Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Cyclades Islands
The “Santorini volcano” may refer to two different peaks: the first, Thira, exploded around 1600 BC and ended the thriving Minoan civilization and may have spawned the legend of Atlantis. Millennia of eruptions formed the second “Santorini volcano”—the island of Nea Kameni, drawing visitors eager to hike to the rim of its active crater.
Perched on the steep edge of the caldera, looking out over the glittering Mediterranean, Oia (pronounced “ee-yuh”) is famed for its dreamy sunsets. Oia is also one of the most picturesque villages in Santorini, with its striking white buildings, blue-domed churches, and atmospheric cave houses burrowing into the volcanic rock.
Situated in Chora Mykonos (aka Mykonos Town), the waterfront quarter of Little Venice is one of the island’s top sunset-viewing spots. Rows of whitewashed old fishermen’s houses—now occupied by bars, shops, and restaurants—back onto the seafront, their brightly painted red and blue balconies jutting out over the water.
Santorini’s Red Beach is not your average white-sand beauty. Rather, it’s a narrow, pebbly stretch hemmed in by high scarlet cliffs and scattered with large volcanic rocks. Together with the sapphire blue waters of the Aegean Sea, these volcanic features create a striking natural color palette that draws photographers to its shores.
Santorini’s hot springs are on the tiny, uninhabited islet of Palea Kameni. Continuous volcanic activity underground maintains the springs’ temperature between 86ºF and 95ºF (30°C and 35°C). The sulfuric, orange-tinged spring waters that bubble up into a shallow cove off the islet’s coast are said to be curative for the skin and joints.
Tucked away on the south coast of Santorini, White Beach (Aspri Paralia) is sheltered by chalk-grey cliffs. This minuscule strand is actually composed of coarse black—not white—sand, and liberally peppered with grey and white pebbles as well as massive white volcanic boulders.
Centered around a rugged volcanic crater, the small island of Nea Kameni offers a dramatic landscape, with dark cliffs sculpted from lava rock and orange-tinged natural thermal waters. The island’s striking landscape and natural hot springs make it a popular destination for day cruises from Santorini.
The whitewashed windmills lined up on a hill overlooking Mykonos Town are a signature island sight. Capped with wood and straw, the 3-story conical windmills were built in the 16th century to mill flour. Out of the 16 preserved windmills on the island, seven are found in the area of Kato Mili overlooking the Chora Mykonos harbor.
The flower-bedecked Church of Panagia Paraportiani is a highlight of your walk through Mykonos’ picture-perfect Little Venice. Built between the 14th and 17th centuries, the island’s most photographed church is comprised of five whitewashed chapels across two floors that once guarded the entrance to the town’s castle.
Akrotiri came to an abrupt end in approximately 1613 BC with a catastrophic volcanic eruption that buried the Bronze Age settlement in a carpet of ash. Beginning in 1967, excavations of the Minoan town revealed buildings, drainage systems, and pottery, but no human remains or gold valuables, indicating locals had time to flee before disaster hit.
More Things to Do in Cyclades Islands
The cruise port of Mykonos offers easy access to both the town itself, called Chora, as well as the rest of the island and its sun-drenched beaches. Take time to get a little lost in the town’s maze of charming streets and traditional buildings full of shops, cafés, and restaurants before heading back to the ship or hotel.
Pyrgos(Pyrgos Kallistis) is a picturesque hillside village set on a volcanic crater at the highest point of the Greece’s Santorini, offering panoramic views of the rest of the island. At the top of the village sit the ruins of Kasteli Castle, remnants of the former capitol of the island before it was moved to Fira (where it remains today.)
Pyrgos is as beautiful as the rest of the island, but also has a special historic charm — with traditional white houses, Byzantine churches, Cycladic architecture, and small winding cobblestone lanes and paths. Some of the churches has beautiful old frescoes visible on the walls. The area sees far fewer tourists than the rest of the island, so it keeps a peaceful atmosphere. Though the town has merely 700 inhabitants, there are tavernas and local restaurants. Visiting the village is a way to experience the traditionally preserved culture of the Greek islands.
With its long stretch of golden sand and steady coastal winds, Kalafatis Beach is not only one of Mykonos’ most beautiful beaches – it’s also earned a reputation as the island’s water sports hub. The beach is most renowned for its windsurfing, but other popular activities include jet skiing, water skiing, banana boating and wakeboarding.
