The Cyclades are an ancient group of islands in the south Aegean sea of Greece. However they were formed, The Cyclades — which means the Sacred islands around Delos — their beauty and dazzling light can lend itself to a spot of spirituality. These groups of islands just a ferry ride away from mainland Greece, made most famous by Santorini and Mykonos, are the most iconic sights of Greece.
Their whitewashed houses and baby blue door window frames are as iconic Greek as it gets. Amazing beaches, scenic bays, charming villages, hidden coves, tall cliffs, and picturesque villages are all on offer here.
I spent a few months traveling through Greece and spent ample amounts of time in the Cyclades. If you’re planning a trip and feeling overwhelmed by all the choices, then this guide will help you choose which islands to visit. These are of course entirely my opinion and everyone has different tastes!
If you are planning to visit the Cyclades, make sure to read my travel guide for the Cyclades and Greek ferry guide to understand what you’re getting into. Once you’re ready to plan the trip, make sure to read my Cyclades island hopping itinerary where I discuss how to plan your trip and the routes I took!
Greece is my favorite country in Europe and I traveled extensively through the country. If you need inspiration for other parts of Greece, make sure to read my Ultimate Greece Travel Guide that details everything yo need to know about Greece and the places I’ve been to.
Traveling in 2023: Note that I suspect tourism and crowds to be monstrous in the summer 2023 season. Book well in advance and prepare yourself for huge crowds of tourists coming from America and China. If possible, plan your trip from mid September onwards!
The best time to visit the Cyclades Islands
Located in the south Mediterranean sea, the Cyclades islands enjoys good weather year round. However, there are certain times of year that you’ll want to avoid, and other times of year where nothing is open.
The islands are pretty much built off of tourism so it is very seasonal. I’ve been to the islands at all times of the year and there are definitely better times than others. You’ll want to avoid peak season as swarms of tourists from all over the world descend on the islands. If you must visit during this time, try and avoid the most touristic islands.
Peak Season in the Cyclades Islands
The peak months are from the end of June to the end of August. These are the months where the islands can be extremely packed with tourists from all over the world coming in along with cruise ships.
The prices are also the most expensive during these months as much of the revenue generated in this period subsidize the lack of earnings in the other months. If you’re looking for a party and to be with lots of different people, then this is your period to visit. Restaurants will be packed, beaches will be busy, and there will be plenty of life here for you to enjoy.
If you are more into the idea of having fantastic beaches to yourself or exploring without the crowds, absolutely avoid coming in the summer months. Especially avoid coming during the middle of August around the holiday of the Virgin Mary. The entire mainland of Greece clears out and goes to the islands and these places become absolutely packed. This is the most expensive time to visit as well.
The best time to visit the Cyclades
I traveled around the Cyclades during the time of Coronavirus and in the peak summer months. For the most part, it was never overwhelming because international tourism outside of the EU is largely non-existent. It was still busy especially in August, but was never over the top for me. However, in future years, I think I would avoid coming to the islands in the summer months, especially ultra touristy places like Mykonos and Santorini.
It is simply way too much of a disaster during the months of July and August to even think about visiting. Not only do you pay 50% more, but you’re essentially going to a music festival for that extra money.
The best months for visiting the Cyclades
The best times to visit the islands in my opinion are mid September to early November, and the months of April and May. The weather is still very pleasant in the fall and spring but not overly hot. Swimming might be too cold for some in these times but that’s a small price for me to pay. The most fantastic beaches in Greece are in Lefkada and the Ionian islands anyhow so you’re not missing much. In summary, avoid visiting the Cyclades in the summer months like the plague.
What are the islands of the Cyclades?
As you’d expect, there are a ton of islands in the Cyclades. There are so many islands that are inhabited and uninhabited that it would take you many months to visit them all.
I was able to visit ten of them and felt like I got a very good taste of it.
In total there are the following islands:
- Paros (and Antiparos)
The islands with links are the ones I visited and subsequently you can read my detailed guides for each of those islands if you are planning a trip yourself!
