Top 10 Greek islands: the ultimate guide for 2016

Choosing the top 10 Greek islands is hard enough, let alone just one for you to make the most of your precious time off. In a bid to help you find the right island in Greece for your summer holiday in 2016, we've asked resident expert Rebecca Hall to share her tips on the attractions and appeal of 10 of the most beguiling and popular destinations.

Top 10 Greek islands, the ultimate guide for 2016 © Hans Johnson - Flickr Creative Commons
Top 10 Greek islands, the ultimate guide for 2016 © Hans Johnson - Flickr Creative Commons

Top 10 Greek islands: the ultimate guide to choosing the right island

With over 6000 islands, roughly 230 of which are inhabited, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to going on holiday to Greece for some sun, sea, and sand. As well as countless beautiful beaches, each island is slightly different with a character of its own. Read on to find out more about each destination, and see if our ultimate guide can encourage you to pick the right one for you and your loved ones this summer.

1. Corfu

  • Main attractions: Greek Easter, Old Fortress in Corfu Town
  • Who goes: families, couples, groups
  • Best for: sandy beaches, traditional villages, festivals

Corfu was one of the first Greek islands to open up to tourism, and is the most visited. Located in the Ionian Sea to the north of the Greek mainland and surrounded by abundant greenery, it offers you over 57 beaches to chose from: organised ones with sunbeds and water sports to little coves hidden away.

Paradise Beach, Paleokastritsa, Corfu © philouvdv - Flickr Creative Commons
Paradise Beach, Paleokastritsa, Corfu © philouvdv - Flickr Creative Commons

Venetian style architecture in the island's capital - Corfu Town - makes you feel as if you're in Venice, whilst the villages inland and small fishing villages on the coast give the island a more traditional flavour. If partying is more your style, the coastal town of Kavos is famous for its 18 to 30 scene and hedonistic atmosphere. Expect resident and sometimes famous guest DJs with partying continuing well into the early hours.

Fans of local festivals will love the Festival of Traditional Village Pie, where local women share their cookery skills in the Village Square, or there's Greek Easter, where only on Corfu on Easter Saturday, locals throw clay pots of water onto the streets below to cleanse it in preparation for the resurrection of Jesus. You are sure to find a festival that suits your tastes.

2. Crete

  • Main attractions: Samaria Gorge, Spinalonga
  • Who goes: hikers, families, couples
  • Best for: hiking, beaches, history

The largest and southernmost of all the Greek islands, Crete is famed for its mild year round climate, history of the Minoan culture, stunning beaches and the famous Samaria Gorge, which attracts hikers worldwide. Should you tire of the numerous sandy, pebbly or hidden cove beaches on offer, some with sunbeds and water sports, many hidden just waiting to be discovered, then the Venetian port towns of Chania and Rethymno, with their old cobbled streets, mosques, ancient fortresses and lighthouses are waiting to be explored.

Spinalonga is the historical island that was once a leper colony, situated offshore from the fishing town of Plaka, made famous by the Victoria Hislop novel The Island. It's possible to take day trips here and feel the haunting atmosphere of the still standing houses in ruins.

The famous national park of Samaria Gorge - 16km in length and offering an abundance of flora and fauna - guarantees that Crete is the perfect choice for hikers, particularly in the autumn months. While the town of Malia offers Club 18 to 30 partiers a good option, with its beach for relaxing on during the day and endless choice of nightlife. Crete really does have something for everyone.

3. Kefalonia

  • Main attractions: Myrtos Beach, lake cave of Melissani
  • Who goes: families, couples, groups
  • Best for: sandy beaches, traditional coastal villages, natural wonders

The largest island in the Ionian chain, Kefalonia is blessed not only with world famous sandy beaches such as Myrtos Beach - filming location for Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but also lush green forest and traditional fishing villages. Due to its size you'll be spoilt for choice with beaches that rarely get horrendously overcrowded. Much of Kefalonia was destroyed in the 1953 earthquake, but the quaint fishing town of Assos, with its colourful buildings covered in the trademark bougainvillea, pebble beach, sixteenth-century Venetian castle and olive groves, retains much of its original splendour.

Waterfront at Assos, Kefalonia © Lucian Bolca - Fotolia.com
Waterfront at Assos, Kefalonia © Lucian Bolca - Fotolia.com

The cave of Melissani near the town of Sami has a 20 to 30 metre deep lake inside, surrounded by its own forest system. It makes for an alternative day trip, together with the stalactite and stalagmite cave of Drogarati which, due to its fantastic acoustics, occasionally hosts cultural events. With flights and holidays from many UK airports, Kefalonia is easily accessible year round.

