Family Holidays to Greece – 10 Things to Know while Planning
1. Greece is a Wonderful Destination for a Family Holiday
Greece and the Greek Islands are my favorite place in Europe for a family vacation. Great beaches, interesting history, incredible food (much of it kid-friendly), wonderful people. Island hopping by ferry adds a bit of adventure to the whole thing and an opportunity to see several very distinct destinations. There are no special vaccinations required, and no special medicine prescribed. Transport in Greece, whether by ferry, bus, or plane, is efficient and comfortable.
2. The Best Greek Islands for a Family Holiday
The best places to go in Greece for a family are the Greek Islands, and my favorite island for families is Naxos. But there are many others that are also kid-friendly and great for families. Mykonos, Crete, Rhodes, and Corfu are four more that have great beaches, cool towns, and a family-friendly atmosphere. Santorini is typically thought of as a couples’ destination but there’s a lot to see and do and it’s still a great family destination (especially if your kids are a little older, say, 6 and up).
3. Greece is Easy to Get to from the U.K. and the Rest of Europe
Santorini, Mykonos, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, Kos, and a few other islands (depending on the year) have direct flights from the London, Manchester, Paris, Amsterdam, Oslo, and Rome making trips to a Greece quick and easy. It’s not unreasonable to be sitting on a beach 4 or 5 hours after taking off from your home airport. Getting to the Greek Islands from the U.S. will always require two flights (usually connecting in western Europe). A few North American cities (Toronto, New York City) have direct flights to Athens but none have direct flights to the Greek Islands.
4. Best Time to Visit Greece for a Family Holiday
The best weather in Greece for kids, families, swimming, and beach time is from late May to early September. The sun will be out, skies blue, and there’s very little rain. The absolute best beach weather is from late June to early September.
5. The Highlights of Athens Can be Seen in One Full Day of Sightseeing
The top attractions in Athens (Acropolis, Acropolis Museum, and historical sights in the Plaka) can be easily seen in one full (but busy) day – or take two if you want to take it a little slower. And then get on a ferry the next morning (most ferries from Athens to the islands leave between 7am and 8am) and get the kids to a beach.
6. The Best Greek Islands for History and Culture are Crete, Rhodes, Santorini, and Delos
Crete has the single best historical sight on any of the Greek Islands: Knossos near Heraklion. Rhodes has the Medieval City of Rhodes Town and the Acropolis of Lindos. And Santorini has the caldera, the volcano, and the story of how this island was destroyed by an immense volcanic eruption. The entire small island of Delos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of incredible ruins; you can’t stay there, but it is easily reached from Mykonos.
7. The Best Beach for Kids in Greece
The single best beach in Greece is Elafonisi Beach in Crete. Magical and very kid-friendly. Other great beaches for families can be found in Naxos, Paros, Antiparos, Mykonos, Lesvos, Skiathos, Skopelos, Corfu, and Rhodes. Santorini has great swimming and unique beaches but since they’re composed of volcanic rock they get very hot in the mid-day sun.
8. Greek Restaurants are Very Kid Friendly
Almost all Greek restaurants and tavernas have a family-friendly atmosphere where kids are welcomed and pampered. Santorini and Mykonos (known for luxury and nightlife) each have a handful of restaurants where kids might be a little out of place but these are the exceptions and the majority of restaurants on every Greek island will welcome your kids with open arms (literally).
9. Do a Tour
Greek tour guides are great. (It’s a national law that tour guides need to have a degree in Greek history to conduct any tour to a historical sight in Greece.) And you’ll get much more out of any visit to a historical attraction if you get a guide. At some sights (e.g. Knossos) it’s easy to walk up and find a good guide. At other sights (Akrotiri in Santorini) it’s best to book in advance. Doing a food tour is also highly recommended (especially in Athens).
10. Best Websites for Planning a Greek Holiday
Planning a greek holiday is easy to do by yourself. Don’t book a package holiday as you end up getting second-rate hotels and the worst flights. These are the websites I use and recommend for easy and reliable trip planning:
Special Considerations for Family Travel in Greece
- Perhaps the most challenging aspect for families is finding hotel rooms suitable for 4, 5, 6 or more people. The most common hotel room is small with 2 single beds with a small balcony and usually a small fridge. Many options do exist outside of these, but it will require some planning and booking in advance.
