Three underrated Greek islands without the crowds
The island of Santorini – renowned for its whitewashed villages dotted with blue-domed churches – was created by a cataclysmic event. About 3,500 years ago there was an eruption so violent it blew off the top of the volcano, forging a sunken caldera.
Nowadays, another seismic shift is impacting this glitzy Greek island with an explosion of over 2 million tourists every year. The glamorous village of Oia, jewel in Santorini’s crown, tumbles down the cliffside against a backdrop of endless Aegean blue. One day into my visit, I was photobombed by beauties in flowing dresses as they climbed rooftops, dodged my way through multiple marriage proposals, and enjoyed souvlaki at a restaurant with such eye-popping prices. than sight.
The golden hour has sounded. Panicked crowds jostled to witness the legendary sunset. Sardinian in the ruins of a 15th century Byzantine castle, I watched the fiery red sun slowly dip below the horizon. It was such a beautiful sight that I almost fell for the Santorini fantasy. Seconds later, I was nudged in the face by an influencer.
With over 200 inhabited islands in Greece, surely there is another place that deserves its time in the sun? Avoid the crowds of Santorini by visiting three of its lesser-known neighbors in the Cyclades island chain.
Sarakiniko on Milos. Photo: Alamy
The crescent-shaped volcanic paradise of Milos has been dubbed the next “it-island.” Change will come as fast as the northern Meltemi winds, but luckily you haven’t missed the boat.
Milos’ spectacular coastline is what sets it apart, with over 70 beaches. The white, lunar landscape of Milos’ most popular beach, Sarakiniko, has been sculpted by wind and sea for eons. Swimmers in colorful bikinis speckle the surface like sprinkles on a meringue, while cliff jumpers 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 is at the helm of Polco Sailing’s (polco-sailing.com) fleet of catamarans and sailboats that take groups or private charters on beach routes. The only way to access all of the best bathing spots is by boat, including the coves of Kleftiko, an old pirate haunt – 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 fame is the statue of Venus de Milo, which now resides in the Louvre in Paris. The masterpiece was discovered by a farmer in 1820 near an ancient amphitheater, a stone’s throw from the island’s most picturesque fishing village, Klima. A row of brightly painted two-storey fisherman’s houses, called syrmata, lines the shore. Most huts remain unchanged, but some have been converted into Airbnbs.
All snorkeling adventures work up an appetite. Restaurant Medusa (medusamilos.gr) sits above the quiet fishing village of Madrakia. If you see octopuses strung along the windswept waterfront, you’ve found the right place. Savor a swordfish souvlaki with a lemon sauce, drizzled with ouzo.
End the day exploring the cobbled streets of Plaka, the hilltop capital. Grab a table at the Utopia Cafe terrace at sunset to enjoy stunning views of the Gulf of Milos with a cocktail in hand. Yamas!
The medieval citadel of Kastro. Photo: iStock
The gourmet Greek island of Sifnos has all the ingredients for an idyllic Greek getaway to be savored at a deliciously slow pace. As soon as 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 epicurean paradise to come.
Sifnos’ culinary reputation is largely due to it being the birthplace of Greece’s first celebrity chef, Nikolaos Tselementes. After publishing a series of recipes in 1910, his name became synonymous with the word “cookbook.” A three-day festival of Cycladic gastronomy of international renown is organized every year in his honor.
Dig a little deeper, you’ll realize that the Sifniot food culture is rooted in the ground, specifically in the heat-resistant red clay used for the island’s pottery; a tradition that dates 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 tavernas to top restaurants. Limanaki Fish Tavern overlooks the pier in Faros Port. The tableside fishing boat restaurant is owned by George Kakakis, who departs at 5:30 a.m. each day to return with the freshest catch. Try the sizzling squid or the signature lobster pasta. Foodie travelers should look for Cantina (cantinasifnos.gr). Don’t let the rustic setting of a secluded cove fool you – this restaurant is cutting edge. Giorgos Samoilis, molecular biologist turned chef, advocates a zero-waste and sustainable ethic.
Base yourself in Verina Astra (verinahotelsifnos.com), an earth-toned oasis with 16 sea-facing rooms that blend harmoniously with the terraced golden meadows and marvelous infinity pool. It is a short walk from the elegant town of Artemonas, topped by a windmill, which charms visitors with its picturesque alleyways and gates framed by bougainvillea.
The small island is criss-crossed by a network of 100 km of footpaths carved into the landscape. Hike from your doorstep in Verina Astra to the medieval citadel of Kastro. A path lined with wildflowers leads to the Church of the Seven Martyrs, perched on the promontory surrounded by emerald waters, where bathers swim naked like nymphs. There may be over 230 churches scattered around the island, but this is the one that belongs in a postcard.
Ermoupoli on Syros. Photo: iStock
When your ferry arrives in Ermoupoli, you might mistake the sparkling harbor for the Italian Riviera. If you’re expecting a sleepy Greek backwater, you’ll be surprised how the capital of Syros feels more Venetian than Greek – pastel-hued neoclassical palaces, marble-paved squares and the Apollo Theatre; a 19th century opera inspired by the iconic La Scala in Milan.
The architectural grandeur alludes to Syros’ past as a major trading center, once wealthier than Athens. Ermoupoli “The city of Hermes” (named after the Greek god of commerce) is resolutely cosmopolitan. Place Miaouli is lined with palm trees and outdoor cafes. Join intellectual conversations over coffee at the Plastico art gallery cafe (plastico.gallery), and shop for handcrafted ceramics at Chimera Craft (chimeracraft.gr). You will enjoy yourself at Korres (korres-syros.gr/), which sells the much-loved loukoumi, similar to Turkish delight but with a hint of local water salinity. Stock up on honey nougat, sandwiched between thin wafers.
Stroll past the frescoed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, where the sound of the choir spills through the majestic streets of Vaporia, known as Little Venice. The neighborhood is lined with the houses of wealthy ship captains nestled on the rocks.
Syros has become “an island of culture”, according to hotelier and novelist Oana Aristide, who recently opened a 9-suite Aristide hotel in Vaporia. The carefully restored neoclassical mansion is a welcome addition to the creative scene. Aesthetes will delight in the designer accommodations embellished with Doric columns and marble slabs, art objects and walls festooned with figurative paintings. The dedicated gallery regularly hosts works by artists in residence.
Aristide’s rooftop restaurant is one of the classiest in Greece. Relax with a glass of wine from the pioneering Ousyra winery in Syros, specializing in rare Cycladic varieties. Then sit back and soak up the culture by the sea.
The writer was invited by Verina Astra, Hotel Aristide, Polco Sailing and Cycladic Spaces (www.cycladicspaces.com).