The Greek Islands - 11 Days

First-timers often describe their trip to “the Greek Islands,” as if they were one monolithic entity, easily popped into and out of and in between, like boutiques in a mall. It’s only once a visitor gets to know the country that the magnitude and diversity of the archipelagos become clear. The truth is that there are over 200 inhabited islands in Greece — and over 6,000 isles of varying sizes altogether. Of the islands with residents, each has its own character, from the whitewashed cave homes of the Cyclades to the lush, green Italianate Ionians, to the Dodecanese capped with Crusader castles.

Getting Around Greece

By air: Twenty-five islands have their own airports, all served from Athens by Olympic Airways and Aegean Airways, two domestic carriers that have merged. Eight are international airports that are also served by charters and European carriers such as British Airways, Air France, and EasyJet in summer. Although many of the islands have several flights a day in high season, the planes fill up quickly; aim to book four months ahead. Every single domestic flight is under an hour from Athens (keep in mind that the landmass of Greece is slightly smaller in size to the state of Alabama).

By sea: All large islands, and many small ones, are served by ferries, both of the slow and fast variety, from multiple lines, included Blue Star, Aegean Speed Lines and Minoan. Ferries don’t fill up as quickly as the flights do; you can often get a ticket the day before, but it’s always a good idea to book as soon as you know your itinerary, especially during peak times like Easter or August.  While it’s always smart to secure tickets once you know when you’re travelling, it’s not necessary to book too far ahead unless you’re travelling at peak times or in a large group.

By car: The major car agencies operate out of Eleftherios Venizelos in Athens and most island airports. It is possible to “drive” to an island by taking a car ferry, and since some islands are not frequently served by ferries leaving from Athens, you may have to, for example, arrive in the Athens airport, drive a rental car to the town of Volos port of Agios Konstantinos in central Greece, and sail to the islands of the Sporades. As in the rest of Europe, most car rentals are manual shift; automatics are more expensive and rare and must be booked well in advance. Here’s a work-around: If you’re just one or two people travelling together, a Smart car is inherently automatic, easy to find, affordable, and costs less to take on a ferry because of its teeny size.

Overview

Discover Athens, Mykonos, Santorini, and Crete

For the most part, the islands are divided into six main island groups, plus a significant stand-alone, Crete. It’s easier to travel between islands within one group than to archipelago-hop, although that can be done. (For example, if you want to go between Mykonos and Santorini in the Cyclades, there are multiple ferry and hydrofoil options in high season, but to get from Santorini to Corfu, in the Ionian, you’ll need to fly or sail into Athens, then fly to Corfu.) See our handy tip sheet below to find the island(s) that sound best for your next vacation.

Itinerary

Day 1
Arrive in Athens, Greece

Welcome to Greece! You’ll begin your trip in Athens, home to both the iconic Acropolis and so much more. The mythology of this spectacular city precedes it, with towering temples to Classical deities and the ruins of ancient marketplaces rubbing shoulders with lively nightlife, crowded flea markets, and contemporary cuisine. Make the most of your time in the city at some of these spots:
Check out the views of the can’t-miss Parthenon. (Pro tip: The Parthenon is the temple, the Acropolis is the hill.) This temple to Athena has enchanted visitors since its construction was completed in 438 BC. It’s probably the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of ancient Greece and is visible from many of the city’s high points.
Stop at the sprawling National Museum for a crash course in ancient iconography. Be sure to seek out the room housing the Antikythera mechanism, essentially an ancient astronomical computer.
Visit a smaller archaeological site at the Tower of the Winds, then stroll down neighbouring pedestrian Aiolou Street to stop at shops and cafes.
Find your perfect souvenir or sun hat in the busy stalls of the Monastiraki flea market.
Spend your evening exploring the up-and-coming Pangrati neighbourhood or amid the nightlife and mezze of the Psyrri district.

Day 2
Acropolis and Ancient Greek Mythology Tour

Experience the ancient stories surrounding you with today’s guided mythology tour. You’ll meet your guide and storyteller at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, then head to landmarks around the city including the Acropolis, ancient cemetery at Kerameikos, and the Agora. The myths that founded the city and are featured in its retellings for generations will accompany as you go, with stories of Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Dionysus, and more. Hear both the stories themselves and the historic facts behind them, adding resonance to the archaeological ruins you will visit during this four-hour tour.

Make your way over to explore the Acropolis Museum on your own after your tour (or join a guide if you’d prefer). Named one of the ten best museums in the world by National Geographic, this modern museum houses a multitude of artefacts removed from the hill of the Acropolis for safekeeping to provide insight into ancient religious practices and daily life. Linger for lunch in the museum’s cafe, with views of the artefacts’ former hilltop home.

