With its 2,500-year-old history, the inspiration for Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, and the favorite summer getaway for gods Artemis and Apollo, Zakynthos is another Mediterranean pearl nestled between the islands of Peloponnese and Kefalonia, in the southwestern part of Greece.
I had the chance to live on this beautiful island for over three months a couple of years ago and got to learn a lot about it. Like other Greek islands, Zakynthos boasts much more than breathtaking beaches and typical Mediterranean landscapes. It is an island of rich cultural and historical heritage, a mixture of ancient and modern – a place of diversities.
Although cruises to Zakynthos island are not that frequent, this gorgeous island certainly deserves the attention of fellow cruisers. Relatively small in size, the island has a lot of attractions and experiences to offer, so it’s smart to plan your day if you want to get the most of it.
In this article, I will share the most beautiful places to visit and unique things to do in Zakynthos on a cruise. I’ll complete it with useful cruise travel tips and insider’s knowledge about the island that you might find helpful.
Zante Cruise Port
Tucked in the Bay of Zakynthos, at the bottom of the Bochali hill, Zante is the capital city and the main port of Zakynthos, located on the southeastern coast of the island. Cruise ships normally drop the anchor and use tender boats to take the cruise guests ashore. The tender ride is short and it doesn’t take long to reach the charming Zante old town and the Solomos square, the central hub of the city. The square overlooks the marina and features the statue of one of the island’s natives – Dionysios Solomos, a great 19th century Greek poet and the author of the Greek national anthem.
Behind the monument, there is another historical landmark well worth visiting – the Byzantine Museum of Zakynthos. It boasts an impressive collection of icons and religious works of art, including the wooden iconostasis dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries that were saved from a devastating earthquake in 1953.
Five minutes walking distance from the square starts the pedestrian zone and one of the liveliest streets in Zante – Alexandro Roma street, full of souvenir shops, brand stores, traditional Greek taverns, cafes, and bars. Take time to indulge in the typical Greek dishes such as gyros, moussaka, souvlaki, or mouth-watering fresh seafood, paired with Ouzo – a traditional Greek brandy, or delicious Zakynthos wine.
You can simply roam the old town of Zante, discover its side alleys, walk along a beautiful waterfront marina, or check out the most spectacular views of the island from the Bochali hill. To get to the top, you can either take a cab or walk 30 minutes uphill. Although it might take some time and energy to reach, once you are there you’ll realize it’s absolutely worth it. The view is stunning and stretches to the Vasilikos Peninsula, located on the southernmost tip of the island. The Bochali hill features numerous restaurants and cafes where you can enjoy lunch and drinks with the gorgeous panorama of the Zante port and your cruise ship.
If you want to soak up more of some local history, head over to the 17th century Venetian castle, located nearby. Zakynthos island is also called “the Flower of the Levant,” referring to the Venetian Republic that ruled Zakynthos from the 15th to the end of the 18th centuries. The three centuries of Venetian presence left visible marks on Zante’s architecture, customs, and mentalities, which makes it particularly diverse and captivating.
Last but not least, Agios Dionisios church, which is located just a stone’s throw from the Zante port alongside the seafront promenade, dominates the city landscape. The church is the symbol of the city’s resistance and is dedicated to the patron saint of the island, St. Denis, who was born on the island in the 16th century. The construction of the church had barely been finished when a terrible earthquake hit the island in 1953 and destroyed most of Zakynthos’ infrastructure. The church Agios Dionisios was one of the three buildings that remained undamaged, which has strengthened the faith of the Zakynthos locals and the Saint’s role as the protector of the island. The church has an impressive interior and the relics of the Saint are kept inside. This is a peaceful place located in the heart of the old town and is one of the must-see spots while exploring Zante.
Blue Caves and the Legendary Shipwreck Beach
If you are coming to Zakynthos for the first time, you should consider visiting one of the 10 top-rated European beaches. Shipwreck beach or Navagio (“Navagio” in Greek means “shipwreck”) is the most famous beach in Greece known for the corroded wreck of MV Panagiotis ship that ran aground in 1980 while smuggling cigarettes. According to legend, pursued by the Greek Navy the ship wrecked in a shallow cove on the western coast of the island due to stormy weather and low visibility.
