Greece offers well over two hundred inhabited islands of all shapes and sizes, set like gems in the sparkling Ionian and Aegean seas. It can be hard to pick which ones to visit on your trip. Former resident and Rough Guide to Greece author Nick Edwards picks the best Greek islands to visit.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to the Greek Islands, your essential guide for visiting Greek islands.
When planning your Greek holiday, take a look at our list of tips for travelling in Greece.
As Greece’s largest island, Crete is something of an all-rounder. Crete boasts the dramatic White Mountains, kilometres of fine beaches, the delightful Samaria Gorge and several interesting cities, not least the island capital of Iraklion. For anyone interested in archaeology, however, it’s the obvious place to combine the joys of an island with a variety of ancient remains to rival the mainland.
Just 5km outside of Iraklion lies Knossos, the island’s preeminent ancient site, with its grand, second millennium BC Minoan palace, where King Minos once kept the legendary Minotaur. The layout of the interconnected halls and rooms is truly labyrinthine and much of the palace amazingly well preserved.
Here you can marvel at superb ancient art, such as the famous dolphin fresco. Iraklion’s archaeological museum, meanwhile, is also one of the country’s finest, with a host of fascinating Minoan treasures. East along the coast, Malia Palace is another great site from the same era.
Other star Minoan attractions near the south coast are the Palace of Phaestos, which enjoys a splendid hillside location and view of Mount Psiloritis, and the smaller remains at Ayia Triada.
In the same region, the ruined capital of a Roman province that encompassed Crete and a chunk of north Africa can be seen at Gortys. Further afield the Dhiktean Cave and Palace of Zakros are yet more ancient sites to be enjoyed.
If a beach holiday is what you're looking for in Crete, explore our guide to the best beaches in Crete.
Despite being one of the lower profile Cyclades, most beach connoisseurs rate Milos as one of the best Greek islands. Perhaps that is not so surprising, thanks to its volcanic nature and horseshoe shape, it boasts an impressive seventy-five beaches, yet is barely 20km across.
Rarely crowded except in the height of peak season, Milos has a laidback feel and offers plenty of choices in accommodation and eating.
One of the best beaches on the south coast is sandy Paleohóri, gently heated by underground thermal currents and linked to a second strand, hemmed in by colourful cliffs, via a tunnel through the rock. The headland that encompasses the northern settlements of Adhámas and Plaka is punctuated by a variety of coves.
The long sandy stretch at Pollonia in the northeast is shaded by tamarisks. It is the rugged west coast, however, that offers the purest beauty and most undeveloped beaches of Triadhes, Ammoudharaki and Kleftiko, the latter accessible only by boat.
Get to know the most exotic island in the Aegean with this tailor-made trip to Milos. Volcanic rocks paint the beaches red, pink and orange, white rock formations, emerald green waters and caves eroded by the sea, are steeped in stories of pirates. Milos is truly unique.
Given the ever-present significance of religion in Greece, diminutive Pátmos is regarded as one of the best Greek islands. It’s where St John holed up and received the visions that he dictated to his disciple Prohoros as the Revelation, the final book of the New Testament.
Hike up early in the morning to the cave where this took place. It's now enclosed in an eleventh-century chapel. Here you'll have the best chance of getting the place to yourself and even being able to rest your head in the niche where the saint laid his. Gazing out across the sea to the surrounding islands is enough to get even hard-nosed cynics feeling spiritual.
Further up the hill, another eleventh-century monastery, that of Ayiou Ioannou Theologou, commands more wonderful views and is home to a community of monks. Much of the solid structure is off-limits to visitors but the church is delightful.
Likewise, the museum displays some dazzling Orthodox paraphernalia, dark and brooding medieval icons, and some parchment manuscripts. Needless to say, there are some fine sandy beaches and plenty of secular delights to detain the visitor back down at sea level.
Mid-sized Lefkada has one of Europe’s largest windsurfing centres (near its southern tip) and a gleaming new marina on the edge of the island capital. This makes it one of the best Greek islands for those who love to spend time on the water. It also boasts easy accessibility, being joined to the mainland by a causeway.
Look out for dramatic mountain scenery and a few of the most stunning beaches in the Ionian Sea on its west coast. In addition, Lefkada Town is an attractive and cultural place, with some fine old churches.
Yachties flock here for the great facilities at the marina, the large dry dock at Vlyho and the ease of mooring at the various bays on the east coast, such as Dessimi, Rouda and Syvota. The satellite islands opposite the main resort of Nydri constitute good sailing territory too, while Nydri itself offers the usual range of watersports.
Meanwhile, at Lefkada’s southern end, the bay that stretches from Vassiliki to Pondi draws a youthful crowd. They take advantage of the favourable wind patterns and shallow water that are ideal for windsurfing. At any one time, you might count literally hundreds of colourful sails flapping in the breeze.
The third-largest island behind Crete and Evvia, versatile Lésvos (often referred to as Mytilini after its capital) is, surprisingly, little visited. Mytilini itself is a large town with a rather grand seafront, an extensive fortress and several absorbing museums, plus plenty of places to eat and drink.
