by Anastasia Valti-Spanopoulou
You don’t need to tell us where you’re from: we’re pretty sure that no matter where in the world you live, you have at least one friend who won’t give you a break about how awesome their holidays in Greece were. That’s okay, you can admit you got a tinsy-winsy bit jealous, because that’s how you got to fantastic today, planning your very own holidays to Greece (hooray!). Naturally, most trips to Greece start with a landing in Athens, and by the way we have plenty of suggestions on fun things to do in Athens this summer, or on how to just spend your first 48 hours there. Nevertheless, we have a feeling that what you’re looking forward to the most is doing some extensive, epic, ever-so-unforgettable Greek island hopping. We fully support your enthusiasm (because you’re right, touring the islands is one of the most unique things to do in Greece, especially in the summer, whether that's for a long stay or for a weekend, as a solo traveler, with kids, friends or as a couple), and we don’t mean just in spirit, but also in practice. And so, voilà - our sincere, most essential advice on how to tour the Greek isles or escape by boat for a day trip from Athens - signed, sealed, delivered from us to you, fellow adventurer.
Stage 1: Making Sense of that Greek Islands Map
First off, you need to get a good idea of what we mean when we say ‘Greek islands’ - we know this might be an embarrassing question to ask, but we don't believe in silly questions (we ask plenty of those too). In fact, last year we gave you a whole list of answers to questions you won't ask for fear of coming across as a lost tourist. The truth is, most Greeks can't even give you a comprehensive answer to this question, but it's important that we do, so you can pick what suits you best, and then check with online travel agencies (we have some recommendations at the end) which islands are ‘hopping-able’ - or as a normal person would say, close enough to each other to visit the one after the other. Generally, the Greek isles are clustered into 8 groups, but as there’s no point in listing all 227 inhabited islands of the country, we’ll mention and show you in this map of Greek islands below the most popular destinations of each island group:
Mykonos, Tinos, Naxos, Paros, Antiparos, Santorini, Sifnos, Serifos, Milos, Amorgos, Folegandros
Chios, Lesvos, Lemnos, Samos
Patmos, Kos, Rhodes, Symi
Kefalonia, Corfu, Ithaca, Zante
Skiathos, Alonissos, Skyros
Hydra, Spetses, Poros, Aegina
And then there’s Evia which can be reached by car from Athens and -last but not least- Crete, which is rightfully a category on its own (technically - in reality it’s surrounded by a bunch of islets), but obviously one of the best places to visit in Greece, given that it’s the largest Greek island, and one of its richest cultural and historical sources. But if you need more convincing to visit this beauty, we've got you covered with a whole 7 other reasons to do so.
Not all destinations within the same island group are interconnected, but if you stick to one area of the oceanic map, you have a good chance of designing a travel path elaborate enough to meet your island-exploration ambitions (gotta catch'em all).
Stage 2: Distance and Transportation in Your Greek Island Hopping Plan
Now that you get an idea of what your destination options are, you're presented with the challenging task of measuring how far you destination is from Athens, how far it is from you next destination (and the destination after!), to decide which way of traveling suits your needs best. So, depending on how much time you’ve got in your hands, where you’re going, and how you want to go there, you’ve got different traveling options: you can take a good-ol’ ferry, a hydrofoil, a catamaran, a plane, a private boat or even a helicopter.
First things first:
- To hop on anything that can float, Athens presents you with not one, not two, but three whole ports (!): Piraeus, Lavrio, and Rafina ports. You can get to Piraeus by taxi, bus, metro, train, or all of the above, but you can only take a cab or a bus to the other two ports. Keep in mind that ferries to certain islands may not depart that frequently, which means that if you're planning to sail to a Greek island as soon as you land in Greece, you may be left with several hours or even a couple of days to kill in Athens before the first available boat-ride. Also, not all Greek islands can be reached via ferries departing from the ports of Athens; for example, ferries to Ithaca, Zante and Kefalonia depart mainly from Kyllini Port, in the Peloponnese, while the ferry to Paxos leaves from Igoumenitsa. In some of these cases (eg. Kefalonia, Zante), taking a plane from Athens instead may be in option, otherwise, we're afraid you need to catch a long bus ride (2-4 hours depending your destination) from Athens to the particular port you're traveling to!
- To catch a flight, you’ll need to go to Athens’ only airport (El. Venizelos , aka Athens International Airport), which you can reach by taxi, bus, metro, or the suburban railway.
how far fROM ATHENS?
ISLANDS CLOSE TO ATHENS
The Saronic Islands are the islands closest to Athens. You can access them mainly by hydrofoils, catamarans or conventional ferries, but either way you won’t be spending much time aboard (most of them are 45 minutes to 3.5 hours away). The good news then is that you can also take random day trips from Athens to those places even if you haven’t managed to put together a well organised Greek island itinerary.
