I’m going to help you pick the best islands in the Cyclades to visit based on how you want to spend your trip. With so many Greek islands to choose from it can be hard to decide which to visit, especially on your very first trip to Greece.
You’ve heard of the Ionian Islands, the Dodecanese islands, the Sporades islands and the Saronic Gulf Islands just off the mainland…so many island groups to choose from.
Perhaps you’ve looked at them all and got overwhelmed with all the options and information. Where do you even start?
Cyclades Islands, More than Just Santorini and Mykonos
The Cyclades is the most popular group of islands, and with good reason. They’re the perfect place to start if you’re new to Greek Island hopping. But don’t forget you can always use a travel agency if the planning all gets too much.
My advice if you’re trying to find the best islands in the Cyclades is to start by looking at what you enjoy. How do you want to spend your time when you visit the islands?
Here I’m going to give you an overview of various Cyclades islands. Knowing a bit more about their features will help you decide on the best Cyclades islands to include in your island-hopping adventure.
Why The Cyclades?
Some of the most popular islands, like Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros and Ios are included in this group located in the Aegean Sea. But there are loads of other smaller islands that are far less popular. (Indeed some are not inundated by mass tourism at all.) And they’re ripe for discovery too.
Good for Island Hopping
The Cyclades islands group also has many islands close together which makes these some of the best Greek islands for Greek island hopping.
The ferry schedule for these islands is quite prolific in the high season. Moving around from place to place is much easier when there are multiple ferries and times to choose from.
Everything You Want from a Greek Island
You can find pretty much anything you could want from a Greek island amongst the Cyclades Islands. As you read on you’ll see you can discover a volcanic island or two, lounge on gorgeous beaches, walk hiking routes teeming with indigenous flora and fauna and pass umpteen churches and monasteries along the way.
Santorini and Mykonos might be the islands you’ve heard of, but there are plenty more to include on your island-hopping schedule.
Travelling to the Cyclades
Easy to Get To By Ferry
Another good thing about the Cycladic islands is that many of the islands are easy to get to from mainland Greece. The closest can be reached by high-speed ferry with a ferry ride of under two hours.
Ferries to the Cyclades depart from three ports in Athens. The port of Piraeus is the biggest and busiest. But if you’re heading down the east coast to Andros, Tinos or even Mykonos, you’ll leave from Rafina port.
See also Greek Ferries Guide for People Who Don’t Know Where to Start
Flying To and From the Cyclades Islands
Some of the other islands have airports with flights to and from Athens daily. Often these flights take less than 30 minutes. Options are being expanded with direct seaplane and Cessna connections between the islands too.
The most popular islands, Santorini and Mykonos have international flights from places like the UK and other European countries.
However one of the best things about visiting is using the ferries to hop from one place to the next. You’ll get to see other islands, feel the wind in your hair and, if you’re lucky, see a sunrise or sunset from the boat.
Although a lot of people fly in and/or out of a particular island at the start or end of their holiday, I’d encourage you to use the ferries for moving about in between.
Apart from being better for the environment, the ferries tend to be much more direct. For most island flights you’ll have to fly in and out of Athens airport rather than being able to get direct flights.
Best Islands in the Cyclades For First Timers
Mykonos – Santorini – Crete
Ok, let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Crete isn’t actually in the Cyclades. It’s a huge island that sits below the Cyclades. But it’s easy to get to from the Cyclades and makes up this popular trio for first-timers.
Mykonos and Santorini can be overrun with tourists and there are many alternatives. But if you’re going to Greece for the first time, you might still want to visit these iconic places.
Santorini has award-winning sunsets for a reason. The party island of Mykonos is unique with its designer shops and hedonistic lifestyle.
In terms of days, I wouldn’t spend as much time in Mykonos as Santorini. You’ll want to explore the white streets of Mykonos Town with its touristy shops and designer boutiques.
No doubt you’ll want to enjoy some time on the beautiful sandy beaches. Maybe splash some cash at a fancy beach club and do a little partying in the evening.
Definitely take a boat trip to the uninhabited Delos island. The island of Delos is one of Greece’s most important ancient sites. And it’s a designated Unesco World Heritage site.
But after that, I’d spend more time on the bigger island of Santorini. There’s a lot more to do and various places to visit depending on your interests.
