Situated to the south-east of the Greek mainland, there are 220 islands in the Cycladic archipelago. The name ‘Cyclades’ comes from ‘Cyclic’ meaning ’forming a circle around’ and this is a reference to the sacred island of Delos which is their focus. The islands are actually the peaks of many submerged mountains – except Santorini and Milos which are volcanic islands.
The Cyclades are a really popular group of islands and Santorini, Mykonos and Ios alone, are visited by millions each year. The Cyclades islands are famous for their gorgeous beaches, pretty villages with white-washed houses and blue-domed churches and beautiful landscapes.
Some of the larger islands have their own airport and others can be reached only by boat. Each island has its own individual character and attractions and there is definitely one that is beckoning to you….
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A Guide to the Cyclades Islands
Where are the Cyclades
The Cyclades are a chain of islands in the Aegean Sea, stretching south and eastwards from the Greek mainland off the coast near Athens down towards Crete. The islands form a circle around the small island of Delos at the heart of the Cyclades archipelago that was the region’s religious, financial and commercial centre during ancient times. The Cyclades islands span from Andros in the north to Santorini in the south, with Makronissos being the most westerly and Amorgos the furthest east.
How to get to the Cyclades
How to get to the Cyclades depends on which island(s) you are visiting. Some islands, namely Mykonos and Santorini, have international airports which can be reached from across Europe, while other smaller or lesser-known islands can only be reached by ferry.
As such, if you are visiting one of the smaller islands you will need to travel to Athens, Mykonos or Santorini and then connect to a ferry from there.
Alternatively, if you plan on island hopping around Greece you can even travel between island chains such as the Dodecanese and the Cyclades, taking the ferry from one island to the next.
How to travel around the Cyclades
As mentioned above, it is fairly easy to travel around the Cyclades islands, with regular ferry services connecting up the islands throughout the summer months. Some of the smaller islands have less frequent connections, so you’ll want to either plan your trip in advance or be flexible to the fact that there might not be ferries every day.
When on the islands you’ll want a car or moped to get around, giving you freedom and flexibility to explore different towns, villages and beaches. On some of the larger islands like Naxos, Andros and Tilos you’ll want to hire a car as they’re a bit too big to explore by bike.
The best time to visit the Cyclades
While there are some ferries that connect the islands year-round, these are fairly infrequent during the off-season and as such island hopping around the Cyclades is best done in summer. Of course, the weather is best during the summer months of May to September too meaning you can make the most of the beaches.
There will be many more shops, bars, restaurants and hotels open during the summer as well so you’ll have the best options available.
Ferry services startup more regularly towards the end of May and continue until around mid-October. Similarly, direct flights to Mykonos and Santorini from around Europe only run throughout the peak season, meaning you’ll have to transfer via Athens if you want to travel there in the winter.
This beautiful island is known for its stunning beaches and colourful nightlife and is popular in the summer with families, singles and celebs. It was named after the grandson of the Greek god, Apollo. The island’s main town is Chora (also known as Mykonos Town) and on the hill above the town stand its famous row of 16th-century lighthouses.
There are fine dining options, friendly tavernas and beaches to suit everyone including the longest -Elia- which is popular with families. As day turns to night, the beaches of Paradise and Super Paradise attract many to their music bars which attract the world’s greatest DJ’s.
- Explore the island’s Archaeological, Folklore and Aegean Maritime Museums – they are all good!.
- Enjoy shopping in Matoyanni Street (Chora), which is well known for its upmarket shops and boutiques.
- Watch the sunset from Little Venice
- Hire a 4 x 4 and head for the pebbled coves of Myrsine and Fokos coves.
- Make a day trip to Delos island
This small rocky island has long been considered ‘the most sacred island’ as it was the birthplace of the god Apollo and goddess Artemis and has attracted pilgrims from all over Greece and is the focus of the Cyclades Islands.
Delos became a major religious centre during the first millennium BC. By 167 BC, the island had been declared a ‘free port’ and rich merchants and shipbuilders built expensive mansions there decorated with beautiful floor mosaics.
They maintained good relations with the governing Romans and this led to attacks by forces against the Romans. The island fell into rapid decline and was left abandoned for centuries. Excavations began in 1872 and are ongoing – the whole island is an archaeological site protected by UNESCO.