- All Greek taxis have a maximum limit of 4 passengers. If your hotel does not offer airport or ferry port transfer, Welcome Pickups pre-booked car service is a great option. Larger vehicles are available for groups of more than 4, and child car seats are available on request.
- High chairs are rarely to be found in restaurants which can make a stroller an appealing option as a place to sit a baby or small toddler during meal time.
What are the Best Greek Islands for a family holiday?
The 7 Best Greek Islands for Families:
- Best Greek Island for Families: Naxos
- Best Greek Island for Beaches: Naxos, Mykonos, Ios, Crete
- Best Greek Island for Families with Teens: Santorini, Mykonos, Paros
- Best Greek Island for History: Crete, Rhodes, Santorini, Mykonos (Delos)
- Best Greek Island for Hiking: Crete, Folegandros, Santorini, Naxos
- Best Greek Island for Biking: Kos
- Best Greek Island for Luxury: Santorini, Mykonos
- Best Greek Island for Quiet and Solitude: Folegandros, Ikaria, Karpathos
- Best Greek Island for Outdoor Activity: Crete, Santorini
- Best Greek Island for Food: All of them
- Best Greek Island for Family Cruise: None of them – don’t do cruises, visit on your own
- Best for Island Hopping: Santorini, Naxos, Paros, Ios, Mykonos, and Milos are all well connected by ferry and great for island hopping
Should I book hotels in advance when visiting Greece?
- For July and August on the most popular islands — like Santorini and Mykonos — booking early is absolutely essential. It becomes increasingly less essential as you move away from those islands and those months. So, Naxos and Paros in June or September would be no problem at all to arrive at without reservations. That leaves a large gray area of course. Are reservations necessary for Santorini in June, Naxos in July, Paros in August? In general, booking early and making reservations will get you the best price, and give you a better selection of room size to fit your family’s needs.
- Booking.com is my favorite website for finding and booking hotels in Greece. They’re reliable, well-organized, and have offer generous cancellation plans.
- Flexibility is good (and fun). It’s nice to have some hotel reservations booked in advance – especially for your first nights on a new island – but it’s also nice to have some flexibility with where you’re going and how long you’re staying. Try to find a good balance – maybe have your first 2 nights on each island booked in advance, followed with a few days that you can fill as you wish.
- That said, flexibility might be a luxury that families don’t feel they can afford. In high season families and large groups should definitely book rooms in advance.
- If you do show up on an island without reservations you might see hotel owners greeting the ferry, asking if you need a room. These will often be budget hotels (but still nice, clean places to stay). If you do decide to stay with them, try to walk to the hotel from the pier. (This won’t be practical on every island, eg. Santorini’s port is a long ways from anywhere.) Most main towns are right by the ferry port, so if they’re telling you that their hotel is right “in town” you should be able to walk there no problem, right? If instead, they’re trying to get you and your bags into their pickup it’s likely it’s several miles outside of town. At the very least get them to pinpoint the hotel exactly on a map. Some hotel owners will “gently” lie but if faced with a precise question they’ll accurately tell you where it is on the map.
When is the best time to visit Greece for a family vacation?
June and September are undeniably the best months for a holiday vacation in Greece. And if you’re really looking to narrow it down then mid-September is the absolute prime. The weather is essentially the same as late June but while the water can still be chilly in early summer, by September it’s perfect. The crowds arrive in late June and stay until the islands are packed until the last week of August. By early September you can feel a discernible difference in the number of visitors and hopping on a ferry, getting a seat at a popular restaurant, or finding a hotel room gets markedly easier.
The difficulty of peak-season travel can be exaggerated, however. I’ve visited in the middle of summer on several occasions and had no trouble finding a hotel on a Greek island. But if you do travel during July and August you should, at the very least, book your hotel rooms in advance and be prepared for some intense bustle on the ferries and in the tourist hot spots.
May and October can be great as well but you’re taking a little bit of chance with the weather if your aim is beach and swimming time. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in hiking, biking, and historical sites then mid-April to early June and late September until early November can be fantastic options.
