Things to Do in Cyclades Islands
The volcanic eruption of Thira that put an end to the thriving Minoan civilization was so cataclysmic, it may have spawned the legend of Atlantis.
The explosion occurred around 3600 years ago, scooping out the once-circular island’s center and west coast, and creating the sea-filled caldera and signature sheer cliffs where Santorini’s townships teeter today. Since then, there have been perhaps a dozen major eruptions.
The volcano is quiet today, though the nearby island of Nea Kameni in the center of the caldera still emits puffs of steam. It’s thanks to the caldera that towns like Oia boast such stunning sunsets, providing a low-lying, obstruction-free observation point as the sun sinks into the sea.
If you came to Santorini for the sunsets, the town of Oia is where you want to be when the sun sinks towards the horizon to such glorious effect.
Perched on the steep edge of the caldera, with open views of the sea, the village is quieter than the island’s main town, Fira, at least outside sunset hours.
A string of tavernas turn their faces to the caldera for those views, and it’s fun exploring the town’s tiny backstreets and rocky cliff face, where homes have been carved from the volcanic rock.
There’s some seriously chic boutique accommodations in Oia, complete with infinity pools and spas. The lucky people staying on for the evening dine in Oia’s gourmet restaurants, perched on terraces to catch the best views. Follow the 300 steps leading from the top of the caldera and you reach the fishing port of Ammoudi. Boats sail from here to the nearby island of Thirassia.
Archaeological buffs and lovers of legends mustn’t miss the trip to the sacred island of Delos. On Delos, the archaeological jewel of the Cyclades, you can see firsthand where the ancients lived and clamber over the ruins they left behind. Held sacred as the mythological birthplace of Apollo, Delos was at the heart of the ancient world as an important religious and commercial center, reaching its zenith in the Hellenic period around the 5th century BC.
The huge site sprawls along the island’s west coast, from the stadium in the north to the old trading warehouses to the south. Standouts include the Sanctuary of Apollo temples and the Terrace of the Lions. The remains of private houses surround the semicircular Theatre, and the site includes several agoras, monuments, sanctuaries and temples. You can see finds from the excavations at the site museum, including the original lions from the much-photographed Terrace of the Lions.
Most of Santorini’s pocket-sized beaches are made of dark volcanic sand and pebbles set against black, austere cliffs, but perhaps its most unusual beach is near the Minoan ruins at Akrotíri on the south coast. Aptly named Red Beach (‘Kokkini Ammos’ in Greek) for its blood-red sand and gently crumbling burnt-umber cliffs, the crescent of beach forms a bizarre Martian landscape of red and black lava boulders scattered over grainy red and black sand. Rocks thrown up by ancient volcanic activity lurk just offshore in the calm bay, forming perfect platforms for sun worshippers, and the crystal-clear waters are paradise for snorkelers.
Open-topped wooden boats, known as kaiks, trundle backwards and forwards between Red Beach and Akrotíri disgorging a constant stream of visitors.
Little Venice is a tiny quarter of trendy boutiques, churches and whitewashed fishermen’s houses lining the seafront in Mykonos’ Old Town. Flowering bougainvillea adds a touch of crimson to the bright white walls, and wooden balconies painted in trademark Grecian colors of blue and rust hang over the narrow streets.
Just south of the Old Jetty at the entrance to Little Venice, stands the rocklike Church of Panagia Paraportiani, while the town’s iconic row of hilltop windmills overlook the quarter. Come to Little Venice at dusk to capture postcard shots of a Mykonos sunset, and stay on into the evening at a waterfront taverna.
Centered around a ruggedly beautiful volcanic crater, the small island of Nea Kameni offers a dramatic photo opportunity, with its dark cliffs sculpted from lava rock and natural thermal waters tinted orange by the mineral-rich seabed. Floating off the coast of Santorini Island, Nea (New) Kameni and neighboring Palea (Old) Kameni lie at the heart of the mostly-submerged Santorini caldera, and are Greece’s newest volcanic islands - Nea Kameni dates back just 425 years.
Reachable only by boat, Nea Kameni makes a popular choice for cruises from Santorini Island, with visitors free to explore the unique volcanic landscape and bathe in the natural hot springs, legendary for their healing and rejuvenating minerals.
In Ancient Greek mythology, the tiny Cycladean island of Delos was the birthplace of Apollo and his twin sister Artemis; in thanks for the safe delivery their mother vowed to make the island the richest community in Greece. And so it came to pass.
Delos was first colonized in around 1100 BC as a sanctuary to Apollo. By 456 BC the island was under Macedonian control and many of the surviving monuments of this vast, open-air museum date from that era, as its community of 25,000 people became a powerful trading port in the eastern Mediterranean. However, Delos lost its strategic importance in the first century BC and was gradually abandoned.
Excavations began there in 1873 and one of the wonders of the ancient world was unearthed from the UNESCO-listed site covering 235 acres (95 hectares) — only 62 acres (25 hectares) have been uncovered so far — of temples, sanctuaries, villas, palaces, amphitheaters and baths.
