According to mythology, many of Greece’s islands were crafted by the gods, and these creation myths appear apt given the islands’ exceptional beauty and other-worldly qualities. Estimates for the number of Greek islands and islets dotted along the expansive coastline vary between 1,200 and 6,000, of which 227 are inhabited, leaving you with plenty of options when planning a holiday in Greece. You can’t really go wrong with any of the Greek islands – each possesses its own individual charm and a scattering of stunning beaches – but if you’re struggling with where to start, read on for our list of the most beautiful islands in Greece.
Santorini is somewhat of a cliché choice to kick-off the list, but there are a multitude of reasons why the film-set stunning island is considered one of the most beautiful islands in Greece. Whitewashed villages are carved into the cliffsides, with sugar-cube houses tumbling towards the turquoise ocean. Oia’s azure-roofed buildings are instantly recognisable, and the village’s striking sunsets provide prime photo opportunities. The south of the island does offer some respite from the hoards of Instagrammers, however, and is worth visiting for the multi-coloured sand beaches.
Next up is Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades archipelago, renowned for its string of powder-sand beaches which adorn the west coast. The interior is dotted with dozens of dozy towns and villages, where you’ll find lots of local produce – including arseniko cheese – and well-established distilleries, serving kitron (citron liqueur). Naxos Town is imbued with Venetian influences, a nod to its previous Venetian rule, while Mount Zeus (supposedly where Zeus spent his childhood) is laced with well-worn hiking trails.
Another well-established addition to the list, Corfu is the centrepiece of the Ionian islands. Although the south tends to cater to party-goers, the rest of the island is as enchanting as ever and still resembles the idyll described in the writings of Gerald and Lawrence Durrell. Byzantine architectural masterpieces are found perched upon lush clifftops, such as Angelokastro and Kassiopi Castles, while the pastel villages are reminiscent of those found in the Tuscan countryside. And to top it off, Paleokastritsa beach is heralded as one of Greece’s best beaches.
Ever since local chef Nicholas Tselementes created the original Greek recipe book here in 1910, Sifnos has been crowned the undisputed gastronomic capital of the Greek islands. Some of the best local dishes include traditional revithia (chickpea stew) and mastello (lamb with red wine and dill), as well as Sifnian melopita (honey pie) for those with a sweet tooth. Aside from its culinary proficiency, the island promotes a peaceful rhythm of life and encourages easy-going days. Intersperse indulgent feasts with visits to the famed pottery workshops and buttery-sand beaches in the southeast.
Mykonos is an obvious addition to our list of the most beautiful islands in Greece, and a worthy contender for Greece’s hedonistic headquarters (the island has been nicknamed the Ibiza of the Aegean). Its capital, Hora, is often touted as one of the most beautiful Greek towns, thanks to its trademark windmills and bougainvillea-draped buildings. The island has become somewhat of a hotspot, with influxes of Instagrammers and ravers, yet it is still possible to find some away-from-it-all corners such as the beaches of Lia and Agrari.
Despite its pocket-sized proportions, Hydra certainly packs a punch when it comes to beauty and its proximity to Athens makes it a popular weekend destination for the city’s smart set. The island is car-free, with mules and donkeys providing the main form of transport which only adds to the relaxed atmosphere, and the most active thing about it is its thriving art scene. The surrounding sea is impossibly clear and what the island lacks in terms of sandy beaches, it makes up for with secluded coves and charming crevices.
Often likened to a less glitzy Mykonos, egg-shaped Paros is pockmarked with pretty villages and encased by golden beaches. Its nightlife is lively, and it has all the classic Greek features (quaint villages, sugar-white structures and historic monasteries), but the lack of tourist crowds on the island as a whole only increases its appeal. In ancient times, Paros was treasured for its marble quarries and Parian marble formed the basis for the temples of Zeus and Apollo, as well as the Acropolis.
Milos, the volcanic island in the west of the Cyclades, remained relatively undiscovered until recent years. Home to over 70 beaches, this is the ultimate Greek island for a beach-lounging, sun-tanning holiday and its volcanic geography means that it’s blessed with a number of natural hot springs, which you can wallow in for free. Although you may not have heard of the clandestine island, there’s no doubt you’ll know its most famous export: the Venus de Milo, which now stands proud in the Louvre.
The largest and most populous of the Greek islands (as well as Zeus’ birthplace according to Greek mythology), Crete scarcely needs much introduction. Parts of the island have unfortunately become overrun with over-development, yet there are still plenty of authentic places to explore where the local food is exceptionally fresh and the olive groves remain untouched, such as the Amari valley and the hamlet of Milia. Hike Samaria Gorge, one of Europe’s longest, picnic on the pink sand of Elafonisi island and sample delicacies from Chania’s bustling market.
Concluding our list of the most beautiful islands in Greece is tucked-away Amorgos, whose far-flung location on the eastern edge of the Cyclades makes it a hidden gem of a destination. The rugged interior entices walkers and hiking the mountainous topography is the only way to access many of its beaches, meaning there’s every chance you’ll have one all to yourself. Blonde sand is lapped at by startingly clear waters, which attract avid divers, and the under-the-radar vibe of the island is suitably summed up by Katapola harbour’s welcome sign, which reads ‘Welcome to Amorgos. Nobody will find you here.’
Written by Luisa Watts