The Greek islands inspire images of golden sunsets, crystal clear azure water, endless sandy beaches, and whitewashed buildings romantically perched on hilltops. Those who have visited the islands can attest to their immense, almost surreal natural beauty and boundless charm. All Greek islands have extraordinary scenery, yet each has distinct allure, characteristics, and history. While a few islands attract most tourists, there are dozens of options for choosing a crowd-free Greek island where social distancing is part of the experience.
Greek island chains consist of five geographically distinct groups; Ionian, Cyclades, Dodecanese, Saronic, and Sporades. Throughout the centuries, the regions have been influenced and shaped by settlers’ and invaders’ cultures and traditions. For example, the Ionian Islands showcase their strong Venetian influence, while the Cyclades are classicly Greek.
For travelers deciding on where to take their Greek holidays, the choices seem endless and impossible. Each island offers something purely unique, and the destinations should be chosen based on the traveler’s personality and style. However, rest assured that your holiday will be unforgettable no matter which island you choose. Of course, if you have the time, we recommend visiting at least 2 or 3 islands in Greece on your next visit to experience their variety. Cruising or chartering a boat is the most convenient way to visit multiple destinations. However, inter-island ferries also offer convenient transportation between nearby islands. Many cruises also offer the convenience of visiting multiple countries such as Greece, Italy and Turkey in a single itinerary.
At the western end of the Greek Sea are the magical Ionian Islands, which have been idealized since Homer used them as the backdrop to Odysseus’s adventures. The seven main islands that comprise the Ionian chain include Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Lefkada, Ithaka, Corfu, Paxos, and Kythira. While Odysseus hailed from Ithaca, the Venetians staked their claim and forever influenced these lands. The islands were a possession of the Republic of Venice from the mid-14th until the late 18th century, and the grandeur of their maritime empire is undeniable. When their occupation ended, they left behind an architectural treasure trove of mansions, fortresses, and arsenals, which are perhaps best exemplified in the old town of Corfu.
The Ionian Islands have been endowed with beautiful scenery, dazzlingly green hillsides, fishermen’s villages, and transfixing blue water. Life on many of these islands has remained largely unchanged over the decades, offering truly crowd-free Greek island experiences. The Ionian Islands also have many hidden gems that are worth discovering. For instance, Lefkada is home to one of the few remaining rainforests in Europe, and Corfu is known for its old town, with its cobblestone streets, Venetian-style architecture, and stunning views of the sea. The Venetians ruled here from 1386 until 1797, leaving behind many iconic buildings that give the island a unique charm. Stroll through narrow alleyways lined with pastel-colored buildings, sip a cup of Greek coffee in one of the many outdoor cafes, or take a boat tour to explore the various islets off Corfu’s coast. Kefalonia is another picturesque Ionian island. From its iconic Myrtos beach to its rugged mountains, Kefalonia mesmerizes visitors with its stunning beauty. Take a hike along the Melissani lake and explore the caves, or visit one of Kefalonia’s most popular attractions – the ruins of the ancient city of Pali. The island is also known for its unique cuisine, with seafood dishes like Octopus Saganaki being especially popular.
However, although they are all worthy of admiration and time, Zakynthos is perhaps the crown jewel. It’s home to some of the most breathtaking beaches in Europe, and its marine life is unparalleled. A definite must-visit for anyone looking for a unique Greek vacation!
Zakynthos is one of the most beautiful and photo-worthy Ionian islands. Navagio is the most popular beach in Zakynthos. It is consistently voted as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Its unique beauty comes from the contrast of sheer rocky cliffs, crystal blue waters, and dazzling golden sand. While it attracts thousands of visitors a year, the island has maintained much of its authenticity. As most visitors arrive by boat, we recommend seeing the island from a different perspective. Soaring above the clouds on a panoramic helicopter tour will take your breath away and keep you safely social distancing.
The north-western part of Zakynthos is famous for blue caves, where the color of the water is such a vibrant blue it feels as though you have stepped into a painting. Mornings are the best time to visit the caves, which are accessible only by boat.
Marathonissi is a small, uninhabited island in the bay of Laganas. Its shape resembles a giant turtle, which is why it is known abroad as a turtle island. It looks like an exotic island because it combines the white sand with the intense vegetation. The famous kereta turtles, which are a protected species, often visit the beach. The seabed in Marathonisi is stunning an excellent destination for diving.
Gerakas is located in the southern part of Zakynthos and belongs to the National Marine Park. At this beach, the Caretta turtles breed and lay their eggs. Although visitors will find a few umbrellas and deck chairs, the beach is ideal for those seeking tranquility.
