Sure, we’ve all heard of Santorini, Mykonos, or Crete, but Greece is home to so many other beautiful islands which are often overlooked because of their bigger and more famous neighbors. I didn’t know much about Ithaca before our trip to the Ionian Islands, in Greece. The only thing that resonated with me was its name, which is so deeply intertwined with Greek mythology and the legend of Ulysses.
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Where is Ithaca?
Ithaca (Ithaki, Ithakis, or Ithaka, as it is also known in Greek) is a small island located in the Ionian Sea, off the northeast coast of Kefalonia and to the west of continental Greece. The island is part of the Ionian archipelago and is also known as the homeland of Ulysses (Odysseus) the legendary Greek hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey.
The story of Odysseus and his long journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War made subject to many books, poems and movies. But apart from its mythical essence, Ithaca possesses incredible natural beauty, secluded beaches with emerald waters, quiet villages and lush green vegetation.
How to Get to Ithaca Island
The only way to reach Ithaca is by ferry or by private boat. From the continent, ferries depart from the ports of Astakos, in western Greece, and from Killini, in Peloponnese. But Ithaca is also connected by ferry to the islands of Lefkada and Kefalonia.
The closest airport is on Kefalonia, which has daily flights from Athens and also from many European cities.
Best Way to Explore Ithaca, Greece
Ithaca is usually visited as a day trip from the ports of Sami or Fiscardo, on Kefalonia. To fully enjoy the beauty of Ithaca island, I strongly recommend visiting it by car. You can either rent a car and take it over by ferry, or you can hire one in Vathy. Although there is a bus service on Ithaca, it only runs on a limited schedule. There are also taxis services. Some offer private tours, but they are way more expensive than renting your own car.
Visiting Ithaca by Car
If you have a car you can cross on the ferry (about 40 minutes from Kefalonia, which is the closest to Ithaca). This is a great way to explore the entire island and enjoy the fantastic views. However, if you are in the driver’s seat, you won’t be able to appreciate the view too much, as the roads are narrow and twisty.
Taking the ferry without a car is a bad idea as the small port where the ferry stops on Ithaca is just a quay with a small office. There is no means of transportation to the interior of the island from here.
Visiting Ithaca by Coach
Another option is to take a coach trip. The advantage of getting an organized trip is that you get commentaries along the way on the geography, history and mythology of the island. The disadvantage is that your stops are predetermined.
By Boat Excursion
You can also take a boat excursion around the island of Ithaca. The boat stops in Vathy and also takes a couple of swim stops along the way, but you don’t get to visit the interior of the island. This tour also has commentaries. Below are a few options to choose from.
Best Things to Do in Ithaca, Greece
Except for the lively town of Vathi, Ithaca seems very laid back and pretty much unspoiled. There are plenty of restaurants which are relatively cheap and provide good local cuisine. However, there is very little nightlife, which may not be appealing to everyone. Ithaca is one of the best Greek Islands for couples looking for a peaceful retreat.
There are many beautiful places to visit in Ithaca, such as endless trails, quiet villages, archaeological sites, museums and secluded beaches.
The capital of Ithaca is Vathy, a beautiful town that has one of the largest natural harbors in Greece. The harbor encloses a small islet named Lazaretto.
Vathy’s architecture suffered a mixture of cultural influences from the Venetians and British, who conquered the island. Most of the houses are built of wood and stone with no balconies. Some are very close together, others are farther apart and have lovely gardens. The whole town is clean and colorful, with small traditional shops and beautiful eateries.
North of Vathy is the Nymphs’ Cave. According to the legend, Odysseus used this cave for hiding the treasures he acquired during his epic journey home from the Trojan War. Another myth says that the Phaeacians abandoned Odysseus here while he was asleep.
Sadly, just the beautiful legends of the Nymphs’ Cave are left today. Since only the entrance to the cave is accessible to visitors, not many people venture here. However, the findings of the excavations that took place some years ago are displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Vathi.
Panagia Kathara Monastery
About 5 km from Anogi village, at an elevation of 566 meters, is the Panagia Kathara (Kathariotissa) Church in Ithaca, Greece. This is the only monastery on the island, although at the time when it was built it was not exactly a monastery. The exact date of the construction is unknown, but the structure you see today is from the 17th century.
The monastery bears the name of the miraculous icon that was found here and to her patron and protector of the Ithaca island. The locals believe that the icon has been painted by Saint Luke and has miraculous powers.
The bell tower offers a spectacular view of the island. There are also several viewing platforms near the tower from which you can admire the stunning beauty of Ithaca.
Modest dressing is required when entering the monastery, which remains open to visitors from dawn till the late hours.
The Ruins of Odysseus Palace
Archaeologists believe they have found the palace of Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca. So is Homer’s epic poem true after all? It’s hard to tell whether Odysseus truly existed, but there are some ruins on the island that seem to fit Home’s description of the mythical palace.
