An insider’s guide to the best things to do and attractions in Corfu, including climbing Ágii Déka, visiting Kérkyra Old Town and hiking the Corfu Trail. By Marc Dubin, Telegraph Travel’s Corfu expert.
What to do
Besides the showcase main town and a handful of museums, there are waterparks, riding stables, scuba centres (at Paleokastrítsa, Aharávi and Nissáki), old castles to clamber over, sleepy villages to explore, and hiking.
Kérkyra old town
Kérkyra’s old quarter, with its arcades facing the Spianáda (Esplanade), its pastel-hued multi-storeyed dwellings, peaceful squares and slatted Venetian-style shutters, was clearly the basis for the Unesco ranking, and amply rewards any time spent strolling.
Kérkyra Town’s archeological museum is closed for works until late 2016 or (more probably) spring 2017, so head instead to the Andivouniótissa (Byzantine) Museum in Mourágia district (Tues–Sun 8.00am–3pm; €4); a medieval church crammed full of unusual icons of the 15th to 18th centuries, many of them painted by refugee Cretan artists who came here after the fall of Venetian Crete in 1669.
Highlights include saints Sergios, Justine and Vakhos trampling a hellish monster (1571) by master Mihaïl Damaskinos; the life of St John the Hermit, from a few decades later; and a dramatic Nolo Me Tangere (1657) by Emmanouil Tzanes.
Neither should you miss the excellent Asian Art Museum (Apr–Oct daily 8am–8pm, Nov–March daily 9am–4pm; €6;), at the top end of the Spianáda, sheltering artefacts from China, Japan, Tibet, the Gandhara kingdom (today’s eastern Afghanistan plus northern Pakistan) , Cambodia and Thailand amassed by two Greek diplomats and housed in a former palace, which also hosts worthwhile temporary exhibits (including, in recent years, of Edward Lear, Robert McCabe and Lafcadio Hearn’s Japan). The shady palace gardens (daily 8am–10pm, earlier closure winter) have great views north over the Mandráki lido.
Of the two forts which bracket Kérkyra town, the Venetian-built Néo Froúrio (open daily Apr-Oct 8am–8pm, closes 3pm in winter; €4) is architecturally the more interesting, and affords superb views over the tiled roofs of the old town. But the Paleó Froúrio on the east (same hours, price) contains, in its former Latin chapel near the entrance, a fine collection of Byzantine icons and mosaics rescued from various monuments around the island.
The meandering, waymarked Corfu Trail (thecorfutrail.com) – requiring eight to 10 days to cover its 220-kilometre/136-mile course from one end of the island to the other – makes a prime introduction to every conceivable landscape, from bird-rich lagoons to the highest summits. Be warned, however, that it’s as much dirt track and tarmac road as genuine path – inevitable in a society as bulldozer-crazy as Greece – and resolutely unmaintained, with frequently haphazard waymarking. Get the authorised map-guide for just €10, or pre-book accommodation en route, through corfutrailguide.com.
Even if you don’t walk much (or any) of the trail, the environs of the route’s south end – near Cape Asprókavos – are well worth exploring by vehicle or mountain-bike. The highlight is the romantic ruined monastery of Panagía Arkoudíla, just over 3km south of Kávos resort. To get there, thread through the developed area, then adopt a signposted dirt track going right off the pavement towards Asprókavos (there’s an uprooted official sign indicating the monastery). Then, ignore a sign pointing again right to Arkoudíla beach, before another official yellow-on-brown sign reading ‘Monastery of the Blessed Virgin Mary 1700’ directs you left. After a large, flat, clifftop area (timid drivers might leave saloon cars here), there’s a last right fork for the final 900m through dense forest. You arrive suddenly – the Venetian-style premises are in a bad state except for the completely intact bell-wall which rears up out of the greenery, sporting relief scrolling and an escutcheon of the Quartano family. There are superb views over to Paxí island. The footpath here, part of the Corfu Trail, leads down to Arkoudíla beach (sunbeds, kantína, wooden walkway over sand).
The postcard view from Kanóni to Vlahérna islet and Pondikonísi is clichéd, but still unmissable. The belvedere, once defended by a canon (thus the name), now with handy cafés, is served by no. 2 city bus, or point a bike there (car-parking space is rare in season). Vlahérna, tethered to the main island with a causeway, is completely covered by the Venetian-era white monastery of Panagía Vlahernón.