Santorini, probably the most visited island in the Cyclades, is a volcanic island which makes it quite interesting to explore. The caldera was formed from volcanic activity which is where you get the height for the stunning sunset views.
It also created a couple of islets that you can visit on a day trip boat. There are hot springs that merge with the sea, and you can walk up to the top of the volcano that’s actually mainly under the sea.
The volcanic ash in the soil also makes for excellent wine-making and there are plenty of winery tours you can join. Santorini isn’t a small island so there’s a lot else to discover.
Go to Oia. See the sunset and the views on your bucket list with the houses built into the rock and the blue-dommed churches.
Then visit the main town of Fira and do some shopping in the narrow streets. The Archaeological Museum and other ancient sites are definitely worth a visit. And they’ll give you a history and culture fix during your visit.
If you’re visiting when it’s not too hot you can also walk the caldera from Fira to Oia. You’ll get beautiful scenery and breathtaking views all the way along. The best time is to go first thing in the morning before it gets too warm or crowded.
You’ll also find pretty and traditional villages that are more like Santorini of the past. If you really need to escape the crowds then head over for a day trip to Thirasia, seven minutes by boat from Santorini.
From Santorini, you can sail directly to the port of Heraklion on Crete in around two hours. For all of these options, I’d recommend getting a rental car to make the most of your time.
It takes a good few hours to drive the length of Crete so you can get a decent road trip in if you want to explore to the max.
However, the buses on Crete aren’t awful and you could potentially get away with public transport depending on what you want to do. Just remember to give yourself plenty of time here.
Crete is one of the most popular Greek islands for a reason. You’ll need more than a couple of days to explore as it’s so big. There are beautiful beaches, town life, the Samaria Gorge and plenty of museums and ancient sites to visit.
If your only option to visit Greece is in August then do it but be prepared for crowds on these popular islands. If you have some flexibility then I’d avoid the peak season aka cruise ships season.
Both Mykonos and Santorini can suddenly get very busy when thousands of visitors step off their cruises for a day visit.
However, it does mean the evenings can be quieter. (In Santorini, that is. Not so much on party-Mykonos where mornings are quieter as everyone recovers from the night before).
Best Cyclades Islands for Beaches
Some of the best beaches in the Cyclades are found on these three islands. People boast that Cyclades island beaches are up there amongst the very best in Greece. Here are three islands with fantastic beaches so you can decide for yourself.
Naxos – Mykonos – Milos
Naxos is mentioned quite a bit in this post. And for good reason, it’s a great multi-faceted island. You’ll find pretty mountain villages, history and plenty of good food.
But here I want to talk about its beautiful white sand beaches. Almost the whole west coast of the island is one long stretch of white sand.
In Chora, the capital of the island is Agios Georgios beach. A huge family-friendly beach close to all amenities. From there, tourist hotspots along swathes of sand sweep down the island. These include Agios Prokopios and Agia Anna. Plaka beach is quieter and one of my favourites a bit further along the coast.
See also: Best Beaches in Naxos
Mykonos is another of the Cyclades islands with beautiful beaches. A number of them are only accessible in the summer months. That’s because several are now private beaches owned by beach clubs.
Some might say the natural beauty of this particular Cycladic island has been lost. But there are some natural beaches to be found. Like Agios Sostis in the north where you can enjoy some peace and quiet amongst the bustle of the rest of the island.
Milos used to be considered slightly off the beaten track. I’ve seen quite a few articles recently still saying the same thing. But this small Greek island is getting popular with the Instagram crowd. So I don’t think it’s far behind Paros and Mykonos.
Anyway, the beaches here are different to the gorgeous beaches of Mykonos and Naxos. The rock formations create a lunar landscape in the Aegean sea.
A popular place to visit is Sarakiniko beach. It’s a famous beach you’ve probably seen on social media. The wind and water have carved away at the volcanic rock to create this quite unique feature.
For the Party People
Mykonos – Paros – Ios
We’ve already spoken about Mykonos above and you probably already know the drill. But if you’re looking to make your Greek holiday an extended party then add Paros and Ios to the list.
