Updated on September 20th, 2023
I have just returned from my 8th trip Greek Island hopping and I already can’t wait to go again! As someone who’s motto is “Never Go Back”, that gives you an indication of how much I love it. Are you new to the idea of catching a ferry to discover the wonders of Santorini and Mykonos, or the smaller gems in between? Are you wondering which are the best Greek Islands to visit? Then look no further, here is the only guide you need!“
Cyclades Islands, Greece
I had my first experience of island hopping in Greece when I was a student just about to enter my 20s (a very long time ago!). My friend had family in Greece & so could offer a wealth of knowledge about the area. I usually have a motto to “Never Go Back” if I’ve returned to a place I really enjoyed, as it rarely lives up to the expectation. Greek island hopping is that rare holiday that, in my opinion, has bucked the trend & never failed to deliver an amazing trip.
I have returned to the Cyclades islands in different combinations 8 times now. That first time was with 2 girlfriends for a hard-partying couple of weeks. Then, I returned twice with my husband, and since with my sister & a friend. In my experience, everybody loves a Greek Odyssey!
Why Greek Island Hopping?
If you are familiar with a holiday where you focus on one destination then let me explain the advantages of moving around several islands in one trip. In my opinion, these include:
- The holiday feels longer! If you go away for a fortnight, the 1st week seems to last forever & the 2nd flies by. You get to know the place & the days just build momentum & apparent speed. If you move location after 3-4 days, each time feels like the first week & therefore a 2-week holiday can feel like you’re away for a month!
- Every Greek island is different. No matter which ones you choose, each will have a unique feel, experience & reason why you love it. Your choice will depend on what you are looking for. Here I provide the pros & cons so you can decide which are the best Greek Islands to visit for you. My advice is to decide on your priorities & do your research. I have to say that every time I’ve been planning a trip, I have looked to different island groups (Dodecanese (Rhodes, Kos), Argo-Saronic (Aegina, Poros)) & each time I come back to the Cyclades.
- There is something for everyone. If you have different needs from anyone you’re travelling with, you have a chance to get everything you’re looking for, maybe on the same island, maybe not!
- It’s easier & quicker than flying between destinations. The ferries in Greece are well organised & (mostly!) run on time (more on this later). There is no stress or time that is involved in air travel. The Cyclades themselves are also quite close together, meaning often in less than 2 hours you’re on a different island.
The Best Greek Islands to Visit in the Cyclades
The peak season here is August, so if you are planning to visit then, make sure you book early. This is also when locals leave the city & have their vacations on the islands, so ferries can get booked up. As a result, if you plan to start/finish in Athens some of the local businesses close down as they go on holiday. The city is mainly full of tourists. All the sights are busy, but some of the local bakeries, restaurants etc may be closed. Finally, August is also very hot.
The season in Greece is from March-November but peak within May-September, especially July & August, when it can be manic. If you choose to travel during the key summer months be prepared for heat, crowds at all the key sights (especially at sunset) and needing to book restaurants. In addition, make sure you have your ferries & accommodation organised in plenty of time. For August, start booking in March/April.”
If you plan to travel out of season, then be aware that there will be fewer people but again all businesses may not be open. Also, the ferries will not be as frequent, so your choice of islands & travel days will be more limited.
Which are the best Greek Islands to visit in the Cyclades?
This is a huge question, so I have given my opinion on the pros & cons of each island I have visited so far. I hope this will help you in selecting your best fit:
Santorini rides high on many bucket lists. Therefore it is hard not to cover it first when discussing the best Greek Islands to visit. Why? Because it’s absolutely spectacular!
Santorini is the quintessential photo you have seen of Greece where the whitewashed villages seem to fall over the cliff down to the waters edge. It’s the blue domed church overlooking the sea. If you have never visited before, then it’s hard to keep Santorini off your itinerary. No matter how aggravated you get by the crowds, the view at sunset will melt that away.”
- Santorini is a volcano so if hot springs & volcanic sights are of interest to you then you have to add this island to your plan.
- You can get a direct international flight, so it is a great start/endpoint for your trip. Or get a flight back to Athens for your onward journey.
- On my most recent visit, I stayed centrally in the brightly decorated Sweet Pop. It was perfect, close to but hidden away from the crowds with its own pool in a warren of small streets.
- One of the best things to do in the Cyclades Islands is the hike from Fira to Oia. You can check out my in-depth guide for all the details.
