“The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece! Where burning Sappho loved and sung.
Where grew the arts of war and peace,– Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.”
The ancient country of Greece is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, drawing almost 18,000,000 visitors a year. Boasting of brilliant sapphire seas, spectacular vistas, timeless architecture, and an unparalleled place in the history of the Western world, Greece has something to offer every traveler.
Many people who come to Greece regularly opt to island hop, in order to get a different, eclectic feel to their visit. Depending on whom you ask, there are approximately 200 inhabited Greek islands, each with their own personality and unique charm. The best way to discover for yourself is to spend some time sampling what each island has to offer.
The bad news is, this could take a lifetime. The good news is, each time you come is like falling in love all over again. And that’s not a bad way to spend a lifetime.
Most people who island hop have their preferences. Until you discover which ones are your favorites, here is a guide to four of the more popular destinations in the Greek Isles.
Located in the South Aegean Sea, Crete is the largest and most populous of all the Greek Isles, at more than twice the size of any other. Befittingly, almost 2,000,000 tourists arrive here annually at the international airports or seaports of Heraklion or Chania.
If you are a lover of history or of ancient Greek mythology, this is an absolute “must-see” destination. Crete is home to the archaeological ruins of the ancient city of Knossos, which was once the center of the Minoan empire, which dates back almost 3000 years before the birth of Christ. The Minoans are now recognized as the oldest known civilization in all of Europe.
Crete is famous in mythology. This is the home of the labyrinth, built by Daedelus and Icarus to house the fearsome Minotaur. This is where the ancient hero Theseus slew the Minotaur. It is also from here where Daedalus and Icarus made their tragic attempt at escape, before Icarus flew too close to the sun.
For those who are in search of more contemporary leisure pursuits, Crete is also home to some of the most picturesque and secluded beaches in the world. Discriminating and determined beachgoers in search of privacy can relax far from the maddening crowds at in any number of beaches that are only accessible by boat. Some of the most beautiful include Aspes, in the Asterousia Range, with breathtaking volcanic marble cliffs, and Kritama, Chania, with beachside views of Frangokastello, a 14th-century Venetian castle.
For spectacular natural beauty it is hard to top Santorini, which sits atop a volcanic caldera that was formed by repeated eruptions over many millennia. If your travel arrangements allow for a flyover of the island, this will offer a complete review of the island that is unforgettable. Once on the island, there are many charter boats or on-land vantage points that will also offer memorable perspectives.
In fact, the site that is now Santorini was the location of the largest cataclysmic volcanic event within the last several thousand years of recorded history, the Minoan eruption. In recent years, there has been speculation that Santorini is the site of Plato’s legendary Atlantis.
This was a volcanic event that, quite literally, may have changed the course of world history.
Also known as the Eruption of Thera, it has been theorized that this cataclysm indirectly led to the downfall of the Minoan civilization, which had its center on Crete. China experienced a volcanic winter due to the ash and debris spewed into the atmosphere. Books have been written on the subject that this eruption may even have been the cause of the Egyptian biblical plagues, and perhaps the means of the Exodus.
Those who are interested in ancient history or archaeology are in for a treat. In 1967, the almost-completely intact village of Akrotiri was discovered nearly perfectly preserved under a layer of volcanic ash from the eruption of 1650 BC. Fascinating artifacts have been excavated and are on display at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera.
Santorini has numerous picturesque villages that allow sightseers ample opportunity to enjoy the quaint architecture, shops, and restaurants. Oia, which is pronounced “la”, is particularly beautiful, because its cliffside location offers some of the most spectacular views of a volcanic caldera on the island. The sunset in Oia is not to be missed. In
The beaches on Santorini are in a word, breathtaking. Red Beach, located 12 km to the south of the capital of Fira, has a shore composed of ebon and crimson volcanic pebbles complementing water of the deepest blue.
