The Greek islands are renowned around the world for their unrivaled beauty, their amazing diversity, and their capacity to please everyone regardless of the type of vacations they are looking for: from cosmopolitan to off-the-beaten-path, there are islands for you. Not just one- several. And that’s because Greece boasts more than 200 inhabited islands, and a couple of thousand in total.
It can be hard to consider which island to choose when you plan your island holidays in Greece.
So why not go to as many as you possibly can? Greek Island Hopping is an adventure that you shouldn’t miss out on. Everyone must go Greek island hopping at least once in their life, and experience the uniqueness that is Greece in many iterations instead of just one.
Because the Greek islands are so popular and so many, to make your experience while island hopping unique, you should first prepare. Island hopping can be a wondrous experience, but you must have designed it well to get the most out of it.
What are the basic things you should be aware of and decide on to design your ideal island-hopping holiday in Greece?
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Greek Island Hopping The Fun Part: Pick Your Island Group
There are more than 200 islands that are inhabited and amazing to visit. However, unless you got a lot of time in your hands and can visit several dozens, you should develop a strategy regarding how to go about sampling the best of the best for you.
The best way to do this is to pick your island group and try island hopping within one group of islands first before getting to another if you choose to go beyond one group at all. Each group is comprised of Greek islands that are unique but also share a common style or flavor. Depending on what type of vacation you are looking for, you might want to opt for different ones. There are six main island groups and Crete:
Tip: It is cheaper and easier to island hop within the same island group.
Easily the most famous of the Greek island groups, the Cyclades is where you will find the iconic sugar-cube building villages with the churches with the blue domes overlooking the Aegean Sea.
There are twenty large islands in the Cyclades and seven small ones. The big ones are Amorgos, Anafi, Andros, Antiparos, Delos, Ios, Kea, Kimolos, Kythnos, Milos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Folegandros, Serifos, Sifnos, Sikinos, Syros, Tinos, and Santorini (Thera). The small ones are Koufonisia, Donousa, Iraklia, Schoinousa, Antiparos, Kimolos, Thirasia.
Each one of these shares the common elements mentioned already, but they also each have their own unique atmosphere. It will pay off greatly if you take the time to search and find out information on each one and make an informed decision about which ones you will choose to add to your island-hopping menu.
For example, Mykonos is the famous cosmopolitan island with the iconic windmills, while Tinos is the island of the Virgin Mary, with the big church overseeing the main town. Santorini (Thera) is a volcanic island with the caldera and the rare, unique black beaches that look like they were originally part of another planet, like Mars. A stark contrast between the whitewashed ‘Ano Syros’ and the neoclassical, affluent ‘Ermoupolis’ of Syros will offer itself to many beautiful promenades. More volcanic rock formations can be found in Milos, while you can relax and kick back in Paros and Naxos. Wild beauty and quiet solitude for meditation and relaxation await you in Koufonisia.
The Cyclades are very easy when it comes to island-hopping because they are close enough together that boat trips are very short.
If you choose the Cyclades, you can visit the high profile, cosmopolitan islands of Mykonos and Santorini (Thera) for top-quality bar crawling and extravagant nightlife as well as beautiful vistas, while also adding the quieter, authentically picturesque islands like Tinos, Paros, or Naxos to wind down and regroup from crazy summer nights.
The Ionian Islands
The Ionian islands are located on the west coast of Greece. They are completely different in character than the Cyclades. The Venetian occupation as well as the rolling green hills and lush vegetation set them apart from what vistas you tend to find in the Aegean. Each island is a beautiful gem of Italian and Greek styles of architecture, music, food, and temperament. It’s no accident that a few of them retain their Italian names right next to their Greek ones.
There are seven big Ionian islands: Kefalonia, Kerkyra (Corfu), Zakynthos (Zante), Paxos, Ithaca, Lefkada, and Kythira. There are also seven small ones: Meganisi, Antipaxos, Antikythira, Diapondia islands, Echinades islands, Kastos, and Kalamos.