Zakynthos Town is an ideal destination for those who wish to be close to cafes, bars, and restaurants and experience the island’s multifaceted culture. Visit the Bertzagio Folklore Museum, the statue of Dionysios Solomos at Solomos Square, the temple of Agios Dionysios, who is also the island’s patron saint, and St. Mark’s Square.
The Cycladic islands are arguably the most famous holiday destination in Greece. There are 39 islands, of which 24 are inhabitable. All of the islands share similar architectural characteristics with whitewashed buildings and churches, contrasting the sky’s deep blue and the sea.
Mykonos, Santorini, Naxos, and Paros are the most popular islands for Greek and foreign tourists. Apart from beautiful hillsides, lovely villages and beaches, they offer visitors a wide variety of bars, cafes, restaurants, and nightlife. However, while most tourists and cruise ships descend on these islands in peak season, many of the best islands are left untouched. When the crowds and prices in Mykonos and Santorini feel overwhelming, the lesser-known islands offer a crowd-free Greek island respite. From Crete’s mountainous and hiking routes to the secluded and romantic beaches on Amorgos, there is something for everyone in Greece. However, if you intend to visit the more popular islands, check out our list of the best off-the-beaten-path activities in Mykonos and unique experiences in Santorini.
Whether you’re looking for an amazing spot to sunbathe or a place with dramatic views and history steeped in mythology, choosing one of these hidden Greek gems can make your trip truly unforgettable. You should consider adding some of the best lesser-known Greek islands to your itinerary. Koufonisia is a small group of three islands with white and blue seaside villages, brilliant beaches, and an array of intimate restaurants and cafes. Situated east of Naxos and south of Amorgos, it is the perfect place to escape it all.
Milos is an island in the southern Aegean Sea and is famous for its breathtaking landscape with rocky cliffs and crystal clear waters. The volcanic origin of Milos means that there are plenty of sand beaches, coves and bays with unique colors ranging from emerald to pink. Milos is also known for its culinary delights, so make sure you sample some local dishes there.
Donoussa is a small island in the Cyclades with captivating views and serene settings. Its main village is picturesque, with traditional whitewashed homes and inviting tavernas. It’s an ideal destination for a tranquil getaway.
Antiparos is lovely, romantic, and tremendously charming. This tiny crowd-free Greek island attracts the type of travelers who arrive on their private yacht or sailboat, rent a stunning villa, and spend their days lazily exploring, shopping, and relaxing. The island’s big brother Paros has a marina and an airport; Antiparos has neither.
The allure of the island lies partially in its relative inaccessibility. Cruise ships and mainstream travel itineraries skip over the small paradise, leaving it unspoiled and quiet even in peak summer months. Antiparos is renowned for aqua green and blue waters, rural villages, clean beaches, and an attractive shopping district in the capital, Chora. The island is traditionally Cycladic, with delightful whitewashed houses, narrow cobbled streets, and blue-domed churches. Travelers looking for authentic social distancing destinations who visit may never want to leave this crowd-free Greek island.
The beaches are sandy, and the water is incredibly clear. On the island’s southern side, travelers can visit Antiparos cave, a stunning natural wonder full of stalactites and stalagmites.
Tiny Folegandros may well be the Cyclades’ best-kept secret. A wildly charming yet sparse and rocky landscape seamlessly blends with ancient ruins, while crumbling paths lead to secretly enchanting Aegean beaches. Folegandros is named after the son of King Minos. Until the early 20th century, it was used to exile political prisoners. Perhaps because many of the inhabitants are descendants of those past forgotten souls, the island offers quiet, unpretentious authenticity. Lacking the glitz and glamor of famous neighbors, Folegandros’s allure lies in the scent of flowers, timeless whitewashed houses with blue doors, and colorful fishing boats lining the docks. Travelers are more likely to encounter donkeys and sheep than scantily clad celebrities, which is precisely what draws the particular type of visitors here. This is your quintessential crowd-free Greek island destination.
Chora, the island’s principal town and capital, sits like an aging queen atop her throne perched on a hilltop. Three connected squares boast the few bars, local shops, and traditional tavernas run by 700 residents who permanently call the island their home. One of the island’s loveliest views is from the church of Panagia, built high up a twisted path that starts at Pounda Square.
Strolling Chora’s ancient section provides a glimpse of early life on the island. The town was built to protect residents from foreign pirates.
In the summer, be sure to experience the festivals and cultural events in Chora, Ano Meria, and Karavostasis (the island’s port).