4. Kos

  • Main attractions: the Asklepieion in Kos Town, numerous sandy beaches
  • Who goes: windsurfers, families, groups
  • Best for: beaches, history, windsurfing

Located in the centre of the Dodecanese chain of islands, very near to the Turkish coast, Kos attracts repeat tourists every year due to its sandy beaches (attractive for families), vivid nightlife (popular with groups), and rich history. The Asklepieion, an ancient medical centre located in Kos Town built around the third century BC, is considered to be the most important archaeological site on the island.

If it's a beach holiday you're after, you can choose between the many well equipped ones fronting luxury hotels to the more secluded coves, some even naturalist whilst the beaches of Mastihari, Kefalos, Agios Stefanos, Psalidi and Lambi, due to their location, offer excellent windsurfing opportunities with schools in situ. If you tire of the beach, families can take their children to the Waterpark Lido close to Mastihari village.

The 18 to 30 crowd will appreciate the resort town of Kardamena with its non-stop party scene, but due to its size and year round charter flights, Kos really is an island to suit all tastes with traditional inland villages, smaller resorts, historical sites and party atmosphere.

5. Lefkada

  • Main attractions: Porto Katsiki Beach, Lefkada Sea Lakes
  • Who goes: independent travellers, couples, nature lovers
  • Best for: quiet, tradition, exotic beaches

In the Ionian chain of islands, above Kefalonia, Lefkada is easily accessible from the Greek mainland by bridge. Nicknamed the Caribbean of Greece due to its paradise sand and impossibly blue waters, the island is very fertile with dense forests, and mountainous; the highest peaks rising over 3,000 feet.

Porto Katsiki, Lefkada © Jiri Majer - Fotolia.com
Porto Katsiki, Lefkada © Jiri Majer - Fotolia.com

There is a choice of over 21 beaches, but Porto Katsiki remains the most popular with its magnificent landscape of towering white cliffs and green vegetation as a contrast to the turquoise waters where you'll see various private yachts anchored offshore.

As it offers no airport, Lefkada remains wonderfully underdeveloped to mainstream tourism. Expect traditional fishing villages such as Sivota, which has one of the most beautiful bays on the island, and many fish tavernas to choose from.

Nature lovers will enjoy the famous Lefkada Sea Lakes; two lagoons near the town of Lefkada which offer their own ecology, a plethora of wildlife, and some rare birds. If you're looking for a quiet holiday with stunning beaches surrounded by nature and tradition, Lefkada is for you.

6. Mykonos

  • Main attractions: sunsets, beaches
  • Who goes: groups, couples, partiers
  • Best for: nightlife, beaches, luxury hotels

The Cycladic island of Mykonos is one of the most famous in Greece. People worldwide come year after year for its sunsets, beaches, cosmopolitan atmosphere and energetic nightlife. Almost all beaches in Mykonos are organised and offer sunbeds and water sports. The south coast has the best with crystal clear waters and white sand. Their popularity, combined with the party scene of Paradise and Super Paradise Beach, does mean that they get extremely overcrowded in the summer.

The white windmills dotted around the island stand out as a symbol of Mykonos's rich agricultural past. No longer in use, they make interesting viewing with their pointed wooden roofs, while some have been turned into museums.

The famous Mediterranean sunsets are best viewed on a sunset cruise, and afterwards sample the nightlife that Mykonos is so famed for. From lounge bars, to atmospheric, trendy and wild nightclubs where celebrity DJs regularly perform, you may well rub shoulders with the rich and famous; there is no segregation here and anything goes. This paves the way to a choice of many luxury boutique hotels. Mykonos is truly a cosmopolitan choice of holiday destination.

7. Rhodes

  • Main attractions: Rhodes Old Town, beach resorts
  • Who goes: couples, families, history lovers
  • Best for: history, beaches, tradition

The largest of the Dodecanese islands, Rhodes boasts over 300 days of sunshine yearly, and has one of the best-preserved medieval old towns in Europe. Rhodes Town is the capital, divided in two. The Old Town is fortified with imposing palaces, Gothic style churches and is a testament to the chequered history of Byzantine, middle ages and Turkish rule. Nowadays you'll find many coffee shops within its walls, as well as quaint boutique hotels to suit all costs.

