The Dodecanese island chain in the Aegean Sea literally translates as ‘Twelve Islands’ and yet the glow of the biggest names (Rhodes, Kos and Karpathos) is so strong, you’d be forgiven for not knowing the rest: Halki, Symi, Kastelorizo, Lipsi, Tilos, Nisyros, Kasos and Agathonisi. Never heard of them? Well, it’s about time you were introduced to some of Greece’s most remote and little-known island gems.
Timeless and aristocratic
Hopping over from nearby Rhodes to tiny Halki is like stepping into another age. Aristocratic mansion houses, flower-filled alleyways and virtually no cars await on the smallest inhabited Dodecanese island. Halki manages to mix nobility with pure simplicity, drawing on the glow of its 18th-and-19th century glory days. Whether you’re at a taverna in Nimporio (the only settlement) enjoying fresh seafood and the local pasta (makarounia), visiting the medieval castle (built by the Knights of St John) or lounging on one of the peaceful beaches, prepare for lots of the quiet life.
Serene and welcoming
Another day-trip from Rhodes or a destination in its own right, Symi has colourful mansion houses and simple living of its own. Entering the port, Gialos, is like stepping back in time, but Symi has also retained all its vibrancy and love of life.
Fishing boats bob in the harbour and tavernas lure you in. And be sure to walk the 500 steps of Kali Strata from the harbour to Ano Symi (Upper Town). The view from the Byzantine Castle at the top is wonderful. Pro tip: There are boats in Gialos port that go to St George’s Beach. The swimming and 300m rockface are unforgettable.
Colourful isolation brimming with tradition
The most remote Greek island is just 800m from the Turkish coast but Kastelorizo (also known as Megisti) remains fiercely Greek. Its little harbour is lit up by the vivid colours of two-storeyed houses (yet another small island with a big history) and nearby is Kastello Rosso, the russet-coloured castle built by the Knights of St John, after which the island was named.
Your lasting memory of this proud little isle will be of the spirited locals. Boat trips include the tiny isle of Ro (with an intriguing history of its own) and the iridescent Blue Caves.
The meaning of tranquility
Heading north of Kos, past Kalymnos and Leros, you reach Lipsi, one of the most untouched Greek islands, surrounded by 24 even tinier islets. Holidays in Lipsi are about swimming in wonderfully clear water and enjoying life’s simple pleasures. The beaches are secluded and there’s excellent hiking (including a route to the remains of an acropolis). Boat trips to the surrounding islets (Makronisi, Aspronisi, Tiganakia, Marathi…) introduce you to more fantastic swimming spots. Pro tip: Try to visit during a festival. You’ll love the experience (and the local sweet wine).
Untouched and unexpected
Sandwiched between Kos and Rhodes, this little island boasts hiking paths and untouched beaches. It was also one of the last bastions of elephants in Europe. The discovery of 4,000-year-old bones in a cave (and those displayed in the town hall) tell us as much. You’ll find classic Aegean architecture (whitewashed houses and narrow alleyways) and the view from the Castle of the Knights is (even by the high standards of Greek hill-top castles) breathtaking. At the Monastery of St Penteleimon, admire the pebble mosaics but leave plenty of time for swimming and great food.
Volcanic beauty and epic hikes
Name an Aegean island blessed with volcanic beauty and a Caldera view that isn’t Santorini. The answer is Nisyros (just south of Kos), where you can soak in a hot spring and cool in the Aegean Sea on the same day and visit not one but three volcanic craters (the locals have named them). Hiking here isn’t to be missed and nor are the mountain villages – Nikia (with its Volcanic Museum) and Emporios (topped by the Pantoniki Fortress). Or just sip a cocktail in a chilled nightspot in the main town, Mandraki.
Photogenic and lyrical (especially on feast days)
Located between Rhodes and Crete, Kasos is the southernmost of our island gems. From the little old harbour, Bouka, to the atmospheric alleyways of Agia Marina (the main town), it pulls on your heartstrings just as the locals tease tunes out of their lyres. You can hike between monasteries (such as the Byzantine Agios Mammas) and caves (there are two to visit) and laze on peaceful beaches. And there are boat trips to the golden beaches of the islet of Armathia. If you visit on a feast day, the lyres and lutes come to life.
Tiny, charming and self-sufficient
Our final hidden gem Dodecanese island is teeny Agathonisi, near Patmos (one of the most remote Greek islands), with just a handful of tavernas, bars and chapels and a singular charm. It’s the kind of place you can arrange with a fisherman to visit a secluded beach (there are more accessible options too). Despite the barren landscape, the industrious locals grow most of what they need. (Try the goat potatado – slow-cooked with potatoes). The main town, Megalo Horio is virtually invisible from the sea. What better hideaway could you ask for?
8 hidden gem Dodecanese islands
Whether as day trips or an island-hopping itinerary from Rhodes or Kos, the Dodecanese islands spread out before you. And it doesn’t end here. There are other fascinating islands in the chain to discover.
FAQs about the Dodecanese islands in Greece
The Dodecanese islands are located in the Aegean Sea, in southwestern Greece. You can see the coastline of Turkey from some of the islands.
There are 15 big islands in the Dodecanese island chain, even though the literal meaning of the word Dodecanese is ‘12 islands’ in Greek. Many smaller islets are situated around the bigger ones, some of which are uninhabited.
Flights depart daily to Dodecanese islands such as Rhodes, Kos and Astypalea (which have airports) from Greece’s major cities, Athens and Thessaloniki. Alternatively, you can reach the islands by boat from the ports of Piraeus or Kavala and from other Aegean islands.
The most popular Dodecanese islands, Rhodes and Kos, do get busy in the peak summer holiday months. So the best time to visit is April to mid-June and September to October, when the summer crowds have thinned (with swimming at its best from June-October). Spring and autumn are the best months for outdoor activities such as hiking. However the smaller Dodecanese islands highlighted here are ideal Greek islands to visit, even in the peak summer months. Swimming in the Aegean Sea is best between late-May and late-September.
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