5 hidden-gem Greek islands

BY: Nick Kontis, Special to USA TODAY

Millions of visitors flock to Greece each year to seek out its cultural treasures and natural beauty. Some rubberneck with the crowds chasing sunsets in Oia on Santorini, or seek out raucous revelry on ultra-chic Mykonos.

Far beyond the usual Greek island suspects are less-touristy gems where you experience a more authentic Greek lifestyle without forfeiting vibrant village life and sun-splashed beaches.

Of Greece's nearly 6,000 islands, islets and rocks in the sea, 227 are inhabited. That means holidaymakers and global explorers have a wide range of options to choose from when planning a trip to Greece. There is an island for every taste, and while most are easily accessible, some are so off the beaten path that they may require a bit of ingenuity to visit.

In the Aegean Sea, the Cyclades Islands are the most-visited group and include some of the most popular islands, including Mykonos, Santorini, Paros, Naxos, Milos and Ios. Ferry rides from the Athens port of Piraeus take four hours on high-speed boats.

The good news is you can sidestep the large crowds by escaping to these five lesser-known Cyclades Islands that are easily accessible, yet less interrupted.

Folegandros ------------

In the last decade, Folegandros has received its share of positive press and gone from a sleepy hidden island in the Cyclades chain to a favorite among Greek island-hoppers. There are three main settlements on the island: Karavostathis is the port of entry and has a beach and lodging; Chora or Folegandros town is the island's capital and is laid out as a small labyrinth lined with trees and many hotels, nightlife and dining; while the ancient village of Ano Meria remains a step back in time.

Don't miss: Like its neighbors Milos and Sifnos, the island is known for its regional cuisine. In Chora, dine at To Spitiko restaurant for the meal of matsata, which is a traditional handmade pasta served with local rooster, goat or veal. In the rural and less-visited Ano Meria, Irini's Place is an authentic taverna where Irini cooks by day and greets visitors during dinner. The beaches of Angali, Agios Nikolaos and Livadaki sparkle in color palettes of blue and green. Water taxis transport beachcombers to and from Angali.

Where to stay: Chora might be the most romantic traditional medieval capital in the Cyclades. The local Greek Aria hotel collection has its Aria Boutique Hotel in Chora Folegandros. Or stay right on the beach of Angali at the traditional Cycladic whitewashed apartments Kymanemi Folegandros, run by locals who treat you like family.

Sifnos ------------

The rugged island of Sifnos is filled with olive trees, scents of capers creeping out from rock beds, wild sage and thyme, which grows throughout the mountainous isle with fertile valleys. There are countless churches and over 50 ancient towers throughout the island. It's also known as the island of chefs. The Sifniots are renowned throughout Greece as being some of the finest chefs. It is the original home of Nikos Tselemendes, a poet and culinary icon.

Sifnos is under three hours from Athens by high-speed ferry and offers a nice blend of traditional Greek life, combined with some of the best beaches in the Greek Islands. The old town of Kastro is a preserved treasure and a step back in time inhabited for over 3,000 years. The ancient settlement is filled with antiquities and no cars are allowed inside the village maze.

Sifnos is renowned for its stoneware and clay pottery. Talented artisans create amazing works of art incuding pots, pans, plates, cups, bowls, glasses and utensils. The demand is high, and most of the workshops ship their pottery throughout the world.

Don't miss: A visit to the astonishing Sifnos Acropolis of Agios Andreas and its impressive museum. Situated on top of a hill near Vathi, the citadel dates back to the Bronze Age of the Mycenaean period (circa 13th century). The museum displays relics from the excavation.

The beaches of Platis Gialos, Kamares and Vathy are three of Greece's most beautiful. For traditional Sifnos cuisine, dine at Limanaki restaurant in the picturesque seaside settlement of Faros where fishing boats line the beach and bay.

