Last updated 14 June 2021
Almost every bucket list features a Greek island, perhaps the white villages of Santorini or the windmills of Mykonos. And there are good reasons why. The water around the Greek Islands is blue and silky, the white villages on the cliffs glow softly in the summer sun, and delicious food and warm hospitality are in ample supply.
This route takes you from Athens to the eastern coast of Turkey, through some of the most famous islands of all. The Cyclades group, where we start, includes both Mykonos and Santorini - as well as some other big names. But the first stop is my favourite island of all - Naxos.
The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive in Naxos, is the doorway to nowhere… the portara or Great Doorway, is all that remains of a marble doorway to an ancient temple of Apollo. The empty doorway sits on an islet which juts into the harbour, offering a dreamlike, somewhat surreal introduction to Naxos.
Just beyond, you'll see the old town, all white buildings just beyond the harbour. It embodies many idyllic views of Greece - narrow streets, flower boxes and a wide range of shops. As the largest of the Cyclades islands, there's plenty of industry on Naxos and you can see this in the town - there's more than souvenir shops.
Further afield, there's a beach for every sort of weather or adventure, from family-friendly bays for toddlers, to water sports hubs and secluded spots perfect for sunbathing. Agios Prokopios is a long, sandy beach not far from town and a firm favourite with visitors. It can get a bit busy during peak season but is lovely in June and September, with a sprinkling of tavernas to choose from. If you're visiting during the height of the summer, perhaps base yourself at a beach nearer the south of the island.
To truly explore Naxos, it's worth hiring a car or at least a scooter. As well as exploring the different beaches and food options (as an agricultural hub, the Greek yoghurt and tzatziki is amazing), there are also a number of cultural sites to visit. A highlight is the koroi, the ancient marble statues have been found in the quarries.
For a secluded, wilder experience, consider staying inland, or at least doing a couple of day trips away from the coast. Mount Zas in the middle of the island is where Zeus spent his childhood and offers breathtaking views from its peak. As a bonus, you can also visit the cave where Zeus was born on the way.
There's enough to see and do on Naxos to keep you busy for weeks, if you have the time. And, even if you're there for a few days, you may want to consider a day trip to a neighbouring island, especially one which only welcomes visitors during the day.
Delos is the legendary birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and is one of the most important mythical and historical sites in Greece. To visit the island, you need to do a day trip from either Naxos or Mykonos, or, of course, you could hire a boat and go independently. The day trip leaves in the morning and it's an easy boat ride to the island, giving you about three hours to explore the ruins before leaving again. It can get hot in the summer, so be sure to take water and sunscreen with you.
From the boat, you can wander up the ancient processional way, along the old roads. Dusty, colourful mosaics are just visible through the crumbling doorways of ancient houses. The archaeological work is very much ongoing and there's a quiet, peaceful feeling as you walk through the sprawling ruin. You'll have just enough time to walk to the hill in the centre of the island and marvel at the views over the sprawling ruins framed by the dark blue Mediterranean. love walking through ancient houses, seeing the mosaics peeking through crumbling doorways.
Even with the sheer number of ruins we’ve seen in Greece, Delos is special. When we arrived on the island, I was surprised by the scope of the ancient ruins. The three hours on the island seemed to go ridiculously quickly and we left feeling like we’d barely scratched the surface of Delos's treasures.
As you get close to Mykonos, you'll find yourself staring at the postcard Greek Island view - the white houses set against the golden hills and deep, blue water. Stepping off the boat, you'll find yourself in a white, clean town, surrounded by restaurants, boutiques and high-end souvenirs. Renowned for its parties, shopping and clear waters, Mykonos has a number of different sides to its personality.
In the Mykonos Town, Cats sleep in doorways and people enjoy long lunches, leisurely strolls through the tourist sites and drinks with sea views. The old town is full of expensive shops and art galleries, while the nearby resorts are famous for their Hedonistic atmosphere.
Elsewhere on the island, you’ll find a quieter, more laidback vibe, where you can relax at the beach, only escaping to a nearby taverna for meals. It's a beautiful, charming place, with incredible photo opportunities around every corner. Saying that, it's also firmly on the tourist trail, with visitors from all ages and nationalities.
