Each island has its own unique charm, but which are the best Greek islands for food and wine lovers? These 10 won’t disappoint gastronomes, foodies and oenophiles.
This is a tough call as you can’t really go wrong with food anywhere in Greece (unless you’re ordering from a tourist menu with photos and a long list of international cuisine). Tavernas and restaurants are – by and large – full of fresh local produce, including rabbit, goat and snail as much as fish and seafood.
The years of austerity during the economic crisis have also resulted in a flourishing foodie scene, as younger generations return to the homelands of their (forebears) parents and grandparents with a keen entrepreneurial eye and millennial zeal for authenticity.
All islands have their own specialities and produce, a unique blend of the land and crops available, the history of production on the island, and proximity to other influences and cultures.
So if you’re a foodie heading to the Greek islands this summer, here are some of the most delicious destinations to work into your island-hopping itineraries.
Crete is known throughout as being source of some of the greatest food in the country. Perhaps because it’s a large island with a strong culture thanks to its remote position. Perhaps because it’s further south and that extra sun intensifies the food. If you find a Cretan restaurant in Athens you can almost guarantee it will be good. It’s an island where simple pleasures rule: after all, the original research into the benefits of the Mediterranean diet focused on Crete. The quality of the produce here is fantastic.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the bougatsa. A delicious flaky filo pastry with semolina custard filling, bougatsa can be found throughout Greece but some of the best you’ll taste is from Crete (particularly Heraklion). It’s sure to become your new breakfast obsession.
Other types of speciality pie in Crete include Chaniotiko boureki (usually zucchini), marathopita (a round pie with fennel), kaltsounia (a sweet cheese pie), and sfakiani pita
Dakos (sometimes spelt ntákos) is another dish with particular origins in Crete; a twice-baked barley rusk topped with fresh tomato, myzíthra cheese.
With such extensive mountain ranges, Crete is home to numerous herbs that can’t be found anywhere else. Keep an eye out for dittany, a type of oregano that is popular in mountain teas and excellent for the stomach. And stamnankathi is a type of wild chicory, native to Crete, that will turn up on meze menus, often alongside tsigariasto (goat or lamb slow cooked in lemon).
Wash it all down with a glass of tsikoudia, the strong Cretan spirit made from the parts of the grape left after the winemaking process.
This quiet island in the Cyclades is becoming a popular weekend getaway for foodies from Athens, who come for its understated but imaginative and thoughtful interpretation of Cycladic cuisine. Sifnos is a rising slow food star.
Its foodie reputation can be traced back to the famous chef Nikolaos Tselementes, who hails from the island and wrote one of the seminal tomes on Greek cuisine back in the 1920s.
The island’s sleepy streets fill with the aroma of freshly baked bread and biscuits from its many divine bakeries. The idyllic fishing village Hersonissos is known for the quality of its fish tavernas. Top notch restaurants fare can be found at Omega 3 (Tom Hanks is a fan). And in September the island plays host to the Cycladic Gastronomy Festival.
Santorini’s volcanic geology hasn’t just resulted in its iconic tumbledown buildings but also a unique ecosystem – rich in minerals but hot and barren. The island grows its own varieties of white aubergines, fava (split yellow peas), sweet Santorini tomatoes, and luscious capers.
Viticulture is also huge on Santorini; it produces one of the most well-known (and delicious) Greek wines – Assyrtiko and other indigenous varieties thrive in its unusual vineyards. There are a number of established vineyards on the island which are open to the public, many have elegant buildings and amazing settings, making Santorini one of Greece’s top wine tourism destinations.
And it doesn’t stop there. Many tourists flock to Santorini for its renowned upscale hotels. And where you find amazing upscale hotels, you also find amazing upscale restaurants with showstopper sunset views.
Lesvos is an agritourism star in the making. The Aegean island has long been famed for the quality of its vines and olives. And more than half the country’s ouzo output is made on the island.
In centuries past it was one of the top tourist destinations in Greece, with its handsome capital Mytilene and the colourful houses of Molyvos. It’s proximity to Turkey and fertile land meant it was well-placed to benefit from being at the crossroads of gastronomic influence.
The island showcases its produce in July’s Lesvos Food Fest, where you’ll find delights such as orange wine made from chidiriotiko grapes.
Although tourism on the island has waned, particularly with the refugee crisis, there’s a strong alternative culture on the island. It’s the spiritual home of WWOOFing in Greece. Those who are prepared to explore independently will find a warm welcome and exceptional wineries, open farms and producers.
Not far from its Aegean neighbour Lesvos, Chios is largely undiscovered by tourists and ripe for exploration. Closer to Turkey than most of its Greek island cousins, it was known as ‘the fragrant isle’ thanks to its extensive citrus and fruit groves.
But there’s one ingredient that Chios alone produces, and it was the source of the island’s wealth in centuries past: mastic (or mastiha). Mastic, the sap of the Pistacia lentiscus tree, was prized back in the 1300s mastic for its digestive powers and use as a flavouring.
