Greek Islands: Santorini, Mykonos, and Rhodes
We'll island-hop through the Aegean, sampling three classic Greek getaways — Santorini, Mykonos, and Rhodes — and basking in their dramatic beauty. We'll tour ancient ruins, trace the vestiges of the Crusaders, sample rustic cuisine, savor classic Greek-island views, and compare beaches — from the ultimate party beach to idyllic quiet hideaways. And we'll see how a cruise ship can be an efficient way to link up great island stopovers.
The island of Delos is a 30-minute boat ride from Mykonos; boats depart three times each morning and return to Mykonos three times afternoon — and in peak season a late-afternoon boat may run as well (boat schedules can change depending on weather, cruise-ship arrivals and departures, and other factors). Most visitors find that two hours on the island is plenty to wander the site and see the museum; add more time if you want to climb Mount Kynthos. Delos has virtually no shade and minimal services, beyond a café selling basic snacks. Wear good shoes, and bring sun protection and plenty of water.
Antonis is an excellent local guide who enjoys introducing visitors to the hidden nooks and crannies of Mykonos. In addition to town walks and tours of the Delos archaeological site, he enjoys leading a 2.5-hour "Food on Foot" town walk around Mykonos, with tasting stops, and an all-day "Ambrosial Mykonos" experience, including a town walk and a drive around the island to an artisanal creamery, brewery, and vineyard, plus a beach break.
Palace of the Grand Master
This stout, intimidating palace, perched at the highest point in Rhodes' hilly Old Town, is — like everything else on Rhodes — layered with history. In the 14th century, the Knights of St. John added on to an existing Byzantine fortress here to create a residence and political headquarters for their leader, the grand master. The Italians rebuilt it in the 20th century as an over-the-top imagining of a medieval fortress that scarcely resembles its original self — but in some ways, that makes it even more interesting to tour. Visitors here can enjoy the building's fine interiors, a wide-ranging collection of artifacts, and the highlight of the entire palace: its fantastically detailed floor mosaics.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time I thought I'd take you on a little cruise. We're sailing to three iconic Greek islands: Santorini, Mykonos, and Rhodes. Welcome aboard!
While there are lots of Greek islands to visit, we're dropping in on just three classics. While we could fly or take a local ferry, this time our mode of transportation is a cruise ship. In this sampler of Greek isles we'll enjoy their fascinating history, inviting beaches, and dramatic beauty.
Our ship functions as our floating hotel, and takes us effortlessly from port to port as we settle into the relaxing tempo of an Aegean holiday. Exploring each island under the reliable sun, we'll compare beaches from the ultimate party beach…to quieter, more idyllic hideaways. We'll tour ancient ruins, then climb to the summit for a grand view, and sample Greek cuisine within splashing distance of the sea.
Dimitris: It tastes good.
We'll learn of Crusader history and marvel at stunning Greek isle views. And we'll connect it all by cruise ship, enjoying fun on board as we sail.
From Athens, we sail into the Aegean Sea. Of its hundreds of islands, we'll visit three: Santorini, Mykonos, and Rhodes.
Cruising is designed for the masses, and it has its pros and cons. There are 3,000 passengers on this ship. While it's surely not for everyone, many find it efficient and economical for island hopping in the Mediterranean. If you do opt for a cruise, you'll live within a strict schedule: sail by night, sightsee by day — about 10 hours per stop.
The Aegean Sea offers the quintessence of Mediterranean island charm. Punctuated by romantic nights at sea, our itinerary promises plenty of unforgettable sightseeing. In the morning, we'll be in Santorini.
I enjoy the scenic arrivals and departures by cruise ship. Being on the top deck as you approach the day's destination gives you a quiet, bird's eye view. Approaching an exotic and fabled island like Santorini — as the moon sets and the sun rises, just kissing the lip of the breathtaking cliffs — is worth getting up for.
Santorini is a dramatic island — the rim of a volcanic crater with spectacular vistas. Once a complete island like its neighbors, it was a volcano that about 3,500 years ago blew its top, creating a caldera — this flooded crater. Today, inviting whitewashed villages seem to crowd its dramatic ridges as if jostling to enjoy the views.
Because Santorini's pier is small, giant cruise ships drop anchor and tender their passengers in on small shuttle boats.
Individuals go to the tiny "old harbor," where they can ride a donkey up the zig-zag trail, or hop a cable car up to the scenic lip of the island crater.
Those paying for the cruise line's excursion get off the ship first, and head for an alternative port — where buses and guides await. With the crush of the crowds, the limited time, and the scattered array of interesting sights, investing in a bus tour like this to see Santorini can make sense.
Within minutes you'll be powering up the switch-backs into the island as your guide narrates the drive.
