Greek islands compared: Which should you visit?

Woman looking out at the sea from the Greek island of Santorini

Greece's many idyllic islands loom large in Greek history, mythology, and the mind of the modern traveler. 

Scattered around the Aegean and Ionian seas, the isles were the birthplace of the Minoan civilization, the beginning of what would become Ancient Greece and its culture. They were also said to be the birthplace of Hera, Artemis, and Apollo, as well as the location of King Minos' labyrinth and minotaur. 

Today, visitors come to experience the culture and see where the mythology originated, as well as appreciate the unique beauty of these sun-kissed shores. We look at 10 of the most popular Greek islands and which ones travelers should visit first, depending on what they're looking for. 

Stone residences built into the cliffside of Santorini

Stone residences built into the cliffside of Santorini.

1. Santorini

  • Great for: honeymooners and couples; anyone looking for unbeatable views, unique volcanic sand beaches, and cliffside hotels carved right into the rock

Rising out of the crystalline waters of the Aegean Sea, Santorini's otherworldly volcanic landscape of black and red-sand beaches and enormous caldera meet quintessentially Greek white-washed houses and blue-domed churches. The island's beauty has been waxed lyrical over the years, fully earning the epithet kalliste ("the most beautiful") and making it a popular destination for couples. 

The island is split into picturesque villages masterly painted in dazzling blue and white hues, outlining the holiday resort's multi-faceted personality and its extraordinary variety of landscapes. The scent of wine grapes and vineyards, the unique taste of tomatoes grown solely on volcanic soil, the smoothness of the white pebbles and turquoise waters, the buzz of nightlife, and the visual art that is the sun setting behind the village of Oia and the caldera combine for a world-class romantic backdrop.

Explore Santorini, Athens, & more on the Greece Island Hopper package

From the ruins of Athens to the bright rooftops of Mykonos and Santorini—embrace Greece at its best. Highlights of 3 nights on Santorini include a visit to the ancient buried city of Akrotiri and an optional sunset cruise around Santorini's islets.

Learn more and book the Greece Island Hopper package

The Minoan ruins of the ancient Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete

The Minoan ruins of the ancient Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete.

2. Crete

  • Great for: foodie travelers looking to try something new; history buffs who want to explore the beginnings of Ancient Greek civilization

Crete is one of the most popular Mediterranean travel destinations. The largest island in Greece combines everything a traveler might ask for: a rich history, several major attractions, a unique food culture, a vibrant nightlife, magnificent nature, and pristine beaches.

The first prehistoric European civilization of note, the Bronze Age Minoans, flourished on Crete, and its majestic palaces can still be visited today. A multitude of different cultures and conquerors have passed through since, leaving behind important traces on the island. 

The heart of Crete beats in its cities. In addition to museums and historical sites and buildings, you'll find many shops selling local products, lively bars and cafés, as well as restaurants where you can try the delicious and healthy Cretan cuisine. At the same time, Crete stands out for its unique natural environment. There is a seemingly endless and indented coastline with beaches for every taste. At the other extreme, there is a spine of high mountains ideal for hiking and mountaineering. Gorges to wander through, caves to explore, valleys to admire, all waiting the visitor’s glance.

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Uncover Crete with Viking's Greek Odyssey package

Explore the Aegean Sea during a 10-night voyage to important sites of antiquity. Available excursions in Crete include a walking tour of scenic Chania, a visit to the Palace of Knossos, and a hike through the Imbros Gorge.

Browse and book Viking cruises that visit Crete, including the Greek Odyssey package

Cavo Paradiso beach on the island of Kos at sunset

Cavo Paradiso beach on the island of Kos.

3. Kos

  • Great for: beach lovers, water sports enthusiasts, and boaters; travelers interested in the history of medicine

Kos is one of the most visited islands in the Dodecanese, and teems with activity every summer. It has immense selection of superb beaches, which are usually found on the south coast. Naturally, most of activities on the island are based around the water. There are endless swimming possibilities and it is a great place for diving or snorkeling as well. Moreover, Kos is an excellent place for windsurfing, jet skiing, or even sailing in your own yacht. 

The mountain villages on the island possess a remarkable beauty and it can easily be visited either by car, bus, or bicycle. Kos also has historical sites associated with Hippocrates, its most famous resident. These include the Asclepeion temple where he is said to have trained in medicine, and a tree under which legend holds he taught his students.