For less adventurous beach-goers, Kalafatis also offers ample opportunities for swimming and snorkeling, as well as boat cruises around the sea caves of Dragonisi island. The beach itself is well equipped for families, with sunbeds and parasols for hire, beach volleyball nets, and a selection of cafés and restaurants nearby.
With its stark white tower perched atop the sea-cliffs of Cape Armenistis, and views stretching out over the ocean, the remote Armenistis Lighthouse (Faros Armenistis) feels a world away from the lively streets of nearby Mykonos Town. A striking reminder of Mykonos’ rich maritime heritage, the lighthouse dates back to 1891 and, despite standing at just 19-meters high, makes a dramatic sight, looking out across the strait towards Tinos island.
Today, the lighthouse is no longer in use and is closed to the public, but remains an impressive landmark and a popular spot from which to watch the sunset. The lighthouse’s original 19th-century lantern has been restored and is now on display in the Aegean Maritime Museum in Mykonos Town.
By day, Paradise Beach is a water sports hot spot, with swimsuit-clad revelers enjoying banana boat rides, Jet Ski jaunts, and scuba diving excursions. Come late afternoon, its legendary party scene gets going as fun-seekers flock to the beach bars and clubs for music, dancing, drinking, and fun.
The monastery of Mount Profitis Ilias (Moni Profitou Iliou) 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 monastery courtyard and gardens are a popular spot to watch Santorini’s fabled sunsets and it is possible to see right to the hilltop village of Oia from the top of Profitis Ilias. Panoramas also take in the patchwork of plains and vineyards sit in the mountain’s lee, sheltering the young vines from hot winds blowing in from North Africa.
Most visitors come to Ano Mera, in the interior of Mykonos, to see the Byzantine Panagia Tourliani Monastery, fronted by an ornate bell tower with triple bells. Its interior is perhaps even more impressive, with carved marble and wood, Byzantine frescoes, crystal chandeliers, a gilded pulpit, and a wooden altar screen with scenes from the New Testament.
Tucked away from the buzzing nightlife of Mykonos Town, Ornos Beach is draped around a sheltered bay whose calm water makes it a popular family swimming spot. A generous selection of seafront restaurants, tavernas, and resorts offer plenty of amenities for a day in the sun or a longer stay on the island’s quieter side.
Discover archaeological ruins and ancient Greek history during a trip to Delos, an island in the Cyclades, near Mykonos. Known as the mythological birthplace of Apollo, Delos was an important religious and cultural center in Ancient Greece. Visit to see the ruins, including a theater, temples, monuments, private homes, and markets.
Long a ferry hub for trips throughout the Greek Islands, Paros has quietly become a second Mykonos without the crowds and the price tag. Away from its sun-kissed beaches—popular for soaking up the Aegean sun—terraced hills climb up to the mountainous interior, where the island’s famous pure-white marble is quarried.
Before a violent volcanic eruption in 1650 BC, Thirassia was part of Santorini’s mainland and now the pretty islet lies just off its western coast. With small pretty beaches, blue-domed churches, ancient stone villages and a population of only about 200, the little island is a perfectly serene spot to visit.
Imagine a stretch of slate grey sands fringed by startling turquoise waters and hemmed in by sea cliffs, and you’ll understand why Perivolos is one of Santorini’s most popular beaches.
The island’s longest black sand beach is not only undeniably photogenic, but it’s a great spot for swimming and sunbathing, with cool calm waters, and thatched parasols and sunbeds lining the waterfront. Perivolos Beach is also notable for its lively atmosphere, with beach bars dotted along the seafront, volleyball nets set up along the sand and ample opportunities for water sports, including jet skiing and windsurfing.
Many tours of Santorini Island include a stop at Perivolos beach and visits are often combined with nearby Perissa beach. Active travelers can even hike or cycle the beach road between Perivolos and Perissa, a scenic 5km promenade that affords dazzling views along the coast.
Stretching for around 3 miles (5 kilometers), dark-sand Kamari Beach is sandwiched between the blue Aegean waters and the mountain peak of Mesa Vouno. With a bar- and restaurant-lined promenade behind it and lots of facilities nearby, it’s one of the best places to park yourself for a day of relaxation.
Winding through whitewashed villages and rugged Mediterranean landscapes, the clifftop Fira–Oia hike is one of Greece’s most beautiful walks. The trail links Fira (Santorini’s postcard-perfect capital) with Oia (a village known for its sunset views) and takes you along the rim of the sunken crater of the island’s dormant volcano.
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