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.
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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.
One of the lesser known and most low-key of the larger Cyclades, KÝTHNOS is an antidote to the overdevelopment you may encounter elsewhere, so much so that credit cards are still not accepted in many places. Few foreigners visit, and the island – known also as Thermiá, after its renowned hot springs – is even quieter than Kéa, particularly to the south where drives or long hikes from Dhryopídha to its coastal coves are the primary diversion. This is truly a place to sprawl on sunbed-free beaches without having to jostle for space.
SÉRIFOS has long languished outside the mainstream of history and modern tourism. Little has happened here since Perseus returned with Medusa’s head in time to save his mother, Danaë, from being ravished by the local king Polydectes – turning him, his court and the green island into stone. Many would-be visitors are deterred by the apparently barren, hilly interior, which, with the stark, rocky coastline, makes Sérifos appear uninhabited until the ferry turns into postcard-picturesque Livádhi Bay. This element of surprise continues as you slowly discover a number of lovely beaches around the island.
Sérifos is also great for serious walkers, who can head for several small villages in the under-explored interior, plus some isolated coves. Many people still keep livestock and produce their own cognac-red wines, which are an acquired taste.
Of the three islands off the coast of Mílos, only rugged, scenic KÍMOLOS is inhabited. Volcanic like Mílos, it profits from its geology and used to export chalk (kimolía in Greek) until the supply was exhausted. Bentonite is still extracted locally, and the fine dust of this clay is a familiar sight on the northeastern corner of the island, where mining still outstrips fishing and farming as an occupation. Apart from the inhabited southeast, the rest of the island is a nature reserve, which explains the lack of surfaced roads.
Even in August Kímolos isn’t swamped by visitors. Just as well, since, although there are around 450-odd beds on the whole island, there is little in the way of other amenities. There is only one bus, no car or motorbike rental (rent your vehicle from Mílos) and few restaurants. Those visitors who venture here come for the tranquillity and for trekking in pristine nature.
ÁNDHROS, the second largest and northernmost of the Cyclades, is also one of the most verdant, its fertile, well-watered valleys and hillsides sprouting scores of holiday villas. Still home to a very hospitable people, an attractive capital, numerous good beaches, plus some idiosyncratic reminders of the Venetian period – such as the peristereónes (dovecote towers) and the frákhtes (dry-stone walls) – Ándhros has a special charm. Driving is also a joy, with precipitous coastal roads offering panoramic views over the Aegean.
The only cloud in your enjoyment of the island may be the current shutdown of all state museums on Ándhros; check if they have opened before you visit.
Two hours’ pleasant walk from Hóra via the village of Fállika, or via a signposted turn-off on the road to Kórthi, you arrive at the finest monastery on the island, Panayía Panakhrándou (closed 1–4.30pm). Founded around 961 and with an icon said to be by St Luke, it’s still defended by massive walls but is occupied these days by just one monk. From the entrance door, a long passageway leads in past gushing springs to the atmospheric catholicon dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin with its impressive and colourful iconostasis. Its lower decoration with Ottoman Iznik tiles is unique in the Aegean and it represents a gift to the monastery by Patriarch Dionysius III in the 1660s.
Four of the six small islands in the patch of the Aegean between Náxos and Amorgós have slid from obscurity into fashion in recent years. Inhabited since prehistoric times, the group is known commonly as the Lesser Cyclades and includes Irakliá, Skhinoússa, Áno Koufoníssi and Dhonoússa. The islands’ popularity has hastened the development of better facilities and higher prices, but, with only limited ferry services, they’ve managed to avoid mass tourism.
Irakliá, the westernmost of the Lesser Cyclades, and with the least spoilt scenery, has just over 150 permanent residents. As the first stop on the ferry service from Náxos, the island is hardly undiscovered by tourists, but with fewer amenities than some of its neighbours, it retains the feel of a more secluded retreat.
The port of Áyios Yeóryios is a small but sprawling settlement behind a sandy tamarisk-backed beach that gets quite crowded in August. Livádhi, a big, shallow beach, is 2km southeast of the port and its crystal-clear waters are the main tourist attraction of the island. The asphalted road continues 3km on to the tiny capital Panayía (Hóra), which has no lodgings to speak of. In season, a local boat sails from the port at 11am to make a tour of the island, stopping at the small sandy beach at Alimiá and the nearby pebble beach of Karvounólakos.
A little to the northeast of Irakliá, the island of Skhinoússa is just beginning to awaken to its tourist potential. Its indented outline, sweeping valleys and partly submerged headlands – such as the sinuous, snake-like islet Ofidhoúsa (Fidoú) – provide some of the most dramatic views in the group.
An asphalted road leads up from the port of Mersíni to the capital, Hóra (also called Panayía), for 1.2km. From Hóra you can reach no fewer than sixteen beaches dotted around the island, accessible by a network of dirt tracks. Tsigoúri is a ten-minute track walk downhill from northwest Hóra and gradually being developed. The locals’ preferred choice of beaches are Alygariá to the south, Psilí Ámmos to the northeast, and Almyrós, half an hour southeast.
ÁNO KOUFONÍSSI (usually referred to simply as Koufoníssi) is the flattest, most developed and most densely inhabited island of the group. With some of the least-spoilt beaches in the Cyclades, the island is attracting increasing numbers of Greek and foreign holidaymakers and as it’s small enough to walk round in a day, it can feel overcrowded in July and August. The best views are not of Koufoníssi itself, but out across the water to mountainous Kéros island.
