Three underrated Greek Islands without the crowds
Tourists line the walkways at Oia on Santorini as the sun sets. Photo: Alamy
The island of Santorini – famous for its whitewashed villages with blue-domed churches – was created by a cataclysmic event. About 3500 years ago, there was an eruption so violent that it blew off the top of the volcano and forged a sunken caldera.
These days, another seismic shift affects this glamorous Greek island with an explosion of more than 2 million tourists each year. The glamorous town of Oia, Santorini’s crown jewel, tumbles down the cliff against a backdrop of endless Aegean blue. A day after my visit, I was photobombed by beauties in floaty dresses as they climbed rooftops, dodged my way through several marriage proposals and sampled souvlaki at a restaurant with prices as breathtaking as the views.
Golden hour has struck. Panicked crowds scrambled into position to witness the legendary sunset. Sardine in the ruins of a 15th century Byzantine castle, I watched the fiery red sun slowly sink below the horizon. It was a sight so beautiful that I almost fell for the Santorini fantasy. Seconds later I was elbowed in the face by an influencer.
With over 200 inhabited islands in Greece, surely there is somewhere else that deserves its time in the sun? Sidestep the Santorini crowd by visiting three of its lesser-known neighbors in the Cyclades chain of islands.
Sarakiniko on Milos. Photo: Alamy
The crescent-shaped, volcanic paradise of Milos has been named the next ‘it island’. Change will come as fast as the northern Meltemi winds, but luckily you didn’t miss the boat.
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Milos’ dramatic coastline is what sets it apart, with more than 70 beaches. The white, moon-like landscape of Milos’ most popular beach, Sarakiniko, has been sculpted over centuries by wind and sea. Sunbathers in colorful bikinis dot the surface like sprinkles on a meringue, while cliff jumpers make a splash in the glistening water below.
“Even if you come in August, you can still find secret beaches that you can have all to yourself,” says Pol Lagogiannis, who helms Polco Sailing’s (polco-sailing.com) fleet of catamarans and sailboats that cater to groups or private parties. charters take on beach-hopping routes. The only way to access all the best swimming spots is by boat, including the coves of Kleftiko, a former pirate’s lair – the name is derived from the ancient Greek word for ‘thief’. These electric blue waters are some of the clearest you will find in Greece.
Milos’ original claim to fame is the statue of Venus de Milo, which now resides in Paris’s Louvre. The masterpiece was unearthed by a farmer in 1820 near an ancient amphitheatre, a stone’s throw from the island’s most picturesque fishing village, Klima. A brightly painted row of two-story fishermen’s houses, known as syrmata, hugs the shoreline. Most of the cabins remain unchanged, but some have been converted into Airbnbs.
All the snorkeling adventures work up an appetite. Medusa restaurant (medusamilos.gr) sits above the quiet fishing village of Madrakia. If you see octopus strung along the windswept waterfront, you’ve found the right place. Tuck into swordfish souvlaki with lemon sauce, washed down with ouzo.
End the day by exploring the cobbled streets of the hilltop capital of Plaka. Grab a table at the Utopia Cafe terrace at sunset and enjoy a spectacular view of the Gulf of Milos with a cocktail in hand. Yamas!
The medieval citadel of Kastro. Photo: iStock
Greece’s gourmet island of Sifnos has all the ingredients of an idyllic Greek getaway to enjoy at a deliciously slow pace. The moment you step off the ferry at the port of Kamares, the scent of herbs – sage, thyme, mint, marjoram – carries the sea breeze; a hint of the epicurean paradise to come.
Sifnos’ culinary reputation is largely due to being the birthplace of Greece’s first famous chef, Nikolaos Tselementes. After publishing a series of recipes in 1910, his name became synonymous with the word ‘cookbook’. There is an internationally recognized three-day Festival of Cycladic Gastronomy held annually in his honor.
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find Sifniot food culture is rooted in the soil, more specifically the heat-resistant red clay used for the island’s pottery; a tradition dating back to 3000 BC. Local staples are slowly cooked in earthenware dishes, such as revithada, a chickpea stew typically eaten after church on Sundays.
Sifnos offers everything from family-run tavernas to high-concept restaurants. Limanaki Fish Tavern overlooks the jetty in the port of Faros. The fishing boat-to-table eatery is owned by George Kakakis, who leaves at 5:30 a.m. every day to return with the freshest catch. Try the sizzling squid or the signature lobster pasta. Food travelers should seek out Cantina (cantinasifnos.gr). Don’t let the rustic setting in a remote cove fool you – this restaurant is state of the art. Molecular biologist-turned-chef Giorgos Samoilis advocates a zero-waste, sustainable ethos.
Base yourself at Verina Astra (verinahotelsifnos.com), an earth-toned oasis with 16 sea-facing rooms that blend harmoniously with the golden terraced meadows and blissful infinity pool. It is a short walk to the elegant windmill village of Artemonas, which charms visitors with its picturesque lanes and bougainvillea-framed doors.
The small island is criss-crossed with a 100 km network of hiking trails etched into the landscape. Walk from your doorstep at Verina Astra to the medieval citadel of Kastro. A path with a wildflower leads to the Church of Seven Martyrs, located on the promontory surrounded by emerald green waters, where bathers swim naked like nymphs. There may be more than 230 churches around the island, but this is the one that belongs on a postcard.
Ermoupoli on Syros. Photo: iStock
When your ferry pulls into Ermoupoli, you could mistake the sparkling harbor for the Italian Riviera. If you’re expecting a sleepy Greek backwater, you’ll be surprised to find the capital Syros looks more Venetian than Greek – pastel-hued neoclassical palazzos, marble-paved squares and the Apollon Theatre; A 19th-century opera house modeled after Milan’s iconic La Scala.
The architectural grandeur points to Syros’ past as an important trading center, once richer than Athens. Ermoupoli ‘The city of Hermes’ (named after the Greek god of trade) is distinctly cosmopolitan. Miaouli Square is full of palm trees and open-air cafes. Join intellectual conversations over coffee at art gallery cafe Plastico (plastico.gallery), and buy artisanal ceramics at Chimera Craft (chimeracraft.gr). You’re in for a sweet treat at Korres (korres-syros.gr/), which sells the much-loved loukoumi, similar to Turkish Delight, but with a hint of salt from the local water. Stock up on the honey-slathered nougat sandwiched between thin wafers.
Wander past the heavily frescoed Orthodox St Nicholas Church, where the sound of the choir spills out into the stately streets of Vaporia, known as Little Venice. The neighborhood is surrounded by wealthy sea captains’ houses perched on the rocks.
Syros has flourished into “an island of culture”, according to hotelier and novelist Oana Aristide, who recently opened a 9-suite Hotel Aristide in Vaporia. The meticulously restored neoclassical mansion is a welcome addition to the creative scene. Esthetes will delight in the design-led accommodation adorned with Doric columns and slabs of marble, objets d’art and walls adorned with figurative paintings. The dedicated gallery regularly presents works by artists in the residency program.
Aristide’s rooftop restaurants are one of the tastiest in Greece. Relax with a glass of wine from Syros’ pioneering Ousyra winery, which specializes in rare Cycladic varietals. Then sit back and enjoy some culture by the sea.
The author has been a guest of Verina Astra, Hotel Aristide, Polco Sailing and Cycladic Spaces (www.Cycladicspaces.com).