If you’re dreaming of a summer holiday and you’ve set your sights on Greece, then the Cyclades islands have more than likely sprung to mind. Some of Greece’s best-loved islands belong to this little cluster, sprinkled in the middle of the Aegean sea. Each is unique and offers its travellers something different, whether that be history, food, nightlife or beaches. Take a peek at our guide below for the ultimate island-hopping getaway around the Cyclades, which takes the best of each island and transforms it into one epic adventure. Ideally, you’d have around two blissful weeks to saunter between islands, but you can always cherry-pick the ones that appeal most if you’re a little short on time.
Best for history: Athens
Begin in Athens and revel in the cosmopolitan atmosphere that permeates its historic streets. Although it’s on the mainland, Athens makes a great starting point for any island-hop: there are flights from numerous UK airports to Athens, so it makes getting here a little easier. Plus, think of all the culture you can squeeze in with an extra night or two in Greece’s capital.
You could easily spend half a day roaming the Acropolis and taking in the myriad temples in their various states: from the world-famous hilltop Parthenon to the Temples of Athena Nike and Olympian Zeus (of which only 16 of the original 104 columns are still standing), you can marvel at the dedication the Ancient Greeks showed their deities. It’s seriously cool to think that some of these structures date back 2,500 years. Equally impressive is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an ancient amphitheatre that is still used for concerts today – the likes of Elton John and Andrea Bocelli have performed there in recent years. You can’t visit Athens without stopping off at Panathenaic Stadium, the literal home of the Olympics Games and the only stadium in the world to be built entirely from marble. For somewhere central to stay, the super stylish five-star Perianth Hotel is only a 15-minute walk to the Acropolis (and even boasts views of it from some of its rooms and the rooftop).
Best for beach: Paros
Now you’ve had your fill of culture, it’s time to set sail. From Athens’ port, you can catch a ferry or boat over to Paros, which usually takes three to five hours. Naxos’ slightly smaller cousin, you’ll find a little bit of everything here: ancient remains in the capital, thriving resort towns along the coast, and remote rural villages tucked between hills. Beaches hug the coastline sporadically here, but the soft sands have drawn many a traveller over the years.
One of the most famous beaches in Paros is Kolympethres, known for its unusual rock formations, shallow crystalline waters and golden sands. When you’re not sunbathing, the shallow waters make for excellent snorkeling, thanks to the super clear water and warm Cyclades weather. Further south, Paros Parasporos beach lies just outside Paraika, the island’s capital, and is home to a livelier atmosphere thanks to the beach bars dotted along the coast. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay nearby, Mythic Exclusive Retreat is a five-minute drive away yet offers you a tranquil respite after a day in the sun. Active types should seek out Golden Beach on the East coast: this 700-metre-stretch of golden sand is the go-to spot for all kinds of water sports – in fact, the Professional Windsurfing World Cup is held here each year in August.
Best for partying: Mykonos
After a couple of days lying low on the sands of Paros, the weekend beckons – and nowhere does weekends like Mykonos. From the feel-good vibes of Elia, Paradise and Platis Gialos beaches in the south, to the trendy bars lining Little Venice in Mykonos Town, the party doesn’t have to stop for a second.
When it comes to accommodation, Mykonos is teeming with luxury hotels and suites. For a stay full of style, Myconian Utopia Relais & Chateaux Resort is a five-star retreat close to Elia beach and boasts rooms with their very own private Jacuzzi. It’s easy to taste the island’s nightlife from here: just board a speedboat from Elia and jet on over to Cavo Paradiso or Super Paradise, where your evening will get off to a heady start with cocktails at sunset. You’ll want to spend at least one evening in Mykonos Town, bar-hopping around the various waterfront establishments. Galleraki, a cosy sea-facing bar with candlelit tables, is a laid-back venue specialising in bubbly cocktails, while Bao’s cocktail bar exudes boho-chic vibes until midnight, when the dancefloor starts to get busy. Plenty of the bars and clubs in Mykonos Town have been here for decades, which is a testament to their allure and dedicated clientele – take Astra and Scarpa, for example, which have been around for 30 and 40 years, respectively. It’s safe to say that no matter where you go, fun can be found down every charming alley from sunset to sunrise.
Best for food: Naxos
From Mykonos, it’s a sweet 40-minute ferry ride to the largest of the Cyclades’ island. Naxos has ridden underneath the radar for quite some time, with the attention being given to Mykonos and Santorini, for example, but it deserves some of the spotlight itself.
Naxos is one of the most fertile islands in the Cyclades, evidenced by its bountiful olive groves, lemon trees, and potato farms, so it’s no surprise that it has a rich culinary heritage. Naxos Town acts as the foodie haven, with the majority of tavernas, restaurants and cafés sprinkled through its winding streets. Our top recommendations include Nostimon Hellas, which showcases modern Greek cuisine at its finest (the wine is local and cheap, too, which is always a bonus), and To Souvlaki tou Maki, home to the best souvlaki and gyros in town. For all-out authenticity and charm, take the 15-minute drive East to Melanes village and check out O Vasilis, a hillside taverna. This really is some of the best food on the island – perhaps it’s because the family who own the taverna also breed and farm roosters, lambs, pigs, vegetables and herbs, which all end up in their mouth-watering dishes. Topping it off are the views of the village below and the mountains in the distance to round off your gastronomic experience.
Best for hiking: Amorgos
Ready to burn off all those tender kebabs and oil-doused pittas? Then hop on a ferry to Amorgos, a finger-shaped island to the East of Naxos. If you’re lucky, the journey will take about 90 minutes, but at times it’s been known to take four hours. This tiny island is the closest thing you’ll find to “off-the-beaten path” on this list, which makes it the perfect island for walking, hiking and exploring.
Amorgos is known for its dramatic scenery: rolling hills give way to steep cliff-drops and forests, while white-box villages spring up between valleys, and hidden coves glow with swathes of golden sand. It’s for this very picturesque reason that it’s such an ideal place for nature-lovers. There are seven main hiking routes on the island designed for all levels, with colour-coded signposts marking the way. Easy routes including the Fototodis and the Melania, which are one or two-hour jaunts, while the harder routes such as The Old Strata and Pan can take up to four and a half hours. Each walk is fascinating in its own right, taking you past historic villages, Byzantine monasteries and ancient ruins in true Greek fashion. Let your imagination run wild as you climb stone steps, traverse rocky pathways and stroll through open meadows.
Best for romance: Santorini
Have we saved the best till last? If you’re ready to be caught up in the dizzying romance of Santorini’s whitewashed buildings, mesmerising sunsets and sea-facing suites, then absolutely. This gem of an island is a half-day’s ferry ride from Amorgos, and makes the perfect last stop on your Greek Island-hop: you’ll be able to fly home from here with ease, so there’s no need to make a round-trip back to Athens.
Santorini is one of those islands that looks picture perfect from any angle, thanks to the pristine white buildings that cling to its cliff face, decorated with pink bougainvillea and topped with cerulean domes. Its charming villages exude a romantic air, and it can be rewarding simply spending an afternoon strolling around them hand in hand. Take Oia, for instance: wander round its tiny streets, admire the work hanging up in art galleries, and finish the evening with a seafood dinner underneath a magical sunset (Oia is one of the best places on the island to watch the sun go down). Sole D’oro Luxury Suites sit just on the edge of Oia, and their Jacuzzi suites will certainly up the romance. Wine-lovers should know that the flatter part of the island is home to many family-run vineyards, and tastings are easy to organise. For a more in-depth look at Santorini, check out our definitive island guide.