Most of the top attractions on the mountainous island of Kefalonia are natural, like the mythic Melissani Cave or the highest peak, Mount Aenos. Kefalonia’s coastline is as rugged as its hinterland and this contributes to the majestic beauty of beaches like Myrtos and Petani.
Both are coves at the bottom of mighty cliffs with deep greenery on top that descends in columns down the rock face. You may not find two better beaches in all of Greece than this pair.
But on Kefalonia they’re accompanied by a bounty of other choices, from sandy bays where loggerhead turtles lay their eggs, to the idyllic cove at Assos Village, where the sea is as tranquil as a swimming pool.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kefalonia:
1. Assos Village
On a natural harbour and an isthmus that fixes the Assos Peninsula to the Errisos Peninsula, Assos is an achingly pretty village in a cauldron of towering hills.
As with much of Kefalonia there’s greenery all around, in the palms by the water or the pines, firs and cypress trees in the hills.
Assos has a short quay moored with fishing boats and lined with tavernas and cafes, and this gives way to a pebble beach where houses have steps leading right down to the calm, pool-like waters.
On a crag 170 metres over Assos Bay is a Venetian castle, raised in 1593. The journey up a stone path is by no means easy but at the entrance you’ll be greeted by the stone lion of St Mark.
Through the gate you can pick your way through the ruins of the house of the Venetian High Commissioner.
2. Petani Beach
To get down to this beach on the eastern Paliki Peninsula you have to brave a white-knuckle ride of eight hairpin turns.
But you’ll know you made the right choice as soon as you step onto the beach and witness the epic limestone cliffs encircling it.
These are coated with dark green garrigue, which descends to the beach in columns creating a spectacular stripe effect.
The surface of the beach is white sand and gravel, giving the sea a luminescent quality by the shore.
When the surf is choppy it’s better to avoid the water as the sea drops off a few metres from the shore.
But on calm days the sea is like a sparkling pool and you can go snorkelling around the rocks on the south end.
3. Myrtos Beach
Equally dramatic and also at the end of a winding road, Myrtos Beach is often rated as the best in Greece and is a sight you may already know from photos.
The beach lies between the vertiginous lower slopes of two mountains, the 900-metre Kalon Oros and Agia Dynati, in the north of the island.
With tufts of green vegetation the slopes plunge to this marble pebble beach, which is almost a kilometre long and with rows of sun loungers to rent.
The beach shelves quite steeply, and when the light catches the marble sediment churned up in the water it glows in a mesmerising shade of blue.
4. Mount Aenos
The tallest mountain on Kefalonia crests at 1,628 metres and is inside a National Park.
At an elevation of 700 to 1,200 metres the mountain has a mantle of black pine and Greek fir forest inhabited by semi-wild ponies.
There are five signposted A to B and circular hiking trails in this magical environment, two of which incorporate Megas Soros, the highest summit.
The road most travelled is the 6.5-kilometre Digaleto – Megas Soros trail, which begins a kilometre outside the village of Digaleto and requires around 4.5 hours to reach the summit.
At the peak you’ll come a long ridge of bare rock, where you can take a breather and pick out the Ionian Islands and the Peloponnese peninsula.
5. Agios Gerasimos Monastery
St Gerasimos is the patron saint of Kefalonia and lived during the 16th century.
His mummified body is kept in a gleaming silver reliquary in this pink-brick church, and is occasionally displayed at services.
On his feast days on 16 August and 20 October his sarcophagus is carried over ailing worshippers.
Gerasimos founded the monastery in the 16th century on the site of an older one dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
In the courtyard is a venerable plane tree and a well, claimed to have been planted and sunk by the saint himself.
The church’s walls have radiant frescoes depicting bible scenes, saints, prophets and the apostles.
To the rear of the church is a trap door leading down to a cave where Gerasimos is believed to have lived before the monastery was constructed.
6. Antisamos Beach
Ten minutes east of Sami, Antisamos is another in Kefalonia’s collection of scenic beaches.
Antisamos is in a cove with a backdrop of high hills densely covered in dark green pines and brush.
Awarded the Blue Flag every year, the beach has a satisfying horseshoe shape and white pebbles instead of sand.
Bring a snorkel because the water is perfectly clear and you’ll see plenty of colourful fish.
Antisamos shot to fame in 2001 when it appeared in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz.
Where it was deserted before there are now three bars and tavernas and sun loungers for added comfort on the pebbly shore.
Scramble up to the 18th-century Monastery of Argilion above the beach’s west flank for a marvellous perspective of Antisamos and its dark hills.
7. Melissani Cave
One of those natural marvels that no picture can do justice, Melissani Cave is a sparkling blue underground lake, lit from above by a cavity in the rock.
In Greek mythology Melissani was the Cave of the Nymphs, where the nymph Melissani drowned after being rejected by the god Pan.
During an archaeological survey in 1962 oil lamps and plates were found depicting Pan.
Your visit will be short but memorable as you row out onto the lake with a guide to see the stalactites and shafts of light streaking through the hole in the ceiling, illuminating the water.