Again, each island has its own personality despite all of them sharing a general feel. The main town of Kerkyra (Corfu) is unique in its beautiful neoclassical styles and its history as the preferred island of the famous Austrian Empress Elizabeth (Sisi). Lefkada’s beaches are a gorgeous mix of green and cerulean blue. The world-famous Navagio beach at Zakynthos is also a must-see.
The Ionian islands aren’t as cosmopolitan as some of the islands in the Cyclades, but they have a low-key, relaxed Caribbean flair to them, combined with a taste of history and lush natural beauty that will charm you.
The Argo-Saronic Islands
These islands are close enough to Athens to save you a long trip by boat or the need to fly to them, but they retain their countryside, island feel. They are beautiful islands with a range of different vistas, from lushly forested with pine tree beaches to gorgeous beaches. They aren’t very high on the tourist-destination list, so they are your chance to experience real Greek island life and go where the Athenians usually do for a quick, beautiful, relaxed recharge from city life without straying too far from home.
There are six islands in the group: Salamina, Aegina, Agistri, Poros, Hydra, and Spetses.
Of these six, Hydra and Spetses are the most famous ones and thus the priciest ones in the group. They are islands where famous Greek movies were shot during the golden age of Greek cinema.
The Argo-Saronic islands are the easiest to go island-hopping in because they are so close to the mainland ports. You can visit them all in the span of a few days and enjoy the unique features in each one: lush beaches in Agistri, cosmopolitan nights in Spetses and traditional glamour in Hydra and Poros, as well as historical sites and archaeological ruins you shouldn’t miss in Spetses, Aegina, and Poros.
If you are a lover of history and love a medieval flavor, then the Dodecanese is the island group for you. Not only will you have the chance to visit famous, high-profile islands like Rhodes, but also discover several others, big and small, which hold unique, rarely seen natural and historical treasures for those who seek them out, such as Kastellorizo and Symi.
There are ten big islands: Astypalaia, Kalymnos, Karpathos, Kastellorizo, Leros, Nisyros, Patmos, Symi, Tilos, and Rhodes. There are also eight small ones: Agathonisi, Pserimos, Chalki, Arki, Kasos, Telendos, Marathi, Lipsi.
Visiting the Dodecanese, you will walk the streets of Rhodes, which is a time-capsule to medieval times, visit castles left behind by crusaders in Kos, experience the religious heritage at Patmos, and enjoy the gorgeous beaches scattered across all islands with their golden sand and crystal clear, blue waters.
Except for Rhodes, most of the other islands of the Dodecanese have fewer crowds to wade through if you choose to go during high season.
A perfect combination of lush green natural beauty and gorgeous beaches for relaxation in the morning, with an extensive and vibrant nightlife, will be found in the Sporades island group. The famous film Mamma Mia was filmed on two of the islands in this group, to give you an idea.
There are five islands in the Sporades: Skiathos, Skyros, Skopelos, Alonnisos, and Skyros.
The lush natural beauty of all the islands offers itself to several sea sports, like snorkeling and sea skiing. There are beautiful monasteries to visit, famous beaches to lounge at, and gorgeous hiking paths to take before indulging in the delicious local cuisine. The Sporades are a great choice if you are looking to relax and enjoy nature, both above and below the sea surface.
The Northern Aegean
The Northern Aegean islands are rich with modern Greek history and proud legacy especially from the Greek War of Independence. They are also gorgeous and lush with unique elements you won’t find elsewhere. As they are generally less visited by the big touristy crowds, you will enjoy more authentic, rustic hospitality and beauty in the towns.
There are nine islands in the group: Chios, Ikaria, Forni, Lesvos, Lemnos, Samos, Samothraki, Thassos, and Psara.
Take the time to learn about each of them to time your island hopping just right, so you can partake in the amazing summer festivals in Ikaria, sample the unique wines of Samos, taste the delectable dishes Thassos and Samothraki, walk in the mastic forest of Chios, and learn about the history of Psara. Most of these islands are a paradise for those who value slow tourism and a strong connection to authentic practices and experiences.
Crete is the biggest island in Greece and such a diverse place that it warrants its own section. Home to the famous proto-Hellenic civilization of the Minoans, Crete is a gorgeous island with diverse vistas, amazing beaches, and a lush history throughout millennia. Crete is worth staying at for a good few days to savor. Going to its different regions equals island-hopping, as they are quite different and diverse!
