Now more than ever, Greece offers a safe destination and the chance to disconnect, recharge and be inspired by its kaleidoscope of crystalline seas and unique islands. Set in the Aegean Sea, the Cyclades are the destination of choice for island-hoppers, foodies, art-lovers and seekers of an under-the-radar holiday destination. On every one of these island gems, you can unwind into the slow tempo of the Mediterranean lifestyle and enjoy hidden beaches and delicious meals in family-run tavernas, or tick off an adventure on your holiday to-do list. Which of the islands of the Cyclades is for you? They all have something different to offer, here are our favourite five.
Best for: foodies and lovers of refinement and art de vivre
Whether you’re strolling through the streets of the island’s tiny capital Apollonia, marvelling in front of the splendid houses of Artemonas, or chilling on the sandy beaches of Vathy and Platis Gialos, or in the hidden cove of Cheronissos, Sifnos is a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. Unpretentious kafeneio (traditional cafés) in spruce villages and shabby-chic beachfront fish restaurants will all delight the most demanding of visitors. Sifnos is the cradle of modern Greek gastronomy and was the homeland of Nikos Tselementes, author of the classic cookery book of modern Greek cuisine. Don’t leave the island without tasting revithada (chickpea soup), or mastelo, a rustic dish of marinated lamb or goat and potatoes flavoured with wild fennel. Each is slowly cooked in a special clay vessel made by one of the island’s 19 potteries, where the ceramicists are the very talented present-day heirs to a distinguished tradition dating from antiquity. In some of their workshops it’s possible to create your very own souvenir of Sifnos.
Best for: those who crave a tranquil, no-hype, away-from-it-all escape
Although off the beaten track, Serifos is one of the closest Cyclades to Athens. Seen from the ferry, it’s impossible to resist the enchantment of the whitewashed Chora, embedded in a dramatic rocky promontory. From the small port, the winding road becomes a donkey path climbing to the town, where windmills bristle on the skyline. Leave the little hub to discover the island’s wild beauty by walking its kalderimi (old paved paths) or visiting the peaceful monastery of Taxiarches. Because of its richness in iron ore, the arid landscape is an extraordinarily intense red, giving a unique impression of being on another planet. Serifos has a multitude of blond beaches: Psili Ammos, Agios Sostis, Maliadiko… the mere sound of their names is an invitation to relax and make the most of the day until it’s time to return to the port for a refreshing glass of ouzo and a grilled octopus.
Best for: sun-worshippers and beach dreamers
Ios is a near-desert island ringed by terrific, unending beaches. Among them is Manganari where Luc Besson shot some of the most beautiful scenes for his famous film The Big Blue. In the perfect Cycladic Chora, don’t miss the sunset from Panagia Gremniotissa church, which has spectacular views of the port and Gialos beach. Ios remains the party island for bright young things. Welcoming bars are scattered throughout Chora and all through the night cheery good-natured couples and groups of friends can be found laughing and enjoying a drink. After a quick nap everyone heads for the daybeds and parasols of vast and splendid Mylopotas beach where they can continue the party in one of the many beachfront bars, enjoy water sports such as scuba diving or just kick back. For a more secluded beach experience, try Agia Theodoti on the north-eastern shore. Continuing north, on the Gulf of Plakotos, visit the tomb said to be that of Homer who, according to the historian Herodotus and others, died on the island. Ios also offers hiking trails from which to enjoy the quiet of unspoiled landscapes and dramatic sea views such as the one from Odysseas Elytis, a marble amphitheatre overlooking the Aegean where the annual Homeria Festival and most of Ios’s cultural events take place.
Best for: active families, hikers, windsurfers and lovers of the countryside
Known for its devotion to the god of fruitfulness Dionysus in antiquity, this is the biggest and highest island of the archipelago. From the summit of Mount Zas, hikers can experience a 360-degree view of the Cyclades. Astonishing beaches surround Naxos’s fertile farming centre. The interior is a patchwork of rich fields where livestock graze and vegetable crops are raised. Venetian towers and amazing historical villages, such as Apeiranthos and Filoti, are sprinkled across the romantic landscape. Every summer the 17th-century Venetian Bazeos Tower houses the Naxos Festival of concerts and exhibitions of contemporary art. Not far away is Chalki, the one-time capital, with its maze of perfectly preserved mansions, shops and exquisite tiny Byzantine churches. Pristine sandy beaches spread out all along the coastline. Close to the vibrant and picturesque Chora and the famous Portara, the monumental marble doorway dominating the remains of the temple of Apollo, Agia Anna is the easy-peasy choice for families, while Mikri Vigla is the place for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Sheltered from the wind when the Meltemi blows, Alyko, with its cedar forest, and Mikro Alyko are both good options too. But the most secluded beaches are to be found in the south of the island and the sense of adventure experienced on the road there is reward enough for the journey.
Best for: art collectors and those in need of a booster injection of culture
Andros is unique in the archipelago, a lush green island wildly crossed by fertile river valleys running down to the shore. Achla, one of its most beautiful and secluded beaches, can be reached only by boat or by a six-mile dirt road. Once there, you can choose between a sea or river swim. More accessible Tis Grias To Pidima beach offers a stunning setting with its rocky outcrop rising up dramatically in the sea. A world apart from the blue-and-white-cube Cycladic archetype, the houses on Andros are lordly neoclassical mansions with bright-red roof tiles. Important shipowning families stamped their mark on this former Venetian outpost in the 18th century and have never allowed mass tourism to spoil it. Instead they have infused it with culture and aesthetics through their personal art collections and foundations. In Chora the eye-opening Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art presents both Greek masters such as Yiannis Moralis, Yannis Gaitis, Takis and Alekos Fassianos and international artists. Each summer the museum organises an eagerly awaited temporary exhibition. In 2021, it will be dedicated to the Arcadian figurative painter Giorgos Rorris.