The seven substantial islands and four minor islets scattered off the Aegean coast of Asia Minor form a rather arbitrary archipelago. While there are similarities in architecture and landscape, the strong individual character of each island is far more striking and thus they do not form an immediately recognizable group, and neither are they all connected with each other by ferries. What they do have in common, with the possible exception of Sámos and Thássos, is that they receive fewer visitors than other island groups and so generally provide a more authentic Greek atmosphere. Yet the existence of magnificent beaches, dramatic mountain scenery, interesting sights and ample facilities makes them a highly attractive region of Greece to explore.
Verdant Sámos ranks as the most visited island of the group but, once you leave its crowded resorts behind, is still arguably the most beautiful, even after a devastating fire in 2000. Ikaría to the west remains relatively unspoilt, if a minority choice, and nearby Foúrni is (except in summer) a haven for determined solitaries, as are the Híos satellites Psará and Inoússes. Híos proper offers far more cultural interest than its neighbours to the south, but far fewer tourist facilities. Lésvos may not impress initially, though once you get a feel for its old-fashioned Anatolian ambience you may find it hard to leave. By contrast, few foreigners visit Áyios Efstrátios, and for good reason, though Límnos to the north is much busier, particularly in its western half. In the far north Aegean, Samothráki and Thássos are relatively isolated and easier to visit from northern Greece, which administers them. Samothráki has one of the most dramatic seaward approaches of any Greek island, and one of the more important ancient sites. Thássos is more varied, with sandy beaches, mountain villages and minor archeological sites.
Despite their proximity to modern Turkey, only Lésvos, Límnos and Híos bear significant signs of an Ottoman heritage, in the form of old mosques, hammams and fountains, plus some domestic architecture betraying obvious influences from Constantinople, Macedonia and further north in the Balkans. The limited degree of this heritage has in the past been duly referred to by Greece in an intermittent propaganda war with Turkey over the sovereignty of these far-flung outposts – as well as the disputed boundary between them and the Turkish mainland. Ironically, this friction gave these long-neglected islands a new lease of life from the 1960s onward, insomuch as their sudden strategic importance prompted infrastructure improvements to support garrisoning, and gave a mild spur to local economies, engaged in providing goods and services to soldiers, something predating the advent of tourism. Yet the region has remained one of the poorest regions in western Europe. Tensions with Turkey have occasionally been aggravated by disagreements over suspected undersea oil deposits in the straits between the islands and Anatolia. The Turks have also persistently demanded that Límnos, astride the sea lanes to the Dardanelles, be demilitarized, and in the last decade Greece has finally complied, with garrisons also much reduced on Sámos and Lésvos, as part of the increasing détente between the traditional enemies.