Greece is an incredibly popular summer destination for tourists and the incredible weather, fun nightlife and unique landscapes make it hot spot for traveling from June through September. The major islands -- Mykonos, Rhodes & Santorini -- are absolutely packed with tourists throughout the summer, sometimes creating crowds so dense that you can barely walk.
I was actually shocked by the crowds during my 2 weeks traveling in the Greek Islands, and it made me crave the more off-the-beaten path islands that we visited. Greece is supposed to be for vacations after all, and there is nothing relaxing about cramming through the streets with thousands of other travelers.
If you're looking for a more off-the-beaten path experience in Greece like I was, it can definitely be found; you just have to hunt a little further. But once we found these underrated islands, they turned out to be some of my favorite islands! The smaller crowds give you a deeper cultural experience and understanding of the unique differences between all the different islands.
Off-the-Beaten Path Islands You Need to Visit in Greece
Our first stop on our 2 week vacation in Greece was Kos. The third largest of Dodcanese island chain, Kos has a lot of landscapes and viewpoints to offer. We ported just outside of the main city, Kos Town. We only planned on spending the night here, but strong Maltemi winds "stranded" us onshore for an extra day. And honestly, I'm thankful it did because we had the opportunity to take out some ATV's (four wheelers) for a day of exploring the island.
Rented from Escape Rentals, 8 of us departed from Kos Town up to the island's main mountain, Dikeos. I highly recommend taking an open air vehicle to explore some of the islands, whether it be moped, go-kart or ATV. It allows you so much more visibility and freedom. They can get going pretty fast, so even if the island is big like Kos, it's still easy to see lots of different areas.
On the way up, you will notice the change in vegetation as the altitude increases. At the bottom, there are palm trees and more tropical vegetation, while up at the top you feel like you're in Colorado, surrounded by tall coniferous pines. We didn't make it to the summit, but did make it to a small village called Zia with absolutely stunning views of the surrounding areas and islands.
Recommended to us by a local, we stopped at Taverna Dikeos for lunch. Now as you may know, the Greeks are serious about their cuisine, and they sure know how to eat. We ordered a family style meal with share plates, including dishes like Gyros, Mussaka (eggplant casserole), Saganaki (fried cheese), Pork chops, calamari, fried eggplant, and my personal favorite, Stifado (veal and onion bake). This restaurant was the epitome of what I picture ina Greek restaurant -- adorable trellised patio, plaid table cloths, vintage decor on the walls -- and with the Greek flag flying at the entrance, this was the perfect stop to fuel up for the rest of our ride.
After lunch at Dikeos, we made it all the way down the island to Paradise Beach. Living up to its name, this popular spot was packed with chairs, umbrellas and floating toys. It's tucked delightfully in a small bay, so the water is calm and warm and ready for a swim! We made our way back after a few fruity drinks at the beach along the main road. We essentially went the entire navigable length of the island in about 6 hours on the ATVs. Such a fun day!!!
A sleepy fishing island, Kalymnos is north of Kos but still in the Dodcanese island chain. Kalymnos is a largely barren island that had a booming sea sponge industry in the early 1900s. We ported in the city of Pothia. Ideal for a one day stop, this town honestly doesn't have a ton of activities to offer, although if you are into adventure sports or rock climbing, Kalymnos has lots of rope laid out for climbers and North Face actually hosts an annual invitational for climbers here.
What Kalymnos may lack in exciting tourist activities, it makes up for in idyllic island scenery and serentiy. This island a nice contrast from the busier islands, which is why it is perfect for an off-the-beaten-path Greek island itinerary! For us, we spent the afternoon wandering around Pothia discovering little shops and restaurants along the way. If you make the way up the hill in town, you will be greeted by lovely views of the town (see cover photo of this blog post).
The largest of the islands in the Cyclades chain, Naxos has a beautiful skyline with its towering volcanic mountains and fertile slopes. It is also one of the view islands that can support its economy without tourism. It exports large amounts of potatoes, olives, grapes and lemons to bolster its people. However, tourism has grown recently increasing the amount of visitors.