Guide: Those two are the Kameni Islands. The Kameni Islands are actually made of lava rock.
Excursions also include scenic views from the bus, and the stress-free efficiency of getting smoothly from point to point.
And tour groups are sure to have free time at the best photo ops.
Oia is the postcard image of the Greek isles. This idyllic ensemble of whitewashed houses and characteristic domes is delicately draped over a steep slope at the top of a cliff.
Viewpoints here are some of the most striking in the Greek seas, as tourists clamber for just the right angle. Artists fall in love with Oia and move in. Honeymooners find the B&B of their dreams…and savor breakfast in unforgettable settings. And at the quiet end of town, the old windmill reminds all of a more rustic age gone by.
The whitewash, while scenic today, was originally practical: White reflects the powerful heat of the sun. The lime that makes the whitewash is a good antiseptic — villagers knew it would naturally disinfect the rainwater that was collected on rooftops. And I love the way the blue and white of the townscape seems inspired by the colors of the Greek flag.
Many of these dwellings originated as humble caves. With little building material on the island, it just made sense to dig into the cliffs. These "cave houses," surrounded by air-filled pumice, are naturally insulated — staying cool in summer and warm in winter. Gradually these cheapest bits of real estate were developed, and, with tourism, they became today's expensive villas, hotels, and restaurants.
With each port you've got sightseeing options: You can take the organized tour and be on their time table, or, you can hire a private guide. You can use a guidebook and be your own guide, or you can just hang out and be thoroughly on vacation. There's no right or wrong — it depends entirely on your mood and your style.
I've left our bus tour early for a rendezvous with a private local guide.
Dimitris: We had a big earthquake back in 1956, 7.8 Richter scale, destroyed very many houses like this captain's house over here, and on the other side, you can see the Venetian fortress. It's destroyed. It's been there since the 14th century.
To get the absolute most out of our Santorini day, I've booked half a day with Dimitris. While pricey, if two couples split the cost, enjoying the services of a private guide can cost about the same as the cruise line's bus tour.
Of Santorini's many beaches, Kamari is one of the best. The black sand is a reminder of the island's volcanic origin. Typical of Greek island resort beaches, it's lined with rentable lounge chairs and a strip of seafood restaurants. And with Dimitris, I know exactly what I'm eating.
Rick: These salads look delicious. Can you tell me about them?
Dimitris: Well, we have here a Greek salad and a Santorini salad. The difference with the local salad is that we use the local tomatoes, the cherry tomatoes, the local cucumbers, and instead of the feta cheese, we use the goat cheese, and we add the capers and the caper leaves. See, you can eat them! They taste good. Right, we got some sardines here, grilled, and on the other side, we've got a very nice grilled calamari, also served with salad, the lemon, and the olive oil.
Rick: This is a healthy diet.
Dimitris: This is the Mediterranean diet.
Santorini is small, driving is fun, and traffic is sparse. In a few scenic minutes we're across the island. We bid our guide goodbye to enjoy a last couple hours in Fira, Santorini's main town.
Fira is the island's commercial and transportation hub. Its main street — thronged with tourists whenever there's a cruise ship in the bay — seems like little more than a long line of shops, cafés, and restaurants, all with staggering views.
Enjoying the island with a local guide and then taking a short break to enjoy a cliffside bar — filled with happy travelers from around the world — is a reminder that even if on a cruise, you can exercise your independence and spark some great travel moments.
Keeping my eye on the clock, I hop the cable car back down to the old port, where our ship's shuttle, or tender, awaits.
Most cruisers get nervous about missing the ship and head back earlier than necessary. I find the ports are least crowded and most relaxed and enjoyable during that last hour.
The last tender isn't leaving for 15 minutes…that's plenty of time for one last ouzo.
Cruisers enjoy toggling effortlessly between their daily adventures on shore and evenings back "home" on their floating resort. Sure, there's nothing culturally broadening about this — in fact, the only thing broadening about all this lazy time on ship with unlimited food and drink is the effect it might have on your waistline. But the ease of not having to change hotels with every new destination and the abundance of entertainment on board can contribute to a nice vacation.
While cruisers may miss evenings in port, what they do get to experience are the evenings at sea — whether it's a dance party by the pool or quietly enjoying the full moon and anticipating new adventures tomorrow.
Mykonos is another small island with a small port inundated by cruise-ship crowds. It's so iconic and beautiful that it's included in most major cruise-ship itineraries. There's a pier for only one ship, so most ships drop the hook and shuttle their people in by tender. If visiting by cruise ship, it's smart to get an early start.
We caught the first tender — beat the crowds and beat the heat.
