A jewel in the Ionian Sea, Corfu is a much-loved holiday destination but whether it's your first visit or you're eagerly anticipating a return trip, this is always an island of surprises. Yes, it has its beautiful beaches and its idyllic water front tavernas. However, it also has a historic capital, ex-royal palaces with fascinating stories behind them, quiet inland villages, and a magnificently mountainous interior. Corfu is as good for cyclists as it is for sun-bathers. It serves horse riders as well as it does wind surfers, and it has a culinary tradition that is matched only by its delicious wines. Deciding to come to Corfu is easy and, with this list, deciding what to do when you get there is just as straightforward!
A walk through Corfu's Old Town is as close to a walk through history as is possible. Its Venetian fortresses, French esplanades, British mansions and the tiny pedestrianised roads that link them deserve a full day of your time. Focus on the streets between the Old Fortress (at the city's eastern end) and the New Fortress (overlooking the old port on the hill of St Mark). Particular highlights include the Church of Agios Spyridon, home to relics of St. Spyridon, and the Jewish Quarter, where you'll find some excellent tavernas. The Boschetto Gardens offer great views of the Old Fortress and the chance to relax and digest what you've seen.
Begun by the Byzantines and completed by the Venetians, the Old Fortress dominates the eastern side of Corfu Town. Of course, originally intended to be intimidating – and still separated from the town by an artificial moat – nowadays it's best described as "awe-inspiring". The 360° degree panoramic view it affords of Corfu Town and the Ionian Sea over to the Greek mainland and across to Albania is no less impressive. However, make time to explore the fort and its grounds and watch out for the French cannons and the battle-scarred doors, proof of the historical part the fort played in Corfu's defence. For refreshments, there's a small café carefully positioned to make the most of the spectacular views.
Find the Achilleion Palace in the pretty village of Gastouri. Directly overlooking the sea, it was originally built as a summer retreat for Elisabeth (Sissi), Empress of Austria but was later owned by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Sissi liked the Greek god, Achilles, so much that she dedicated her palace to him. You can still see plenty of evidence of her obsession with Greek mythology: look out for several huge statues of Achilles as well as two centaurs, a brass Hermes and a huge painting of the triumph of Achilles. However, the Kaiser wasn't such a fan. He focused on making additions to the building and on landscaping the gardens, which remain a gorgeous place to while away an afternoon.
The 135 mile-long Corfu Trail is a window into what might otherwise seem a long-gone Corfu. Running the length of the island, this trail takes reasonably fit walkers right into the untouched heart of Corfu. Most people walk south to north simply because the grander northern scenery is the reward for all that effort. However, the trail's southern end, just south of Kavos, is beguilingly pretty, with its olive groves, forests and the distant blue sea. Further along, expect a steep coastal ridge, traditional cobbled mule paths, tiny villages and, eventually, Corfu's most mountainous landscape in the shadow of Mount Pantokrator. Finally, you'll head down Parigori Gorge towards the enticing waters at St Spiridon Beach.
Greece's only museum dedicated to Asian art is located in Corfu's Palace of St. Michael and St. George. Plan more than a fleeting visit – the grand neoclassical building alone (originally a residence for the British High Commissioner) and its lavishly decorated interior is worth taking time over. In the museum itself, the collections are almost mind-bogglingly varied, encompassing items from Japan, China, India and Pakistan. A number of exhibitions, both permanent and temporary, give visitors the chance to learn more about what might elsewhere be considered niche topics: for instance, the woven saddle bags of the Baluch nomads.
Honeymooners and anyone else on a romantic break for two won't want to miss Corfu's Canal d’Amour. Sandstone cliffs that look like they were sculpted to order enclose a natural canal that's reminiscent of a Norwegian fjord. Luckily, for anyone who wants to swim its length, the waters are warmer than any fjord. Legend says that lovers who swim here together will stay together for life while someone who swims alone to the canal's tip will soon find the love of their life. Alternatively, you could just do what many visitors do: toss a coin in the water for good luck and then stretch out on a sun bed on the small but perfectly formed beach.