No one has lived on the island since ancient times and because it is a sacred island, no mortal can be born or die there – anyone close to giving birth or passing away is immediately moved to the nearby island of Rineia.
Delos is well worth visiting as it is a unique blend of mythology, history and archaeology. There are boat trips from Mykonos all year round and from Naxos and Paros during the summer months.
- See the famous Terrace of the Lions which is a row of crouching lions carved in white marble which guard the entrance to the Sacred Precinct. Originally, there were nine lions, but today, only five remain.
- Keraton is an Ionic temple dedicated to Apollo and is situated in the Sacred Precinct. Built on granite, the temple is famous for its altar which is decorated with rams’ horns.
- The House of Dionysus, built in the 2nd century BC was a lavish private house decorated with marble pillars and floor mosaics depicting Dionysus, the god of wine, riding a tiger.
- The archaeological museum. There are some interesting exhibits on display, but many of the finest pieces are now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens.
This island is what romantic dreams are made of! Santorini is the most southerly island in the Cyclades group and is on an old volcano. The ‘caldera’ on the north of the island, is the semi-circular (now sea-filled) volcanic crater with steep cliffs.
Clinging to the top of the cliffs are the white-washed buildings of the capital town, Thira (also spelt Fira) and of the other villages overlooking the caldera – Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia. The beaches on Santorini are fine black volcanic sand, but several on the south coast have different colours including the aptly named ‘Red Beach’.
- Take a boat trip from Thira to the nearby islet of Nea Kameni, which is still an active volcano.- and you can climb to the crater edge! There is another stop at Palea Kameni where you can enjoy a dip in the hot springs or cover your body with mineral-rich volcanic mud which is good for the skin.
- Hop on the village bus from Thira to Oia early in the evening, to grab a good seat in a bar overlooking the Caldera. You are in for a treat as the sunsets are stunningly beautiful. If you prefer, you can walk from Thira – its nine kilometres each way.
- Santorini is well known for its really good white wines, so why not plan a tour of one of the wineries.
- Explore the amazing archaeological site at Akrotiri. This was the site of an ancient Minoan city that was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 1,513 BC.
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Things to do in Santorini
The best time to visit Santorini
How to spend 3 days in Santorini
Things to do in Oia Santorini
Things to do in Fira, Santorini
Best Beaches in Santorini
This island is attractive and very cosmopolitan with a reputation for good beaches and pretty villages. The island is just a short boat trip from Piraeus and has 120 kilometres of golden sandy beaches. Its two main villages are Parikia and Naoussa and both have a good selection of restaurants and bars for evening entertainment.
- Windsurfing and kitesurfing are the two big sports on Paros and the island hosts annual international competitions in the summer months. The two best beaches are Golden Beach and New Golden Beach.
- Grab your camera and visit some of the island’s prettiest villages including Naoussa, Lefkes and Parikia.
- The Byzantine monastery of Panayia Ekatonaplyliani meaning ‘Our Lady of the 100 Doors’ is an interesting monastery with its own Byzantine Museum.
- Visit the Valley of the Butterflies. The valley is a nature reserve and in the summer is the main breeding ground for thousands of butterflies.
Lying just 1.9 kilometres from the much livelier island of Paros, Antiparos is small and very tranquil with sandy beaches, good swimming and not much else! Antiparos is much loved by those seeking peace and relaxation.
- Enjoy some good scuba diving. This is a developing sport in Antiparos as it has been found that the island is surrounded by a reef with plenty of marine life.
- Explore the Cave of Antiparos. Situated in the centre of the island, this is an extensive cave system on several levels with amazing stalactites and stalagmites.
- Hop on a boat bound for the uninhabited island of Despotiko! This gorgeous little island has long sandy beaches, clear water and an archaeological site.
The largest and greenest island in the Cyclades, Naxos is a wonderful mixture of mountains, green valleys, ancient ruins and long beaches. The capital town is Naxos (also called Chora) and is a blend of the snowy white cube-shaped houses and elegant medieval Venetian mansions. There is plenty to enjoy on this island – and most of it is energetic! The island holds a number of fun events including a Fisherman’s Feast and Wine Festival – both of them in September.
