The second-largest Ionian Island has seen the Byzantines, Venetians, French and British come and go over the last 1,000 years, and all these cultures have left something behind.
If you need a place to begin, try the World Heritage Old Town of Corfu City, which is guarded by two mighty Venetian fortresses that withstood everything that the Ottoman Empire could throw at them.
Corfu’s coast is sprinkled with resorts, some more appealing than others.
But if you’re a free spirit you can get behind the wheel and set a course for secluded coves, sweeping sandy beaches and castles and monasteries stranded on rocky pedestals.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Corfu:
1. Corfu Old Town
A city packed tight between two fortresses, Corfu’s Old Town is a knot of walkable streets and alleys between Venetian and Neoclassical houses painted pale yellow and orange.
Allow plenty of time to see every corner and little square, and check out the Archaeological Museum and Casa Parlante, a quirky 19th-century mansion with period interiors and animatronic figures.
Defended by insurmountable ramparts, both the New Fortress to the west and Old Fortress to the east deserve your time.
The latter goes back to the 6th century and is separated from the city by a ditch and canal crossed by a bridge.
In the complex you can see the temple-like Church of St George and the 19th-century British barracks housing Corfu’s library.
From the highest walls you’ll be wowed by vistas of the city, coastline, Straits of Corfu and mainland Greece.
Recommended tour: Corfu History and Culture Walking Tour
2. The Esplanade and Liston
Between the Old Town and the old fortress is the esplanade, a long green square that is a remnant of the Venetian fortifications in the 17th century.
During the French occupation of Corfu at the turn of the 19th century the esplanade was planted with trees, while the cricket pitch is a holdover from the British period that followed.
Also dating to that time is the Maitland Monument, a Neoclassical peristyle, with 20 Ionic columns around a rotunda, commemorating the Lord High Commissioner Thomas Maitland.
The Liston, on the Esplanade’s western boundary is an elegant arcade, also from the French period and designed in the style of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris.
3. St Spyridon Church
Corfu’s foremost church is from 1580 and its Renaissance bell tower is the highest in the Ionian Islands.
Hosting the relics of St Spyridon, brought to Corfu City from Constantinople in the 15th century, the church moved to this location after its predecessor was demolished to make way for the citadel.
The marble iconostasis catches the eye for its classical lines, with a pediment and Corinthian columns bordering the paintings.
The ceiling is also stunning, with gilded stuccowork around paintings that were first composed by Panagiotis Doxaras in the 18th century, but had to be repainted after deterioration.
To the side of the iconostasis is the entrance to the crypt to where the saint’s remains are kept in a double sarcophagus plated with silver leaf.
In 1888 Elisabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria, commissioned a summer residence at this elevated setting about 10 kilometres south of Corfu City.
This Neoclassical palace was designed by the Italian architect Raffaele Caritto with the hero Achilles as its central theme.
The illustrious German sculptor Ernst Herter produced statues inspired by Greek mythology for the grounds (the most famous shows Achilles in his death throes). You can tour the gardens, enriched with balustrades, a colonnade, fountains and Herter’s statues amid palms and trimmed cypress trees.
The interior is a museum full of memorabilia relating to Elisabeth of Bavaria, Franz Joseph II, as well as the next occupant, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Upstairs there’s a massive painting of Achilles dragging the body of Hector from his chariot by the Austrian artist Franz Matsch, and the dining hall is decorated with stucco cherubs on blue walls.
5. Mount Pantokrator
Corfu’s highest peak is in the north of the island, cresting at 906 metres and accessible by road.
At the summit is a cafe, telecommunications station and a monastery dating from the end of the 17th century.
You get up here on mini-bus tours from many of the coastal resorts on Corfu, or drive yourself.
Now, the road and its drop-offs and countless hairpin turns is not for the faint hearted, but the views are incredible if you can relax for long enough to enjoy them.
When you do arrive at the mountaintop you can see the Ionian Islands, the Greek Mainland, Albania, but also Puglia at the heel of Italy’s boot 130 kilometres to the west.
Suggested tour: West Route Day Expedition
6. Paleokastritsa Monastery
Topping a rugged headland on the northwest coast, Paleokastritsa Monastery dates to the 13th century and is on the site of a Medieval castle that has long since disappeared.
The monastery has a small brotherhood of eight monks who give masses and offer tours of the buildings and lush gardens.
Almost every surface of the building is cloaked with bougainvillea and geraniums, and if you’d like to enter the chapel there’s a dress code, and shoulders and legs have to be covered up.
The monastery has a small museum with vestments, icons and, strangely, the skeleton of a whale.
The monks also cultivate olives and press their own oil, which is sold at the shop.
Recommended tour: North Corfu: Full-Day Sightseeing Tour
7. Paleokastritsa Beach
Nestling just east of the monastery is the exquisite Paleokastritsa Beach.