More Things to Do in Cyclades Islands
In 1967, archaeologists uncovered the spectacularly well-preserved remains of an ancient Bronze Age Minoan village at Ancient Akrotiri, destroyed by a mighty volcanic eruption in around 1650 BC.
The most famous Minoan site outside Crete, the sandstone remains of Akrotiri’s buildings reach several stories. Their door and window lintels are spookily intact, along with stone walls and porticoes, courtyards and rooms. As at Pompeii, the buildings were preserved by the volcanic ash. Fortunately, unlike Pompeii, it appears that the villagers were safely evacuated, as no skeletons have been unearthed during the excavation. The excavation site has been closed for several years, though restoration is continuing. To get an idea of what lies beneath, visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, where gorgeous frescos of boats, fishers, wildlife and everyday people from several millennia ago are displayed. You can also see personal artifacts like pottery and furniture.
Known world-over for its cosmopolitan lifestyle and booming nightlife, Mykonos is a favorite amongst visitors on the Greece leg of their Mediterranean tour. With a load of wonderful beaches to park at, Mykonos is also filled with museums and other tokens of cultural life. The town itself is a wonderful maze of charming little streets and traditional buildings full of shops, cafes and restaurants. Feel free to get lost when exploring Mykonos.
Now with two ports, one of which is the relatively new, but smaller marina, all sorts of cruise liners, yachts and other boats swarm the island of Mykonos - making it a common ferry destination from places like Rafina or Piraeua, where you can catch a ride daily. Mykonos also has an international airport only a few miles away from the town itself, offering flights from a number of major European destinations.
Ano Mera is the second-largest settlement on Mykonos, and as far from the island’s party-crazy reputation it is possible to get. A whitewashed cluster northeast of Mykonos Town (also called Chora), life rumbles on here as it has done for centuries. There’s a daily fresh produce market in the village square and Ano Mera is popular with local families for leisurely Sunday brunches in traditional tavernas. The village’s chief claim to fame is the 16th-century whitewashed monastery of Panagia Tourliani and its church, which is fronted by an intricate marble bell tower and ornate triple bells. Founded in 1542 by monks from the neighboring island of Paros and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the monastery’s Byzantine styling is apparent in its red dome and its layout around a fountain-filled courtyard.
The little island of Thirassia has a population of only 200 or so, making it the perfect spot for a relaxing lunch at a cliff-top taverna, with views over to Santorini. The island used to be part of Santorini’s mainland, until the violent volcanic eruption of 1650 BC set it free.
Sail over from Santorini to escape the crowds on Thirassia’s lovely beaches, and bring a traveler’s dictionary as not many people here speak English. Those tavernas are clustered in the village of Manolas, near the ferry stop, and the tranquil island also has scattered blue-domed churches, ancient monasteries and stone villages.
The monastery of Mount Profitis Ilias is perched on the mountain of the same name, the highest point on Santorini at 1,853 ft (565 m) above the Aegean Sea in the south of the island. Built in the early 18th century out of sizeable stone and resembling a fortress, the monastery was dedicated to the prophet Elijah and initially enjoyed great wealth. It once also functioned as a secret school of Greek culture during the dark days of Turkish occupation of the country, but its power began to decline in 1860 and it was badly damaged by the earthquake in 1956. Today Profitis Ilias is successful once more; its three domed church has become a museum hosting an exceptional and significant collection of Greek Orthodox icons, early, hand printed books and bibles, wrought-iron artwork, wooden carvings and elaborately embroidered clerics’ robes. The resident monks put on displays of traditional carpentry, shoemaking, local cooking and wine making as well.
The holiday island of Paros is the place for chilling out and napping on the beach, soaking up the relaxed Aegean vibe. Away from the beaches, terraced hills climb up to the mountainous interior, where the island’s famous pure white marble is quarried. The Paros marble has been famous for millennia, used by the ancient Greek genius who carved the beautiful Venus de Milo and by the sculptors who adorned Napoleon’s tomb. Your main base on the island is the port of Parikia, at the head of the bay on the northwest coast. There’s a labyrinthine old town to explore, a 13th-century Venetian fort and taverna-thronged waterfront for sunset drinks and seafood meals. The Panagia Ekatontapyliani church is a highlight of the entire Cyclades, with an ornate interior dating from the year 326. Make sure to visit the Byzantine Museum while you’re in the church grounds, filled with icons and other artifacts from the early Christian era.
After a day relaxing on the sand or jet-skiing through the water, Paradise Beach is where holiday makers come to party when the sun goes down. During the day, you can rent an umbrella and beach lounge, and make the most of the beach’s bar service. At night, there are a couple of restaurants in town, but it’s the pumping music played by beach club DJs that draws the mostly young crowds. Paradise Beach is fine for the family during the day, but the scene turns loud and sexy after dark. Don’t come here to sleep! As well as the beach dance floor, there’s the famous Paradise Club all-night party megaclub, that’s been a favorite rave scene since 1993.
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