Many consider Cyclades to be the best island hopping destination in Greece. Firstly, it is home to exotic islands with stunning limestone cliffs, white-washed labyrinthine towns, and beach coves with crystal-clear waters. You can find the world-famous Santorini and Mykonos in the Cyclades group of islands. Secondly, the islands are close and easily accessible by ferry. If it’s your first time visiting Cyclades, planning an island hopping tour can be overwhelming. This article is here to help you!
Here’s our guide to Cyclades island hopping, including important information such as how to get around, which are the best islands to visit, and how to plan your route.
The Cyclades is composed of around 220 islands, located in the Aegean Sea in the southeast of mainland Greece.
This island group has a rich and captivating history. In ancient times, it was inhabited by the seafarers and traders who established trade routes throughout the Aegean region. In the Bronze Age, the island of Delos in particular became a bustling trading hub and a major religious center, as people believed to be the birthplace of the mythical twins Apollo and Artemis.
In the following centuries, the Cyclades came under rule of various city-states and empires. In the recent 19th century, the island played a significant role in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, with its residents fighting for their freedom.
Currently, Cyclades is one of the top destinations in Greek. It’s visited by millions of tourists for its charming villages and turquoise bays. Aside from these, it also has interesting historical attractions including archeological sites, ancient temples, and other historic buildings. It’s perfect for families, couples, and even solo travelers.
How to get to the Cyclades
Some of the islands in Cyclades have international airports, including Santorini, Mykonos, and Paros. Another option is to fly into Athens and then hop on a fast ferry to other islands from there.
How to get around
The most popular way to go on a Cyclades island hopping tour is by ferry. You can book your own ticket in person when you arrive there. The best way to island hop is to follow the ferry routes, so you do not have to double back on the journey.
An easier option is to book an organized boat tour, which includes accommodation and ferry rides. Tour boats can have as many as 50 passengers, and the boats usually sail long-kilometer distances at night and arrive at the destination in the morning. This is convenient because you don’t have to buy your own ferry tickets or plan the itinerary.
However, it is also more expensive compared to doing a do-it-yourself tour. And you also lose flexibility — that is, you can’t decide to stay longer in an island you enjoy because the tour boat follows a schedule.
For those who are planning a luxurious vacation, the Cyclades offers a unique and unforgettable yachting experience to all their visitors.
Best time to visit the Cyclades
The best time to go island hopping in the Cyclades is from late spring to summer (from May to August), which is also the peak season. However, the month of September is also a favorable time to visit because you can still enjoy pleasant weather without it being too hot unlike in summer, there are fewer tourists, and the prices are lower since it is the start of the shoulder season. It is also easier to hike with less summer heat, such as in Santorini.
If you’re visiting on the off-peak months, take note that ferry schedules are less frequent so it’s best to check the schedules beforehand.
Best islands to visit in Cyclades
Cyclades has numerous islands you can visit, the most famous of which are Santorini and Mykonos. Paros, Naxos, Ios, and Milos are also popular choices, and each one offers its own unique character and charm.
Without further ado, here are the best islands to visit in Cyclades.
Located at the heart of Cyclades, Paros is considered to be one of the best destinations in Greece. It’s connected to the port in Athens and Rafina, so it is often the first stop in Cyclades island hopping tours.
It features stunning landscapes such as fertile valleys, rolling hills with monasteries and churches, and crystal-clear beaches. Many people say that Paros is similar to Mykonos before it became a main tourist attraction, so if you’re looking for an authentic experience, you should definitely include this in your itinerary.
There are many things to do at Paros Island. Parikia, its main town and port, features a delightful mix of traditional Cycladic architecture and modern conveniences. Lose yourself in its maze-like streets, visit the Panagia Ekatontapiliani — one of the oldest Byzantine churches in Greece, and visit the Archeological Museum of Paros — one of the most important museums in Greece featuring findings from the Neolithic period to early Christianity.
