The 10 most popular islands in Greece – and the quiet ones you should visit instead

WT Writer
May 12, 2021

Planning to visit the Greek islands this summer? Check our round up of the the off-beat islands to visit rather than your go-to big names.

We all have an idea in our heads of the perfect Greek island holiday. For many it will essentially boil down to having lots of fun in an upbeat resort, with plenty of lively bars, tavernas, distractions and day trips. The country’s most popular holiday islands are all well set up for this.

But if Greece does one thing exceptionally well – better in fact than anywhere else in Europe I can think of – it is to offer exactly the opposite: peace, quiet and sense of escape – both physical and mental – from the everyday.

So if you want to relax and recharge away from the tourist hotspots, lie on a beach without the bars, stay in a town where there are as many locals as tourists in the tavernas, where you can watch the sunset in glorious isolation and forget about pandemics and the demands of your iPhone, you will find some wonderful options among the myriad islands of the Aegean and the Adriatic. The only problem is choosing which one.

We have had some fun swapping 10 of Greece’s best-known destinations with a nearby alternative which will offer you a complete contrast. It’s amazing what a difference a short ferry ride can make.

beach on greek island
Credit | Istock

Who needs Mykonos when there’s Tinos?

Mykonos is a place for posing and pouting, an island of infinity pools, hen-dos and hashtags. There are designer boutiques. There’s even a Starbucks, for heaven’s sake. It’s fast, it’s fun, but it is hardly traditional Greece. Hop on the ferry, however, and in as little as 20 minutes you’ll enter a world of empty landscapes and time-warp villages untouched by mass tourism – indeed, barely touched by tourism at all. Tinos is twice the size of Mykonos and one of its closest neighbours. It offers everything that makes Greece such a perennial favourite with holidaymakers. Laid-back lifestyle, fresh, simple cuisine, glorious beaches and rugged scenery, but without the crowds. A week there and you’ll wonder why anyone bothers with Mykonos at all.

Ignore Santorini, try Folegandros

In normal times, there are queues to take photos at Santorini’s most scenic spots. It is certainly extraordinarily beautiful, especially during one of its spectacular sunsets, and it has some lively beach life too. But it also gets much more of its fair share of tourists. So escape instead to Folegandros, a one-hour ferry ride to the west. Here you will find similar volcanic landscapes, sugar-cube architecture, some lovely quiet beaches and sunsets which are just as beautiful. It gets only 47,000 annual visitors compared with Santorini’s 5.5 million.

Thinking of Ios? How about Koufonisia instead?

Ios’s reputation as a party island isn’t wholly deserved. Avoid the Chora and neighbouring Mylopotas beach in peak season and you’ll find unspoilt hamlets, dumpy windmills and wild beaches. But even less frequented is neighbouring Koufonisia, which is among the least visited of the Cyclades. “The twin islands of Ano (Upper) and Kato (Lower) Koufonisi are a castaway dream,” says Greece expert, Rachel Howard. “Ano Koufonisi is small enough to walk around in a day. The coastal path from the pocket-sized port peters out at Pori, the largest of the island’s milky blue beaches. Kalofego is a laid-back beach bar where the owner, a musician, often stages impromptu jam sessions with his friends. On Kato Koufonisi, the only inhabitants are goats and the Venetsanos family, who run a wonderful taverna. Order fish soup or slow-roast kid goat.”

greek islands aerial view.
Credit | Istock

Crete is lovely but Karpathos is special

Crete each year is Greece’s most important holiday destination – about one in six of all visitors to the country head for its biggest, most southerly and most sun-soaked island. And its size means that, although there are some tourism hot spots (Malia for example), there are plenty of quieter corners. Indeed, most of the south coast is pretty much undeveloped. But for a more consistent experience of traditional island life, you could do no better than to head for Karpathos, a little to the east of Crete. It’s the most remote of the Dodecanese group and travel writer Robin Gauldie, who has spent many years exploring Greece and its islands, has always kept an eye on the island. “It has been in and out of the holiday brochures for years and never quite hit the big time,” he explains. “As a result, it’s a haven for peace-seekers, with pretty beaches and coves (some accessible only by boat), good walking in dramatic scenery, and quirky villages.”

