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Recommended island in the Cyclades for first timers?

No doubt this a very common question. My wife and I (early 30s) are planning to honeymoon in Greece for two weeks (after it becomes safe to travel again) and I wanted to start getting ideas now. It seems the itinerary would be Athens, Crete, a Cyclades island, and Rhodes.

In terms of our interests, we like the beach/ocean, nature/hiking, and historical sites, and my wife really wants to see the blue/white painted buildings (so they are a must). While the obvious choices are Santorini or Mykonos, my concern would be tourism over-saturation and overcrowding, but maybe they are still worth it? We'd travel outside the busy season in either May-June or Sept-Oct.

So as first timers, should we be thinking about Santorini, Mykonos, or another Cyclade? Also, is Rhodes worth it, or would it be better to substitute it for a second Cyclade (or other Greek island)?

Posted by
5552 posts

Rhodes is so far out of the way in the Dodecanese Islands that it make for an awkward itinerary. Save it for a trip to Turkey as it close by.
You mention only Santorini and Mykonos which are the most touristed islands in the Cyclades. Look at other islands like Paros, Naxos, Milos. If you do go to Santorini, do not give it much time.

Posted by
40 posts

@Suki - Thanks, I have been looking at other islands like Naxos, Paros, and Andros. I guess I'm wondering would we regret NOT going to Santorini and/or Mykonos?

Posted by
6039 posts

We'd travel outside the busy season in either May-June or Sept-Oct

Not sure I would consider June or Sept outside the 'busy season'

Posted by
40 posts

My understanding is that the height of the busy season is July-August, so I'd probably leave in the first week of June or arrive in the last week of September.

Posted by
5 posts

We went to Hydra, an hour boat ride from Athens, on the Rick Steves Greece tour and loved it! It is small, quaint, and is not overrun with tourists (like me!) On our own, my husband and I went to Santorini. We were glad we went if nothing more than to see what all the buzz is about. We were there in mid-September and it was packed with visitors. We stayed at a wonderful place that had a small terrace overlooking the caldera and sought refuge there after 11 am when Oia was flooded with tourists. Just too many people for us.... If you do go to Santorini, stay at a comfortable place because that will be your escape from the crowds!

Posted by
943 posts

The Santorini question (I haven't been to Mykonos) is such a conundrum. We went, although hadn't planned to originally. Somehow, I became convinced that it was a place that one should see, and since we would be nearby, we should at least stop. We went to many places in Greece over a month, by comparison. The difference in the experience of Santorini - it felt like an amusement park version of Greece. Everything was Greece-made precious. Oia, one of the famous towns on the tip of the island, buried its power lines so they won't obstruct the view. Sounds nice, yes, but also a little ... cosmetic. The rentals on the cliff facing the caldera, either in Fira or Oia, are magazine fancy, with prices to match. There are paths that you can walk along past these places, but some are roped off, and we were asked to leave one area that we thought was a public walkway. Every day, cruise ships disgorge a trail of people from below the towns, and offer them donkeys to ride up the steep hill to the tourist towns if they want. So there is a trail of donkeys going up and down carrying cruisers. The other areas are full of people who want to experience Santorini but not spend a lot (we were in this group). So the island felt a little like a camp set up for the sole purpose of this performance. I did not have that feeling anywhere else we went (Athens, Peloponnese, Crete, Naxos). And i definitely had experiences elsewhere that felt much more authentic and touched me more.
All that said, there is some perverse satisfaction in having been to a place first hand that is so famous. It was beautiful. It was amplified beauty in some ways. The caldera is unique, and that added to the beauty. But it was a scene, and it was our least favorite place on our trip. But since we were only there for 2 full days, I think we struck the right balance.

Posted by
3083 posts

Haven’t been to any Cycladic islands in over 30 years, but if this helps, we had 3 full weeks this past September/October in Crete. Historic Minoan sites are in many, many places. Museums too.

There were plenty of beachgoers, toting inflatable toys, in towns along Mirabello Bay, in the northeast. And German beachgoers in Pitsidia, south-central on Crete. Apparently lots of Germans are off in late September, and head straight there.

Treat yourselves to a wonderful honeymoon stay in Kato Zakros, southeast Crete, at the Terra Minoika Villas. The beach in late September wasn’t freezing, but wasn’t super warm either, even on Europe’s southernmost island. The scenic Gorge of the Dead offers a wonderful hike, with Kato Zakros located right where the gorge opens up at its end.

The Lasithi Plateau also offers fabulous hiking opportunities. We stayed in Tzermiado, and except for seeing people driving top-down convertibles during the day, saw no other tourists in the evening, and no other hikers at that time of year.

The renowned Samaria Gorge on Crete still had lots of walkers in early October. It gets closed for the season when the rains come in October, so you’ll luck out if you want to hike it and it’s still open.

Posted by
3947 posts

June and September is very busy in Greece for those not tied to school holidays. Santorini is only an obvious choice for people on this forum. Most others prefer their Greek islands to be more “Greek” and less Disneyfied.