With its network of roads and paths, Corfu is a fabulous place to explore on two wheels. Whether you want to power your own pedals, benefit from the added assistance of an e-bike or let a Vespa take the strain, there's an option to suit you. A guided Vespa tour is great if you want to explore less well-known parts of the island in a limited time frame. For example, you could head out to a small village like Pelekas in the centre of the island and then on up to Kaiser's Throne, the craggy viewpoint above. Alternatively, a bicycle lets you experience the island at a slower pace while also admiring the views of, say, Paleokastritsa bay from Lakones village road.
When it comes to beaches, you're spoiled for choice in Corfu. There's everything from lively resorts like Sidari to family-friendly spots such as Agios Spiridon. Then there's Gouvia on the east coast, where you'll find Corfu's biggest marina (and some of its best cocktail bars), and the peaceful Avlaki on the north coast, said to offer some of the island's best swimming. Alternatively, if you're happiest with just the sea, the sand and perhaps a few birdwatchers, Halikounas in the southwest is a must-visit. It's a long sandy spit separating the sea from Lake Korission reserve, where, if you're lucky, you might see flamingos. For something a little livelier, Glyfada on the west coast is a hot spot for beach volleyball but also pretty much guarantees some of the island's most spectacular sunsets.
Corfu has several excellent water sports centres. Whether you're a die-hard adrenaline seeker, fancy trying paddle boarding for the first time, or fit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, you'll have no trouble finding somewhere to hire equipment, provide advice or tuition, and, of course, an almost absurdly beautiful setting in which to take to the water. Sidari is a top choice for most water sports, including high-octane options like parasailing. Kitesurfers and windsurfers might head for Chalikounas on the southwest coast, where the generally prevailing winds provide optimal conditions. Kayak safaris are another fun option, giving you the chance to see places like Kalami, one-time home of Lawrence Durrell, from a new perspective.
Corfu produces some excellent wines, and it would be a shame to pass up an opportunity to explore at least one of its vineyards. For instance, there's the Rope Valley's Theotoky Estate, a family-run enterprise where you'll get to sample their organic wines and their own olives. Alternatively, why not book an excursion that takes in several wineries, enabling you to compare different wines from the island's producers? Then there's the option of a guided wine tour through Corfu Town. Admittedly, you won't see any grapes being pressed but you will have the chance to try a variety of wines labelled PGI Kerkyra (or Corfu Regional Wine).
Although you can get classic Greek dishes in Corfu, the island has its own unique cuisine. Owing much to its Venetian past with just a little Far Eastern spice, Corfiot dishes include sofrito (wine-cooked veal, garlic and peppers) and pastitsada (spiced red wine stew made with beef or chicken). Try Etrusco in Dassia or Tomata Corfiot in Kavos for excellent authentic dishes. You could also consider taking a Corfu food tour to discover where the locals go and what they like to eat (expect the likes of spinach and cheese pies, halvas and a certain amount of Corfu's own ouzo and meze). A cookery lesson is another great option, whether that's with a local cook in their own home or in the sumptuous surroundings of a vineyard estate like Ambelonas.
Anyone who rides knows that there's nothing better than you, a horse and a beach to canter along. Even if you're a total beginner, the right riding stables will ensure you won't miss out. Riding hats and lead reins for beginners, especially children, should come as standard and certainly do at the best centres, such as the Corfu Riding Centre in Issos. Confident riders might also have the opportunity for a ride through the surf. Wherever your coastal ride takes you, and whatever your riding level, experiencing Corfu from the back of a horse promises an entirely new perspective. Imagine, for instance, riding through the dunes by Lake Korrison as a flock of pink flamingos settles onto the lagoon or watching the sun set over the sea as your horse carries you homewards.
More than anywhere else, the tiny islet of Pontikonisi (Mouse island) is perhaps Corfu's defining image. It's one of the first sights for anyone arriving by air, and its proximity to the mainland means it's easily seen from the shore. However, to really get a feel for this rocky mound with its 11th century Byzantine chapel, it's well worth taking the short boat trip from the pier in front of Vlacherna Monastery. Once, monks also lived on Pontikonisi but nowadays the islet is left to its wildlife, including tortoises, and the distinctive, tall cypress trees. There's also a small café and gift shop for visitors, helping make Pontikonisi a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
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