Greece is famous for her islands. And rightly so, because Greece has more than 6000 of them, of all shapes and sizes. Of these islands, only around 230 are inhabited, and are clustered in groups.
The Greek islands have a lot more to give than just the typical postcard-level vista of whitewashed houses huddled together on a slope overlooking the big blue expanses of the Aegean Sea- though that would have been enough!
Depending on where the island is, and which cluster of islands it is a part of, its character shifts to reflect its unique history and influences from antiquity to the middle ages, to modernity. Somehow, each island is graced with unique beauty and with unique places to discover, so definitely consider gradually exploring them all for yourself!
What Are the Main Island Groups of Greece?
There are six island groups to keep in mind:
- The Ionian Islands
- The Cyclades
- The Sporades
- The Dodecanese
- The Saronic Islands
- The North Aegean Islands
And then we have the islands of Crete and Evia, the two largest Greek Islands.
Each of these groups is distinct in character and architectural style!
Map of Greek Island Groups
The Ionian Islands (Eptanisa)
Along the coasts of western Greece, in the Ionian Sea, you will find the 14 Ionian Islands. Of them, seven are the larger and more well-known ones, and seven are smaller and lesser-known, but no less beautiful!
You will certainly recognize the names of at least a few, if not all, of the seven big ones as they have all been featured prominently as far back as Homer, most of them with the names still in use today!
The Ionian Islands are:
- Paxi (or Paxos)
The architecture of the Ionian islands is a very characteristic mix of Western and Greek, especially from the medieval and modern times since the Ionian islands were occupied by Western people, such as Italians, for prolonged periods of time. You can expect to find neoclassical towns, Venetian fortresses, castles, and fortified ports along with Ottoman remnants, all mixed within their Greek flair.
You will visit beautiful churches and even palaces, monasteries, and unique museums. You will also enjoy the delicious Ionian cuisine which revolves around olive oil, thyme honey, citrus fruit, and rare herbs!
Nature in the Ionian islands is thriving, with lush beaches with deep waters, tall mountains, beautiful flora, and gorgeous caves and waterfalls.
The Cyclades Islands
Clustered around in a rough circle in the Aegean Sea, from which they derive their name, the Cyclades are perhaps the most famous Greek island group!
This is where you will find the iconic brightly white houses and churches with the blue domes in villages that look to have been sprinkled on the slopes of stone and dry brush hills, overlooking the Aegean.
The Cyclades are comprised of around 220 islands, but the main ones are:
- Thera or Santoríni
The famous Thera is a volcanic island, which means it features unique black sand beaches apart from the typically beautiful ones to be found in all the Cyclades.
The famous Cycladic architecture can be found in all the Cyclades, but that doesn’t mean that the islands are cookie-cutter! Each one has its own unique personality within the Cycladic style. For example, Mykonos is the internationally cosmopolitan island while Tinos, which is the opposite of it, is the religious pilgrimage island of the Virgin Mary.
Delos is basically an archaeology museum to be perused within a day! Andros is exceptional in that it has lush vegetation unlike most of the Cyclades, and Anafi is renowned for its gorgeous nature and breathtaking beaches.
There are tours that allow you to go ‘island-hopping’ just because each island is so distinct!
The Sporades Islands
You will find the Sporades towards the North-East side of the Aegean, almost right in the center of it! Their name means “scattered” which indicates their formation on the map.
The Sporades are comprised of many islands but the main ones are four:
In all four islands, nature is thriving, giving you vistas of rolling hills touching the crystal-clear waters of the Aegean with the characteristic aquamarine hue.
Each island has a very distinct personality: Skiathos is very cosmopolitan. Its beautiful beaches are organized and cater to tourists’ every need, its nightlife is a thriving hub of culture, and its architecture and flora are gorgeous to the point that it resembles a movie set- which it became for the movie Mamma Mia!
