A Greek Vacation Dilemma: The Ionian Islands or the Cyclades?

Santorini island
The village of Oia on Santorini has been named one of the most beautiful in the world. “Should I visit the islands of the Ionian Sea or the Aegean” is one of the most pleasant dilemmas of vacation planning. Credit: Giuseppe Milo. CC BY-SA 2.0

With the coming of winter soon, it will be time for hopeful travelers to face one of the most pleasant dilemmas in planning next year’s vacation: Should I visit the islands of the Ionian Sea or the Aegean?

It is a hard choice, as both groups of islands are truly beautiful in all aspects. Both can cater to families and romantic couples or even to party animals.

The Islands of the Ionian Sea

Their natural setting is the main factor that makes the islands of the Ionian completely different from those belonging to the Cycladic archipelago. Here, the rich greenery blends harmoniously with the turquoise of the sea and the blue of the sky, creating beautiful, natural scenery reminiscent of paintings.

In terms of the Ionian islands, visitors who have traveled extensively around the world say that the turquoise of the cool, crystal-clear waters beat those of the Caribbean. The colors are extraordinary and the color combinations even more so. While the beaches are surrounded by pine trees rather than palm trees, one could still say that these are the “tropical islands” of Greece.

Zakynthos is also one of the pristine nesting sites of the loggerhead sea turtles.

The stunning Corfu landscape. Credit: A Guy Taking Pictures/CC BY 2.0

The Ionian Sea’s beaches are numerous and have been photographed countless times. Shipwreck Beach on Zakynthos, the impressive Egremni Beach, the turquoise Porto Katsiki Beach of Lefkas, and Myrtos Beach of Kefalonia are just some of the sandy stretches of heaven that are themselves a reason for a holiday on the Ionian islands.

Of course, there is more: the unbelievable “white” waters of Antipaxos, the lush greenery of Paxos; the little-known beaches of Ithaca that were the subject of Homer’s Ulysses; and Marathonissi in the bay of Laganas on Zakynthos are just a few of the best sites that need mentioning.

Another great characteristic of the Ionian islands is the Venetian presence in the architecture, the mellifluous speech of many locals, the musical influences, and even the food. For centuries, the islands of the Ionian belonged to the Venetians, and the western Mediterranean influence is still strong.

In terms of food, the Corfu pastitsa and sofrito are memorable dishes along with the island’s famous kumquat liqueur. Overall, all Ionian islands have cuisines influenced by their Venetian ancestors.

The famous Cyclades

When a foreigner speaks about Greece, chances are that Mykonos and Santorini will be made mention of. They are the two most internationally-renowned Greek islands that attract big names from the entertainment, business, and sports worlds each summer. Photographs of the Mykonos windmills and the Santorini Caldera are on the cover of most tourist guides for Greece.

The iconic beauty of the Cycladic islands is also well-known, however. This is comprised of the islands’ stone-paved alleys, whitewashed churches with cobalt blue domes, picturesque white houses, and gorgeous sandy beaches where the blue of the sky is majestically reflected in the clear waters.

There is opportunity for a number of memorable experiences, including viewing the sunset from Oia in Santorini, going for a dive in the deep waters of Amorgos, where the movie The Big Blue was shot, seeing the Red Sand Beach that looks like a landscape on Mars on Santorini, and partying at Cavo Paradiso Club of Mykonos where some of the wildest parties take place in the company of famous DJs. These are all once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And, of course, you’ll also not want to miss the ancient Temple of Apollo on Delos!

The Cyclades are not only comprised of Mykonos and Santorini, however. There are also Amorgos, Naxos, Syros and the picturesque tiny islands of Koufonissia, Irakleia, or Donousa with quiet, beautiful beaches for truly romantic settings.

Mykonos Greece Vacation island
The port of Mykonos. Crédit: Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Much can also be said about the Cycladic cuisine, of course. The San Mihali cheese of Syros or the Naxos version of gruyere are world famous while the fava of Santorini is a unique local delicacy as are the mouthwatering, fried tomato balls of the island. Mykonos has great sausages while the xynotyri (sour cheese) of Ios is not to be missed.

The great thing about the Cycladic group of islands is that there are 33 of them in total and all worth exploring. Paros, Milos, Sifnos, Serifos, Antiparos, Sikinos, Andros, Kythnos, and Kea are only a handful of these.

So what about that decision between between the Ionian and the Cycladic islands? Well, whichever you choose, it can only be a win-win situation, actually, as both sets of islands are absolutely spectacular. Why not visit the Ionian islands this summer and the Cycladic islands the following summer or vice versa? If only all life’s dilemmas were so pleasant to think about!

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