Things to Do in Cyclades Islands
If you came to Santorini for the sunsets, the town of Oia is where you want to be when the sun sinks towards the horizon to such glorious effect.
Perched on the steep edge of the caldera, with open views of the sea, the village is quieter than the island’s main town, Fira, at least outside sunset hours.
A string of tavernas turn their faces to the caldera for those views, and it’s fun exploring the town’s tiny backstreets and rocky cliff face, where homes have been carved from the volcanic rock.
There’s some seriously chic boutique accommodations in Oia, complete with infinity pools and spas. The lucky people staying on for the evening dine in Oia’s gourmet restaurants, perched on terraces to catch the best views. Follow the 300 steps leading from the top of the caldera and you reach the fishing port of Ammoudi. Boats sail from here to the nearby island of Thirassia.
The volcanic eruption of Thira that put an end to the thriving Minoan civilization was so cataclysmic, it may have spawned the legend of Atlantis.
The explosion occurred around 3600 years ago, scooping out the once-circular island’s center and west coast, and creating the sea-filled caldera and signature sheer cliffs where Santorini’s townships teeter today. Since then, there have been perhaps a dozen major eruptions.
The volcano is quiet today, though the nearby island of Nea Kameni in the center of the caldera still emits puffs of steam. It’s thanks to the caldera that towns like Oia boast such stunning sunsets, providing a low-lying, obstruction-free observation point as the sun sinks into the sea.
Centered around a ruggedly beautiful volcanic crater, the small island of Nea Kameni offers a dramatic photo opportunity, with its dark cliffs sculpted from lava rock and natural thermal waters tinted orange by the mineral-rich seabed. Floating off the coast of Santorini Island, Nea (New) Kameni and neighboring Palea (Old) Kameni lie at the heart of the mostly-submerged Santorini caldera, and are Greece’s newest volcanic islands - Nea Kameni dates back just 425 years.
Reachable only by boat, Nea Kameni makes a popular choice for cruises from Santorini Island, with visitors free to explore the unique volcanic landscape and bathe in the natural hot springs, legendary for their healing and rejuvenating minerals.
Archaeological buffs and lovers of legends mustn’t miss the trip to the sacred island of Delos. On Delos, the archaeological jewel of the Cyclades, you can see firsthand where the ancients lived and clamber over the ruins they left behind. Held sacred as the mythological birthplace of Apollo, Delos was at the heart of the ancient world as an important religious and commercial center, reaching its zenith in the Hellenic period around the 5th century BC.
The huge site sprawls along the island’s west coast, from the stadium in the north to the old trading warehouses to the south. Standouts include the Sanctuary of Apollo temples and the Terrace of the Lions. The remains of private houses surround the semicircular Theatre, and the site includes several agoras, monuments, sanctuaries and temples. You can see finds from the excavations at the site museum, including the original lions from the much-photographed Terrace of the Lions.
The monastery of Mount Profitis Ilias is perched on the mountain of the same name, the highest point on Santorini at 1,853 ft (565 m) above the Aegean Sea in the south of the island. Built in the early 18th century out of sizeable stone and resembling a fortress, the monastery was dedicated to the prophet Elijah and initially enjoyed great wealth. It once also functioned as a secret school of Greek culture during the dark days of Turkish occupation of the country, but its power began to decline in 1860 and it was badly damaged by the earthquake in 1956. Today Profitis Ilias is successful once more; its three domed church has become a museum hosting an exceptional and significant collection of Greek Orthodox icons, early, hand printed books and bibles, wrought-iron artwork, wooden carvings and elaborately embroidered clerics’ robes. The resident monks put on displays of traditional carpentry, shoemaking, local cooking and wine making as well.
Most of Santorini’s pocket-sized beaches are made of dark volcanic sand and pebbles set against black, austere cliffs, but perhaps its most unusual beach is near the Minoan ruins at Akrotíri on the south coast. Aptly named Red Beach (‘Kokkini Ammos’ in Greek) for its blood-red sand and gently crumbling burnt-umber cliffs, the crescent of beach forms a bizarre Martian landscape of red and black lava boulders scattered over grainy red and black sand. Rocks thrown up by ancient volcanic activity lurk just offshore in the calm bay, forming perfect platforms for sun worshippers, and the crystal-clear waters are paradise for snorkelers.
Open-topped wooden boats, known as kaiks, trundle backwards and forwards between Red Beach and Akrotíri disgorging a constant stream of visitors.
Little Venice is a tiny quarter of trendy boutiques, churches and whitewashed fishermen’s houses lining the seafront in Mykonos’ Old Town. Flowering bougainvillea adds a touch of crimson to the bright white walls, and wooden balconies painted in trademark Grecian colors of blue and rust hang over the narrow streets.
