The Cyclades is the most common first stop for travelers in Greece, containing two of the most-visited islands: Mykonos and Santorini. A group of 24 inhabited islands (and 220 total isles), this bunch looks like all the postcards of Greece you’ve seen: white churches with blue domes and pink bougainvillea vines twining along them. But each has its own vibe.
Mykonos is known for its nightlife and see-and-be-seen beaches, but it also has a gorgeous Cycladic village in its center, with windmills and winding lanes to stymie pirates.
Santorini is romantic and luxurious, beloved by honeymooners who sit in their private pools at the top of the cliff overlooking the caldera and watch the sun set into the ocean.
Paros is home to beautiful Naoussa, built around two bays, and some lovely interior villages (and the satellite island of Antiparos is where the jetset goes to kick back).
Up-and-coming Milos has the most incredible coastline, colored and shaped by the minerals in the land, and 70 or so wildly different beaches.
Tinos is the site of a famous church to the Virgin Mary that is a top spot for Orthodox pilgrims, as well as pristine villages dotting the island.
Folegandros is a quieter version of Santorini, built on a cliff, with not too much to do but stare into each other’s eyes.
Amorgos is where The Big Blue was filmed.
The rustic Lesser Cyclades (Koufonisia, Donousa, Schinousa and Iraklia) are great for camping. And that’s just a sampling of them. There are large islands like Naxos and Syros, the archipelago’s capital, and tiny ones with very little tourism like Sikinos.
You can fly into Milos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Santorini, and Syros, or take ferries or hydrofoils to most of the islands from the Athenian ports of Piraeus and Rafina. Once there, it’s easy to get between the islands in summer; between mid-April and mid-Otctober, for example, there are two high-speed hydrofoils a day between Mykonos and Santorini. There are also ferry connections to the island of Crete from Ios, Paros, Mykonos and Santorini. Slower ferries also connect Crete to other islands such as Milos and Naxos.
What to do
Swim, sail, snorkel, and wander the fortress-like capital of each island whose cobbled alleyways, once meant to confuse invaders, are now home to shops, galleries, bars and tavernas (on most islands the main town is called “Chora”; on Milos it’s “Plaka”). Hike paths along the interior between quiet villages. If you’re a night owl, hit the clubs on Mykonos, Paros, and Ios. And wherever you are, every evening at sunset, park yourself somewhere overlooking the ocean with a glass of local wine.
Where to stay
Mykonos and Santorini both have luxury hotels from international brands such as Starwood (the Santa Marina on Mykonos and Mystique on Santorini), Grace (Grace Mykonos, Grace Santorini) and Relais & Chateaux (Myconian Ambassador Thalasso Spa, and Kirini Suites and Spa, Santorini), as well as local legends such as Perivolas on Santorini and The Belvedere on Mykonos.
Elsewhere in the Cyclades, most properties are independent boutique options like Anemi Hotel or Anemomilos Apartments on Folegandros, Milos Breeze on Milos, Coco-Mat Eco-Residence on Serifos, and the Naxian Collection Luxury Villas & Suites on Naxos. Renting a house is one way to feel like a local — Five Star Greece has an expertly curated collection of villas.
What to eat and drink
Seek out island specialties like capers and fava on Santorini, pitarakia cheese pies on Milos and spicy kopanisti cheese spread on Mykonos. Wine- asting is a must on Santorini (Boutari is a national powerhouse, Canava Roussos is old and family-run, and Gaia has won fame for their Assyrtiko). Local wine is wildly affordable, while seafood is expensive (because the Aegean is overfished and much Greek fish is exported). Still, it would be a sin not to try the fresh octopus or only-in-Greece barbounia (red mullet). Restaurants worth going through customs for include: Selene in Pyrgos, the highest village on Santorini; Kiki’s taverna, a lunch-only oasis resting between a monastery and the shore of Agios Sostis beach on Mykonos, Sigi Ixthios (“the silence of the fish”) in Naoussa on Paros, and Medousa in the waterfront village of Mandrakia on Milos.
Great day trips
On Santorini, you’ll want to sail to the hot springs and the satellite island of Thirasia (Dakoutros Bros offer fun excursions). From Mykonos, hop the ferry in the harbor to Delos, the island sacred to Apollo and one of Greece’s most stunning archaeological sites. Milos has far more than its fair share of wonders to be seen by ship including the Kleftiko sea caves, uninhabited west coast, and the colorful syrmata houses of the villages along the coast; excursion boats abound, among them the excellent Oneiro. From Paros, take the short ferry to the satellite of Antiparos to wander the town, swim the beaches and kick back at the Beach House bar; if you’re tempted to stay the night, Oliaros has lovely rooms opposite the Despotiko archaeological site.
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