I’m kicking off a series of travel guides to the Mediterranean islands with an introduction to my very favourite Greek island, Naxos. The largest island of the Cyclades chain, Naxos lies in the centre of the Aegean Sea and has popped up once or twice on Tripadvisor’s list of Top 10 Islands in the World.
WHAT’S THE VIBE?
Chilled out, understated and friendly, Naxos is easy like a Sunday morning. Known for having some of the best beaches in all of Greece, it’s a popular but low key family destination with a high proportion of devoted return visitors. There are miles of white sandy beach and turquoise seas but no brash resorts here, the lack of international flights keeps the masses away. It’s also as a hotspot for windsurfers. Whilst the Cyclades are famous for their barren landscapes and white cube architecture, Naxos is unique amongst them in that is relatively mountainous and green, and sports an old town with Venetian as well as Cycladic architecture, giving it a different feel to the other islands in the chain.
Naxos is large enough to provide plenty of activities and well-organised tourist infrastructure, but it’s not hard to get off the beaten path here. The beaten path here consists of a few beach towns down the south-west coast and the popular route inland to the mountain villages. Lacking blockbuster sites, Naxos didn’t figure on tourist itineraries for a long time.
Being somewhat more lush and fertile than its surrounding islands, Naxos has a strong tradition of agriculture and self-sufficiency. The landscape here feels ancient. This means that it doesn’t rely entirely on tourism, giving it a refreshingly authentic vibe even in high season. It also a good bet if you’re visiting in the winter as it retains a population year-round and doesn’t close down entirely. Its central position makes it an excellent base for island-hopping and is easily combined with one of the more popular islands like Santorini, Mykonos or Ios.
Although there are some bars and clubs in Naxos Chora and the beach towns, those looking for nightlife might be better off on nearby Paros.
The main town on the island is known as Naxos Chora (pronounced ‘hora’, it’s the Greek word for town). The Venetian Duchy of the Aegean – Marcus Sanudo – was based here from 1204-1537, when the city was a staging post for knights en route to Rhodes. The old town consists of the kastro at the top of the hill and the tumbledown Venetian bourgo – fortified settlement. Backstreets wind up to the fortified kastro on the top of the hill, dotted with jazz bars, white chapels, artist studios, and restaurants. Naxos Chora has a slightly dishevelled tumbledown feel compared to places like Rhodes Town which are kept immaculate for the cruise ship tourists. The harbourfront features the usual array of travel agents, tourist menus, ferry companies, souvenir sellers.
Think you can feel something special in the air here? You might just be right. Naxos’ most famous landmark is the Portara, a mysterious ancient door to nowhere on the islet of Palatia, which connected to the Chora by a man-made causeway. This is the view of the town you’ll see on most of the postcards.
The Portara was the doorway of a temple to Apollo, built by the tyrant Lygdamis 530BC and facing towards the sacred island of Delos. Lygdamis set out to make the temple even grander than some in Athens. But he was overthrown in 506BC and the temple was abandoned. It became a church under Venetian rule, and later the walls were torn down for their marble in the construction of the kastro. Only the doorway remains as it was too heavy to move.
Naxos is also linked with Dionysus, the wine-god of ancient Greece. The islet Palatia was where Theseus abandoned Ariadne, who went on to marry Dionysus– the islet also known as Bacchus in demotic Greek, and some believe the temple was in fact dedicated to Dionysus rather than Apollo.
It’s an unmissable tradition to take a stroll up to the Portara for sunset (so visit at sunrise if you want to avoid the crowds).
WHICH AREA TO STAY ON NAXOS
The old town of Naxos Chora has a limited number of cute rooms, from basic to boutique. But the widest range of accommodation is between the Chora and the beach section of the town, known as Agios Georgios. Newer but still whitewashed and just 5 minutes walk from the centre of town (and from the ferry dock), the tangle of streets behind Agios Georgios is awash with good value lodgings.
The bars close down fairly early in the evening and the action moves into town or to the clubs so no need to worry about noise. Hotels with pools are situated further along the beach or towards the back of town.
If you’re looking for more of a holiday vibe, the main resort towns are Prokopios and Aghia Anna, both just a short distance from Naxos Chora and accessible via a regular and cheap local bus.
If you’re staying in a hotel further out you may want your own transport.
FOOD AND DRINK
Its long agricultural tradition makes Naxos a great Greek island destination for food. It’s particularly known for its cheese as it has so much land suitable for grazing. And Naxian potatoes are famous throughout Greece. There are a couple of great little shops in the Chora for buying cheese and other specialities, herbs, spices, teas, and local ceramics.
Cheese-lovers be sure to try the arseniko, a hard cheese so pungent that it’s spicy (it comes in varying degrees of strength). The most famous cheese, though, is graviera naxou. This the Naxian version of gruyere and you’ll find it gracing plenty of salads here. The other traditional cheeses produced on Naxos are myzithra, xynomyzithra, and xynotyri.
Despite the association with Dionysus, wine on Naxos is mostly homemade. The only commercial winery is Promponas, you can buy their wines at their Chora harbourfront store.