- As I’ve eluded to before, it’s crowded & that can make it unpleasant, especially at the peak time of year. If you have a choice, consider going outside the busiest period (November to March if you can) to avoid everywhere being overrun.
- If you’re in Greece for the beaches then be warned, this is not the best island. Santorini is essentially an extinct volcano & is so beautiful as a result of its being a caldera. The downside of this is that you only get black sandy beaches (or the Red Beach). In the heat of the day, the coarse sand can seriously burn your feet & the rocks by the water make it a challenge to enter the sea while retaining your dignity!
- Its’ popularity means that Santorini is expensive, among the most of all the islands. If you want a view to enjoy with dinner, then be prepared to pay for it. For a more reasonable alternative, enjoy your drinks with a view & then head away to eat. It will cost you less & your meal will often be of higher quality.
- Due to the spectacular scenery, Santorini is a cruise ship destination so when the ships are in (at least 1 at all times), expect a lot of people in the small labyrinthine streets. You will not be alone!
- If you’re planning to do all of your internal travel by ferry, then either put Santorini at the start or end of your itinerary (the ferry from Athens can take 10 hours).
Want to know more? Check out my Ultimate 2-Day Santorini Itinerary.
Mykonos is famous as the glamour island with a reputation for great nightlife. The main town has the archetypal whitewashed maze of streets filled with cafes, bars & boutiques.”
- There is an international airport in Mykonos, so again it is useful to have at the start/end of your trip.
- Mykonos is booming for tourists & celebrities with money to burn which means there are plenty of funky hotels, bars & restaurants to choose from.
- Mykonos, like Santorini, is a cruise ship destination which means when the ships are in, the tiny streets can feel overcrowded & slightly claustrophobic.
- Mykonos is also one of the most expensive islands in the Cyclades so if you are on a budget, you may want to avoid this island.
- With a reputation as a party island, beach clubs have dominated in recent years. If you fancy sunning yourself, be prepared to pay €100 for a couple of sunbeds & some shade. Costs will decrease the further from the sea you choose. These may need booking ahead. Prices for drinks will be at a premium & music will be loud. If that’s what you are looking for, then Mykonos could be the best Greek Island for you to visit!
- Tinos is not somewhere that attracts the mass tourism that some of its neighbours experience. Recently the Greek government used Tinos as an example to showcase the smaller islands as a means of managing the issues it is facing with over-tourism.
- Tinos is just a 30-minute ferry ride from Mykonos, so could even be a day trip. Check out this one from Get Your Guide HERE.
- The best thing to do in Tinos is take time to explore some of the villages across the island, either on a bus tour or using your own transport.
- On the subject of bus tours, there is an excellent one which you can buy tickets for at the Bus Station in the port. It costs only €15 for a full day stopping at all the key spots on the island.
- The beaches here are gorgeous, with soft sand & clear water. They are some of the best I have visited anywhere in Greece.
- There are not lots of tourists & those that are here are mainly locals. So, if you want to avoid the crowds, head to stunning Tinos!
- Tinos is one of the main pilgrimage sites in Greece. Avoid the dates around 15th August when the island will be full of people paying their respects by crawling on hands & knees up to the Church of Annunciation in Hora.
- As most visitors are Greek, not everyone will speak English.
- Again, Paros is beautiful. Take your pick between the gorgeous port town of Parikia or stunning Naoussa as a base. Currently, the island is a little more low-key than its famous neighbours but businesses are starting to take their lead from Mykonos. Prices are increasing, booking is more prevalent & expensive beach bars are popping up across the island.
- The beaches in Paros are lovely, with soft sand & most are well organised with sunbeds & parasols.
If you’re looking for a classier island experience, then Paros is for you. It has the harbour, the bars by the sea, the sandy beaches & the small streets full of shops with good quality gifts, jewellery, clothing & restaurants”
- The island is only accessible for the smaller cruise ships so crowds are way fewer than in Santorini and Mykonos.
- Don’t miss your chance to spend at least a day on gorgeous Antiparos. It is easy to get to by boat & if Tom Hanks thinks it’s a good place to have a home then who are we to argue?
- For all of the reasons above, Paros is again one of the more expensive islands in the Cyclades so if you’re on a bit of a budget then bear this in mind.
- If you like a wild party atmosphere, then I would direct you to one of the other islands, as Paros tends to be more of an “a few drinks & dinner with a gorgeous view” kind of place.
