There are over 6,000 big and small Greek islands dotting the Aegean and Ionian seas. Skim off the 5,000-plus that have no people at all and you’re left with just over 200 potential holidaying spots.
Yes, that includes your usual suspects: Santorini (hello, £200 per night hotel bill), Mykonos (bring the earplugs!), Corfu (hope you like package resorts). But it also includes some seriously exciting off-the-beaten-track specks on the Greek islands map.
This guide skips the Greek islands to avoid if you’re keen on something authentic and different this year. It goes straight to the lesser-known options with secret inlets, rustic vibes and lazy harbours where creaking fishing boats bob by flower-strewn tavernas. Nice.
Best for: Marine safaris
Historians say that Alonissos was among the first ever Aegean islets to be inhabited be humans. We say it’s a wonder anyone ever left to explore the rest of the Med. The place is just so darn alluring. Dashed by pine woods and dotted with squat cottages with red-tiled roofs, it has that untouched, untroubled charm that other members of the Sporades chain could only wish for.
Perhaps most of all, Alonissos is for the wildlife lovers. A huge portion of the seas around the island are part of a designated marine reserve. They teem with reefs and sea turtles, while dolphin pods and seals are not uncommon sightings.
Poros, Saronic Gulf
Best for: Somewhere accessible with that small Greek island vibe
You don’t have to stray far from Athens to find one of the lesser-known Greek islands with beautiful beaches. Poros pops up on the opposite side of the Saronic Gulf from the capital. That translates into about an hour on the ferry.
Boats drop you on the main harbour of Poros town. From there, you can either settle into one of the fantastic local tavernas (tip: Apagio is a family-run taverna with a Michelin-experienced chef). Or, you can venture out by bike or quad to the coves. Our favourite has to be Monastiri Beach, where a haunting Orthodox abbey gazes across the olive groves to the sand.
Spetses, Saronic Gulf
Best for: Sailing
Of all the small Greek islands within weekend-break distance of Athens, Spetses stands out as somewhere with bags of class. Its port is a proud conglomeration of Neo-Classical mansions with edgy cocktail bars and fine-dining tavernas galore. There are also no cars allowed, which means the purring Porsches a la Monte Carlo can’t disturb your long lunches by the shore.
Spetses is top sailing territory. The rugged isle is all coves and crevices, and there are even more beaches within reach over on the Peloponnesian mainland or nearby Hydra. If you’ve got your own catamaran or boat, it won’t be hard to find a spot to anchor up without any other soul in sight!
Best for: Diving & snorkelling
Ah, the waters of Koufonisia! It hardly gets more turquoise than this. On a sunny day (and, don’t worry, there are lots of those in these parts), when the rays hit the bay around the main harbour, you’ll need to don the sunnies to stop yourself squinting at the pure blue glow. It’s a pretty unforgettable sight, that only gets better when you head off for a swim at nearby Ludiko Beach.
Scuba diving has become huge on Koufonisia thanks to the fantastic water quality. The island has a clutch of outfitters who can take you under for encounters with octopi and zebrafish. If the bubble tanks aren’t your thing, most of the island’s eight beaches are prime snorkelling territory.
Best for: partying
Just one island north of Santorini comes rugged Ios. It’s got stacks going for it. First, the beaches: Golden and soft-sanded, ranging from secluded Kalamos Beach to bar-threaded Mylopotas. Second, there’s an enthralling history. It involves hikes to crumbled Byzantine castles dating to the middle ages, and even the tomb of the great poet Homer.
However, it’s what Ios does after dark that really makes it a standout among the small Greek islands. It parties hard! Yep, ever since 1970s hippy fever hit, there’s been a rambunctious nightlife on this one. It all revolves around the main town of Chora, where Irish bars and pumping clubs go on all night long in the summer months.
Best for: History buffs
If you’re traveling to Greece with dreams of the Parthenon and the great Temple of Apollo on your mind, Delos should be right up your street. It’s a whisker from the party-mad beaches of Mykonos. But that’s hardly a guide…
Arguably the most historically rich of all the small Greek islands, Delos was once the financial hub of the Athenian Empire. It’s packed with ruined temples and forums, elaborate villas and dusty mosaics. Of course, there’s a UNESCO World Heritage tag covering the lot, and the island has its own archaeological museum filled with relics and antiques.
We’d say it’s best to make the trip to Delos from one of the nearby Cyclades islands. Mykonos is the obvious choice, but you could also plump for Naxos if you were after something a little more chilled.
Ithaca, Ionian Sea
Best for: A taste of the Ionian without the crowds
Ithaca is quintessential Ionian Sea stuff. At the bottom end of the Adriatic, this western half of Greece is known for a few things: Chalk-white cliffs, pebble coves, seas as blue as your Windows error screen. Ithaka does all of those to the T.
We like the idea of being based in the bijou harbour of Vathy. It’s in the heart of the island, sort of, tucked into a wide bay that’s haloed with pine trees and stony swimming spots.
There aren’t many roads about, so forget the car. Instead, bring a good pair of trail runners and hit the paths. They can whisk you to cliff-backed Gidaki Beach in the south or the sleepy harbour of Frikes in the north – a mecca for lovers of fresh-caught seafood!
