Greece is the perfect combination of affordable, beautiful, and delicious. When it comes to sailing around the Mediterranean, Greece is what dreams are made of, and at a cheaper price than its French or Italian neighbors.
This July, I went island-hopping in Greece with seven of my friends and it was so beautiful that we’re already planning our next island-hopping adventure for next summer. So that got me thinking, and researching, the best islands to pick for sailing around Greece.
Because Greece is home to literally thousands of islands, the islands are organized into groupings called “island chains.” Two well-known island chains are the Cyclades, which includes Santorini and Mykonos, and the Ionians, which are just off the west coast of the Greek mainland. The Cyclades are made up of 56 islands and the Ionians, 12. Each island has its own unique history and topography, as well as a different array of attractions. We decided to do something a little different for our trip, and focused on the Saronic Gulf which is just off the mainland and features clear waters that are more like the Amalfi Coast in Italy. So with so many destinations to choose from, where does an aspiring island-hopper even start?
To help you out, I put together a few 7-day Greek island-hopping itineraries for the Cyclades, Ionians, and Saronic Gulf to ensure that you enjoy the Greek islands to the fullest.
Cyclades Islands: Mykonos-Santorini-Naxos-Paros
The Cyclades, located off the southeast coast of Greece in the Aegean Sea, are known for their beauty, their traditional blue and white architecture (think Oia in Santorini pictured above), and their hospitable people. Legend has it that the Cyclades, which all circle around the central, sacred island of Delos, were once nymphs who angered Poseidon.
It is only right that a 7-day Cyclades itinerary would include one of the more popular islands, so start your island-hopping adventure on Mykonos. Fly into JMK International Airport, which receives flights from many locations in Europe, as well as a few in the Middle East.
Day 1: Spend your first day exploring Mykonos. Rent a Vespa or a quad to cruise around the island with, and hang out on one of the island’s beautiful beaches. Some beaches are calm and relaxed, while others have much more of a party vibe, so be sure to pick one that fits your style! When you’ve soaked up enough sun for one day, head out for a peaceful dinner and sunset. Finally, spend some time exploring Mykonos’ bustling nightlife.
Day 2: Hang out on Mykonos for one more day. Check out the island’s iconic windmills, then head to the Aegean Maritime Museum to see fascinating Greek sailing artifacts. After that, explore the countless shops and markets in Mykonos Town, then relax on another beach!
Day 3: Time for a new island! Sail to Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades islands. Naxos is special because it prospers more from traditional agriculture than it does from tourism, so be sure to really soak in the authentic culture of the island. The best way to do this: explore all Naxos has to offer, from its rugged mountains and deep gorges to hilltop villages and old churches. For example, hike Mount Zas, the highest peak in the Cyclades, or visit the 6th century Panagia Drosiani church. Take time to shop your way through the island’s boutiques and market, too.
Day 4: Don’t worry, it’s not time to leave Naxos just yet. Spend your second day on the island doing something adventurous, like snorkeling or windsurfing at one of the many beaches. Finish the day by dining at the harbor and watching the sun set behind the marble frame of Portara, the unfinished remnants of a 6th-century temple of Apollo.
Day 5: Say goodbye to Naxos and sail to its next-door neighbor, Paros, which is known for clear sea waters and traditional villages. Start by exploring the port of Parikia, home to winding streets and whitewashed cubic architecture. Here, you will also find Panagia Ekatontapiliani, or “The Church of 100 Doors,” which dates back to the 4th century. Then, check out the Valley of the Butterflies, a natural park where thousands of butterflies gather in the summer.
Day 6: On your second day on Paros, head up to the village of Lefkos, which doesn’t get much tourism. Take the time to stop into a bakery and admire the blue and white buildings which make up authentic Greek island culture. Spend the afternoon on one of Paros’ great beaches, many of which are complete with loungers and restaurants or bars.
Alternatively, skip Paros and head to Santorini. Though Santorini is the most popular of the Cyclades, it does not have a port where sailing ships can dock. However there are boat transfers to the island from the neighboring ones. If you really want to sail and spend your time on the boat, I recommend finishing up the cruise, then heading to Santorini for a few days once you’re done.
Day 7: To finish off your Cyclades trip, sail back to Mykonos, from which you can fly home.
Ionian Islands: Lefkada-Paxos-Corfu
The Ionian Islands are located in the Ionian Sea, just off the west coast of Greece. 6 large islands and 6 small islands make up the chain of 12 Ionians, which have the deepest waters in the Mediterranean. Many of the islands were once part of the Greek mainland, but sunk into the ocean after a series of earthquakes along a fault in the Ionian Sea. The islands experience strong wind currents, making them internationally acclaimed windsurfing destinations.
The Ionians boast a very different style than the Cyclades. In fact, their sharply structured buildings in hues of orange and yellow make them look more like Italy’s Amalfi Coast than the traditional blue and white hilltop villages of other Greek islands.
To start your Ionian island-hopping, fly into Preveza’s Aktion National Airport, in western Greece. (This airport connects to Israel and most major cities in Europe.) Your first destination, the island of Lefkada is only a short drive away. (Lefkada, also called Lefkas, is so close to the mainland that there is a road connecting the two.)
