Every year, late spring I have readers ask: “what island would you suggest for someone who just wants to get away from it all, some great beaches and refreshing waters, good food, and a true ‘Greek’ experience”? And though most friends are keen on hearing from an insider about the secrets of Greece, they always end up on Mykonos or Santorini. Don’t get me wrong: both of these spectacular (and extremely popular) Greek islands are wonderful choices but if you’re really looking for a unique escape then I strongly suggest you go off the beaten trail and give other Greek islands a chance.
This post comes as a follow-up to my “5 Quiet Greek Islands to Visit if You Want to Relax” and features 5 Greek islands that not only offer dreamy beaches and crystal clear waters but also still remain genuine where you can immerse yourself in the Greek way of life and become one with the locals.
Enough said, let #yournextgreeceadventure begin!
5 Back to Basics Greek Islands
1. Kythira, Ionian Islands
Far-off Kythira – lovingly called “Tsirigo” by the locals – is perhaps one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Artists, writers, actors and dozens of expats who chose to leave their homelands behind and start a new life in Greece all live on Kythira. This exceptional island lies between the southeastern Peloponnese and Crete and was once a busy trade crossroad. Today, the island is still relatively difficult to get to but worth every hour spent driving or on the ferry from Piraeus. Besides its excellent food, and of course, world-famed honey and sea salt, Kythira has a beach for every taste – playful pebbles, powder-like sand, spectacular cliffs, colorful rocks, and red-sanded bays. At the same time, its villages are again a palette of genuine Greece ranging from quaint farming villages in the mainland to tranquil fishing hamlets by the sea, a capital with a proud venetian castle and a village with running waters and one of the best-preserved traditional “kafeneia” (coffee house) in Greece at Mylopotamos.
Lastly, just off the shores of Kythira near the tiny island of Antikythera, sponge divers discovered in 1901 the world’s first computer in an ancient shipwreck. The ship which sunk in the first century BC was transporting statues, jewelry, bronze items, gearwheels, dials and pointers including of course, the famous 2,000-year-old “Antikythera mechanism”, which archaeologists say was used among others to make astrological predictions.
Best time to visit: spring or summer (June, early July, late August and September)
2. Chryssi (Gaidouronissi), Crete
Small to eye but a treasure. Located in the Libyan Sea minutes away from the shores of Southern Crete and the town of Ierapetra, Chryssi translates into “gold” in Greek and is a mini heaven on earth. The first time I visited this tiny paradise, I was in awe of the sand dunes and the wind-swept surroundings. I felt like Robinson Crusoe cast away in the middle of the Libyan Sea “stuck” in a land of tropical waters and juniper bush trees. The Cretans call the island “Gaidouronissi”, and a short hike is enough to explore Chryssi, which is 6km2 (3 miles) in total. The Chryssi experience for me is all about disconnecting, so you won’t need clothes, shoes, or phones. It’s all about back to basics here, which means no running water, no shade, no comforts, just Greek nature in all its perfection. When I first went there was no electricity either so you get the idea. Wrap yourself in a sarong (pareo) and head on down to Belegrina Beach – aka the “Golden Coast”. Once there, sit on the seashore and dig your hand into the pinkish sand. And this is where the Chryssi magic begins: the sand is made up of teeny seashells all works of art in their right. The food? Well that too is what Greek summer used to be all about: some fresh eggs, the day’s catch, and a shot of raki, Crete’s famous spirit and some goat cheese – nirvana!
Best time to visit: June, early July and September
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3. Tilos, Dodecanese
There’s been lots of talk about this remote Greek island, which is the first isle in the Mediterranean running solely on renewable energy under the TILOS project. You can get to Tilos from Rhodes (the ferry from Piraeus takes almost a day) and once you set foot on the island, goodbye busy mind, stress and the constant urge to do things. Believe it or not, more than 4,000 years ago, some of the world’s smallest elephants, the Dwarf Elephant also known as “Pygmy Elephant” stepped foot here most likely attracted by the peace and quiet, and of course, the mountains, running waters, and fertile valleys. I can see why! By the way, you can see the remains of the prehistoric elephant at the new Elephant Museum in Megalo Horio, the island’s capital.
For you dear traveler, Tilos is as close as you can get to the traditional Greek way of life which sees people live happy and healthy lives into their 100s. It’s a slow life here, early morning or evening walks along wooded trails which end up on some of the country’s wildest beaches, no umbrellas or sunbeds, overlooking majestic sunsets. Do Agios Antonios at least once. If you’re into hiking, love nature, keen on fossils and geology or just love to explore, then Tilos is for you and I say this because unlike the dry and barren Cyclades islands, Tilos is lush, dotted with tiny churches and a deserted villages in the hills including the Medieval Mikro chorio. So yes, it may be a bit under the radar, but visiting Tilos is absolutely worth it.
Best time to visit: spring, late May, June, early July, and late August
4. Nisyros, Dodecanese
If there’s one place ‘lunar’ takes an added meaning, it’s on the Greek island of Nisyros located in the middle of the Greek Archipelago between Kos and Tilos. This little known Greek island with an 8 kilometer (5-mile) diameter is ideal for those of you who want to recharge. Visit the island’s active volcano and its craters – yes, they have names: Polivotis and Stefanos – stay until dark and take in the dramatic landscape. This is a place of high vibrational energy. Appreciate the greatness, become one with the universe, let the spirit flow. The island’s striking lava formations have over thousands of years created the wildest of beaches and you can also find natural hot springs coming to you straight from the center of the earth. The island’s three main beaches are sheltered, mostly sandy, and welcoming. I strongly recommend taking a night swim, and if you’re lucky enough to experience a full moon on Nisyros during your stay, you’ll leave a changed person. Several years ago, a handful of musician friends held a 10-hour concert inside the crater as the moon shone above. While there make sure to explore on foot, the volcanic craters are awesome and so is the food and the music. Hopefully you’ll have a chance to enjoy a local “panegyri” (open-air festival). Easiest way to visit Nisyros is by plane to Kos and by boat from there. The ferry from Piraeus takes about a day.
Best time to visit: spring, May and June, late August
5. Kimolos, Cyclades
Another tiny Greek island that has this year become the talk of the town. Kimolos has for decades been a stopover for sailing lovers who start their journey from the port of Lavrio and head to Milos. The island is ideal for a quiet and peaceful night stay but ever since the launch of its annual Kimolos International Film Festival and thanks to local volunteer group the Kimolistes who plan dozens of events, Kimolos has become the island to visit. For me, the best thing about Kimolos is the feel. It is very unassuming. It’s like time stands still here.
Despite its size, it boasts some pretty impressive beaches, mostly silky sand and calm waters, but it is also perfect to just chill like a Greek islander and enjoy Greek summer with lots of culture in a laid back atmosphere. Plus, it is here that Greek pizza was born (could this have come before Italy’s I wonder fearing my Italian friends’ reaction). Kimolos is renowned for its scrumptious “ladenia” which goes hand in hand with Greek craft beer. Do yourself a favor: try them both while catching a free movie (courtesy of Kimolistes) on the beach under the stars. You’ll be hooked.
Best time to visit: June, early July or September, October
♫ I end today’s post with a traditional dance from Kythira, the “Tsirigotikos” perfomed by beloved Greek artist Yiannis Parios, who sings about a beauty born on Kythira who has stolen his heart. According to ancient Greek poet Hesiod, Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, also emerged from the foam of sea off the coast of Kythira.