If you’re into seeing and being seen then yes, Mykonos is the classic island to do so. But Paros island is being seen as a viable alternative or addition to its very famous neighbour. Paros has the same style of traditional white-washed old town to get lost in.
There are plenty of beautiful spots to get your Instagram shots under a brightly trailing bougainvillaea tree. And of course, a cosmopolitan nightlife or I wouldn’t be mentioning it here!
In the summer months, the streets are filled with al-fresco cafes, boutiques and other hidden gems. The island has some great beaches and picturesque seaside towns.
The pretty fishing village of Naoussa is a great place to stay. But it’s getting busier by the year. It’s definitely not “undiscovered”.
Ios is the other party island in the group although it tends to attract a slightly younger crowd. If you’re in a group where some want to party and others don’t you can still make things work. Ios has a wild, natural beauty away from all the socialising.
So either spend quiet days in this tranquillity to recover from the evenings. Or take time to discover the lesser-known part of the island if you don’t want to just party, party, party.
Best Cyclades Islands For couples
Santorini – Amorgos – Mykonos – Sifnos
Santorini may be touristy but there’s no denying the romance of Oia. The whole village feels like one big resort.
Yes, it’s crowded but you can take refuge in quieter pockets like exclusive restaurants and your private terrace hot tub.
If you’re looking for privacy do check when booking your hotel. Accommodation on the caldera is often overlooked. So you might have a private terrace or garden that only you can use. But it doesn’t mean no one can see you.
Spots at either end of the Oia caldera can offer more privacy. As can accommodation in more spacious Immerovigli and the village of Pyrgos.
For similar vistas without the hoards look into Amorgos. This island is wild and dramatic with cliffs and turquoise water and fragrant herbs at every turn.
The island has several hiking paths so it won’t take long down an easy route to find yourself a secluded beach. And if you just want to be pampered and enjoy luxury for your entire stay then you won’t go wrong with the 5-star Aegialis Hotel & Spa.
Another of the islands in the Cyclades that gets several mentions here is Mykonos. I’ve included it because if you want to indulge and spoil your significant other this is not a bad place to start.
It depends on what you like. But if your idea of romance is fine dining, champagne and caviar, private yacht trips and showering your partner with expensive jewellery and designer goods Mykonos is your go-to.
Paros has all the lovely qualities I mentioned above. Although it’s getting livelier by the year it’s a convenient island to get to and from. Island hopping on a small scale is easy from here with Antiparos right next door and Naxos island just 30 minutes away.
Parikia is the main town but Naoussa is a pretty place in the summer. It’s romantic to sit next to the little port and look out beyond the remains of the Venetian castle.
You can easily do day boat trips to the smaller Cyclades. Choose a private option to keep it romantic and cosy just for you.
Although Paros isn’t in my list below of the very best beaches in the Cyclades, the beaches are very good.
The Hikers Cycladic Itinerary
Andros – Tinos – Naxos
If you’re a keen hiker then one of the best places to do this is in the Cyclades. Andros, Tinos and Naxos are full of beautiful places and I always think that walking is the best way to discover new areas.
- Hiking in Andros – A Paradise for Walkers
- Hiking on Tinos: Helpful Walking Guide to the “Hand-Made” Island
- Hiking in Naxos: Best Way to Discover this Lush Island
Andros is the perfect Greek island for walking. It’s a hiker’s paradise with almost 200km of paths. The main Andros Route runs for 100km from north to south and can be completed in 10 days. Otherwise, there are umpteen day hikes through really varied landscapes.
I love hiking on Andros and could wax lyrical about it for days! Andros is the second biggest island in the group after Naxos and as such has lots of different landscapes.
Climb the mountains, walk around archaeological sites to the sea or get lost in the lush canopies thanks to the island’s natural springs.
When you can tear yourself away from Andros, head next door to Tinos. Andros isn’t really typical of the Cyclades with its sea captain’s mansions and red-roofed buildings and all the greenery. But Tinos has plenty of white-washed traditional maze-like villages to hike to and through.
The landscape is much more arid than Andros and makes for a different type of hike. There is an abundance of marble too so you’ll be walking on and around plenty of it. It’s all beautiful and a lovely contrast to its neighbour.
Oh, and the food is just divine, a great treat at the end of your walk.