Aside from this, there are other villages worth exploring. The fishing village of Naoussa features a scenic harbor with waterfront restaurants, cafes, and boutique shops where you can stroll, indulge in freshly caught seafood, and enjoy the romantic ambiance. Meanwhile, Lefkes is a traditional village located in the mountains behind Noussa offering a glimpse of authentic Greek island life. It has inexpensive rooms if you wish to stay overnight.
Paros is also known for its pristine beaches. Golden Beach and New Golden Beach are popular destinations for watersports, particularly windsurfing and kiteboarding. If you’re looking for shores to laze around, Santa Maria Beach and Kolymbithres Beach are stunning options with clear water and unique rock formations.
While in Paros, you can also explore other archeological sites, art galleries and workshops where you can local crafts, and of course enjoy fresh and flavorful cuisine.
A Cyclades island hopping vacation wouldn’t be complete without Santorini!
Like other islands in Cyclades, Santorini has a rich history and geography. It was once a circular island with a water-filled embayment, which was then altered to a ring of islands through a series of volcanic eruptions spread out over a long period of time. The central highland of the island collapsed to form the modern caldera. Many years later, the Nea and Palea Kameni islands have formed in the center of the caldera.
Even today, Santorini is considered an active volcanic area. It is constantly being monitored by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI). Historic records suggest that it could still produce a small-to-moderate eruption.
Isn’t that interesting? Now let’s move on to what you can expect in Santorini!
Considered the crown jewel of Cyclades, Santorini features beautiful white-washed houses with blue-domed roofs, charming streets, and undeniably best sunsets in Greece. You won’t get tired seeing the sunset from different vantage points across the town.
There are different things to do in Santorini. For a laid-back vacation, book a nice bed-and-breakfast and enjoy a nice staycation with stunning views. Stroll across town to take great photos of its charming streets, white houses, colorful bougainvillea flowers, and even sleepy cats. Eat delicious food, and sample different wines.
You can also visit beaches on the southern and eastern coastlines. The Red Beach, Black Beach, and White Beach are beautiful beaches surrounded by dramatic cliffs. Other beaches are known for their watersport activities and vibrant nightlife.
Another must-do activity in Santorini is visiting the archeological site of Akotiri — a town buried during a huge volcanic eruption back in 1650 BC.
Finally, for those who love outdoor activities, this island also offers a hike along the Santorini Caldera Rim.
Overall, Santorini is a spectacular island to visit in Cyclades. But it’s worth noting that it’s also one of the most touristy destinations in Greece and can be expensive compared to its neighboring islands. In fact, a lot of locals do not reside here anymore and many of the accommodations are owned by foreigners. If you want to experience the culture of Greece, this isn’t the place to look for. However, the fact remains that it’s one of the most beautiful islands in the whole of Greece and it’s worth visiting for the views alone.
While Santorini offers a laid-back and romantic experience, the island of Mykonos is the opposite. It is known as a party island with fun beach bars, trendy nightclubs, and chic lounges where you can meet other people and enjoy drinks starting at late afternoon to dawn.
However, there is definitely more to it than its reputation for vibrant nightlife. It also has beautiful architecture, stunning beaches, and cultural attractions.
The island’s capital is called Mykonos Town (or Chora) and it is a great place to explore, with its narrow streets and white cubicle houses with tiny balconies, colorful windows, and liliput yards decorated with blooming bougainvillea and basilicum. Prepare your phone camera because this place has a lot of snap-worthy corners!
The neighborhood of Alefkandra (known as Mykonos Little Venice) is also worth seeing, with its Venetian-style houses and open-air restaurants overlooking the sea.
Of course, don’t miss visiting the best beaches in Mykonos. Elia Beach is the largest beach in Mykonos. It’s also a nude beach and a favorite gay beach of tourists. Paradise Beach, Super Paradise Beach, and Psarou Beach are popular hot spots for their vibrant atmosphere, beach clubs, and watersports. For a more relaxed beach experience, head to Ornos, Agios Ioannis, or Agios Stefanos beaches and enjoy a laid-back day in the sun.