For those travelers who have had their temporary fill of archaeology, the next destination should be the cosmopolitan island of Mykonos, also known as “the island of the winds”. For over 40 years, this has been one of the hottest Mediterranean destinations for nightclubbing and alternative lifestyles. Mykonos has earned its place among the most popular gay vacation destinations in Europe.
Mykonos is one of the smallest islands in the Cyclades, and has an agreeable hot, dry climate characterized by ever-present winds. Most tourists arrive on the island by boat, and in July and August, there is always a visiting cruise ship present, with disembarkers filling the streets in throngs.
An active nightlife is the largest attraction on Mykonos. It is not an exaggeration to say that overnight guests may actually need to employ earplugs to avoid being woken by early-morning partiers returning from their revels. Mykonos Town has numerous bars and dance clubs where the libations flow freely.
Like other islands in the area, Mykonos has many renowned beaches, with one very distinct difference. Here, topless sunbathing is very common, even on the “family-friendly” beaches, and totally nude is not unheard of. Travelers with delicate sensibilities or who are traveling with children are so advised.
In an interesting mythological bit of trivia, Mykonos is where legend has it that Zeus fought the Titans. According to local tradition, this is also where Hercules slew the Giants from Mount Olympus, and their bodies remain on Mykonos to this day, petrified as the enormous rocks that are found everywhere on the island.
Corfu is located differently than the other three islands listed, situated in the Adriatic rather than the Aegean, and is closest for access and departure from either Italy or Albania. It is accessible by plane, by boat, or by private yacht, although in the off-season flights are usually available from the main airlines.
For many first-time travellers to the Greek Isles, Corfu is a good way to acclimate to Grecian culture. In the past, the island was the site of many battles and fortifications, and the architecture and history was shaped by the influences of several countries. In fact, Corfu was not unified with modern Greece until 1864.
These influences are still in evidence. Because it was once a British protectorate, for example, Corfu is the only place in Greece where cricket is regularly played. Along with the ubiquitous Ouzo, patrons can also find a local version of ginger beer, which is usually only otherwise found in Britain. Other notable examples worth the notice of any tourist include the Achilleion, a summer palace built by Elisabeth of Bavaria, the Empress of Austria, while she was in mourning following the murder-suicide involving her only son.
Named for the mythic hero Achilles, the palace and the surrounding gardens abound with marble statues featuring heroic scenes from the Trojan War. So world renowned was this palace that following the Empress’s death, the palace was purchased by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Respectful visitors should also make it a point to stop by the many churches, temples, and monasteries on the island, including the famous 600 year-old church in Corfu town that houses the remains of St. Spyridon, the patron saint of the island, as well of those of St. Theodora Augusta, Empress of the Byzantine Empire.
St. Spyridon is particularly important on Corfu. He is said to have expelled the plague from the island, and according to legend, in its fury at expulsion, the plague scratched the walls of the old citadel. The marks left by the scratches are still apparent. In 1716, over 1300 years after his death, St. Spyridon is supposed to have appeared in a terrifying apparition of a monk bearing a torch, which panicked the invading Turkish forces, leading to their defeat. For these reasons, he is known as “Keeper of the City”.
No daytrip to Corfu would be complete without a trick to Paleokastritsa, widely considered to be the most beautiful beach region on the island. Most beaches are only accessible by boat, but their natural beauty make it well worth the effort. Crystalline turquoise water and intricate natural rock formations and caves make this an ideal spot for diving and snorkeling for active water sports enthusiasts.
Even with only such a small sampling of what the Greek Isles have to offer, it is apparent why this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The natural beauty is captivating, the history is fascinating, the ancient architecture is enthralling, and most of all, the people are welcoming. Although Greek is the official language, visitors will have no problem being understood in English. The Euro is the common currency here, so if an excursion to Greece is part of European trip, there will be no worry about having to exchange money.
Greek Island Hopping Guide Summary
The biggest thing to remember about any vacation to the Greek Isles is to allow yourself enough time to fully experience what each unique location has to offer. There is no such thing as an undesirable location here. It is less of a question of should you visit these islands as it is of how soon and how often you can visit.