10 perfect Greek island holidays

Hydra, Saronic Gulf

Why? Wealthy Athenians head to charming Hydra for relaxing weekend breaks: cars, motorbikes and high-rise buildings are banned on the island. The architecture is unique for the region, with many art galleries and museums in 18th-century mansions.

What to do Hydra port is the only town; the interior is largely uninhabited. Narrow streets lead from the pretty harbour to the cathedral, museum, monasteries, churches and galleries. Donkeys and water taxis transport tourists to small villages and swimming spots along the coast (most beaches are rocky or pebbly).

Where to eat and stay Plenty of restaurants in Hydra serve local seafood, or try the little village of Kamini, a 40-minute walk around the headland, for traditional tavernas. The Orloff is a small boutique hotel converted from a historic house near the harbour (doubles from £115, +30 210 5226152, orloff.gr).

How to get there There are ferries and catamarans from Piraeus, many of which continue to Spetses, another upmarket island.

Milos, Cyclades

White rock formations, Milo
White rock formations, Milos. Photograph: Corbis

Why? This volcanic island has a spectacular lunar landscape of red, brown and white rocks, and around 70 equally colourful beaches: white, gold, red and grey. There are pretty whitewashed fishing villages and more rugged mountain settlements.

What to do Visit the ancient theatre, catacombs and windmills in Tripiti, where the Venus de Milo statue was found; take a caïque (fishing boat) tour of the island’s coves; go to Plaka, the former capital and a great spot to watch the sunset; take in as many beaches as time allows, such as eerie, moonlike Sarakiniko.

Where to eat and stay Adamas, the main port, has a good selection of restaurants – O Hamos (+30 228 702 1672) just outside town, serves delicious homemade dishes. Milos Windmill in Tripiti is an atmospheric self-catering place to stay (from £103 a night for two, i-escape.com).

How to get there Two flights a day from Athens, ferries from Piraeus.

Alonnisos, Sporades

Why? This is not the Greek island of travel posters. Instead of barren hillsides and sugar-cube villages, you get fertile slopes, dense pine forests and stone-roofed cottages. Alonissos is much the quietest of the Sporades group, in the northern Aegean, that includes Skopelos and Skiathos.

What to do Chrisi Milia beach is lovely for sunbathing: golden sand, turquoise water, trees for shade, rock pools and a taverna. Hire a moped and check out the island’s many other coves, bays and (pebbly) beaches. Spot dolphins and seals on a boat trip from Patitiri harbour into Greece‘s first National Marine Park .

Where to eat and stay In Patitiri you can sit on the harbour and watch as the fish you will soon be eating is landed. For a treat, Taverna Astrofegia (+30 242 406 5182) in the old capital, Chora, has slightly more sophisticated dishes. Liadromia Hotel (doubles from £60, +30 242 406 5521, liadromia.gr) a five-minute walk up the hill from the port, has 14 double rooms with great views from their little balconies, and a handful of self-catering studios.

How to get there Flights to Skiathos, and Alonissos is 90 minutes away by ferry, via Skopelos.

Kastelorizo, Dodecanese

Kastelorizo island
Kastelorizo island. Photograph: Alamy

Why? Tiny Kastelorizo is Greece’s smallest permanently inhabited island and the furthest from Athens. It has pretty Anatolian-style houses (the island is 2km off the coast of Turkey), hilltop castles and very clear seas.

What to do Take a boat to the Blue Grotto, a dazzling sea cave underlit by refracted sunlight – it is much bigger than the more famous grotto in Capri, Italy. Carry on to St George, a tiny rock-isle, to snorkel and sunbathe in seclusion. Back on Kastellorizo, hike up to the monastery and castle above the harbour for views across to Kas in Turkey – or even take a day trip there.

Where to eat and stay Fresh seafood at one of the many tavernas flanking the harbour is the way to go. The Mediterraneo (doubles from £60, +30 22 4604 9007, mediterraneo-megisti.com), is a boutique waterside restaurant with ladders into the sea so guests can swim across the bay.

How to get there Flights, hydrofoils and ferries from Rhodes, ferries from Kas.

