All of the Greek islands have their own unique charm, but which are the best Greek islands for history fans? These 10 islands won’t disappoint if you like to be surrounded by old streets and epic ancient sites.
From ancient hilltop temples to mysterious sanctuaries, cobbled medieval streets to ruined Byzantine fortress and elegant neoclassical villas, there’s plenty of history to be found on the Greek islands.
However are some standout islands and historic sites. Here are 10 islands to consider for your summer island-hopping plans if you like a bit of history on your holidays.
You can’t discuss history on the Greek islands without mentioning Delos, the mysterious Cycladic island which is also one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. Delos has been a cult centre and holy sanctuary for thousands of years.
In Greek mythology, the island is known as the birthplace of the twins Artemis and Apollo. It was so important in antiquity that the word Cyclades itself means ‘islands circling around Delos’.
The scale of the archaeological site rivals those at Olympia and Delphi and is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The island hasn’t been inhabited for centuries due to a scarcity of natural resources, and to protect the ongoing archaeological work. It’s a popular day trip from neighbouring islands though, particularly Mykonos.
Rhodes knocks it out of the park when it comes to historic sites on the Greek islands. Its crowning glory is the UNESCO-listed Rhodes Old Town, the historic quarter of the island’s main city, which is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. Unfortunately, it’s ancient wonder – the Colossus of Rhodes – is long gone, but there’s plenty still remaining to see.
Rhodes Town is a labyrinth of narrow cobbled alleyways and a treasure chest of historical influences – you’ll find Ottoman mosques, Italianate villas, medieval gates, and the mighty Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. The Palace dates back to the 14th-century occupation of Rhodes by the Knights of St. John during the Crusades, although much of what you see now is a 19th-century reconstruction.
There’s even a temple-topped ancient Acropolis in Rhodes Town – although don’t expect it to look anything like the one in Athens. Far more visually striking is the Acropolis at Lindos, a pretty whitewashed coastal village and upmarket resort.
Other historic highlights on Rhodes include the ancient sites of Kamiros and Ialysos, the pretty hilltop churches at Tsampika and Monolithos, the ancient (now renovated) thermal springs at Kallithea, and the intriguing abandoned villa on Profitis Ilias which was originally built for Mussolini.
Over on the other side of Greece, the popular Ionian island of Corfu is another hotspot for history-lovers thanks to its Old Town. This UNESCO-listed citadel has three forts and its pretty green-shuttered neoclassical streets, displaying a wealth of historical influences including Corinthian, Roman, Byzantine, French, Russian and British.
The impressive Old Fortress is the main sightseeing attraction in town, while the Palace of Achilleion is 10km out of town but worth the trip for its lush setting and gardens in the village of Gastouri.
Ancient history nerds can check out the ruins at Paleopolis, near the Mon Repos Palace, and the Kardaki temple. There are remains of the Byzantine castles at Paleokastritsa (Angelokastro) and Kassiopi, and a Venetian shipyard at Gouvia.
The Aegean island of Chios was once an important trade centre thanks to its cultivation of the expensive resin product mastic. Chios is also touted as being the birthplace of Homer.
In Chios Town, the Castle of Chios and monastery of Nea Moni are key attractions along with its 19th-century waterside windmills, 1.5km north of the city.
The island was once ruled by the Genoese, who left their mark in the form of elaborate decoration on the buildings of Pyrgi. The black and white exterior patterns (xista) are influenced by the Italian technique of sgraffito.
But Pyrgi is just one of 24 medieval villages where locals would retreat to hide from pirates. The deserted Byzantine village of Anavatos is one of the most evocative.
Of all the Ancient Greek temple on all the islands, the most beautiful is to be found just a stone’s throw from Athens. The well-preserved Temple of Aphaea is a mini Acropolis with panoramic views out to sea (and on a clear day as far as the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio).
As well as the Temple of Aphaea, you can also find a small archaeological site and museum at Kolona, just a short walk from Aegina Town.