It's easy to enjoy Mykonos town with no planning, no tour, and no guide. This is a stop that lends itself to unstructured free time — just lazing on the beach, wandering, and browsing the shops.
It's the epitome of a Greek island town: a busy breakwater, fine little beach, and inviting lanes. While tourism dominates the economy, Mykonos still has a traditional charm thickly layered with white stucco, blue trim, and colorful bougainvillea. Back lanes offer tranquility away from the cruise crowds.
As in many Greek island towns, on Mykonos the windmills have harnessed the steady wind for centuries — grinding grain to feed its sailors. Five mills still stand, perfectly positioned to catch the prevailing breeze.
A tidy embankment is so pretty they call it "Little Venice." Wealthy shipping merchants built this row of fine mansions with brightly painted wooden balconies that seem to rise out of the sea.
Today these mansions have been refitted as restaurants and bars for tourists enjoying fresh fish and romantic views.
Mykonos' status in the last generation was as a fashionable destination for jet-setters. And it retains a certain hip cachet. These days, tacky trinket stalls share the lanes with top-end fashion boutiques. Prices are high, and, in season, the island is crammed full of vacationers. But, even with four ships in the harbor today, there seems to be plenty of room.
I love how, in the middle of all this modern tourism, the traditional culture carries on. At the tiny church built to bless those who go to sea, a fisherman and his wife pop in for a few meditative moments among age-old icons and flickering candles.
Mykonos is small — any point on the island is within a 20-minute drive. The windy roads feel like a fairground racetrack for tourists, busy with an array of easy-to-rent vehicles. And, like most of them, we're heading for the beach.
There's a range of beaches on Mykonos. The most trendy is Paradise, one of the ultimate party beaches in the Aegean. Presided over by hotels that run bars for young beachgoers, the Paradise action is nonstop. While the beach becomes a raging dance floor after dark, the DJ is busy all day as the cruise set joins backpackers from around the world to enjoy the scene. As is standard around here, beaches rent comfortable lounge furniture with umbrellas. Just plop onto whatever appeals — don't worry; the drinks will come to you.
If you prefer a quieter scene, more remote beaches are a short drive farther out. While extremely arid, the stony countryside of Mykonos — complete with whitewashed churches and staggering views — is a delight for a quick road trip.
Agios Sostis, an old hippie beach at the north end of the island, has none of the thumping party energy of Paradise Beach. It offers little beyond lovely sand, turquoise water, and tranquility. And, for many, it's their Greek isle dream come true.
Along with its beaches, Mykonos offers a major historic attraction. It's on an uninhabited neighboring island, a 30-minute shuttle-boat ride away.
The island of Delos was one of the most important places in the ancient Greek world, with temples honoring the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis. Centuries before Christ, Delos attracted pilgrims from across the Western world.
Delos was important in three different ancient eras: first as a religious site, then as the treasury of the Athenian League — that was sort of the "Fort Knox" of the ancient world. And later, during Roman times, this was one of the busiest commercial ports in the entire Mediterranean. Delos ranked right up there with Olympia, Athens, and Delphi.
Survey the remains of the ancient harbor: foundations of shops and homes, and hillsides littered with temple remains. The iconic row of sphinx-like lions still heralds the importance of the place. This was one of the Aegean world's finest cities.
Imagine Delos in its heyday — a booming center of trade: streets lined with 3,000 shops where you could buy just about anything. Dazzling mansions of wealthy merchants with colonnaded inner courtyards. There were fine mosaics — like this one of the god Dionysus riding a panther. Culture thrived here, enough to keep this theater — which could seat 6,000 — busy.
Innovative cisterns collected rain water — these round arches date from the third century BC. Plumbing ran under the streets, and water was plentiful. Local guides demonstrate still-working wells.
Antonis: …one of the 200 wells and cisterns in the city, fresh, drinkable water from the rich aquifer underneath us, and it was enough to supply the 30,000 people at the peak of the flourish of the city.
Rick: 30,000? So for more than 2,000 years, water has come out of this well.
Antonis: You can still drink if you want.
Rick: Very nice.
About a century before Christ, Delos was devastated by a terrible war. It never recovered and was eventually abandoned. After 14 centuries of silence and darkness, it was finally excavated in the late 1800s, and today, the ruins of Delos are ours to explore.
I cap my visit by climbing to the summit of the island. My reward? One of the Mediterranean's great king-of-the-mountain thrills. As you observe the chain of islands dramatically swirling in 360 degrees, you can understand why historians believe that these Cycladic Islands got their name from the way they make a circle (or a "cycle") around this oh-so-important little island of Delos.
