The Ionian islands are an ancient group of islands in the west Ionian sea of on the northwest coast of Greece. The Ionian islands are perhaps the second most popular group of islands in Greece after the fabled Cyclades. If you’re looking for beautiful little white houses, then you need to look at the Cyclades islands rather than Ionian islands. However, if you want breathtaking landscapes, and the most amazing beaches of Greece, look no further than the Ionian islands.
The Ionian islands includes the islands of Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Ithaca, Lefkada, Corfu, Paxos, and Antipaxos. I spent time over various trips to Greece to visit all of the above islands. Not all islands are created equal however and I definitely think some of them are better than others.
If you’re thinking of visiting the Ionian islands and can’t decide where to go, this guide should help you in deciding. This is all my opinion however so just keep in mind that not everyone will agree with my opinions! In addition, make sure to read my Ionian islands travel itinerary if you want to see how I structured my trip to see these beautiful islands.
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.
The best time to visit the Ionian Islands
Located in the Mediterranean sea, the Ionian 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 Ionian 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.
Unlike the Cyclades islands, the islands in the Ionian sea are much larger in size. Therefore, while it is still peak season, you won’t feel that it is as stuffy and packed full of tourists as going to a much smaller island in the Cyclades like Mykonos or Santorini.
The best time to visit the Ionian Islands
I traveled around the Ionian islands in various times of the year. I traveled in early May, early October, and June/July. I always avoided August in Greece but that’s just personal preference.
I prefer to visit the Greek islands in the shoulder seasons. This includes late April to early June, as well as mid September to end of October. You’ll avoid the crazy crowds in these months but the weather will still be plenty warm and all the tavernas will be open.
In the spring months of April and May, this typically sees the lowest amount of tourists with temperatures near 25 degrees. However, keep in mind that the water will be very cold still as the sea warms up from the winter months. Sep/Oct will see lower tourist numbers and the sea will be warmer. Temperatures can still be very warm even in October but the weather can be more volatile.
My list of best islands in the Ionian Sea
I spent over two months traveling around the Cyclades 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, 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!
Food in the Ionian islands
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. When it comes to Greek food and delicious restaurants, Greece has these in abundance no matter where you go. Just take a look at the restaurant reviews on Google maps for these places and you’ll see a disproportionate amount of 4.5* and above reviews.
Greece has the best food in Europe in my opinion and the Ionian islands will provide no shortage of amazing tavernas all over. There’s no point to try and make a comparison of which Ionian island has the best food because they all have outstanding tavernas.
#1 – Lefkada
Lefkada is definitely one of my favorite Ionian islands. It is located in the middle of the island range in between Corfu and Kefalonia. Whereas the other islands require a ferry, Lefkada is the only island that is directly accessible by car from the mainland.
Lefkada has the quintessential Ionian landscapes characterized by dramatic rolling mountains, green landscapes, cyprus trees, and beautiful beaches. Lefkada, however, takes the beach game to the next level.
The beaches in Lefkada are among the best in Europe in my opinion and certainly the best the Ionian islands have to offer. Porto Katsiki, Egremni beach, and Mylos beach are just one of the many stunning beaches in Lefkada for you to consider.
The beaches here just have the most mesmerizing and deep colored azure waters you can find. The beaches are not sandy but just the smallest of pebbles making it enjoyable to lounge on. There aren’t many cute villages in Lefkada but you’re coming here for the beaches nonetheless!
There are also a plethora of beautiful villas and the perfect vacation rental can be found using CozyCozy which is an all in one accommodation search engine.
Read my detailed Lefkada travel guide.
#2 – Kefalonia
South of Lefkada lies the island of Kefalonia, also the largest of the Ionian islands. Kefalonia has the most dramatic and mountainous landscape of the seven islands. I came here as part of my trip to Zakynthos and Kefalonia, taking a ferry between the two.
Kefalonia is also blessed with beautiful beaches like the famous Myrtos beach which is rated consistently among the top beaches in Europe. You can see an absolutely breathtaking view from the main road overlooking Myrtos beach.
In addition, Kefalonia also has the most picturesque Greek villages in the Ionian islands. Of course the villages in the Cyclades are far more beautiful but Kefalonia has the most picturesque villages in the Ionian sea.
The villages of Assos and Fiskardo in Kefalonia will more than satisfy your cute village needs. These towns have beautiful colorful buildings and cobblestone streets that scream Greek islands.
