Going to Greece without visiting the islands is like eating a cake and missing out on the icing, the sprinkles and the filling. The islands are where you find all the fun. No other group of islands shows this better than the Cyclades. This cluster of islands in the Aegean Sea has it all—dazzling white buildings and blue-domed churches, sandy beaches and world-famous nightlife, all at a convenient ferry ride from Athens. If your top priority is sun and fun, head to Mykonos. Visitors don’t come to Mykonos to go sightseeing. They come for the beaches and for what goes on after dark. Long the favorite of gay travelers, Mykonos attracts a rather mixed crowd. Anything goes on this island in the northeast Cyclades. Since the purpose of a visit is the after-dark sights, the best place to stay is in Mykonos town. At first view, Mykonos town’s myriad of streets seems just impossible to figure out. There doesn’t seem to be a straight street in the whole town. Explanations to this labyrinthine appearance vary. Some say the streets were built in a meandering pattern to break up the wind gusting in from the sea. Others say it was to confuse pirates. Whether meant to confuse pirates or Mother Nature, first-time visitors agree it is indeed confusing. The streets get so narrow, in some places you can reach out and touch both sides of the street. Along the town’s western shore, the stilted houses of the Venetian quarters link the town to the sea. South of the Venetian quarters is another Mykonos landmark, a row of windmills. The best beaches are along the island’s southern shore, some accessible by road and others only by fishing boat.


The Sacred Island of Delos
Just a few miles southeast of Mykonos is the sacred island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The island is a World Heritage Site and considered the third most important archeological site in Greece, after the Acropolis and Delphi. First populated in the third millennium BC, Delos came under Athens’ jurisdiction in the fifth century BC. To ‘purify’ the island, Athens declared that no person could be born or die on Delos. This decree removed the native population from the island, and strengthened Athens’ hold on the island. Wealthy merchants from as far away as Syria and Egypt replaced the natives. To honor the gods, Apollo in particular, these merchants built impressive temples, parts of which are still standing today. Please note that the site is closed on Mondays.

Little Venice
Every destination has an image that defines it, an image you see on postcards, t-shirts and plastic souvenirs wherever you turn. For Mykonos, that image is Little Venice, just east of Mykonos harbor. Built right on the edge of the water, this stretch of houses with brightly painted balconies is much more picturesque in real life than the plastic souvenirs might have you believe. Stretching from the beach of Aleukantras to the Castle district, Little Venice is full of restaurants, bars and cafes, and it’s a wonderful spot to see the sun sink in to the sea.

Super Paradise Beach
We owe many of our words to the Greek language, but modesty isn’t one of them. You skim the map of Mykonos and think that only the Greeks would name a beach Paradise Beach, and then to top that, another Super Paradise Beach. That is until you board a fishing boat at Platys Gialos Beach on the southern shore for the short trip to Super Paradise and realize that the Greeks are on to something. The blue bay, framed by glistening white sand, is indeed spectacular. There are arguably even prettier beaches along the southern shoreline, but Super Paradise is the most famous and well-worth a visit. Please note that this is a clothing-optional beach, so is you’re squeamish about seeing pale, northern Europeans getting sunburned in awkward places you might want to divert your eyes to the sea.

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With its whiter-than-white houses and geranium-draped, blue-painted balconies, and absolutely spectacular views of the sea, Santorini looks like a postcard. And it is. As it turns out, most of the photos you see on postcards and wall calendars were, in fact, taken on Santorini. Santorini was once a round island and got its present crescent-shape through one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. Since that 17th century eruption, the island’s plunging rock walls wrap around an enormous crater or caldera. The capital city of Fira sits high up on a cliff with a stunning view of the caldera. Santorini has long been a favorite of honeymooners, but it attracts lots of other travelers as well, especially to the beach towns along the eastern and southern shore, where the best beaches are found. Along the southern shore, the beaches are colored red and black from volcanic rock and the ash of volcanic eruptions. The black sand gets very hot to walk on, so bring some flip-flops. Visit the still-active volcano on nearby island Nea Kameni, and go for a dip in the hot springs on Palia Kameni. Explore the Roman ruins of the ancient city of Thera, perched high atop a mountain between Kamari and Perissa on the southern shore, and visit the Minoan city of Akrotiri just south of the capital Fira.