Best for: Exploring beautiful Greek towns
There are some Greek islands to avoid if you don’t want to be anywhere near a town. Syros isn’t one of them. In fact, the very reason to come here is the towns! Take eye-wateringly-wonderful Ermoupoli. That’s the capital of Syros, which rises almost straight from the Aegean Sea in a mass of pastel-painted homes that date all the way back to the era of the Venetians. There’s a citadel to scramble up on top of it all, along with a maze of narrow lanes where tavernas and cafés spill onto cobbles beneath bougainvillea.
Icaria, Anatolian Sporades
Best for: Getting healthy
Icaria is a land of myth and legend. It has a mention or two in Homer’s Iliad. It’s dotted with Neolithic remains. There’s evidence that it was once a major player in a cross-Mediterranean trading empire. Later, it was a penal colony for Communists after the Greek Civil War. Wow. It’s a lot to digest.
However, all those days are firmly behind Icaria. Now, the island’s claim to fame is as a so-called Blue Zone; a place where people live unusually long lives. Perhaps you can distil a bit of that vigour from the beautiful pebble beaches around little Armenistis village. Alternatively, try the oil-doused cheeses and sea-to-table fish that’s served in the local taverns, complete with sides of wild sage and rosemary.
Meganissi, Ionian Sea
Best for: Having an adventure in the Ionian Sea
Meganissi is probably the most unknown of the whole Ionian chain. But move over Corfu. Take a hike Kefalonia. It really is a gorgeous option for holidaymakers who are keen to drift off the beaten path.
It’s shaped like a dog leg as it twists through the water between the mainland and Lefkada. Most will arrive here on a boat from the port of Nydri. The marina at Spartochori is the gateway. It’s enfolded by pine trees and has just one or two souvlaki-touting tavernas by the shore.
From there, we’d recommend pulling on the hiking boots and going it alone. Most of the skiff-filled bays and secret coves of Meganissi can be reached on foot!
Best for: Being on the very edge of the Greek islands map
Kastellorizo, Castellorizo, Megisti – call it what you will, there’s no denying this one’s a stunner. A mere two miles off the Turkish coast, it’s hardly on the Greek islands map at all. Being on the frontier lends Kastellorizo a bit of boho character.
Its main harbour is a painter’s pallet of colours. The houses and churches are like the top of a Neapolitan ice cream. There’s pink, shades of yellow, dashes of sky blue…
You’ll want to climb the ancient citadel to get views of Turkey in the distance, and be sure to visit the Blue Grotto coast caves – they’re spectacular when the light is right.
Best for: Being stunned by nature
Astypalaia spreads like the wings of a butterfly in the midst of the Dodecanese chain. You’re sure to gasp when you see it. The isle is split into two distinct halves, separated by a narrow isthmus that’s a little over 120 metres wide.
Hulking mountains shoulder their way above the central bay. Some are draped in whitewashed villages that look like wisps of cloud. Others stand alone, casting long shadows over the Aegean Sea. Be sure to drop by Vathy for a dip in the pearly lagoon. And don’t miss the capital, with its soaring Venetian castle that looks like something out of Game of Thrones!
Best for: An alternative to uber-busy Santorini
It’s strange, but there are actually lots of travelers who would put Santorini up at the top of their list of Greek islands to avoid. Yes, it’s an awesome place, but it’s also packed with tourists and heavy on the wallet. Cue Anafi. A true treat among the small Greek islands, it hides behind its better-known brother at the end of the Cyclades chain.
You’ll still get those wild, chiselled volcanic mountainscapes. You still get to gasp at cobalt waters lapping against rust-tinged cliffs. It’s just all done without the booming crowds and soaring prices. What’s more, Anafi’s beaches are way better than Santorini’s – just check out gold-tinged Kleisidi Beach for an example.
Hydra, Saronic Gulf
Best for: Weekending with the A-listers
Hydra has long been one of the chicest escapes on the Greek islands map. A mere three hours’ sailing (perhaps on your private yacht?) from the main port of Athens, it’s where the capital’s jet setters like to retreat on hot summer weekends.
We prefer to visit out of season. October is perfect, because the weather’s still hot but the pebble beaches are all deserted. Look for them on the north coast under the creaking Venetian windmills. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, wake early to climb Mount Eros and gaze across the empty Aegean from the summit.
Best for: One of the lesser-known Greek islands with beautiful beaches
They say there’s a whopping 70 individual beaches on Andros. How do they fit them in? Okay, so at 40km long and 16km wide, this is one of the larger of the small Greek islands on this list. But it’s still a microcosm compared to the mainland.
It all gets extra impressive when you consider what’s on the menu: A kitschy old town with seafarer’s mansions, the impossibly wonderful bay of Tis Grias To Pidima (check out that rock stack!), and more rural hiking paths than you can shake a spinach pie at.
Thinking of visiting these small Greek islands?
We can hardly blame you. The moment you poke below the surface and find the hidden gems of Greece, it’s hard to look back.
We’re certain that Santorini and Corfu have their pros. However, we don’t think there’s anything quite like a lonely beach or a sleepy harbour, just you, the sway of the casuarinas, the hum of the cicadas and a whole island to explore behind your back.
Oh, and if you can think of any more small Greek islands to add to this list, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below.