If island hopping is your passion — you love exploring Instagram-worthy villages and trying authentic local cuisine rather than sunbathing at a resort for an entire week — the Greek Islands are ideal. From late April to late October, these legendary isles in the Aegean entice visitors with their natural beauty, romantic allure and after-dark energy. And by visiting three of the most famous Greek Islands — Crete, Santorini and Mykonos — you’ll sample what Greece does best: ancient history, stunning architecture and youthful exuberance. Here’s how.
Day 1: Crete
Catch a morning flight (50 minutes) from Athens to Heraklion, the capital of Crete. The largest of the Greek Islands, Crete offers up both a bounty of beaches and some of Greece’s most famous archeological and architectural sights. Use Heraklion as a beginning and end point rather than a base by booking a rental car or arranging a guided tour of the nearby Palace at Knossos, which was built by the Minoans 4,500 years ago, followed by the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, where Knossos’s treasures (mosaics, frescoes, sculptures, jewelry) are displayed. Then transfer to the Rethymnon/Chania area (a 1½- to 3-hour drive) for two nights. The region has dozens of hotels and resorts in all price ranges, but one of the newest is adults-only Domes Noruz Chania, An Autograph Collection Hotel, known for its creative design and sea views.
Day 2: Crete
Sunny Crete has some of the best beaches in the islands. Don’t miss Elafonissi, a protected nature reserve located on the island’s southwestern-most point, about 90 minutes from Chania. The clear turquoise water and pale sand are super-photogenic with tides that create shallow lagoons and sandbars between the beach and an offshore island. There’s nothing else like it in the Greek Islands.
Day 3: Crete
On your final day, explore the historic cities of Chania and Rethymnon, where centuries of evolving rule — the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans and more — created a colorful architectural mosaic. Chania’s Old Town is a maze of atmospheric lanes and its Venetian Harbor buzzes with waterfront bars and eateries. Rethymnon, whose Old Town dates to the 11th century, is also ideal for wandering, and is located on the way back to Heraklion, where you’ll catch a morning ferry. A convenient spot to stay: The Lato Boutique Hotel overlooking the harbor.
Day 4: Santorini
If you thought you couldn’t possibly be any more awed by the beauty of the Greek Islands, board your ferry for a 2½-hour trip to Santorini and prepare to be amazed all over again. As you approach the island once known as Thera, you’ll see its gray volcanic landscape dusted with what at first glance looks like snow — but which are actually Cycladic-style villages built into the cliffs. The most famous of these is Oia (also written as Ia), where you should stay for two nights.
Oia might be pricey, but its sublime views of the sapphire-hued caldera and romantic vibe (once the cruise ship day-trippers have sailed on) is worth it. For a resort experience (with a to-die-for infinity-edge pool), consider Katikies Hotel or for an intimate B&B feel, check out 1864 The Sea Captain’s House. Stroll Oia’s shop-lined streets and snap photos of its whitewashed houses, blue-domed churches and vertigo-inducing cliffs before sunset. Then head to one of Oia’s rooftop restaurants (such as Strogili) for panoramic views enjoyed with local rosé wine, Greek salad and grilled fish as dusk makes it all even more magical.
Day 5: Santorini
This volcanic island has plenty of ancient history, too. Visit the archaeological site at Akrotiri, where excavations revealed a pre-historic settlement from the 4th millennium B.C. that was preserved in ash after the eruption of 1627 B.C. Get here early before it’s too hot, and then head to the charming rooftop Feggera restaurant in the small village of Megalochori for a lunchtime cooking lesson (reserve in advance) showcasing traditional Santorinian cuisine. With another stellar Santorini sunset on tap, explore more of Oia’s mazelike streets and snap photos from the Kastro (castle/fortress) when the light is at its most magical.
Day 6: Mykonos
Catch a morning ferry (2½ hours) from Santorini to Mykonos and let the party begin! Mykonos’s reputation as day-and-night playground is well deserved, but amid the almost-anything-goes beaches and open-until-dawn nightclubs are some of the most picturesque vistas in the Greek Islands. Settle in at your resort: options include Santa Marina, a Luxury Collection Resort, near Ornos Bay if you want to be just outside of Chora (also called Mykonos Town), or opt for Mykonos Blu to stay on popular Psarou Beach. After enjoying some beach time, head to Chora to sip a sunset cocktail on the harbor in Little Venice, with its views of the island’s landmark windmills.
Day 7: Mykonos
If you’re a fan of archaeological ruins, book a half-day visit to the neighboring island of Delos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once one of the most sacred places in Greece (it’s said to be the birthplace of Apollo). Highlights include the Terrace of the Lions, the House of Dionysus and the archaeological museum. Other sights back on Mykonos include the Byzantine-era Panagia Paraportiani church in Chora and the Monastery of Panayia Tourliani in Ano Mera. Or or you could always just spend your final day in paradise sunning, swimming and saluting your experience with spirited toasts of “yamas!” and “opa!”