Don’t worry, there are loads of stunning islands to visit from Zakynthos. So, if you didn’t want your jaunt to western Greece to be a one-stop visit, there’s lots of scope to add in extra destinations. What’s more, most of them can be accessed by public ferry, while some only need a small motorboat rental, which rarely costs more than €150 per day.
The good news is that Zakynthos lies right at the bottom of the Ionian Sea. The islands there aren’t anywhere near as far apart as those over in the Cyclades or the Dodecanese part of Greece, where hopping from Santorini to Rhodes can take a whole overnighter! Here, a couple of hours is usually enough to get from A to B, and the journeys themselves are pretty stunning to boot.
What’s more, all of the islands to visit from Zakynthos have something unique on the menu. Yes, they all come with the trademark chilled vibes of western Greece, but some are more about getting lost in a book on an empty beach while others have party towns and hiking mountains to conquer. Check them out…
Kalonisi is a tiny fragment of an island that lies off the south coast of Zante. You can see it rising just above the horizon from the main beach resorts of Kalamaki and Laganas, poking in a silhouette a touch above the glinting blue waters of the Ionian Sea. Those tempted to head there and explore will probably need to be able to sail or pilot a rental boat, as Kalonisi is rarely added to the main water tours that take in the famous rugged shoreline and Shipwreck Beach on the west side of Zakynthos.
The sail from the south shore of Zakynthos won’t take long, though. It should be about 30 minutes until Kalonisi itself comes into view. Then, you’ll see it unfold in a series of rocky bays and scrub-topped hills. The northern side of the island is much sandier and more accessible. There, an old, ruined tower dating back several centuries keeps watch over a particularly pretty bay.
If you make it around to the south shore, there are smaller coves with deep waters and rocks studded with spiky urchins. Keep watch for them as you swim, but be sure to take the snorkels along, as Kalonisi is known as a hotspot for sea turtles. Head in early in the morning or at dusk for your best chance of seeing those majestic creatures
Marathonisi, like Kalonisi before it, is another of the islands to visit from Zakynthos that you’re best sourcing your own mode of transport to get to. That shouldn’t be too hard, as it’s still within eyeshot of the ports at Laganas and Keri, where there are oodles of motorboat rental spots that can offer a ride for the day (expect to pay around €150 for a boat hire with fuel). The trip across isn’t long at all, and it’s also a super popular route.
Marathonisi is known among the local tour guides as Turtle Island. A part of the fantastic National Marine Park of Zakynthos, it’s a key mating spot and nesting ground for loggerhead sea turtles. They come to lay their eggs on the shoreline, which is completely free of any hotels or developments, once per year. For the rest of the year, the bay is a stunning U-bend of white sand with turquoise waters that are perfect for snorkelers and swimmers.
We’d also recommend taking some time to explore the pebble coves on the south side of Turtle Island, where you can gaze up at the empty, wooded hills above. That’s also where you can find the shadowy inlets of the Marathonisi Caves, a series of intriguing coast grottoes that sparkle with strange blue colors and hues at different times of the day.
Ithaka is one of the smaller of the Ionian chain, but still remains a very popular holiday destination. It offers a chance to escape the crowds of places like Zante and Corfu, to somewhere where the pace of life is slow and things are indelibly simple. Look for the island immediately west of Zakynthos’s northern neighbor, Kefalonia. Only a short strait separates those two, and there are regular ferries. That means you can get to Ithaka by first traveling to the port of Sami on Kefalonia and then switching boats. It should take less than a day in all.
More than anything, Ithaka is known for its resplendent natural beauty. It is certainly one of the prettiest islands to visit from Zakynthos – even Homer extolled its beautiful, sea-surrounded coastline and wooded hills back in ancient times (Ithaka is thought to be the mythic home of his great hero, Odysseus). You won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for that sort of thing, what with shimmering pebble coves like Piso Aetos and Loutsa hiding under high cliffs topped by fragrant oleander woods.
The main town on Ithaka is Vathy. It’s the port where the public ferries arrive into – some from the mainland; some from Kefalonia. But don’t go thinking that means it’s busy. It’s not. Vathy is a super-chilled affair where there seem to be more donkeys than cars, complete with a couple of excellent seafood tavernas and access to old bridal paths that cover the whole island.