Though the value of the magical sap is not what it once was, its cultivation has left a legacy on the island. Merchants grew rich on its proceeds and built mansions, villas and fortified villages, some decorated with elaborate patterns (a leftover from Genoese rule 1348-1566).
These days Chios is about as off-the-beaten-track as Greek island-hopping gets. You can follow the mastic trail around the island – to the villages of Masticochoria, Olympi, Mesta and Pyrgi. You’ll find museums and tours to shed more light on this unusual produce and its heritage. And, of course, you’ll find shops selling countless mastic-flavoured products.
As well as mastic, on Chios you’ll also find the beautiful perfume of mandarin groves, empty beaches and silent blue waters, fig raki, dried olives, Chian mastic ouzo, fruit preserves, honey, mushrooms, and a recently revived winemaking tradition.
Naxos is the largest island in the Cyclades chain, and it’s also comparatively green (the Cyclades are notoriously rocky and barren). The fertile valleys carved by Mount Zeus have resulted in a long agricultural tradition that continues to this day: as well as the typical grapes and olives, Naxos also grows potatoes, pulses, and fruits, as well as grazing animals.
This abundance of produce means high-quality taverna meals, particularly up in the mountains: think delicious slow-cooked meats with potatoes, and amazing grilled lamb chops.
In particular, Naxian cheeses are not to be missed: Graviera, Arseniko, Xynomyzithra and Xynotiro.
The other notable speciality is the citron fruit; once the only citrus tree cultivated in Europe, this thick-skinned aromatic fruit is now distilled into a tasty liqueur called Kitron.
Another island making a bid for Slow Food Capital of the Aegean is Lemnos (also spelt Limnos). Lack of mass tourism on the island has kept gastronomic traditions nearly intact; there’s a refreshing lack of standard tourist menus on Lemnos. Instead, seasonal and local produce rules the roost. Lemnos is so blessed with abundant resources that it’s nearly self-sufficient. Local outfit Taste of Lemnos has opened up the island’s gastronomic traditions to outsiders.
Partly this is due to the variety in its geology: volcanic soils, wetlands, dunes, plains. Ancient wheat grains and other cereals thrive, and the island has a long history of dairy and cheesemaking (look for Kalathaki Limnou and Melichoro).
There’s a type of small pasta called flomaria which is unique to the Lemnos. And then there’s trahana, a dried crumb-like product make from cracked grain soaked in fermented milk, which is used to make a thick soup. And prized local wines include Kalampaki and Moschato Alexandrias.
Hot on the heels of Sifnos, bijou Tinos is also making a name for itself as a weekend hideaway for those in the know.
Tranquil Tinos is a short 30-minute hop across the water from Mykonos but traditionally has attracted a very different crowd; it’s a popular Orthodox pilgrimage destination. Its charm lies in the small stone villages scattered across the island, villages which have started to attract artists and a quiet bohemian set, who appreciate its home-grown sensibilities and quiet beaches.
The local artichokes and charcuterie and the must-tries here, along with white malagouzia wines, kariki cheese, all celebrated in the springtime with the annual Tinos Food Paths.
Poros is one of the closest islands to Athens and yet one of the most overlooked. It’s barely an island, with just 200m separating it from the Peloponnese. Heavily wooded and fragrant, George Seferis described Poros as a ‘sensual temptation, something lustful’. Poros even has a beach called Love Bay.
Its once-famous fragrance was due to its extensive lemon forest, famously immortalised in a poem by Kosmas Politis. Spread across 600 properties, it would have perfumed the air for miles around. The forest is now largely abandoned though you can visit with a tour guide.
Nowadays Poros is a thriving hotspot for cookery classes and courses; its easy access to the mainland makes it a cinch to nip over from Athens or to visit the nearby Winelands of Nemea.
All of the Ionian islands, to the west of the Greek mainland, offer up something a bit different as far as food is concerned. Compared to the Cycladic islands, the Ionians are lush and green, and lacking in the Ottoman influences that prevail in the Aegean.
Whilst Corfu has the most obvious Italian heritage, beautiful and unspoilt Kefalonia arguably has the best wine in the region. Its combination of wine trails, mountain foods, and incredible scenery mark it out as a top foodie destination.
There are three different PDO wines in Kefalonia (Robola, White Muscat and Mavrodaphne) and an incredible diversity of grape varieties are found on its slopes. Wine tours around the island can be arranged, or you can also taste the local tipples at one of Kefalonia’s wine bars such as Oinops in Argostoli.
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Image credits: Olive branches by Nazar Hrabovyi via Unsplash, Bougatsa © The Mediterranean Traveller, Octopus © The Mediterranean Traveller, Sifnos © stockbksts / Adobe Stock, Lesvos © dgiannisdim / Adobe Stock, Chios © visualpower / Adobe Stock , Naxos © The Mediterranean Traveller, Lemons© The Mediterranean Traveller, Tinos © costas1962 / Adobe Stock, Poros © sborisov / Adobe Stock Grapes © Igor Tichonow / Adobe Stock