If you have limited time and want to only visit a few islands, read my Cyclades island hopping itinerary to get inspiration and ideas of how to plan your epic Greek getaway.
How many Cyclades islands are inhabited?
The Cyclades is situated on the southern Greek coast between Athens and Crete with a total number of 29 islands and there are 24 islands inhabited by the Cyclades. All of the Cyclades islands have this in common: They are barren, rocky and hilly with low vegetation.
The island architecture is usually traditional consisting of white-washed cubic houses with flat roofs. The inhabitants of the Cyclades have always been insular people who were very self-sufficient due to the lack of natural resources on the islands. Fishery and agriculture were the main sources of income until tourism became the primary economic activity in the 1970s.
Island hopping in the Cyclades
Getting between the islands, or island hopping is all done via the ferry system.
There is a very comprehensive ferry system in the Greek islands, especially in the Cyclades as there are so many of them. I took no less than ten different ferries while island hopping because that is really the only way to get around. There is no way to fly between island to island but rather only regular flights from Athens to islands with airports like Milos, Naxos, Mykonos, Santorini, and Paros.
Don’t worry, the ferries are more than capable and some of them are actually quite luxurious. Each island has its port town (or multiple towns if you’re in Amorgos) and there are regular ferries that connect the island to other islands.
I’ve written a very comprehensive guide about Greek ferries so make sure to read that if you are keen on an island hopping adventure!
My list of best islands in the Cyclades
I spent over two months traveling around the Cycladic islands and visited ten different islands. I spent 3-5 nights on each island which I think is enough to see the main sights.
Before coming to the Cyclades islands, my only knowledge of the islands were Mykonos and Santorini like 90% of the rest of the population. I wasn’t overly excited because I just thought it would be a bit fake and over-touristic. After spending two months, I am gravely mistaken. The charm and beauty of the islands is unlike anywhere else in Europe. It really is a special place and I can’t wait to go back.
Nevertheless, not all islands are created equal. These are in my opinion the best ones by ranking and the ones I would return to first. Of course, this is entirely based on my opinion and based on my experience while visiting!
#1 – Amorgos
Amorgos (the island of love? not sure) is at the top of my list of Cycladic Islands. It is visually the most stunning and dramatic because of its incredible mountain landscapes. The mountain peaks here reach almost 1km which is among the highest in the Cycladic islands. Driving around in a scooter or ATV will allow you to experience the amazing scenery of the island.
In addition, the Monastery of Hozoviotissa is without a doubt the most impressive church in all of Greece. It’s carved into the mountain rocks on the side of a cliff overlooking the Aegean. It gives of Petra vibes to me which was unexpected but incredibly beautiful.
The Chora of Amorgos is located high up in the mountains half way between the two port towns of Katapola and Aegiali. It definitely ranks among the top of the old towns I saw in the Cyclades in terms of its charm. The buildings are much older here than on other islands but still somehow in immaculate condition. The restaurants and cafes somehow pick out the most perfect color and furniture combinations to bring out its charm.
Something about Amorgos just made it feel extra special and different compared to the other Cyclades islands. I can’t pinpoint it exactly but if I had to choose an island to be at the top, this would be it. Amorgos really is the best Cycladic island for me.
Read my detailed post about visiting Amorgos!
#2 – Sifnos
Like Amorgos, Sifnos is a bit off the beaten path when compared to the other islands of the Cyclades. This typical Cycladic island definitely attracts more locals than tourists but that’s not a bad thing. Sifnos is also famous for having more than 350 churches and monasteries, the most you are likely to meet in any other Greek island. Many of them have been renowned as historical monuments, along with more than 70 ancient towers – altogether they comprise the majority of the island’s sights. Meanwhile, a number of beaches, mostly sandy, offer relaxation and fun, combined with satisfactory tourist amenities.
Sifnos also has the same incredible mountain landscapes of Amorgos (although not as dramatic) and has three different old towns to choose from. From the port town of Kamares, you’ll want to rent a scooter and cruise up the mountains to the old towns of the island.
