Greece

Exploring Greece’s Ionian Islands: A Guide

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Anitpaxos Ionian Islands

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.

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The Ionian Islands: A Quick Overview

The “Big 7,” which give this island chain it’s nickname, are:

Corfu

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.

Paxos

Anitpaxos Ionian Islands
Serene Antipaxos

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!

Lefkada/Lefkas

Lefkas Ionian Islands
A stunner of a sunset from Lefkas Town

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.

Ithaca

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.

Kefalonia

Melissani Cave Ionian Islands
The opening to Melissani Cave’s underground lake

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?

Zakynthos

Ionian Islands Zakynthos
Famous Shipwreck Bay in Zakynthos

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.

Kythira

Lagoon Ionian Islands
A deserted lagoon…

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.

Ionian Island Cove
Forests and bright blue seas… typical of the Ionian Islands!

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

Sailing Ionian Islands
The best way to see the Ionian? By a sailing boat! It’s cheaper than you think…

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.

Ionian Island Happy Hour
Happy hour, yacht style.

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.

Ferry It

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!

16 Comments

  1. I love visiting UNESCO sites when I travel, and I love all inclusive resorts, so I think I'd love staying on Corfu! I still have yet to make it to Greece, but I'm trying to make that happen ASAP!
    1. I honestly can't recommend it enough -- it's actually an incredible BUDGET destination (if you avoid the most popular islands). And the food! I die. Let me know if you make it over there, I'd be happy to give you tips!
  2. This is a part of Greece I have not yet been to and would love to see these beautiful islands in person. Especially Corfu! That one has been on my radar for years. My favorite cities in Greece thus far have been Volos and Mykonos. I really just want to soak up the sun and eat the delicious Greek dishes. ;)
    1. I know isn't the food just the best? Without a doubt my favorite foodie destination in Europe... so far ;-)
  3. I visited the Ionian Islands earlier this year. Such a beautiful area and no where near as populated with tourists as other areas. Truly beautiful.
    1. I'm so glad you made it! I never would have thought twice about visiting if it hadn't been for the private cruise. How did you hear about it?
  4. I can't believe how crystal clear the water is there! We have been to Corfu a few times and love it there but have wanted to go to Zakynthos for ages just to see the photo you took for ourselves. This is a great instant quick guide to the islands that is very useful for the next time we travel there.
    1. Thank you Nancy! I can't believe how much of Greece there is to see... I feel like I'll never get to all of it. I definitely recommend the boat cruise I took, it was an amazing way to see the islands.
  5. You are right, Mykonos and Santorini do occupy the prime spot whenever anyone thinks of Greece. But the Ionian islannds look really exotic and pure. Maybe their allure lies in the fact that they have not been much exposed. Hope they remain that way and retain their pristine beauty.

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