Rethymno is the historic castle-town with a gorgeous medieval feel while Chania is the Venetian city and Heraklion is the beautiful port city to enjoy a mix of history and modernity. The ancient palaces of Knossos and Phaistos await the history buffs while naturalists will enjoy the breathtaking Samaria gorge. Everyone needs to go to the rare pink sand beaches of Elafonisi and Balos, see the palm tree forest at Vai, and hike along the slopes of the White Mountains. Cretan cuisine is, of course, renowned, and so are Cretan festivals, dances, and hospitality!
Crete can be easily combined with some of the popular cycladic islands such as Santorini and Milos as there is a direct ferry connecting them.
Click here for more information on the Greek Island Groups.
Pick the Right Island Depending on Your Interests
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The Necessary Part: Plan Your Itinerary
How many days do you have?
The number of days you have for island hopping is extremely important because it will determine what mode of transportation you will use to go from one island to the next. It also will determine how many islands you will put in your itinerary.
It is hard, but you must keep yourself from cramming in too many! No matter how fun, traveling is tiring, and you will need downtime in some islands so you can rest and regroup before moving on to the next.
Be strategic with your choice of where to spend more time to rest and where to go for a quick visit. In some islands, boats come and go early in the morning and late at night, so you can make a day trip visit out of them. Make sure you’re aware of which ones they are!
Always when you plan, you must keep your itinerary and schedule flexible enough to account for the weather and for unforeseen circumstances, such as strikes. Both can keep boats and planes from taking you places. Especially if you go to the Cyclades, be aware that fierce winds might keep you grounded on an island for more time than you bargained for.
Lastly, make sure that you make good choices on what type of transport to choose. Flying is generally pricier than going by boat, but it might be quicker and save you precious time.
Where will you start from?
Before you start on your island hopping, you will first need to get to Greece. Choosing where to land first, and how to get there, must be a strategic choice that will get you closer to the island group you have chosen.
While it’s often the rule of thumb that you first land in Athens and then take the boat to the islands, you can get to several of them by plane. There are a lot of islands that have international airports and some others with domestic airports you can use once you’re already in Greece.
Keep in mind that you must check if the airports are in operation if you are going island-hopping off-season.
There are international airports in all five groups:
- Santorini (Thera)
- Kerkyra (Corfu)
- North Aegean
There are domestic airports at the following islands:
- Chios (Northern Aegean)
- Ikaria (Northern Aegean)
- Kalymnos (Dodecanese)
- Kythira (Ionian)
- Milos (Cyclades)
- Paros (Cyclades)
- Naxos (Cyclades)
- Syros (Cyclades)
- Skyros (Sporades)
Check here my post for the Greek islands with airports.
You can also use the international airports in the mainland cities of Kalamata, Preveza, and Volos to get to either the Ionian or the Sporades island group.
Greece’s biggest cities that you’re most likely to first land at are Athens, the capital, and Thessaloniki aptly dubbed the ‘second capital’. Landing at Athens gives you access to the ports of Piraeus and Rafina, which are the ones closest to several groups, like the Cyclades and the Argo-Saronic groups.
Generally, Piraeus is your go-to port to access the islands unless you plan to hit the Cyclades starting with Mykonos or Syros, whereupon you probably want to leave from Rafina.
If you land at Thessaloniki, its port gets you closer to the Northern Aegean islands.
If you want to go to the Sporades, then you should go to the city of Volos, and use its port.
For the Ionian islands, you want the ports of the cities of Patra and Igoumenitsa.
There are a few more ports to use, like Kavala, Lavrio, and Keramoti, but those are good choices only if you are heading to specific islands or your Aegean island itinerary warrants it.
Know Your Boats
There are several types of sea transportation to choose from when you go island hopping. Your choices will vary depending on whether you get seasick easily, on your budget, and on the time you got to spend commuting.
Here are the types of sea transportation available, and elements to consider:
- Closed deck car ferry: this is the cheapest and most reliable way to travel. However, it will also be the slowest. If you get seasick, however, it’s the best option you have. These boat trips are the last to be canceled in the event of rough seas.