Apollonia and Artemonas are located up in the hills and offer endless walks through whitewashed houses, small alleys, belfries and flower pots. There are endless photo opportunities here at every turn.
A few km away, is the even older and more traditional town of Kastro (castle). Built along the side of a cliff, the still inhabited town has buildings from many centuries ago which gives it even more charm. I was the most impressed walking through Kastro’s narrow streets and the dramatic views over the Aegean.
#3 – Folegandros
Folegandros is one of the smaller islands in the Cyclades but packs in a lot for its size. It’s located in between Milos and Santorini and makes for a great day trip from either island. However, I stayed here for a few nights due to numerous recommendations from other Greeks.
They are not wrong. Folegandros is special. It’s another very mountains island with the peaks being in the center of the island. The main road runs through the center of the island which means you’re at the highest point wherever you drive. The views you’ll see of the ocean and surrounding islands is absolutely unreal.
The Chora is where most people will stay and the only place where there is much of anything to do. It’s not big but you can expect to find the typical charm of other island towns.
Make sure to walk up the windy trail to the Church of Virgin Mary where you’ll have one of the best sunsets in the Cyclades islands. I came here pretty much every night I stayed here since there wasn’t a better view in town!
#4 – Milos
Milos, the island of Venus, has nothing to be jealous of Santorini, its other volcanic neighbor. The most valuable asset of Milos is its 70 or so beaches, some of which are among the most gorgeous of all Greek islands. Breathtaking, dramatic landscapes with colorful, bizarre rock formations and hot springs –all owed to its volcanic nature- are also a trademark.
Milos is known for its culinary prowess and the restaurants I went to in Milos cooked the best food I had in the Cyclades islands. The traditional town of Plaka is located up on the hills. While small, it offers all the beautiful white washed houses, stone streets, and baby blue window frames that you can ask for. The other towns of Tripiti, Klima, and Pollonia are all worth the visit.
Milos also has a huge selection of beautiful beaches with very dramatic rocky backdrops. Ultimately, I found the beaches in Ios to be nicer, but of course none compare to the ones in the Ionian Sea.
#5 – Paros
Paros, the second largest of the Cyclades, is also one of its most well known. Although I’d never heard of Paros before doing research on the Cyclades, I think it is probably the 3rd most visited island after Santorini and Mykonos.
The main town of Naoussa is much more commercialized than other Cyclades towns but still maintains a beautiful and charming old town feel. I came in August to Paros and it was very lively. Every day the waterfront was packed to the brim with people enjoying the beautiful sunset and the sea breeze.
Outside of Naoussa are much smaller and more quaint villages. Marpissa, Marmara, and Lefkes are must visit towns in Paros for their incredible beauty and charm.
Antiparos is a small satellite island next door to Paros. It was once a sleepy fishing island but in recent decades has turned into a hideout for the ultrawealthy building big resorts. Tom Hanks is probably its most famous resident among many others. Nevertheless, the main Chora of Antiparos is easily visited on a day trip from Paros and offers one of the most beautiful old towns in the Cyclades. It definitely oozes a bit of a posh upper class vibe but it is well worth the visit for a day.
Naxos is the biggest island in the Cyclades and also the “capital” in olden times. While other islands have their main town (Chora) up in the mountains as that made it harder for marauding pirates to attack, the Chora of Naxos was always the main port town.
The Chora of Naxos is like a more rustic version of neighboring Mykonos. While you’ll undoubtedly pass through the Chora, the surrounding towns are where Naxos really steals the show.
I would wager that some of the most picturesque and photogenic traditional villages in the entire Cyclades are on Naxos. Filoti, Apeiranthos, and Koronos are my favorite towns to wander through and take photos.
It’s not as over the top white as other islands but that coupled with the natural beauty of Naxos gives it a more unique charm in my opinion.
Naxos is also home to numerous beaches perfect for lounging, kitesurfing, and even diving. There is plenty to do and eat here.