“Dodeka” is the Greek word for twelve, implying only a dozen Dodecanese Islands exist. However, this archipelago in the southeastern Aegean consists of fourteen main islands and numerous other small isles. Although many small and charming alternatives exist, the Dodecanese islands of Rhodes, Kos, Symi, and Karpathos remain the most popular tourist destinations. The islands attract many visitors in the summer to their beautiful beaches and fascinating historical sights. Inhabited for thousands of years, many important archaeological sites, imposing Byzantine structures, and medieval monuments lie scattered throughout the islands. Visit in the low season for an authentic crowd-free Greek island experience.
No matter which island you visit, the Dodecanese islands have something for everyone. Whether it’s exploring ancient ruins or tasting local specialties, each island is unique in its own way. Tourists can enjoy swimming and snorkeling in crystal clear waters, trekking through picturesque villages, sunbathing on beautiful white-sandy beaches, or taking boat trips to explore caves and secluded islands. The nightlife of the Dodecanese is also vibrant, with exciting bars and clubs for visitors to enjoy along the coastlines.
On Rhodes, visitors find a multitude of historical treasures. Medieval walls surround the magnificent Old City with seven gates, while the Palace of the Grand Master is undoubtedly the most impressive building on the island. The well-known Street of the Knights is an ideal location for a history lesson or a wooden sword fight.
On the cultural side, the island of Kos is home to some impressive archaeological sites. The Castle of Neratzia stands proud in the harbor while ancient temples and statues are scattered across the island, offering visitors a glimpse into the past.
The Dodecanese combines natural beauty with a remarkable history and offers visitors unique travel experiences.
Kalymnos is a renowned rock-climbing destination. With approximately 3,400 routes ranging from F4a to F9a, these existing routes cover only a tiny portion of what is available to climb. Visitors return year after year, seeking out the mountains, bays, and an authentic low-key vibe. Kayaking and sailing are also top-rated sports. The Kalymnos Kayak Center offers various adventure options for all levels.
Sponge fishing has been popular on the island for over 500 years. Capitalizing on this claim of fame, vendors sell sponge souvenirs in gift shops around the island.
The island’s capital Pothia has a lovely museum and a beautiful church dedicated to Christ. Saint Savvas Women’s Monastery is also open to the public. Women should be mindful of wearing a skirt and covering their shoulders, and men should wear long pants.
The Village is the island’s old capital, where you can visit the castle of Chrysochera, where the Knights of St. John once lived. An acropolis dating back to the 9th century in Pera Castle and the ruins of a 5th-century temple: “Jesus of Jerusalem,” offer other interesting stops.
The tourist resorts of Kalymnos are Myrties, Kantouni, and Vathi, on the east side of the island, hidden in a deep bay. Vathi is the greenest, most scenic area of Kalymnos.
The Saronikos islands are one of the busiest tourist destinations in Greece. Easy access from Athens makes day trips and weekend getaways popular alternatives to further island destinations.
Aegina is the largest Saronic island and the closest to the port of Piraeus. Spetses, Poros, and Hydra, are slightly further away. The distance between the islands is small, making them wonderful destinations for summer island hopping experiences. Visit in the offseason to experience crowd-free Greek islands in the Saranonics.
Hydra is a beautiful island for families and couples looking to unplug. It provides access to various dining options and activities for travelers of all ages. The Piraeus port in Athens is one hour away by hydrofoil and two hours by ferry. Hydra is a popular destination for Athenian weekenders and international tourists. As the island is car-free, transportation occurs on foot, by boat, or by riding on a donkey. Stroll up Hydra’s narrow streets and admire the fine architecture and the island’s captivating character. The landscape alternates from wild mountains to open fields and serene beaches.
Hydra has many remarkable sights for history and archaeology aficionados, including the Historical Archive Museum, founded in 1918. It features well-preserved navigational instruments, aquatic costumes, and naval weapons. It also houses the sizeable Historical Archive and 18,000 original documents. The Ecclesiastical & Byzantine Museum, the Pavlos Kountouriotis Mansion, and the Lazaros Kountouriotis Museum are also well-deserving of a visit.
Hydra has many beaches distinguished for its crystal clear water. On the rocks outside the island’s harbor is Spilia, a rocky beach with beautiful water that makes an excellent spot for a picnic lunch. The loveliest part of the island is located next to Hydronetas, in the same area as Spilia.
Following the coastal road, you will come across Kamini, a small, picturesque harbor with fishing boats. Nearby Mikro Kamini is a small pebble beach suitable for young children and toys. Although often busy in the summer, travelers can have crowd-free Greek island experiences by visiting in April or October.
Continuing on the dirt road, you will reach Vlychos, a larger beach next to the chapel of Agios Charalambos. Only 20 minutes of hiking will bring you to the seaside area of Palamida, a beautiful and sandy beach.
Whichever Greek islands you choose to visit, remember to keep an open mind and adventurous spirit. Each one has its distinct beauty and magic.
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