Nea Kameni, Palia Kameni, Thirasia
Just west of Santorini is the volcanic island of Nea Kameni. The volcano is highly active, with steam oozing through cracks along the path up to the volcano top. Depending on the weather, stop for a dip in the hot springs, colored bright green by sulphur, on the nearby island of Palia Kameni, or find some cooler waters. Next, make a stop at the less-visited island of Thirasia. If you dare, rent a donkey to ferry you up the steep path to the capital Manolas, or climb the path by foot, while wondering why in the world the Greeks always insist on building their cities on cliff-tops.

Sunset in Oia
Every night, hundreds of spectators come to Oia, on the northern tip of Santorini, to watch the sunset. Perched on rooftops and the Kastro walls, they watch the sun color Oia’s sugar cube houses red as it slowly sinks into the Mediterranean. Little Oia is a pretty town of small passageways and pedestrian streets, lined with galleries and jewelry shops. The central square, Nikolaou Nomikou, faces the caldera.

Ancient Thera
The ancient city of Thera, perched atop a mountain between the modern-day villages of Kamari and Perissa, was built in the 9th century BC by Spartan colonists and named for their leader Theras. Thera was excavated between 1895 and 1902 by the German archaeologist Friedrich Hiller von Gaertringen, and the site, and its ruins from Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times, is open to the public. It takes about forty-five minutes to climb the path up to the top, but the views of the sea and the surrounding beaches, black from volcanic ash, are spectacular.

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Remnants of ancient wonders, white sandy beaches and all-night parties… What more can one ask of one island? The island Rhodes was once home to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. At 107 feet tall, the statue was as tall as the Statue of Liberty, which, in the year 280 BC, was a constructional feat to say the least. The enormous statue, depicting the sun god Helios, straddled the harbor entrance in Rhodes town for only 56 years, until it was destroyed in an earthquake.
Helios fell in love with the nymph Rhodes, and when he shone his light on her, she was transformed into the island that bears her name. Droves of sun-worshippers carry on the legacy of Helios on this island where the sun always seems to shine. Rhodes is the largest island of the Dodecanese islands and the third largest of the Greek islands, after Crete and Evia. It faces the shores of Turkey, which are just six miles away. Visit the nearby islands of Patmos and Karphathos, and take a day trip to Turkey, just an hour away by ferry. Walk the meandering streets of picture-perfect Lindos and go for a dip at Anthony Quinn Bay, where The Guns of Navarone was filmed. Explore the walled Old Town of Rhodes town and visit the Castle of the Grand Master and the Castle of the Knights. Walk quietly through the Valley of Butterflies and catch the surf on the island’s windy, southern beaches, or the calmer, more family-friendly beaches on the east coast. Avoid the more exploited areas, such as Faliraki.


Day-trip to Marmaris on the Turkish mainland
From the harbor in Rhodes town, catch a ferry to the bustling port of Marmaris on the Turkish mainland, only about an hour’s ferry ride away. Practice your haggling skills at the bazaar, on leather goods, gold, carpets and designer knockoffs. Check out the Turkish baths, and stop for a Turkish coffee and some baked goods. For visitors really into the sweet stuff, there’s the Gold Centre, a Turkish delight factory. Before you leave, be sure to make a stop at the Castle Museum, housed in the fortress in the old town. Don’t forget to bring your passport, as you won’t be able to enter the Turkish mainland without it.