Skopelos on the other hand is on the opposite side, with lush green slopes, virgin beaches, and glistening waters without much manmade intervention. In Skopelos, you can kick back and relax, enjoy nature, and recharge. It also features beautiful architecture, for romantic walks and interesting explorations.
Alonissos is even more relaxing than Skopelos because fewer people go. It’s gorgeous and full of seaside villages with great food and beautiful sunsets. Skyros is a popular destination when the locals plan their vacations, for its beautiful vegetation and smooth beaches, as well as the quiet and relaxation it offers around the year.
The Dodecanese Islands
The Dodecanese islands are on the South-East side of the Aegean, between the Cyclades and Turkey. They are a cluster of 165 large and small islands, of which 26 are inhabited.
Ironically, perhaps, their name means “the twelve islands” when the major ones are fifteen:
These islands are famous for their medieval architecture, which would feature well in any ‘proud knight, fair lady’ western romance tale. Rhodes especially is the quintessential “medieval island” with its fortified port, seven gates, characteristic stag statue, and palace of the Grand Master. Stroll through Rhodes’ side streets, and feel the history and romance imbue you through its beauty.
Kos is also known for its medieval architecture, but also for its sun-kissed beaches, and eons-old trees, and cedar forest. You actually can enjoy the shade of the same plane tree under which Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, used to teach!
It is the oldest tree in Europe at more than 2500 years of age. History is alive in Kos, not only of ancient times but very recent times of modern fights and battles, infamous squares which you can have your stroll in, admiring their beauty while you trace the footsteps of historical figures.
Kalymnos is the island of the sea sponge gatherers, the legendary divers that would go to big depths with virtually no equipment. Get unique souvenirs, enjoy beautiful beaches and seaside villages, and learn of harrowing tales of bravery but also strife and violence.
Pserimos is a paradise island, with gorgeous beaches, relaxed, quiet countenances, and breathtaking vistas.
Karpathos is the island of forests and creeks, of time-capsule villages, and unforgettable hiking trails while surrounded by sapphire seas.
Leros is the stunning island of the goddess Artemis but also the island of medieval castles and fun customs during Carnival season.
Patmos is the island of the Apocalypse, where the apostle St. John stayed for the remainder of his life and wrote the final book in the New Testament, the Book of Revelations. It’s a beautiful island that is also the destination of Orthodox Christian pilgrims, with beautiful famous churches and picture-perfect beaches.
Each of the other islands also features something unique, from Halki with its annual “Peace and Friendship” international meeting of youth to Kastelorizo with its “Blue Cave”, which is the most spectacular and imposing sea cave you will find in Greece!
The Saronic Islands
Also called the Argosaronic Islands, this cluster is located very near Athens and as such, it is a perfect solution for a quick summer holiday or a dash of island charm in vacations you may have planned to be mostly inland in Greece. You will find them in the area between Attica and North-East Peloponnese.
The major Saronic Islands are seven:
Each island is very distinct, and most have been popular destinations for weekends or short vacations since the 1960s:
Hydra is one of the most popular of the Saronic Islands, with a rich history and prominent chapter in the Greek War of Independence of 1821. It combines the cosmopolitan and the traditional elements in a perfect, balanced blend that can make for very flexible and fulfilling vacations.
Spetses is deeply traditional in vibe, and it’s unique in that car use is prohibited in the main town! You can only go around on foot, bicycle, or horse carriage. Like Hydra, it is also a famously historical island, the home of the famed female captain Bouboulina, whose house is a beautiful museum open to the public.
Aegina is the picturesque fisher’s island, perfect for family vacations, relaxation, and recharging. It is an outstandingly beautiful island full of prime-cut beaches for you to enjoy.
Poros is also an extremely popular vacation hub, with beautiful beaches and beautiful scenery of green and blue for you to relax or let your romance bloom in!
Agistri is the “gorgeous beaches” island, extremely close to Athens, and as such, it is very popular with the locals for weekend escapes!