From the base of the jetty, excursion boats chug out toPondikonísi (Mouse Island), home to dense stands of trees and a tiny Byzantine chapel, plus a seasonal caretaker with his cats. Along with several other islets around Corfu, this claims to be the petrified, ancient Phaecian ship, returning from ferrying Odysseus home to Ithaca, so rendered by Poseidon in revenge for Odysseus’ blinding of his son Polyphemos the Cyclops.
A Venetian-era village nestled in a hollow on the north slope of island summit Mt Pandokrátor, was abandoned from the 1960s onwards, resulting in a medieval time-capsule. The most noteworthy single monument is the 14th-century church of Agios Iákovos O Pérsis at the village approach. This was restored during 2013-14 under the supervision of the Byzantine archaeological authorities, with vivid frescoes uncovered and conserved, and it may be open to the public late in 2016 or early in 2017. Since the 1990s, the village has attracted both casual visitors and those after second-home restoration projects. Paleá Períthia lies astride the long-distance Corfu Trail (plus is a trailhead for more worthwhile, shorter hikes to nearby villages), though wild bulls roam the countryside – ask local advice as to their current whereabouts. Several good tavernas also make it a popular excursion target.
This mass-market resort, at the end of the corniche route threading through the more rarified havens of “Kensington on Sea”, is one of the few north-coast spots that has kept its charm. It has been a resort of sorts since Roman imperial times – Tiberius had a villa here, and Nero paid a musical visit with his lyre in AD 66 – and it’s easy to see why, with a deeply indented fishing port flanked by a small Byzantine-Angevin castle dating mostly from the 13th century (always open to visit). The path up to the castle starts immediately opposite medieval Kassopítra church (daily 10am–3pm), built during the 4th century on the site of the local ancient Zeus temple (its foundations two floor-layers below) and well worth a glance inside. The latest church dates from after the 1537 Ottoman sack of Corfu, with more Venetian rebuilding around 1590; to that period belongs a superb fresco of the Virgin Platytera with angels, in the apse.
There are plenty of small beaches within walking or cycling distance: four protected, popular ones fringing the castle headland, plus Kogevínas (aka Sykiá) and Avláki east of town.
Despite repairs and consolidation, there’s not much left inside this compact castle besides an underground church and some cisterns, but the views amply reward the short climb to the summit with its little chapel and much older rock-cut tombs beside it. Originally a 12th-century foundation of Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos, the Venetians later used Angelókastro as a watchpoint to survey Adriatic sea-lanes – at the first sign of trouble, signal fires relayed the news to Kérkyra Town’s fortresses. Opening hours are erratic, and it may even be left unlocked, but assume entrance allowed only May–Sept Mon–Fri 8.30am–3pm.
History and Folklore Museum of Central Corfu, Sinarádes well signposted near the north entrance of an appealing village, this traditional Corfiot house (May-Oct Mon–Sat 9.30am–2pm) holds two floors worth of exhibits. The ground floor has been left essentially as it was when inhabited, while the single-room upstairs gallery is devoted to a miscellany of bygone rural impedimenta and household widgets. The star exhibit is a surviving chunk of papyrélla raft made of cane fennel, of a type used along Corfu’s west coast until the 1950s; equally intriguing are a moray-eel trap of the same material, a wicker cage to keep toddlers from wandering off, and two ‘birthing’ saddles used by local women whilst in labour.
Climb Ágii Déka, Corfu’s second highest peak. From Áno Garoúna village, a portion of the Corfu Trail leads steeply up to the top (allow an hour) for superb views over the town and airport lagoon. Well, not quite the top, which is dominated by a Greek Air Force radar golf-ball. Although only 576m in elevation, this humpbacked hillock in fact appears to be an extinct volcano; the summit conceals a shallow caldera with a lush orchard of fruit and nut trees belonging to nearby Pandokrátora monastery, no longer inhabited. Keen walkers might consider continuing along the Corfu Trail, briefly as a cobbled mule path, down and northeast to the hill village of Ágii Déka.
Rock formations, Sidári
Just west of this busy resort, coastal sandstone cliffs have been eroded over the aeons by wind and water into otherworldly shapes. The most famous single formation is the rather regrettably named Canal d’Amour (it sounds slightly better in Greek: Kanáli tis Agápis), so named for the legend stating that by swimming the length of the channel here, lovelorn women would gain the object of their affections. More conventional bathing is available at little cliff-backed coves around the corner.
