Exploring Greece’s Ionian Islands: A Guide
When most people think of Greek Islands, images of white-washed Mykonos or craggy and dramatic Santorini pop into their minds. The desert climates, the shockingly turquoise Aegean Sea, and luxurious resorts are the traveler’s ‘dream’ when they put Greece on their bucket list. But on my last trip to Greece, I stumbled across and fantastic little secret: the Ionian Islands.
Also known as “The Seven Islands,” home to intrepid Odysseus, and perched to the west of the Greek mainland, the Ionian islands have just as much to offer as their Aegean counterparts, with the benefit of way fewer people choking the beaches and towns during the high season.
The Ionian Islands: A Quick Overview
The “Big 7,” which give this island chain it’s nickname, are:
Best For: The resort lover. Package tours abound in Corfu, especially during the summer months. And for good reason! It’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s highest peak has a stunning view of the island and much of Albania, and it’s large enough to get a little lost.
Best For: An authentic taste of Ionian Island life. Yes, it can get a little busy in the height of summer when Italy seems to invade Greece, but for the most part this smallest of Ionian Islands manages to stay quiet and undeveloped. Be sure to find a way to Antipaxos, the smaller sister island with deserted beaches and quiet coves. If you’re lucky and plan ahead, you might even find a place to stay overnight!
Best For: The traveler who wants it all. There are incredible quiet beaches, a bustling port town with nightclubs and tavernas, and copious opportunities for hiking and windsurfing. You won’t feel cut off from civilization here at all, as it’s accessible by bus from Athens! Despite it’s accessibility, it manages to maintain it’s atmosphere.
Best For: The history and nature enthusiast. Ithaca sees fewer tourists than most islands, the town is a sunwashed pastel wonderland, the water is clear and clean, and there are hikes to many of the places made famous by the Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. The beaches are more pebbly than sandy, but once you’re in the water it doesn’t matter at all.
Best For: Jumping on a motorbike and exploring solo. Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands and has so much to offer by way of history, hikes, and small towns that it would do a disservice not to try to see it all. Why not cruise the windy roads on a motorbike and explore Fiscardo, Melissani Cave, and Sami at your own pace?
Best For: The primo Instagram shot. Shipwreck Bay has been dominating Pinterest and Instagram since both social media platforms became known for inspiring wanderlust. Boat trips from the main towns can take you to this spot and to the lesser-known-but-still-worth-it Blue Caves.
Best For: Getting rugged. This little island is so set apart from the rest of the archipelago, one might wonder why it was included at all. With most accommodation consisting of homestays, with waterfalls aplenty to chase, and with hiking off-trail not only recommended, but required to truly make the most of this island’s natural beauty, Kythira might be the ultimate location for the off-the-grid traveler.
What Makes the Ionian Islands Special
There is a lot of overlap with the things that make people love the more famous Greek Islands in the East: amazing warm weather, Instagram-worthy blue seas, brilliant sunsets, and beautiful port towns brimming with live music and delicious Greek food.
So how are these islands different from their more famous counterparts?
The biggest difference is the vegetation. Where Santorini is a mass of volcanic cliffs and sheer peaks, Ithaca and Lefkas are covered in forests that run right up to the water.
Another major difference? The lack of crowds, even at the height of peak season in August. Don’t get me wrong, the towns are still brimming with activity and plenty of yachties and travelers make their way to these towns. But getting to the beach at 9 a.m. to snag one of the last available loungers? Not a reality in the Ionian Islands (unlike my experience in Santorini).
Visiting the Ionian Islands: Do It Right
There are a few ways you can see the islands, whether you prefer a more inclusive experience or are a staunch DIY traveler. The great thing about any option? It’s inexpensive. Most people don’t realize that outside of the major destinations, Greece is actually a budget destination. Score!
Take a Cruise
No, not the giant 4,000-person floating city cruise. You can find independently-run sailing or yacht cruises that will take you around the Ionian Sea for a ridiculously good deal, considering what’s included.
This is how I saw this part of Greece, by booking with Anko Yachting. In fact, if it weren’t for Thanos and Alicia, the business owners, I never would have experienced the Ionian Islands! Their schedule had them over in this quieter part of the country when my mom and I decided to visit, so we just shrugged our shoulders and hopped aboard.
But what an experience! For less than €900/person, my mother and I spent a week seeing these islands from a millionaires’ perspective, cruising on a sailing yacht. Included in our booking was breakfast and lunch (dinner was always spent at a new port town, where we could stop at a taverna), plus unlimited beer and ouzo. And the food was phenomenal. Yes, I love Greek food to death, but our chef and hostess Anastasia took it to the next level.
Plus, we got to experience isolated bays and beaches that were impossible to reach through any other means other than a boat — meaning we had the place to ourselves! Talk about a slice of paradise.
If you can swing it, I can’t recommend sailing or Anko Yachting enough as the best way to experience this beautiful part of Greece.
There are several ferries that connect the islands to each other, to the mainland, and even to Italy and other neighboring countries. Some are car ferries if you’re roadtripping, and all offer passenger service.
None of the major Greek ferry lines operate in the Ionian, but small, independent ships make sure you can move between just about any port town in the 7 Isles. The great thing about this? You don’t need to book passage in advance (usually), and can meander up to a travel agent or ticket booth at the port a day before you’re ready to move on to book passage.
Of course, taking a ferry means you will be relatively trapped to the town itself, but there are taxis that can get you where you want to go in just about any major town.
Have I been able to convince you to put the Ionian Islands on your travel bucket list? Which of the islands excites you the most? Let me know in the comments!