How do I get to the Greek Islands?
These are the 4 easiest and most common ways to get to the Greek Islands:
- Fly to Athens and then ferry to the islands.
The classic Greek vacation. The pluses include breaking up your journey mid-way, having an opportunity to tour Athens and getting to enjoy a long, often relaxing, occasionally magical ferry ride from Athens to the Islands.
The minuses being that it takes up a few days on both ends of your trip. Stopping in Athens might not be the best use of time if you only have one or two weeks.
The ferry schedule can be erratic in August as high winds in the Cyclades (called the Meltemi) can play havoc with ferries schedules. (The Cyclades are particularly vulnerable to high winds.) Cancellations for more than a day or two are rare but your itinerary could be messed up with one ill-timed delay.
- Fly directly to a Greek Island from a city in Northern or Western Europe.
There are many cheap budget flight to a few Greek Islands from the main travel hubs in western Europe: London, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Milan.
Pros: It can often be ridiculously cheap to get a flight from Western Europe directly to a Greek island on one of the European budget airlines. Plus, if you’re coming from North America, Asia, or Australia, you can have a few days in London or Paris or whatever city you transit through.
Cons: Surprisingly difficult to arrange if you’re arriving from outside the continent. The low-cost carriers often leave from smaller regional airports, not the large hubs where your long-haul jet landed. Getting from one airport to another can take the better part of a day. (For example, your flight from New York will arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, but your flight to Greece will leave from Orly – on the opposite side of the city.)
Also, only a handful of islands have direct flights from outside of Greece. Currently, the Greek Islands that have international flights are Santorini, Mykonos, Corfu, Zakynthos, Crete, Lesvos, Samos, Kos, and Rhodes.
- Fly to Athens, then fly to the islands.
Pros: More time on the islands. There are more islands you can fly to from Athens than from outside the country. For example, Milos, Naxos, Paros, and Karpathos all have flights from Athens but do not have international arrivals, so you if you want to fly to the smaller islands you’ll have to go through Athens.
Cons: You’ll miss out on island hopping by ferry. Though, of course, you can take ferries between the islands once you’re there it’s that initial trip from Athens out to the islands that’s filled with so much excitement and anticipation. Also, if you do stop in Athens it’s often easier (or just as easy) to go to the port and hop on a ferry as to make your way all the way back to the airport, go through security, and wait for your plane. When you factor in the extra time that taking a flight involves, a highspeed ferry will get you to some of the Cycladic islands nearly as fast as a flight.
- Combine a Greek trip with one of its neighbors to the east (Turkey) or west (Italy).
There are several options for taking ferries to or from Turkey and Italy. On the Turkish side, ferries ply the waters between Lesvos and Ayvalik, Chios and Cesme, Samos and Kusadasi, Kos and Bodrum, and Rhodes and Marmaris. These boat rides vary in length but typically are about 1-3 hours long and can be booked the day prior to departure.
A fantastic itinerary might look like this: Fly into Istanbul, tour the Turkish coast, ferry to an eastern Greek island and island hop through 2 or 3 islands, ending your trip in Athens and flying home from there.
On the Italian side ferries run between the Greek island of Corfu and the Italian port towns of Ancona, Brindisi, Bari, and Venice. These take between 8 and 12 hours and are often overnight ferries, so it’s best to book at least a few days in advance. Book far in advance if you want to take a vehicle or have a sleeping compartment.
How to Travel with Kids on Greek Ferries
Ferries are one of the ingredients of what makes a trip to Greece so magical and unique. Ferry hopping around the islands — especially the Cyclades where the islands are very close to each other — is a ton of fun. And if you’re just going from one island to the next it’s very easy too.
Foot passengers usually don’t need to book far in advance – especially for ferries between islands – just buy a ticket from a local agent the day before travel and hop on board. But for ferries from Piraeus (the port near Athens) to an island during high season, it’s recommended to book at least a week prior to your departure. Ferryhopper.com is the best website for searching ferry routes and booking tickets in advance
When you start doing more than a walk-on ferry ride from, say, Santorini to Mykonos, it gets more difficult. Here are some choices you may need to make for longer ferry rides:
- Do I want to take a high-speed ferry, a catamaran, or a conventional ferry? If you want to take a high-speed ferry or catamaran to or from Athens then you’ll want to book about a week in advance.