Theotókou monastery, Paleokastrítsa
Being firmly on the tour-coach circuit hasn’t diminished the appeal of this lovely eyrie, atop the bluff beyond Paleokastrítsa’s various coves. Although founded during the 13th century, the present, pastel-hued monastery (daily 9am–1pm & 3–8pm) was rebuilt after a fire some 500 years later. The church is crammed full of noteworthy icons; there are more (most noteworthy a 17th-century St George by Theodoros Poulakis) in a little museum occupying the former olive press (including the disarticulated skeleton of a whale), while burgeoning potted plants plus cascading bougainvillea fill the courtyard and the arcaded passageways around it. A half-dozen monks still live here.
Corfu has a reputation for being one of the better scuba venues in Greece. The best dive sites are around Paleokastrítsa, Othoní or Paxí islets and the northeast coast, with visibility on good days in the 25–30-metre range; the sea lapping the island’s eastern shoreline is relatively murky and thus little explored. Water temperatures reach a maximum of 24° in summer, but can plunge abruptly to 16° owing to numerous fresh-water seeps; reputable dive centres provide hood and booties as standard practice.
Headline sites near Paleokastrítsa include Colovri (Kolóvri) islet, a ten-to-fifteen minute RIB-ride away, where a big wall drops off to 40-metres-plus. A typical dive begins with the traverse of a scenic canyon to the islet’s northwest shore, colourful nudibranchs and wrasse on view, before returning to the anchorage and wall where schooling barracuda, grouper and amberjack are commonly spotted. The second dive of the day, at a maximum 15m depth, is often the truly spectacular Hole of Ha, a sea-cave just five minutes’ boat-ride southeast from Paleokastrítsa beach. The cavern penetrates some distance inland from the submarine entrance; the roof has partially collapsed, so that at midday (when divers usually arrive) sunlight pours in – magic. There are not many fish in the cave – though our group spotted a moray eel near the entrance – but brightly coloured sea-stars (orange but also maroon), which have disappeared from many other Greek waters, abound on the approaches.
Once a week the RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) is replaced by a proper, solid-hull boat for the all-day expedition to Othoní, where two wrecks and a cave are dived; lunch is taken at a Mathráki islet taverna. On demand, there are also long dive days to Paxí for its two caves and deep (40m) wreck.
We went with Achilleion Diving (00 30 26630 42023 or 6932 729011,) at Agía Triáda Beach and found them well organized, with good instructors and well-maintained equipment. Two-dive half-days around Paleokastrítsa (10am–3pm) are priced at €87 for certified divers. The Othoní expedition (10am–6pm) costs €120, taverna lunch not included. Open Water certification courses (4 days) are priced at €340.
Aharávi-based Dive Easy (00 30 26630 29350 or 6945 013510,), on the inland side of the main boulevard, has the significant advantages of using a large, solid-hull boat for all outings, and weights which fit into your buoyancy vest, thus eliminating belt backache. Instructors are conscientious, with thorough safety checks of good equipment. Their boat is usually anchored at Kassiópi’s westerly Imeroliá port, but sails from Sidári for expeditions to Othoní.
Around northeastern Corfu, Agní Reef is a popular destination, both for certification classes and advanced divers, who have a wreck 40 metres deep to explore (there is another nearby at Nissáki), soft-coral specimens at 18m, fireworms (don’t touch ’em – they sting!!) and schooling stripey salema. A popular second-tank dive is either Kávo Várvaro (Barbaro) with a namesake cavern, or Kaparélli islet with its picturesque lighthouse and equally terrific cave, but conditions must be calm – otherwise it will likely be less interesting Kassiópi reef, which like Agní has Roman/Byzantine amphora shards.
Prices with Dive Easy run €70 for a two-tank half-day at reefs, €45 for any cave-dive, €80 for the wrecks at Agní and Nissáki, or around Othoní (full day out). Open Water certification courses run €450.
We have also had good reports about Apollo Dive Centre (00 30 6974 705697,) in Nissáki but did not go out with them. Their Open Water courses run €360; dive day rates not available.
Book a horse trek through the lush foothills of Mt Pandokrátor at Sally-Ann Lewis’ well-established Trailriders stable outside Áno Korakiána village ( trailriderscorfu.com). In season, rides (groups limited to 8) take place daily Mon-Sat along shaded tracks from 10am to noon and 5 to 7pm; winter by arrangement only.
