Sail Into History: Ancient Routes and Modern Ferries in the Greek Archipelago

Sail into History Ancient Routes and Modern Ferries in the Greek Archipelago

Over one-fifth of Greece’s landmass comprises islands, each with their own charm. Island-hopping requires an extensive ferry network.

But this is a system designed primarily for locals, and understanding it requires patience. The wait for a delayed ferry may offer the chance to visit a lamb roadside shrine or explore an empty beach that someone on your boat raved about.

What Is a Ferry?

A ferry is a boat that transports people and vehicles across a river or other body of water. Almost any boat can act as a ferry as long as it is licensed to operate one and collect fares from passengers, but true ferries are specifically designed for the job. They often feature a bridge or tunnel under the water and make contact with a thoroughfare on both shores, and some even connect with railway lines to carry cars across great distances.

Generally, ferries have fixed prices. This means you pay the same whether you book your ticket months in advance or just a few days ahead of time. It also makes it easier to compare prices between different online booking engines, ports, and physical ferry ticket stores.

There are several types of ferries in the Greek Archipelago, including conventional passenger and car ferries and high-speed catamarans. Conventional ferries are large and offer cabins, lots of deck space, and large garages for cars. Many also have cafes and restaurants, so you can get lunch or dinner while on board.

High-speed ferries are considerably faster than their conventional counterparts, travelling at around 38-40 knots (a knot is the equivalent of 1.15 miles per hour). They can connect most island pairs in just a couple hours or less, making them a fast alternative to flying to the next destination.

Conventional Ferries

Although Greece’s 6,000 islands are spread out over the Aegean and Ionian oceans, most ferry routes focus on six island groups. Popular destinations like Crete, Santorini, and the Cyclades are all well-served by conventional ferries, departing from Piraeus or Rafina ports near Athens. Other island groups, such as the Dodecanese and the Saronic Gulf, are accessible via a smaller number of regular ferries. Ferries to these island chains run throughout the year. However, the ferry system gets complicated in summer when high-speed ferries come into play, slashing journey times from Athens to most island groups and competing with conventional vessels. This can make deciding how to navigate your itinerary confusing, especially because schedules change regularly and finding them months in advance can be difficult.

The most common ferries are large passenger/car ships (though some high-speed ferries also accept cars) and are operated by companies such as Blue Star, Hellenic Seaways, Anek Lines, SeaJets, and Golden Star. These conventional ferries feature big indoor and outdoor areas, restaurants, cafes, shops, air-type seats on deck or in designated indoor spaces, a garage, and cabins for longer or overnight trips. Most ferries sail frequently during the high season but less frequently during the off-season, and routes can be canceled at any time due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances. To avoid these problems, plan ahead and book your tickets before you arrive in Greece.

High-Speed Ferries

Ferries can be packed during peak summer season, so it’s important to book in advance—especially for high-speed ferries. Tickets can be purchased online (recommended), at travel agencies, or in person at the port.

Newer high-speed vessels are smaller than conventional ferries, but they are able to hold hundreds of passengers and cars and are capable of sailing at much higher speeds. This means they can reduce the overall time of a trip and are also ideal for shorter trips between islands, such as between Mykonos and Santorini. The newest ferry, the Express Aiolis, is a fast hydrofoil that looks more like a giant speedboat than a traditional ferry and cuts the journey to Lesvos or Mykonos from 12 to six hours.

Blue Star Ferries, Hellenic Seaways, and a handful of other companies operate high-speed ferries. They usually offer air-type seats, a few cafeterias, and a garage. Unlike conventional ferries, these ferries don’t stay long at island ports; they leave as soon as all passengers and vehicles have disembarked or embarked.

Triton Ferries operates a small ferry, Ionis, that departs from Lavrio and connects to the islands of Kea (Tzia), Kythnos, and Antikythera. Goutos Lines runs four similar ferries, including the Flying Dolphin that links Lavrio with Neapoli in the Peloponnese and Kythira. Ferries from these lines run year-round, but only on a limited number of routes.


The Greek islands have a well-developed ferry network that makes it easy to hop around from one island to another. But the system can feel complicated for travelers, especially when trying to figure out ticket prices and schedules months in advance. The best way to understand the ferry system is to realize that it was set up primarily for locals.

A catamaran is a two-hulled sailboat that’s usually a little larger than a conventional ferry. The boats’ shape allows them to travel at higher speeds than single-hull sailboats and they are often easier on those who get sea sick. Catamarans are a popular choice for Greece island hopping since they typically offer more space than sailboats, which means you can move about the boat easily on a windy day or even lay down without getting uncomfortable.

There are multiple ways to charter a catamaran for your Greece island hopping trip, including a by the cabin option that lets you book a private catamaran just for yourself. This is an excellent choice for those traveling in a smaller group and those looking to save money on boat rental. Many providers like BorrowABoat offer this service, making it easy to find the perfect catamaran for your trip. They also help you plan your itinerary and book the best seats.