I feel that there are quite a few similarities between Andros and Naxos. Both are quite green islands because they have more natural water sources than most of the other Cyclades.
Like Andros, Naxos has a variety of landscapes. Being the largest island in the Cyclades lends itself to a varied environment.
You can climb Mount Zas, the highest peak in the Cyclades for panoramic views of the Aegean. Or venture through endless farmland, wind through narrow streets of the many pretty, traditional villages.
Or take a walk along the coast through protected miniature cedar forests while gazing at perfect sandy beaches.
Like Tinos, the food is good which is great news when you’re working up an appetite.
Travel between these three islands is straightforward. The travel time is really manageable and the tickets tend to have reasonable prices. Ferry services run year-round from Athen’s Rafina Port to Andros and then Tinos. In the spring you can easily get a direct ferry from Tinos to Naxos too.
If you go in the winter months (or perhaps “winter season” I should say, the months outwith the stretch from mid-April to the end of September) you’ll need to do a hop via Syros (30 minutes) to get to Naxos.
There’s no direct route available at that time of year but you might fancy staying overnight in Ermoupoli before getting on the ferry to Naxos the next day.
Note that around 15th August Tinos will be absolutely heaving. It’s a Greek national holiday and people crawl on their hands and knees up the hills to the Panagia Evangelistria church.
Kea For Small Amounts of Hiking
I’ll mention here that Kea is also set up with a number of hiking trails. However, most of them are just a short walk.
But Kea could be an option if you’re planning to visit islands in the western Cyclades and you want to add in a little bit of hiking. Plus there are some really nice beaches in Kea.
For Tranquility Seekers – Discover the Small Islands
Close to Naxos is a group of four islands ready for you if you want to escape the popular destinations. They’re known as the Small Cyclades (or sometimes, and unfairly, I think, the Lesser Cyclades). Nestled between Naxos and Amorgos are:
- Koufonissi and
All of them are easily accessible from Naxos and they’re the best islands in the Cyclades for truly getting away from it all. If you wanted to combine these tiny islands with something a bit bigger it could be a good idea to base yourself on Naxos.
Or you could make Naxos your first stop, either on the ferry or flying there directly from Athens.
You could spend a few days on each of the small islands and pop back to Naxos in between. Alternatively, it’s easy to travel from one to another on the ferry.
Iraklia is the biggest of the four although it’s actually the quietest. Go there to spend lazy days at the beach, discover its secluded bays or walk along the short hiking trails that cross the island
Schinoussa has three little villages and umpteen beaches to choose from. It’s uniquely beautiful with spectacular views of the crystalline waters.
Koufonissi is the teensiest of the group and actually made up of two islands. Ano Koufonisi is where all the action is. And then there’s the quiet and uninhabited Kato Koufonisi that’s only reachable by boat. Expect amazing beaches with the clearest, turquoise water you’ve ever seen.
Donousa‘s a bit removed, right behind Naxos. All the better for making the most of the wild landscape and secluded beaches! Hike around the island to your preferred beach of the day and build up your strength for an evening of cocktails.
Best Cyclades Islands For Foodies
Tinos – Naxos – Sifnos
Tinos has great tavernas, restaurants and cafes. Every year (COVID permitting) the island holds a food festival the second week in May.
No matter when you go you’ll be able to experience a host of local produce and traditional foods (including wine). It’s one of the best islands in the Cyclades for food.
Naxos has always had a culture rich in agriculture way before tourism played any part on the island. You can sample 10 different types of local cheese and anything made with the humble local potato will blow you away.
If you’re a meat eater then the animal you’re eating probably grew up in a field just along the road. The island is dripping with citrus fruits, prickly pears, grapes and plenty of other produce.
Away from food, there’s loads to do including an archaeological site or two and the opportunity to indulge in some Greek mythology.
Sifnos‘ foodie history comes from the famous chef, Nikólaos Tselementés. He grew up on the island and has been highly influential on Greek cooking. On the island now you’ll find zero-waste restaurants offering unique twists on traditional foods.
For Going Off The Beaten Path
Amorgos – Folegandros – Kimolos – Serifos
Ok, so you want to find somewhere wild and laid back? Perhaps the Smaller Cyclades were just too close to Naxos?! Well, anywhere in the Cyclades without an airport is always going to keep the crowds away.