I also went to numerous amazing restaurants in Kefalonia but again, this is just the luck of the draw with the ones I did find.
Read my detailed Kefalonia travel guide.
#3 – Zakynthos
Zakynthos is perhaps the most well known island in the Ionian sea. This isn’t so much because of the name but because of their most famous sight which is the Shipwreck beach.
I saw a photo of this beach long before I first visited Greece and was totally captivated by how beautiful it was. I had no idea where it was in Greece but I knew that it was Greece. The shipwreck beach is indeed in Zakynthos and is one of the most visited sights in all of Greece. As touristy as it was, it’s one of those sights that really does live up to the hype. From the cliffs above the beach, it is absolutely breathtaking looking at this crescent beach sandwiched between towering cliffs.
In addition, Zakynthos has an incredibly stunning coastline with huge cliffs dotting the horizon. If you rent your own boat, there are beautiful secluded beaches nearby to the Shipwreck beach. The towns of Zakynthos weren’t very impressive with a few that draw a very raucous crowd of British partygoers boozing it up after a long day of getting sunburnt.
Read my detailed Zakynthos travel guide.
#4 – Paxos & Antipaxos
Paxos is probably my favorite island in all of the Ionian. To me, Paxos is the perfect blend of Ionian islands and Cycladic islands. It offers the same lush green interior, with stunning cliffs and beautiful turquoise beaches all in the charming size of a Cyclades islands. It’s a mini Ionian island and that’s just how I like it.
Paxos is the place to go for those that don’t want to deal with the hectic vibe of Corfu. It’s only a 1 hour ferry ride from Corfu’s main port and ferries leave multiple times a day during the summer months.
The island itself is blessed with many beautiful beaches, cliff views, and adorable little towns with fantastic restaurants. If you’re staying a few days, a day trip to the even smaller island of Antipaxos is a must. The beach at Voutoumi bay is perhaps one of the best if not the best beach in all of the Ionian islands.
Read my detailed Paxos travel guide.
#5 – Corfu
Corfu, known as the Emerald island, is definitely the most popular and well known of the Ionian islands. Located in the very north of the peninsula, Corfu is actually directly across the sea from Albania where you can see the cities of Sarande and Ksamil. There is a ferry from Corfu to Albania that runs quite frequently.
Corfu is a hugely popular getaway for British and German tourists with multiple flights daily between Corfu airport and the numerous cities in those two countries. Corfu is also the most developed of the islands given that it is such a popular destination for tourists and retirees alike.
I visited Corfu last on my Ionian islands adventure and while it is still very visually beautiful, I found it to be the least impressive of the main Ionian islands. I think if Corfu was the first Ionian island I visited, I would have a different opinion but I didn’t find anything especially unique or anything that stood out to me.
The beaches of Corfu are not very impressive and the mountain landscapes no more impressive than any other islands. In addition, it was by far the busiest of the islands I visited which took away from its charm I think.
Read my detailed Corfu travel guide.
Bonus island – Ithaca (Ithaki)
Ithaca is one of the lesser known islands in the Ionian islands. I visited the island on a day trip from Kefalonia which is probably all you’ll need. The island is known for its stunning natural beauty with pristine beaches and towering forests. I even knew about Ithaca long before visiting Greece as it was where Odysseus set up shop after his adventures in the Iliad. There are even ancient ruins on Ithaca that are believed to be the home of Homer.
Ultimately, I did not spend enough time in Ithaca to really know everything about the island. I think it is an amazing place to visit if you have your own boat as some of the beaches here are unreachable without a boat but look absolutely stunning.
The ferry departs from Kefalonia in the morning and returns in the afternoon which makes it easy to take your car there and drive around the island for the day.
- Ionian or Cyclades Islands: How To Choose Between Greece’s Most Beautiful islands
- Visiting Lefkada And The Most Beautiful Beaches In Greece
- The Ultimate Corfu Island, Greece Travel Guide
- The Ultimate Travel Guide For Kefalonia, Greece
- The Perfect Ionian Islands Travel Itinerary
- The Ultimate Travel Guide For Zakynthos, Greece
- Why Santorini is my Least Favorite Greek Island
- Mykonos Vs Santorini: How To Decide Between Greece’s Most Popular Islands
- The Perfect Travel Itinerary For Northern Greece
- Paxos and Antipaxos: Travel Guide For The Hidden Ionian Gems
- The Perfect Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini Travel Itinerary
- The Ultimate Guide To Island Hopping The Cyclades In Greece