If you like history, 3 + days in Athens sounds like a good start. Crete is large enough for a 2 week holiday using 2 different bases. Alternatively, if Rhodes appeals to you, there are flights of less than an hour to get there and these maybe more reliable than the Greek ferries, who are renowned for their strikes.

Posted by
170 posts

Tph2010,
A 2-fer option that I am forever trotting out for this very question: go to Santorini then for a complete contrast, take the ferry from there over to Folegandros. Santorini is touristy to a fault in certain parts, but still a MUST. The geology and visuals are world-class, damn the torpedoes. Then Folegandros: an isle not yet wholly given over to commercialism, with genuine agriculture, good food, spectacular views, perhaps the prettiest of all Horas and VG beaches. Plus, it has one of Greece's best-value splurge hotels AND a useful public bus (see also at least one taxi).
Endahksi!
I am done. The end.

Posted by
735 posts

The islands you mentioned are the most popular, heavily touristed and most expensive of the Greek Islands. Whether they are a true picture of a Greek Island is debatable. Obviously they are the islands you see in glossy travel magazines and what travel agents push on people. It's up to you if they are islands that appeal to you or want something more down-to-earth and traditional.

Going off season may help with those Big Name Islands but if you want suggestions for Cyclades Islands that may be more authentic then consider:

Tinos (a gem)
Amorgos (beautiful)
Sifnos (1st Greek island we went to)
Milos (2nd island we went to)
Naxos (something for everyone)
Small Cyclades ("small" and quiet)
Serifos
Folengandros

Here's a good link for Greek Islands to consider including the Cyclades:

https://www.greecetravel.com/greek-islands/

I doubt you'll be able to travel to Greece May-June due to the virus but there may be hope for Sept.-Oct. I go to Greece every Oct. because it's off season, less tourists, lower prices and still nice weather.

Posted by
16607 posts

There may be enough reasons to spend a few days on Santorini, despite its grotesque tourist load. Folks have written here about ways to avoid the masses there. If you review the last two years' worth of postings in the Greece forum, you'll find what sound like good tips.

Given the many other options in the Cyclades, I'm not at all convinced there is a reason to go to Mykonos (or Ios) unless you're looking for a big-time party island. You can Google for photos of the other islands to be sure they'll offer the visual experience you're looking for.

(These comments based on three trips to Greece, but the most recent was in the mid-1990s.)

Posted by
74 posts

Santorini : We went there a couple of years ago ,originally not planning to go because of the tourist overload and theme park reputation. But there was an incredibly cheap flight from London on Thomas Cook Airlines (now defunct and maybe one of the reasons why) so we took it , spent a few nights and then took the ferry to Naxos .

For us Santorini was a love hate situation . We are glad we went because the view and setting is spectacular and we found our own Santorini away from the crowds. What we hated was the crowds and the tourist trap vibe, especially when a cruise ship was docked. We left that immediate the area after a quick walk thru.
We loved that we stayed in a little b and b hotel purposely chosen because it was not on the water (to avoid crowds).
We loved that we took the walking trail between Fira and Oia and had those spectacular views with almost no people on the trail. It was so nice that we walked back instead of spending much time in touristy Oia and catching the bus. It was our highlight.

Bottom line is: We are glad we went but we won't be coming back. We had the time to check it out so it wasn't a tough choice. If you have more limited time then it is a tougher call.

Naxos is another story. We just loved it. It is much more low key than Santorini, not as spectacular but beautiful in a subtler way.
We stayed in town above the harbor and not at the beach as we are not beach people.
We took the local bus to outlying villages for walks and hikes and ate fish down by the harbor. and checked out the beach area even though its not our thing. We enjoyed every minute.
It was pretty quiet but then again it was early November.
We expect to return, maybe sometime in the Spring season.(We like to return to places we really like for a second or third look to dig deeper and enjoy even more).
The rest of our Greek trip was on the mainland and we will visit other islands on another trip.
I'm sure you will enjoy Greece !

Posted by
40 posts

Thank you everyone who responded for the wealth of information, these are exactly the kind of details I was looking for.

Posted by
2232 posts

My only time in Greece was in June 2017. I finished with 3 nights each on Santorini and Naxos. Yes, the touristed part of Santorini is indeed touristy, with the white buildings with blue roofs you are looking for. But there is a whole island of other places — ancient ruins, interesting towns, beaches, wineries, etc. that you can easily reach by day tour, public bus, or rental car. The ferry to Naxos was just 2.5 hours. Naxos was wonderful, not so many tourists, because there is no cruise port there. Real Greek towns and communities, throughout the island, various beaches, ancient sites, oodles of restaurants and shops too. These islands make a nice duo.