Read my detailed post about visiting Naxos!
#7 – Ios
Ios is known as the party island for Greeks. Mykonos steals the thunder normally because of how exclusive and done up it is, but those that want to party without breaking the bank come to Ios. The Chora is actually quite picturesque as it’s built alongside a hill but I found it to be better for pictures from afar (of the Chora) than walking within it.
Perhaps it’s because I had been to so many other islands before Ios but the inside of the Chora was not as impressive as others even though it was a beautiful ancient city. Nevertheless, the island still boasts incredible mountain landscapes and perhaps the most pristine beaches in the Cyclades islands.
Again, the Cyclades are not the top beach spots in Greece. That honor would go to the islands in the Ionian sea like Kefalonia, Zakynthos, and Lefkada. The beaches in the Cyclades do not compare to those islands. Ios is probably as close as it gets from the places I visited. There are long stretches of sandy beaches with super clear blue waters.
Ios is also a great place for solo travelers. Because it’s a big party island, it attracts a lot of other solo travelers. With the large supply of hostels, it’s a perfect way to meet other travelers on your journey.
#8 – Santorini
Santorini needs no introduction to anyone. This horseshoe shaped island is the most visited island in Greece and probably one of the most visited islands in the world (if not the most). I’ts not your typical Cycladic island but millions of people come to this beautiful volcanic island every year which automatically makes it a less desirable place for me.
Wine at Santo Winery
Santorini is quickly on its way to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site but not because of its cute old town. Rather, its incredible volcanic soil lends to some of the most delicious wines Greece produces. There’s no better place to enjoy a glass than at Santo Winery looking over the Aegean islands and sea.
Santorini is too touristy otherwise
It is simply too crowded and too touristy. Sure the views and pictures you can take from Oia, Santorini’s most famous town, are great, but you are essentially waiting in line with hundreds of other people to take the same photo. I know this because I had an Airbnb right in front of the famous three blue Domes. The line of people would start from 7am and wouldn’t abate until 11pm. This was also during COVID, where I was told the amount of tourists was at 20% of the capacity as normal times.
If you are planning to spend the big bucks and stay at a very exclusive resort overlooking the ocean, this could be better as you’ll have more privacy. However, I just think after spending so much time on the other islands, Santorini left me less than impressed. I know 99% of people will visit Santorini regardless and purely out of FOMO and that’s okay. I also wanted to visit out of FOMO. It’s still a very visually pleasing island and is worth seeing.
However, compared to the other Cyclades islands, it’s just not a place I would go rush back to.
#9 – Mykonos
Mykonos is known as the party island of Greece. People flock here from all over the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, Cruise ships, and the like to see the Chora and experience the nightlife. Mykonos is probably most famous for its numerous beach clubs that are party by day, and party by night.
The Chora of Mykonos, otherwise known as Mykonos Town is located right at the port and is actually one of the most picturesque towns in the Cyclades. It satisfies everything you’d want in a Cyclades town with its beautiful windmills, whitewashed churches, stone streets. It’s also home to the famous Little Venice which are colorful houses located on the waterfront that is famous for its views.
Mykonos is too touristy for me
Mykonos was my first island in the Cyclades purely because there are flights that go there from Greece and Europe. I visited in July 2020 as Greece was reopening to the world. There weren’t many people in Mykonos which made it much more of an enjoyable experience. I really liked the Chora and especially the sunset bars. However, July 2020 saw about 10-15% of normal capacity. There were no cruise ships at all. The Chora is not a big place after all, and I could only imagine how terrible it would be in normal times. Mykonos is among the most popular islands in the entire world.
The price for food and alcohol are significantly more expensive on Mykonos and Santorini. I would factor in a 50% price increase from Mykonos versus the neighboring islands.
With that said, I think Mykonos is still worth a visit if not just to check off the FOMO checklist. However, I am purely ranking it at the bottom because it’s one of the last places I would re-visit after seeing so many other more charming and less frequented islands.
