The island of Santorini has the most gorgeous scenery, views, sunsets, and overall natural beauty of any island in the Cyclades. Yes, it’s stunning, and its sister island of Mykonos is a close second, although Mykonos has developed a reputation as more of a hard-partying, fashion-conscious destination.
Both islands are absolutely overrun with tourists. Some two million people flock to Santorini each year, which is an incredible number considering that only 15,000 people live on the island. 90% of Santorini’s economy is based on tourism. While the numbers for Mykonos are a bit lower it still has an absurd ratio of tourists to residents each year, and much like with Santorini, its economy has become completely dependent on tourism.
In season, these two islands are saturated with people - it’s wall-to-wall and shoulder-to-shoulder. And good luck getting that iconic photo you saw on Instagram of the blue domes and white houses that adorn Santorini . . . not only would you be fighting the crowds for those shots – and bumping into people shooting selfies left and right - but most of those famous vistas are not even accessible for most of us. You must either climb gates and trespass or stay at a €4,500-€5,000 per night villa to capture those iconic scenes. That’s a lot of money to spend for the hope of Instagram fame. . . no thank you.
But mostly, it’s just a very sad situation for the actual residents of Santorini and Mykonos. What used to be their home has essentially vanished. I’m sure the soul or the true essence of the island remains (somewhere) but pretty much everything else has been hijacked by the outlandish number of tourists that literally invade the islands each year. It’s heartbreaking.
There is an alternative . . . and one we wholeheartedly endorse . . . and that’s the island of Naxos. Along with being the childhood home of Zeus, Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades islands, and is relatively unknown, at least compared to many of the other Greek Islands. And, if you must see Santorini and Mykonos, they are both easy, one-hour ferry rides away, making for a convenient day trip or one-night stay.
So, enough of the comparisons. Let’s move on and focus solely on Naxos. The island is gorgeous - with a beautiful natural landscape filled with imposing mountains, stunning green valleys, and of course, beautiful beaches. Naxos is the greenest of all the Cyclades and the most fertile. It's a self-sufficient island – it produces its own food which it exports to the rest of Greece and abroad. Naxos is famous for its cheese from the thousands of goats and sheep that are raised on the island. It is also known for its excellent potatoes, olives, fruits, honey, wine, meat, and the famous liqueur of Naxos known as Kitron.
We arrived in Naxos after a 4-hour ferry ride from Crete. As the ferry neared the port and the approaching island loomed into view, we were greeted by Naxos’ most famous landmark - The Portara of Naxos (or the Great Door) - a massive marble doorway that stands proudly as the jewel of Naxos. It is a huge portal which stands at 20 feet high and 12 feet wide and consists of separate monoliths that each weigh about 20 tons. It was to be the entrance to the temple of Apollo, which was started in 530 BC and never completed.
It’s such an appropriate first glimpse of this island . . . an open door. It sets the tone for what you can expect while in Naxos - a very open, welcoming, and kind reception from the residents of this special place. The people here are fantastic - so engaging, generous, and kind. And, unlike in Santorini or Mykonos, the town is not at all overrun with tourists taking selfies or crowding and bumping trying to position themselves for that special glamour shot.
And, as we walk the streets of Naxos, we pass apartments and houses where people live year-round, and we hear a lot more Greek than English, which is not how it is on the more exotic neighboring islands. Naxos is authentically Greek and for us that’s refreshing. It makes it easy to engage with and embrace the culture of the island, and for us that’s what travel is all about.
Something else you’ll notice right away in Naxos . . . there are no cruise ships. In Santorini and Mykonos, they can have as many as 8,000-15,000 tourists a day - just from cruise ships! It’s difficult for me to imagine how any place can maintain its beauty and charm with those kinds of numbers.
The ever-winding streets with their artfully painted pathways and beautiful Cycladic and Venetian architecture are a joy to explore, and there is always a locally owned retail shop or restaurant just waiting to greet us around the next curve. You can easily wander and enjoy these meandering alleyways for hours. The very narrow alleys twist and turn in such a way that it’s quite easy to find yourself walking in a circle . . . and that is simply part of the dance as you move through these beautiful streets. The roads were intentionally designed to be a bit confusing and circular. As the story goes, it was quite helpful during the days when pirates would come to loot and plunder the village. The residents of Naxos had time to escape while the pirates got lost and were literally running around in circles.
Carla and I have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Naxos. Our favorite gathering spot, and one that is enjoyed by many, is the Portara, where people gather for the evening sunset. While certainly not overcrowded, it is still a lively setting with folks milling about and enjoying each other’s company as the sun makes its way towards the horizon. There are often musicians performing and the atmosphere is one of community, conversation, and fun. We have enjoyed several nice connections with folks from Germany, Columbia, Australia, and Spain at this delightful gathering spot. It’s perhaps what I find most enjoyable about traveling . . . for all the beautiful and amazing places we see, it’s the beauty of the people we meet that is most heartening and inspiring.
So, if you’re looking for an unpretentious island vacation, look no further than Naxos. It’s one of the true gems of the Greek isles. Will it ultimately be our landing spot? It certainly offers a lot, and we have loved the island, the people, and really everything about it. The only drawback for us . . . is me. I tend to get seasick quite easily, and because ferries are the best way to visit the other islands within the Cyclades, I might end up spending a lot of my time waving goodbye to Carla as she sails off to visit them. And that’s not my idea of a good time!
Still, I love Naxos and both Carla and I would recommend it in a heartbeat - it has beautiful mountains, a gorgeous, charming, and fun town, beautiful beaches, far fewer tourists than many of the other islands, and it just exudes a laid-back vibe– which is ultimately what we want if we’re spending time on a Greek island.
That wild, over-the-top fantasy in your mind of life on a Greek island . . . it’s real, very real. Come visit Naxos and enjoy.