Updated: Oct 18
I'll let you in on a little travel secret.
There is not just one perfect Greek Island.
They're not even ten. It's probably more like 227.
A top ten list doesn't really do justice when you consider that there are over 6,000 Greek islands. And while only 227, give or take, of those are actually inhabited; it still leaves the adventure seeker in all of us wondering if there's more to Greek Island travel than just Mykonos and Santorini.
A Google search of "Best Greek Islands to Visit" will curate a tantalizing list of articles all popping with seductive photos. But I give pause as I read the bylines and wonder if our best sources of anything Greek should be from a Kelsey, Anthony, or Dave.
I feel we can do better.
If tea is being spilled, I want to be sitting at the table with the locals. I want to be sat at a table with Ariadni, Effi, Ioanna, and Jason.
They each work in travel in some capacity and know what they are talking about. I have Instagram proof that they holiday on a Greek island. That's what I love about Greeks - they have this incomparable sense of pride and appreciation for their country. Greeks go to Greece for holiday. So when you ask them for a recommendation, you can trust they know what they are talking about.
Κουφονήσια | KOUFONISIA
Island Complex: Cyclades
Official Website: http://www.koufonisia.gr
According to mythology, the creation of the Cyclades (one of 7 main Greek island groupings) is attributed to Poseidon. It is said that the god of the sea transformed the Cyclades nymphs into islands when they angered him. One of those nymph-like islands is Koufonisia.
I'm kicking off with Koufonisia purely for the fact that its population is 399.
It's as if they are saying, you are the +1.
I mean, how perfect is that?
I first learned of Koufonisia from Ariadni Pereira. Born and raised in California but grew up Greek. I first met Ari as a panelist for my Culture Dive into Greece. She is the founder of Olympian Meeting; planning exclusive, strategic, wellness meetings and events and is truly an avid lover of all things Greek and travels.
Stunning! This island is petite. You can walk everywhere or take a boat to the beaches. Full of local flavors and the best Banoffee at the restaurant at Pori Beach. The colors of the water and the reflections on the white buildings are just gorgeous."
There are about 30 restaurants on the island and coincidentally there are about 30 fishing boats that go out daily from the island so it's easy to find the catch of the day. Due to the island's intimate size, you can be assured you will be eating fresh, good quality, locally grown products.
In addition to the fresh seafood, it is said the wild goat from Keros island is a must-try. Mixalios Grill House is off the beaten path but comes highly recommended for being the place to try goat from Keros.
Koufonisia is actually two islands - Ano (Upper) Koufonisi and Kato (Lower) Koufonisi so you will want to pay attention to that when looking at where you want to stay. The closest major island is Naxos and the best way to reach the island is by ferry. SeaJets is a good option, especially if you are going to stick to island hopping in the Cyclades.
With the island being tiny, you could walk around it in a single day, so hiring a car isn't necessary. The hotels are a short walk from the port, where the ferry lets you off, and most hotels will provide for pickup transport. You can rent bikes, motorbikes, and even a boat. There isn't a ton to do which could be a great thing. No excuses, you can only relax. Since it's less "organized" for tourists you will find that most beaches don't have sunbeds so be prepared to supply your own gear. Recommended beaches:
Pori Beach 3.5 km NE of the Chora (main town), this beach is known as one of the best on the island. The best description I've seen so far is "you can feel the sun smearing you in golden sand"
Fanos Beach A tiny sandy beach just east of Chora with great views overlooking Kato Koufonissi
Finikas Beach Also called Charakopou, it's not too far from Fanos and walking distance from Chora
Italida Beach also known as Platia Pounda Beach, it's the most frequented beach for when you are in the mood for people-watching and a more lively atmosphere. It boasts both sandy and rocky sections but the water is all crystal clear.
Κίμωλος | KIMOLOS
Island Complex: Cyclades
Official Website: https://www.kimolos.gr/en
Kimolos is what many call the “real Greece” and has it all: aquamarine waters, scenic walks, short distances, authentic characters, and an unspoiled landscape worth exploring inch by inch. Here the concept is that tourism is not for the masses. It attracts that different kind of traveller who is willing to walk around, relax, meet the locals, communicate with them, and even make friends with each other.