Rhodes is slowly shaking away its 'drink and party' reputation, and with over 40 beaches to choose from, you can't go wrong if it's a beach break you're after. Try Saint Paul's Bay for sand, and Prassonisi on the south coast for top notch windsurfing. Charming beach villages such as Lindos, with its whitewashed churches and dominated by an acropolis atop the town's hill, entice visitors, and there's no escaping the delicious Greek cuisine; meat or fish all prepared with locally grown vegetables, herbs and locally produced olive oil as well as a variety of wine made on the island.

8. Santorini

  • Main attractions: sunsets, volcano tours
  • Who goes: couples, history lovers, cruise destination
  • Best for: romance, tradition, tours

Santorini, or Thira as it's also known, is renowned for being the most popular Greek island, and one of the most romantic destinations in the world. Part of the Cycladic chain, a submerged volcano is what remains today as part of one of the world's biggest volcanic eruptions nearly 3,500 years ago. Nowadays you can expect to find stunning villages perched on the caldera with architecture so typical of the Cyclades; colourful houses, whitewashed domed churches and windmills.

Perched on the crater wall, Santorini © refresh(PIX) - Fotolia.com
Perched on the crater wall, Santorini © refresh(PIX) - Fotolia.com

The town of Oia sits at the northernmost part of the caldera, or volcano, which is also linked to the mythical city of Atlantis. You will find plenty of bars, restaurants and couples who come to watch the sun set in a dramatically romantic fashion into the Aegean Sea - Santorini boasts some of the best sunsets in the world

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Although not famous for its beaches, you will certainly find something different on Santorini, the most iconic being Red Beach with its black and red volcanic pebbles, and warm water. If it's romance you're after, you can't go wrong with a holiday to Santorini.

9. Skiathos

  • Main attractions: sandy beaches, medieval castle
  • Who goes: couples, families, groups
  • Best for: secluded beaches, nature, scuba diving

Where forest meets beach, Skiathos is the lush island of the Sporades chain. Head to the south of the island, either by car, bus or boat for the golden coastline and choose from a wealth of beaches such as Koukounaries, which is big enough for an organised and unorganised section, or Banana beach with a small naturist cove next to it.

The port in Skiathos Town © Tomasz Czajkowski - Fotolia.com
The port in Skiathos Town © Tomasz Czajkowski - Fotolia.com

Not to be missed is a boat trip to Lalaria Beach and its medieval castle - expect to see sheer white cliffs plunging into the blue seas, while the adventurous can hike to what's left of the castle overlooking the beach. Skiathos is one of the Greek islands that can offer good opportunities for scuba divers. You'll see shipwrecks, reefs and labyrinthine caves, and if necessary, diving courses are also offered.

Nightlife tends to be centred around Skiathos Town where a good selection of bars offer both traditional and more modern nights out. If it's a beach holiday you're after with the option to combine it with watersports, followed by a relaxing drink or party, Skiathos is your island.

10. Zante

  • Main attractions: shipwreck, Blue Caves
  • Who goes: groups, families, couples
  • Best for: beaches, cave trips, turtles

Zante - or Zakynthos - is the second most visited Greek isle after Corfu, and is the island famous for the photos with the shipwreck on the beach. Navagio Beach, as it's known, is accessible only by boat and attracts visitors worldwide. It offers luxurious blue waters, towering cliffs and excellent snorkelling opportunities. One can also combine a day trip here with the opportunity to visit the Blue Caves of Volimes; a selection of dramatic caves and arch structures that reflect the waters below with the skies above, creating an amazing natural phenomena.

Navagio Beach, Zante © Paolo Rosa - Flickr Creative Commons
Navagio Beach, Zante © Paolo Rosa - Flickr Creative Commons

The soft sands and clean waters of the southern coastal beaches attract the caretta caretta (loggerhead sea turtles), and they can be found here in breeding season, unique to Zakynthos. Meanwhile, Laganas Beach is the biggest on the island, and the one that attracts the most holidaymakers with its many beachfront bars and hedonistic nightlife.

Zante tends to be a perfect package holiday destination, but one can still find tradition amongst the inland villages. For a quieter evening stroll, many head to Zante Town, the capital with its collection of tavernas and more local bars.

Now that you're armed with our ultimate guide to the top 10 Greek islands, you just need to browse our collection of cheap travel deals and discounts to get you there for less. Don't miss offers from Monarch, Love Holidays and First Choice, which all specialise in holidays to Greece.

Rebecca Hall

Rebecca Hall
Posted on Tuesday 8th December 2015 in: Beach Europe Nightlife Summer

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