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13 of the Best Off-the-Beaten-Path Greek Islands

Rich Francis

Swansea, UK

Forget the body-packed beaches of Corfu. Dodge the snorkeler-filled lagoons of Crete. Ditch the pulsing party towns of Mykonos. There are plenty of other Greek islands: you just might not have heard of them yet. Cue this list. We’ll guide you from the rustic Dodecanese chain on the cusp of Turkey all the way to the chalk-white coves of the Ionian isles. Explore the hidden jewels of this much-loved corner of Europe with its sleepy fishing villages, quaint olive farms, clothing-optional beaches, and more whitewashed tavernas than you can shake a saganaki cheese at! Get ready to go off the beaten path in Greece.


Aegina’s worth a mention for its sheer proximity to Piraeus. Catch a speedboat from Athens, and you could be pulling into the vibrant port in the time it takes to finish a feta pastry. Yes, the main town and its nearby coves are a playground for day-trippers. But push beyond those and there’s a large isle speckled with wondrous temples and jaw-dropping lookouts. You won’t want to miss the haunting silhouette of the Temple of Aphaia on the eastern headlands, especially at sunset. The archaeology digs at Kolona are a window into the ancient city state that once made its home here. And then there’s Mount Oros, with a summit towering 532 meters over the Saronic Gulf.  


Poros (no, definitely not Paros!) is the pearl of the Saronic Gulf. Just an hour’s catamaran from Athens, it’s also eminently accessible. Ditch the traffic-clogged lanes of the capital and you could soon be lazing on Love Bay’s pine-fringed sands or swimming in the shadow of an orthodox hermitage at Monastiri Beach. The main town is a lively mosaic of flower-strewn cottages and quayside tavernas. The backcountry hosts crumbled temples and even the sanctuary where the famed orator Demosthenes committed suicide back in 322 BCE! For something a little more local, pay a euro for the ferry over to Galatas. Hand-roasted coffees are served at La Frianderie and the good-vibes retreat of Live Bio offers rentals with a stunning view across the straits.


Hydra (pronounced id-ra) rises to the peak of Mount Eros like a watchtower over the Aegean Sea. It’s famed for its sleepy character and rocky complexion. Cars are traded with pack donkeys (no automobiles are allowed!). And the main town, also called Hydra, filters out to a Mars-like backcountry of vermillion-tinged hills and farms. The main town might get busy with day-trippers from Athens during the peak season, but you’re more likely to meet a Greek goat than a tourist if you hit the hiking trails through the pine groves to wonderful Prophet Elias Monastery. At sunset, be sure to stroll the coastal path westwards to Vlychos Beach. A cold beer halfway at Kodylenias Resto offers visions of the Peloponnesian mountains topped with windmills across the strait.


Legends say that Kythira was the birthplace of Aphrodite – Greek goddess of love. It’s not difficult to believe. From the moment you lay eyes on Diakofti port, straddling a rocky headland with dashes of Caribbean-style sand on either side, this isle on the edge of the Peloponnese begins to work its magic. From there, you’ll need to choose your adventure. Will it be the rugged inland with its deep gorges and emerald waterfalls? Or will it be the coast, where over 30 rated beaches await? If you go for the latter, be sure to hit Kapsali, where yachts bob in a cobalt bay, and Kaladi, an Instagram just waiting to happen. Oh, and don’t forget the capital of Chora, which is topped with a dramatic Venetian citadel that once fended off pirate raiders.


Okay, so Ikaria’s backstory might not be the most reassuring. The place got its name from fated hero Icarus who is thought to have plunged into the Aegean Sea close by after his wax wings melted on account of his hubris. Then there was the time the island was used as a politico prison for exiles during the Greek Civil War. But, as the locals will say with a sprightly smile, that’s all ancient history these days. Now, Ikaria prefers to chillax in a haze of gritty morning coffees and afternoon siestas. Oh, and the isle is hailed as a so-called Blue Zone, where life expectancies are way higher than other places. Perhaps that’s down to the radio-energized natural springs? Or could it be the hearty farm-to-table food that’s served in tavernas from Nas to Armenistis?  


Move over Santorini, Folegandros beckons. While booming crowds of sunset seekers are vying for the top cave hotels on Greece’s most-visited island only an hour away, there’s something altogether more authentic on offer just to the northwest. Carved by ancient volcanoes, the place is all sheer cliffs and graphite-tinged beaches, along with terraced vineyards dropping straight to an azure Aegean. The best place to begin is in the capital of Chora. Whitewashed cubist homes coalesce around cute tavernas there. For the evening light, be sure to hit the trail to the church of Panagia. It clings to a jutting rock and has views every inch as good as Santorini!