Gavdos, near Crete

Why? The most southerly Greek island, tiny Gavdos has fewer than 45 permanent residents, smells of sea juniper and wild thyme – and has a laid-back 1960s spirit. (Read Ben Mallalieu’s excellent piece on the island)

What to do Simply walk round the island enjoying the sand dunes, the wild flowers, and the sense of peace and wildness. The island offers particularly striking golden beaches at Potamos and Agios Ioannis

Where to eat and stay Korfos, Kastri and Sarakiniko offer the most popular tavernas. There are no hotels: rooms can be rented through gavdos-online.com. Or bring a tent: visitors are welcome to camp on the island

How to get there From April to the end of August there are ferries from south-west Crete, leaving from Paleochora and Chora Sfakion – but they don’t operate if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction.

Ithaca, Ionian

Frikes Bay, Ithaca
Frikes Bay, Ithaca. Photograph: Corbis

Why? Ithaca is just a 45-minute ferry ride from Kefalonia, but is far less developed. In the lush green valleys and rugged hills, hiking trails lead walkers to hidden ruins and stunning sea views.

What to do Trek along the cobbled footpaths or cycle around the dirt roads of the interior. Brush up on your Greek myths at the archaeological sites (Ithaca is thought to be the homeland of Homer’s Odysseus). Visit Exogi and Anogi, two crumbling villages on twin capes in the north of the island with views across the archipelago.

Where to eat and stay The seafood is great in Frikes and Kioni, two harbour villages with a high concentration of tavernas. Adastra is a recently built luxury villa with four suites (from £60 a night for three people, +30 26740 33522, adastrasuites.com) in the capital, Vathy, which has been sympathetically rebuilt after an earthquake in 1953.

How to get there Flights to Kefalonia and ferries on to Ithaca, or ferries from Patras or Astakos.

Syros, Cyclades

Why? Syros is a bustling, working island little-visited by foreign tourists – although Athenians have caught on to its charms. It has a fascinating capital, Ermoupolis (also the capital of the Cyclades), a 13th-century Venetian-built town called Ano Syros, and lovely beaches in the north.

What to do Explore grand, colourful Ermoupolis and people-watch in the main square, then head up the hill to Ano Syros. Its narrow lanes and marble steps lead to St George’s church, from where there are panoramic views of six neighbouring islands. Take a speedboat to Lia and Grammata beaches, which are fringed with palm trees and backed by rocky hills.

Where to eat and stay Ermoupolis is great for restaurants with live bouzouki music, especially at weekends. Hotel Syrou Melathron is a restored captain’s house with a roof terrace, right on the seafront (doubles from £56, +30 228 108 6495, syroumelathron.gr).

How to get there There are flights, boats and hydrofoils from Athens.

Ikaria, eastern Aegean

Mountain path on Ikaria island, Greece
An ancient mountain path on Ikaria island. Photograph: Alamy

Why? Verdant Ikaria’s mountainous interior is covered by bush and forest, and it has more rivers, waterfalls and gorges than the average Greek island. The island’s inhabitants are said to live long and go their own way – often sleeping during the day and doing business at night, for example.

What to do Explore the forests and ruins; visit the thermal springs on Thermes coast; go to a barely touched beach such as Agios Giorgis in the far north, which requires a drive down an unpaved road and a 20-minute hike; attend a raucous festival and drink the strong local red wine.

Where to eat and stay Platanos Taverna in Agios Dimitrios serves organic, homegrown food. Traditional stone houses are available to rent at the Ikarian Winery in Piyi (from £94 a night for six, +30 227 503 1151, ikarianwine.gr), an agrotourism centre that also offers wine and cooking courses.

How to get there There are flights from Athens and ferries from Pireaus.

Paxos, Ionian

Why? Small, picturesque Paxos is about 15km south of Corfu. Its coast is dotted with quiet fishing villages, its sleepy interior cloaked with olive groves divided by crumbling drystone walls.

What to do Watch the fishing boats at the port of Gaios; amble across the island on donkey tracks; head to the sandy beach of Mongonisi in the south.

Where to eat and stay Loggos, Gaios and Lakka offer the best choice of tavernas and bars. In May a new boutique hotel opens in the middle of the island: Purple Apricot, about 6km from Gaois, has been transformed from flats into a funky seven-suite retreat. A week’s stay with Simpson Travel (0845 485 6781, simpsontravel.com) including flights to Corfu, transfers, car hire and BB accommodation, costs from £898pp based on two sharing.

