Simply put, a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to explore the 6,000 islands of Greece, only 227 which are inhabited. The Greek isles tend to draw global travelers for their whitewashed villages, sparkling blue-green sea, lively choras and fresh fare, but there’s far more to all that than what’s found on the touristy islands of Mykonos and Santorini. There are hundreds of other islands to visit in Greece where you can forgo the crowds in favor of untouched beaches, family-run restaurants and remote beauty—as well as activities that suit your travel style and interests.
In May, when Greece was one of the first EU countries to open its borders to US leisure travelers, it was just in time for Greece’s peak season, which typically runs from May to September. As a result, this summer was especially packed with American and European tourists alike: According to aviation consultancy OAG, planned international flights (largely from the US) to Greece were higher in August 2021 than they were in the record-breaking year of 2019, with nearly five million seats booked.
“People are eager to travel, as they have been restricted for too long and ‘unvacationized,’” says Stamatis Giannakopoulous, general manager of Aegialis Hotel & Spa on the island of Amorgos. “Even though we know that unexpected incidents, such as another outbreak or lockdown, could reverse the rising tourism, if what we have seen this July and August is close to normal and will continue, then we will likely see an extended ‘summer season’ through September and a good part of October.”
So with droves of tourists still apparently exploring Greece, now is the perfect time to visit an off-the-beaten path island where you can beat the crowds, experience quintessential seaside charm and satisfy your travel cravings. From the Cyclades to the Ionian islands, here are nine islands matched by travel type, whether you’re looking for adventure or wellness, romance or family time, history lessons or a digital detox.
For Romance: Milos
It might come as a surprise that Milos, the southernmost island in the Cyclades, just north of Crete, flies somewhat under the radar after seeing its striking rocky volcanic geology and hearing about its enchanting history—like tales of pirates hiding treasures within the island’s many caves. And while many honeymooners flock to Santorini, Milos is actually considered “the island of lovers”, because the famous statue Venus de Milo, who was the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, was discovered here (it is currently on display in the Louvre). For couples, Milos’s 80 uncrowded and intimate beaches, many of which are only accessible via boat, provide quiet coves and plenty of privacy. Those seeking an upbeat vacation will be charmed by the island’s lively capital Plaka, as well as the buzzy beach clubs and cocktail bars. But the true spirit of Milos can be experienced within its many quaint fishing villages, no-frills, family-owned restaurants and beautiful spots to watch the blazing orange sunsets each night. Stay at five-star hotel Milos Cove and book the Honeymoon Suite, which has a private plunge pool and sea view.
For a Digital Detox: Folégandros
There’s something so still and beautiful about Folégandros that you’ll want to put your phone down (or at least on silent). Folégandros’ history dates back to ancient times, but in the modern day, it is known for hosting exiled political prisoners from 1900 to 1970, who helped build the island, from the chora (the largest or main town on an island) to the chapels dotted throughout the hillsides. While here, the prisoners lived free, and many became notable writers, artists and stonemasons. Folégandros is sparsely populated with little vegetation and is dominated by pebbled beaches, craggy coastlines, and monolithic limestone cliffs that look otherworldly, especially when viewed from the water. Rent a private boat for the day through Island Spirits, a family-run boat company, to cruise around the island, snorkel through caves, swim in the impossibly clear water, enjoy a bottle of Greek wine and learn about the island’s captivating history. Anemi Hotel is the island’s only five-star resort and is perfect for families, couples or friends alike. Its restaurant is run by a highly regarded Athens chef who serves fresh, Greek cuisine. There’s even a tennis court, children’s playground, small on-site vineyard and spa treatments.
For the Art Lover: Hydra
One of the most cosmopolitan Greek islands, Hydra is part of the Saronic islands located just off the Peloponnese region. Despite the fact there are no cars on the island (you must get around by foot, donkey, or a boat taxi), it has drawn an international crowd since the 1960s, when Jackie O, Mick Jagger and Elizabeth Taylor would frequent the place. Major artists like Sadie Coles, Brice Marden and Juergen Teller all have homes on the island, which has helped draw a creative crowd. Greek art collector and billionaire Dakis Joannou also frequently hosts fabulous dinner parties aboard his Jeff Koons-designed yacht Guilty, and in 2009, he acquired DESTE Project Space Slaughterhouse, where he showcases art from the world’s greatest contemporary artists in an old slaughterhouse. There are also many great museums and rotating exhibitions with artist residencies. When you’re not appreciating art, swanky restaurants and bars, like Steki, Techne and Il Casta await. No-frills spots, including The Pirate Bar, remain favorites for billionaires and locals alike. For a dose of history and luxury, stay at White Key Villas’ Villa Mirkella, a six-bedroom cliffside retreat housed in a rustic, stone structure.
For the History Buff: Patmos
It’s hard to pick just one island (or city) in Greece to enjoy history, as the entire country is revered for its ancient sites and historical significance. But if there’s one island to visit for a dose of culture, it’s Patmos, where the Book of Revelations was written. Although it sounds dark, there’s nothing sinister about Patmos, which attracts an upper-echelon crowd looking to escape the spotlight (think European royalty, actors and heirs and heiresses). Patmos is part of the Dodecanese Islands, a group of 12 islands in the Aegean Sea. According to locals, the “holy island” is said to vibrate with a unique energy, and this draws many mystics to its shores. There are 365 churches and shrines on the island, including the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, another name for John the Apostle, who wrote the Book of Revelations. In addition to ancient sites, there are 15 beaches, many with soft, white sand and swimmable waters. Stay at Petra Hotel & Suites, one of the chicest and most intimate on the island. In addition to its 11 rooms and suites, the hotel showcases contemporary works by Greek artists and has beach access, a pool and a lovely terrace overlooking the fishing village of Grikos just below.