They say it took Odysseus a whopping 10 years to get back to his home island of Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War. Thankfully, these days you can just hop on a ferry from nearby Kefalonia, or even the port town of Patras. That’ll bring you to the small stud in the Ionian Sea in a single morning. You’re likely to arrive in Vathy, where bobbing boat sails give way to bougainvillea-strewn marina bars. It’s the liveliest place you’ll encounter on the isle. The rest is dashed with the tiny (and uber-secluded) inlets of Afales bay, home to emerald-green waters and golden sand. Or, it’s gnarled with 1,500-year-old olive trees and dotted with rustic farms.


Serifos has dodged the package vacation crowd, but it’s a firm favorite on the island-hopping circuits of the Aegean. Why? Well…just look at it! The main town is a jaw-dropping cascade of square-cut Greek cottages that are draped on a precipitous ridge of stone. Below that, the port town of Livadi bobs with paint-peeling fishing boats. And then there is the coastline, where rock-rimmed mountains occasionally give way to small inlets of azure Mediterranean water. They’re all supremely hidden though, so you might just need a hardy quad bike to reach them. Agios Sostis and pebbly Ganema are surely two of the best!


Hurry – Koufonisia is on the change! It’s only recently entered the spotlight, drawing tent-touting hippies and holidayers who’ve been ousted out of party-mad Mykonos to the north. You should know that there are actually three separate islands that make up all of Koufonisia. The only one with a town and residents is Ano Koufonisi. That’s a hubbub of life in the summer, with Greek locals sipping ouzo and munching on lemon-doused sardines in family-owned tavernas like Restaurant Karnagio. For beaches, hop a fishing boat out to Kato Koufonisi. It’s more Aruba than Aegean, with turquoise seas, soft sands, and walls of rugged stone rising from the waters.


Nope, it’s not the long-forgotten fifth Teletubby. It’s the Dodecanese isle of Lipsi. Shaped like an egg timer between Patmos and Leros, this is one of the last bastions of Greece before the Turquoise Coast of Turkey. You’ll need to ditch the pager and alarm clocks for a visit – sleepy doesn’t quite do it! A single village is all that exists, with squat cottages picked out in Microsoft blue and cloud white. The backcountry is scrubby hills speckled with olive groves and eucalyptus. And the beaches are gorgeous little stretches, hitting a zenith with the resplendent pebbles of Hohlakoura or tree-speckled Platis Gialos.


Long, thin Alonissos streaks through the Aegean Sea like the trunk of an ancient olive tree. It’s a member of the much-loved Sporades chain, but is nowhere near as popular as its compadre Skiathos, which sits just a little to the west. In fact, the island is so remote that a large portion of it is given over to a protected nature reserve and marine park. That means just a stone’s throw from the main harbor could see you lost in meadows of wild thyme, olive groves, and pockets of stone pines. The shoreline promises oodles of get-away-from-it-all spots, too. There are rust-tinged headlands poking into the sea at Kokinokastro. There are rustic wine cellars and boat moorings down in loveable Patitiri town. And you might even glimpse a rare monachus seal basking in the sun while you travel.


Cue the Small Cyclades. This archipelago in the heart of the Aegean is often hailed as the only authentic corner of the central Greek isles left. And that’s precisely what you get in Schinoussa. A tiny little marina settlement welcomes you off the boat from Naxos. Take some time to sip a coffee and meet the local taverna chefs there (ask about the fresh fish of the day!). Then, scramble up the path to the main town of Chora. Tight-knit and timeless, it’s a pint-sized center with cobbled streets that bloom with buckets of wild herbs and plane trees. For swimming, Psili Ammos beckons with pink-tinged sands and a turquoise lagoon on the hidden side of the island.


Sometimes, Tilos can seem more like a fold of the Alps than a Greek island. Its hinterland is cragged with jutting summits. There are green meadows that bloom with lavender and irises. Grass and gallery woods of pine and eucalyptus spill over the cliffs. Still, for all its natural beauty, this one remains out of the spotlight. In fact, its main town, Mikro Horio, is still half in ruins since a mass exodus during WWII. That’s a haunting and enthralling place, ringed by hiking trails that will reward any island hoppers who’ve bought their boots in tow. Want to cool off post trek? Strip away on nudism-friendly Plaka Beach for a swim in sky-blue waters.