- Open deck car ferry: you will find these mostly for short routes.
- Catamaran: Also called “high-speed” or “high-speed catamaran” these are large swift vessels with seating.
- Flying Dolphins: Small hydrofoils with seating that speed over the waves to get you to your destination at a fraction of the time. However, when the sea is rough, they’re the first to be canceled and, if they aren’t, their speed drops dramatically.
Make sure that you take care to see departure and arrival times so that you are prepared if your ferry arrives when everything is closed, or if there is only one ferry per day which will ground you at the island for that long at least.
Also, consider your journey times. Unless you think of going by boat for routes that last several hours (i.e. more than seven or eight) as a mini-cruise, you may benefit from booking a flight. Don’t shy away from looking up flights as several are quite cheap or compatible with sea fares.
Know Your Budget
Depending on your budget, you should choose not only your mode of transportation but also the months you will be going island hopping to get the most value out of your money. The most expensive time is during the high season, which lasts from mid-May to August. You may want to choose September or May for cheaper rates all around. Consider that September is still summer in Greece, and with a lot fewer tourists to crowd around you.
If you choose to go completely off-season, you will have the unique experience of authenticity everywhere you go at great value for money, but you will also need to be a lot more studious in your planning: Many boat routes stop during the off-season, and often the remaining ones may get suspended or canceled due to very rough seas. Hotels and other tourist resorts close off-season, so you must also account for that.
That aside, plan your trip well in advance, to get better rates for everything, including fares. There are several sites you can use, such as Skyscanner for flights and Ferryhopper for ferries to help you plan. The general rule of thumb is to choose the big, closed-deck car ferry for the cheapest tickets for routes under five hours or so. Consider flying for routes that require more hours than that.
Where to buy your ferry tickets?
The best website to use for booking your ferry tickets in Greece is Ferryhopper. It’s easy to use, convenient and has all the timetables and prices to help you make a decision. You can manage all your ferry bookings through there and you can also book your whole island-hopping route t once.
Alternatively, you can either get your ticket from the airport at the arrivals hall at the Athens International Airport, at the Aktina travel agent. If you intend to stay a few days in Athens before you take the ferry you can buy your ticket at many travel agents all over Athens, or you can go straight to the port and book your ticket on the spot or even in the metro station near Piraeus.
Shall you book your ferry ticket in advance?
You usually don’t need to book your ferry tickets in advance.
I would suggest that you do in the following cases:
- If you need to take a specific ferry on a specific date.
- If you want a cabin.
- If you are traveling by car.
- If you are traveling the first weekend of August, the week around the 15th of August, Orthodox Easter week, and public holidays in Greece.
General tips and information
- Arrive at the port early. There is usually a lot of traffic, and you might miss the ferry.
- Most of the times ferries arrive late, so I suggest that you book the return flight home the next day.
- Don’t take the superfast (Sea Jet ferries) as you will get seasick. If you do get them take sea sickness pills before traveling and try to sit at the back of the ferry.
- In most of the cases, you will have to leave your luggage in a storage room as you enter the ferry. Take all valuables with you.
Popular Greece Island Hopping Itineraries
Here find some samples of Greek Island hopping itineraries to inspire you. Of course, you can create your own as the possibilities are endless.
- Skiathos – Skopelos – Alonnisos
- Mykonos – Santorini – Ios – Milos
- Andros – Tinos – Mykonos – Santorini
- Kythnos -Serifos – Sifnos- Kimolos – Milos
- Syros – Paros – Naxos – Ios – Santorini – Anafi
- Naxos – Iraklia – Schoinousa – Koufonisi – Donousa – Amorgos
- Rhodes – Halki – Karpathos – Kasos
- Kos – Nisyros- Tilos – Symi – Rhodes – Kastelorizo
- Crete – Milos – Ios – Santorini
- Kefalonia – Ithaca – Lefkada
- Aegina – Poros – Hydra
- Lesvos – Chios – Oinousses – Psara
- Samos – Patmos – Kalymnos – Kos
If you have any questions regarding your island hopping in Greece? Let me know in the comments.