So let’s try these four islands. (Or maybe just a combination of 2 if you want to keep travel time down.)
Amorgos is a journey of five and a half to eight hours on the ferry from Athens. A bit of a trek but that’s what you’re looking for right? Having said that, in the summer there are generally good connections with other Cycladic islands.
Anyway, famed for the film The Big Blue Amorgos has avoided mass tourism although it is much better known than it used to be. It has pretty Cycladic architecture, hiking trails, caves, amazing beaches and fabulously blue sea.
Folegandros is quite romantic and fairly chic in town of an evening. However, there is plenty of rugged landscape to discover and beaches that you have to hike to get to.
Kimolos is tucked in beside much more popular Milos. Despite this, the island’s only village has retained its traditional charm. Kimolos is all about walking or taking a boat to its secluded beaches and finding the best swimming spot for the day.
Serifos in the west is another island with a plethora of different types of beaches to discover. The main village of Chora is considered to be one of the most beautiful capitals in the island group and you’ll find plenty of traditional white-washed buildings.
Athens and Mainland Greece
It’s quite common to combine island hopping with some time in the capital city. You might choose to do this on your first or last day(s).
If you’re spending time in Athens give yourself at least a full day to explore. There are so many places worth visiting, not just the Acropolis museum. You also have the option of exploring sites of ancient history on the mainland.
Go and see the remnants of ancient Greece at places like Delphi, Mycenae and Ancient Corinth if you can feasibly fit it in. But remember, less is more and you can always come back to visit again.
Best Time to Visit the Cyclades Islands
So you’ve chosen the islands to visit, but when’s the best time of year to go? Well, with this group of Greek islands, the ideal times to go are either side of the busy summer months.
Like many islands in Greece, there’s a mass influx of Athenians to many Cyclades islands in August. Plus all the overseas tourists that vacation/holiday in July and August.
If you have the flexibility then May – mid-June and then late August to the middle of October are great times to go. You miss the crowds and the weather is still good. But the scorching heat has passed or not yet come.
By the end of May, the sea water is pleasant to swim in (although I’ve swum in the Cyclades from the end of April). And the sea holds its temperature into fall/autumn.
Naxos was the first island in the Cyclades I stayed on and that first year I swam into November.
If you’re island hopping to hike then you could extend the best time to visit a bit. From mid-April you can get good weather for hiking. And you can do well right through November.
But be aware that in April and after the middle of October you’re more likely to encounter changeable weather.
Whichever different islands you end up deciding to visit check out Ferryhopper for ferry tickets and schedules. Some of the smaller islands in particular can be tricky to get to outside of the summer months.
Less Is More
Another piece of advice I’d like to give you is not to overpack your Greece itinerary. Less is more – always.
Ferry travel absolutely is part of the adventure, but it can also be tiring. Sometimes ferries are late and you’ll spend time sitting around at the port.
Don’t spend all your time travelling from one island to another and leave yourself with little time to explore. Give yourself enough time in each place (to people-watch too!)
You might even want to consider staying on one main island and then visiting just one or two other islands nearby.
Get to Athens In Good Time
A final word of advice is to give yourself more time than less to travel back to Athens. People are always asking whether they should get the earlier or later ferry or flight to connect with their international departure.
I say give yourself more than enough time. While planes to the Cyclades islands tend to run to schedule in my experience it’s not guaranteed.
Ferries can often run late, especially in the summer. Getting hoards of tourists on and off the ships takes time and it doesn’t take much to create a late departure.
Even with a seamless operation sometimes the weather just gets in the way.
Your Whistle-Stop Tour
Hopefully, that’s given you a bit more insight into what the Cyclades, Greece has to offer. Wherever you choose to go please do leave enough time to visit properly. It’s easy to get hypnotised into thinking you can cram umpteen places into one trip.
But it’s perfectly fine to choose one spot with a great beach, typical Cycladic villages and good food and not move around too much. Most of the Cyclades islands have a few smaller islets at least that you can visit on a boat trip. So don’t feel you must rush around if you really just want to plonk yourself down in one spot for a good few days.
Travel Guides to the Greek Islands
If you need a travel guide for the spots you’re visiting check out my travel guides above.
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