intricate art throughout.
Those with a special love of history and culture will want to make the trek along the read between Chora and Skala to the Cave of the Apocalypse, where St John is said to have received the vision that led him to write the book of Revelations. While fairly small, it does have a very unique and special atmosphere.
Our pick for island accommodation is Patmos Aktis Suites & Spa – do try their Apocalypsis Restaurant while you’re there for stunning island flavours, combined with Japanese flourishes.
Mykonos is especially known for its beaches. Out of the many vying for your attention, we have a few particular favourites. If you are visiting with family, or are looking for some peaceful sunning, Platis Gialos or Agrari are our picks – both have wide swathes of sand, taverna nearby and are generally fairly safe. The more energetic will love Paradise and Super Paradise for the beautiful people, pumping music and water sports hire. The two Paradise beaches are a particular draw for LGBT tourists.
As befits the island’s glitzy popularity, Mykonos town has attracted top-end boutiques and fashion outlets and you can easily spend an afternoon giving the credit card a workout. We recommend you seek out the stores selling pottery and traditional crafts – much like Patmos, there is a strong tradition of beautiful decorative arts here.
When you’ve built up an appetite, head to Ma’ereio for authentic island tastes, or head just out of town to Joanna’s Niko’s, where the eponymous owner is there to preside over mouth-watering, homemade taverna classics.
Looking to explore? In Mykonos town, Little Venice is a riot of medieval houses right on the water that is very much instagramable. Further afield, including a boat ride, the archaeological site at Delos is one of the greats of the ancient world. Famed in Greek mythology as the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo, there are substantial remains of an awesome temple complex.
More than any other Greek Island, Crete is imbued with myth and mystery – is the home of the labyrinth and the Minotaur. Both Daedalus and Icarus made their fateful flights from here. You can spend weeks exploring every corner of this largest of the Greek Islands. Indeed, Greeks often talk about Crete as if it were its own distinct country.
We’ll get to beaches in just a moment, but anybody who comes to the island has to visit the Palace of Knossos. Heart of the Minoan culture, many consider the palace complex and surrounding ruins the first ‘city’ in Europe. You can spend hours exploring the site. A short taxi ride away is the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, that interprets and explores the rise and fall of this most enigmatic of Greek civilizations.
If you’re not one for ruins, we’ve got you covered. Crete has many fine beaches that cater to different audiences. For a great family beach, we suggest Váï, sheltered by palm tree groves. There’s snorkeling and windsurfing available, while beach bars cater for those with a thirst. There’s also watersports facilities at Paleóhora, that shares a hippie past with Váï, and still has a pleasant, alternative atmosphere. If you’re up for it, dolphin cruises depart nearby daily.
If you’ve got access to a car, we recommend driving into the island’s interior and discovering the many mountain villages. The relatively small size of the island means it’s hard to get lost.
Heraklion is Crete’s capital and hides a mish-mash of traditional, Venetian and Ottoman traces amidst the growing modern city. If on a family holiday, why not explore the Old Harbour and medieval fortress with the kids, as well as the CretAquarium and award-winning Natural History Museum of Crete?
Culture junkies will love the many historic places of worship, with their intricate interiors throughout the city centre. Seek out the Cathedral of St Minas and the Church of St Catherine, the latter which contains many handpainted icons by master painter El Greco.
After a day exploring Heraklion, choose Loukoulos for fresh organic goodness using authentic Cretan produce, or Pagopoieion for great seafood and salads.
The remains of the volcano that destroyed the Minoan culture, Santorini is unique in the crescent-shaped remains of its caldera, that shelter lovely black sand beaches. Kamári is the favourite beach for families and has all the beach bars, snack bars and watersports outlets you would want, along with its wide spread of dark sand. If you’re more of a party animal, consider Perívolos, with more of the loud music and nightlife associated with Greek islands.
There’s plenty else to do, apart from swimming. Hikers and those who love natural beauty will enjoy the walking trails that lead up to the rim of the volcanic caldera which offers spectacular views. The ancient fortresses of Pyrgos, Skaros, Oia, and Akrotiri are great for energetic kids to explore, as well as hiding a number of intriguing stories to discover. History buffs will be intrigued by the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, showing the effects of Santorini’s eruption on ancient cultures nearby.
Fira has all the beach resorts and boutique shopping on Santorini, but we recommend you visit Oia – a little bit quieter and much more photogenic. It is also the place to watch the sunset – get to the castle ruins, the beach, or the very point For a great meal as the sun sets, consider 1800, housed in a 19th-century mansion or Dimitris for fresher than fresh seafood.
One final note about Santorini: In an effort to protect the island’s unique nature and atmosphere, the port authorities are seeking to limit the number of cruise ships that dock there. This may increase to ferries in time, so now is the perfect time to go, unless you wish to pay more to visit.
Naxos could be considered by many to be the ‘undiscovered’ Greek island – it simply does not attract the same sort of crowds that the others do. This is a bit of a mystery to those in on the secret, as it really is a treasure.
Naxos’ beaches are more than equal to those of its neighbours. Agios Georgios is the main tourist beach, but it is a laidback, chilled out sort of place, without the crush of many of its cousins on other islands. There are restaurants and snack bars, as well as windsurfing, jet skiing, and other watersports. A good place for families. Agios Prokopios is quieter and has the benefit of great snorkeling and scuba-diving very close by, particularly around the site of a crashed WW2 bomber.
If you’re able to, it’s worth getting into the interior of the island, either by hiring a car, taxi or taking a bus, to see the monasteries of Fotodótis and Kalamítsia, as well as the ancient 5th-century church of Panagía Drossianí that has frescoes over 1500 years old still visible. Do also make sure you check out the very striking Portara – a huge doorway that is all that’s left of an ancient temple built in 525BCE.
Naxos town is the island’s main centre and has a long and proud history – it particularly enjoyed prominence as a stronghold of the Venetians. Between the Kastro (castle) and the Domus Venetian Museum, you should get a clear picture of how important this place once was. Make sure you wander through Old T0wn with its maze of alleyways, tiny squares and winding streets – the shopping here is great, particularly for handicrafts, shoes, and jewelry.
To eat well in Naxos town, we recommend Labyrinth for great traditional cooking in a scenic garden. If you love your meat, the grilled platters at Sto Ladoharto are fantastic, as are the views across the harbour.
If Naxos sounds like the place to be, may we suggest Nastasia Village Boutique Hotel, a hotel with magnificent views, a range of delightful rooms and impeccable service – they can arrange almost any island activity you can think of.
Once you’ve made your decision, getting to the Greek Islands is fairly easy. In season, there are direct flights from London Gatwick and Stansted to Mykonos, Santorini and Crete. Outside of these peak months, there are domestic flights from Athens and there is an extensive ferry network between the islands, for those who wish to travel at a slower, more scenic pace.