I remember very clearly the first time I went to Santorini. It was right before the tourist season started (late April/early May), and it was stunning. I saw some great sunsets. But the first time I visited Santorini will most likely be my last.
To me, the island didn’t feel overly Greek. In fact, if you were to come ashore as a tourist from one of the many massive boats that unload at the island’s port, it’s not likely you would ever get a truly Greek experience. You’re shuttled along cobblestone streets, past shops that sell the same things and beaches that are so crowded you can barely find a spot to sit. Mykonos, Greece’s other famous island, is better if you’re looking for a real Greek experience. However, you go to Mykonos to party, not to soak in the culture.
Both of these islands are stunning, and you’ll get your fill of spectacular photos for your social media pages. But if you want more than whitewashed buildings and the occasional Greek salad–if what you’re looking for is time spent in Greece–-here’s where you should try instead.
Amorgos is part of the Cyclades, the same chain of islands as Santorini and Mykonos, but it couldn’t be more different than these other, more-popular spots. Its mountainous scenery is dramatic and breathtaking, with sheer rock faces that drop into the sea and lots of clean, relatively uncrowded beaches. Agia Anna is where the movie “The Big Blue” was shot, while Mouros Beach has some beautiful underwater caves to explore.
There are some nice hikes around the island if you’re into active vacations. The Itonia walking path connects some of the island’s most prominent historical sights and takes about three hour. You also have the Old Strata, which will take you to the impressive Monastery of Hozoviotissa, a church carved into a cliffside. There’s no airport on Amorgos, but you can take a ferry from Piraeus, the main port of Athens, which will take you a little under six hours, or nine if you make multiple stops.
This island in the Dodecanese is popular with visiting Greeks for many reasons, but it’s one of my favorites because of the food. There’s the Mouggou Kafeneio, a classic spot with solid meze and drinks. Barbarossa features great pasta, and the Lobster restaurant is where you should go for seafood. Many of the island’s beaches are isolated and unorganized (meaning there are no cafes or tavernas right on the beach). If this is your thing, you will want to rent a car and explore Vatses, Psili Ammos, Plakes, Tzanaki, and Vathos. There’s also a Venetian castle to explore in the port town, a monastery with a great view, and several churches dotted around the island that make for great photo opportunities.
I deeply love Crete. It’s huge, complex, and beautiful with a culture so distinct and strong it may be hard to believe it’s part of Greece (and if you ask a local, they might tell you it’s not). Chania and Heraklion are the biggest towns, but resist the temptation to spend all your time in these areas. Instead, drive south to Sfakia for dramatic vistas or head west for some excellent surfing. Gramvousa and the Balos Lagoon are touristy but worth a visit, and so is the Samaria Gorge, a day-long hike that will take you from the mountains all the way to the sea.
Food in Crete is arguably some of the best in Greece. Drive inland and eat at any of the no-name tavernas–they might not have menus and communicating could get tricky, but trust whatever they bring you. It will most likely be made with local, organic products, which means it’ll be delicious. Crete is accessible all year round via plane and boat, so don’t feel as though your visit is limited to the summer.
Almost every Greek I know goes to Koufonissia frequently or has at least been there once. It’s actually made up of two tiny islands: upper and lower Koufonissia. The upper island (Apo Koufonissia) is where you go for beaches and the lower island (Kato Koufonissia) is where you can stay (most people choose to camp on this one). Take a boat from the port to Nero Beach, and then find the path to Venetsianos, an excellent and very small tavern. There is also Captain Nikolas Taverna, a restaurant with fantastic seafood and pasta. Koufonissia is just on the other side of Naxos, a big island famous for its wonderfully pungent cheeses, and Paros, so I’d suggest island-hopping from Athens to Koufonissia via these two bigger islands.
This island has recently gained some international fame. It’s a “Blue Zone,” or a region where people live longer than average, and here, that’s attributed to an exceptionally slow pace of life. It’s no exaggeration to say that time is irrelevant on Ikaria. Shops open sporadically, people depart for lunch breaks that can take up to four or five hours, and nobody is ever on time.
Besides vibrant blue seas, the island is mostly green with lots of trees and mountains in its center. Ikaria is close to Chios and the Turkish border, so if you want to island-hop while you’re there, there are plenty of options. You can fly to Ikaria during the summer or take a ferry, but it can take up to 11 hours to get there.
In the Ionian chain of islands, you may have seen photos of Zakynthos, an island with the uber touristy Shipwreck Beach and plenty of options for partygoers. But if a little more isolation is what you’re looking for, head just a little north to the bigger Kefalonia and you’ll find smaller crowds and quiet beaches. I love this island–when I was here, my friends and I would hitchhike from beach to beach, soaking up the laid-back atmosphere. Kefalonia is also much more green than most islands: whereas many of the Dodecanese and Cycladic destinations are a little arid and rocky, Kefalonia has lots of lush trees and forests, some that come right up to the beach. One of my favorite places to catch some waves and sun is Myrtos, or try Petani for a similar vibe. Set aside a little time here to check out the island’s many caves, monasteries, and churches–Melissani Cave is beautiful, and the Saint Theodoroi lighthouse is also worth checking out.
Do you have any secret spots in Greece that you would recommend?
Header photo by Thomas Summer.