- Climb a mountain! At 1,004 metres, Zas (originally dedicated to Zeus) is the highest in the Cyclades. On the way up, take a break to explore the Cave of Za with its stalagmites and stalactite formations.
- Explore the picturesque villages of Chalki and Apeiranthos.
- Check out the large Kouroi around the island.
- Get lost in the alleyways of Chora’s Castle.
This hilly island lies in the Aegean between Naxos and Santorini and during the summer months has a colourful nightlife, popular with young holidaymakers. Chora (Ios village) is the pretty main village of white-washed buildings and narrow lanes, built on a hillside. During the day, the island is peaceful as everyone lazes on the beaches but, as the sun sinks, Chora comes alive with restaurants and bars.
- As the island has cliffs along its coastline, a number of its beaches can only be easily reached by boat – and there are many in the harbour offering trips.
- Skarkos is a Bronze Age settlement that lies just a few kilometres inland from Chora. The site is one of the most important and best-preserved archaeological sites in the Aegean.
- The Tomb of Homer is where the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey is said to have been buried. Homer lived on Ios for his final years as it was the birthplace of his mother.
- Enjoy a performance at the Odysseas Elytis open-air theatre with amazing views of the countryside and the glistening sea beyond.
Syros is situated 78 nautical miles from Athens and is the perfect relaxing family destination as it has organised beaches with sunbeds and sun umbrellas, but no water sports. The island is one of the smaller ones. Its main town is Ernoupoli – which means ‘the city of Hermes’ and it is one of the most beautiful in the Aegean with its pastel-coloured Venetian mansions, narrow alleyways and churches crowning its two hilltops. The town had both Orthodox and catholic parts and in the 1820s, following the Greek War of Independence, became a thriving commercial centre.
- Enjoy an evening at the beautiful Apollo Theatre in Ernopouli. Based on La Scala in Milan, the theatre holds events throughout the year including the Classical Music Festival of the Aegean.
- Explore the Vaporia neighbourhood in Ermoupolis.
- Admire the view from Ano Syros.
- Discover a painting by El Greco at the church of the Dormition.
Tinos lies on the route between Athens and Mykonos and is known as the ‘holy island’ as each year it is visited by thousands of pilgrims who can be seen crawling from the port to the sacred church of Panayia Evangelistria – the most important religious monument in Greece, which has a miracle-working icon. The highest number of pilgrims visit on 15 August – the feast day of the Assumption. Tinos is a lovely island to visit with unspoilt countryside and beaches as well as 40 pretty villages to explore.
- Enjoy hiking in the countryside and admire the numerous pigeon houses! These rectangular-shaped houses are believed to date from Venetian times and decorated with geometric patterns that are said to attract the birds (Tarabados valley has the most!)
- The beaches on Tinos are stretches of beautiful sand with clear water and no more. If you fancy trying surfing, head for Kolybithra on the north coast which has a surf centre with courses for beginners.
- Visit the marble art museum near Pyrgos that traces the history of the art on the island which has produced several fine sculptors, with Halepas being the best known.
- If they are in season during your visit to Tinos, you must sample some of the island’s artichoke dishes! Tinos is famous for its artichokes and has an annual artichoke festival in June.
Andros is the northernmost island in the Cyclades and the second largest. Andros lies just three kilometres north of Tinos and 10 kilometres south-east of Evia and is accessible only by ferry. Andros is a fairly mountainous island with fertile valleys full of fruit trees. It is a very green island as it has many streams and springs.
Chora is its main town with distinctive red-tiled roofs on its neoclassical buildings, which were once owned by wealthy shipowners. Batsi is its most popular tourist village which overlooks a pretty bay, with the same name.
- Enjoy great hiking! There are 18 well-defined trails, 30 minutes – six hours in duration. The trails are excellent and well signed and the island won an award for the best quality trails in Europe – get walking!
- Visit Apikia, not only because it is a pretty village, but it has a spring and produces the Sariza spring water which can be found all over the island.
- Menites is an interesting mountain village that is famous for its numerous springs.
