5 must-visit islands in the North Aegean

The North Aegean offers tumbling forests and rocky landscapes, unmatched food and wine, pristine coastlines and a long history.

No two islands are the same here, so it pays to know which will suit your needs…

Humans have occupied Limnos since 4,000 BC, so it feels like travellers ought to know more about it by now. Thankfully, this small, wild island is distant enough to have been left mostly untouched. It certainly looks a world apart.

The dunes of Gomati comprise Greece’s only desert, a shifting sand sea that ripples to the northern shore. To the east lies the bird-filled salt marshes of Aliki Lake, and on the coast its rugged fringes surrender to sandy beaches, a red-rock cape and colonies of Mediterranean monk seals that have made their home among the caves of Fanaraki.

It is a setting to conjure with – and locals have duly obliged. The natural hot springs of Therma are blissful, while the island’s volcanic soil also yields superb wines. In the hilltop villages north-east of capital Myrina, there’s no better way to end the day than gazing to the coast with a glass of krasi (wine).

Historically, the island was once plagued by pirates, and it has created some unusual architecture. Famously, its roofless Panagia Kakaviotissa chapel was built in an old hermit’s cave on Kakavos mountain, to hide it from view.

There are surprises, too. Back in Myrina, a city famed for its seafood, treks up to its sprawling Byzantine castle, once the first line of defence, reveal that it’s now a refuge to 200 wild deer, fed and watered by locals. Sometimes, change is a wonderful thing.

Chios is the island of mastic. This rare gummy resin has monopolised life here since ancient times, used as a spice, to scent oils, even as a Roman breath freshener. It has literally shaped the land since the 14th century, when its fertile south was given over to a mass of fortified villages (known as the Mastichochoria) dedicated to its production.

Today, these 24 villages are a joy to discover. Having escaped the wrath of the island’s Ottoman occupiers, many are superbly preserved. Pyrgi, in particular, is beautiful, famed for its intricate facades, with every inch of its tall, fortlike houses etched in geometric designs known as xysta.

It's not just the villages that are eye-catching, however and heading to the coastline reveals more postcard worthy views of the glittering sea fringed by white sands. Those after a stroll should crunch along the white pebbles of the endless beach of Giosonas or walk past the volcanic scenery of Mavra Volia, the only black sand beach on the island.

Chios also looks spectacular from the water so don’t miss kayaking. The South West Coast makes for a particularly scenic options where you can kayak between Kato Fana, Trachilia and Agia Dynami to enjoy views of the wild rock formations and medieval watchtowers, pulling up for picnics at secluded slices of sand along the way. Alternatively, cool down with a swim at the beach at Daskalopetra. Literally translating to ‘teaching stone’ this is where, according to legend, Homer sat on a stone to teach his students.

Elsewhere, Chios' capital is a great place to get a glimpse into the island's past. Don't miss the UNESCO-listed Nea Moni, one of the oldest monasteries in Greece where you can admire its unique byzantine design. It once held 800 monks, though just a handful live here now, beneath what survives of its exquisite mosaics. Be sure to visit the main church here which is one of the few remaining examples of octagonal architecture.

Ikaria has always had a rich mythological past and its enchanting forests, fairytale-esque green hillsides, streams and waterfalls, and paradisiacal beaches that fringe its 102km coastline keeps the magic and mystery surrounding this island alive. 

Life is certainly different here. In the Raches area, deep in the forests, villagers keep their own hours, rising late and dining long into the night. It must work: the island is famed for its residents living to 100 and older. And in summer, nobody sleeps. All-night festivities (known as panigyria) are held to mark saint’s and feast days in the old villages, as locals dance in tight circles, shoulder to shoulder, until dawn.

Even Ikaria’s architecture is different. To ward off pirate attacks, islanders built houses beneath large schist boulders to hide their presence. One of the most compelling examples is the medieval monastery of Theoktistis and its cave chapel, sandwiched between two bun-like rocks.

Much of the island’s landscape is simply untouched. To the west, protected wild oaks range hills weaved by excellent trails, while the north hides craggy hikes into the Halari canyon and its cascading falls, spiralling down to the pretty coastal village of Nas and the remains of the 6th century ancient temple of Artemis.