- Do I want deck seating (also called 2nd class or airplane-style seating) or do I want to reserve a sleeping cabin? If you want a cabin you’ll want to book at least a few weeks in advance.
- Do I need to take a vehicle on board? If so, booking several weeks in advance is recommended as spots in the car garage are in short supply.
Planning a Greek Island Trip
- Island hopping is what it’s all about. There are so many great islands in Greece it’s almost mandatory to visit more than one. With the exception of Crete (see below) don’t limit yourself to 1 island. But, don’t visit too many islands. Two nights (3 or 4 is best) is the minimum time needed to feel like you’ve seen an island at all, don’t spread your time too thin among the islands.
- Crete is a big island and requires at least a week to see well. If you’re on a tight schedule and want to see a bunch of different islands Crete might not be your best destination. It’s a fair distance from any other islands (and Athens) and takes a while to get around due to its size. The island could very easily keep you busy for 2 or more weeks and it has a bit of everything: arts, culture, cities, beaches, and quaint idyllic ports. If you have at least 10 days and want to visit Santorini – its closest neighbor – that is very doable.
- Hotels and restaurants on most islands close during the winter months. You’ll always find something open, but things can be very quiet in the offseason. On the less popular islands things close down even earlier in the fall and open up later in the spring. For example, Santorini will get very quiet by mid-November. The hotels and restaurants that close will start to reopen in late March. But a less popular island like Folegandros will start slowing down significantly in late September and not be completely re-opened until mid-May.
- Depart and arrive from different cities. Having to return to the city that you first arrived in is a waste of time and money. Open-jaw tickets cost a little more but you’ll save that money by not having to buy tickets back to a place you’ve already been. Example 1) Arrive Thessaloniki travel through the Aegean and Cycladic islands and fly home from Santorini. Example 2) Arrive in Istanbul, visit the Turkish coast, ferry to a Greek island and then more ferries and islands on your way back to Athens for your flight home. Example 3) Fly to Heraklion on Crete, tour that island before visiting Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos on your way back to Athens and home. These are just a few of a number of very good routes and options – all made easier and more fun by not having to return to the city that you flew into.
- Don’t ignore Northern Greece. Thessaloniki, the Halkidiki, and the North Aegean islands are less popular than the southern destinations but have some great sights and make a great vacation destination. If you’re looking for quieter towns and secluded beaches the north is great.
- Consider combining a vacation in Greece with a visit to a neighboring country, most likely Italy or Turkey. The Ionian islands in northwest Greece are an easy overnight ferry from Italy’s eastern coast. The Sporades and Aegean islands make a good circular route with Thessaloniki in Northern Greece, Istanbul, and the very popular Turkish coast and beaches.
- The winds can be intense in summer, especially in August and especially in the Cyclades. The wind blows from the north so beaches on the south coast of an island generally are the least blustery. Naxos, in particular, has a long string of protected beaches on it’s southwest coast.
- There are different spellings for the same islands and places – usually because of differences between their English and Greek names. The ones that cause the most problems: Zante and Zakynthos are the same island. Corfu is Kerkyra. Santorini is Thira. Chania – the city in Crete – is also Hania, and Heraklion is also Iraklion or Iraklio. Thessalaniki and Salonika are the same city. Piraeus is the port that ferries leave from near Athens. It is often used interchangeably with Athens when discussing ferry routes.
Suggested Ferry-Hopping Itineraries
1-Week Recommended Itinerary for Greece:
2 or 3 islands — probably in the Cyclades as they’re relatively close to Athens and ferry rides from one island to the next are short and tickets are easy to book. The best islands in the Cyclades: Naxos, Santorini, Folegandros, Paros, Mykonos, Milos. Finish your trip with 1 full day in Athens.
Do 1 week in Crete and then the 1-week itinerary described above.
1 Month Itinerary:
Start in Lesvos or Samos in the Aegean islands, either by direct flight or ferry from Athens. Spend a week in those two islands before moving on to the Dodecanese spending a week in Rhodes, Ikaria and Karpathos, then continue with the 2 week itinerary above.
