Out of the approximately 50 most famous Greek islands, I must have visited around 35. This doesn’t make me an expert, but at least I can give a decent answer when people ask me which one they should visit during their holidays.
Greek islands are divided into groups.
The islands in the Ionian Sea are called Ionian, or Heptanese (with hepta meaning “seven” in Greek). The Dodecanese are 12 islands (since dodeka means “twelve”). And if you are wondering about the Peloponnese – the island of Pelops, literally translated – it is actually a large peninsula.
The Cyclades are called so because they form a circle, or cycle, around Delos, the sacred island of the ancient times.
Sporades are like all other islands, sporadically scattered into the sea. This is a group of picturesque islands, and its recent claim to fame was that Mamma mia! was filmed there.
There are also the islands of the Northern Aegean, which form another group. Then there is Crete, the biggest island; and Euboea (Evia), which some consider an island and some others, like me, prefer to call a peninsula.
They are all beautiful, and if you had to choose only one, it would not be easy to come up with your favorite.
A German tour guide told me once that we Greeks should take good care of our archipelago, because it is more of a cultural good than a simple place for holidays. I knew what he meant. He was talking about the nature, the architecture, the traditions, the dialects and dances of these formerly isolated islands, which are there today for every tourist to explore.
I have spent many summers of my life in the Dodecanese, considering them the most interesting from a cultural point of view. Also, because I like deep seas and the sea is really deep and clear there.
But then I realized that I could not leave out the equally beautiful Cyclades with their yellow colors of the sand, the rocks, the dry fields scorched under the sun. With their white houses and churches, with the blue color of the sea which can’t be found anywhere else. Dark blue.
Not being a party animal and generally avoiding the very crowded islands (unless they have a quieter side like Rhodes, for example), I would not suggest Mykonos or Santorini. Still, I’ve heard that the best beaches of the Cyclades can be found on Ios, the party island par excellence.
I found Tinos and Sifnos particularly beautiful and calm; but then, all of the Cyclades are beautiful. And so are the Sporades and the islands of the Northern Aegean, of which I’ve only visited superb Lesbos – “where burning Sappho loved and sung” (hence the word “lesbian”). Recently in the news because of the refugee camp, Lesbos is a big island with a long history, interesting architecture and art museums.
Crete is very popular among tourists who like to hike or swim. Also very exciting to archaeologists and laymen interested in ancient history.
Another cluster of islands not far from Athens, the Argosaronic islands, includes pretty Aegina and Poros, Hydra and Spetsai. Close to Athens is also the famous Salamis, where the sea battle between Athenians and Persians took place. Salamis is today a rather ugly place, mainly due to excessive construction. Still, it has a few nice spots to show.
But to answer the initial question, which of the Greek islands would I suggest to the traveler?
Recently I visited beautiful Corfu for three days, and fell in love with it. Its landscape of cypresses, olive trees, flowers, strands and cliffs is magical. It was the beginning of June, and there were already many day tourists from the cruise ships at Liston, the colonnade of Spianada square in the old town of the island’s capital.
There were also quite a few Russians who come as pilgrims to the church of Saint Spyridon and to all the other magnificent nearby churches. Saint Spyridon, originally from Cyprus, became the patron Saint of Corfu and has miraculously saved the island from many tragedies and misfortunes. Every second male is called Spyro after him.
The old town, with its Venetian history and narrow streets, is a very pleasant place to walk around. It is home to many museums, like the Corfu Museum of Asian Art. Behind every window there is someone playing music or some choir rehearsing for their next performance. Corfu is a musical island, and birthplace of many composers.
Among the sights, there is the garden of Mon Repos palace and the majestic Achilleion, summer palace of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth (Sissi). If you go to Kalami, you will see the house where Lawrence and Gerald Durrell lived during their years on Corfu. It is not the one of the television series but the original one.
The Marina Gouvion is the place to be if you are sailing. And Paleokastritsa is also worth the ride for its natural beauty.
If you want peace and quiet, you’d better avoid visiting Corfu in the months of July and August. The island has always been a favorite among Brits, not only the ones who like to read Lawrence Durrell on some lonely beach, but also the noisy kind who party all day long drinking innumerable beers.
After three wonderful days on Corfu, I did not bring only kum kuat souvenirs and photos, but also some breathtaking views from Kanoni and Bella vista to remember forever.
I hope you will, too.
Hotels in Corfu