Long-lost Atokos sits almost completely alone in the very heart of the Ionian Sea. It’s technically a part of the Echinades Islands, which are the smaller islets that speckle the shorelines of the Greek mainland west of Zakynthos. There’s a good chance that you’ll lay eyes on them if you’re traveling primarily by ferry, but they’re also good points to have on the map if you’re going to be chartering a yacht and exploring this part of the Med on your own.
Atokos itself is totally uninhabited and void of development, save for a single villa that’s rarely occupied and a small church on the southwest shore. They both sit behind the beachfront known as One House Bay (for the single house that’s there), between clusters of pine woods and a particularly pretty run of pebbles and sand.
Being completely empty and overgrown with forests, Atokos is best viewed from the water. Those with their own yacht can sail the southern coves and inlets to their heart’s content, looking for wild swimming and snorkeling spots. If you’re tempted, we’d recommend getting your adventure going ASAP – Atakos was recently on sale for a whopping €44 million, so it could become private property in coming years!
Kefalonia is one of those islands that tempts the same people back and back again, year after year. Once you’ve seen the sheer loveliness of its rock-ribbed mountains and that sun-cracked backcountry scented by wild thyme, there’s a good chance you’ll be hooked for life, too. What we wouldn’t come for is buzzing nightlife and karaoke parties – Kefalonia doesn’t have its own version of Kavos, for example.
The good news for those looking for islands to visit from Zakynthos is that this one’s the closest major island of all. It sits just to the north in the Ionian Sea, around 10 nautical miles across a breezy strait. There are regular ferries, especially throughout the main travel season, linking Zakynthos Town to the port of Sami roughly midway up Kefalonia’s eastern shoreline. They take about 1h20 in all.
Lots of people will simply head for the beach hotel and crank up the chill factor when they arrive. We can hardly blame them, because Kefalonia is arguably the R&R king of this part of Greece. However, if you wanted something a touch more action-packed, you could always consider the hike to the top of 1,600-meter-high Mount Aenos (it’s a 4.5-hour challenge that offers fantastic views) or a boat trip into the strange Melissani Cave (think a water-filled cavern surrounded by woodlands).
Lefkada is the first of the main Ionian Islands that run in a straight line south of Preveza on the Greek mainland. It’s roughly 85 miles to the north of Zakynthos, but there are plenty of connecting ferries that make a pitstop in Kefalonia along the way. That means trips will often take a whole half a day if you’re not flinging up the sail on your own yacht. Still, the journey is a very pleasant one, taking you through the middle of the Ionian Sea with views of Ithaka on one side and the Peloponnese on the other.
Lefkada itself is a tale of two sides. First, there are the east and south coasts, which are littered with yacht-filled marinas and lively little towns like Vasiliki and Nydri. Those are generally excellent places for family trips, with boat rental hubs on the marina and plenty of Greek tavernas by the shore that also sell international food. You can also find loads of charming villas with views across the straits just a short drive inland.
Then you have the western edge of Lefkada and the wooded, mountainous interior. Altogether less-trodden and less-visited, those are for time-stood-still hamlets where weaver workshops and olive oil presses meet on the main plazas, or for beaches that are virtually impossible to reach given the sheer-cut faces of the cliffs behind.
Corfu is regularly hailed as the prettiest and the most happening of the whole region. It’s the farthest north of the whole Ionian, sat right on the cusp of the Greek-Albania border. That actually means that some people resort to flying on this route, catching two internal links going via the national hub in Athens. That works but we prefer the sailing option, which involves an 11-hour ferry that goes up to three times per week from Zakynthos in the summer months – there’s nothing like traveling as the ancients did into Corfu Town!
Look up when you arrive, because the Old Venetian Fortress looms large, capping out with reconstructed Greek temples and great bulwarks that date back to the 15th century. Corfu Town deserves some time once you’ve hopped off the boat, too, offering winding, wiggling alleys, and bumping taverna-bars that serve a mix of Italian, Balkan, and Greek mezze.
Then it’s time to start exploring greater Corfu. Go south and you’ll enter the stretch of holidaymaker coastline that runs from Corfu Town to Kavos. It’s dotted with charming resorts and B&Bs and ends with a sleepless 18-30s resort that has more nightclubs than you could possibly need. Going west will take you through the mountains to Palaiokastritsa, a land of glinting white beaches with an old monastery. Or there’s the north shore, which has castles and the strange gorge beaches at Kanoni. It’s basically got something for everyone, and is certainly one of the most popular islands to visit from Zakynthos.