-Back on board, we sail farther east toward the island of Rhodes, and we have another evening on board. Assuming a sunny floating resort is what you're looking for, cruising can be both economical and efficient — especially when lacing together far-flung islands within a limited vacation schedule.
Rhodes, or "Rhodos," as locals call it, is the fourth largest of the Greek islands. As we enter the historic harbor, the walls of the fortified town seem to tell a story. Rhodes is built upon layers of civilizations — Italian, Greek, and Turkish, with a dash of medieval Crusader lore from all over Europe tossed in. Today, luxury yachts crowd the harbor.
The island's main city, also called Rhodes, was one of the great cities of antiquity. The famed statue called the "Colossus of Rhodes" once towered above the city.
Ancient Greeks believed that this easternmost point of the Greek world, where the rising sun first kissed Greek soil, was the home of the sun god, Helios. So, they honored Helios by building a colossal statue. It was a hundred feet tall and polished bronze. This Colossus of Rhodes was one of the "seven wonders" of the ancient world. But it was destroyed by an earthquake a couple hundred years before Christ, and today nothing survives.
The formidable Thalassini Gate is a reminder of the age of chivalry and the famed Knights of Malta.
They were also called the "Knights of St. John Hospitallers." Their mission during the 12th century Crusades? To protect Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, and provide hospitals for their care. The pope recognized the Knights of St. John as a religious order, and they eventually became "soldiers of the cross" — with an economic agenda and a mighty navy. Because the knights were from aristocratic families they had lots of money and lots of power.
As the nearest Greek island to the Holy Land, Rhodes was a natural gathering point for Crusaders from all over Europe. In 1309, the Knights of St. John claimed Rhodes as their headquarters and transformed it into a bustling, highly fortified European city governed by their "Grand Master."
Coming from all over Europe, they gave Rhodes a cosmopolitan feel. This lane, called the Street of the Knights, originally hosted knights from their various countries. Whether from Spain, France, or Germany, each group built its own headquarters here to feel like home. To this day, the street feels medieval, with carved reliefs that show off that original national pride.
In the 14th century the knights built the Palace of the Grand Master — an imposing residence and capital for their leader. Destroyed by the Ottoman Turks, it was rebuilt in a fanciful style just a century ago.
The palace was fortified with three walls and two moats for good reason: the ever-present Turkish threat. Huge granite cannon balls littering the grounds are a reminder of why it was said that when the Turks attacked, cannon balls rained down on the city.
The Ottoman Turks finally defeated the Knights of St. John in the 1500s. The knights then retreated hundreds of miles west to the island of Malta, where they built an even more fortified headquarters. Rhodes then became part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries. In fact, you can still feel that Turkish influence to this very day.
Ippocratus Square is the busy heart of the old town. And those once-formidable walls now seem only to protect a fun-loving tourists' mecca and a vibrant artist's colony. The bazaar-like back lanes are a delight to wander, and the main shopping drag still feels a bit like a Turkish bazaar. At the top end, a 500-year-old minaret marks the Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent.
Back outside the walls, the city beach sprawls in a beautiful arc away from the harbor. This point, where the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas meet, is famously windy — long powering windmills. And the once-menacing shores of Turkey are just 12 miles away.
The island of Rhodes, while arid, is fun to explore. Locals manage to eke out an existence as they have for centuries. An hour's drive south takes us to the island's other popular attraction.
Lindos is the most beautiful town on the island. Strategically set with natural harbors flanking an easy-to-fortify pinnacle, its history goes back long before Christ. For 2,500 years, a hill-capping acropolis has overlooked the town. Originally protecting a temple of Athena, today the acropolis is mostly the crumbling remains of a Crusader fortress built by the Knights of St. John.
The dazzling white-washed town of Lindos, originally a wealthy maritime center because of its harbor, is now totally overrun by tourists. The homes of sea captains, whose wealth came from trade, are now fancy hotels and gift shops. While it's traffic-free, if you need to get somewhere you can always hop on what's nicknamed the "Lindos taxi." Giddy-up!
The real attraction here is the beaches. Lindos' beach is a broad and sandy strip, great for families. And just beyond the acropolis is the more exotic St. Paul's Beach, named for a legendary visit by the apostle Paul nearly 2,000 years ago. A humble Greek Orthodox chapel celebrates that visit to this day. Oblivious to the rich historic heritage surrounding them, vacationers here are expert at relaxing under the steady Greek sun.
In a few minutes they're pulling up the gangway and I'm back on the ship. Sailing these fabled seas, I find myself drawn to the top deck. And it's hard to imagine having had more Greek island fun in a few days than what we just experienced.
I hope you've enjoyed our Greek island cruise as we've explored just three of the countless islands that make the Aegean Sea such a popular destination. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.