We ported right in the center of the main town, Naxos town. When you come into the port, you are greeted right away by the ancient ruins of the Gate of Apollo. Standing formidably on the wind swept corner of the island, these impressive pillars were once intended to be the entrance to a great temple for the Greek god Apollo. However, construction was never completed on the site and what remains is only the entrance. Hordes of people come for the sunset, as you can get a lovely picture of the sun in between the arches, but its worth a visit during the day too. With free admission, there's no point in not checking it out!
Also when you arrive, you will see a fortified castle on the top of the hill overlooking the town. On the other end of the main drag from the gate of Apollo, there is both an archaeological museum and castle tour you can opt for. I did neither, choosing to just wander my way up to the castle. And this was the best experience of all, because the old town market and new town market surround the slopes of the castle. The alleys and streets wind around and you stumble upon little art galleries, fabric stores, jewelry shops and clothing boutiques.
I was particularly enamored with this town at night. I walked through the same market track as I did during the day, but it looked completely different! All of these little restaurants had opened up, putting tables out in the streets and these secret patios I hadn't noticed before were now packed with talkative and hungry guests. As with most Greek islands, night time is when the cities really come alive. People of all ages were out walking around, shopping, eating dinner, snacking on ice cream cones and simply enjoying their time. These narrow alleyways were now vibrant and well-lit, with all the merchandise hanging out in the street for you to see. It was really quite charming, and would definitely entice me to come back here.
Pronounced "Ee-Os", this small Greek island is known for its lively nightlife and teenage hordes of partiers. Compared to the three islands above, this island is more well-known but still not as popular as Santorini or Mykonos. Most of the day drinking takes place on the beach and the night drinking occurs up the hill from the port. I wandered around the port and checked out the beach, which was wide and full of travelers. I enjoyed some delicious baked treats at Buon Giorno.
A quaint and charming island, Astypalea was my favorite Greek island. One of the largest in landmass, this island has two mountains on either end, with deep valleys and towns in between. We ported in Skala, which had a simply adorable town. Astypalea is largely an island that is visited by Greek travelers and some European travelers, so you'll fee like a local in no time!
Similar to Kalymnos mentioned above, this island is definitely off the beaten path and not considered part of the "normal" Greek island circuit. There are almost no tourist souvenir shops in the town or the cheap chain restaurants. Everything feels more.... real. Like real people own these business, and eat at these restaurants and shop at these stores. I love that! It feels very authentic.
We enjoyed an afternoon of wandering the town, getting lost in the little side streets. Since the Greek islands are very mountainous, the town streets are built into the hills, ie steep. The streets wind around these narrow little corners and sidewalks don't exist. The houses are built terrace style, where the roof of one home is the floor of the next one. And in typical Greek island fashion, everything is white washed with blue accents. It is very picturesque!
We made it up to the top of the hill and were greeted by the ruins of an old castle. Situated on the corner in between two bays, the view from this castle was to die for. You could see more Greek islands in the distance as well as a stunning view over the port and small towns. We managed to get to the castle just as the sun was peaking behind the hills, making the sunset light a nice glowing color.
Another large island in the Cyclades chain, Paros is a nearby neighbor of Naxos. After 2 weeks touring the Greek islands, the islands and towns are starting to blur together. We stopped for a beach afternoon in Alika, and then ported in Parikia for the night. Alika was a tiny spot, good for the beach but not much else. But the sand bottom beach and gold Mythos beer were a nice diversion from the windy afternoon. Then we scooted around the other side of the island for the night.
There aren't any major tourist sites in Parikia, but it does have a lively restaurant street and shopping area (much like the rest of the islands). We had a lovely pizza dinner on the water front watching the sunset. With 12 people barreling into town off the tender, it was quite a site to see.
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Did I miss any of your favorite small or under-the-radar Greek Islands? Comment below with your suggestions!
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