Among the smaller towns that impress architecturally, Molyvos (aka Mithymna) and Ayiassos stand out. The former sits on a north coast headland crowned by an imposing castle. The latter straddles a mountainside valley and has a warren of streets around the picturesque central church. Various other beautiful monasteries are dotted around the island.
The coastline is blessed with numerous excellent beaches. None are better than the 9 km-long stretch of pebble and sand at Vatera on the south coast. But there are more geological features than just rock and sand. The large shallow Gulf of Kalloni includes salt marshes that are a birdwatcher’s dream. Over in the west there’s a petrified forest; and thermal spas punctuate the eastern half.
As the home of Greece’s most highly rated ouzo, there are a fair few lauded distilleries, such as Varvayianni and Samara. Yet the island also produces great wines, such as Methymneos, and olive products.
Finally, there is a strong cultural aspect to Lésvos, which has had a literary reputation since ancient times, as the birthplace of the poets Sappho, Aesop and more recently Elytis. It is also the birthplace of the twentieth-century artists Theriade and Theophilos, who have museums in their honour on the island.
A lot of Sappho’s erotic poetry was addressed towards other women (quite a thing for the sixth century). Her legacy is perpetually sustained at lively Skala Eresou, which draws visitors from all over the world.
Undulating green countryside, some fine rural monasteries and a labyrinthine old town notwithstanding, the real business of Skiáthos is beaches: by far the best, if also the busiest, in the Sporades. There are nearly 60 strands, most with fine, pale sand, but still barely enough room for the legions of visitors.
The main road along the south and southeast coasts serves an almost unbroken line of villas, hotels, minimarkets and restaurants. Although they’ve not impinged much on Skiáthos’ natural beauty, they make it difficult to find anything particularly Greek here. But by hiking or using a 4WD vehicle, you can find relative solitude, refreshing vistas and charming medieval monuments in the island’s north.
Skiathos Town, the only real population centre on the island, is set on a couple of low hills around a point, with the ferry harbour and new town to the east, and the picturesque old port, with the old town rising above it, in the west.
There are few specific sights in Skiáthos, though the Alexándros Papadiamántis Museum, housed in the nineteenth-century home of one of Greece’s best-known writers, is worth a look.
The peninsula that separates the two harbours, the Boúrtzi, makes for an enjoyable stroll. Surrounded by crumbling defences and a few rusty cannon it is today a peaceful setting for the one-room Maritime Museum, a café with great views, and an open-air municipal theatre, with regular summertime music and drama performances.
Skopelos is bigger and more rugged than Skiáthos, and its concessions to tourism are lower-key and in better taste, despite a boom in recent years fuelled by the filming here of Mamma Mia!.
Much of the countryside, especially the southwest coast, really is as spectacular as it appears in the movie, with a series of pretty cove beaches backed by extensive pine forests as well as olive groves and orchards of plums. Skópelos Town (Hóra) and Glóssa, the two main towns, are among the prettiest in the Sporades.
Away from the main roads there’s plenty of walking on Skópelos. Among the better hikes are those east of Skópelos Town, where three historic monasteries, Metamórfosis, Evangelístrias and Prodhrómou stand on the slopes of Mount Paloúki. Near Glóssa, there’s a beautiful 45-minute trail to the renovated village of Palió Klíma, via the island’s oldest settlement, Athéato (Mahalás).
The town beach doesn’t amount to much, but there are a couple of excellent alternatives very close by: towards Stáfylos is a busy road around which cluster many accommodation options; north to Glystéri is less populated.
Hop between the islands of Milos, Naxos, and Amorgos on this romantic tailor-made Greek Island-Hopping Honeymoon. Drive around stunning coastlines, explore mountain villages, visit ancient sites, and luxuriate on golden beaches as you are transfixed by the allure of the Aegean’s turquoise waters.
Zákynthos (Zante), southernmost of the six core Ionian islands, is divided between relative wilderness and indiscriminate commercialization. However, much of the island is still green and unspoilt, with only token pockets of tourism, and the main resorts seem to be reaching maximum growth without encroaching too much on the quieter parts.
The biggest resort is Laganás, on Laganás Bay in the south, a 24-hour party venue that doesn’t stop for breath during the busy summer season. There are smaller, quieter resorts north and south of the capital, and the southerly Vassilikós peninsula has some of the best countryside and beaches, including exquisite Yérakas.
The island still produces fine wines, such as the white Popolaro, as well as sugar-shock-inducing mandoláto nougat, whose honeys weetened form is best.
The town, like the island, is known as both Zákynthos and Zante. The town stretches beyond the length of the wide and busy harbour. Its main section is bookended by the grand, recently renovated Platía Solomoú at the north, and the church of Áyios Dhionýsios, patron saint of the island, at the south.
Neighbouring Kefalonia also has a lot to offer. Read our guide to the best things to do in Kefalonia and perhaps you'll find inspiration to visit the place in question.
Sérifos has long languished outside the mainstream of history and modern tourism. Many would-be visitors are deterred by the apparently barren, hilly interior, which, with the stark, rocky coastline, makes Sérifos appear uninhabited until the ferry turns into postcard-picturesque Livádhi Bay. This element of surprise continues as you slowly discover a number of lovely beaches around the island.