How to get there Ferries run from Corfu Town and Lefkimi in Corfu, and from Igoumenitsa on the mainland.

Tilos, Dodecanese

Monastery on Tilos island
Monastery on Tilos island. Photograph: Alamy

Why? Tilos specialises in eco-tourism and is a protected environment, with an abundance of birds and other wildlife. The valleys are full of wildflowers, pine, oak and almond trees.

What to do The countryside is peppered with Byzantine chapels and Crusader castles, plus there’s a monastery and an abandoned village. In one cave the remains of a previously unknown species of dwarf elephant were found: there’s an exhibition about the discovery. Of the island’s 19 beaches, many can only be reached on foot or by boat.

Where to eat and stay The main settlements of Livadio and Megalo Chorio have the most tavernas. Try the simple Eleni Beach Hotel (elenihoteltilos.gr). Sunvil (020-8758 4758, sunvil.co.uk) offers seven nights’ BB at the hotel from £590pp (two sharing), including flights from Gatwick.

How to get there A catamaran from Rhodes Town takes 80 minutes.

• Check routes, prices and timetables for ferry services at greekferries.gr

Historic sites in Greece and Turkey: readers’ travel tips

Winning tip: Termessos, near Antalya, Turkey

If you’re in Antalya, it’s well worth taking a trip to the ruined Pisidian city of Termessos. It’s bewilderingly under-visited, possibly because of the steep climb to the site (1,000m above sea level), and you often feel you have the place to yourself. The impressive amphitheatre has views across the Taurus mountains. Leave Ephesus to the masses and take in this piece of history on your own terms.
30km north-west of Antalya, muze.gov.tr/termessos-en


The Byzantine city of Mystra
The Byzantine city of Mystra. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

Mystra, Peloponnese
The Despotate of Mystra, as it was known in the 14th century, is the most complete, dramatically sited and atmospheric Byzantine city in Greece. With magnificent views into the valley, it huddles against a steep cliff at the foot of the Taiyetos mountains. Narrow streets give access to medieval semi-ruined houses, palaces and churches, some with brilliant frescoes.

Epidavros amphitheatre, Peloponnese
While staying at the seaside town of Nafplio we went to the amphitheatre at Epidavros, extraordinarily preserved and set against a stunning backdrop. In an audience of thousands, we saw a performance of the Greek tragedy, Medea by Euripides. The acoustics and atmosphere were truly memorable.
Buses run from Nafplio

Discarded Kouros statues, Naxos
The Kouros of Naxos are three statues still lying where they were being chiselled from the marble. Dating from sixth or seventh century BC, the male forms are believed to be either the god Dionysus, or local heroes, destined to grace temples. They lie in open countryside where skilled hands worked on the slabs until fatal flaws were revealed or the stone fractured, and the statues were discarded. These are touching reminders of the minor craftsmen behind the great antiquities.

Church of Agios Spyridon, Kardamyli, Peloponnese
Church of Agios Spyridon, Kardamyli. Photograph: Alamy

Kardamyli, Peloponnese
With remains of one of the seven cities mentioned in the Iliad, the home of writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and the chapel where Bruce Chatwin’s ashes are buried, this is Greece ancient and modern – and for modern comforts stay at the Anniska Liakoto hotel apartments in the village.

Palace ruins at Knossos, Crete, Greece.
Palace ruins at Knossos, Crete, Greece. Photograph: Alamy

Knossos, Crete
Everyone can enjoy this amazing site, with its legends and myths of the minotaur, impressive frescoes and murals, and space to explore and wander without rush. This is a centre of Minoan civilisation and culture. There is enough information for enthusiasts, a decent shop, a nice cafe and unintrusive staff who let you take your time to absorb the atmosphere and wonder. The dolphins and griffins in murals appeal to the younger visitors, and there is plenty of shade from the sun and heat.