Mykonos would be good for solo travel
With all that said, I think that Mykonos would make for a great solo travel destination. If you’re a solo traveler looking to meet other travelers and want to have a good time, then Mykonos could be one of the best destinations. There are loads of hostels, parties, and great social vibes on this island to keep you occupied.
Most of the other islands on this post are better suited for couples and group travel as there really isn’t much to do after hours.
#10 – Tinos: One of the most authentic Greek Islands
The last spot on my list goes to Tinos. I put this as my number 10 choice for a few reasons but primarily because it is the most authentic of all the Greek islands I’ve been to (and I’ve been to over 30).
Tinos is not your typical Greek island. It’s very quiet, has almost no tourism, and is not that easy to get to. It’s located just off the coast of Mykonos but getting there requires either a 1-hour ferry ride or a 45-minute flight. Because of this, it’s often overlooked by most visitors to Greece.
The island has a very different feel compared to the other islands in the Cyclades. Most of the buildings are made from marble instead of the traditional whitewash. There are no beach clubs or big party scene. And, most visitors to the island are Greek locals.
Tinos is a great place to relax and experience true Greek island life. The food is some of the best I’ve had in Greece and the people are incredibly friendly. I would recommend Tinos to anyone looking for a more authentic and off-the-beaten path experience in Greece.
#11 – Koufonisia
Koufonisia is a small island located between Naxos and Amorgos. It’s often overlooked by visitors to Greece but I think it’s definitely worth a visit.
The island is incredibly beautiful with its turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and lush vegetation. It’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
There are two main villages on the island, Pano Koufonisi and Kato Koufonisi. Pano Koufonisi is the more developed of the two with a few small hotels, restaurants, and cafes. Kato Koufonisi is much more quiet and laid back with only a few places to eat and drink.
I would recommend Koufonisia to anyone looking for a relaxed and quiet island getaway. It’s the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Getting to Koufonisia from Naxos
Koufonisia is easily reachable by ferry from Naxos or Paros. Koufonisia is a popular day trip itinerary from these two larger Cyclades islands but I think the real beauty lies with staying there for a night or two.
You can take the speed boat from Naxos to Koufonisia in 35 minutes or elect for the slower ferry which can take 2.5 hours.
Visit Koufonisia during the busier season
Koufonisia is actually one of the better places to visit during peak season summer months in Greece. Koufonisia is harder to reach than the other islands making it less crowded. It isn’t empty by any means but it’s definitely a better bet than nearby islands like Paros or Santorini.
#12 – Kynthos
Kynthos is a small island located between Naxos and Mykonos. It’s often overlooked by visitors to Greece but I think it’s definitely worth a visit.
The island is incredibly beautiful with its turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and lush vegetation. It’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
There are two main villages on the island, Pano Kynthos and Kato Kynthos. Pano Kynthos is the more developed of the two with a few small hotels, restaurants, and cafes. Kato Kynthos is much more quiet and laid back with only a few places to eat and drink.
I would recommend Kynthos to anyone looking for a relaxed and quiet island getaway. It’s the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Bonus island: Astypalaia
Finally, we have one of my all time favorite islands in Greece, Astypalaia. While technically a part of the Dodecanese island chain, Astypalaia is by all intents and purposes a Cycladic island given its architecture and feel. It’s located between the islands of Santorini and Kos.
Astypalaia is totally off the beaten track and you’ll not find many foreign tourists here. Nevertheless, it’s an absolutely stunning island with one of the most beautiful Choras you’ll find in the Cyclades islands.
The famous Chora is lined with iconic windmills and beautiful white Cycladic houses that build up to the Kastro at the top of the hill. Astypalaia also has incredible food and prices that are cheaper than the rest of the island chain. Just look at these photos after all!
Getting around once you’re on the island
Once you’ve made it to the island, how do you get around? While the islands are mostly quite small, it’s not tiny sized like Caye Caulker in Belize where you can walk or bicycle around the entire island in short time. Even the smallest of the Cyclades in Folegandros is around 10km by 3km which is far too big to walk.