Labelled on some maps as Agios Syridon Beach, this lies at the end of a long inlet with high walls of rock on both sides.
The water could hardly be calmer or clearer and is a snorkeller’s dream and just right for families with smaller children.
The beach, though narrow, has soft golden sand as opposed to the shingle coves nearby.
The limestone coastline around Paleokastritsa is perforated with sea caves, and there’s a jetty on the beach where you can catch boats for a tour.
On a narrow rocky spur more than 300 metres above the sea, this castle was built in the 13th century as a far-reaching lookout over the sea, mainland Greece and inland across big swathes of Corfu.
The approach to Angelokastro is very dramatic, winding up through scrub and cypress trees to this unconquerable fortification which filling its small rocky podium.
Under the Venetians from the 14th century, Angelokastro was Corfu’s official capital and held strong against three sieges between the 16th and 18th century.
Beyond the walls, not a great deal of the fortress survives, save for the tiny Church of Archangel Michael, which has frescoes from the 1700s.
You can view seven sarcophagi hewn from the rock, peer into the castle’s vaulted cistern and gaze in awe at the sea, coast and mountains.
9. Vlacherna Monastery
One of Corfu’s signature images, the Vlacherna Monastery is on an islet at the end of a narrow jetty off the southern end of the Kanoni Peninsula.
The chapel, which you enter beneath a typical campanile, dates to 1685 and has tomb monuments going back to the middle of the 18th century.
You can combine a visit with a boat trip to nearby Mouse Island, which we’ll talk about below.
Vlacherna and Mouse Island make up a scene to behold from afar, and there’s a pair of hilltop cafeterias on high ground at end of Kanoni where you can take it all in.
10. Pontikonisi (Mouse Island)
For €2.5 you can catch a boat to this small island where a 12th-century Byzantine monastery is crowded by pine and cypress trees.
According to legend Pontokonisi is Ulysses’ ship after it was turned to stone by Poseidon.
The island is protected but you can disembark, climb the stairway to visit the bite-sized monastery, which has a cafe and a souvenir shop.
You may detect a strong similarity to the Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin’s famous painting, Isle of the Dead, which could have been inspired by Pontokinisi.
In the northeast of the island, looking across the straits of Corfu to Albania, Kassiopi is a traditional fishing village that has grown into a low-key resort.
The built-up area sits at the base of a small peninsula which is etched with little pebble coves and has a charming fishing harbour on its east side.
Rising at the centre of the peninsula is Kassiopi Castle, which has Byzantine origins and could be as old as the 6th century.
It was one of three strongholds that defended Corfu before the Venetians arrived in the 14th century.
A partial ruin, the castle is still an imposing presence, with more than a kilometre of walls and 19 towers around a rectangular plan.
12. Canal d’Amour Beach
The party resort of Sidari may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but what does make it unique is its otherworldly rock formations.
At Canal d’Amour there’s a long, almost rectangular creek with layered, sand-coloured walls.
The sea has weathered the rock, and near the entrance to the creek is a tunnel.
Pick a day when the sea is calm (which is most days in summer) and you can swim through the tunnel.
The local custom says that any couples who swim through together will soon get married, so swim at your own risk.
Further out the water is a little deeper, and you can watch brave divers jumping off the cliffs.
13. Old Perithia
A “Designated Area of Natural Beauty” to the northeast of Corfu, Old Perithia is a mostly abandoned upland village under Mount Pantokrator.
Once home to as many as 1,200 people the village sits at an elevation of 650 metres and dates back at least as far as the 1300s.
Most of the 130 remaining houses are in various picturesque states of disrepair though some have been turned into accommodation.
You could give yourself a while to amble around Old Perithea’s stone paths, tracking down its eight churches and basking in the distant views to the sea over oaks, vines and cypress trees.
14. Mirtiotissa Beach
At the bottom of the green cliffs beneath the Mirtiotissa Monastery is a heavenly little beach.
Mirtiotissa has a small ribbon of fine sand with perfectly clear waters, protected by a sequence of rocks a few metres from the shore.
Partly down to its isolated and secluded location, Mirtiotissa Beach has become the choice of naturists on Corfu, although everyone else is free to use the beach as well.
The unspoken rule is that naturists will bathe at the more private ends of the beach, screened by rocks, while non-nude bathers can stick to the middle.
15. Issos Beach
In contrast to Corfu’s rocky coves, the Blue Flag Issos Beach is an open bay bordering Lake Korission to the south of the island.
Traced by dunes, the golden sand at Issos seems to go on forever.
If you want a bit more life and amenities close at hand you can stay close to the resort village of Agios Georgios on the east end.
But you can also walk west and within a few minutes you’ll have broken away from the crowds.
Further from civilisation, Issos Beach is also popular with naturists, while the reliable winds attract windsurfers and kite-surfers.