If there’s one thing Greece has plenty of, it’s islands. There’s 6000 of them, though only 227 are inhabited. Most of the Greek isles are located in the Aegean sea, between the Greek mainland and Turkey, although there’s also a few off the western coast. The islands are divided in several island groups, each with their own characteristics. Most tourists associate these islands with beaches, romantic getaways and partying all night long. You can experience all that of course, but also a whole lot more. There are direct flights to the most popular destinations, while all inhabited islands are reachable by ferry, either from neighbouring islands or from Crete or Piraeus, the harbor city of Athens.
The Ionian islands
This is the only island complex in the Ionian sea, to the west of the mainland. The islands are greener and more temperate than most of the other Greek islands. Most famous among the islands is Corfu. It has a cosmopolitan town, beaches (both undeveloped and overcrowded), a lush interior and nice archeological sights and buildings,
Crete is the largest island in Greece, and effectively forms the southern edge of the Aegean sea. But it also has its own identity and history. The earliest advanced civilization in Europe appeared here. The Minoans ruled between 3000 BC and 1200 BC, and has left many remains on the island, including their capital of Knossos, which is located in the suburbs of Heraklion, the capital of Crete today. There are loads of hotels and beach resorts of all price ranges on the norther coast, and the Cretan towns range from party-town Malllia, via the sophisticated city of Agios Nikolaos, to Chania, which is as typical Cretan as it gets. Inland there’s natural wonders like the Samariá Gorge, and the southern coast is a good option if you want to get away from the masses of tourists.
This island group has some of the most popular destinations in Greece. Mykonos is infamous for its partying and beaches, regular as well as nude. The downside is that it’s also the most crowded and expensive.
Santorini is the result of a volcanic explosion 3600 years ago, that left this beautiful Greek island, with steep cliffs made out of dark volcanic matter. Its sunsets and blue roofed white houses makes it postcard pretty.
Between Crete and southwest Turkey you’ll find the Dodecanese islands. Rhodes is largest of these, and was in ancient times the site of Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Its medieval old town is today a World Heritage Site. The terrain is more typical Turkey than what you would usually associate with Greek islands.
The Saronic Islands
These islands lie to the south of Athens, and are prime targets for a daytrip from Athens, for tourists and Athenians alike. Aegina is the largest one, and very close to Athens. It has a beautiful temple dedicated to Aephina in addition to several nice beaches and resorts.
Further south the entire island of Hydra has been declared a World Heritage Site, and with good reason. Its crescent shaped harbour and town is a popular destination for the wealthy, and the no-car town has plenty of charming shops and restaurants.
The island of Skopelos has a scenic port town, and neighbouring Skiathos has been a popular charter destination for a long time, well-known for its nightlife and activities. But after the movie Mamma Mia! was filmed there, tourism has truly skyrocketed.
The Northeastern Aegean Islands
Best known among these is perhaps Lesbos, which name has taken on a special meaning because of the love poems of the female poet Sappho to other women. But the emerald island is worth a visit in its own right, with one of the few petrified forests in the world, historic churches and some lovely beaches.