But the other highlight is the little-known ancient village of Paleochora, which was once the capital of the island. Built inland to protect from pirate attacks, Paleochora is a ghost town today – with 365 churches strewn across the hillside. Some of the churches are open for the public to visit. There are various hiking trails around the island which take in Paleochora, the Monastery of St Nectarious, and the Temple of Aphaea.
Another historic heavyweight is the Aegean island of Patmos. It’s a major pilgrimage site for Christians as St. John the Theologian is alleged to have written the Book of Revelations in the Cave of the Apocalypse.
The extensive Monastery of St. John looms large over the whitewashed streets of Patmos Chora, and along with the cave, form a UNESCO World Heritage protected site of outstanding architectural and cultural significance. The monastic community here is still active. Patmos was a wealthy trading centre during the Ottoman occupation and this is reflected in churches and mansions in the Old Town.
The most well-known historic attraction in Naxos is the Portara, a mysterious ancient door on the islet of Palatia which overlooks the main town. It was once part of a grand Temple to Apollo, oriented towards sacred Delos. When the temple was eventually torn down, the doorway was too heavy to remove and so still stands, alone on the hill.
But the crumbling Venetian streets of Naxos Chora are an equal part of its charm. The Venetian Duchy of the Aegean was based on Naxos from 1204-1537 and left an indelible mark on the island. The Old Town of Naxos Chora is divided into two parts: the castle at the top, and the fortified Venetian bit underneath.
Elsewhere on the island, the traditional mountain ‘marble’ villages are worth visiting. Apiranthos is the main one. And the main archaeological sites are the Kouros of Apollonas and the Temple of Demeter. There’s a Venetian Museum and an Archaeological Museum in Naxos Chora.
As well as having some of the most beautiful beaches in Greece, Crete is one of the most important island destinations for history geeks everywhere thanks to its blockbuster Minoan site, the Palace of Knossos.
Knossos is great fun to visit (even if you disagree with its vivid but divisive restoration); find a tour guide to glean the best from the site, and don’t miss the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. But Knossos is by no means the only historic attraction on Crete, which is a large island with a long history.
There are more Minoan sites at Phaistos, Karfi, Zakros, Gournia and Malia. Crete’s main cities – Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion, and Agios Nikolaos – each have a historic quarter with an impressive fortress. The Venetian old towns in Chania and Rethymnon are particularly worth a visit for their pretty streets and atmosphere. There are castles, monasteries, and frescos galore (Moni Arkadhi steals the show).
But the other must-see is the haunting and unique island of Spinalonga which was once home to an exiled leper colony.
The popular island of Santorini is famous for its volcanic landscape and white and blue architecture, but it also boasts one of the Aegean’s most important archaeological sites: Akrotiri.
Situated near the Red Beach, the settlement of Akrotiri dates back to the early Bronze age and through to the Minoans. When the volcano erupted in 1650BC, it both decimated the site and preserved it. Fascinatingly, no human remains have ever been found, so it must have been safely evacuated. There are also excavations at Ancient Thera, near Kamari.
The caldera villages are like an open-air museum. But in Santorini’s capital Fira you’ll also find the Museum of Prehistoric Thera – which displays artefacts from Akrotiri – as well as the Archaeological Musem, the Museum of Folkloric Art, the Naval Museum, and the Wine Museum!
Kos is probably not the first island that springs to mind when you think of historical attractions – it’s known first and foremost for its beaches and resorts – but it has some real treats for history fans.
The Dodecanese island is situated at the crossroads of the Aegean and has seen many civilisations come and go over the centuries. Notable ancient sites on Kos include the Roman Odeon, the Altar of Dionysus, the Ancient Agora, and the Asclepeion with its beautiful seaside setting looking out towards the Turkish coastline.
Two hilltop attractions are the fortresses of Paleo Pyli and Kefalos. And last – but certainly not least – is the atmospheric Neratzia Castle, one of the finest examples of Knights Templar architecture in the Aegean.
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