- The best restaurants in the best locations can tend to be booked up so make sure you either book the evening before or stick to the less prestigious locations. I often like to be more spontaneous, hence it’s in the avoid section!
For all the details you need to plan your visit, head to What to do in Paros for 2 days.
- For beach lovers, Naxos is one of the best Greek Islands to visit. If you’re looking for fine powdery sand, then this is the place for you. Agios Georgios is basically right by the main (port) town of Chora so you can avoid needing transport altogether if this is what you are looking for.
Naxos is also the largest & most fertile of all the islands & if you choose to hire some transport I would thoroughly recommend a trip into the more central area, especially at dusk when the light makes the landscape appear even more beautiful.”
- Don’t miss a short walk from the port in Chora to Portara, Apollo’s Temple where you can get excellent sunset views (albeit with lots of other tourists!)
- Naxos tends to be one of the least expensive islands on this list.
- This is becoming a much more popular island & I noticed on my recent trip that the crowds have grown considerably.
- Naxos has the feel of a place which is more a package destination than for the independent traveller.
On my last trip, I stayed at Iliovasilema which was a great location with a lovely pool.
Check out my post on 21 Best Things to do in Naxos for all the details.
- This is the young ‘party’ capital of the Cyclades, so if that’s what you’re looking for then include Ios in your itinerary, but even if you’re not, don’t dismiss it entirely. I have visited with both on my agenda. Be aware that if you prefer an early night you could be coming home when everyone else is heading out for the night, which can make everywhere seem very quiet!
- Ios has some beautiful sandy beaches which make exploring the island worth the effort.
- If you’re not in the mood for late-night partygoers in their 20s, then Ios is probably best avoided, especially between June–August.
- Milos is stunning & one of the smaller and quieter islands in the Cyclades, with far fewer tourists than many of its more famous neighbours. If you are planning a trip to the Cyclades, then Milos is one of the best Greek islands to visit…in my opinion!
A boat tour is highly recommended to see the best coastal features of the island & the beaches that are inaccessible by any other means. It also allows you the opportunity to swim in small bays with crystal clear water.”
- The bus links (especially from Adamas) are very good, meaning there is no need for a car to explore the island.
- The beaches can be beautiful (e.g. Sarakiniko – a stunning white rock beach) but I would say don’t go to Milos expecting endless fine sandy beaches.
The perfect hotel for my last stay was the family-run Hotel Eleni. Make sure you book breakfast as it is a real treat! For all the details you need to plan your visit, head to What to do in Milos, Greece – 21 Incredible Reasons to Visit
- Syros is the administrative capital of the Cyclades, although it is far from the biggest island. This means ferries are regular here throughout the year.
- The main port town (Ermoupoli) is flanked by two hills, each topped by a church. One is Catholic, and one is Orthodox to reflect the beliefs of the island.
- It is stunning! Don’t miss a trip to the top of Ano Syros for sunset, although the walk up there is a challenge.
- Due to its importance, this is more of a functional than a tourist island. It is mainly populated by Greek locals which can make a refreshing change compared to the bigger & more popular islands.
- The architecture is very different & would look more at home in Venice than a Greek island.
- Due to the nature of Syros, not all people speak English.
- If you are looking for the beach, in town Asteria is basically a platform of concrete but the swimming is beautiful. I understand that the other beaches are sandy but I didn’t make it to them. Be warned, when a ferry goes by, you can get very wet!
- There are a lot of steps. Exploring on foot can be challenging & best done by avoiding the main heat of the day.
- Andros is a great choice for a beach holiday. It is the second largest island in the Cyclades which gives you plenty of choices to explore but with comparatively small numbers of tourists.
- If you love hiking, then Andros is a walkers paradise with mountains, picturesque valleys, streams & ancient stone mills.
- I based myself in Batsi which offered a wide choice of family friendly beaches, restaurants & bars. It is a 15-minute taxi ride from the port in Gavrio.
- The capital of Hora is a beautiful town to explore with its neoclassical mansions, museums & spectacular views.
- As the island is so big, it is one of the few where you may prefer to stay away from the port. The main town of Hora is an hour’s drive & the beach town of Batsi, 15 minutes away.
- To explore the island fully it would be best to hire your own vehicle which can increase the costs of a trip to the islands.
- I realise this isn’t an island, but it is a good option as a start/endpoint of your trip! For example, there are a lot more flight options available internationally.
