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View of Fira from the Fira to Oia hike along Santorini Caldera (Photo: Kyle Valenta)

Greek Islands Cruises: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

View of Fira from the Fira to Oia hike along Santorini Caldera (Photo: Kyle Valenta)
Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust
Senior SEO Editor
Kyle Valenta

Mar 30, 2024

Read time
6 min read

At one time, the Greek islands were the playground of the jet set, made famous by Jackie O and her international coterie. Now a cruise to the Greek islands is more accessible for everyone, with options ranging from large mainstream cruise ships to smaller sailing yachts.

Your first decisions when picking a Greek island cruise is the size of your ship and what islands matter most to you (for a primer, check out our guide to which cruise ship size is right for you).

Larger cruise ships, such as those operated by Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Virgin Voyages or Norwegian Cruise Line, will only call upon the higher-trafficked islands, such as Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes or Crete. The smaller the ship, the more likely that you'll be able to see off-the-beaten path islands like Skiathos or Hydra. Keep in mind that tendering is the rule, not the exception, at most islands.

Cruising the Greek islands really does deliver something for everyone. Ruins and historic sights are the norm at almost every port. Stores and galleries abound for shoppers. There are great scenic and natural options, like the caldera hike in Santorini, plus beautiful beaches across many of the islands.

If you're planning a Greek islands cruise – or have always dreamed of one – check out our best tips, tricks, and intel on when to go, what to see and where to visit.

Learn the Greek Island Cruise Lines

Resilient Lady in the waters off of Mykonos (Photo: Kyle Valenta)

Almost every mainstream cruise line, both U.S. and European, has Eastern Mediterranean itineraries that stop at the larger Greek islands of Mykonos, Santorini and Crete. (For more, read our guide to Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Basics). However, some of these lines, like Virgin Voyages, add stops in Rhodes or Turkey as well.

For a more in-depth vacation on the Greek islands, you'll want to look for smaller cruise ships that stop at some of the less-trafficked ports. Options include yacht lines Azamara, Windstar, SeaDream, Seabourn and Silversea. Star Clippers is another option if you're after the experience of a cruise about a sailing ship.

Two Greek cruise lines, Celestyal Cruises and Variety Cruises, offer itineraries that focus only on the islands. Celestyal uses larger, more traditional cruise ships and normally spends more time than the mainstream lines at each island – with full days and overnights in some ports. You'll also find lower nightly rates on Celestyal than some of the other lines in the region.

To help you out, check out our list of the best cruises and cruise lines in the Greek islands.

Familiarize Yourself with Greek Island Cruise Itineraries

Mykonos Old Town seafront (Photo: Kyle Valenta)

Eastern Mediterranean: The larger Greek islands of Mykonos, Santorini and Crete are often part of longer itineraries that embark in Venice or Athens and end in Istanbul. Another popular cruise itinerary calls on the islands on the way to Israel. This is the most common way that cruisers experience the Greek islands.

Greece and Turkey: Many Greek island cruises include stops at Turkish port cities like Kusadasi (home of Ephesus) and Bodrum. In Turkey, this stretch of coastline is called the Turquoise Coast, and its ancient history is similar to what you'll find in Greece. A cruise that concentrates on Greece and Turkey often runs between Athens and Istanbul or runs round trip from Athens. Virgin Voyages runs an excellent option for those seeking a updated mainstream cruise experience with long stays in port and an overnight.

Greece Only: If you're looking for an immersive experience, look to smaller cruise ships that concentrate solely on hopping between the Greek islands. On these cruises, you're likely to begin the day at one island for a swim or snorkel, head to another for a barbecue lunch and finish up with an overnight in one of the more happening ports to take advantage of the nightlife. These cruises usually sail round trip from Athens.

Prepare for the Sun in the Greek Islands

View of Santorini Caldera from the Fira to Oia hike (Photo: Kyle Valenta)

Temperatures can rise to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit on the Greek islands at the height of summer. You'll want to protect yourself with plenty of sunscreen, a hat and lots of water. While it's tempting to dive into the Aegean Sea without sun protection, you don't want to ruin the rest of your trip.

Keep in mind that if you're out and about, visiting sights beyond the many Greek old towns, there can be sparse shade (especially at historic ruins like the Acropolis of Lindos on Rhodes or nature-based activities Fira to Oia hike on Santorini).

Get Ready for Packed Streets and Crowds

Donkeys on the steep footpath to Fira on Santorini (Photo: Kyle Valenta)

During the high season in Greece and its islands, you should expect crowds. The most popular islands can get jammed – not just with cruise passengers, but with people on holiday from Greece and the rest of Europe. Bring your patience and an open mind.

Those crowds can be particularly intense in the narrow alleyways of Mykonos Old Town or Fira on Santorini. You'll also want to budget a huge amount of time if you're planning on using the cable car to Fira in Santorini (the top of the caldera). Lines can take more than an hour to clear and are often longer at peak times (morning on the way up, mid-afternoon on the way down). Otherwise, you'll need to saddle up on a donkey, or climb the footpath alongside those very same donkeys (and the evidence of their bodily functions all around your feet).

Greek Island Ports Will Likely Require a Tender to Shore

Cruise ship in Santorini (Photo: Olga Gavrilova/Shutterstock.com)

There's no way around it: Tendering is the rule and not the exception on the Greek islands. With that in mind, you'll need to budget extra time to make it back to your ship on time. That means budgeting time for long lines to and from the tender ships in places like Santorini and Mykonos. You should also check out our explainer on what a cruise tender is and how to plan for one.

Consider Accessibility and Mobility Issues on the Greek Islands

Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights in Rhodes Old Town (Photo: Kyle Valenta)

While not every port can cause issues for travelers who have mobility issues in Greece, there are plenty of stops that make it a challenge to see the sights. That's particularly true if you're planning on an guided tours of Old Towns.

Most of the small towns in Greece — like Fira on Santorini and Mykonos Old Town — have cobblestoned streets and incredibly narrow alleyways, sharp corners, and huge crowds that can be hard to contend with if you use mobility assistance like scooters or wheelchairs. Check with your cruise line for appropriate shore excursions and advice on where you can visit without complications.

Easier ports include Rhodes Old Town, which has a cruise ship dock and wider, flat-paved streets, or Bodrum in Turkey. You can also learn about the differences between dock ports and tender ports in our handy guide.

Your Wallet Will Likely Take a Hit in Greek Island Ports

Cat lounging in the main market in Rhodes Old Town (Photo: Kyle Valenta)

As one of the world's most sought-after bucket-list destinations, the Greek islands can be as pricey (or pricier) than the big-ticket destination that ring the Mediterranean's shores. That's especially true in Mykonos and Santorini, where even the cost a coffee or pita wrap is on par with New York City prices (read: eye popping).

While you should carry euros on you, credit cards are widely accepted on all major island destinations like Crete, Rhodes, Santorini and Mykonos.

Updated March 30, 2024
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