Every island has a public bus that will take you between points of interests. Usually these are the main towns in the island as well as some of the more popular beaches. In Folegandros for example, there was really only one town of interest so the bus stopped at all the various beaches in the island. In addition to the bus, there was also a public ferry that took passengers between beaches, many of which are difficult to access by land.
The buses are old school but they are reliable and cheap. They normally don’t come very often (maybe once an hour) so if you miss it, you will be waiting for quite some time. I paid around €1.50 to €2.00 per ride when I did take the buses. If you’re two people, then it’s actually cheaper to just rent a scooter since a round trip bus for two people will be €8 or so which is about half of what a scooter costs per day.
Renting a scooter in Greece
Renting a scooter can probably take up its own blog post with all the intricacies around. I’ll try to keep it simple.
By far the best way to see the islands is by scooter. I rented a scooter on pretty much every island I went to (ATV on a few) because like I said, there’s just no better way to do it!
A scooter is quite cheap, uses very little fuel, is small so parking is never an issue, and is fast enough because you never travel more than 70 km/h on the islands anyway.
In order to rent a scooter in Greece, you must have an EU drivers license or an international drivers license with motorcycle endorsement. While other countries may be lax about these rules, Greece does not mess around. They enforce and check this without fail. If you have an American drivers license for example without any international permit add-on, you will not rent a scooter full stop.
If you have an EU drivers license, you will need the AM, A1, or A designations (check the back of the card). Which one you have will determine the size of the motorbike you can rent.
- AM – 50cc only
- A1 – Up to 125cc
- A2/A – You can rent a motorcycle at this point so any scooter will do you fine
I only have the AM which means I can only rent the 50cc scooters. I did have one shop in Milos somehow misread my license and gave me a 125cc instead. Not sure if they intentionally did that or if I just got lucky.
Scooters in Greece cost roughly €15 per day for a 50cc and €20 for a 125cc in the peak summer months. In off season, you can expect a 25% reduction in price. Prices can be negotiated a little bit but typically they are set because the companies don’t want to engage in a price war to the bottom with each other.
50cc vs 125cc scooters
If you are one person, a 50cc is enough. The scooters are small but powerful enough to get you where you need to go. I had 50cc most of the time and could get up hills without issue. On the steepest of hills, it maxed out at 30 km/h. For two people, 50cc is borderline too weak. I think for flat surfaces it would be okay but you are risking it if you are going up a steep hill.
A 125cc will be more than enough for two people in any circumstance.
Rent an ATV in Greece
If you don’t have a moto license or any sort, you can still rent an ATV. However, the same applies with international drivers permit. If you have a Non-EU drivers license, you can only rent an ATV if you have an international permit. Otherwise, if you have an EU license, you just need the B category which is for cars to drive an ATV.
I rented an ATV in Mykonos and it was plenty of fun I must say. Since they are much bigger machines, you’ll want to rent at least the 170cc machines. These are plenty fast enough for the islands and can do hills no problem even with two people. Some places rent 50cc ATVs but I would not mess with these as they will be questionably strong enough for 1 person and absolutely not strong enough for two people. I’ve heard of couples pushing the damn thing up a hill. If you’re feeling like a boss, you can go for the 400cc ATVs which can go past 100km/h but you will never reach that speed on the islands anyhow.
The price for a 170cc ATV is roughly €30-35/day in the high season with a solid discount in the off season.
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- A Guide To All The Ionian Islands, Greece: Which Island Is The Best?
- The Ultimate Folegandros Travel Guide – A Slice Of Greek Paradise
- The Perfect Cyclades Greek Island Hopping Itinerary
- The Ultimate Guide To Island Hopping The Cyclades In Greece
- Ultimate Travel Guide For Amorgos: Greece’s Most Dramatic Island
- The Perfect Travel Guide For Milos Island, Greece
- The Ultimate Guide To Visiting Astypalaia Island, Greece