It is an island with rich historical records. Its first mythical settler was Kimolos, the wife of Sidis, the daughter of Taurus, to whom she owes its name. It was also known as Echinousa, probably because of the Chickweed chalk which is still abundant on the island. During ancient times, Kimolos had two marvelous harbors, the remains of which exist in the "Ellinika" area, as the locals call it. In today’s commercial port, in the bay of Psathi, there are carved hillocks that the locals call syrmata - boathouses used in winter for the protection of the fisherman’s boats.
Like its more popular sibling island, Milos, Kimolos owes its existence to a volcano eruption that happened millions of years ago, endowing it with stunning rocky scenery, breathtaking beaches, and awe-inspiring landscape. It’s not easily accessible, but it’s this inaccessibility and lack of crowds, combined with the scenery, great food, and warm people that make it a hidden gem in the Cyclades.
My recommendation is to allow time on the island, don’t rush it, take a hike, drive around, meander and speak to the locals in Chorio and if you are lucky – try to catch a movie at the open-air cinema, Cine Kalisperitis, that takes place in the candlelit Castle of Chorio.
You can take it from a Greek who knows what she is talking about. Ioanna Kontogeorgou, is a line producer for My Greek Odyssey, a television series that takes viewers to some of the most spectacular and unique islands in Greece. She has the enviable responsibility of conducting reconnaissance on each island prior to production.
From history to food to local traditions, it is her job to unearth the hidden gems of each Greek island that you can't find in a Google search so I think we're really lucky to have her share her insights.
The center of activities in Kimolos is Chorio, the only village and capital of the island. In fact, Chorio actually translates to mean village. It is quite small but spread out, giving you a sense of having space. In summer it is busy enough with a selection of restaurants and shops but in winter that, of course, becomes quieter. Chorio displays the typical Cycladic architecture: Old white houses, paintings on the roads, the medieval Castle, significant churches, and lively piazzas, which all make up an unforgettable scenery. Kimolians have only very recently welcomed visitors onto their island, so the locals are very authentic in their hospitality - the locals will start talking to you, and will probably invite you to their places for a treat.
Speaking of treats, you must try ladenia, a local flatbread with olive oil, onion, and fresh tomato. It's delicious and the signature dish of Kimolos. Tyrenia is a pie with a filling of a spicy local cheese, Kimolian cucumber, and capers. Manoura and Xyno are local cheeses that you should definitely try!
Kimolos beaches are the gems of the island!
Prassa (or Agios Georgios beach) White, coarse sand in and out of the sea, affected by the minerals in the area of Prassa and turquoise waters make it the most popular beach and my favourite on the island! There are some sea caves under the church of St. George (Agios Georgios), where the monk seals breed in the autumn.
Aliki (salt pan) is a beach with sand and pebbles. There is a small salt pan! Beautiful!
Bonatsa is next to Aliki; a long, golden, sandy beach with shallow waters.
Goupa is a fishermen's settlement with the tradtional syrmata, which are boat houses carved in the mild rock to keep the boats safe in winter.
Dekas, Ellinika & Mavrospilia are three beaches, one next to the other on the west of the island. At Ellinika you can see the sunken ancient town and the ancient burial grounds. The sunset at Mavrospilia should not be missed!
A non-negotiable MUST DO in Kimolos is to sail around the Polyaigos islet (1 mile far from Kimolos) in a caïque, a traditional fishing boat found among the waters of the Ionian and the Aegean Sea. It has become a top destination for famous people visiting Greece, the likes of which include, Tom Hanks, Monica Belluci, Former President George Bush, and Prince Charles of England.
Polyaigosis is the largest, almost uninhabited island in Greece. It is half the size of Kimolos and up until around 1951, it was inhabited albeit by very few people. The island's name simply means many goats. It is in fact, inhabited by goats and their lone dedicated shepherd who loves his animals so much that he doesn’t want to leave them, despite the loneliness and remoteness of the place.