Also untouched is the island’s secluded Seychelles beach. The secret cove lies some 25km west of Agios Kirikos, close to the village of Manganitis. The path to the hidden beach follows a river bed and is steep towards the end, but the clear water splashing the pebbly shore and the intriguing rock formations will make it worth your efforts. Take time to explore the large cave here. 

Elsewhere, on the island’s northern coast, Armenistis beach has also been left largely as nature intended with its golden sands backed by verdant hills. Enjoy walks through the nearby pine woods past rivers and streams, and soak up the traditional atmosphere at the harbour where fishing boats bob on the blue water. 

The island even has its own take on spas. The thermal pools of Therma are a popular escape, but scattering the coast are dozens of springs. From the cave pools of Spilaio to the scalding waters of Lefkada beach, where its steaming pools are cooled by seawater, you’ll always find a wild soak.

In ancient times Samos was a star, hailed for its sweet wines. Some things never change.

The island’s ruggedly handsome interior and charismatic northern hill villages hide a wealth of vineyards among the volcanic-rich soils around Mount Karvouni. This is prime walking country, and wooded trails weave the quiet foothills around Vourliotes and Manolates, with shaded tavernas (try the local chickpea croquettes) serving glasses of chilled Muscat.

To the west, things get wilder. Here, forests of bushy pines trickle to the shore, wrapping the pebbly coastline in collars of bushy green. At Potami beach, paths west hug the coast past hidden coves, waterfalls and olive terraces to the maw of the great Kakoperato gorge, which spills down to the island’s most secluded beach at Megalo Seitani. And for the more hardy, trails up Mount Kerkis (1,437m) are a hike to rival any in the Aegean.

Further east, history rises to the fore. Samos was said to have birthed the goddess Hera, and her impressive temple ruins still dot the southern coast. Be sure to finish at the Tunnel of Eupalinοs, a kilometre-long underground aqueduct nearby. It is a feat of engineering the equal of any classical wonder, and a reminder of just how powerful Samos was.

Situated to the east of Chios, Lesvos is the third largest Greek island with a coastline of 370km. Lesvos is best known for its counter-culture spirit and LGBTQ+ credentials, epitomised by the shores of Skala Eresou, a likeably bohemian beach village erected on dark volcanic sands. Yet the island has plenty more to offer.

Most people come to Lesvos for the beaches and it’s easy to see why. One of the most popular is Skala Eresou, a blue flag beach with some of the cleanest waters in the Mediterranean that stretches for two-and-a-half kilometres. The beach is particularly popular with lesbians many visiting during September for the festival that celebrate the poet Sappho who was born here. Whatever time of you decide to visit, you’re bound to be charmed by the bohemian, laid-back nature of the beach and its traditional fishing village. Despite stretching for over a mile, Skala Eresou is small compared to the vast Vatera beach. This beach on the south coast stretches for some nine kilometres with the clear waters making a refreshing pit stop during a walk along its shores. 

In the centre, the Kaloni salt marshes have become a popular birding hotspot. Hundreds of species pit stop here, including vast flocks of candy-floss-pink flamingos hot-footing through the shallows.

The island is also rich in ancient monuments, ranging from the Roman-built stone aqueduct of Moria to the sprawling Byzantine fortifications above laid-back capital Mytilene. There's history in nature here, too and to the west, a petrified forest of conifers stubbles the coast near Sigri. Buried in volcanic ash 20 million years ago, its fossilised remains (often metres high) are gleefully explored on trails that feel like you’re walking back through time. Even springs are historic, with those at Loutropoli Thermis in use since antiquity. But little compares to the castle of Molyvos: this 14th-century fort is among the best preserved in the region and often doubles as a spectacular concert venue.

Lastly, no one should leave without seeing the village of Petra. Its cobbled streets wrap a huge outcrop of volcanic rock at its centre, and if you skitter the 114 steps up its face to the church balanced on top, you’ll be rewarded with fine views and a chapel packed with shining votive offerings.

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