Skip Rhodes and visit Symi

Two million tourists visit Rhodes in a good year – it’s one of the busiest and liveliest of Greece’s holiday islands. But only a small fraction of those take the one-hour ferry over to neighbouring Symi and nearly all those that do go just for a day trip. Travel expert Nick Trend sees it as a strong contender for Greece’s most romantic island. “It has a wonderfully picturesque harbour town, crowded with pastel-coloured houses which stack up on the slopes around the port, and lots of tempting tavernas. In the evenings you’ll have it all to yourself, and during the day there are lots of pretty beaches that you walk to or reach by boat.”

Kos? No, head for Tilos

Another party island, with a bigger tourist industry than Zakynthos, Kos still has plenty of quiet corners, but if you want to get away from it all, you would be better off taking the two-hour ferry ride south to Tilos, where goats outnumber tourists. Travel writer Peter Hughes is a particular fan. “When I first went to Tilos more than 20 years ago there was a group of rather bookish Britons determined that the island should never find its way onto a tourist map… Now this tiny place, midway between Kos and Rhodes, is gaining recognition, not for tourism, but for its exceptional green credentials. The entire island is a nature reserve and it is on the verge of using nothing but renewable energy sources. The unspoilt beaches are attractive, too.”

Credit | Istock

Give Skiathos a miss and go to Skopelos

Skopelos, in the Sporades Islands, is twice the size of neighbouring Skiathos and has – arguably – better landscapes and prettier towns. But it gets far fewer visitors. Why? Because Skiathos has an airport and Skopelos doesn’t. So you can escape the crowds by heading straight from the arrivals lounge to the ferry port for the one-hour crossing. Don’t miss Glossa, with its whitewashed houses, steep slopes and fine views (be sure to eat at Agnanti), the chapel of Agios Ioannis, which perches precariously atop a 100-metre rock, and the beaches of Hovolo, Ftelia and Neraki, accessible only by boat (you can hire one cheaply in the town of Panormos).

Corfu? Meganisi is cooler

Corfu offers an extraordinary variety of holiday options, from the smart villas along the northeast coast to the clubs and pubs of (very) lively Kavos down on the southern tip of the island. No wonder it attracts almost two million visitors a year. If you are looking for a more discerning option, however, what about heading a little further south to Meganisi – which, pleasingly, has a similar reversed-comma shape to Corfu’s but is virtually unknown to mass tourism. “Though its name translates as ‘Big Island’, this tiny Ionian isle is anything but,” says Rachel Howard. “Part of an archipelago that includes Scorpios (once owned by Aristotle Onassis) and Oxia (owned by the emir of Qatar), Meganisi is also creeping on to the celebrity radar: Jacob Rothschild is developing a private enclave. Pretend to be a billionaire for a week by hiring a motorboat to explore the hidden coves along the coastline.”

Forget Kefalonia, head to Lefkada

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin made Kefalonia famous, and it certainly has lots to offer holidaymakers – big enough to escape the crowds and, in Fiskardo, a seriously civilised and attractive port town. But if you’re already familiar with this, the largest of the Ionian Islands, how about trying Lefkada, instead? A little to the north of Kefalonia and connected to the mainland by a long causeway, it has some glorious unspoilt beaches along its western shore. Egremni, in particular, stands out. Meanwhile, traditional village life continues in the sleepy Sfakiotes region.

narrow streets in Greece
Credit | Istock

Ditch Zakynthos in favour of Ithaca

The Ionian island of Zakynthos attracts thousands of young tourists during a typical summer, many of whom flock to the resorts on its south coast and the beach of Shipwreck Bay in the north, made famous by travel brochures and Instagram. But if the party scene isn’t for you there’s a little-visited Ionian island to the north where tourism is much less developed and the atmosphere altogether more peaceful. Ithaca, which according to myth was Odysseus’s home island, and where his wife Penelope spent 10 years waiting for him to come back from the Trojan wars. At least she could enjoy this lovely lush and verdant island. Now it also has a pretty capital (Vathy) with its houses painted pale cream, yellow and pink. And you can hike through wonderful forests of pine trees and cypresses to half-empty villages like Kioni and Angi. Discover deserted pebble beaches, churches and monasteries and then dine at Agri, in the little port of Frikes, a contender for the best restaurant in Greece.