The North Aegean Islands
Situated very close to Asia Minor, the coast of Turkey, the North Aegean Islands have a charm of their own. Most were powerful naval hubs in previous centuries and very prominent in the 1821 War of Independence. Several are mentioned in Homer and other ancient writers’ works or are the setting for several Ancient Greek myths.
The main North Aegean Islands are eleven:
- Agios Efstratios
There is astounding beauty to be discovered in each one, from crystal clear waters to beautiful beaches, green rolling hills and valleys, and traditional villages preserved through time.
Ikaria is the island where Daedalus and Icarus were before Icarus took his deadly flight too close to the sun and fell in Ikaria’s waters. You will find many important archaeological sites there, but also outstanding natural beauty which is part of the European network NATURA 2000. Enjoy the hot air springs and the various events and traditions of the locals.
Lemnos is the island of the god of fire, Hephaestus. Visit its volcanic areas and highly praised lakes for their natural beauty, and stay for the fresh fish and fun, vibrant village life.
Lesbos is the island of the poetess Sappho, and indeed where the word ‘lesbian’ comes from- learn about that unique history and name through the ages, while enjoying the gorgeous vistas, beautiful landscapes, and stunning beaches.
Chios is the mastic island, where the unique product of mastic is produced from mastic trees. Walk around the mastic villages (mastihohoria) and marvel at their beautiful medieval architecture and fortifications.
Samos is the island of Pythagoras, the mathematician. You will find several important archeological and historical monuments here, from the Pythagoreion to the Heraion, a temple to the goddess Hera. Treat yourself to the beauty of Samos’ islands and great local cuisine after you return from its white-sand beaches.
If you are a snorkeling fan, Oinousses is for you, a popular destination due to its rich sea life and relaxed, laid back atmosphere.
Psara is another island of strong historical significance for the Greek War of Independence, but its history goes as far back as Homer. A home to rich mariners and a lot of folk tales, you won’t be disappointed to explore it to the fullest.
Fournoi used to be a pirate hideout, but now it is a hideout for seals and sea turtles thanks to its pure, completely clean waters while Aghios Efstratios is both archaeologically interesting and ecologically significant thanks to its bird populations.
Crete is the biggest island in Greece and the most populated one. It also happens to be of the most, if not the most beautiful one. Large enough to feel like inland, Crete is a holiday destination on its own.
There are innumerable unique things to enjoy in Crete, from two surreally beautiful pink-sand beaches (out of the less than twelve that exist in the world) to medieval cities, to palm forests, to mountaintops that remain snow-capped for a big part of the year.
Crete is famous for its ancient Minoan palaces of Knossos and Phaistos, but those are only the beginning of its millennia-old history which you can enjoy in various sites and museums. It is also famous for its delicious local cuisine revolving around olive oil, special herbs, special local cheeses, and grilled seafood and meat.
It is also known for its astounding natural beauty and the richness of its folklore and traditions, from local dances you can see performed everywhere to entire days-long festivals and events.
Crete is a time-capsule, an environmental conservation hub, civilization and heritage live museum, and a culinary symphony you must experience yourself in order to fathom.
Evia (or Euboea) is the second-largest island of Greece after Crete. Its name means “the land where oxen live well” and it is mentioned several times in different contexts in the works and legends of Ancient Greeks. It is also the one island you can drive to from Athens, via the seaside town of Halkida!
Evia, just like Crete, is rich in archeological sites and history through the ages. It is extremely naturally beautiful, with forests, rivers, wetlands, and beaches that boast emerald, crystal clear waters.
Evia is famous for its hot springs in Edipsos, its Venetian fortresses, and castles in towns like Oktonia, Karystos, and Marmari, great fish and seaside experiences in Eretria, beer microbreweries to sample exquisite local beers in Orologio, and a lot more.
Evia is a gem to be discovered, and just like Crete, you will be better off if you keep everything else off the menu in order to experience it to the fullest.