Quirky, seductive, fertile, sensual, faded, sunny, worldly, ravishing, long-suffering, hedonistic, luscious, mysterious, legendary—these adjectives only begin to describe the islands of the northeastern Aegean. This startling and rather arbitrary archipelago includes a sizable number of islands, such as Ikaria, Samothraki, and Thassos, but the three largest (and most visited) are Lesvos, Chios, and Samos. Closer to Turkey's coast than to mainland Greece, and quite separate from one another, these islands are hilly, sometimes mountainous, with dramatic coastlines and uncrowded beaches, brilliant architecture, and unforgettable historic sites.
Lesvos, Greece's third-largest island and birthplace of legendary artists and writers, is dense with gnarled olive groves and dappled with mineral springs. Chios, though ravaged in parts by fire in recent years, retains an eerie beauty and has fortified villages, old mansions, Byzantine monasteries, and stenciled-wall houses. Samos, the lush, mountainous land of wine and honey, whispers of the classical wonders of antiquity.
Despite their proximity to Asia Minor, the Northern Aegean islands are the essence of Greece, the result of 4,000 years of Hellenic influence. Lesvos, Chios, and Samos prospered gloriously in the ancient world as important commercial and religious centers, though their significance waned under the Ottoman Empire. They also were cultural hothouses, producing such geniuses as Pythagoras, Sappho, and (probably) Homer.
Although many young backpackers and partiers bypass the Northern Aegean, you can still carve out plenty of beach time by day and wander into lively restaurants and bars at night, but these islands reveal a deeper character, tracing histories that date back to ancient, Byzantine, and post-Byzantine times, and offer landscapes that are both serene and unspoiled. Visitors to the northern islands should come with the spirit of discovery and open themselves to opportunities to interact with rich, enduring cultures.
More than 1 million refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, have passed through the islands in recent years. While many have moved on to Athens and beyond, some remain, and their presence has not only enhanced the cosmopolitan nature of these crossroads islands but has also shown off the generous hospitality of the islanders.