The Greek Islands can send the senses into overdrive.
The touch of the Aegean sun on your salty skin in Mykonos; the smell of wild thyme and oregano on the sun-baked hillsides of Crete; the clarity of the light against the whitewashed walls of Santorini; the taste of a freshly prepared Greek salad at the water’s edge at the Port of Hydra; the sound of the shepherd’s whistle on the island of Lesvos; these are just some of the sensory highlights in store for visitors to the region.
There are some 6,000 islands and islets dotted around the Aegean and Ionian seas, but only 227 of them are inhabited. That’s still a considerable number to explore, so it’s best that we get started!
Here are ten top things to do in the Greek Islands on a first visit.
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1. Soak up the history and culture of Crete
The largest of the Greek islands (yet it could fit into Tasmania eight times over), Crete has a history dating back more than 9,000 years. It’s an island that takes time to explore, thanks to its diverse landscapes — snow-capped mountains, pristine beaches, fertile plateaus, wild and untameable gorges, and remote and all-but-inaccessible coves. If you’re looking for atmospheric places to stay, Agios Nikolaos has all the amenities you’ll need and makes a perfect base for doing day trips to the many mountain and fishing villages situated around Mirabello Bay. Hotel Du Lac is ideally located in the heart of town and offers views of Lake Voulismeni. Make a beeline for the adjacent Du Lac Café for great coffee, light meals and cocktails.
Just a short drive north of Agios Nikolaos, the self-contained Adrakos Apartments in Lenika (at the top of the hill before the fishing village of Elounda) have views you can generally only dream of. Soak up the vistas of the bay below and the island of Spinalonga — the site of the last leper colony in Europe (operational until 1957). It featured in Victoria Hislop’s acclaimed historical novel The Island.
2. Lose yourself in Chania
A four-hour drive west will bring you to the port of Chania, the cultural epicentre of Crete, which features an interesting mix of Venetian and Turkish architecture. Spend your time getting gloriously lost in the network of narrow streets and laneways behind the old port, browsing in small shops and galleries as you go.
It’s worth pushing the boat out a little here and staying right on the waterfront in one of the many grand Venetian homes that have been turned into boutique hotels. Alcanea Hotel and Casa Leone Hotel are two fabulous options. You’ll be well placed to enjoy a sunset G&T at Cafe Aroma and watch the world go by.
3. Settle in for a Santorini sunset
It’s not difficult to fall under the spell of Santorini, thanks to its stunning natural setting on an ocean-filled caldera, picturesque whitewashed houses, blue-domed chapels, ancient cultural sites, and famous sunset — which is best viewed from the town of Oia. Be warned: it gets very crowded. As an alternative, head to Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna in the tiny Bay of Ammoudi (situated right below Oia). Here you can sit at the water’s edge enjoying traditional Greek cuisine as the pomegranate-coloured sun slips below the horizon.
It’s tempting to do this every evening, but break the routine at least once during your stay and head out on a sunset cruise on the caldera. The Santorini Yachting Club (owned by the Triantafillou family, which is made up of three generations of sailors) offers sunset trips and sailing tours around the island.
4. Try some top drops on Santorini
Santorini has been producing wine for thousands of years and it’s said to be the best in the Mediterranean. Grapes are not grown on trellises, but coiled into baskets at ground level to trap moisture and protect the fruit from the harsh environment. This means that all harvesting has to be done by hand, making the island’s wines truly unique. Learn more on a wine and food tour with Santorini Wine Adventure Tours.
5. Experience the ‘real Greece’ on Lesvos
Lesvos is closer to Turkey than the Greek mainland, but it’s here that you’ll discover the ‘real Greece’ in an island setting. Famous for the production of ouzo, olive oil, goat and sheep’s cheese, this destination has an authenticity that’s been sadly diminished on some of the country’s more popular tourist islands. Stay at the Little Bird Villas, which are perched above the Aegean Sea on the island’s northern coastline. These self-contained villas provide an ideal base for enjoying everything Lesvos has to offer.
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6. Admire the natural beauty of Elafonisos
You will certainly have seen photos of this stunning little island’s pristine white beaches and extraordinary blue-green sea — but you may not know its name. Elafonisos is located between the Peloponnese peninsula and the island of Kythira, a short 10-minute ferry ride from the southern port of Pounta in Lakonia (take your hire car across on the ferry so that you can explore with ease). The island is less than 20 square kilometres in size and can easily be covered in a day. It’s a photographer’s dream!
7. Feast on fresh seafood in Hydra
Situated in the Saronic Gulf — just a couple of hours by jet cat from the mainland port of Piraeus — Hydra is easy to package up with a visit to Athens. The island’s picturesque crescent-shaped harbour brims with activity and colour, and resounds with the clip clop of donkey hooves on the stone streets. Place yourself strategically at a cafe on the waterfront and soak up the setting. Paradosiako is one of Hydra’s best-known ouzerie-tavernas and is synonymous with excellent seafood. Try the flavoursome grilled sardines!
8. Enjoy the magic of Mykonos
With its sensational beaches, famous pelicans, picturesque windmills and pulsating nightlife, Mykonos is possibly Greece’s best known island. Mykonos Town is at its most charming in Little Venice — so named thanks to the magnificent homes built over the water’s edge by early ship captains. Today these characterful buildings house bars, restaurants, nightclubs and shops. Mykonos is packed with amazing experiences; give yourself three or four days here at a minimum.
9. Step back in time on Delos
Delos may be one of the smallest islands in the Aegean Sea, but it occupied an important place in ancient Greek mythology. Apollo (the god of light) and Artemis (the goddess of the moon) were said to have been born here, and today the island’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed archaeological sites attract a steady stream of visitors. Delos can only be accessed by boat and time on the island is limited to four hours per visit. Delos Tours runs regular tours from Mykonos.
10. Follow in the footsteps of the Durrells on Corfu
Sitting pretty in the Ionian Sea, Corfu (aka the ’emerald island’, thanks to its high annual rainfall) was subject to a mix of Venetian, French and British rule before it united with Greece in 1864. You may be familiar with the island’s famous English expatriates — the Durrells — who lived here in the late 1930s. It’s still easy to relive moments described by naturalist Gerald Durrell in his famous book My Family and Other Animals. The old town of Corfu is a World Heritage-listed maze of small streets and squares, and boasts stunning Venetian-style neoclassical architecture in pastel hues. Linger over a coffee in Spianada Square with a copy of Durrell’s book in hand.
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Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of top things to do in the Greek Islands on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Sydney-based journalist Francesca Muir fell in love with the Greek blue of the Mediterranean while living on the island of Crete in the late 1980s. She has written about Greece for Living Postcards, Crete Travel, Politismosmuseum, Stigmez, Athens News, TV Soap, Soap World, Gourmet Traveller, Vogue Entertaining, Vogue Living, Ita, Way to Go, Travel Abroad, the Sun-Herald, and the Sunday Age.