Just south of the Old Jetty at the entrance to Little Venice, stands the rocklike Church of Panagia Paraportiani, while the town’s iconic row of hilltop windmills overlook the quarter. Come to Little Venice at dusk to capture postcard shots of a Mykonos sunset, and stay on into the evening at a waterfront taverna.
More Things to Do in Cyclades Islands
Ano Mera is the second-largest settlement on Mykonos, and as far from the island’s party-crazy reputation it is possible to get. A whitewashed cluster northeast of Mykonos Town (also called Chora), life rumbles on here as it has done for centuries. There’s a daily fresh produce market in the village square and Ano Mera is popular with local families for leisurely Sunday brunches in traditional tavernas. The village’s chief claim to fame is the 16th-century whitewashed monastery of Panagia Tourliani and its church, which is fronted by an intricate marble bell tower and ornate triple bells. Founded in 1542 by monks from the neighboring island of Paros and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the monastery’s Byzantine styling is apparent in its red dome and its layout around a fountain-filled courtyard.
In 1967, archaeologists uncovered the spectacularly well-preserved remains of an ancient Bronze Age Minoan village at Ancient Akrotiri, destroyed by a mighty volcanic eruption in around 1650 BC.
The most famous Minoan site outside Crete, the sandstone remains of Akrotiri’s buildings reach several stories. Their door and window lintels are spookily intact, along with stone walls and porticoes, courtyards and rooms. As at Pompeii, the buildings were preserved by the volcanic ash. Fortunately, unlike Pompeii, it appears that the villagers were safely evacuated, as no skeletons have been unearthed during the excavation. The excavation site has been closed for several years, though restoration is continuing. To get an idea of what lies beneath, visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, where gorgeous frescos of boats, fishers, wildlife and everyday people from several millennia ago are displayed. You can also see personal artifacts like pottery and furniture.
With its wide-arching strip of beach dotted with striped umbrellas, it’s easy to see why Kamari Beach is resort central on Santorini.
The Brits feel at home with English-style breakfast cafes and pubs, but there are resorts, tavernas and restaurants here for all tastes, along with bobbing fishing boats and the easily accessible volcanic-sand beach. In fact, it’s the resort town’s variety when it comes to choosing restaurants and hotels that makes it so popular.
Rent a sun chair and umbrella, or organize water sports like diving and snorkeling. Excursion boats sail along the coast, past the rocky headland of Mesa Vouno that frames Kamari’s beach, across the water to the isle of Anafi. A trail leads to the ruins of Ancient Thira, and in summer the town hosts a jazz festival and outdoor cinema.
Known world-over for its cosmopolitan lifestyle and booming nightlife, Mykonos is a favorite amongst visitors on the Greece leg of their Mediterranean tour. With a load of wonderful beaches to park at, Mykonos is also filled with museums and other tokens of cultural life. The town itself is a wonderful maze of charming little streets and traditional buildings full of shops, cafes and restaurants. Feel free to get lost when exploring Mykonos.
Now with two ports, one of which is the relatively new, but smaller marina, all sorts of cruise liners, yachts and other boats swarm the island of Mykonos - making it a common ferry destination from places like Rafina or Piraeua, where you can catch a ride daily. Mykonos also has an international airport only a few miles away from the town itself, offering flights from a number of major European destinations.
The archaeological site at Akrotiri may be closed, but fortunately you can get your fill of excavations at the site of Ancient Thira. There’s a mix of ruins to explore, including Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine remnants, excavated in the 1890s. Take a tour to identify the different structures – temples, houses, the market (agora), theater and gymnasium.
At its height, this was a thriving center, with dramatic sanctuaries hewn into rock, temples, an impressive theater and porticoed administrative buildings. The central area is the Agora, the old commercial hub, encircled by temple sanctuaries ringing the city. There are also ancient cemeteries here, unearthed since the 1960s. Don’t miss the views over the coast while you’re here.
After a day relaxing on the sand or jet-skiing through the water, Paradise Beach is where holiday makers come to party when the sun goes down. During the day, you can rent an umbrella and beach lounge, and make the most of the beach’s bar service. At night, there are a couple of restaurants in town, but it’s the pumping music played by beach club DJs that draws the mostly young crowds. Paradise Beach is fine for the family during the day, but the scene turns loud and sexy after dark. Don’t come here to sleep! As well as the beach dance floor, there’s the famous Paradise Club all-night party megaclub, that’s been a favorite rave scene since 1993.
Things to do near Cyclades Islands
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