The most worthwhile, obvious day trips go to Ágii Saránda (Sarandë) in Albania for the spectacular nearby Roman ruins of Butrint, to Eríkousa – one of the three inhabited Diapóndia islets just north-west of Corfu – or to Paxí and Andípaxi, two small Ionian islands southeast of Corfu.
Albanian excursions are best organised directly through Petrakis Ionian Cruises (00 30 26610 38690, ionian-cruises.com); both based at Kérkyra Town’s New Port. Budget €75-100 (about £63-84) for the day, including coach transfers, lunch and boat fare, depending on how many attractions you cram into the schedule; the more expensive tours visit the showcase village of Gjirokaster (Argyrokastro), some ways inland.
Caique passage to Eríkoussa is most easily arranged in the north-westerly port resorts of Ágios Stéfanos or Sidári; Vlasseros Travel (00 30 26630 95695, book space on weekends) is a reliable Sidári agent. Budget €17/£14.25 typical return fare, out at 10am, returning from the islet at 3pm; the boat leaves Ágios Stéfanos at 9am. From Sidári, it’s just under an hour in calm seas to Eríkoussa, with dolphins often sighted en route; on the return trip photo ops are given at the more outrageous Sidári rock formations.
Despite its small size (visitors must walk everywhere), Eríkoussa has lately acquired some literary cachet as the setting for the successful 2014 novel When the Cypress Whispers, by New York-based Erikoussan Yvette Manessis Corporon.
The islet has the best sandy beaches of the Diapóndia islets: Pórto, extending 1km east from the new anchorage and ending in a sand dune; Fýki, about 15 minutes’ walk beyond the main little two-street village; and remoter Bragíni beyond Paliokályva hamlet but only accessible to those who elect to overnight here.
Proprietors Franca and Sandro have travelled to over fifty countries in their lifetime and chose this spot to retire, and then opened a five-unit inn (including one family-sized maisonette) with state-of-the-art bathrooms and vast expanses of blonde stone from Lecce. The food, especially fish and elaborate desserts, is to die for, courtesy of an imported Italian chef; budget €30 (not including a bottle of first-class Tuscan wine) for lunch or dinner. Whatever you do, don’t imitate the British couple who clambered up off the beach and ordered a plate of chips (with ketchup and mayo) – a request graciously acceded to, however, by Franca.
Since 2015, day-trips are no longer offered to the remoter Diapóndia islets of Othoní or Mathráki – there is only scheduled ferry service from Ágios Stéfanos or Kérkyra Town, and you must stay the night (perhaps two) at your destination.
Paxi & Andipaxi Islets
Paxí (sometimes Páxos, population 2,300, c. 30 sq km) lies seven nautical miles southeast of Corfu’s Cape Asprókavos, while in turn its little satellite Andípaxi beckons just two nautical miles beyond. But the trip there will take rather longer than these scant distances suggest, especially from Kérkyra Town’s New Port. Accordingly, excursions beginning from Benítses or Moraïtika/Mesongí on the east coast or Agios Geórgios in southwesern Corfu are growing in popularity, with proportionally less time at sea and more on and around the islets.
If Corfu is dominated by olive culture, Paxí is totally devoted to it inland, and oil from Paxiot groves is highly esteemed. Tourism, mostly at the coastal settlements of Lákka, Longós and the capital Gáïos, is upmarket, often yacht-borne but otherwise based in posh villas or apartments more than at the few hotels. East-facing beaches are pebbly rather than sandy; the west coast presents dramatic cliffscapes with caves. Tiny (5 sq km, 20 inhabitants) Andípaxi by contrast offers a sandy cove, Vríka, along with pebbly Voutoúmi, both boasting Caribbean-hued waters; the landscape is scrubbier than Paxí’s and vineyards produce notable wine.
A typical day-trip from Agios Geórgios will leave at 8.30am, calling first at Lákka for an hour or so before cruising past dramatic sea-caves before arrival at Vríka before midday. After swimming for an hour or so, it’s on to Gáïos on Paxí for two hours (shopping and lunch), with return to Agios Geórgios at 5.30pm. One recommended operator – reserve through Easybook (); adults €28, kids €14. For a couple of euros more per person, there’s a coach transfer to/from Agios Geórgios if you’re not staying there.
Cruises starting from Benítses will stay out a bit longer and cost roughly the same. Trips from Kérkyra Town New Port leave at 9am, get back at 7pm, and cost about €35 per head minimum, with supplements for coach transfers. Petrakis Ionian Cruises (details as for Albania trips) is one of several operators.