Choosing Ferries and Buying Tickets
- The best website for viewing ferry schedules and buying tickets for Greek ferries is FerryHopper.com.
- Ticket prices on a similar ferry will always be the same between 2 ports (the prices are set by the government) but services, speeds, and amenities can vary greatly between types of ferry and ferry companies.
- Most islands are connected to Athens by at least one ferry a day — even in winter. A subway connects downtown Athens with the port of Piraeus making getting to your ferry cheap and easy, but the port is huge and confusing to figure out for a first timer. Plan to get to the port at least an hour before your ferry departs. There are lots of places to eat and buy snacks in Piraeus before you get on your ferry. A suburban train route connects the airport with the port of Piraeus where the ferries leave for the Greek Islands. If you’re flying to Athens but don’t want to stay there you can almost completely bypass it. (See our Athens Ferry Port Guide for more information.) Most ferries to the islands leave early in the morning so even the best-executed plans will have you staying the night in Athens.
- High speed ferries, catamarans, and Flying Dolphin hydrofoils will cost about twice the price of a conventional car/passenger ferry. (Believe me, if you think keeping all the ferries straight is confusing, I know. I’m very familiar with the different types and I can just barely remember which is which.)
- Generally, the slower the ferry, the more stable the ride. Larger car/passenger ferries will take a lot longer, but they are much more stable than faster ferries on rocky seas.
- Cabins are recommended for long overnight ferries to Crete, Rhodes and other islands far from Piraeus (Athens’ ferry port). You’ll see lots of folks camped out in the hallways and stairwells, or sleeping upright in seats, but everyone does better the next day after a good night’s sleep – and the convenience of a cabin is well worth the price.
- Ferries do not travel between every 2 islands in Greece. Far from it. Ferries tend to move within island groups – between different Cycladic islands for example – with the most popular islands within a group serving as a hub to neighboring island groups. This makes the idea of vacationing in just one island group a good plan to follow unless you have lots of time to spare.
- During high season (June to September) there are departures to all of the most popular islands every day – usually multiple departures. There are far fewer ferries in the winter months, but at all times of the year there will be the following departures:
- Piraeus to Syros, Tinos and Mykonos
- Piraeus to Paros, Naxos, los and Santorini
- Piraeus to Kythnos, Serifos, Sifnos and Milos
Evening overnight ferries
- Piraeus to Hania, Crete
- Piraeus to Heraklion, Crete
- Piraeus to Rhodes and neighboring islands
- Piraeus to Lesvos and Chios
What are the Greek Island groups and why do they matter?
The Greek Islands are divided into several island groups. In part for administrative reasons, but more commonly for shared history and island geography. Ferries and catamarans run more frequently within island groups than between them, so don’t assume that 2 neighboring islands will have daily ferry connections if they lie in different island groups. The most popular island groups for tourists being:
Saronic Islands – a few hours by ferry from Athens. Most popular islands: Hydra, Aegina, Poros, Spetses.
Cycladic Islands – in the middle of the Aegean Sea, about 4-8 hours from Athens by ferry. Most popular islands: Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Ios, Milos.
Dodecanese Islands – in the southeast of the Aegean Sea, off the southwest coast of Turkey. 10-18 hours by ferry from Athens. Most popular islands: Rhodes, Karpathos, Kos, Patmos.
Aegean Islands – off the central coast of Turkey. 8-15 hours from Athens by ferry. Most popular islands: Samos, Chios, Lesvos.
(Northern) Sporades: – in the northeastern section of the Aegean, closer to Thessaloniki and Istanbul then to Athens, 2-5 hours by ferry from Thessaloniki. Most popular islands: Skiathos, Skopelos, and Skyros.
Crete: – the biggest island in Greece and thus it’s own island group, 10-15 hours by ferry from Athens. Main Cities: Iraklio, Rethymno, Hania.
Ionian Islands: – the only group on the west side of Greece, 1 or 2 hours by ferry from the western ports of Igoumenitsa and Patras, or overnight ferry from Bari or Brindisi in Italy. Most popular islands: Corfu, Kefalonia and Zante (Zakynthos).