Named from the circle they form around the sacred island of Delos, the Cyclades (Kykládhes) offer Greece’s best island-hopping. Each island has a strong, distinct character based on traditions, customs, topography and its historical development. Most are compact enough for a few days’ exploration to show you a major part of their scenery and personality in a way that is impossible in Crete, Rhodes or most of the Ionian islands.
The islands do have some features in common. The majority (Ándhros, Kéa, Náxos and Tínos excepted) are arid and rocky, and most also share the “Cycladic” style of brilliant-white cuboid architecture, a feature of which is the central kástro of the old island capitals. The typical kástro has just one or two entrances, and a continuous outer ring of houses with all their doors and windows on the inner side, so forming a single protective perimeter wall.
The impact of mass tourism has been felt more severely in the Cyclades than anywhere else in Greece; yet whatever the level of tourist development, there are only three islands where it completely dominates their character in season: Íos, the original hippie island and still a paradise for hard-drinking backpackers, the volcanic cluster of Santoríni – a dramatic natural backdrop for luxury cruise liners – and Mýkonos, by far the most popular of the group, with its teeming old town, selection of gay, nudist and gay-nudist beaches, and sophisticated restaurants, clubs and hotels. After these, Páros, Náxos and Mílos are the most popular, their beaches and main towns packed at the height of the season. The once-tranquil Lesser Cyclades southeast of Náxos have become fashionable destinations in recent years, as have nearby Amorgós, and Folégandhros to the west. To avoid the hordes altogether the most promising islands are Kýthnos or Sérifos and for an even more remote experience Síkinos, Kímolos or Anáfi. For a completely different picture of the Cyclades, try the islands of Tínos with its imposing pilgrimage church and Sýros with its elegant Italianate townscape, both with a substantial Catholic minority. Due to their proximity to Attica, Ándhros and Kéa are predictably popular weekend havens for Athenian families, while Sífnos remains a smart, chic destination for tourists of all nationalities. The one UNESCO site, Delos – once a great religious centre for the Cyclades – is certainly worth making time for, visited most easily on a day-trip from Mýkonos. One consideration for the timing of your visit is that the Cyclades is the group worst affected by the meltémi, which scatters sand and tablecloths with ease between mid-July and mid-August. Delayed or cancelled ferries are not uncommon, so if you’re heading back to Athens to catch a flight, leave yourself a day’s leeway.