SÝMI, the capital and only town, is arrayed around a superb natural harbour in an east-facing inlet on the island’s north shore. Inter-island ferries arrive right in the heart of town, while excursion boats jostle for room in summer with mighty Mediterranean cruisers. Immediately behind the straight-line quaysides that enclose the main segment of the port, scattered with sponge stalls and souvenir stores targeted at day-trippers, the lowest row of Italian-era mansions clings to the foot of the hillsides. Each is painted in the officially ordained palette of ochres, terracotta, cream or the occasional pastel blue, and topped by a neat triangular pediment and roof of ochre tiles. The hills are steep enough that the houses seem to stand one above the other, to create a gloriously harmonious ensemble.
The lower level of the town, known as Yialós, extends northwards to incorporate the smaller curving Haráni Bay. Traditionally this was the island’s shipbuilding area, and you’ll still see large wooden boats hauled out of the water. Yialós also stretches some way inland from the head of the harbour, beyond the main town square, which is used for classical and popular Greek performances during the summer-long Sými Festival.
On top of the high hill on the south side of the port, the old village of Horió stands aloof from the tourist bustle below. It’s hard to say quite where Yialós ends and Horió begins, however; the massive Kalí Stráta stair-path, which climbs up from the harbour, is lined with grand mansions, even if some are no more than owl-haunted shells. Another similar stairway, the Katarráktes, climbs the west side of the hill, from further back in Yialós, but it’s more exposed, and used largely by locals.