See Kos with the Greece Intensive Voyage package

As part of a 10-night cruise around the Aegean, enjoy an excursion to the island of Kos with plenty of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors. Get up close and personal with flora and fauna at the lush Plaka Forest or relax on one of the stunning white-sand beaches.

Browse and book Azamara cruises that visit Kos, including the Greece Intensive Voyage package

The town of Mithymna on the island of Lesbos

The town of Mithymna on the island of Lesbos.

4. Lesbos

  • Great for: hikers looking for natural landscapes; people interested in trying ouzo; visitors who want a quieter, laid-back atmosphere

This island is renowned for its olive groves and ouzo distilleries. As Greece's third largest island, it has plenty of landscapes to explore, including a protected petrified forest formed by repeated volcanic eruptions. There are also views of the Turkish mainland, just a few miles offshore to the east.

Activity on Lesbos centers on the towns of Mytilene and Mithymna, where visitors can sample the local ouzo and explore historic winding streets. Those looking for more space can head to the countryside, where rolling hills invite explorers to discover monasteries, olive groves, and museums.

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Stop in Lesbos with the Aegean & Ancient Tides package

This weeklong journey spends a day visiting the town of Mytilene on Lesbos, including a 4-hour Highlights of Lesbos guided tour. The itinerary also includes Ephesus in Turkey, one of the best-preserved ancient cities in the world.

Browse and book Oceania cruises that visit Lesbos, including the Aegean & Ancient Tides package

Waterfront restaurants in Mykonos' Little Venice neighborhood

Waterfront restaurants in Mykonos' Little Venice neighborhood.

5. Mykonos

  • Great for: shoppers, foodies, those who want to people watch in one of Europe's hippest places; visitors who also want to tour nearby historic Delos

Mykonos is an eclectic place—pristine beaches, elegant boutiques, fine dining, and rowdy bars are all on a tiny piece of land, a mere 9 miles long at its widest point. Partying is a round-the-clock affair here, against a scenic backdrop of whitewashed houses and Little Venice, Mykonos Town's most charming neighborhood.

The island, along with its tiny neighbor of Delos, featured prominently in Greek mythology and was first settled in 11th century BC. Excursions into the past may be made via the island's several tiny museums and the well-maintained Archaeological Site of Delos.

Explore Mykonos, Athens, & more on the Greece Island Hopper package

From the ruins of Athens to the bright rooftops of Mykonos and Santorini—embrace Greece at its best. Highlights of 3 nights on Mykonos include a high-speed boat ride to get there, optional olive and cheese tasting excursions, and plenty of free time to explore.

Learn more and book the Greece Island Hopper package

The stone Portara of Naxos' Temple of Apollo, a symbol of the island

The stone Portara of Naxos' Temple of Apollo, a symbol of the island.

6. Naxos

  • Great for: laid-back travelers, hikers, those who want to explore at their own pace; foodies looking for an authentic experience

Naxos stands out thanks to its unusually crisp white beaches and lush, fertile terrain. With none of Mykonos' pretense or Kos' ferocious partying, the island is a destination for those who enjoy a good hike and low-key evening entertainment. Naxos is also home to its fair share of ancient sites, off-lying mountain villages, and excellent family-run taverns.

Sites of interest include the gate-shaped Portara, Venetian Kastro, the beautiful hiking trails inland (toward the village of Halki, containing the historic Vallindras citrus distillery), and the island's few archaeological sites.

Relax in Naxos with the Premium Greece Cyclades Islands package

Let the charm of the Cyclades wash over you on a 9-day Premium Greek island adventure. Start in the storied city of Athens, explore the charming villages of Paros, uncover ancient riches in Naxos, and soak up million-dollar views in Santorini.

Contact a AAA travel advisor for more information 

The Fortress of Agios Nikolaos at the entrance to Mandraki Harbor on the island of Rhodes

The Fortress of Agios Nikolaos at the entrance to Mandraki Harbor on the island of Rhodes.

7. Rhodes

  • Great for: architecture and history enthusiasts, especially castle lovers; shoppers

Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands, is no ordinary holiday resort. It's a cosmopolitan place with an international reputation: The charming medieval town, the sophisticated Lindos, the irresistible valley of the butterflies, the high-quality lifestyle, and the long golden sand beaches make the days and nights on the island unforgettable.

