It can be hard to resist the electric blue domes, whitewashed buildings and hot pink bougainvillea blooms of the islands of Santorini and Mykonos, even when the Greek hotspots are threatened by overtourism. Well, we’ve got good news. There is a scattering of other Aegean gems to choose from that all offer the same good looks, but with less crowds and for less money, too. They might just entail an extra boat ride…
You might recognise Andros’s fairy-tale lighthouse, Faro Tourlitis, which is perched upon a rock that has eroded so much over the centuries that its steps now lead atmospherically into the sapphire ocean. The lighthouse isn’t the only intriguing sight to be seen on the Cyclades’ second largest island though, Aladino Cave is filled with hanging rocks, stalagmites and stalactites, while on ground level, the remains of a number of ancient settlements evoke mystery and wonder. For the cultural tourist, there’s a contemporary art museum and pastel neoclassical mansions to admire in the town of Andros. Unblemished springs, waterfalls, wildflowers, and walnut and lemon trees adorn picturesque hiking trails and provide unusual photo opportunities – and best of all, you won’t have to wait until the crowds disperse to take your shot.
It might surprise you to learn that the capital of the Cyclades sits on the relatively unfrequented island of Syros. Ermoupoli, meaning ‘city of Hermes’, is paved with smooth slabs of marble, and its neoclassical Venetian facades are complete with intricate wrought iron balconies. The buildings are painted in candy shades, such as pistachio and rose, and this sweet colour palette is reminiscent of the local confection loukoumi, which is similar to Turkish delight. More architectural treasures in this steep city include the Apollo Theatre, the town hall and its impressive atrium, and the Agios Nikolaos church with its gilded blue dome.
If you’re still looking for a bit of party, Ios is where you need to navigate to. The island is around one hour north by boat from the popular hotspot of Santorini, however the extra leg of the journey means it leaves most of the rabble behind. As well as a lively nightlife, with DJs and club nights, the island boasts bucolic landscapes where you might find you are the only one exploring its pristine whitewashed churches. Other attractions include a striking open theatre, photogenic windmills and Skarkos – a Bronze Age settlement.
Modest Milos is home to many riches, however it doesn’t shout about them. Those who make the journey to the southwesternmost Aegean island will find volcanic rocks in shades of yellow, orange and red – they are as mesmerising as the sunset and look even more vivid at dawn and dusk. Milos’s history is just as colourful, with tales of pirates, caves and fascinating marble sculptures that date from the third century BC. Perhaps the most famous, Venus de Milo, now poses in the Louvre, however you can admire a replica in the Archaeological Museum of Milos.
Tinos is a fascinating island around a 30-minute ferry ride from Mykonos. Thousands of pilgrims travel to its shores each year to visit the Panagia Megalochari church where an icon of the Virgin Mary was found – many of them even crawl the kilometre from the port to the church on their knees. If this isn’t a priority though, then there’s plenty more that will draw you to Tinos. Intricate 18th-century dovecote structures once used to house pigeons are dotted all over the landscape, and over in Pyrgos, you’ll find stunning examples of marble sculpture that the island is famous for. The curious village of Volax is strewn with large boulders believed to be the debris of a mythical battle or a meteor shower, plus, there are Greek poems scrawled in chalk on many of its walls and doorways. Finally, you must not set sail before you try some of the local cheeses.
For a refreshing change from elbowing yourself a spot on the beaches in Mykonos and Santorini, head to the largest and highest of the Aegean islands, Naxos, where you’ll find seemingly endless stretches of deserted sand. Naxos is also a hotspot for watersports like snorkelling, scuba diving, and those needing strong winds such as kite surfing. Be sure to visit Portrara – the doorway to the ancient temple of Apollo that began construction in 522 BC but was never finished. And for more ancient architecture, head to the Chora (old town), which is watched over by the now inhabited Venetian castle. As the greenest island in the archipelago, there’s a wide range of locally grown fare to tickle your tastebuds, too.
Next door to Naxos, the island of Paros sits pretty. The former fishing village of Naoussa is now an attractive seaside resort lined with plenty of quaint, colourful houses and winding alleyways that make for excellent photo opportunities. The Byzantine monastery of Panagia Ekatontapiliani, which means the church with a hundred doors, is a highlight too, and the story goes that the secret 100th door will open when the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople becomes orthodox again. The Paros Park is the isle’s pièce de résistance: the 800-acre expanse is full of spectacles, including the Cape Korakas Lighthouse, which looks particularly breathtaking at sunset, an amphitheatre where performances take place in the summer, and an outdoor cinema by the beach.
The fastest way to get to Amorgos from Athens is on its high-speed ferry, which takes six hours… but boy, is it worth it! Romantic, mysterious, and practically unblemished by tourism, the island was the location of the Luc Besson film, The Big Blue. You can even visit recognisable spots from the movie, such as the shipwreck in the south of Amorgos where Jacques saves an American soldier. The island’s most enthralling attraction however, is the Hozoviotissa Monastery, which was built into the side of a cliff in 1017. It still appears to precariously perch 300 metres above sea level, like a white dove sitting on a rock. Across the rest of the land, look out for the adorable windmills that wouldn’t look out of place in a Wes Anderson scene, and be sure to try some psimeni raki – a liquor made with honey and cloves. There’s actually a festival dedicated to the spirit that takes place on the island each July.
Gourmands won’t want to miss Sifnos, which is home to one of the most renowned food scenes in Greece. The island’s pastries are a particular speciality, and you’ll struggle to resist indulging at least once a day when the scent of bourekia (almond, cinnamon and honey in flaky filo) and amygdalota (chewy almond and rosewater biscuits) wafts out of the doors of the numerous bakeries in Artemonas. Equally, Sifnos’s seafood promises to be some of the tastiest and freshest you’ll ever be served, and a table at cosy beachside fish bar, Omega 3, is worth waiting for – Scarlett Johannsen and Tom Hanks have dined there in the past. While the cuisine is the star of the show in Sifnos, don’t overlook the presentation; pottery is an ancient craft on the island, and is made from clay dug up from its hills. You can work up your appetite for your next meal by visiting the Church of the Seven Martyrs, which stands alone on a rocky cliff and makes for a dramatic photo opportunity.
Just two hours by ferry from Athens sits one of the Aegean’s quietest isles, Kythnos, which is punctuated by lonely lighthouses and botanical aromas like oregano and thyme. The island was once known as Thermia, because of its healing, natural springs in the northeast area of Loutra. King Otto and Queen Amalia, regarded as the first royal couple of modern Greece, used to frequent Kythnos for the sole purpose of using the springs, which are said to be able to treat conditions including arthritis and rheumatism. On the site of the springs, there is a Hydrotherapy Centre that opened in the 19th century and was one of the first examples of spa tourism. Outside of the springs, the view from the castle of Oria is spectacular, and Kolona beach is regarded as one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the Aegean.