Corfu has long enticed conquerors and holidaymakers with its intoxicating mix of historical monuments, lush hillsides, blue skies, sand and pebble beaches and calm, azure waters. British and French influences can be seen in Corfu’s atmospheric Old Town – however, it’s obvious that the Venetians, who stayed around for 400 years, exerted the greatest sociocultural impact on the island.
While resort areas are spread around a vast coastline, the eastern shores, such as Ipsos, Dassia, Moraitika and Benitses, are especially popular and particularly family-friendly. Retreat to the swish northeast and stay in a pastel-coloured villa hidden among olive tree-covered slopes, where you can revel in spirit-boosting sea views.
Hit television series The Durrells, inspired by Gerald Durrell’s entertaining trilogy on his family’s time on Corfu, has sparked a revival of interest in the Ionian island and attracted many enthusiastic first-timer visitors. Add to that new luxury hotels, and interesting openings on the dining, beach bar and nightlife scene – and you have an eternal Greek island classic on your hands.
If time is of the essence, stay relatively close to Corfu Town, which is situated roughly halfway down the eastern coast. A hire car is a must on this sprawling island so that you have the freedom to move around at your own pace. Grab an early breakfast and park beside the old harbour so you can explore the pedestrian-only Unesco World Heritage-listed Old Town.
Cross the moat to the 14th-century Old Fortress before the cruise crowds arrive. From the Tower of the Land, revel in grand views of the watercolour patchwork of terracotta roof-tiled neoclassical buildings bathed in light next to a glittering Adriatic Sea. Spot the two winged lions of St Mark, the Tower of the Sea, the British barracks and the church of St George.
At classy French-built Liston Arcade, sit outdoors at Café Kohlias and revive your senses with an iced espresso while taking in Spianada Square, the largest square in the Balkans.
Do lunch late, as locals do, and check in at Marina’s Tavern in the old Jewish quarter. Chow down on delectable meze like taramasalata (fish roe dip) with marinated anchovies along with nourishing pies from owner Marina’s native Epirus region, and braised lamb with artichoke.
Next, lose yourself in the maze of skinny alleyways and laundry hung high to dry that characterise the Campiello neighbourhood, bordered by Kapodistriou, Arseniou and Nikiforou Theotoki streets. Across from Agios Vassilios church you’ll find the Lazaris Distillery & Artisan Sweets Brand Store, where you can pick up a smart-looking bottle of smooth kumquat cream liqueur, an updated version of the traditional tipple that is delicious on ice.
Then, pop into retro Papagiorgis patisserie, which dates to 1924, to sample the best pistachio gelato this side of Naples.
Slip into your resort linens and espadrilles for an elegant night out in the Old Town. Chef Aristotelis Megoulas works seasonal farm-to-table finesse at his restaurant Pomo d’Oro, where the menu changes monthly: you might find the likes of octopus carpaccio with strawberries and pine nuts in red pepper sauce. Make sure to book ahead, particularly in July and August. Ask Aristotelis about the little-known history of Skaramanga Square.
Afterwards, amble down to ultra-cool streetside local favourite Café Bristol for signature cocktail Monkey & the Beans and jazz tunes. If you prefer to be seaside, sashay over to the rooftop of buzzing bar-restaurant NAOK Azur, a prime spot to behold the Old Fortress. For more suggestions of the best restaurants on the island, see our guide.
Today you’re off to explore Corfu’s western coast. Your first destination is Paleokastritsa, a resort town of hills and dramatic cliffs studded with olive, pine and fir trees. Pack a picnic, shade and water supplies and rent a motor boat for a half-day from Ampelaki Boats so you can track down isolated beaches accessible only by sea. Drop anchor and dive into the aquamarine waters of Giali, Limni, Paradise, Stelari and Iliodoros, among others.
Alternatively, discover the excellent dive sites near Paleokastritsa such as Colovri islet, where you’ll spot marine life including tuna, jacks, anthia and nudibranch amid reefs, caves and canyons. Achilleon Diving offers dives and courses for both newbies and experienced divers. For more suggestions of the best beaches on the island, see our guide.
Head up to the Theotokos Monastery, built on Paleokastritsa’s highest peak, at exactly 1pm, when it closes for two hours to the public. Walk directly to the two nearby lookout points, often people-free at this time of day, and capture staggering views of the town’s two main beaches and densely-vegetated bluffs that plunge down to a turquoise-shaded sea.
