My aunt and I are taking our first ever out of country vacation and we have chosen Greece! But we need help it is very overwhelming trying to decide which island to go too. We are dedicating 3 days to Athens and we are struggling to decide where to spend the remaining 5 days we have. We decided not to do 2 islands because that will take away from time we can spend experiencing the islands so it will be Athens and one Island and we want to be sure we make it count! We are going in Mid September we like site seeing and museums and would love some nice marketplaces, hikes, and some beach thrown in. Would love to have a few drinks but clubs are not necessary and of course amazing FOOD! We considered Crete but I am not sure if that would be a disappointment because of too little time. Also would love to know the best areas to stay on suggested islands, we could rent a car a few days but I would also like to be able to walk and catch transport as much as possible.
Your plan for Athens and one island in the time you have is sound. To get you started, look at the following options:
The two most popular islands would be Santorini or Mykonos. Both are lovely, Mykonos for the Party scene (though suppressed some in September) and Beaches, Santorini for the View. Both can be expensive and overrun with tourists, but are worth visiting at least once.
Paros or Naxos are much more laid back, both have great beaches, charming towns, and an island culture. It is possible that from either of those you could day trip to Mykonos or visit the ancient site at Delos as well. Costs would be lower and while there will still be plenty of tourists, it is not crushing.
Crete is a good choice as well, I do not think that it has an "Island" culture since it is so large, more like the mainland, but they would proudly tell you that they are a culture apart from Greece, I would agree. There you would have a wealth of ancient sites, Chania is a very nice town, and beaches are great with the water more "Oceanic" than in the other islands, but warmer.
Each of the three options offer something different, other will chime in and list at least another dozen favorite islands (I could add 3 or four more) but these offer a good variety and all have plenty of information available and are very accessible from Athens. If you do choose either Santorini or Crete, consider flying, I would also do no more than one night in Athens at the beginning (or fly straight through to an island), leaving most of Athens for the end.
You decision to do just one island is right. Three days in Athens is enough time to see most everything one goes to the city for. Most people save Athens on the return from an island so you may want to consider that.
As far as islands go . . . you have quite a lot to choose from You can take a ferry to all of them with a number having airports, even smaller islands like Astypalea, Ikaria, Kythira and others.
So much depends on what you want for a Greek Island Experience: nightlife, shopping, beaches, archeology/culture, crowds of tourist, more locals than tourists and so forth.
As stated Santorini and Mykonos are the two most popular but also the two most heavily touristed and expensive of the Greek Islands. Both offer classis Greek Scenery and villages but tend to be overwhelmed with tourists.
Islands like Sifnos, MIlos, Paros, Naxos, Amorgos, Astypalea, Kythira, Ikaria and lesser known/touristed islands may offer a more traditional atmosphere.
Mid-September will be off season so there'll be less tourists which may make your experience more enjoyable, but even the Big Name Islands still get crowds, maybe not as much as High Season but still enough to consider. The less touristed islands will have more locals hanging out than tourists so that may be an incentive to visit the less-touristed & smaller islands to get as real as you can for a Greek Island Experience without a lot of other tourists getting in the way.
Regardless of what you choose . . . do your research . . . make sure it's what you want rather than what the tourist industry wants.
Check out Matt's Greek Island Guide for excellent information:
Jennifer, when you have only 8 days in Greece, every single HOUR is precious -- and we can give the best advice if you share key details. If you've already booked your flight, yes we DO want to know the DAte and HOUR of Day you land .. and the same for your Departure day. Why?? because we can be more accurate about your options. If y ou're an East Coaster, taking a Nonstop, and landing at 9 or 9:30 am, you have a lot more options (and energy) than a West-Coaster, making 2 plane-changes, and arriving exhausted at 5:30pm. See what I mean?? Also, it's smart to save Athens til the end because you'll have to be in Athens or near its Airport anyway before departure, so why do it twice?
For Mid-September, I suggest if possible, that upon landing you connect ASAP with a flight to an Island -- and the one I recommend is NAXOS. Flights cost about $110 (€101) but are only 45 mins. vis 5-6 hrs on ferry -- and as folks say, When You Don't Have Time, You Must Spend Money. There are flights at 10:40 AM (enough time, if you arrive via the overnight nonstops on Delta and AA) or if your arrival is early afternoon, a 5:35pm plane. I recommend Naxos because it has a charming Port Town, lovely sandy beaches (one, St. George, is best place to stay, right NEXT to town, & walk to/fro), tons of history, ruins, dramatic landscapes, excellent hikes AND great local bus network; you may want to rent a car for one day just to swoop all over the big island, but otherwise, walking & busses are fine. NO cruise ships or package-tour groups. Lots of wonderful tavernas for delish traditional Greek meals -- at amazing low prices. September Naxos will be lively, lots of locals, because this island has a large permanent population (that loves to dine out, and have fun). PLUS, thru September a Naxos company has day excursions to Santorini, if you long to see that (overpromoted but lovely) "postcard view." And did I mention its vineyards? Hill towns will be having harvest festivals. Here's an album of Naxos highlights: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/sets/72157634605629689/ At very center of beach Hotel Asteria has ALL rooms w seaview balconies. Hotel Glaros is nice Boutique choice IF you can get top floor w seaview terrace; Hotel Kymata is a bargain just back from beach, again IF you can book top floor seaview balcony.
After 5 days, you can return to mainland via plane or take the 6pm BLUE STAR ferry (arrives 11:45pm or so), enjoy sunset on deck then go inside to "Reserved Economy" comfy seats to snack, read, snooze. Early next AM, start your sightseeing -- a good basic tour is Athenswalks http://www.athenswalkingtours.gr/The-Acropolis-Tour-And-City-Tour ... next day continue landmarks exploring & a couple of museums. Personally I like staying on the SOUTH side of Acropolis, right by the lovely pedestrian promenade, some moderate hotels in area include Hotel Phillipos & its upmarket "sister Hotel" Herodion, also Airotel Parthenon and nearby the budget-friendly Hotel Hera. Enjoy some Acropolis area pix! https://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/sets/72157632121475515/