Posted by
345 posts

Our trip to Greece last year was in late September/early October. We had longer than two weeks, so it included Athens, Nafplio, Crete, Santorini and Naxos. Yes, Santorini does have a lot of tourists, but it was one of the highlights of our trip. We avoided Oia and opted to base ourselves in Firostefani. Our stay in our own little "cave home" at Lithies Traditional Homes was perfect with wine & evening sunsets, breakfast on our own terrace while being totally pampered by Maria. https://www.lithies.com/ One day in Santorini was spent on a catamaran tour of the caldera including lunch and snorkeling. IMO Santorini is a must if you are traveling to Greece! We took the ferry from Santorini to Naxos and found that island to be wonderful as well. It was quieter than Santorini and there are no cruise ships. We did not rent a car there, but opted for a private tour with Nicolas and Naxos Discovery Tours. He has many different options ranging from hiking, outdoor adventures and visiting the small villages. Highly recommend and some of the best money we have ever spent with a guide. https://www.naxosdiscovery.net/ We flew from Athens to Chania & preferred Western Crete to Eastern Crete; had a rental car and stayed near Vamos. Not big fans of Heraklion and for our taste, the Palace of Knossos was overrated and waste of time. Athens was our least favorite part of the trip...the historical sites are amazing, but the city itself is dirty and crowded. Three full days there was more than enough for us. Nafplio was very relaxing and we loved it there, but in my view, you do not have time to visit it. Enjoy Greece, it is magical!

Posted by
1079 posts

We were in Greece a couple years ago with our family and visited both Santorini and Naxos. We were there the third week of May and while Santorini was crowded, it was not unbearably so. We stayed in Oia because that is where we found a large enough air bnb and walked from Oia to Fira which quite simply is the most beautiful hike I have ever done. We took the bus back. Oia was crowded at sunset even when we were there. But really I didn't think it was so bad the rest of the time.

Santorini is a bit disneyesque but I am glad we went.

Naxos is beautiful but not as spectacular but much more genuinely Greek. We split up our first day there and our two 20 something sons joined us at dinner and exclaimed that Naxos is even better than Santorini!

Personally, I would skip Mykonos as it is crowded and expensive like Santorini but without the killer views. I would visit other less tourist ed islands instead. I haven't been to Rhodes but did consider visiting when we went to Greece. The complications of visiting multiple island groups made me reconsider. Greece, quite frankly, is tougher to travel around than other European countries and you will be much happier if take the difficulty of travel into account in making choices of where to travel.

Posted by
432 posts

If your wife seeing blue/white painted buildings is a must you can't go wrong staying in Oia on Santorini - the views are fabulous. Rent a cave house. We didn't find the crowds to be any problem (were there in April 2016) and its easy to find areas on the island where you can get away from the cruise ship crowd - especially if you rent a car. If you're flying in/out of Athens start your trip in the islands and visit Athens last. We were going to fly from Santorini to London and got caught up in an air traffic controller's strike so we had to double back to Piraeus on the ferry. Also, if you need a night close to the airport Porto Rafti is a nice beach town nearby.

Posted by
4 posts

Naxos is very good for hiking and for good sandy beaches with calm shallow water (for example Agios Prokopios).
Naxos is some 2 hrs by ferry from Santorini. Santorini is really all about the famous Caldera view. It is THE most highly touricized island in Greece, prices are often more than 2x that of other places.

What I'd urge you to doactually is just give Santorini 36 hours, then spend the rest of your cruelly-short time on a more authentic nearby Greek island such as Naxos or maybe Paros.
Naxos has about 10 miles of golden sand beaches all in a row (AND accessible by a frequent bus route, that goes to each beach). Santorini basically has ONE hike, from Oia to Fira, very tiring. Naxos has at least 37 hikes. The interior of Naxos has dramatic mountain landscapes, marble quarries (biggest source of marble in Greece), ancient ruins on hilltops & in orchards, farms & vineyards.

Posted by
741 posts

I am not sure where your interests are at this point. From reading the posts there does appear to be consensus that Crete and Naxos certainly will fulfill your wants. Both are about 2 to 2.5 hour ferry hops to Santorini and both have antiquities, great beaches, mountain villages, hiking opportunities and both offer you an authentic Greek experience. Crete of course is much larger and you will need a month to fully explore it. You can get by with two weeks if you just stay on one part of the island either East or West.

Since these are our favourite islands I won't try to suggest one over the other but I thought perhaps some images might help you decide or at least whet your appetite and anticipation for next year.
Western Crete http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/sets/72157632115757899/

Chania http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/sets/72157632117917828/

2019 Chania, Sougia and Plakias https://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/albums/72157711266062752
Balos Gramovossa and Elafonissi https://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/albums/72157698932695812

Naxos Mountains and Villages http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/sets/72157632110674306/
Naxos Town http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/sets/72157632094558042/
Trip around Naxos http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/sets/72157634605629689/
Naxos 2019 https://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/albums/72157711294807761

And for fun
Santorini http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr54/sets/72157632154800782/

Posted by
5552 posts

When we arrived on Santorini, I felt like I had left Greece. It looked so Greek but didn’t act like it. Stay two nights, see the caldera view and visit Akrotiri, then escape back to the real Greece.