The beach is surrounded by huge white cliffs and can be accessed only by boat. It is one of the most scenic beaches in the world, due to the incredible contrast between the whiteness of the cliffs, light blue waters of the cove, and a rusty shipwreck stranded in the middle of a white pebble beach. Navagio is a very touristy place almost always packed with people, so don’t expect to have much privacy.
There are several ways to get to Shipwreck beach. Cruise lines offer shore excursions to take you there, which is always the safest option, but you can also go on your own. To get there, you will need to rent a car and drive to Porto Vromi, a small village located on the opposite side of Zante town, on the west coast, around 35 km (22 mi) away from the cruise port. The drive takes up to one hour due to the poor roads but is very scenic as you can enjoy the breathtaking views of Zakynthos countryside and see how locals live. Upon coming to Porto Vromi, you can take a boat tour to Navagio, which often includes a visit to the Blue Caves, another natural treasure of the island.
Another way to get to the Shipwreck beach is to drive toward the north of the island and reach the port of Agios Nikolaos. It is located 30 km (17 mi) driving distance from Zante cruise port and takes up to 45 minutes to reach. The road is quite decent and takes you along the eastern coast of Zakynthos from where you can admire spectacular views of the coastline. Upon coming to Agios Nikolaos, you can take a boat tour that will first take you to the Blue Caves, as they are located just a 10-minute boat ride from the port, and then to the west coast of the island to Navagio cove.
The Blue Caves are another must-see attraction of the island featuring a series of caves along the northwestern coast of Zakynthos. The origin of their name refers to the impressive sea color within the caves that changes based on the reflection and diffusion of sunlight. Depending on the size of the boat, you can enter the caves and swim and snorkel in its crystal clear, turquoise waters.
Once you reach the north of the island, you’ll also be able to spot the island of Kefalonia in the north, as well as the white, 19th-century Skinari Lighthouse dominating the white limestone cliffs of the northern shore. Blue Caves are an incredible experience and one of the highlights of every Zakynthos vacation.
To wrap up, the Navagio beach and Blue Caves are two natural attractions of the island that you can’t miss. Getting to Porto Vromi and Agios Nikolaos may take time, so make sure you plan your trip accordingly to your cruise ship’s arrival and all onboard time. If you intend to book an independent trip, I highly suggest you do it in advance with a reputable tour agency, as many of them require pre-bookings.
Keri Caves, Marathonisi Island, and Caretta-Caretta Turtles
Now we move toward the south of the island and the soft, warm sands of Laganas Bay. When you say Laganas bay, the first association that comes to mind is Laganas resort – one of the most popular party destinations in Greece, but not many people have heard of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos.
The bay of Laganas belongs to the protected area of the National Marine Park and is home to the endangered species of Loggerhead, Caretta-Caretta turtles. The turtles lay their eggs in the warm sands of the bay and in particular on the small island of Marathonisi that you can spot from Laganas resort. Marathonisi Island features a stunning, sandy beach where the small boats usually dock and the beautiful warm water where you can snorkel or swim. A large portion of the island is closed for tourists as it is a nesting ground for the turtles and protected by law. Marathonisi Island is gorgeous and has the shape of a turtle; therefore, it is often referred to as “turtle island.”
The cruise ships’ shore excursions departments normally offer tours to Marathonisi Island and the boat ride across the Laganas Bay. However, in case you decide to do it on your own, it’s quite easy to get around. Laganas Bay area is located in the south of Zakynthos island, around 9 km from Zante cruise port. Roads are good and well-marked, so you won’t have trouble getting there. To visit the Marathonisi Island and see the turtles, you need to take a boat trip from the small port of Agios Sostis, located less than 2.5 km from Laganas resort.
