If the word “Greece” triggers images of turquoise waters, white-washed houses, scattered antiquities, and lazy seaside tavernas, you’ve got the right idea. Greece is all of this, and much more. But with so many islands to choose from, the hardest part of your vacation will be figuring out which island to go to. Our guide to the islands can help you figure out which one is right for you.
1. The hands-down star island is Santorini. With its cliff-hugging architecture, crater excursions, Akrotiri archaeology, and toe-scalding black sand beaches, Santorini is a magical destination. The town of Fira is for young barhoppers, while Ia is a lot calmer. But don’t expect to enjoy that perfect Cycladic sunset alone—the island draws crowds.
2. Party Isles. The midnight oil burns especially hot all summer on some of the islands. Ios and Kos harbors cater to partying college-age crowds. On Kos, giant club Fashion (2 Kanari Street) lures an international crowd with huge TV screens outside its flashy outdoors bar. Meanwhile, pricier Mykonos remains a superparadise for Athenian and international socialites. Fashion-conscious vacationers don’t panic—there are plenty of places to find the perfect chic outfit in which to be seen. Nearby Paros, a haven for windsurfers, stays up all night too.
3. I Vant to Be Alone. If you prefer solitude, many teeny isles beckon. Fourni, east of Ikaria island, is a calm refuge with nice beaches. Gavdos, south of Crete, quietly boasts Agios Ioannis beach. Though Anafi, off of Santorini, is dense with traffic, the island has idyllic spots. Paxi, across from resort town Parga, and Alonissos, in the Sporades, also fall into this category. You can rent rooms on all of these islands, and even villas, but you’ll find fewer restaurants and less public transportation.
4. Paradise Found. Tinos, with its 800 churches and sandy beaches, is a major pilgrimage point for the Virgin Mary’s holiday each August 15. Conversations often turn theological on hip Patmos, where St. John the Theologian was visited by apocalyptic visions.
5. Pebbles or Sand? If finding a beautiful beach is your top priority, Naxos and Milos have lots of options. Northern Europeans have booked direct flights to the blue waters and bleached sands of the Ionian Sea’s Zakynthos and Corfu islands for decades. Nearby, lower-key Lefkada also has a host of stunning swimming areas. With the exception of Corfu’s public beach, the beaches on these islands are free, but don’t be surprised if you have to pay to rent that plastic chair and umbrella.
6. Strictly archaeology. Delos alone can make this claim. No one is allowed to stay overnight on the island. So to see extensive excavations—a stunning 5th century temple, a theater that once seated 5,000 spectators—visitors are transported to and from Mykonos daily.
7. Day-tripping is easy from Athens. You can drive to huge Evia island to see fishing villages, the rugged Eastern coast, or go to one of the many great area spas. Or you can venture to carless Hydra, the beaches of Spetses, as well as popular Aegina and its impressive satellite, Angistri. Kea’s isolated beaches are also not far from Athens.
8. Some of the most authentic islands are those long on shipping history and short on tourism. While this means there are less options for tourists, there is a strong local flavor to places like tiny Inousses, off of Chios island, and cosmopolitan Andros. The more touristy former shipping islands include Syros, with its sultry beaches and beautiful old Ermoupolis town, photogenic Symi, and Chios. The latter is famous for a tree that drips mastic gum, used for cosmetics, flavoring liquors, and an ulcer treatment. (You can treat yourself to the elixir at the Mastiha Shop at 36 Aegeou Avenue.)
9. Boredom is not an option on big islands like Crete, Rhodes, and Lesbos. Crete could be a country in itself, with its Minoan ruins, Samaria Gorge, and wonderful beaches and villages. Beyond Rhodes’ walled-in old city, you can visit the mountain interior, the Valley of the Butterflies, and ancient Lindos. Lesbos’ roads wind past picture-perfect beaches, a petrified forest, wetlands and quaint villages. In Lesbos’ scenic Molyvos, jams, pasta, and other natural products made by women’s cooperatives are found in the two Evelyn shops (Kyriakou Square and Central Market/Agora).
10. Beam me up. Some islands’ geology makes them feel downright extraterrestrial. This is true of Nissyros, with its strange volcanic pit, and Amorgos, with its overwhelming cliffs. Don’t be fooled by the bars and beaches, Antiparos is no mini-Paros. It houses a spectacular stalactite and stalagmite cave. You enter an opening on Mt. Agios Ioannis, then descend down flight after flight into what feels like the inside of a hollowed out cathedral.
If it’s hard to choose just one island, you don’t have to. Try an island-hopping combination to satisfy all parts of your vacation equation.