The sapphire waters of the Ionian Sea welcome you to paradise. Kefalonia, Corfu, Zakynthos (Zante), Lefkada, Ithaca, and Paxi. All wonderful holiday destinations. The major islands of the Ionian lived for centuries under Venetian rule and it shows in their castles and churches. Carpeted with olive trees, pines and vineyards, they are fertile and green, a stunning setting for award-winning white-sand beaches and peacock-blue waters. You’ll also find that the hospitable citizens have music in their souls.
On land, you’ll want to explore the monasteries and mountain villages and seek out waterfalls, hiking trails and scenic routes by car or motorbike. Nature lovers can retire to the wetlands for birdwatching or the marine parks for glimpses of elusive monk seals and Loggerhead turtles. As for sailing or cruising, there’s no better place than the Ionian, where the winds are favourable and the anchorages safe. Kite- and windsurfers already regard the Ionian as a prime location for their sports.
Celebrated exotic beaches
The beaches of Lefkada – Engremni, Porto Katsiki, Kathisma – and Shipwreck Beach on Zante are famous the world over. Voutoumi and Vrika on Antipaxi are beloved by boat owners, while Schinos on Ithaca is where the elite meet. Myrtos, on Kefalonia, appears on many posters, its white crescent lapped by milky blue waters and framed by towering cliffs. Then there’s Kaladi on Kythira, and of course Corfu’s much-photographed Paleokastritsa. The Ionian islands have countless other large and small beaches, with a full range of facilities and water sports.
Lands of myths and colourful traditions
Medieval castles and monasteries, storied buildings and excellent museums – testaments to the rich culture and history of the Ionian islands.
On Corfu, Homer’s kingdom of the Phaeacians, popular sights are the city’s Old and New Venetian Forts, the Achillion Palace built by Sissy, empress of Austria, and Mon Repos. Outstanding museums include the Asian Art Collection in the Palace of St Michael and St George, the Archaeology Museum, the Municipal Gallery and others. Also famous are the island’s marching bands in full regalia, their unusual Easter customs and the processions in honour of patron Saint Spyridon.
On Lefkada, you will find one of the most impressive medieval buildings in Greece and the island’s most significant attraction, the sturdy 14th century castle of Santa Maura, which guards the entrance across the lagoon from the mainland. Throughout the main town, you’ll notice wonderful examples of 17th and 18th century Ionian baroque churches.
Kefalonia also has impressive attractions, such as Venetian fortresses, Mycenaean tombs, Roman mosaics and baroque churches, while Argostoli’s Corgialenios Museum and Library are among the best in Greece.
On Zante, the basilica and bell tower of Agios Dionysios are reminiscent of Venice, and the monastery of Agios Georgios ton Gremnon above Shipwreck Bay is beautifully preserved. Fans of Byzantine architecture will also want to venture to the Strofades islands, 37 nautical miles off Zante, to see the impressive 13th century monastery fortress there.
Enjoy windsurfing, kitesurfing and sailing
The larger Ionian Islands are champions when it comes to water sports. Every year Lefkada draws more and more wind- and kite-surfers who find their nirvana at the beaches of Vasiliki and Myli, ranked by some as the best in the Med. Sailors based in Nydri, set off for the nearby islets of Meganisi, Kalamos and Kastos.
North of Corfu, the Diapontia islands are popular destinations with sailors who then head round to Corfu before heading south to Paxi.
Antipaxi, Kioni on Ithaca and Kefalonia’s Fiskardo are beloved destinations for sailing in the Ionian. Indeed, the whole of the Ionian is a magnet to sailors. And for those who love to walk or cycle, each island has well-marked trails through green mountains and varied scenery, including the fabulous 220km long Corfu trail. Corfu also boasts an 18-hole golf course at Ermones, in the Ropa valley which, besides being challenging and fun, is also one of the biggest in Europe.
Dishes with the aroma of the Ionian Sea
The Ionian islands will surprise you with their wealth of culinary flavours. These islands stand out for their cosmopolitan and sophisticated tastes. The most famous dishes from the Corfiot kitchen are sofrito (slow-cooked veal with garlic and parsley), bianco (fish in a white sauce), bourdeto (piquant fish stew) and pastitsada, a rich ragout of veal or chicken with thick pasta. Keep a lookout for locally produced ginger beer and kumquat liqueur.
In Lefkada and Zante, dinners are frequently accompanied by strolling musicians, who fill the air with delightful Italian-sounding cantadas. On Kefalonia, the piece de resistance is a rich meat pie with lots of extras; and on Zante it’s salsa, meat stew with cheese. Here the locals will also offer you a nougat delicacy called mantolato. If they don’t, just ask for it!
Natural attractions and historical sights
- Kefalonia: Unforgettable images on Kefalonia start with your first glimpse of the hamlet of Assos and its Venetian castle, almost overgrown with pines and cypresses, followed by delightful Fiskardo and the ‘rival’ towns of Argostoli and Lixouri. For natural wonders, don’t miss the caves: Drogarati, 150 million years old, and Melissani with its underground lake.
- Zante: The sea and coast around Zante were picked for Greece’s first marine park. This is where the rare caretta caretta sea turtles lay their eggs. In spring, these endangered creatures set off from the Libyan Sea and the southern Adriatic to lay their eggs in the sands of Gerakas, Dafni, Kalamaki, Marathonisi and especially Sakania, east of Laganas.
- Ithaca: The homeland of Homer’s Odysseus. You’ll want to visit the listed settlement of Kioni and medieval Anogi, built right on a mountain ridge.
- Corfu: Corfu’s sights include the islets of Vlaherna and Pontikonisi (Mouse Island), Sidari (with its famous Love Canal beach), Paleokastritsa, Kassiopi, Lefkimmi and also Kouloura and Kalami, made famous by the Durrell brothers’ books. The Old Town of Corfu should be top of your list, with its cobbled alleys, Liston Arcade, Spianada (where you could happen upon a cricket match) and dozens of buildings and monuments left by Venetian, French and British rulers.
- Lefkada: Off Lefkada, the legend of shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis endures on the islet of Skorpios, opposite Nydri, one of the Ionian’s biggest yachting centres. Here among the most breathtaking sights is the lighthouse at Cape Lefkada and Sappho’s Leap, while the most popular is the Faneromeni Monastery. Traditional Agios Nikitas on the west coast is another favourite, flanked by great beaches.
- Paxi: Make a point of taking a close look at the castle of Ai Nikolas, a listed monument which was first built in 1423 and is the most famous attraction on the island. It was renovated by Venetians in 1510 according to plans drawn up by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.