The tour agencies normally offer different tour packages with various tour duration time (from 1 hour to 3 hours), so you can plan accordingly to your cruise ship schedule. If you get the chance, besides Marathonisi and Caretta Caretta turtles that you’ll spot swimming in the bay, go for Keri Caves, located at a 15-minute boat ride from the bay, toward the south-west of the island.
Keri Caves feature magnificent limestone cliffs rising above the series of caves where you can swim and snorkel. The water is beautiful and there is a small white pebble beach nearby, usually uncrowded, where you can relax and soak up some Mediterranean sun.
The Marathonisi Island, Loggerhead turtles, and Keri Caves are impressive to see, and one of the most memorable things to do on the island of Zakynthos, especially for families with kids.
Golden Beaches of Vasilikos Peninsula
If you are a beach person, and you want to spend a relaxing beach day in Zakynthos, I would highly recommend Vasilikos, the peninsula located in the southeast of the island, at about 15 km (9 mi) from Zante cruise port. The peninsula boasts verdant, lush vegetation, a rugged coastline, and breathtaking mountainous landscapes.
Golden, sandy beaches are the absolute highlight and there are a few of them that I would like to mention.
The first one is Banana beach, one of the most popular beaches on the island. It is a long, sandy beach famous for water activities, and a variety of beach facilities such as umbrella and sunbeds rentals, showers, changing rooms, restrooms as well as a beach bar and a restaurant. Banana beach is an amazing place to relax and enjoy delicious Greek specialties in a nearby restaurant. Many people say it’s for the younger crowd, but I don’t share that opinion.
Porto Zorro Beach – This is my favorite beach in Zakynthos. It’s not that long but offers great facilities and has a lot of greenery and natural shade. It is a beautiful sandy beach offering nice snorkeling around the rocks that you can find at one end of the beach and has a great bar – Porto Azzuro Beach Bar. It serves both tasty Greek specialties and an international menu, and you can also rent cabanas, beach chairs, umbrellas, and loungers for a reasonable price. It takes less than a 25-minute drive to get to Porto Zorro from the cruise port. It is a family-friendly beach and a perfect spot to spend your day.
Agios Nikolaos Beach – St. Nicholas beach is a magnificent sandy beach located in the vicinity of the Banana beach boasting a wide range of facilities such as umbrella and sunbed rentals, a relaxing beach bar, showers, a restaurant, a large parking area, and a variety of watersport activities. What makes it unique is a tiny, white chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas that stands on an elevation at one end of the beach. You can walk to the chapel and capture unique views of the beach and the surrounding area.
Gerakas Beach – Located at the southernmost tip of the island, Gerakas beach is another famous nesting ground for Caretta-Caretta turtles. It is a long, busy beach featuring picture-perfect scenery and beautiful pristine waters. There aren’t many facilities on the beach itself due to the turtles, except for the limited number of umbrellas and sunbeds. However, outside the beach area, you can find a tavern, a tourist information center, and a souvenir shop. This beach is wonderful, the sand is warm and brownish, and you can often spot turtles swimming – a picturesque place that will make your beach day unique and memorable.
For someone who had the opportunity to stay in Zakynthos for several months, it is a tough job to decide which places are among the top ones to visit. It is not possible to visit this gorgeous island in one day, but if you get the chance – make it worthy and unforgettable. Zakynthos has so much to offer and planning your day is among the first steps to do upon booking your cruise to Zakynthos. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for my next Mediterranean adventure.
About the author: Katarina Komazec, Adventour Begins
Katarina Komazec is a cruise & travel blogger and the owner of the website Adventour Begins since June 2020. Having worked more than 7 years in the cruise industry, first as Concierge and then in the Shore excursions department Rivages du Monde, Viking River Cruises, Royal Caribbean International), Katarina has gained priceless, inside knowledge about the ports of call and cruise ports’ shore excursions. She has started a blog with the aim of providing the readers with authentic, detailed information on the best port experiences they can get on a cruise. On Katarina’s website www.adventourbegins.com, the reader can find useful cruise tips & port information from a perspective of a cruise ship employee and a shore excursions expert.