The Ionian and Cyclades island chains in Greece are the most famous and most beautiful. I have spent many weeks and months traveling through the Greek islands and these islands hold a special place in my travel history.
If you’re new to Greece and can’t decide between visiting the Ionian islands or the Cyclades Islands, then consider yourself lucky. You’re picking between two incredibly beautiful and worthy destinations so you can’t really lose. You’re going to be mesmerized by the natural beauty of the Greek islands, hospitality of its people, and the delicious food.
However, these islands are totally different from each other so this guide will help you understand the differences. Whether you’re visiting as a family, romantic couples, or looking to party it up, this guide will tell you everything you need to now.
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 Islands of the Ionian Sea
First thing is first, let’s go over what islands comprise the Ionian sea and Aegean sea (home to the Cycladic islands).
The Ionian sea consists of 7 different islands on Greece’s northwest corner. These islands border Albania which I absolutely love and you can actually take a ferry from Corfu at the very north to Sarande in Albania.
The Ionian islands are defined by their incredibly natural beauty. The islands are green as can be with lush forests and vegetation. Towering mountains can also be seen throughout the islands adding to that incredible view.
The beaches in the Ionian islands are among the best in the country. The term Ionian blue comes from these islands as it matches the vibrant and deep shade of turquoise/blue that these waters have. You’ll also find crystal clear waters and white sand beaches all throughout the archipelago.
The people on the Ionian islands are generally viewed as some of the warmest and nicest people in Greece. It’s hard to argue with that when the islands are so beautiful. For more information on the Ionian islands, make sure to read my Ionian islands travel guide as well as my Ionian island travel itinerary for ideas on how to plan your trip.
The islands of the Ionian Islands
The Cyclades Islands of the Aegean Sea
The Cyclades islands are the most well known island group in Greece. For good reason I might add. When you think of Greek islands, it’s undoubted that the Cyclades come to mind. White washed stone houses, baby blue window frames and doors, cobblestone streets, and insane Mediterranean views are all that is on offer with the Cyclades.
Thee Cyclades islands are all located in the Aegean sea, much smaller than the Ionian islands, and generally more touristy. The landscapes are also drastically different. I’ve been to the Cyclades numerous times and absolutely love it here.
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 want an idea of how I planned my island hopping trip through the islands, make sure to read my Cyclades island hopping itinerary.
If you have limited time and want to only visit a few islands, read my list where I personally rank the best Cyclades islands.
Climate and Landscape
The Cyclades and Ionian islands are located near to each other but are located far away enough that there are certain differences. Generally, the Cyclades islands are warmer and drier than the Ionian islands. That’s why the landscapes in the Cyclades resemble more of a arid desert like facade whereas the Ionian islands are highlighted by their green and lush landscapes. Olive trees are a staple of the Ionian islands whereas you won’t find many of these growing in the Cyclades.
Generally, the seasons are similar in the Cyclades and Ionian islands. The winter months between November and March are low season with few tourists and limited ferry schedules. The temperatures can get into the single digits and rain/wind is much more common. In the summer months, both areas can get very hot but the Cyclades is perhaps just a little bit hotter.
In the summer months, you can expect temperatures to be between 25 and 35 degrees on average with slightly lower temperatures in the Ionian islands. Winter months you can expect to see temperatures between 5 and 15 degrees.
Size of the Cyclades vs Ionian islands
As mentioned already, the Ionian islands are much bigger than that of the Cyclades. To put it in perspective, the biggest island in the Cyclades is Naxos. This is less than 1/3 the size of Kefalonia which is the largest island in the Ionian islands. The other Cycladic islands are much smaller than Naxos which means it is much easier to explore and travel around the islands.
Simply rent a scooter or a quadbike in the Cycladic islands and you can cruise on the main roads with the wind at your back and the ocean views to your side. The feeling of cruising through Folegandros was particularly mesmerizing. This small island at only 12km long and 1km wide has its main road in the middle of the island elevated at its highest point. The ocean can be seen on both sides most of the time.
I really liked the small size of the Cycladic islands as it made exploring much easier. It also gave it that special unique feeling like you were on this island by yourself surrounded by beautiful views and ocean. This is not to say you’ll get bored quickly because they are so small but rather you aren’t overwhelmed by having so many choices.
In addition, the Cyclades islands also have public transportation that takes you between big points of interest during the tourist seasons. For example, in Sifnos, the shuttle buses take you from the port town to the scenic Appolonia town with all the beautiful houses and restaurants. You technically don’t need a scooter if you just want to chill in your hotel by the ocean and visit the old town for dinner at night. Everything is already taken care of.
The Ionian islands can be traveled with a scooter or quad bike but it will take you a long time to get anywhere. The islands are too big and things too spread out to properly explore without a car in my opinion. Similarly, there are very few public transportation options on the Ionian islands that I could find. Some of the more popular islands had buses like Corfu but forget about it if you’re in a place like Lefkada or Paxos.
Costs of visiting the Ionian and Cyclades islands
Greece is generally quite an affordable country to visit. You can get amazing value living in a place like Athens living a very cosmopolitan life for much less than other places in Europe or the US.
The islands are generally a bit more expensive than in the capital city. As you can expect, everything is imported on these islands with the exception of Crete which is its own fully sustaining island. These islands live almost purely off tourism so you can expect prices to be slightly elevated compared to the mainland.
Mykonos and Santorini are the big exceptions as these islands are vastly popular and attract the rich free flow spending types around the world. You can expect to spend 50% more on these islands compared to the other islands of the Cyclades.