Mykonos also has interesting art and cultural attractions. Visit the Archeological Museum of Mykonos — the oldest museum in Greece showcasing exhibits from the prehistoric to Hellenistic periods (25th century to 1st century BC). Or see the works of famous Greek and international artists at Dio Horia and Rarity Gallery.
Other attractions worth seeing are popular Paraportiani Church and the historic windmills in Mykonos Town.
Delos can be visited by a short boat ride from Mykonos Island. It is a small island known for its historical and archeological significance and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the past, it was considered “the most sacred of all islands,” and local legend says that it is the birthplace of Apollo (god of daylight) and his twin sister Artemis (goddess of night light). As such, it became an important pilgrimage site and a hub for religious ceremonies and festivals. Later on, the island’s strategic location and status as a free port made it a bustling commercial and cultural hub of the Aegean Region.
Due to its significance, it is uninhabited and it is not possible to stay there overnight. While on a day tour, you can visit the Delos Archeological Museum, the Terrace of the Lions — the most photographed location in Delos Island featuring marble statues of lions, and the House of Dionysus. You can also take a 30-minute hike to the highest point in the island for stunning views.
Syros is one of the least visited islands in Cyclades, located in the middle of the island clusters. If you’re asking, is it worth visiting? The answer is yes! In fact, one of its charms is its more laid-back atmosphere compared to the more popular islands of Santorini and Mykonos.
One of the best things to do in Saros is exploring its capital town Ermoupoli. Unlike other towns in the Cyclades, it features neoclassical buildings and has a distinct city feel. Visit the Miaolis Square, a popular gathering spot named after a hero of the Greek War of Independence; the Apollo Theater; and the colorful narrow alleys lined with boutiques, art galleries, and traditional tavernas.
After a day at the town, hike to the Church of Agios Nikolaos, offering panoramic views of the town, the port, and the Aegean Sea and a perfect spot for sunset watching.
Syros is also home to several beautiful beaches. Galissas Beach is said to be the nicest beach in the island. Armeos, Megas Gialos, and Delfini offer a more secluded stay, while Kini Beach offers windsurfing and sailing activities.
Naxos is the largest island in the Cyclades, featuring gorgeous mountain scenery, picturesque villages, historical sites, and of course stunning beaches! There are so many things you can do here so allot several days staying in this island.
Beach hop to Agios Prokopios, Plaka, and Agia Anna — the most popular beaches in the island, featuring golden sand and crystal-clear waters. Explore the capital including its main attractions — the medieval Venetian castle known as Kastro, the Archeological Museum of Naxos displaying arts and objects from the Late Neolithic to Early Christian period, and the marble gate of Portara — a remnant of the unfinished Temple of Apollo, the best-known landmark in the island, and a popular spot for sunset watching.
This island also offers plenty of outdoor activities. You can hike to the top of Mount Zas, the highest point in the Cyclades offering a 360-degree view of Naxos and surrounding islands. You can also go cycling through the countryside, explore over 50 dive sites around Nexos, enjoy windsurfing or sailing, or take a day trip to one of the neighboring islands.
Ios is one of the popular party islands in Greece known for its vibrant nightlife. But whether you’re a party person or not, it’s worth visiting this island as it is home to some of the best beaches in the Cyclades.
Mylopotas Beach is the largest beach in the island, with crystal-clear shores for swimming and various watersport activities. Manganari Beach is a series of sandy coves surrounded by dramatic cliffs, perfect for swimming and picture taking. Other popular beaches include Gialos, Kalamos, and Kolitsani.
Its main town is perched on a hill overlooking the Aegean Sea and features typical Cycladean architecture including narrow streets, white-washed buildings, and traditional tavernas, cafes, and shop.