The beautiful horseshoe-shaped island of Milos is in the south-west Cyclades and gets its name as legend tells it was the birthplace of Venus de Milo. It is a lovely quiet island that has surprisingly up market restaurants that appeal to visitors from Athens. The island has spectacular geological formations to discover and 70 sandy beaches. Its bijou port of Pollonia is the place to go if you enjoy good seafood. Laid back and relaxing, there is plenty to see and enjoy on Milos.
- Visit the village of Mandraki with the brightly painted syrmata – fishermen’s huts on the beach.
- Take a picnic to the gorgeous Firiplaka Bay which is a volcanic beach with pink and white cliffs or you can go to Tsigrado – the smaller more secluded beach next door – which is accessible only by step ladder!
- For foodies, there are some great local dishes to try including pitakia, which is cheese pie in phyllo pastry.
- Make the round of the island with a boat and admire the rock formations.
Situated close to the island of Milos, the two islands were once connected but were separated by an earthquake. The island takes its name from the Greek word ‘kimolia’ meaning ‘chalk’ and its geology fascinates many because of the traces of volcanic activity.
The best known is the rare rock formation at Skiadi that looks like a giant stone mushroom. Kimolia is a Natura 2000 zone which prevents any development. As the island lies ‘off the beaten track’ there are no hotels, no designer shops, no nightlife and few restaurants – perfect for those seeking peace! Choro is the only sizeable village and has several squares and eight small churches.
- Hike to Skiadi Rock.
- There are two museums to visit in Chorio; the archaeological museum in the centre and the folklore and maritime museum situated by the ruins of the 15th-century castle.
- Take a boat trip to the preserved and uninhabited islet of Polyegos .
- Enjoy some Manoura, the island’s cheese made from sheep’s milk. The cheese is dried and then covered in grape must before maturing, which leaves it with a distinctive black rind.
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Things to do in Kimolos
Situated five hours by boat from Pireaus, Serifos is a pretty, undeveloped island that is a popular weekend breakaway for Athenians. Its villages are pretty with white-washed buildings with blue doors and it has some lovely beaches including Livadi, Livadakia, Psili Ammos and Vagia. It is the perfect choice for those who love a quiet beach, a beautiful swim and a glass of wine at sunset.
- Enjoy a drink in Pano Piazza Square in the heart of the main town Serifos Chora. The square is enclosed by white-washed buildings and is filled with taverna tables and chairs where everyone congregates at the end of the day.
- Climb up to the pretty little of Agios Konstantinos with your camera! At 251metres, it is the highest part of the main town. This tiny chapel dates back to the mid 19th century and has spectacular views down to the coast and of the nearby islands.
- The Cave of Koutalas is situated on the south-west of the island and was discovered entirely by accident in 1893 by miners. Local folklore tells that Cyclops lived there.
- There are three old mines at Magalo Livadi that were used since ancient times and used to bring to the island good money but were closed in 1964.
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Things to do in Serifos
A lovely small island with sandy beaches, the island pace of life where the biggest noise is the cicadas in the trees! The air on Sifnos smells of wild sage and oregano. Sifnos is the island of potters and not too many years ago, there were scores of pottery workshops selling terracotta dishes and cooking pots of all shapes and sizes. The island has a good reputation for its food ever since Nicolas Tselementes, a local Chef, wrote the first definitive cookbook on Greek cuisine in 1910!
- Visit the clifftop village of Kastro really early and watch the sunrise behind the blue-domed Church of the Seven Martyrs.
- Discover Theodorou’s Sweet Shop opened in 1933 where you can buy homemade amygdalota – crescent-shaped almond biscuits and bourekia – almonds, cloves, and cinnamon fried in pastry and drizzled with honey.
- Explore the pottery workshops in Vathi and Kamares.
- Get walking to discover the island’s monasteries of Chrissopigi, Panayia Vryssiani and Prophet Elias.
The best things to do in Sifnos.
One of the most secluded islands in the Cyclades group is the tiny rocky island of Sikinos, that lies close to Ios. Sikinos has been untouched by tourism and is perfect for those seeking a relaxing holiday in the sun. The main focus of activity is the little port of Sikinos. It is fun to walk around the island, discovering its villages which are typically Cycladic in style, with white-washed buildings, blue church domes, windmills and traditional coffee shops.