For Adventure: Andros
It’s hard not to be active in Greece, as many towns and sites are accessed by foot. For fitness buffs and adventure seekers, however, Andros is your answer. A bona fide hiker’s paradise, Andros has 18 marked trails on the island, totaling 111 miles, that accommodate every skill level. The trails date back to ancient times when the pathways were used by locals to get from village to village. Walking through the trails, which feature ancient stone bridges, olive trees and green valleys, you’ll stop by traditional villages, local bakeries, waterfalls and more. Many routes cross monasteries or lead you to picturesque beaches, offering you a chance to cool off in the salty water. Don’t miss the Tourlitis lighthouse, springs of Dionysus, the ancient town of Paleopolis or the castle of Faneromeni. The island is jam-packed with historical monuments and ancient history. Forgo a hotel on Andros in favor of a luxurious villa for the ultimate private getaway. Villa Stefania can be rented through White Key Villas and is a modern, five-bedroom home with a chic design, luxury amenities, a pool and spacious indoor and outdoor lounge areas with spectacular views over the ocean.
For Style-Seekers: Amorgos
The easternmost Cycladic island of Amorgos is chic yet uncrowded, and full of Instagram-worthy backdrops, charming boutiques and luxury hotels. The unspoiled island has remained free of mass tourism, but draws many Francophiles thanks to the famous French film Le Grand Bleu that was shot here in 1988. Amorgos is remarkably unpolished and has a raw beauty that retains an authentic feel. It might not have the designer stores found in Mykonos, but there are several jewelry boutiques selling handmade pieces with precious stones that can be found nowhere else. Stay at Aegialis Hotel & Spa, the only five-star resort on the island and home to luxe suites, a Thalasso Spa with healing water treatments, yoga, cooking classes, wine tastings and authentic Greek experiences with locals. The well-designed hotel, with views over the coastal village of Aegiali, is the perfect place to stay for those who enjoy the finer things in life.
For Families: Kefalonia
Kefalonia is the largest island within the Ionian islands, located off Greece’s western coast. Unlike the dry and volcanic Cyclades, the Ionian islands are known for their lush greenery, dramatic cliffs and bright-blue waters. Kefalonia is perfect for traveling with kids thanks to its several family-friendly hotels, abundant marine life and mythological history guaranteed to delight kids of all ages. Many of the beaches have shallow water, ideal for swimming or snorkeling with children, and there are several caves around the island that are home to turtles. Kefalonia also offers ATVing, sailing, hiking and Melissani Cave, which houses an incredible underwater lake. Luxury Emelisse Nature Resort has great family-friendly programming (jeep safaris, kayaking excursions, canyoning, and marine adventures), plus spacious family apartments for large groups. For the adults, there’s an Elemis Spa, an adults-only pool and a Greek-focused restaurant with an impressive local wine list.
For the Beach Dweller: Sámos
With 19 beaches, there’s a spot here for every type of beach lover, whether you gravitate towards an organized beach chair vibe, a nude beach or one apt for watersports. Located just off the coast of western Turkey in the eastern Aegean Sea, Sámos is known for its colorful buildings, turquoise water and lovely sandy shores. Surrounded by lush greenery, Sámos’ beaches are more reminiscent of the Caribbean islands than Greek islands, and on many, you can rent beach chairs and an umbrella, while others are nearly private—save a nude sunbather or two. Apart from its beaches, Sámos is full of nature, including waterfalls, verdant forests and hiking trails. Be sure to check out the ancient sites, including the Sanctuary of Heraion and the Tunnel of Eupalinos, one of the most important ancient engineering feats in history built in 6th century B.C.
Like other Greek islands, you can also expect incredibly fresh food; local delicacies include chickpea patties and zucchini flowers stuffed with rice. Five-star Doryssa Hotels & Resorts offers a choice of luxury options, including a stay within its main hotel or beachside apartment suites for a more private experience. Doryssa’s modern accommodations are juxtaposed by its proximity to the historic village of Pythagoreio just nearby, so you get an authentic Sámos feel. There are three restaurants, a spa and plenty of activities bookable via the concierge.
For Wellness: Antiparos
Sister island of the popular Paros island in the heart of the Cyclades, Antiparos is a quiet, less-traveled island that is easily accessible by ferry but feels worlds away. Small (it has a population of roughly 1,200), but full of life, the hideaway draws A-list celebs (actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson famously own a home here) for its no-frills environment and its emphasis on slow living. The island is so beautiful it looks fake, from the azure water to the stark-white buildings, cobblestone streets and canopies of bougainvillea, but we can assure you this tiny slice of paradise is as real as it gets. While there are several luxury villas and family-run hotels, Antiparos is set to become Greece’s most sought-after wellness destination thanks to the brand-new hotel, The Rooster, a wabi sabi-style retreat that opened earlier this year. It’s the island’s first wellness-centric hotel and offers modern healing therapies, ancient Greek health rituals, restoring treatments, spiritual healing and healthy cuisine to a new era of travelers.
Even if you’re not staying at The Rooster, Antiparos is celebrated for its nature, sandy beaches and picture-perfect towns. Those in-the-know often rent a villa on Antiparos—there are some incredible homes here, and you never know who your neighbors might be—and White Key Villas’ ultra-luxe options include Villa Emeria, with ultra-elegant, modern interiors and unmatched panoramic views over the sea.