The old pedestrian street of HÓRA, crossing a low hill behind the ferry harbour, has been engulfed by new room and hotel development, but the town still retains its affable, small-island atmosphere. All the good beaches are in the southeast of the island, improving as you go east along a road that skirts the gradually developing coastline along the edge of low cliffs. Fínikas, a fifteen-minute walk from town, is the first of four wide coves with gently shelving golden sand. The next beach, Fanós, is the youngsters’ favourite, because of the beach bar that dominates the stretch of sand. Next is Platiá Poúnda, where caves have been hollowed out of the cliffs. Further east, the path rounds a rocky headland to Porí, a much longer and wilder beach, backed by dunes and set in a deep bay. It can be reached more easily from the town by following a dirt road heading inland through the scrub-covered hills.
Dhonoússa is a little out on a limb compared with the other Lesser Cyclades, and ferries call less frequently. Island life centres on the pleasant port settlement of Stavrós, spread out behind the harbour and the village beach. Most sunbathers head for Kéndros, a long and attractive stretch of shadeless sand twenty minutes over the ridge to the east; a World War II wreck can be easily spotted by snorkellers. The village of Mersíni is an hour’s walk from Stavrós, while a nearby path leads down to Livádhi, an idyllic white-sand beach with tamarisks for shade. In high season a beach-boat runs from the port to all beaches, many of which are nudist; the locals don’t seem to mind.
AMORGÓS, with its dramatic mountain scenery and laidback atmosphere, is attracting visitors in increasing numbers. The island can get extremely crowded in midsummer, the numbers swollen by film buffs paying their respects to the film location of Luc Besson’s The Big Blue, although fewer venture out to Líveros at the island’s western end to see the wreck of the Olympia which figures so prominently in the film. In general it’s a low-key, escapist clientele, happy to have found a relatively large, interesting, uncommercialized and hospitable island with excellent walking. Families tend to stay around Katápola, while younger tourists prefer Aigiáli.
This is the island to try rakómelo – a kind of fermented grappa with honey, herbs and spices, drunk in shots as an aperitif.
SÍKINOS has so small a population – around 240 – that the mule ride or walk from the port up to the capital was only replaced by a bus in the late 1980s. At roughly the same time the new jetty was completed; until then Síkinos was the last major Greek island where ferry passengers were still taken ashore in launches. With no dramatic characteristics and no nightlife to speak of, few foreigners make the short trip over here from neighbouring Folégandhros or Íos. The end result, however, is the most unspoilt rural countryside in the Cyclades where the clichéd image of a priest riding a donkey can suddenly materialize from over a hill.
The sheer cliffs of FOLÉGANDHROS rise 300m from the sea in places, and until the early 1980s they were as effective a deterrent to tourists as they had historically been to pirates. Folégandhros was used now and then as an island of political exile from Roman times right up until 1969, and life in the high, barren interior was only eased in 1974 by the arrival of electricity and the subsequent construction of a road running from the harbour to Hóra and beyond. Development has been given further impetus by the recent increase in tourism and the ensuing commercialization. The island is becoming so trendy that Greek journalists speak of a new Mýkonos in the making, a fact that is reflected in its swish jewellery and clothes shops. Yet away from showcase Hóra and the beaches, the countryside remains mostly pristine. Donkeys are also still very much in evidence, since the terrain on much of the island is too steep for vehicles.
The island’s real character and appeal are rooted in the spectacular HÓRA, perched on a cliff-edge plateau, a steep 3km from the port. Locals and foreigners mingle at the cafés and tavernas under the trees of the five adjacent squares, passing the time undisturbed by traffic, which is banned from the village centre. Towards the northern cliff-edge and entered through two arcades, the defensive core of the medieval kástro neighbourhood is marked by ranks of two-storey residential houses, with almost identical stairways and slightly recessed doors.
From the cliff-edge Poúnda square, where the bus stops, a path zigzags up – with views along the northern coastline – to the wedding-cake church of Kímisis tis Theotókou, whose unusual design includes two little fake chapels mounted astride the roof. The church, formerly part of a nunnery, is on the gentlest slope of a pyramidal hill with 360m cliffs dropping to the sea on the northwest side and is a favourite spot for watching some of the Aegean’s most spectacular sunsets. Beyond and below it hides the Khryssospiliá, a large cave with stalactites and ancient inscriptions, centre of a strange ancient youth cult, but closed to the public for archeological excavations. However, a minor, lower grotto can still be visited by excursion boat from the port. Towards the top of the hill are a few fragments of the ancient Paleókastro.
Hóra is inevitably beginning to sprawl at the edges, and the burgeoning nightlife – a few dance bars along with a number of music pubs and ouzerís – is to the south, away from most accommodation.
A ninety-minute boat ride to the east of Santoríni, ANÁFI is the last stop for ferries and is something of a travellers’ dead end. It was so for the Argonauts who prayed to Apollo for some land to rest; he let the island emerge from the sea for their repose. If rest is what you crave, you’ll have it here in abundance. Not that this is likely to bother most of the visitors, who come here for weeks in midsummer to enjoy exactly that: its seclusion. Although idyllic geographically, Anáfi is a harsh place, its mixed granite and limestone core overlaid by volcanic rock spewed out by Santoríni’s eruptions. Apart from the few olive trees and vines grown in the valleys, the only plants that seem to thrive are prickly pears. The quiet, unassuming capital, Hóra, provides a daring dash of white in a treeless, shrub-strewn hillock, its narrow, winding streets offering protection from the occasionally squally gharbís wind that comes unencumbered from the southwest.