- Explore the archaeological site of Episkopi, just four kilometres from the main town of Chora. A Byzantine monastery was built on top of a Roman mausoleum and both can be clearly seen.
- The Folkore Museum is fun to visit as it is housed in an old olive press.
- Say Yamass – Cheers – at the Manalis Winery! The winery perches on a hillside amongst the vines and began in 2008. During the summer months, visitors are welcome to learn the winemaking process and to enjoy some samples.
This pretty little island is close to Athens so is a popular weekend destination for Athenians. With pretty countryside and villages such as Loulida (the main town) and Vourkari, Kea is an island that is ideal for hiking.
- Enjoy a short hike from Loulia to the Stone Lion or a longer one to the archaeological site of Ancient Karthea. The Stone Lion is a lion’s head that was cut into the rock in prehistoric times and is the subject of many local myths. Ancient Karthea on the south-west of the island lies above the Bay of Poles and was one of four city-states on the island.
- Go diving! There are some underwater caves to explore and the wreck of RMS Britannic – the sister ship of RMS Titanic – that sunk in 1916 and lies at a depth of 120 metres so is for experienced divers. There is also the wreck of a French cargo ship and the Koundouros reef explore.
- Try some water sports at Koundouros Beach – water skiing, wakeboarding and Stand Up Paddleboards are all available. If you have children, there is ‘baby’ sailing too.
- Join a cookery class that features authentic Greek Island cuisine and tasting sessions for local cheeses, olive oil, honey and wine.
Lying just two hours and 40 minutes from Athens, you would think this delightful island wound be busier, but it is not – except during the summer in the marina! It is an island of rolling hills and green valleys with sparse vegetation that includes olives, figs, almonds and pear trees. There is a forested area that is famous for its delicious thyme honey. The island has the name Thermia as it has ancient natural springs that are sulphurous and good for easing arthritis, rheumatism and gynaecological problems.
- Cure your aches and pains at the thermal spring in Loutra. You can see the old Roman bathhouse on the edge of the town, but the spring feeds into the sea at the coast.
- Dive Kythnos at Loutra Dive Centre. There are 32 dive sites including shipwrecks, underwater caves and rock formations.
- Discover the amazing double beach of Kolonna-Fykiada. These two beaches are on either side of a narrow stretch of land connecting what was once an islet an island, to the rest of Kythnos. There are a couple of little hills overlooking the beautiful clear blue waters.
Situated in the southern Cyclades, just one hour by boat from Santorini, Folegandros has been described as ‘the most beautiful undiscovered island in Greece’. It has rolling hills, ideal for wandering in solitude to smell the wild thyme and oregano. The island is very relaxed and hospitable with some stunning views. There are three towns and Chora, its main town, is the perfect medieval town, still guarded by its 13th kastro. Karavostassi is the island’s little port, three kilometres south-east of Chora. There are quiet pebbled beaches and the rural agricultural village of Ano Maria with its numerous orchards. Getting around the island is easy as there is a bus stopping at all the main points, several times a day.
- Put on your walking shoes and walk from Karavostassi to Petoussis and Livadi to see the cave of Georgitsis.
- Discover the Ecological & Folklore Museum in Ano Maria which reveals all the different farming techniques used on the island as well as how all the numerous dry stone walls are built.
- Relax on the round the island boat trip that stops at five beaches for great swimming.
- Panayia is the highest church on the island and a favourite spot to watch the sunset.
- Order a plate of Matsata at a taverna, this is a dish of handmade pasta, served with chicken or rabbit.
One of the prettiest islands. Amorgos is the most eastern islands in the Cyclades group and lies close to the Dodecanese islands. It has impressive scenery with many high points with stunning views. The main village of Chora is very attractive and authentic. Above the town is a Venetian Kastro and it is worth climbing up to the castle to enjoy the 360º panoramic views of Amorgos.
- The island’s main attraction is the extraordinary 10th-century monastery of Panayia Hozoviotissa – dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin Mary. The monastery clings to the steepest cliffs of Mt Profitis Elias (300m) and is eight storeys high and each floor is linked by a narrow staircase. The monks’ cells are carved into the cliff.
