Things to Do in Cyclades Islands
The “Santorini volcano” may refer to two different peaks: the first, Thira, exploded around 1600 BC and ended the thriving Minoan civilization and may have spawned the legend of Atlantis. Millennia of eruptions formed the second “Santorini volcano”—the island of Nea Kameni, drawing visitors eager to hike to the rim of its active crater.
Discover archaeological ruins and ancient Greek history during a trip to Delos, an island in the Cyclades, near Mykonos. Known as the mythological birthplace of Apollo, Delos was an important religious and cultural center in Ancient Greece. Visit to see the ruins, including a theater, temples, monuments, private homes, and markets.
Perched on the steep edge of the caldera, looking out over the glittering Mediterranean, Oia (pronounced “ee-yuh”) is famed for its dreamy sunsets. Oia is also one of the most picturesque villages in Santorini, with its striking white buildings, blue-domed churches, and atmospheric cave houses burrowing into the volcanic rock.
Santorini’s Red Beach is not your average white-sand beauty. Rather, it’s a narrow, pebbly stretch hemmed in by high scarlet cliffs and scattered with large volcanic rocks. Together with the sapphire blue waters of the Aegean Sea, these volcanic features create a striking natural color palette that draws photographers to its shores.
Situated in Chora Mykonos (aka Mykonos Town), the waterfront quarter of Little Venice is one of the island’s top sunset-viewing spots. Rows of whitewashed old fishermen’s houses—now occupied by bars, shops, and restaurants—back onto the seafront, their brightly painted red and blue balconies jutting out over the water.
Centered around a rugged volcanic crater, the small island of Nea Kameni offers a dramatic landscape, with dark cliffs sculpted from lava rock and orange-tinged natural thermal waters. The island’s striking landscape and natural hot springs make it a popular destination for day cruises from Santorini.
In Ancient Greek mythology, the tiny Cycladean island of Delos was the birthplace of Apollo and his twin sister Artemis; in thanks for the safe delivery their mother vowed to make the island the richest community in Greece. And so it came to pass.
Delos was first colonized in around 1100 BC as a sanctuary to Apollo. By 456 BC the island was under Macedonian control and many of the surviving monuments of this vast, open-air museum date from that era, as its community of 25,000 people became a powerful trading port in the eastern Mediterranean. However, Delos lost its strategic importance in the first century BC and was gradually abandoned.
Excavations began there in 1873 and one of the wonders of the ancient world was unearthed from the UNESCO-listed site covering 235 acres (95 hectares) — only 62 acres (25 hectares) have been uncovered so far — of temples, sanctuaries, villas, palaces, amphitheaters and baths. The most famous of the Delos ruins is the Terrace of Lions, a row of marble lions that guarded Apollo’s sanctuary. Today nine replicas stand in their place, while five originals are found in Delos Archaeological Museum, which has nine galleries displaying finds from the archaeological excavations including mosaics, fragments of marble and stone torsos and heads as well as ivory and bronze reliefs, all dating from the seventh to the first century BC. As well as the marble lions, highlights of the collection include a bronze mask of Dionysos, wall paintings depicting boxing matches and great feasts, and a giant marble statue of Apollo. Considering this is one of the most important classical sites in the world, there is little interpretive information among the Delos ruins, so visit the museum first for an understanding of the history and importance of the island.
With its stark white tower perched atop the sea-cliffs of Cape Armenistis, and views stretching out over the ocean, the remote Armenistis Lighthouse (Faros Armenistis) feels a world away from the lively streets of nearby Mykonos Town. A striking reminder of Mykonos’ rich maritime heritage, the lighthouse dates back to 1891 and, despite standing at just 19-meters high, makes a dramatic sight, looking out across the strait towards Tinos island.
Today, the lighthouse is no longer in use and is closed to the public, but remains an impressive landmark and a popular spot from which to watch the sunset. The lighthouse’s original 19th-century lantern has been restored and is now on display in the Aegean Maritime Museum in Mykonos Town.
Tucked away on the south coast of Santorini, White Beach (Aspri Paralia) is sheltered by chalk-grey cliffs. This minuscule strand is actually composed of coarse black—not white—sand, and liberally peppered with grey and white pebbles as well as massive white volcanic boulders.
The whitewashed windmills lined up on a hill overlooking Mykonos Town are a signature island sight. Capped with wood and straw, the 3-story conical windmills were built in the 16th century to mill flour. Out of the 16 preserved windmills on the island, seven are found in the area of Kato Mili overlooking the Chora Mykonos harbor.
More Things to Do in Cyclades Islands
The flower-bedecked Church of Panagia Paraportiani is a highlight of your walk through Mykonos’ picture-perfect Little Venice. Built between the 14th and 17th centuries, the island’s most photographed church is comprised of five whitewashed chapels across two floors that once guarded the entrance to the town’s castle.
Santorini’s hot springs are on the tiny, uninhabited islet of Palea Kameni. Continuous volcanic activity underground maintains the springs’ temperature between 86ºF and 95ºF (30°C and 35°C). The sulfuric, orange-tinged spring waters that bubble up into a shallow cove off the islet’s coast are said to be curative for the skin and joints.