Rhodes is a combination of medieval tradition and modern style which impresses and fascinates visitors of all kinds. The romantic medieval Old Town holds amazing historical buildings, and the modern New Town also has its archaeological findings. Millions of tourists walk through the narrow streets of the Old Town every year to visit the museums, the churches, and the fortress walls, following the steps of medieval knights.

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Uncover Rhodes with Viking's Greek Odyssey package

Explore the Aegean Sea during a 10-night voyage to important sites of antiquity. Walk the streets of Rhodes to the imposing Palace of the Grand Masters. Visit Athens, the “birthplace of democracy,” and Crete, home of the mysterious Minoan civilization. 

Browse and book Viking cruises that visit Rhodes, including the Greek Odyssey package

Sea cliffs at Cape Drastis on the island of Corfu

Sea cliffs at Cape Drastis on the island of Corfu.

8. Corfu 

  • Great for: hikers, nature lovers; architecture enthusiasts interested in the unique fusion of Greek and other European styles

Corfu is considered by many to be the most beautiful of all the Greek islands. It is the greenest of the Ionian Islands and probably the best known. A beguiling landscape of wildflowers, cypress trees, olive trees, and luxurious sandy beaches await visitors. 

The island's capital, also named Corfu, is a beautiful, sophisticated, and charming town. It's also one of the most elegant island capitals in Greece, as it was modernized for the 1994 EU summit. The town's architecture is influenced by the French, the Italians, and the British, but it still has a contemporary Greek feel to it, which makes it an amazing place to visit.

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Uncover Corfu with Trafalgar's Secrets of Greece including Corfu package

An in-depth Greece trip for history buffs and lovers of Greek food and culture. You'll enjoy traditional dinner and dancing on an olive farm, travel to the enchanting island of Corfu, and explore ancient sites you've read about in history books like Mycenae, Olympia, and Delphi.

Contact a AAA travel advisor for more information 

An aerial view of Navagio beach on the island of Zakynthos

An aerial view of Navagio Beach on the island of Zakynthos.

9. Zakynthos 

  • Great for: beachgoers; hikers looking for verdant landscapes

Called "the Flower of the East" by the Venetians, Zakynthos is still one of the lushest and most-loved Greek islands, with green flower-covered hillsides in spring and early summer, cliffs dropping to dazzling turquoise waters, and some of the country's best beaches.

Most visitors to Zakynthos are attracted by the vast selection of dazzling beaches, but don't forget to explore the island's museums, architectural masterpieces, and ancient ruins. Covered by lush Mediterranean vegetation, the area that stretches along the southern coast from the promontory of Marathia Cape to the beach of Gerakas has been designated as a National Marine Park, housing many endangered species and several walking trails.

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Stop in Zakynthos along the Sacred Holy Lands cruise

On this 2-week journey, you’ll have ample time to get lost in the ancient sites of the Mediterranean, including a day in Zakynthos for your choice of the Highlights of Zakynthos or Panoramic Zakynthos tours.

Browse and book Oceania cruises that visit Zakynthos, including the Sacred Holy Lands package

The Agioi Anargyroi Church in Paphos, Cyprus

The Agioi Anargyroi Church in Paphos, Cyprus.

10. Cyprus

  • Great for: those looking for unique culture, architecture, ancient sites; travelers seeking a larger destination with something for everyone

Clear blue waters, mild temperatures, and caressing sunshine: It's easy to see how Greece’s goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born from the waves lapping onto Cyprus’ shore. The mythology, language, traditions, and lifestyle are Greek, but the island features a beauty that is shrouded by its own, one-of-a-kind atmosphere, shaped by a structure that divides Cyprus and its capital Nicosia into a Turkish North and a Greek South. Its multi-faceted personality has an allure that attracts tons of travelers.

Bask in sunshine year round and feel the warmth of welcoming people, swim in the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean Sea, marvel at the splendors of nature, explore ancient sites in perfect autumn temperatures and in the mild winter, or keep fit with a round of golf or an invigorating tennis match.

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See Cyprus with the Domes to Deities package

From the romantic canals in Venice, the opulent palaces in Istanbul, to Jerusalem’s famous Via Dolorosa, view history through your own eyes on this magnificent journey that includes a day in the Cypriot city of Limassol.

Browse and book Oceania cruises that visit Cyprus, including the Domes to Deities package


AAA can help you navigate a changing travel world

Handling all the details is no small task when planning a vacation this year. A knowledgeable travel advisor will be familiar with the travel rules, testing requirements on departure and return, and shifting change and cancellation policies that could impact your trip.

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