Many travelers heading to Greece make a major production out of touring Greek Islands further afield and more luxurious than the islands nearest to Athens in the Saronic Gulf, but, ironically, the closer you get to the capital, the more laid back and authentically Greek the islands get. You won’t find as many party islands with bustling resorts and hedonistic revelers, but you will discover quiet, traditional communities favored by Athenians and mainland Greeks for their accessibility and relative affordability. The following four are deservedly the most popular.
Aegina: The closest island to Piraeus (the Athenian port), Aegina is a short ferry ride from the big city, which is bustling as it is with crowds and traffic and sweltering in the summer. Though close, Aegina feels worlds away by comparison. The island is an excellent place to swim, shop, and relax, and is even a decent place to opt to stay a night or two before venturing further out into the gulf.
Poros: The least impressive of the selections here, Poros is nonetheless an excellent place to stop for lunch on your way to Hydra from Aegina. Quaint is your watchword when thinking about Poros, a community that effectively amounts to a couple of small towns surrounded by stunning natural beauty.
Hydra: A Greek national treasure, Hydra is protected from the garish resort architecture that mars so many other islands by strict zoning codes. There are also laws prohibiting any and all motorized vehicles (save a weekly visit from a single garbage truck), so be prepared to explore the ancient, cobbled streets and primitive paths that link the few, remote collections of humanity, working monasteries and beautiful views either on foot or astride one of the island’s many donkeys.
Spetses: The picturesque old harbor, museums, mansions and tavernas of Spetses make it a favorite of Greeks, who swarm the island during Easter, on summer weekends, and during certain seasonal festivals. The island is beautiful, and well worth a visit, but make sure to check with locals before planning a trip, as you can easily find yourself stranded on an island during a time when vacant accommodations can’t be procured for love or money.