Cyclades is generally more expensive than the Ionian islands
Excluding Mykonos and Santorini, I still found that the Cyclades islands are generally more expensive than the Ionian islands. The Ionian islands are much larger and can grow their own olives, vegetables, and meat whereas most things in the Cycladic islands are imported. The Ionian islands are also less popular and well known compared to the Cyclades, especially among the non European crowds.
Prices are much higher during peak season
This is true of the Cyclades and the Ionian islands. You can expect to pay double the rates for accommodations during the months of June, July, and August versus the other months of the year. I always recommend visiting these islands in the shoulder seasons. This means late April to early June, as well as Mid September to mid October.
Feeling of remoteness
One of my favorite parts of visiting the Greek islands is feeling like I’ve been whisked off to a beautiful, remote, and totally isolated place. Throw in amazing Greek food, wine for days, and incredible ocean views everywhere you look and you have the recipe for the perfect vacation.
I think both the Ionian islands and the Cyclades islands offer this special feeling that you don’t find in other islands in Europe. Cruising on my scooter through some of the beautiful Cyclades islands is one of my favorite summer activities. You feel like you’re at the end of the world sometimes but then you can return to the main Chora and be surrounded by delicious food and architecture.
Best beaches: Cyclades vs Ionian Islands
This one is easy for me. The Ionian islands have much superior beaches to the Cyclades. This is not to say that there aren’t nice beaches in the Cyclades; you’ll find plenty all over the archipelago like in Milos, Ios, and Naxos.
However, the beaches in the Cyclades and Aegean sea just can’t compare to the insane colors that the Ionian sea has to offer.
The deep turquoise color of the beaches in Zakynthos, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Corfu, and Paxos are unrivaled in my opinion in Europe. You’ll also find a lot more white sand in the Ionian sea whereas most beaches in the Cyclades islands are pebbles. Don’t expect to find tropical beaches like in the Maldives or Zanzibar but these are just the types of beaches that exist in the Mediterranean.
Beautiful Architecture: Cyclades vs Ionian islands
Without a doubt, the Cyclades reigns supreme in the architecture front. The Cyclades white and blue is synonymous with Greece and is the de facto picture of every Greece travel advertisement. The Blue domes of Santorini and the quaint streets of Mykonos are pictures everyone has seen without even visiting Greece.
In most of the Cycladic islands, houses were painted white to reflect the harsh summer sun. So, it started for let’s say “bioclimatic” or “ecological” reasons, to make houses a little more heat resistant, with the knowledge people had at the time. All Cycladic island houses were quite well insulated, although with primitive means — walls were built with stone (enduring heat and cold very well ) while roofs (vaulted or not) were insulated too, with a combination of wood, mud, hay, and pozolanic (volcanic ash) cement.
One thing to note is that walls were not painted with white paint, since white paint was fabricated and mass-produced all around the world,only after 1905 – 1915. Instead, asbestos was used to produce an almost white color. It was also used as a cheap material for many other purposes, like painting tree trunks to kill pests, making the edges of pavements more visible, ornamenting small roads, etc. This was NOT the case in Santorini but in most other Cycladic islands.
Ionian islands architecture
The islands in the Ionian sea do not have the same picturesque towns as the islands of the Cyclades. I guess they never got the memo to do things in white and blue. There are a few villages that are definitely worth seeing particularly in the island of Kefalonia. The towns of Fiskardo and Amos are very stunning. As these islands belonged to the Venetian empire hundreds of years ago, the architecture is profoundly Italian in nature.
The main town of Corfu is also one of the nicest in the country. To me it feels like you’re in a city in southern Italy as opposed to Greece.
Best place for families Ionian or Cyclades?
If you are a family with kids, how do you decide between the two island groups? I think both island chains are great if you have kids. You’ll want to avoid certain islands like Mykonos or Santorini in the Cyclades but the other islands are perfect for a family vacation.
The Ionian islands are larger so you’ll be able to find larger accommodation at a cheaper price than in the Cyclades. With a car rental, you’ll be able to get around with the family easier.
In the Cyclades, there are more hotels and all inclusive type reports if you don’t feel like doing anything. The islands are also much smaller so you could just stay in the main towns most of the time and not feel like you need to get out as much.
Best place to party
If you’re looking to party, then it’s likely you’re going to want to go to the Cyclades islands as opposed to the Ionian islands. While the islands of Corfu and Zakynthos have nightlife to offer, everyone goes to the islands in the Cyclades for this purpose.
Mykonos is the premier party destination in Greece and it’s where everyone that wants to see and be seen go. Think beach clubs, fancy restaurants, cocktail bars paired with everyone that is or wants to be semi Insta famous and you have Mykonos. Ios is the other party island in the Cyclades and attracts the people that want to go out but without the flash and flair (and huge budget requirements).
I didn’t do much partying while I was in the Cyclades because the beach clubs were mostly closed in the summer of 2020. Prices are also much higher in Mykonos than anywhere else in Greece so I wasn’t keen to pay €12 for a glass of wine when I could get it for 1/3 the price elsewhere in the islands.
- A Guide To All The Ionian Islands, Greece: Which Island Is The Best?
- Why Santorini is my Least Favorite Greek Island
- Mykonos Vs Santorini: How To Decide Between Greece’s Most Popular Islands
- Best Time To Visit Greece: The Best Months For Every Traveler
- The Perfect Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini Travel Itinerary
- The Perfect Travel Guide For Milos Island, Greece
- The Ultimate Travel Guide For Mykonos, Greece
- Visiting Lefkada And The Most Beautiful Beaches In Greece
- The Ultimate Guide To Island Hopping The Cyclades In Greece
- The Ultimate Folegandros Travel Guide – A Slice Of Greek Paradise
- The Perfect Cyclades Greek Island Hopping Itinerary
- The Best Greek Islands In The Cyclades: How To Choose Which One To Visit