You can walk to the site and explore the archaeological digs on your own. The ruins are approximately 3,000 years old and are surrounded by stunning views of Afales Bay. To reach the site, you have to walk off a dirt road near Exogi village, which is at the very top of the island.
Kioni is a settlement that dates from the 16th century. It is a beautiful and friendly village with a great mountainous backdrop, lovely clear water, a handful of tavernas and several high end jewelry shops. A great place to relax, walk, eat near the water edge. You can also hire a boat here and go around the island.
The harbor area is surrounded by well-maintained, colorful houses that seem to be rising from the sea. The bay and harbor are filled with sailing boats of all sizes that compete for space with the small boats of the local fisherman.
Frikes is another beautiful little harbor on Ithaca Island with lovely restaurants and shops. Much smaller than Vathi or Kioni, but with a very authentic Greek atmosphere. Although it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes to look around, you could easily spend a day here just chilling. This is perfect place to sit and watch the boats – local fishing boats or yachts coming in to have dinner in the evening.
They say the village gets very busy in the summer, but we visited here in mid October towards the end of the day. The tavernas were quiet and just a handful of tourists were walking along the promenade.
Exogi is the northern-most village of the island, built at an altitude of 340 meters. To reach it you’ll have to follow the road from Stavros to Platreithias. At its highest point, the road turns left and continues uphill towards Exogi. The village was built like an amphitheater overlooking the bay of Afales and the neighboring islands. The small houses of Exogi are built in a row, climbing up the hillside. Because it sits up so high, the view from up here is breathtaking!
Exogi is one of the oldest settlements on Ithaca Island, in Greece. In the Middle Ages, the village was famous for its terraced gardens that produced oil, wine and raisins. Today however, less than 100 people live here permanently, so the village seems very quiet and remote.
Exogi is located just above the archaeological site that is believed to be Odysseus’s Palace. The main church in the village is the church of Agia Marina, which sits right in the main square. Although small, the church is very beautiful.
At the edge of the village, near the cemetery, you can see the Pyramids of Exogi, a rather strange and unexpected sight. Although a funerary monument, the pyramids don’t look at all like the famous pyramids of Egypt, but rather as a ziggurat.
Visit Some of the Beaches in Ithaca, Greece
Greece is well known for its endless beautiful beaches and Ithaca is home to many of them. Unlike the neighboring islands, Ithaca has neither large nor sandy beaches. Most of them are gorgeous small bays with crystal clear waters, white pebbles and are surrounded by lush vegetation. Ithaca beaches are ideal for people who like swimming in clear, calm waters, or who like snorkeling.
Some of the most beautiful beaches in Ithaca include Sarakiniko, Filiatro, Gidaki, and Agios Ioannis. All these beaches are within a few miles of the capital of Vathy.
Filiatro beach sits in a secluded cove at the bay with the same name. The beach is very popular with the locals who often have parties here. There is a canteen that sells refreshments, showers, umbrellas, lounge chairs and tables. You can also find boats for renting at this beach.
We visited in autumn when the beach was almost empty and everything was closed. But we enjoyed it even more because we had the entire beach all to ourselves. The water was warm and perfect for swimming and snorkeling. I’m sure this place gets pretty crowded in summer, but don’t let that put you off. The water is warm and one of the clearest I’ve ever swam in.
Sarakiniko beach is about 3 km from Vathy, the capital of Ithaca. We discovered it accidentally, when we were looking for Filiatro beach nearby. This quiet beach sits in one of the most brilliant natural settings I have ever seen. It’s surrounded by cypresses and olive trees and has calm, emerald waters.
The beach has no tourist facilities, which is why it’s not popular among tourists. It was empty when we visited, but in the summer it has many nudists and even some campers, despite the lack of facilities.
The bay is split into two by some rock formations, with a small path that connects the two beaches.
Both beach sections are very nice, but the second looks like something from a movie. An unspoiled paradise that needs to be visited to be appreciated. In my opinion Sarakiniko is one of the most attractive beaches in Ithaca, provided you visit it off season! You can’t get here without a car, however.
Gidaki is a beautiful but isolated beach, tucked away on the east coast of Ithaca. You can access it either by boat or by a hiking trail from Skinos Beach. Parking is at the end of a narrow road and is very limited. Luckily we visited Greece in October when there weren’t many tourists around and it was not very hot.
I personally enjoyed the hike that goes through pine trees and has nice views. But if you do this hike in summer when it’s hot, it may not be very pleasant. The beach is visually stunning because of the turquoise waters and white pebble bottom and beach as well as white cliffs.
Agios Ioannis Beach
This is one of the most popular beaches on Ithaca. It was however not my favorite one, because it seems very windy. On the other hand, it has a mix of pebbles and sand which makes it easier on the feet.
Agios Ioannis is located in one of the most beautiful coasts of Ithaca, about 9 km away from Vathy. And like most other beaches on this island, it has beautiful clean blue waters.