The Greek Islands can send the senses into overdrive.
Imagine the touch of the Aegean sun on your salty skin in Mykonos; the smell of wild thyme and oregano on the sun-baked hillsides of Crete; the clarity of the light against the whitewashed walls of Santorini; the taste of a Greek salad at the water’s edge at the Port of Hydra; and the shepherd’s whistle and sound of sheep and goat bells on the island of Lesvos. These are just some of the sensory highlights in store for visitors to the region.
There are some 6,000 islands and islets dotted around the Aegean and Ionian seas, but only 227 of them are inhabited. That’s still considerable number to explore, so it’s best that we get started!
Here are ten top things to do in the Greek Islands.
Soak up the history and culture of Crete
The largest of the Greek islands (yet it could fit into Tasmania 8+ times), Crete has a history dating back more than 9,000 years. It’s an island that needs time to explore, thanks to its diverse landscapes — snow-capped mountains, pristine beaches, fertile plateaus, wild and untameable gorges, and inaccessible coves.
Agios Nikolaos is a perfect base for easy day trips to explore the myriad of mountain and fishing villages around Mirabello Bay. Hotel Du Lac is ideally located in the heart of town with views of Lake Voulismeni. Make a bee line for Du Lac Café right next door for the very best there is to offer in coffee, light snacks and cocktails.
Adrakos Apartments in Lenika, at the top of the hill before the fishing village of Elounda, offer self-contained apartments with views one dreams of, overlooking the bay below and the island of Spinalonga — the site of the last leper colony in Europe (operational until 1957), recently made famous by Victoria Hislop’s book — The Island.
Get arty in Chania — Crete’s cultural capital
Head west for about four hours to the port of Chania, the cultural capital of Crete, with its interesting mix of Venetian and Turkish architecture. Get gloriously lost in the many little shops and galleries, which criss-cross their way along narrow streets and laneways behind the old port.
Stay right on the waterfront in one of the many grand Venetian homes which have been turned into boutique hotels. The Alcanea Boutique Hotel (part of the Aria Hotel chain) and Casa Leone Hotel are a couple of gems.
After a day exploring the markets, old tanneries, museums and churches, watch the world go by at sunset sipping a G&T at Café Aroma on the waterfront.
Settle in for a Santorini sunset
Much has been written about Santorini, with its picturesque whitewashed houses and blue-domed chapels, spectacular scenery, delicious local cuisine, sensational lava pebbled beaches, ancient sites and marvellous restaurants.
But its biggest attraction happens daily around dusk — the famous Santorini sunset from Oia. It does get very crowded, so a sunset cruise is highly recommended and well worth the money. The Triantafillou Brothers (from three generations of sailors) run exceptional sailing tours around the island and caldera.
As an alternative, head to Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna in the tiny Bay of Ammoudi (situated below Oia). Here you can literally sit at a table on the water’s edge enjoying traditional Greek food as you watch the pomegranate sun slip below the horizon.
Visit the vineyards on the Santorini Wine Road
Santorini has been producing wine for thousands of years and it’s said to be the best in the Mediterranean. In fact, they are so proud of their winemaking abilities, there’s an official ‘Wine Road’ running the length of the island, which takes you to the top ten producers.
On Santorini grapes are not grown on trellises. Vines are coiled into basket shapes at ground level to trap moisture and protect the grapes from the harsh environment. This means that all harvesting has to be done by hand, making Santorini’s wines truly unique.
Santorini Wine Adventure Tours offers wonderful wine and food tours of the island.
See the real Greece on Lesvos
The island of Lesvos has borne the brunt of recent events across Europe and the Middle East, thanks to its close proximity to Turkey and the refugee crisis. But here you can experience the real Greece — its history, culture and food.
Famous for its ouzo, olive oil, goat and sheeps’ cheese, it’s easy to fall in love with Lesvos. Stay at Little Bird Villas perched above the Aegean Sea on the northern coast. These self-contained villas provide an ideal base for enjoying all that the island has to offer.
Experience the natural beauty of Elafonisos
This is one of the most beautiful things to do in the Greek Islands. You will certainly have seen photos of this unbelievably stunning little island — but you may not know its name. With its pristine white sands and extraordinary blue-green sea, the island of Elafonisos is surprisingly easy to get to — and a photographer’s dream.
Located between the Peloponnese and the island of Kythira, it’s a short 10-minute ferry ride from the port of Pounta in Lakonia — and do take your hire car so you can explore. One of the best tavernas to check out is Boukas — located right on the beach. Described as bohemian, relaxed and casual, it’s another bit of magic in an already spellbinding place.
Make an escape to Hydra
Just a couple of hours by jet cat with Hellenic Seaways from Piraeus, the Island of Hydra in the Saronic Gulf makes for a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Athens. The picturesque crescent-shaped harbour brims with shops, activity and colour, and the clip clop of donkey hooves. Place yourself strategically at one of the many cafes along the waterfront and watch the world go by.
Paradosiako is one of Hydra’s best-known ouzerie-tavernas, synonymous with excellent seafood. Do try the grilled sardines.
Enjoy the magic of Mykonos
Mykonos is possibly Greece’s most famous island, with its sensational beaches, pelicans, picturesque windmills, water sports and nightlife. Where the town meets the sea on the western shore of the harbour it’s at its most charming. Known as Little Venice thanks to the early ship captains building magnificent homes with balconies at the water’s edge, today these have been transformed into bars, restaurants, nightclubs and shops.
Mykonos is packed with amazing experiences. Give yourself three or four days here.
Step back in time on Delos
It may be one of the smallest islands in the Aegean Sea, but Delos is the most sacred according to ancient Greek mythology. Apollo — the god of light, and Artemis — the goddess of the moon, were said to have been born here. The Delos archaeological precinct is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. Access is only by boat and visits are limited to four hours. Delos Tours runs regular tours from Mykonos.
Follow in the footsteps of the Durrells on Corfu
Found in the Ionian Sea, Corfu (aka the ‘Emerald Island’ thanks to its high rainfall) had an interesting mix of Venetian, French and British influences before it united with Greece in 1864. Corfu’s most famous English expatriates — the Durrells — called the island home in the late 1930s. It’s still easy to relive moments described by naturalist Gerald Durrell in his famous book My Family and other Animals.
The Old Town of Corfu is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. It’s a maze of small streets and squares, and is testament to the island’s history with stunning Venetian-style neoclassical architecture in pastel hues. An essential part of the experience is to relax in Spianada Square. Sip a coffee and watch the world go by.
One of the best ways to explore the island is by following the Corfu Trail. It’s a walker’s paradise.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in the Greek Islands? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Sydney-based journalist Francesca Muir fell into photography while living on the Greek island of Crete in the late 1980s. She has since written and photographed for Gourmet Traveller, Vogue Entertaining, Vogue Living, ITA, and the Sun-Herald & Sunday Age magazines. Francesca lives to breathe Mediterranean air peppered with wild thyme and oregano, and swim in the azure waters that have mesmerised so many for so long.