THE BIGGER, FAR-OFF ISLANDS OF GREECE
Crete, the Dodecanese and the Northern Aegean islands are the ones furthest removed from the capital (8-16 hours, depending on which ferry ride you get and how far on the map you're going). These destinations can normally be accessed only by conventional ferry or plane (much faster!). The good news is that those options are better than they sound - the boat rides usually depart from Piraeus in the afternoon, so you can sleep through your trip in a cabin and reach the island by the next morning. Flights can be cheap off-season, but demand is high and availability can be scarce for the high season, especially for the less touristic destinations such as Chios or Karpathos for instance (and this affects air-ticket prices). So prepare in advance if you want to fly in order to secure a good deal.
THE ISLANDS IN BETWEEN (NOT TOO FAR - NOT TOO CLOSE!)
The rest of the Greek islands are somewhere in-between the previous two categories, distance wise: too far to take a day-trip to, but not far enough to make you seasick for the rest of your stay in the country (for all you math people out there, this numerically translates into 3-6 hours). The Cycladic, some Ionian and Sporades islands belong mainly to this category. The most common ways to get to them is either a combination of car and ferry (for Sporades and some Ionian islands), a conventional ferry either from Piraeus or the closest mainland-port, a catamaran from Piraeus to Cyclades (which is often quite pricier but can also save you a lot of time), or a plane, in the case of the several islands that have an airport, such as Mykonos, Zante, Paros, Santorini, Naxos, Corfu, Skiathos, Kefalonia and others.
Stage 3: How to Spend It!
Where to Stay
That is probably the hardest question to answer. The Greek island of your dreams may host you for as low as EUR 50/night (for low-key rooms to let in low profile islands like Amorgos and Chios for example) up to EUR 3000/night (even more) for top luxury hotels in Mykonos and Santorini. But most are somewhere in the lower end of in-between (up to EUR 250/night). What to expect? From plain-vanilla rooms to let, family run small hotels, beautiful boutique hotels with character, even massive all-inclusive resorts. And then, there's Airbnb, which has established presence in most Greek islands already. So, depending on when you are planning your escape this is what you should know: most Greeks (and fellow neighbors and frequent visitors, Italians) escape for holidays in August. Therefore, if you plan to visit end-July or August, unless you have no budget limitations and don't mind sleeping in a presidential suite nor a tent, we urge you to book in advance.
what to do
The beauty of Greek islands is that each one is unique and like no other (although most may look exactly the same in an abstract picture). Greek hospitality is world famous, however the people can be different, their 'training' and tolerance to tourism can be different, so can be the food, the energy, the air and weather; some islands are known for their sandy beaches and others for their magnificent rocks; some are green and some are rocky; some are deserted, ideal for a quiet and isolated holiday - some are ideal for partying and people watching! Still, the routine in each destination is summed up to 3 things: beach - food - drinks. Anywhere you go, there's the local version of this routine, so we encourage you to explore as many beaches as possible (even if Chios has 92 beaches - do not be discouraged) and to taste all local specialities -tip: follow the locals! Also, make sure to leave with local goodies as souvenirs. By rule of thumb, besides swimming, tanning and dining each place has its unique things to see and do either in the island's 'hora' (aka the 'city centre') or the villages; that could include a day tour in a secluded beach only accessible by boat (like Balos in Crete!), a visit to important Greek tourist attractions such as sites and museums of archeological interest, a walk to admire the island's remarkable architecture, authentic and traditional local craftsmanship or a noteworthy art exhibitions, a fun adventure tour (hikes to mountains and gorges included!), a culinary tour to 'taste' the local food culture (wine tours for example are one of the best things to do in Santorini), even a photography tour (like the one we have hand-picked from Athens to Hydra). We encourage you to research and discover the hidden gems of each destination (as we have done for Crete, for you!) and make the most of your stay.
best greek island for you
We would refrain from stereotypes, but it will sure help first time visitors, so we will make a bold move and give you a brief 'troubleshoot' list to help you know what we think the 'essential' character of some of the most popular and most beautiful Greek islands is:
Mykonos = World class lux and partying (with amazing sandy beaches)
Santorini = Romance and wine (best Greek island for couples!)
Folegandros = Hippie chic
Amorgos = The Big Blue (the movie! aka swim swim swim)
Crete = All in one (food, history, energy, culture, nature, diversity, facilities)
Chios = 92 beaches, history and mastic (the only source on earth for natural gum)
Lesvos = Ouzo, olive oil and poetry masters
Paros = Down to earth Mykonos
Antiparos = Ultimate Greek chic
Tinos = Religion (and hidden gem)
Milos = Instagram-able beaches! (and Venus!)
Patmos = Secluded Greek gem with unique energy (for the ones who are patient enough to get there)
Hydra and Spetses = car-free Greek beauty a footstep from Athens
Corfu = Architecture-lovers who like it green (not rocky and blue white)
Zante (Zakynthos) = Beautiful beaches for music lovers
...and there's more
Aaaand that's it! We wish you happy hopping, happy tanning, and happy meze gobbling. Remember your sunscreen and your hat. We will not offer more maternal advice on how to survive the heat on this blogpost, but if you're looking for it you can read our tips on last week's post (*wink*).
P.S. As always, everything you read here is entirely personal - no promotions, no professional biases!
Did we bombard you with too much information? Here is a map with all the important island hopping reference points you need to remember.