Afterwards, absorb the serenity of the monastery and its tiny church housing rare icons, founded in the 13th century and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
If hunger pangs hit, Corfu’s original slow food awaits at Taverna Elizabeth, in sleepy Doukádes village, 10 minutes by car east of Paleokastritsa. Here, you must try piquant, tomato-based pastitsada, a traditional tummy-pleasing casserole prepared with beef or, occasionally, cockerel.
Ensconced in a rocky cove since the 1960s, La Grotta Bar, accessible from Paleokastritsa’s main road via 142 steps or by boat, is ideal for a refreshing late afternoon swim and snorkel in The Blue Lagoon-like waters, followed by a locally produced ale or old school piña colada.
On the way back to your hotel, stop in at hip Nagual on long, sandy Kontogialos Beach, a former hippie haven, for a legendary sunset, exceptional cocktails and possibly a movie with your feet in the sand. Dare a midnight dip in the cool, shallow waters.
You may choose, instead, to freshen up and hit Corfu Town. Splash out on dinner at the alluring The Venetian Well, where chef-owner Yiannis Vlachos envisions creative Mediterranean dishes such as crayfish tartare marinated in vanilla and citrus juices. For more suggestions of the best bars on the island, see our guide.
Miniscule Yaliskari Beach is a short, steep drive south of Kontogialos beach. Arrive early if you want to catch rays on the narrow strip of sand surrounded by greenery. There’s a homely taverna where you can indulge in a languid lunch of steamed mussels, lobster pasta and, occasionally, fried cod Greek-style. At the southern end, an exotic-looking rock face rises up out of the sea.
Corfu plays host to more than 300 bird species, including cormorants, egrets and migrating flamingos. Two of the island’s most significant wetland habitats are Lake Korission and the former salt pans of Alikes, in southern Corfu. Ornithologist Giannis Gasteratos leads bird-watching tours offering incisive detail on the island’s surprisingly rich biodiversity. For more suggestions of the best things to do on the island, see our guide.
South of Corfu Town is the Kanoni lookout point, named after a cannon the French installed during their occupation. From there you can see 17th-century Vlacherna Monastery (admission is free) on a rocky outpost. Boats ferry passengers across to Pontikonissi islet (Mouse Island), whose Byzantine church opens just once a year. Plane spotters frequent an adjacent causeway that crosses Halikiopoulos lagoon as aircraft fly directly overhead.
If you’re staying at five-star fabulous Domes Miramare Corfu, the resort’s sleek black yacht Miramaretta can whisk you to Corfu Town, James Bond-style, in about 20 minutes. Skim across the Ionian, taking in the coastline with a flute of champagne in hand, and your glam night out has already begun.
Did you know?
Corfu has a time-honoured musical tradition and is renowned for its cheery marching brass bands (filarmonikes in Greek) – an impressive 18 in all, the first of which was founded in 1840. Keep an eye and ear out for lively processions and performances, particularly on national holidays, local feast days and during Orthodox Easter, when thousands of visitors throng the capital.
Where to stay
Domes Miramare Corfu is the Ionian isle’s gold standard. This five-star, adults-only hideaway sits on its own beach in peaceful Moraitika, southeast of Corfu Town. The charismatic yet unpretentious property was once owned by the Onassis family and was a celebrity magnet in its Sixties heyday. It’s worth splashing out on a sea view or waterfront pavilion retreat, where you can stretch out on chaise longues and destress in your hot tub or private pool, or both. Soul beats float above the shingle beach, where it’s deceptively easy to spend a day unwinding on sun loungers and cooling off in the aquamarine Ionian Sea.
Those seeking peace and serenity should head to MarBella Nido, surrounded by pines and firs above a sandy Blue Flag beach. Rooms and suites revel in enviable sea views; most encompass a private pool or whirlpool with a roomy patio. Meticulously-tended gardens of lavender bushes and all manner of flowers serve as an aromatherapy wake-up call. Dinner at open-air fine dining restaurant Apaggio is decidedly romantic. Pair creative spins on classic Corfu recipes like slow-baked lamb tsilichourda with one of many excellent Greek wines. The stone-built pool area is lovely place to take in views of a cerulean Ionian Sea to the sound of jazz.