As night falls, you may be able to visit the Athens Observatory to learn about the constellations overhead and take a look through the telescope. Its hours vary seasonally and by day of the week.

Day 3
Day Trip to Delphi

Today, you’ll seek out the oracle during a day trip to the ruins of Delphi, once home to priestesses of Apollo who Ancient Greeks believed could predict the future. After being transferred from your hotel to Delphi (about 2.5 hours from the city), you’ll take a guided tour through this sprawling archaeological site, with stops such as the Treasury of the Athenians, the Temple of Apollo, and expansive theatre.

Explore the ruins or venture up an ancient footpath once used by worshippers of the god Pan, who started from the temples of Delphi and proceeded to Corycean Grotto for their religious rites, surrounded by the valley of olive trees and views of the Corinthian Gulf and peaks of the Peloponnese on your way.

Outside of the ruins, you’ll head to an old town district that used to serve as the leather tanner’s district. One of Greece’s last bellmakers keeps his workshop here; if you’re lucky, he may be on-site for a visit. Lunch will be served under the plane trees in the town square, with cheeses, Amfissa olives, and traditional home cooking.

Head indoors after lunch to the museum, a short downhill walk away. Wander through its halls to find the bronze Charioteer of Delphi, marble Sphinx of Naxos, and what may be the first recorded notation of a melody once inscribed on the walls of the Athenian Treasury.

You’ll be transferred back to Athens in the late afternoon to rest up or spend the evening out and about in the city.

Day 4
Athens to Mykonos

You’ll start your time in the islands on Mykonos, one of the most famous islands in the Cyclades chain. Known for its glitzy restaurants and nightlife, art scene, and jet-set crowds (it was recently home to a Gucci pop-up boutique), Mykonos will throw you headfirst into your island adventure.

Your first day’s itinerary is up to you. You’ll receive a personalized list of tips for exploration, but some highlights include:

If you need to get your toes in the sand immediately, head to remote Agios Sostis beach to find your own isolated paradise.
For a more active experience, Ftelia Beach is known for its excellent windsurfing.
Stroll through Little Venice, an 18th-century neighbourhood where colourful former captains’ mansions and seaside restaurants seem to sprout straight from the sea. It’s also right next to the island’s famous hillside windmills for great photo ops.

Day 5
Day Trip to Delos

Travel back in time after breakfast with a morning boat ride out to the archaeological site at Delos. You’ll board a small boat at the old port to cruise for 45 minutes out to one of ancient Greece’s most sacred sites. This small island was the centre of the Cyclades during the Classical era and the mythological birthplace of twin deities Apollo and Artemis. Pilgrims from around the region were attracted to the mystical site and helped it evolve into one of the largest trade centres of the Mediterranean.

Your guided tour will wind you through the foundations of former traders’ mansions, temples, and landmarks such as the Terrace of the Lions. Don’t skip the island museum, where many of the smaller artefacts and frescoes have been moved to protect them from the elements.

You’ll return to Mykonos in time to catch up on your shopping in your the afternoon as you explore some of the best boutiques in the Aegean, or check out the weathered Faros Armenistis lighthouse perched high above the Aegean on the island’s northwestern tip, with views across to the neighbouring island of Tinos.

Day 6
Arrive in Santorini, Hidden Gems Tour & Wine Tasting

Welcome to Santorini! There’s nothing like catching your first glimpse of the island’s iconic cliffside architecture. Watch for your first views of Santorini’s central caldera—the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history—rising up in a crescent.

Spend some time after you’ve settled in to wander the streets of Fira or get beachside. Don’t wear yourself out too soon, though, as in the afternoon you’ll take a guided tour which will show you a side of Santorini that most travellers don’t see.

You’ll start with a stroll through famous Oia, where your guide will point out hidden treasures, followed by a trip up to the highest peak on the island, with 360-degree views at the top for the perfect souvenir photo (or five). Then head on to the medieval villages at Megalochori and Pyrgos, which feel a world away from the touristy towns along the caldera rim. Finally, you’ll stop for a wine tasting at the caldera’s edge to sample varietals dating back centuries as you watch the sun sink into the Aegean.

In the evening, head back to Oia, passing the Blue Dome of Firostefani along your way. The furthest town along the rim of the caldera, Oia’s arty streets are the most famous spot for sunset views, but the evening after the crowds have died down is one of the best times to wander the alleys and linger in the town’s tavernas. When searching for your dinner, seek out tomato keftedes, deep-fried tomato balls that encapsulate the essence of the Mediterranean diet, and the Santorini speciality spelt pie.