Tucked away from the buzzing nightlife of Mykonos Town, Ornos Beach is draped around a sheltered bay whose calm water makes it a popular family swimming spot. A generous selection of seafront restaurants, tavernas, and resorts offer plenty of amenities for a day in the sun or a longer stay on the island’s quieter side.
With its long stretch of golden sand and steady coastal winds, Kalafatis Beach is not only one of Mykonos’ most beautiful beaches – it’s also earned a reputation as the island’s water sports hub. The beach is most renowned for its windsurfing, but other popular activities include jet skiing, water skiing, banana boating and wakeboarding.
For less adventurous beach-goers, Kalafatis also offers ample opportunities for swimming and snorkeling, as well as boat cruises around the sea caves of Dragonisi island. The beach itself is well equipped for families, with sunbeds and parasols for hire, beach volleyball nets, and a selection of cafés and restaurants nearby.
Akrotiri came to an abrupt end in approximately 1613 BC with a catastrophic volcanic eruption that buried the Bronze Age settlement in a carpet of ash. Beginning in 1967, excavations of the Minoan town revealed buildings, drainage systems, and pottery, but no human remains or gold valuables, indicating locals had time to flee before disaster hit.
The cruise port of Mykonos offers easy access to both the town itself, called Chora, as well as the rest of the island and its sun-drenched beaches. Take time to get a little lost in the town’s maze of charming streets and traditional buildings full of shops, cafés, and restaurants before heading back to the ship or hotel.
Long a ferry hub for trips throughout the Greek Islands, Paros has quietly become a second Mykonos without the crowds and the price tag. Away from its sun-kissed beaches—popular for soaking up the Aegean sun—terraced hills climb up to the mountainous interior, where the island’s famous pure-white marble is quarried.
Most visitors come to Ano Mera, in the interior of Mykonos, to see the Byzantine Panagia Tourliani Monastery, fronted by an ornate bell tower with triple bells. Its interior is perhaps even more impressive, with carved marble and wood, Byzantine frescoes, crystal chandeliers, a gilded pulpit, and a wooden altar screen with scenes from the New Testament.
The monastery of Mount Profitis Ilias (Moni Profitou Iliou) 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.
The monastery courtyard and gardens are a popular spot to watch Santorini’s fabled sunsets and it is possible to see right to the hilltop village of Oia from the top of Profitis Ilias. Panoramas also take in the patchwork of plains and vineyards sit in the mountain’s lee, sheltering the young vines from hot winds blowing in from North Africa.
The little island of Thirasia (Therasia) has a population of only 200 or so, making it the perfect spot for a relaxing lunch at a cliff-top taverna, with views over to Santorini. The island used to be part of Santorini’s mainland, until the violent volcanic eruption of 1650 BC set it free.
Sail over from Santorini to escape the crowds on Thirassia’s lovely beaches, and bring a traveler’s dictionary as not many people here speak English. Those tavernas are clustered in the village of Manolas, near the ferry stop, and the tranquil island also has scattered blue-domed churches, ancient monasteries and stone villages
By day, Paradise Beach is a water sports hot spot, with swimsuit-clad revelers enjoying banana boat rides, Jet Ski jaunts, and scuba diving excursions. Come late afternoon, its legendary party scene gets going as fun-seekers flock to the beach bars and clubs for music, dancing, drinking, and fun.
Imagine a stretch of slate grey sands fringed by startling turquoise waters and hemmed in by sea cliffs, and you’ll understand why Perivolos is one of Santorini’s most popular beaches.
The island’s longest black sand beach is not only undeniably photogenic, but it’s a great spot for swimming and sunbathing, with cool calm waters, and thatched parasols and sunbeds lining the waterfront. Perivolos Beach is also notable for its lively atmosphere, with beach bars dotted along the seafront, volleyball nets set up along the sand and ample opportunities for water sports, including jet skiing and windsurfing.
Many tours of Santorini Island include a stop at Perivolos beach and visits are often combined with nearby Perissa beach. Active travelers can even hike or cycle the beach road between Perivolos and Perissa, a scenic 5km promenade that affords dazzling views along the coast.
Looking out over the Old Port and marking the entrance to historic Mykonos Town is Manto Mavrogenous Square (Plateia Manto Mavrogenous)—the lively epicenter of the quintessential Greek Island destination. A popular starting point for walking tours, the square boasts handicraft shops, restaurants, and cafes along its seafront promenade, while its white-painted, blue-shuttered buildings make for a pretty photo opportunity against the ocean backdrop.
At the heart of the square stands its namesake monument, an unassuming statue of Manto Mavrogenous, the Greek war heroine famous for her role in the Greek War of Independence.
Looming 20 meters high at the tip of a rocky promontory, the Skaros Rock is one of Santorini’s most memorable natural landmarks and its silhouette is so striking it can be seen from towns like Fira and Oia. The seafront cliff, sculpted from black lava rock, offers the perfect vantage point for looking out across the Aegean Sea and it’s an idyllic spot to watch the sunset, with views over the caldera and Kameni islands.
To visit Skaros Rock, follow the trail from Imerovigli village, then either climb the steps to the top of the rock or take the path around the base of the rock. Along the way, stop to visit the whitewashed chapel of Ekklisia Theoskepasti nearby, a remnant of Skaros’ early Catholic settlement, then explore the ruins of the Byzantine fortress that once stood on the peak.
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