With an elegant spa, secluded corners and child-friendly entertainment, Aeolos Beach Hotel succeeds in catering for romance as well as family holidays. The large resort mimics a traditional Corfiot village, with pathways winding among stone cottage-style buildings. Splash around the two pools, kick back in the spa and sauna (each guest is entitled to a free 15-minute taster massage), or enjoy a choice of tennis, beach volleyball, water polo and aqua aerobics. Restaurant offerings are plenty, ranging from Greek buffets, Italian and pan-European fare to a seven-course gourmet meal including apéritifs and wine. For more suggestions of the best hotels on the island, see our guide.
What to bring home
Minimalist-minded Myrto Zirini crafts contemporary ceramics that convey the plasticity of a clay object eroded by the sea. See her in action at her waterfront workshop in Corfu Town’s Mouragia neighbourhood.
Marie Vaggalati, of Leather Trinkets, designs exceedingly desirable jewellery inspired by Byzantine and post-Byzantine book binding. Her statement gold print Tressa necklaces need nothing more than a monochrome canvas. Shop at Muses.
When to go
Most hotels open in early May (sometimes late April) and close in October, though dates vary. Corfu is busiest in summer, while the shoulder season months of May, September and October are increasingly popular, particularly among couples and retirees, though cloudiness and occasional showers are possible.
Corfu’s capital is worth a visit in its own right, therefore most hotels in and near the Old Town stay open year-round along with a host of attractive apartments. Orthodox Easter is an annual drawcard, so expect crowds. Hikers should visit in spring, when the weather is cool and the island ablaze in a riot of blooms, or in autumn.
Know before you go
Tourist board information: 00 30 26610 37638; visitgreece.gr
Emergency fire: 199 or 112
Emergency police: 100
British Vice Consulate: First floor, 18 Mantzarou St, Corfu; 00 30 26610 23457; in an emergency outside working hours of 8am-3pm Monday to Friday excluding public holidays, call 00 30 210 727 2600; gov.uk
Local laws and etiquette
• As is the case in most of southern Europe, locals and visiting Greeks tend to have lunch or dinner late, as in after 2pm and 9pm respectively. Almost all tavernas and restaurants open at noon and then around 7pm to cater to early diners, while many don’t close at all in the afternoon. The more upscale Corfu Town restaurants tend to only open for dinner.
• In terms of dress codes, shorts and beachwear is fine at casual tavernas, while trousers and skirts are required at smarter restaurants. Covering up in church is mandatory; shawls and skirts are provided if necessary.
Tipping is not required, however most restaurants have a cover charge for bread. A tip of around 10 per cent is most welcome.
• Public transport is good and affordable. Corfu’s green KTEL intercity buses offer regular service from Corfu Town to resort areas, inland villages and most beaches, with an extended coastal service in the summer. Purchase tickets at the central KTEL station or on board the vehicle.
• Corfu City Bus, the island’s blue buses, cover routes in and around Corfu Town and link the capital to several villages. Most blue buses depart from central San Rocco Square. Line 15 links the airport, port, the city centre and the KTEL intercity bus station. Purchase blue bus tickets in advance from kiosks, the station master’s office in San Rocco Square and automatic vending machines. Tickets cost more if paid for on the bus. Day passes are available and if you buy 10 tickets, you receive an extra one free.
• Cabs (dark blue) are easy to find in Corfu Town and can be booked by phone for other destinations. Corfu Taxi operates 24 hours year-round and offers airport and port transfers to and from your destination, with online reservation available. A taxi ride from the airport, where Corfu Taxi maintains an office in the arrivals hall, to Corfu Town should cost around €15 (£13). There are taxi ranks at the airport, port, San Rocco Square, Spianada Square and Ioannou Theotoki St.
• Hiring a car is highly recommended so that you can explore Corfu independently. Try not to rely on sat nav as you might end up on some very narrow rural roads. Corfu Old Town is pedestrianised, so avoid it altogether. Stay on the main roads and keep a close eye on road signs, while it’s a good idea to call ahead to ask for directions. Don’t be shy to ask locals to point you in the right direction if you find you’re lost.
• Handshake greetings are the norm, however, two kisses are commonplace if you know one another well.
Flight time: Around three hours and 10 minutes from London
Currency: Euros €
International dialling code: 00 30 266
Greece expert Helen Iatrou is an unabashed Ionian island aficionado. By day, she goes sailing off the northeast coast and swimming at remote Porto Timoni beach. By night, she seeks out soul vibes in Corfu Town’s coolest bars.