Day 7
Santorini Catamaran Cruise, Ferry to Crete

Enjoy leisurely morning breakfast before taking some time to stroll and scope out small shops and boutiques. Explore Fira, the capital of the island, which offers plenty to check out. History buffs will be delighted by proximity to the Archaeological Museum of Santorini, the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, the Folklore Museum of Emmanuel Lignos, and the church of Hypapante.

As the day unfolds, you’ll head toward Vlychada Port to board your semi-private catamaran cruise around the island. Your first stop will be at the Red Beach to swim and sun, followed by a second stop at the White Beach to take in all the distinctive-coloured sands of Santorini.

Barbecue will be served on board while you sail past landmarks at Aspronisi, the Ancient Lighthouse, Indian Rock, and the prehistoric city at Akrotiri, hidden away at the southern tip of Santorini. These ruins are the site of some of the Bronze Age’s most advanced settlements, which prospered for centuries before being destroyed by a great volcanic eruption in the mid-second millennium BC. Top it off with a jump into the hot springs at Nea Kameni, where the mineral-rich volcanic waters are believed to have therapeutic properties.

Once you return to port, you’ll be transferred to your ferry to Crete, the largest and most populous of the 230 inhabited Greek islands, and it’s capital city of Heraklion.

Day 8
Tour Knossos and Heraklion, Travel to Chania

Set off for a guided exploration of the magnificent Palace of Knossos. This 3,500-year-old Minoan palace is a sprawling maze of royal chambers, grand staircases, storerooms, and workshops. The evocative Bronze Age site is believed to be Europe’s oldest city; it flourished for nearly 2,000 years as an economic centre, trading with cities across the Mediterranean.

Follow it up with a guided stroll through the streets of Heraklion, exploring the old city’s medieval streets with architecture representing the island’s Venetian past. Highlights include the elegant arches of the Loggia, now in use as the town hall, and the Koules Venetian fortress along the harbour walls. In the afternoon, don’t miss the Archaeological Museum, home to one of the largest collections of Minoan artefacts in the world.

In the evening, you’ll head onward to Chania, a city (and region) on the northwest coast of Crete. Chania itself is the second-largest city in Crete and one of the most scenic spots on an island with stiff competition for that title. Life in this former Venetian city revolves around its charming 14th-century harbour, narrow streets with winding alleys, and colourful architecture influenced by past Ottoman and Egyptian eras.

Day 9
Explore the Villages of Apokoronas

Today, you’ll have a chance to hear some of the island’s history firsthand during a guided tour through nearby Apokoronas. The region’s villages—seven of them—are home to a number of sites including an Ottoman fort, historic churches, and a folklore museum. But most interesting will be the conversations you and your guide will have with the local residents of the area.

Some potential highlights include:

The hillside ruins at ancient Aptera, one of the largest city-states in Crete until it was destroyed by an earthquake in the seventh century, including a Minoan tomb believed to date back to roughly the 13th century BCE.
Two-aisled churches in Stilo’s village from the 13th and 15th centuries, along with a limestone fossil once believed to be a fossilized sea siren and a walk along the Kiliaris river to a Venetian watermill.
A glassblowing factory in Kokkino Chorio.
The old square of Gavolochori, where you can visit the women’s cooperative and see hand-knit lace created using a Byzantine technique or the neighbouring Folklore Museum of Gavalochori.
In the evening, check out Chania’s waterfront districts of Halepa and Tabakaria. Wander among former tanneries and factories in these off-the-beaten-track parts of town, just past the end of the main promenade.

Day 10
Return to Athens and Athens Food Tour

In the morning, you’ll head back to Athens.

Once you get settled in at your hotel, meet your guide in Syntagma Square to start sampling the best of what the city’s street food stalls have to offer. You’ll learn about the Mediterranean diet and its potential benefits while strolling the city streets in neighbourhoods you may not have discovered yet and bustling open-air markets.

Venture into the Varvakios Market, the largest and most popular fish, meat, and vegetable market in the city, and explore the city’s main spice street. Sample olive oils, honey, cheeses from around the country, cured meats, olives, and more. Everything from baklava to souvlaki is available to appeal to even the pickiest eaters.

If you haven’t had your fill of adventuring during the afternoon, spend your evening in the Koukaki neighbourhood. This area’s off-the-beaten-path wine bars will introduce you to a wide selection of Greek wines amid friendly crowds, or if you’re with the whole family a selection of great local restaurants await.

Day 11
Depart Athens

Time to say farewell to Greece. Enjoy your final Athenian breakfast before your transfer to the airport.

The Greek Islands

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