On the southern and western part of the island, you will find the most magnificent, unhindered beaches -Pano Mersini, Kato Mersini, Armoura, Panagias Avlaki as well as Diamantospilia, a cave with fine crystal quartz. In the summer it is a base for those cruising the Aegean. Polyaigosis is the best-preserved geological island in the Aegean and is particularly important both scientifically and ecologically. It has joined the Natura 2000 European project, in being considered an important habitat undisturbed by human presence.
Λευκάδα | LEFKADA
Island Complex: Ionian
Official Website: https://www.lefkada-greece.com/
Lefkada is named for the white rocks (Greek leukos=white) that adorn the Lefkada cape located on the southern part of the island. According to mythology, the poetess, Sappho, threw herself into the sea at Cape Lefkada because of her love for Phaon. For the love of Phaon! Technically, Lefkada is not really an island because it has a narrow causeway connecting it to the mainland, and yet despite the accessibility, it is still surprisingly unaffected by tourism.
This island is brought to you by my good friend, Jason Healan. Technically, not Greek on paper because he's an American from Georgia, but he's essentially Greek by devotion after calling it his home for decades, working as a tour guide educating us lost souls wandering the earth. If you want more insight into Greece before you go, you can reach out to him here.
Situated just below Corfu, in the Ionian island chains, Lefkada gets a different type of tourism than what you get in the Aegean Sea with Mykonos, Paros, and Santorini. It is slightly less touristy, a bit more rustic and what I like about it most is its natural beauty. It's a very, very green island and that green from the mountains comes down to these white cliffs that give the sea the brightest most beautiful color blue you can imagine.
I went strictly just to get out of the house, clear the mind, spend six days on the beach, and not really much else.
That was mission accomplished.
But in my past visits, I have explored the island a lot more including some of the villages and also the main town which like most of the Ionian capital cities has sort of a cross between an Italian feel and a Greek feel which gives it a little different flavor than some of the other islands.
I would say that it feels undisturbed and wilder and less overrun by tourism. It's just raw beauty. The green pine forest all over the island. The sheer cliffs and elevation changes that crash into these beautiful, white, lenticular pebble beaches. The highlight for me is the little village of Agios Nikitas, which is where I've stayed about a dozen times over the years. It's small but has everything you need while still paying a village charm not to mention one of the best beaches of any village I've been to in Greece.
They also have fantastic food, particularly this one type of sausage, what they call Village Sausage, which is like this big link made using a certain type of recipe which is very famous on the island. The butchers on the island continue, as they always have, to follow an old Venetian recipe to make specialty air-dried salami and pork sausages, their taste is unique from the mild aroma of garlic to the whole peppercorns inside. Its flavor is very well accompanied with red wine from the local grape variety of red Vertzami.
The island has its own production of honey that is sourced from wild thyme and produced in the south-western villages. Ideal weather conditions and the perfect natural setting attributes to honey with an intense aroma and rich taste. Honey forms one of the basic ingredients for Lefkadian desserts and has a special place in every household. For those who wish to taste it, every year there is a honey festival in the village of Dragano, in August, during which visitors are able to taste pieces of the honeycombs, the traditional Ladopita with honey, and many other local delicacies. Of course, honey can be found in almost every shop and market on the island...it's just not as fun. The island boasts several other festivals throughout the summer including the Lentils Festival in Eglouvi. Lentils are considered a superfood and Eglouvi lentils are a rare and delicious variety that you should try while on the island.
Overall, Lefkada is just laid back, that's what I like about it. You see the old grandfathers and grandmothers interacting with the rest of the population and it doesn't seem to be overrun with people wearing white straw hats - you know the typical tourist crowd from Europe or the United States. The type of tourism you see are mostly from the Balkans, from Italy, and then, of course, those people who live on that side of Greece who know about it. But in that island chain (Ionian), Corfu and Zakynthos and Kefalonia normally get most of the tourist traffic and Lefkada still remains as that sort of hidden gem. It's been the island I keep going back to year over year.