Valley of Butterflies (Petaloudes)
In late May, thousands of butterflies emerge from the pupae that have sheltered them during their metamorphosis from caterpillars to delicate black-and-white-winged Panaxia and flutter about the Valley of Butterflies. Trails, following a stream, take visitors through the valley as butterflies dance above, pausing briefly on tree trunks, handrails, and yes, sometimes on visitors as well. Unfortunately, the butterfly population is in decline, mainly because of visitors disturbing their mating process. From the time they emerge as butterflies in May, until the mating process is completed in August, the butterflies don’t eat, but survive on energy they built up as caterpillars. If disturbed by visitors, the butterflies keep fluttering about without resting, consuming valuable energy. Please be sure to keep your voice down and avoid disturbing behavior, such as clapping your hands or whistling.

Anthony Quinn Bay
Filming the Guns of Navarone in a small bay just south of Faliraki with costars David Niven and Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn loved the steep rocks leading down to turquoise waters so much he bought land nearby. The small bay, framed by rocks and pine trees, has been carrying his name ever since. Take in the view over a drink at the beach taverna, or get a closer look floating about the crystal-clear waters on an inflatable beach mattress.

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For some, Athens is just a polluted, overcrowded city with a poor trash collection system—a necessary stop before heading out to the islands. For others, Athens is the polluted, overcrowded birthplace of western civilization—the place where Socrates discussed with Plato and great wonders were built to please the gods. Busy and dirty, Athens is a wonderful mix of old and new, glory and decay, class and kitsch. With the Parthenon topping the Acropolis like a sparkling white crown, and with archeological digs still in process across town, history feels very close in this sprawling this city of three million people. Learn more about Greek history in the newly built museum on the Acropolis, through the enormous holdings of the National Archaeological Museum near Omonia, and the wonderful collections of ancient and modern art of the privately-owned Benaki Museum, on Koumbari Street. Check out the stadium built for the first Olympic Games in modern times, in 1896, and the structures built for the return of the games, in 2004. Go shopping in the upscale neighborhood of Kolonaki and find a tavern on a back street that serves homemade cheese, stifado (rabbit) stew, creamy taramasalata (fish roe puree), dolmades (stuffed wine leaves) and keftedes (meatballs). As the night falls, catch a live performance of rembetika music in the newly revitalized neighborhood of Psiri, have a drink or two at a waterfront club in Pireaus, and stay out all night until the sun comes up over Lycabettus Hill. If time allows, take a trip to Cape Sounion, some 40 miles southeast of the city, at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula, to see the ruins of the temple of Poseidon.


Even visitors with no interest in archeology can’t help but be impressed by the Acropolis, and its crown, the Parthenon. A far cry from its one-time splendor, the Parthenon is the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece. It was built to house a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom and Athens’ patron deity. The Acropolis’ glory extends down the southern slope with the colossal Theater of Dionysos and the smaller Theater of Herodes Atticus. The best time to visit the Acropolis is in the morning, before the sun gets too hot and the crowds take over the site. Follow the Acropolis with a tour of Ancient Agora and work your way back through Plaka towards Syntagma Square, where the famous evzones guard the former royal palace-turned-parliament building.

Plaka and Monastiraki
The historic Plaka district, Athens’ old Turkish quarters, is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways. Most of the streets have been closed to traffic and restaurants and cafes line the streets. Tourist shops sell goods ranging from nice—antiques, hand painted icons and wood carvings—to unbearable kitschy. A glow-in-the-dark Parthenon replica, anyone? There are several museums in Plaka, including the Children's Museum, the Music Museum, the Greek Folk Art Museum and the Jewish Museum. Northwest of Plaka, the neighborhood of Monastriaki takes over. If you can, try to visit Monastiraki on a Sunday, for the flea market, or any other day of the week for the fish and meat market, and the fruit and vegetable market surrounded by spice shops.

Singing the Blues
It’s been called the Greek blues. It originated in the slums of the port of Pireaus and the city of Thessaloniki in the early 20th century, brought there by the two million Greek refugees from Asia Minor repatriated by force in the 1920s. Today, rembetika, as the music is known, is experiencing a rebirth. Catch a live performance at one of the many venues featuring rembetika in central areas such as Psiri and Plaka.

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© 2010. Karin Palmquist ( All rights reserved.