Ios has several notable attractions. For those interested in art and history, the Archeological Museum of Ios features findings dating back in the prehistoric times. The Modern Art Museum and Gaiti-Simosi Museum are also worth visiting. Skarkos is a prehistoric settlement from the Bronze Age where you can see stone buildings said to be the home of 200-300 people in the past. Finally, you can take a quad bike or ATV to Homer’s Tomb, the final resting place of Greece’s great poet, Homer.
Aside from these, if you visit between the months of May and September, you can attend concerts at Odysseas Elytis Theatre, an open-air marble theater that offers beautiful ocean views.
Kythnos is located west of Syros and Mykonos and close to Athens. This island is mostly barren but also has charming towns and stunning beaches.
The highlight of Kythnos is Kolona Beach, a 240-meter twin beach connecting Kythnos and the islet of Agios Loukas. Here you can enjoy the water on both sides and then head to a seafood restaurant afterwards. Agios Dimitrios Beach, Loutra Beach, and Apokrousi Beach are also worth visiting.
You can also explore Merichas, the main port of the island and a charming seaside settlement with shops, fish taverns, and crystal-clear beaches. Other things to do include exploring Chora — a town built on a hill slope featuring typical cobblestone alleyways and white-washed houses, visiting Dryopida Folklore Museum and Katakifi Cave in the town of Dryopida, and soaking in the thermal springs in Loutra.
Folegandros is a small island many consider to be a hidden gem. It’s only a short ferry away from Athens, and depending on your itinerary, it can also be your first or last stop on your Cyclades island hopping tour. It receives fewer tourists than other islands in this list, so it is more peaceful and laid-back.
This island is known for its dramatic cliffs, stunning views, and unspoiled beaches. Despite its size, it offers various adventures as well. Stroll around the streets of Chora, the main town of Folegandros. Perched atop a hill, it features narrow streets, white-washed houses, and blooming bougainvillea and hibiscus. Another village that you should check out for is Ano Meria, an idyllic place with coffee shops and taverns where you can lounge.
Of course, a visit to Folegandros won’t be complete without checking out its beaches. Agali Beach is one of the most popular beaches in the island particularly during summer. On the other hand, Agios Georgios, which is located at the northern end of the island, offers a more relaxed experience. Other notable beaches include Livadaki, Agios Nikolaos, and Vardia.
For great sunrise or sunset views, hike to the Orthodox Church of Panagia, located at the highest point of the island and offering a panoramic view of the entire west coast of Folegandros.
How to plan your island hopping route
The first thing you need to do to plan your island hopping route is to do your research and decide which islands you want to visit.
There are three ports near Athens: Piraeus, Rafina, and Lavrio. These stop at several islands so it is easy to island hop from there.
It’s worth noting that many islands in Cyclades have direction connection, but not all do. So always verify the ferry route before booking your lodging. As said above, the best way to island hop is to follow the ferry route. During high season, there are more frequent ferries going to the islands, and these change in the off season. Ferry Hopper and Ferryscanner are reliable websites that you can use to check the current ferry schedules and routes.
Now, which islands should you include in your itinerary?
Santorini and Mykonos are definite must-visits. Naxos is well located in the middle, so you can easily include it in your itinerary. It offers not only interesting attractions (and some of the best beaches in Cyclades) but also day tours to nearby smaller islands. Syros and Pyros are also popular stops and they are good bets for cheap ferry routes as well. Other islands located further away, like Milos and Sifnos, are usually more expensive.
How long you’ll be staying in each island depends on what kind of tourist you are. Some people do a whirlwind tour for a day, while others prefer to stay longer to experience the island’s daily life and culture. In general, 4-5 days is a reasonable time to spend in an island.
You can easily spend months exploring the islands in Cyclades. If like most people you only have 1-2 weeks, you may need to select just a few islands to visit.
That concludes our guide to island hopping in the Cyclades! If you have questions or other opinions, let us know in the comment section below.
Katherine Cortes is a long-time backpacker and a freelance writer/editor. She likes beaches, snorkeling trips, and relaxing staycations (preferably with bath tubs!).