Νάξος | NAXOS
Island Complex: Cyclades
Official Website: https://www.naxos.net/
There are many threads that link mythology to the island of Naxos. Zeus, Semele, Dionysus, Ariadne, Demeter, Persephone, Iphimedeia, Pancratis, the giants Otus and Ephialtes are but a few of the names that make an appearance in the action-packed legends surrounding the island. It is said that Zeus, the king of all gods, grew up in Naxos, hidden away from the ferocity of his father, Cronus. The people of Naxos worshipped Zeus and a temple was erected by the faithful in his honor on Mount Zas, with the inscription Mountain of Zeus the Melosios which can be seen carved on a rock there. Dionysus, the god of wine and son of Zeus, loved Naxos so much so that he made the land fertile, full of vineyards, producing a wine of excellent taste and fine quality.
For as long as I've known Effie Paida, she's been infatuated with Naxos. And rightly so, after going there myself, I understood her devotion. Effie and I worked together in travel operations for years. I knew her answer before I even asked but I posed the question anyway. What's your favourite island, Effie?
Favourite? Difficult to define but one that I always suggest is Naxos. You simply enter this island and you are amazed by the" big door" called Portara, an ancient gate, ruins of the temple of Apollo built back in 6BC, when Naxos was a commercial and cultural centre; really impressive and unique and perfect to catch the sunset. Arriving at the island by boat you are also impressed by the small picturesque white and blue church, St George.
The main reason I prefer this island relates to the fact that it offers the combination of a busy island life together with sparkles of serenity. Focusing on the life of the local people and surrounded by tasty local culinary specialties. Cheese, potatoes, the local liqueur called Kitron are the typical products of the island. Apeiranthos, Filoti, and Halki are three of the most picturesque villages on the island.
Apeiranthos village is broadly considered the crown jewel of Naxos, transporting visitors back in time with its old-ways charm and unique landscapes. It sits on the slopes of Mount Fanari showcasing its picturesque architecture of stone-built towers, old houses and churches, and marble-paved alleys. Apeiranthos has several museums, with the Apeiranthos archaeological museum being a highlight. Filoti, is a charming village located 19 kilometres from Naxos Town, locally known as Hora. It is surrounded by olive groves and has quite a few cafes and taverns, shaded in the center square by a big tree. Halki is a beautiful village with a long history, it was once the capital of the island. It is situated in the middle of an olive grove with towers built by Byzantines and Venetians. Protothronos Virgin church at Halki with fine frescoes from Early Christian, middle Byzantine and late Byzantine periods is worth a visit. In Halki you can find the Vallindras Distillery established in 1896 producing the liqueur, kitron, a shot of yellow drink from a fruit a bit less bitter than lemon. This liqueur is traditional of Naxos and is distributed all over Greece.
A noteworthy historical monument indicating the island’s rich heritage is the Caste of Chora. Built on the remnants of the ancient Acropolis with materials from the ancient city, today, the castle houses the Archaeological Museum of Naxos, exhibiting artworks and everyday objects dating from the later Neolithic to the Old-Christian years. Finally, what is worth visiting in Naxos, 10.7 km away from Naxos Town, in Apollonas town, is the Kouros of Apollonas. Also known as the Colossus of Dionysus, the 10.7-metre-tall unfinished statue of light grey Naxian marble, weighing approximately 80 tonnes, was never raised up to its full height. For some unknown reason, the giant was left to languish for eternity on the bare ground.
The long sandy beaches of Naxos island must be enjoyed. Some of my favorites are Agia Anna, Maragas, and Plaka. These three actually flow one right into the other starting with Anna. Plaka is Naxos' longest beach and possibly one of Greece's best beaches. For water sport-lovers, specifically kite-surfing, I would recommend either Ag. Prokopios or Mikri Vigla.
You won't be disappointed when it comes to places to eat. With so many options, you'll find it difficult to choose. Either the ones by the port or the ones around the small picturesque paths of the island offer local delicious food.
Apostolis in Hora (Naxos Town) is one of my favourites not only for the local food but also for the nice surroundings. When it comes to nightlife, you will find many bars with a view at the port, some quiet and others more lively; but you'll definitely have options. My favorite one is Swing Cocktail Bar, where they consider cocktails as an entire experience, specializing in molecular mixology and extraordinary presentations.