Make sure you come at midday when the sun is directly above that opening.
8. Argostoli Harbour
If you’re a very early riser try to come to Argostoli’s harbour promenade first thing to watch the sun rise on the other side of the bay.
A few metres from the quayside is a continuous line of palm trees, while the promenade has been paved with monochrome wavelike patterns and is lit at night by old-fashioned gaslights.
You could visit for a restorative stroll after an evening meal.
The harbour bustles with maritime activity in summer, particularly in the mornings when the fishing boats come in.
This is prime time to see loggerhead sea turtles in the water.
If you don’t want your walk to end you can continue up past the marina to Katavothres at the end of the peninsula.
9. Makris Gialos Beach
The beaches we’ve covered so far have been wild and scenic, but sometimes luxury and comfort are a priority.
And there’s lots of both at Makris Gialos Beach, a ribbon of golden sand served by beach bars.
It’s the kind of place where you won’t have to lift a finger to get drinks and food at your sun lounger, but there’s also space to the west for people who prefer to lie on their towels.
And despite being a touristy beach, there are only a few isolated buildings on the shore between the rocks and pine trees.
Makris Gialos has a designated area for beach games, as well as a watersports centre to get the adrenaline pumping.
10. Fiscardo Harbour
Kefalonia’s northernmost port is a delight, with paved quaysides where you can amble and watch the fishermen and amateur sailors tending their vessels.
There are old-fashioned gaslights on the way, and fronting the water in summer are tavernas, cafes and bakeries, interspersed by the odd boutique and art shop.
The harbour is completely sheltered and has glassy water with hardly a ripple.
Just across the channel are the mighty northwestern hills of Ithaca, while behind Fiscardo you can go walking in the fir-decked hills for a better vantage point for Ithaca and the deep blue Ionian Sea.
11. Kaminia Beach
Kefalonia’s southernmost beach is a nesting site for the loggerhead turtle, and there are a few signs to heed and markers pointing out the nests.
Apart from that you’re free to find a space for yourself on one of the longest sandy beaches on the island.
Kaminia Beach is two kilometres long and has three tavernas so you don’t have to go far if you’re peckish.
There’s a long double row of sun loungers and sun shades, but they’re not a necessity on the comfortable sand.
Being open to the wind and sea currents the beach has low, rolling waves, but unlike the deep Myrtos and Petani it has a gentle gradient so smaller children and non-swimmers can still enjoy the water.
12. Agios Georgios Castle
Crowning a hill to the southeast of Argostoli are the romantic ruins of a Venetian stronghold.
At 300 metres above sea level, Agios Georgios was founded by the Byzantines in the 12th century, while nearly all the remaining architecture is from the start of the 16th century when the Ottoman Empire’s brief dominion was ended by the Venetians.
They built an outer wall 620 metres in length, a citadel (kastro) and a road leading from Argostoli that twisted around the hill out of sight of approaching pirate vessels.
On a few of the buildings you can decipher coats of arms for Venetian nobility, and you can explore the ruins of the citadel’s houses and seek out two Medieval churches in different states of repair.
In the east is the brooding Mount Aenos, while south and west is beyond vineyards and olive groves is the deep blue Ionian Sea.
13. Drogorati Cave
Not far from Sami, Drogorati Cave was discovered at the turn of the 18th century when an earthquake made this system visible to the surface for the first time.
In 1963 it opened as a show cave and there’s a lot to love once complete the long descent.
In July and August you might be relieved to be out of the heat because the temperature down here is a constant 18°C and there’s 90% humidity.
The bizarre stalagmites and stalactites have been formed over millions of years, but unfortunately a few were lost when they were used as target practice in the Second World War.
The largest chamber is the extraordinary Chamber of Exaltation at 900 square metres, and with acoustics so good that concerts have been held down here.
14. De Bosset (Drapano) Bridge
Just over 200 years ago the picturesque Koutavos Lagoon next to the capital Argostoli was a foetid swamp and a breeding ground for malaria.
In 1813 the Swiss engineer Charles de Bosset was commissioned by the British Army to build a bridge over the swamp to improve access to the villages around the bay.
The first version was a wooden construction, but by the middle of the 19th century the whole structure was made of stone.
The bridge has reopened over the last few years as a pedestrian-only crossing after falling into disrepair in 2005. As you cross, get a snap of the obelisk erected when the bridge was completed in 1839, while you may also spot loggerhead turtles in the water, which come to the lagoon to feed.
At Sami you there’s a car ferry making the short crossing to the island of Ithaca, home of the mythological hero, Odysseus.
Looking at Ithaca from Kefalonia the island seems impenetrable, with almost vertiginous slopes climbing from its shore on two peninsulas joined by a slender isthmus.
In the spirit of Odysseus, Ithaca is an island to discover from the water, and at the charming main port of Vathy you can hire a low-powered motorboat without needing a permit and can go on your own voyage in search of coves that can only be approached by water.
On land you set off on invigorating hikes up to the Pernarakia and Kathara Monasteries, both of which have epic panoramas of Ithaca and the Ionian Islands.