Visit the beautiful Santorini on Sky Princess. Credit: Shutterstock

Greek Odyssey: why a cruise is the best way to explore Greece's islands

Author: Nicole Carmichael

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With 8,500 miles of spectacular coastline, at least 250 days of sunshine every year and 18 UNESCO World Heritage sites, it’s no wonder Greece is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world

Often called the cradle of Western civilisation, Greece is the birthplace of democracy, philosophy and science – not to mention the Olympic games and those timeless legends of heroes and warriors.

Today it is the ultimate marriage of ancient and modern, always celebrating its unparalleled history but with a vibrant contemporary culture too.

Located at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, with the Aegean Sea to the east, the Ionian to the west and the Mediterranean to the south, Greece has the longest coastline in Europe. Its most famous islands include Crete, Corfu, Mykonos, Santorini and Rhodes, but there are literally thousands more – some of them holiday hotspots, others uninhabited and almost unknown to the wider world.

So whether you want serenity and simplicity or party vibes and non-stop nightlife, there’s a Greek island with your name on it...

Even if the Greek islands are the focus of your cruise, you’ll often start on the mainland with a visit to Athens, Europe’s oldest capital.

The most famous of the city’s many landmarks is the Acropolis, the hilltop citadel built in the 5th century BC and crowned by the Parthenon temple.

The prototype for classical buildings all over the world, this is the icon that everyone wants to visit – but you can dodge the crowds (and the heat) by going early or late in the day.

No matter how long you spend in Athens there will always be atmospheric ruins and fascinating museums yet to visit, but try to find time for the Temple of Poseidon and the Amphitheatre of Dionysus. The city is also fringed with lovely beaches, so even if you venture no further you can still enjoy an amazing Greek holiday experience.

Further north on the mainland lies Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city. Renowned for its festivals and events, this is considered to be the country’s cultural capital. Its most famous landmark is the 15th-century White Tower but there’s plenty more to see (Roman monuments such as the Rotunda and the Arch of Galerius are as much a part of the landscape as the giant umbrella sculpture on the waterfront – a delightful contemporary addition by artist George Zongolopoulos that has become a symbol of the modern city).

Enjoy a hiking cruise around Greece, taking in sights such as historic Athens. Credit: Shutterstock

If you’re a history or archeology buff, the Greek islands offer a lifetime’s worth of ruins and artefacts for you to unearth.

You may not have the time to follow Odysseus’ epic trail, but a spot of island-hopping is a must. If this is your first trip to Greece (you’ll definitely be back), head to Crete, the largest of the islands and home to the Palace of Knossos and the mythical Minotaur.

If you’re a returning visitor, go to the other extreme and discover tiny Halki. The smallest of the inhabited Greek isles at just 11 square miles, this lovely spot is characterised by UNESCO as the island of Peace and Friendship.

Wherever your cruise takes you, you just can’t go wrong. Each island has a character and charm of its own but they all share sunshine, beaches, great food, history and endless Insta-worthy blue-and-white buildings. And there’s so much more. Fully 80 per cent of Greece is made up of mountains, and threaded through that rugged scenery are some great walking trails, such as the Samaria Gorge in Crete and the Mount Stavros Loop in Corfu.

You can even dabble in a little volcanology at the countless craters, hot springs and other-worldly geological formations that dot these sun-kissed islands (try Santorini and Milos for some of the most notable).

Crete is by far the largest island in Greece. Credit: Shutterstock

All that breathtaking scenery makes Greece a popular movie location, too, so don’t be surprised if a landscape suddenly looks familiar. Skopelos is the island where Mamma Mia was filmed, Kefalonia was the location for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Bourne Identity was shot in Mykonos.

Wildlife-lovers will be in raptures, too. Zakynthos is known as a birdspotters’ paradise, while bottle-nosed dolphins and loggerhead turtles can often be seen on boat trips in the Aegean and Ionian seas. And those almost impossibly blue waters are heaven for anyone who loves swimming, snorkelling and other sports, with the Cyclades top-of-the charts for sailing, and Mykonos and Kefalonia for snorkelling.

After all that history, sightseeing and activity, you’ll probably be ready to nibble on a Greek olive and watch the world go by from a beach lounger, or perhaps tuck into freshly barbecued sardines by the harbour. But whatever floats your boat, a Greek cruise will give you the best chance to enjoy everything this magical country has to offer.

Kefalonia will be known to many as the setting for Louise de Bernière’s novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Credit: Shutterstock


Brilliant beaches
From the white sands of Ios to the black sands of Santorini and umpteen shades of gold in between, the Greek islands have Europe’s best beaches – not to mention all those taverna-lined bays.

Awesome architecture
Greece is steeped in history and you’re never far from some astonishing sight, such as the Acropolis in Athens or the medieval fortress of Nafplion.

Fabulous food
As the culinary heart of the Mediterranean, Greece is just bursting with fresh, tasty, healthy dishes – from simple tomato-and-feta salad to hearty moussaka, tender slow-cooked stifado and sticky-sweet baclava.

Sunny smiles
As well as a balmy climate, you can look forward to a warm welcome from the locals. And as long as you’re an averagely savvy traveller, Greece is a very safe country to visit.

The sticky, sweet and nutty dessert of baklava is a Greek favourite. Credit: Shutterstock

Celestyal, Azamara, Virgin, SeaDream and Seabourn specialise in Greek voyages, and for a boutique cruise you’ll also want to look at Star Clippers, Windstar and Athens-based Variety.

All the big names – and big ships – offer Greek itineraries, including Marella, Princess, NCL, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, MSC, Oceania, P&O, Cunard and Holland America.

Island-hopping holidays often include visits to Crete, Santorini, Mykonos and Kefalonia, plus the Turkish port of Kusadasi (to visit the classical ruins at nearby Ephesus). If there are mainland port calls too, expect to visit Athens (docking at Piraeus) and Thessaloniki.

Marella's seven-night ‘Aegean Shores’ cruise aboard Marella Explorer,round trip from Corfu via Crete, Santorini, Kusadasi, Athens (Piraeus) and Kefalonia, departs May 10, 2024, from £1,026.

Celestyal's seven-night ‘Idyllic Aegean’ cruise aboard Celestyal Journey, round trip from Thessaloniki via Kusadasi, Crete, Santorini, Mykonos, Milos and Athens, departs April 7, 2024, from £699.

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