Syros: the Cyclades without the crowds

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When Greek islands are mentioned, Santorini sunsets and Mykonos alleyways instantly come to mind – an exalted portrait of summer perfection. But for a slice of Greek bliss without the crowds, your best bet lies in Syros, the administrative capital of the Cyclades group and one of its smallest islands.

From the moment the ferry reaches the port, Syros reveals its resplendent pastel-hued villas cascading down the Ermoupoli hill and glistening in the Aegean sun. With a rich history and culture influenced by past rulers and boasting two towns – one Orthodox, the other Catholic – the sophisticated landscape of Syros offers many surprises.

The sun sets over Syros' port and the pastel-hued villas on Ermoupoli hill © Milan Gonda / ShutterstockThe sun sets over Syros’ port and the pastel-hued villas on Ermoupoli hill © Milan Gonda / Shutterstock

Elegant Ermoupoli

Founded as an extension to the already existing Ano Syros settlement, Ermoupoli (or Hermoupolis) came into existence during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s with the arrival of a wave of refugees from other Greek islands such as Chios, Psara and Crete. The new dwellers transformed the town into a major trading centre connecting the east to the west, contributing with their skills to the cultural boom that followed. Schools, printing presses and museums rapidly emerged.

Thanks to the rise of the bourgeoisie and flourishing arts, the ‘City of Hermes’ (fittingly named after the Greek god of trade) grew its amphitheatrically set layout with neoclassical buildings, crayon-like mansions and striking churches. The monumental Town Hall on cafe-dotted Plateia Miaouli, the Apollo Theatre and the blue-domed Agios Nikolaos Church stand out as its most iconic sights.

The blue-domed Agios Nikolaos Church in Ermoupoli seen from Asteria Beach © Monica Suma / Lonely PlanetThe blue-domed Agios Nikolaos Church in Ermoupoli seen from Asteria Beach © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

Medieval Ano Syros

Ano Syros is the original settlement of Syros, stretching along the Ermoupoli hill and crowned by the Agios Georgios Cathedral. Built by the Venetians in the 13th century as a fortified citadel with narrow streets, marble steps and a circular order, Ano Syros is a maze of alleys to get delightfully lost in. All around, the friendliest felines will pose for you and steal the show (there’s even a dedicated NGO catering to the roaming cats of Syros).

Reminiscent of the French rule, when the Catholic Greeks were under protection here against invading pirates and Turks, the culture and dialect of this district are part of the discovery amongst the whitewashed houses. Traditional Greek music aficionados should visit the Markos Vamvakaris Museum, celebrating a famous rembetika (Greek blues) musician born here. For the best sunset shots head to the summit, where panoramic views of Syros and the neighbouring islands seduce further.

Panoramic views of Syros island and the azure Aegean Sea from Ano Syros © Monica Suma / Lonely PlanetPanoramic views of Syros island and the azure Aegean Sea from Ano Syros © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

Beach time

Despite its relatively small size, the island boasts several sandy, unspoiled beaches, which is not always a given in Greece. Galissas Beach is perhaps the best one, its crystal blue waters nestled in a sheltered cove on the western coast of Syros. After taking a dip (the water stays warm until October), refuel with scrumptious homemade Greek food at aVentoura right on the beach.

Kini Beach is another great option – widespread, with an array of beachfront properties and arguably the island’s top restaurant. Finikas Beach is the second-largest stretch of sand on the island, also a serious contender. But for a distinct experience head to Asteria Beach in Ermoupoli, which comes with no sand (rather, an uninspiring concrete deck). Instead, you’re in for the best belvedere in all of Syros, overlooking the Agios Nikolaos Church and wealthy sea captains’ houses perched on rocks in the Vaporia district. Asteria Beach Bar sits along the water’s edge right next to the beach, the perfect spot to bask in the sun and relax.

A stroll through the narrow marble-paved streets of Ermoupoli © Monica Suma / Lonely PlanetA stroll through the narrow marble-paved streets of Ermoupoli © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

The Aegean cuisine

When it comes to food, Syros doesn’t disappoint – the gastronomic temptation goes on from morning till midnight. With a plethora of restaurants and traditional Greek tavernas, prepare to have some of the best meals in the Cyclades. The island entices with a bit of everything: fish comes fresh and plentiful, while delicious gyros and souvlakis are ever-present. For an exquisite meal of mouth-watering seafood and juicy salads while overlooking the sea, swanky Allou Yialou on Kini Beach is the best place to go.

Syros is also a culinary destination thanks to its speciality foods. Similar to the Turkish delight that was brought over in the 19th century, Syros’ loukoumi (prepared from water, starch and sugar only) is famous thanks to the local consistency of the water; it’s still laboriously mixed by hand and boiled in copper cauldrons. There are many wild herbs that grow locally – such as fennel, thyme and sage – so fennel pie is another speciality to try; it’s best had at Archontariki. Don’t leave Syros without a sip of tsipouro, the strong raki-like spirit made from pomace (leftovers from the wine press).

The neoclassical 19th-century Town Hall on Ermoupoli's Plateia Miaouli © Monica Suma / Lonely PlanetThe neoclassical 19th-century Town Hall on Ermoupoli’s Plateia Miaouli © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

Local Cycladic culture

While the relaxing beaches and quaint villages are most enjoyable during the summer, Syros thrives on culture year-round. A Cycladic pioneer for its artistic contributions and currently undergoing a creative revival, the island has much more to offer than the sun-and-sand formula.

Built in the 19th century as a smaller version of the famed La Scala in Milan, the Apollo Theatre is one of Syros’ most important landmarks and symbol of cultural prosperity, where stunning performances take place. Every year, the theatre hosts a series of events including Animasyros, a festival of animation, as well as the Festival of the Aegean, a superb classical music line-up.

The elegant shipowners’ mansions of Vapouria district in Ermoupoli © Monica Suma / Lonely PlanetThe elegant shipowners’ mansions of Vaporia district in Ermoupoli © Monica Suma / Lonely Planet

Make it happen

Unlike most other Cyclades islands, Syros is operational year-round; it’s also more affordable than big-hitter destinations like Santorini and Mykonos. However, weather-wise, summer is still the best time to visit, even more so September. From October on, it gets windier.

To get to Syros, catch one of the daily ferries from Piraeus, the main port of Athens. It’s a three- to four-hour boat ride, and you can also take a car on the ferry. Syros is also well connected by ferry with many other islands in the Aegean Sea; Mykonos, Tinos and Paros are only an hour away.

With an excellent location next to the beach, bougainvillea-brightened Ventoura Studios & Apartaments in Galissas are most appropriate for a comfortable yet secluded stay (Jacuzzi and sauna included).

Monica Suma travelled to Syros with support from Discover Syros. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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