Tucked in the far reaches of the southeastern Aegean hugging the coastline of Turkey, the Dodecanese is a fascinating archipelago. Rich in history with abundant natural beauty, this magical cluster of islands is linked by a network of ferry services and, in some cases, flights, making it ideal for a spot of island hopping.
Rhodes and Kos are the most popular islands in the archipelago, and both offer plenty of charms away from the tourist trail. But venture further afield and you’ll be richly rewarded. From grand, neoclassical mansions to religious and archaeological sites, superb diving and watersports to myriad spectacular beaches, here are just some of the delights in store when island hopping in the Dodecanese.
The Main Islands of the Dodecanese
In Greek, Dodecanese means ’12 islands’, though the archipelago includes numerous smaller islands and islets. Here’s a guide to the main Dodecanese islands and an overview of their charms.
The largest island in the archipelago and the most popular, Rhodes is a cosmopolitan place that’s packed with history. From the atmospheric medieval Old Town, to the Acropolis of Lindos and ancient city of Kamiros, there’s plenty for history buffs to explore.
Get away from the main resorts and you’ll also find stunning, deserted beaches and a wooded interior, home to the Valley of the Butterflies.
Rhodes is superbly well connected to the rest of the Dodecanese.
Second to Rhodes in terms of popularity, Kos was home to the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, who established his famous Asklepeion here. The Old Town is rich in history with a crusader castle guarding the harbour and ancient ruins scattered throughout.
Renowned for its superb beaches, Kos is relatively flat so you can hire a bike to escape the crowds and find your own sandy spot.
Kos is also well connected, making island hopping a breeze.
Poised between Rhodes and Crete, Karpathos is one of the larger Dodecanese, yet it retains its untamed Greek soul. The dramatic town of Olymbos clings to the mountainside like an ancient amphitheatre, while its inhabitants cling on to old customs and crafts including traditional dress.
But the island’s rugged landscape and wild coastline offer an abundance of activities, including rock climbing, cycling, surfing, wind-sports, diving and snorkelling.
Karpathos has a small airport and harbour, offering several island hopping options.
A short ferry ride from Kos, Kalymnos has long been overshadowed by its popular neighbour. But it offers a completely different vibe, one virtually untouched by mass tourism.
Its rugged, mountainous interior is an international rock-climbing destination, though it’s perhaps most famous for its association with the sea. Once home to the Aegean’s largest sponge-fishing fleet, you can watch sponge-divers and fishermen in the colourful harbour town of Pothia, while the coastline is a magnet for divers and snorkelers.
The best known of the smaller Dodecanese, Patmos is a tranquil, spiritual island. Regarded as the ‘Jerusalem of the Aegean’, it was here that St John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation while exiled, foretelling the end of the world. Pilgrims come to explore the Cave of the Apocalypse and fortified Monastery of St John the Theologian, set above Hora.
The island retains a mysticism that attracts spiritually minded people and artists. It’s especially magical at Easter, during Holy Week celebrations.
The westernmost of the Dodecanese, Astypalea is closer in aesthetics to the neighbouring Cyclades. The picturesque town of Hora is compiled of whitewashed geometric houses that tumble down the hillside towards the sea, topped by an imposing Venetian citadel.
Free from package tourism, this butterfly-shaped island has a magical light, while its relatively poor connections offer the ultimate escape for those that make the trip.
Breathtakingly beautiful, Symi is remote yet cosmopolitan with an abundance of old world glamour. Despite its proximity to Rhodes, its lack of beaches saves it from mass tourism, though it’s increasingly popular for those seeking a sophisticated escape.
The harbour of Yialos is an amphitheatre of pastel-coloured neoclassical houses, while exclusive yachts jostle for space with fishing boats. The harbour is linked to Horio by the Kali Strata, its winding steps lined with grand mansions and boutiques.
Elsewhere, the Monastery of Panormitis is an important pilgrimage destination.
Located a 50-minute ferry ride from Kalymnos, Leros is a charming island where time seems to slow down. Said to be the original home of Artemis, Goddess of Hunting, it’s a low-key place with a couple of museums and a handful of ruins.
Its capital, Platanos, has narrow streets lined with neoclassical houses set beneath a chain of windmills and imposing fortress, while its harbours are ideal for people-watching and chilling out.
If you fancy an adventure, head underwater to scuba dive around Second World War shipwrecks.
Located off Kos, Nisyros is one of the smallest Dodecanese offering a unique experience. The island was formed from a volcanic eruption, and it offers visitors the opportunity to walk in volcanic craters amongst bubbling, steam-filled mud holes and neon-yellow sulphur.
Elsewhere, Nisyros has a retro charm with picturesque villages clinging to the crater rim and fertile valleys with excellent hiking opportunities. The harbour of Mandraki features whitewashed houses juxtaposed with a black-pebble beach, beneath an ancient acropolis protected by black cyclopean walls.
Midway between Rhodes and Kos, Tilos is one of the quietest and least well connected of the Dodecanese. Popular amongst hikers, its mountainous landscape encompasses fertile valleys blanketed in wild flowers, while walking routes transport you to abandoned villages, ancient citadels, an elephant cave, and deserted beaches.
Despite its size, Tilos is a forward-thinking island. A hunting ban has resulted in an island rich in biodiversity with rare and endangered wildlife, while it’s on course to become the first Greek island powered by renewable energy.
The most remote of the Dodecanese, Kastellorizo is more than 100km from Rhodes, yet within touching distance of the coast of Turkey. Despite its location as a meeting point between East and West, the island remains fiercely Greek.
The only town rivals Symi for beauty, with neoclassical houses set around an azure bay, under the gaze of the crumbling red castle after which the island is named. There are no beaches, but you can swim from floating platforms or dive into the most dramatic blue cave in the Mediterranean.
Kastellorizo has a small airport operating during summer, along with a harbour.
The tiny island of Halki sits off the coast of Rhodes, but despite its proximity it feels a world apart. The UNESCO ‘Island of Peace and Friendship’ is largely free from cars, resulting in a laid-back ambiance that’s perfect for lazy summer days and painting holidays.
Its picturesque waterfront is lined with neoclassical mansions, giving a hint of the island’s former prosperity. If you tire of wandering amongst narrow, flower-filled alleyways and watching fishing boats, head off to explore abandoned villages, pretty monasteries and a scattering of beaches. It’s little wonder Halki is renowned for stealing visitors’ hearts.
Go Island Hopping in the Dodecanese with Nissia Holidays
Nissia Holidays specialises in the tiny, unspoilt Dodecanese islands of Halki, Tilos and Nisyros, clustered around Rhodes. If you fancy hopping between these islands, we can arrange an itinerary especially for you. However, with a wide range of contacts across the Dodecanese, if you wish to go further afield, just let us know and we’ll see what we can arrange with our partner organisations.
For more information on island hopping in the Dodecanese or to book your holiday in Halki, Tilos or Nisyros, contact Nissia Holidays on 01455 289421 or email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.