Day 1: Spend the first day of the Ionian trip exploring Lefkada. Start by descending the nearly 350 steps from the towering seaside bluffs to Egremni Beach, a white pebble beach on bright blue waters, far beneath. Or, head to Mikros Gialos Beach and rent a canoe to explore the turquoise cove. These are just two of the many beaches on Lefkada, so you will have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the sun and sea. However, some of the beaches are gravelly, so be sure to wear flip flops. Stay at the Allure, a fun and modern boutique hotel.
Day 2: A second day on Lefkada gives you more time to be adventurous. Try windsurfing at the Vassiliki resort! (But go earlier in the day if you’ve never been windsurfing before, as the winds get stronger as the day goes on.) If you’d prefer to stay on land, there is ample opportunity to mountain bike around the island, as much of Lefkada is rocky and mountainous. For something calmer, follow the beautiful hike from the town of Nydri through citrus and olive trees to the Nydri waterfalls.
Day 3: On the third day of the trip, sail to the petite island of Paxos, which is a bit northwest of Lefkada. If you plan accordingly, you can attend the Paxos Festival taking place each summer, where you’ll see upcoming international and Greek musicians in the jazz, classical, and folk genres. But for the rest of the year, there is still lots to enjoy on Paxos. The island is the perfect size to explore on foot, as there is enough to see that you won’t get bored, but not so big that you’ll get lost. Plenty of markers and signposts lead visitors through hikes around the island, too. Be sure to see the stunning multi-hued blue water at Kipiadi beach.
Day 4: For a second day on Paxos, begin by visiting Tripitos Arch, the remnants of a collapsed sea cave, or the Blue Caves, hollowed-out limestone sea caves on the island’s west coast. (Note, though, that the Blue Caves are only accessible by boat.) When you get hungry, work your way through the dozens of cafes at the fishing port of Gaios. Finally, soak up the sun at Mongonissi Beach, the island’s only beach with sand, rather than pebbles or gravel.
Day 5: Come day five, leave Paxos to sail north to Corfu, the second largest Ionian island. Corfu is unique because it was under Venetian, French, and British control before it became part of Greece in the 19th century. Therefore, its architecture and monuments reflect its complex past. Begin by exploring Old Town, which allows visitors to see the heavy Venetian influence on the island. Check out the 16th century Renaissance church St. Spyridon or the 13th century Paleokastritsa Monastery, where you can be taken on a tour by one of the eight monks who live there.
Day 6: Spend another day on Corfu by snorkeling in the clear waters at Paleokastritsa Beach or swimming through the stone tunnel at Canal d’Amour Beach. (Note the French name!)For a last little bit of history, visit the 13th century Angelokastro Castle, which was the clifftop capital of Corfu for several hundred years up until the 16th century.
Day 7: On your last day, sail back to Lefkada and return to Aktion Airport to complete your island-hopping trip.
Saronic Gulf: Ermioni – Hydra – Poros
In contrast to the other options on this list, the Saronic Gulf boasts both clear water and colorful buildings, combining some of the charming elements of the other two itineraries but without as many visitors. The benefit of the Saronics over the Cyclades is the opportunity to stay closer to Athens, in case members of your group need to leave at different times, and to have closer stops than the Ionians, which are huge islands that can be quite far apart.
Day 1: Depart from Piraeus in the afternoon and make your way as far as winds allow. That might mean stopping as close as Aegina or making your way to what was our first stop for the night, Methana. Once a popular town with bougie tourists, this spot has since lost most of its tourism and become somewhat of a ghost town. That means this will be the quietest stop of your voyage. It also has hot springs which are worth checking out.
Day 2: Our first major stop was Ermioni, which is still on the mainland and offers a combination of beautiful clear water and a path with pine trees to walk through. I loved this charming town with delicious food and beautiful swimming.
Day 3: Make your way early in the day to the island of Hydra, which is famous for its quaint, C-shaped harbor and beautiful clear water. Lounge on the rocks above the water and jump in, hang out with the many cats who make the island their home, and head up to the fort after dark for photo ops.
Days 4-5: Next, make your way to Poros, which is the perfect stop to spend a couple of days. If you have an international license, rent quad bikes and explore the highest point of the island and its many beaches. Alternatively, take a 6-Euro cab to Russian Bay for some of the world’s best souvlaki – seriously. From there make your way back on foot past Love Bay to the port. Be sure to check out the alleyways through town for some white, cobblestone stairs and beautiful flowers.
Day 6: Make your way back towards Athens, stopping at Agistri for the night. If anyone needs to head out early, there’s a ferry from here back to Piraeus that runs nearly every hour.
Day 7: Finish up in Piraeus and make your way back towards Athens to fly home.
Though I didn’t have the chance to do the Cyclades or more than Lefkada in the Ionians, I already know I want to go back and explore some of the most-loved and lesser-known islands in the area. Greece easily became one of my favorite countries in Europe thanks to the open culture, the truly delicious food that was so cheap and fresh, and the baby blue and crystal clear water.