Where to stay: On the beach of Platis Gialos, Cyclades Beach Rooms & Apartments is where Sifnos local Nikos Venakis and his wife Maria prepare traditional Greek meals steps away from the sea. Another family-run property right on the sands of Kamares Beach is the Hotel Stavros, run by the hospitable Greek-British couple of Stavros and Sarah Kaloyeros.

Serifos ------------

From the moment you step off the ferry in the port of Livadi, lined with quaint fish tavernas along the beach and with a backdrop of one of the most spellbinding cobblestone villages in all of the Cyclades, you�re in Greek nirvana. The Serifians have managed to keep their culture intact, and as a result draw visitors seeking an unhurried Greek escape.

As delectable as the port of Livadi is, you must leave the waterfront to visit the many jaw-dropping golden sand and pebble beaches that adorn this island. It's also home to over 30 festivals throughout the year.

Don't miss: Visit the Monastery of Taxiarches, built in 1572. Located in the middle of the island, it is dedicated to Serifos' patron saints of Gabriel and Michael. Dine on fresh seafood at Kyklopas Restaurant under tamarisk trees on the fabulous beach of Mega Livadi.

Where to stay: Porto Serifos is a charming hotel on a side street right in the center of the port of Livadadakia. Maistrali Hotel on the beach in the port of Livadi is run by proud Serifos resident Babbis Bobolos, who arrived from Athens 20 years ago and never left. On the higher end, the appealing Aria Villas are made of local stone and wood thoughtfully integrated into the landscape.

Syros ------------

Syros flaunts a past unlike any other island in the Cyclades, with a unique Venetian history blending with its traditional Cyclades present. The island is the most Catholic of the Greek Islands.

Syros has fewer beaches than some of its island neighbors, but the best spots are Galissas, Poseidonia, Kini and Megas Gialos.

Don't miss: The main town of Ermoupolis is elegant and sophisticated. Meander the streets with alluring boutique hotels, lovely side streets and many dining options. Hike to the top of the hill above Ermoupolis to reach the mainly Catholic community of Ano Syros and the standout St. George Cathedral.

Where to stay: Dating back to 1843 is the neoclassical Aktaion Hotel, located directly on the port of Ermoupolis and within proximity to the town's historical center. Also in Ermoupolis is another neoclassical mansion turned into a friendly inn, the Hotel Ploes.

Kythnos ------------

Kythnos Island is a favorite of boat captains who sail yachts in the vast Aegean and bring tourists to dock for a day or two. If crowds are not your preference, fewer than 1,500 inhabitants call Kythnos their home.

The island dates back to the 12th century. The locals named this island Thermia, as the mineral-rich land has hot springs. The postcard-perfect port of Merihas, with its plethora of seaside restaurants and bars along with some rooms to rent, is about as laid-back as any Cyclades entry point.

Don't miss: This is an island ripe for exploration. Rent a car and find secluded areas where you might be the only adventurer. With 65 eye-popping beaches, you're sure to find one to your liking. Double-sided Kolona Beach is a favorite among travelers. Dine at the many fish tavernas in on the sea in Loutra.

Where to stay: Located on the north side of the island is the seaside settlement of Loutra, known for its famous hot springs. Porto Klaras Hotel is a fusion of traditional white Cycladic structure with modern amenities. Proprietor Giannis Klaras is a wealth of information on where to eat and where to visit on Kthynos.

more articles +

With each issue of Ultimate Experiences Online, you’ll enjoy a collection of articles, slideshows and videos that we will inspire you to make your travel dreams a reality.

View Magazine

To help you discover ways to explore the world, we're pleased to share our The Travel Magazine Online.

View Magazine

Save money and escape the crowds. Hot Deals and multi-port packages. Savings of up to 50%!

View Excursions

Our free app that allows you to carry all of the destination information you need while traveling, right in your pocket!

Download the Phone App!

We recommend optional travel insurance that protects you in the event of having to cancel your trip avoiding travel vendor cancellation policies and more!

What We Offer