Of course, no trip to the Greek Islands is complete without going to Santorini. The famous island with its stunning sunsets, Santorini lives up to the hype. With white houses, blue roofed churches and a spectacular clifftop walk, Santorini is worth visiting just for the views.
One of the most popular places to stay is Fira, the main town, where you have easy access to good food and clifftop walks. The views from Oia are also magnificent and taking the route along the coastal cliffs from Fira to Oia is simply magical. A bit further afield is the small town of Pyrgos, all white houses and narrow streets. There are also a range of coloured beaches and volcanic attractions, however we didn't experience them first hand (being from New Zealand, we have plenty of exposure to black sand beaches at home).
Santorini is one of those places that definitely lends itself to splurging. Stay somewhere with a caldera view (a surprisingly affordable option in the shoulder season) and watch the sunset from Oia at least once. With volcanic beaches and interesting white villages, you should have plenty to keep you busy during your stay.
As a bonus, Santorini also offers a direct ferry to Rhodes, which is a vital stop on the way to Turkey. Take the overnight ferry from Santorini to Rhodes and make sure to book a cabin - while it's expensive, you'll thank yourself in the morning!
Rhodes is in the Dodecanese Islands, in the southeastern Aegean sea. Here you'll find medieval towns dotted with ancient ruins and some modern resort towns clearly aimed at mass tourism. If you're staying for a while, take your time exploring the island - and you'll really need to hire a car to make the most of it.
Rhodes Town is a traditional medieval walled town, set on the harbour. There you can find restaurants, markets, churches and more. There are plenty of tourist traps to avoid but also a number of hidden gems. One of my favourite experiences was eating tzatziki in an alley bought from a literal hole in the wall.
If you're after a cheap resort stay, Faliraki is an affordable option. The town itself is ridiculously touristy, but also empty, developed for more people than have come. The effect is slightly peaceful, yet slightly depressing, but the beach is beautiful and there's a range of nice resorts with pools and western menus at backpackers prices.
For a more authentic view of Rhodes, continue on to Lindos, where you'll find white buildings, panoramic views and an ancient acropolis. It's a charming town, with a lot to see, friendly locals and barely a resort in sight. We happened to be in Lindos during a World Tourism Day festival, where we were one of only two groups of tourists there. It was a fun night eating and drinking with the locals in the square and watching the traditional Greek dancing.
Other highlights in Rhodes include Rodini Park, the oldest park in the world, and the Seven Springs, a lake with views of the mountain. Ladiko, a small bay near Faliraki, also makes a great beach trip. If have the time to go further afield, be sure to visit the quiet, secluded beaches on the southern tip of the island.
From Rhodes it's a relatively short ferry trip to Fethiye in Turkey. A traditional, working town, Fethiye is an interesting place to spend a few days, with good bus connections to some of Turkey's famous attractions.
Buy tickets as soon as you arrive in Athens. For us, that was a few days before we were wanted to leave Information online is strangely vague but we found a ticket office in Plaka and fairly easily.
Ferries leave from the Port of Piraeus in Athens. It's not near the city centre. If your ferry leaves early in the morning, take the metro to Piraeus the day before and stay there overnight to be safe.
The first ferry is from Athens to the Cyclades. The boat stops at Paros and then Naxos, where we get off. We took the Blue Star Ferries. There are faster ferries available and are priced accordingly.
You can do a day trip to Delos and Mykonos from Naxos. Alternatively, there are daily direct ferries from Naxos to Mykonos.
Ferries to Santorini depart from Mykonos and Naxos daily.
The overnight ferry from Santorini to Rhodes takes between eight and 15 hours, depending on which ferry you take. Cabins are expensive, but definitely worth it if you don't want to spend your first day on Rhodes recovering from the journey.
From Rhodes, we get a relatively short ferry to Fethiye in Turkey
The Greek Islands are some of those destinations that really are worth the hype. Tourists have been visiting these places for a very long time and it shows. One of the best things about visiting the Greek Islands is that you can have completely different experiences, depending on which island you visit - each destination has a wonderful sense of identity and personality.
It's also worth noting that this route doesn't really explore the lesser-known islands. The nice thing about this itinerary though, is that it offers an opportunity to see the major high-profiles islands if you're short of time. There's also the opportunity to explore these relatively well-known islands further, finding the hidden gems which few visitors manage to see.