- The main port in Athens, Piraeus is so busy that you can get to any island in the whole of Greece from here & will have the largest choice of times & seats to best meet your needs. But a word of warning, it is very large. It’s important that you know which quay your ferry is departing from. Also, arrive early so you can relax as you negotiate the chaos!
- The Acropolis is truly stunning and there are other ancient sites as well as the museum to keep you busy.
- I would recommend 1 or 2 nights in Athens. This allows you to see the key sights without eating into your island time. If you do have limited time, then just 1 1/2 hours on a ferry will take you to stunning Hydra Island. Here you can get a perfect island experience in just a couple of days.
- Athens can be packed full of tourists, especially at peak times (August). However, as all the Athenians tend to leave, not all the local bars, restaurants etc are open.
- It’s not an island so you may want to focus all your time away from the city if that’s the purpose of your visit.
For your stay, I recommend the Plaka area of the city as a central spot with plenty of bar & restaurant options.
The first time I visited, I was a spontaneous student with very little planning. We waited until we got to each port to find accommodation. This is still an option today as there are people trying to fill their rooms. However, it is not always the best way to get to your perfect location.
Nowadays I’m a little less “fly by the seat of my pants” & prefer to have a good browse of all options & carefully choose the location before arriving.”
For specific accommodation recommendations for each island, check my Island Hopping in the Cyclades post or the individual itineraries under each section here for plenty of excellent options.
Getting There & Away
This is where it’s important to choose which you believe will be your best Greek Islands to visit. Some have international airports which means you can start in one place & fly home from another. I have often started in Athens & come back from either Mykonos or Santorini (or once, Kos). This means that all your travel is one way. Although many of the islands have airports they don’t all fly internationally.
Then plan your route in a circular motion to minimise ferry time between your desired stops. This can take some time when planning.
There are flights available internally between the islands but I can assure you that by the time you have gone through the process of check-in & security, a ferry is a way more pleasant experience!
As mentioned numerous times, the best way to get around the islands is by ferry. It’s now easy to book online & make sure you do it in plenty of time as the number of seats may be limited. I recommend Ferryscanner. I used them for all my ferry needs on my most recent trip (11 in all!). They have options for all the individual companies & will send an email 48 hours before to remind you to check-in. You need to do this for all journeys to get your ticket, so please be vigilant. I found their system easy to use & convenient.
Car Hire / Scooters / ATV etc
Hiring a car for the whole trip could be an option with the car ferries, but it’s not one I have ever done or explored. Bear in mind the extra cost if you plan to start & end in a different location. Also, the most authentic places to stay are often those with small lanes, best explored on foot. This means parking options could be limited.
The alternative is to hire transport individually on each island if you need it for a day or two. Most islands offer cars, scooters, ATVs etc & varying these can also add an element of fun to the trip.
Taxis are a good option when you first arrive on an island for quick & easy transport to your accommodation. However, they can be the costliest choice & availability may be limited.
If you choose not to get your own transport the buses are a great option & on most islands serve the key tourist areas, to & from the beaches. The maximum fare I paid was €3 one way. This can either be paid beforehand (if there’s a kiosk) or on the bus itself.
If you can, get yourself a timetable (or photograph the ones on display at the terminals) & ask your accommodation where the nearest stop is. If you don’t go to the terminal it can sometimes be hard to identify where the stop actually is.
Don’t expect a super regular service, especially on the less busy islands & routes, (1 per hour for example). They do thankfully run pretty much to time though.”
This may also be a more direct route on some islands to the beaches. However, expect to pay more than the bus. For example, in Paros, we got the boat to & from the beaches for around €6.50 each return. It was €1.80 for each bus journey.
If you are staying in the port town either ask your accommodation for directions or check on Google Maps. Often you will be able to walk, which again saves time & money.
One of the most quintessential Greek experiences is exploring the maze of small streets & old towns on foot. This will be completely different depending on if you visit during the day or night.”
In the daytime, many shops may be closed as these areas really come to life at night. The labyrinthine streets can be magical but also very busy. Bear this in mind when choosing your accommodation & transport options.
I hope this has given you everything you need to decide which are the best Greek Islands to visit for you, and how to make the most of your trip when you get there. Please feel free to drop any further questions in the comments, and don’t forget to check out my post on A Perfect Greek Island Hopping Itinerary which contains loads of options for accommodation, restaurants and activities. And whichever islands you choose, I have no doubt that Greece will steal your heart too!
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