- Explore the island by following some of the seven trails that highlight the diverse flora and fauna.
- Aigiali is its second harbour, situated ion a pretty bay with a string of delightful cafés and restaurants to enjoy. High on the mountainside overlooking the harbour are the three lovely villages of Thoralia, Lagkada and Potamos and these are the ideal place to be as the sun begins to sink as the view of the sunset is amazing.
Koufonisia comprises of two islands Pano or Apo Koufonisi (Upper) and Kato Koufonisi (Lower). Kato Koufounisi with 399 inhabitants is the most populated island and Iraklia, measuring 19 square kilometres is the largest!
Kato Koufonisia is becoming a fashionable destination as it is the most sophisticated with a few restaurants and cafés plus two galleries in its only town. There are no hire cars and no taxis so walking is best. Scooters can be hired on Iraklia and bikes on Koufonisia and there are boat trips to good beaches and so you can enjoy ‘island hopping’.
- On Pano Koufonisi you can enjoy windsurfing on Pori and Platia beaches. For a very special treat head to the sea caves near Pori where you can have the best swim ever.
- On Kato Koufonisi discover the gorgeous ‘Piscina’ rock pool and the equally beautiful sandy beach of Pori- both lie about two kilometres from the harbour and there is a sandy road for easy walking or cycling. Walk in the other direction and you will reach Loutro – a pretty little harbour with a windmill and small white-washed chapel.
If you’re looking for a small, off-the-beaten-track island, then you might be interested in Irakliá, a tiny island with just 115 inhabitants! Located just below Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades, Irakliá is an island with only two towns, one seasonal minibus service and a collection of rooms, tavernas and beaches.
- Hiking! This is one of the best activities on Irakliá with a number of well-signposted trails crisscrossing the island.
- The cave of Ágios Ioánnis. This is an interesting destination for your hike from the port (or from the church of Panagia), just don’t forget to bring a torch for when you’re inside.
- Trying local cuisine including stuffed goat, xinomizithra cheese and thyme honey.
Slightly larger than Iralkia is the island of Donousa, a landmass with 160 residents most of whom reside in the main town of Stavrós. This is again an island for those seeking peace and quiet with a few tavernas, a handful of beaches and a smattering of walking trails.
- Visiting the beaches such as Kédros Bay and Livádi which can be reached on foot (25 minutes and 1 hour respectively from Stavrós).
- Exploring the small town of Mersíni and enjoying the panoramic views out towards Amorgos.
- The festival at the Chapel of Timios Stavrós every 13–14 September.
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Things to do in Donousa
Anáfi is a classically beautiful Cycladic island, with the main town of Chora being built around the ruins of an old Venetian Castle. Anáfi is the namesake and inspiration behind the settlement of Anafiótika in the heart of Athens and you’ll be able to see why when you visit.
- Exploring unspoilt bays and coves around the island such as Klisidi, Katalimatsa, Roukounas and Agioi Anargyroi.
- Discovering churches scattered around the landscape including the monastery of Zoodochos Pigi and the church of Panagia Kalamiotissa.
- Walking up the rock of Kálamos in the east of the island, an excellent spot for climbers, photographers, bird-watchers and mountaineers.
Schinoussa or Skhinoússa is an island favoured by yachties and sailors, with three settlements, a number of alluring beaches and a surprising number of rooms and tavernas. It features rugged landscapes and turquoise waters and is a must for those seeking unspoilt Greece.
- Looking out for windmills as you walk around the island. The trail around the island takes just two hours!
- Walking to some of the island’s best beaches such as Tsigoúri, Alygariá, Almyrós, Psilí Ámmos.
- Schinoussa has beautiful beaches to tempt you and three lovely bays – Aligaria, Gkagkavi and Kampos and each of its three villages has an excellent seafood taverna.
Exploring the Greek Islands is great fun as each is very special and with its own character. Some of the smaller islands are on accessible in the summer months by boat/ ferry and many lack large hotels and tourist facilities – and long may it last!
If you are looking for a relaxing holiday, taken at a leisurely pace, springtime in the islands is perfect. Temperatures are comfortably warm for walking and the colourful tapestry of springtime flowers and the fragrance of thyme and oregano carried on the breeze are memories you will cherish forever