Sérifos is one of the best Greek islands for serious walkers, who can head along documented paths for several small villages in the under-explored interior, plus some isolated coves for swimming. Many people still keep livestock and produce their own tawny-red wines, which are an acquired taste.
Most visitors stay in the port, Livádhi, which is set in a wide greenery-fringed bay and handy for most of the island’s beaches. The usually calm bay is a magnet for yachts, here to take on fresh water which, despite its barren appearance, Sérifos has in abundance.
The very attractive curve of Avlómonas, the long Livádhi town beach, has the advantage of overlooking the inland capital, so that when you’re swimming in the sea you have a great inland view. Heading away from the dock, climb over the southerly headland to reach Livadhákia, a golden-sand beach, shaded by tamarisk trees.
A further ten-minute stroll across the southern headland brings you to the smaller Karávi beach, with its clear, blue-green waters, but no shade or facilities.
Náxos is the largest and most fertile of all the Cyclades islands and with its green and mountainous inland scenery, it appears immediately dissimilar to its neighbours. Today Náxos could easily support itself without visitors by relying on its production of potatoes, olives, cheese, grapes and lemons, but it has thrown in its lot with mass tourism, so that parts of the island are now almost as busy as Páros in season.
The island has plenty to see if you know where to look: the highest peak in the Cyclades, intriguing central valleys, a spectacular north coast and long, marvellously sandy beaches on the southwest coast. It is also renowned for its wines, cheese and kítron, a sweet liqueur distilled from the leaves of this citrus tree and available in green, yellow or clear varieties depending on strength and sugar level.
As your ferry approaches Náxos Town, you can’t help sensing that this is a really special place, if only because of the looming, fortified kástro. A superficial glance at the waterfront may be enough to convince you that most of the town’s life occurs by the crowded port esplanade, but don’t be deceived.
There is a lot more life in Náxos Town in the vast network of backstreets and low-arched narrow alleys that lead up through the old town, Boúrgos, to the kástro itself. And don’t miss out on the second centre of activity to the south, around the main square, Platía Evripéous, where there are more tavernas, shops and cafés.
Stay in a secluded private villa and explore Naxos at your own pace in your own rental car. Lasting just above 1 week, this tailor-made trip to Naxos leaves plenty of room for relaxation and exploration of the amazing island of Naxos, with its authentic mountainous villages and magnificent sea views.
Rhodes (Ródhos) is deservedly among the best of Greek islands. Its star attraction is the beautiful medieval Old Town that lies at the heart of its capital, Rhodes Town. Elsewhere, the ravishing hillside village of Líndhos, topped by an ancient acropolis, should not be missed. It marks the midpoint of the island’s long eastern shoreline, adorned with numerous sandy beaches.
At the southern cape, Prassoníssi is one of the best windsurfing spots in Europe. If you want to escape the summer crowds, take a road trip into the island’s craggy and partly forested interior. Worthwhile targets include the castles near Monólithos and Kritinía, and the frescoed churches at Thárri, Asklipió and Áyios Yeóryios Várdhas.
The Citadel of Rhodes was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and is one of the best-preserved Old Towns in the world. It is an absolute gem, a superb medieval ensemble that’s all but unique in retaining the feel of a genuine lived-in village – it neither grew to become a city nor became overly prettified for visitors.
Set on a stark headland 50km south of Rhodes Town, Líndhos is almost too good to be true. A classic Greek village of crazily stacked whitewashed houses, poised between a stupendous castle-topped acropolis above and sandy crescent beaches below, it’s the island’s number-two tourist attraction.
Dangling between the heel of Italy and the west coast of mainland Greece, green, mountainous Corfu (Kérkyra) was one of the first Greek islands to attract mass tourism in the 1960s. Indiscriminate exploitation turned parts into eyesores but a surprising amount of the island still consists of olive groves, mountains or woodland.
The majority of package holidays are based in the most developed resorts and unspoilt terrain is often only a few minutes’ walk away. The capital, Corfu Town, has been one of the most elegant island capitals in the whole of Greece. Although many of its finest buildings were destroyed, two massive forts, the sixteenth-century church of Áyios Spyrídhon and some buildings dating from French and British administrations remain intact.
The most famous excursion from Corfu Town is to the islets of Vlahérna and Pondikoníssi, 2km south of town below the hill of Kanóni, named after the single cannon trained out to sea atop it. Reached by a short causeway, the tiny, white convent of Vlahérna is one of the most photographed images on Corfu.
Pondikoníssi, tufted by greenery from which peeks the small chapel of Panayía Vlahernón, is identified in legend with a ship from Odysseus’s fleet, petrified by Poseidon in revenge for the blinding of his son Polyphemus.
Discover the variety of holiday opportunities Greece has to offer with our guide best things to do in Greece.
Ready for a trip to Greek Islands? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to the Greek Islands or The Rough Guide to Greece. If you travel further in Greece, read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and best things to do in Greece.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Greece without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
We may earn commission from some of the external websites linked in this article, but this does not influence our editorial standards - we only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.
Top image © Shutterstock