The other must-try is the sweet lemony liqueur Kitron. This tipple has Protected Designation of Origin status, and although it looks similar to limoncello it’s not actually made from lemons but from the leaves of the kitron tree. If you’re passing by the village of Chalki you can visit the Vallindras Kitron Distillery to see how its made.
For something sweeter swing by local institution Waffle House for an ice-cream.
The standard of food in restaurants is generally good and much cheaper than on neighbouring Santorini, although standards can sometimes slip slightly in high season. Table wine is usually local, wine buffs may wish to sample before committing. Metaxi Mas and Scirocco are local favourites for taverna staples in Naxos Chora.
THE BEST BEACHES
The most photogenic white-sand and turquoise-sea beaches, and also the most organised – with sunbeds, cafes, and watersports – extend south from Chora in a string down the coast. These beach towns are small and family-friendly rather than brash beach resorts, and ideal for children as they are sheltered from the fierce northerly winds. The beaches get quieter as you head further away from the Chora.
Agios Georgios, the beach of Naxos Chora, has blue flag status. Although the sand is not as fine and white as the beaches further south, it’s a short walk from all the action and pretty good for a town beach. A sheltered bay with languid water, spectacular sunsets over neighbouring Paros, plenty of beach bars for your frappe/cocktail fix. Windsurfing is popular towards the southern end. In high season there’s a charge for the sunbeds, although you do get waiter service and some have lockers for your valuables, but there are plenty of free stretches of beach.
Agios Prokopios is known as one of the best beaches in Greece, if not the whole Mediterranean, for it’s 1.2km sweep of white sandy beach. There is a long stretch of sunbeds, with cafes and cocktail bars behind. The colours here are stunning. It’s just 5km – a short drive – from Naxos Chora. Head to the edges if you want a spot of sand to yourself.
Agia Anna is an extension of Prokopius, a 10-minute walk along the road. It’s a smaller beach and has a classy selection of restaurant and bars right on the beach.
Plaka is the next big beach along the coast and at 5km the longest beach on Naxos. Another with Blue Flag status, there is a long organised section but also plenty of dunes and empty beach. If Agia Anna and Prokopios are too busy for you in high season then Plaka is a good choice. The last section is popular with nudists.
Keep heading south and the beaches will get quieter. Hardcore nudists head south where sand dunes and rocks provide more privacy. You can catch a local bus as far as Pyrgaki and the nearby Hawaii Beach.
The beaches on the north are pebbly, difficult to reach and exposed to winds, so good for those looking for solitude. Apollonas, a cute fishing village, is the main destination in the north.
WHAT TO DO IN NAXOS
If you want to see the very best of Naxos.
- Culture Vultures. Check out the Venetian Museum in the kastro, which often has live music – jazz, classical, traditional bouzouki evenings, and Cine Astra which hosts open air film showings.
- Mountain Villages. Don’t miss the traditional mountain villages of the interior. Apiranthos, known as the ‘marble village’, is the most picturesque and has four museums. If you’re renting a car, drive through the villages of the interior and return along the northern coast. Pick up some hand-woven textiles straight from the source.
- Nature. The interior has some great hiking, head for the mountain villages. Climbing Mount Zas (Zeus) will give you views over the whole of the Cyclades and you can reach starting point by bus.
- Bus Tour. If you don’t want to rent wheels of any sort, there’s an organised tour which runs several different routes and takes in most of the highlights of Naxos. From €18, depending on length of route. Details at the main KTEL bus station along the harbourfront.
- History Lovers. Check out the ruins of the Temple of Demeter near the village of Sangri. Ancient history buffs may also want to seek out the Kouros of Apollonas, and the Archaeological Museum and Mitropoleos Museum in Naxos Chora.
- Watersports. Take advantage of the multitude of watersports on offer. If kitesurfing and windsurfing are a bit high octane for you, then on calm days SUP and kayaks are an option, as are scuba diving, snorkelling, fishing, and sailing trips. Head to the waterfront in Naxos Chora or check in with any tour agency on the island.
- Mini Island Hop. Naxos is a great base for day trips to other islands. Paros is possible by regular ferry (at least in high season when links are more frequent). Delos and Mykonos is a popular excursion. Personally, I think a trip to the Little Cyclades can’t be missed if you can have the time. Several yachts along the harbourfront offer sailing trips which include Koufonisia, where the colour of the water is even more stunning than Prokopios.
Naxos has an airport which is served by domestic flights only from Athens with Olympic Air. From the airport, it’s short taxi ride into town but most hotels and pensions offer free transfer.
Naxos is well connected by ferries. The large Blue Star car ferry to/from Athens Piraeus is the most reliable and frequent. It runs almost every day of the year and connects Naxos with Athens Piraeus, Syros, Paros, and alternating islands in the Cyclades.
Ferry schedules are liable to change regularly, I recommend checking on GTP even if you’re not booking in advance (only necessary for Naxos during August and other Greek public holidays).
Car, scooter and ATV rental is available at several agencies in town. Naxos is easy to explore by bus though; you can use it to explore the southern beaches or the interior villages, for just a couple of euros. The KTEL bus station and office is on harbourfront near the main ferry dock.
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