While some Greek islands are struggling with overtourism, these hidden gems are still low-key island paradises--for now.
You’re probably familiar with Mykonos and Santorini even if you haven’t been to either of them. These hugely (some may say overly) popular hotspots attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, and your Instagram feed is probably littered with images of Santorini sunsets or Mykonos beach bars.
However, to say there’s more to the Greek islands than these hubs is something of an understatement. The region has around 6,000 islands in total, and only 227 are inhabited. If you want to escape the crowds, go where locals from the mainland head during summer–it’s customary for Greeks to take large chunks of August off to vacation on the islands, and most have no interest in elbowing their way through crowds or paying exorbitant prices.
These lesser-known islands are all popular getaways for Greeks–and therefore come equipped with accommodations, eateries, and transport routes–but are off most foreign visitors’ radars. Some are perfect for foodies, others are popular with partiers, and others are ideal for getting-away-from-it-all relaxation. Now that the secret’s out, it’s time to start planning your vacation before everybody else finds out.
The capital of the Cyclades–and also the smallest island in the region–is less reliant on tourism than its neighbors, but that hasn’t stopped Greeks from flocking there on the daily three-hour ferry from Athens. Syros boasts a beautiful, pastel-colored port and several sandy beaches, but one of the main draws is the many cultural events that take place in the summer, including a dance festival, an international film festival, and even an accordion festival–check out syrosagenda.gr for full listings and details. And, if you’re still adamant that you can’t come to Greece without experiencing a taste of the Mykonos party life, don’t worry, it’s only an hour’s ferry ride away.
The second largest Greek island (both in size and population) after Crete is also one of the closest to the mainland–you can drive there from Athens, via the large industrial town of Chalkida. However, Evia remains off most foreign tourists’ radars, and the majority of its visitors are Greeks on weekend trips from Athens. The terrain is as varied as you’d expect from its size, from glorious sandy beaches to mountains, forests, and remote waterfalls. It’s also said to be cooler in temperature, so it’s a good bet for the more sun-sensitive.
For a short day trip from Athens, travelers often head to lively Aegina or Leonard Coen’s old haunt of Hydra. And while these destinations are both beautiful, the smaller isle of Agistri is less built-up, attracts fewer crowds, and is still less than an hour’s ferry ride from the mainland. Its main draw is the stunning beaches, which are easily reachable by bus. This is an island for serious chilling and relaxation only, but its accessibility means you easily can be back in Athens for a night out come sundown.
Located in the Aegean sea, Ikaria has gained attention in Western media as ‘the island of long life’ thanks to the fact its residents live, on average, ten years longer than those in the rest of Europe. However, it has a younger side too. Greek millennials love flocking here in the summer to camp under the stars, dance at tavernas all night, and recover on the beach during the day.
Pick one of the hotels scattered around the villages on the north coast and you’ll be within reach of the surf school–one of just a few in the region. And for Instagram snaps to rival Santorini’s white peaks, head south to Seychelles beach on the south coast, which is a dreamlike cove surrounded by turquoise seas.
INSIDER TIPIt’s livelier than some other islands on this list, so avoid Ikaria if you’re looking for peace and quiet.
You’ll need to take a six-hour ferry ride from Athens to reach Amorgos, the easternmost island of the Cyclades. But you won’t be disappointed. Its location means it remains largely unspoiled, with pretty-as-a-picture old towns, monasteries, and ports free from crowds and ripe for exploring. One of the main attractions is the monastery of Hozoviotissa, built by hand into a cliff face 300 meters above the sea some 1,000 years ago. After you’ve explored its eight stories and met the three monks still living there, fill up at one of the relaxed, cheap village tavernas.
This tiny butterfly-shaped island in the south Cyclades is a ten-hour ferry ride (or small propellor plane ride) from Athens, but it’s worth the trip. Famed for its natural beauty and traditional festivities, it’s a mixture of buzzing nighttime energy and fascinating local culture. The main central village of Chora, painted white in traditional Cycladic style, sits on a peninsula surrounded by sea, with a beautiful Venetian castle at its peak. At night, the whole island heads into Chora to watch local musicians sing and play traditional music. This is an island with serious personality.
This tiny Cycladean island is known as “little Santorini” thanks to its dramatic beauty, plus the fact that it’s only an hour-long high-speed ferry away from those famous white rooftops. The mountainous island features spectacular cliff-top views, huge skies, and wide seas, and its tiny villages, all painted in typically white Cycladean style, are perfect for whiling away lazy afternoons in pretty tavernas. If you’re feeling energetic, try climbing the steep hillside to reach the Church of Panagia–the views will be worth it.
If you want a real taste of traditional Greek life, coupled with some serious getting-away-from-it-all relaxation, head to Alonnisos. This Sporadic island is lush, green, full of beautiful beaches, and blissfully free of foreign visitors. Take a boat trip to explore the best tucked-away coves, then feel time stand still as you wander around one of the tiny fishing villages or the old town of Chora, which was partly destroyed in an earthquake.
The port city of Patitiri is the busiest area, but it still feels relatively mellow–picture long hours in shady tavernas rather than all night in a club. The only downside to Alonnisos is its inaccessibility; you’ll need to get a flight or ferry from the mainland to Skiathos, then catch a ferry. But that’s what makes it such a hidden gem.
The multi-colored neo-classical buildings and azure seas of this tiny, beautiful island began attracting more visitors after they served as the backdrop to the 1991 film Mediterraneo. However, its far-flung location–situated in the eastern Dodecanese, reachable by ferry or propellor plane from Rhodes–means there still aren’t too many of them.
The picturesque Kastellorizo village is all winding roads, pretty painted houses, and inviting tavernas, and although the island does not have the big sandy beaches of other islands, its deep blue seas are accessible thanks to platforms, diving boards, and boat trips. Kastellorizo also has a distinctly arty vibe and has attracted creatives such as Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who wrote the song Castellorizon there.
This tiny Cycladean island is reportedly home to more cats than people. It’s also become the getaway du jour for young bohemian Greeks come summertime, who camp next to the beaches and party at the handful of tavernas by night. Join them if you fancy a taste of authentic Greek hedonism. However, if you need your creature comforts, there are also a number of hotels where you can get a comfortable bed and–possibly more importantly–running water. To get to Donoussa, take one of the thrice-weekly ferries from Athens, or a daily ferry from nearby Naxos island.
With its white buildings and chic boutiques that stay open late, there’s a touch of Mykonos about Apollonia, the capital of Sifnos. But you won’t find any huge nightclubs or all-inclusive hotels here. Instead, this Cycladean island is the region’s undisputed culinary hotspot. There’s fresh seafood galore, from octopus to simple grilled fish, and the island is also famous for its sweets and pastries.
Afterward, work it all off with a walking tour of as many of the island’s 366 churches as you can possibly fit in. This island is popular with locals, and there are a number of chic boutique hotels catering to them, so don’t think you’ll have the whole place to yourself. But it’s a gorgeous way to experience laid-back Greek life.
Warning: only venture to Gavdos, the southernmost point in Europe, if you don’t have to be back in a hurry. The island suffers from strong winds, meaning boats back to Crete are often canceled. Amenities such as shops and tavernas are also few and far between, so you should come prepared. However, it’s one of the last remaining places where you can truly experience the bohemian lifestyle that made the Greek islands a mecca for 1960s hippy trail travelers. The island is renowned for its nudist beaches, and carefree souls of all ages venture here to chill out, practice yoga, and connect with nature for sometimes months at a time.