Polyrinia, near Kissamos, Crete
A 6km amble through the Sirikari gorge brings you to the ruined acropolis of Polyrinia, which means “rich in sheep”. A powerful city-state built by the Achaeans, it was recolonised in Byzantine and Venetian times and there is much to see: fortifications, decorative arches, rock tombs and the later Church of the Holy Fathers. Rest in the shaded chapel courtyard and admire the jaw-dropping views of Kissamos Bay and the White Mountains before turning back for the sleepy village of Ano Paleokastro.


Cagaloglu hammam, Istanbul
Cagaloglu hammam, Istanbul. Photograph: Alamy

Cagaloglu hammam, Istanbul
Cagaloglu hammam in Istanbul is one of the oldest Turkish baths in the world and has been visited by figures as diverse and illustrious as Florence Nightingale, King Edward VIII and Tony Curtis. This place was built by Sultan Mahmud I in 1741 and still has its high-domed ceilings, marble fountains and interior garden. The bathing experience is as it was in the Ottoman days: you are given a brisk body exfoliation followed by a bubble massage as you lie on a smooth marble plinth.
Alemdar Mh. +90 212 522 2424

Dalyan rock tombs
Kingfishers overtake the little boats that chug past the mud baths and round a final bend of the Dalyan river to reveal the 2,500-year-old rock tombs carved by the Lycians high up on sheer cliff walls. Our guide explained this was so the souls of the ancient kings of nearby Caunus could be wafted away by winged sirens. There are restaurants opposite, good to enjoy at night while the striking and extremely photogenic site is floodlit.

Greek theatre at Erythrae, Ildir
Ancient pomegranate trees shade the trail up to the Greek amphitheatre of Erythrae. Visitors here are few, even in summer. A sun-wizened old man was minding a hobbit-hole, inside which, on a dusty floor, lay fragments of mouldings and ceramics. When we said we were from England he proudly spoke his two words of English: “Manchester United.” Cafes on the coast road to Çesme have terraces with spectacular views over the Aegean.

Sunset over the Blue Mosque
Sunset over the Blue Mosque. Photograph: Alamy

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Generally, crowds detract from an experience – more so in a beautiful, serene, spiritual place. Istanbul’s Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) suffers due to its popularity – especially when cruise ships are in. To see and feel it as it should be seen and felt go in the evening – no crowds and a bonus of gorgeous lighting effects. It closes for half an hour for prayers five times a day, so check times online first: bluemosque.co

The ruins of Sagalassos.
The ruins of Sagalassos. Photograph: Alamy

Sagalassos, near Antalya
My favourite time to visit Sagalassos, a two-hour drive north of Antalya, is winter, when this ancient site is covered in snow. Climb up to the 9,000-seat theatre and savour the view over this remote but important Pisidian city. Then head down to the library, the rock-cut tombs, the agora with the decorative fountain, and the remains of the bathhouse. The site has ongoing excavations every summer, but for the rest of the year, you are likely to have it to yourself.

Aphrodisias, near Geyre, Caria
Aphrodisias is a stunning ruin of an ancient Greek city, near the modern village of Geyre, about 230km south-east of Izmir. It’s almost on the same scale as Ephesus, but doesn’t attract the same crowds. It is quite a trek, but it has a splendidly preserved theatre and stadium, and the remains of a temple of Aphrodite. The museum has a great collection of Roman statues, and there are plans to excavate and display more. The museum contains a great selection of marble Roman statues in very good condition and plans are in place to excavate and display even more, so go now before the crowds really begin to descend on the place.

The amphitheatre at Patara
The amphitheatre at Patara. Photograph: Fantuz Olimpio/SIME

A small entrance fee gives you access to the extensive Lycian archaeological site complete with large amphitheatre. Work is still in progress and we found the guys working there really friendly and anxious to explain it all to us. When you have finished looking round the historical site, you can drive a little way further to the beach – 18 km of beautiful sand. There is a small cafe and a few recliners with umbrellas. Paradise!

Tlos, near Fethiye
We visited Tlos in spring, when the snow on the mountains provided a magnificent backdrop to this ancient, ruined Lycian citadel subsequently inhabited by Romans, Byzantines and, eventually, Ottoman Turks. We wandered up to the citadel, passing wonderful examples of Lycian carved rock tombs, sarcophaguses and the remains of Turkish baths and a Roman stadium. Despite being surrounded by history it was the all-round view which provided the most lasting spectacle.