The very words conjure up tantalising images of azure Aegean waters, Mediterranean nut-brown bodies, cubed whitewashed houses, and the rugged windswept beauty that is the hallmark of the fabulous Greek Islands.
So, how do you actually get to the Greek Islands? When travelling to Greece, most visitors arrive at Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport (AIA). It’s an extraordinarily busy and highly efficient transport hub, and it’s from here that access to every one of Greece’s 227 inhabited islands is possible — by plane, train, ferry, hydrofoil, bus, taxi or hire car — or a combination of them all! It can be a long trip depending on where you’re off to, but just remember that it’s all part of the experience.
Here are some top tips for travelling to the Greek Islands.
Transiting from Athens International Airport to the Port of Piraeus
Arriving at AIA can be daunting, especially for first timers — but everyone speaks some English, which makes transiting relatively easy. If you are travelling to the Greek islands by sea, you’ll need to make your way from the airport to the Port of Piraeus — the main departure point for ferries and cruises. The port is located about 8 kilometres southwest of Athens.
The fast and very convenient Metro line from the airport to Athens and Piraeus departs every 30 minutes from 6:30am to 11:35pm. There’s no Metro service after midnight. Take the blue line to Monastiraki and change onto the green line for the Port of Piraeus — the last stop. The whole journey takes about 85 minutes, and costs €10 one way or €18 return (at the time of writing).
The X96 from the airport to Piraeus is a 24-hour express bus service. The journey takes around 90 minutes and is the cheapest mode of transport at just €5 (at the time of writing). The bus departs directly outside the arrivals gate between exits 4 and 5.
To speed things up a little, you could take a taxi into the city and transfer onto the Metro from there. At the time of writing, a taxi to the centre of Athens will cost you €38 during the day, and €54 from midnight to 5am. Confirm the price before you get into the cab, ensure the meter is running once you start the journey, and have cash with you as some drivers do not accept credit cards.
A pre-booked transfer with a reputable travel company such as George’s Taxi is a good idea if you have a connecting ferry or jet cat to catch within hours of arrival at the airport. The trip right to Piraeus usually takes between 40 and 60 minutes. The designated waiting area is outside exit 3 on the arrivals level.
Other departure points for the Greek Islands include the Port of Rafina and the Port of Lavrio, and the AIA website provides information on public transport connections to these ports.
Sailing to the Greek Islands
There’s no arguing that the best way to arrive at your choice of Greek island paradise is by sea. Sailing into port at any time of the day will leave an indelible holiday memory — but seeing the pomegranate-coloured sun spread her rosy fingers across the horizon in late afternoon as you cruise into port is something else again.
Now comes the fun bit — deciding where to island hop to! Unless you have unlimited time to dart backwards and forwards across the Aegean Sea, choose a cluster of regional islands. Here’s a list of regional groups and their main islands:
Saronic/Argo-Saronic Islands(closest to Athens): Aegina, Agistri, Poros, Hydra, Salamis and Spetses
North Aegean Islands: Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Samothrace, Thasos, Ikaria and Lemnos
Ionian Islands:Corfu, Zakynthos, Lefkada, Ithaca, Kythira, Paxos and Kefalonia
You can add the large islands of Crete, Evia and Greek Cyprus to this list.
When planning an island hopping itinerary, remember that not all islands are directly linked and a trip back to a larger island or even to Piraeus may be necessary. In some instances, you’ll need to stay overnight to connect with an early morning transfer.
Ferryhopper is a great option for pre-booking an island hopping itinerary. They work with 34 different operators, and offer the ability to book ferry tickets for multiple trips in one go.
Alternatively you can fly by the seat of your pants and book tickets as you go. For example, you can purchase tickets from ticket booths in Piraeus right in front of the various boats. However, when taking popular fast connections such as hydrofoils, high-speed ferries or catamarans, it’s advisable to book in advance.
Greek ferries generally offer the following classes of travel: First Class (cabins), air seats, (numbered and booked by name), business seats (numbered, booked by name and located in a better section of the vessel), and economy and deck class seats — where you sit wherever you can (including in the public salon).
Ferry trips to larger distant islands like Crete, Rhodes, Kos, Samos, Patmos, Lesvos and Santorini can take between 10 and 15 hours, and they generally leave Piraeus in the evening — so factor in the need to sleep! A word of warning here — sleeping on the deck is great fun but it can be VERY windy and cold, and personal belongings have been known to blow away or go missing. Inside the salon, the lights are not dimmed, so seasoned travellers physically tie their belonging to their bodies and have eye masks, sleeping bags, blankets and earplugs on hand. Preparation is the key.
Sailing trips through the Greek Islands are becoming increasingly popular. You can self-sail or travel as part of a crew. Greek Sails have operated sailing holidays in the region for over 34 years and offer a variety of sailing and yacht charter options.
Larger scale cruises through the Greek Islands are also hugely popular, but be warned that in high season there can be long queues getting off and back on your ship (particularly in destinations like Santorini where the use of tenders is required), and overcrowding in the ports themselves. Try Celestyal Cruises, which is the only cruise company actually based in Greece.
Flying to the Greek Islands
If time is an issue, the quickest route to your Greek Island of choice will be by air. There are plenty of connecting flights from Athens, and in some cases you may able to bypass Athens altogether and fly directly to your island. Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Lesvos, Skiathos, Cos, Samos, Kos, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Crete, Corfu and Rhodes all have international airports that are serviced by commercial and charter flights from various European hubs.
It’s worth noting that if you haven’t been to Athens, you should definitely consider a stopover. It’s one of the world’s most historic destinations.
Greek airlines are very strict when it comes to the weight of both checked and hand luggage. Purchase an additional luggage allowance online. It’s cheaper than paying for excess luggage at the airport.
Getting around the Greek Islands
Once you reach your destination, you’ll need to get around. Unless you are travelling to one of the larger islands like Crete, it generally isn’t necessary to have a car on hand. Public transport is reliable and you can hire a vehicle for short periods as the need arises.
Contact your accommodation regarding transfers — they’ll be accustomed to people arriving and departing at all hours, and will be able to give you the best options.
Taxis are cheap and readily available (although some of the smaller islands, such as Folegandros, only have one taxi — so you may need to be patient). If you experience great service, ask for the driver’s phone number so you can book directly with them next time. Check the price you should expect to pay with your hotel, and remember that taxis are more expensive after midnight.
Bus timetables are readily available from local travel kiosks and travel agents. Timetables usually provide information on how long the trip will take, and the cost.
Mopeds and motorbikes are also a great way of getting around, but be sure to read your travel insurance PDS carefully to ensure you are covered while riding a motorised bike. Check the condition of the bike carefully, as towards the end of the season they can often be in need of a good service. Ask your hotel for a rental recommendation.
Water taxis and boat services are also an option on many of the islands. They’re the perfect way to get to isolated beaches and nearby islets.
For further information, Matt Barrett’s excellent greecetravel.com is the most comprehensive guide to all things Greek travel.
Do you have any top tips for travelling to 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 in love with the Greek blue of the Mediterranean while living on the island of Crete in the late 1980s. She has written for Living Postcards, Crete Travel, Politismosmuseum, Stigmez, Athens News, TV Soap, Soap World, Gourmet Traveller, Vogue Entertaining, Vogue Living, ITA, Way to Go, Travel Abroad, and the Sun-Herald and Sunday Age magazines.