Ermoupoli – Syros, Greece
As you approach beautiful Ermoupoli from the sea it appears as a tumble of white and pastel-colored buildings tumbling down to the water with two prominent hills facing each other. Each is crowned with a church –the right-hand one that of the Orthodox Transfiguration of the Savior, the other the Catholic cathedral of medieval Ano Syros.
Such a beautiful first sight is especially fitting for a destination as special as this, an island which perfectly captures that elusive real Greece which so many seek and so seldom find. Among its many other treasures of many kinds it also boasts some truly famous sons despite its compact size which include Pherecydes, the ancient philosophy teacher of Pythagoras, and one of the entire nation’s most beloved musicians, Markos Vamvakaris.
Ermoupoli, the capital of the Cyclades, by Greek standards is new, established in the 1800s by islanders fleeing from persecution during the Greek War of Independence who quickly established a thriving, cultured and wealthy society which has left behind all kinds of wonderful sights. Among these are the gorgeous neoclassical mansions of its sea captains and rich shipping merchants, a magnificent theater, marble pathways and what must surely rank as one of the most beautiful city halls anywhere.
Up the hill is located Ano Syros, the old fortified former main town which existed long before Ermoupoli flourished. While today the sparkling Aegean is only full of fishing boats, yachts and ferries it was once the haunt of marauding Saracen pirates and it is for this reason Ano Syros sits behind its defensive walls and as far out of reach as possible. Here you will find a traffic-free maze of cobbled medieval streets dotted about with tiny stone staircases, traditional tavernas, white-washed buildings, treasure-filled churches and monasteries which collectively are far more enchanting than any description could possibly hint at.
Beyond Ermoupoli and its old hill-perched counterpart, Syros is also a delight, fringed with gorgeous beaches and tiny coves, some of which are only accessible on foot or by boat, and a collection of tiny mountain and fishing villages where time has stood still.
In short, this is Greece for those who want to get off the main tourist trail and see a traditional and history-rich island as they once all were before mass tourism arrived.
A Morning in Ermoupoli
Begin your Syros day by exploring the many highlights of beautiful Ermoupoli before heading up the hill to its medieval counterpart, Ano Syros, to see a very different kind of history and architecture.
While the principal draw card of many Greek towns and destinations is its ancient history or that of historical relics left behind by the Venetians and Turks, elegant Ermoupoli has a different type of allure and charm making it rather unique. Ermoupoli’s history is somewhat more recent although nonetheless fascinating and beautiful. During the struggles of the Greek War of Independence in the early 1800s, Syros saw the arrival of many Greeks fleeing from the turmoil and the oppression of the Turks. Those that arrived here created a town beneath the already existing one of Ano Syros, transforming it into a thriving trade center and port. Almost from the beginning this newly-established community quickly prospered, developing a society noted for its culture and arts and which constructed opulent mansions, beautiful squares, ornate churches, striking public buildings and an otherwise wonderful collection of beautiful architectural jewels.
One of the most striking features of this lovely town which exudes neoclassical romance are its marble-paved streets which perhaps, more than any other element, stand as a constant reminder of the prosperity which the once former refugees of war achieved here.
Often cited as the finest urban space of this Greek island group of which it is the capital, Plateia Miaoulis–the main square of the town -is a huge expanse of marble pavement complete with palm trees and its statue of the Greek admiral and politician Andreas Miaoulis, for which this majestic public space is named. Lined by cafes and surrounded on every side by the type of grand architectural buildings for which the town is famous, the square’s main jewel is the beautiful City Hallon its northern edge. Dating from 1889, this imposing giant is one of Greece’s largest town halls and although its colonnaded exterior is impressively striking its opulent interiors are equally so. Housing within the Archaeological Museum, visitors can enter the City Hall for free and see for themselves its black and white-tiled foyer and inner courtyards along with the paintings, sculptures and frescoes adorning the corridors and walls.
A little north of the main square can be found another one of the town’s magnificent landmarks –the Apollon Theater. Completed in 1864 and drawing inspiration from Milan’s La Scala opera house, this beautiful old theater stands as yet another testament to the cultural refinement and sophistication of the community founded by the fleeing refugees of war.
The Apollon’s use as a theater has known some interruptions, most notably during the occupation years of World War II when it was used as a cinema by Italian and German soldiers and the years after when war damage left it in need of renovation. Today the theater has been restored to its former glory and has a full calendar of opera, drama, classical music performances and cultural events.
Even if you are not lucky enough to take in a performance here you are free to have a look around the rich ruby and gilt color-themed interior to marvel at the four tiers of boxes and a huge ceiling fresco. Syros has an almost unbelievably large number of churches, unusually of both Catholic and Orthodox faiths which, even more unusually, have co-existed peacefully side by side. Ermoupoli is home to many of these with arguably each and every one worth a look. However, unless you intend to dedicate your entire day to churches it is impossible to cover them all although there are some must-sees on the list.
The Orthodox Agios Nikolaos Church, less than a three-minute walk from the Apollon Theater, stands as one of the town’s most distinctive landmarks with its pastel yellow walls, red roofs, blue dome and two elegant bell-towers of marble. Its alternative title of St. Nicholas of the Rich is derived from its benefactors –the wealthy merchants of the Vaporia neighborhood to which it belongs -who provided the funds for its construction which began in 1848. On the top five list of the country’s largest churches, St. Nicholas was completed in 1870 and its interior is a rich treasure trove of gilt detailing, beautiful frescoes, a marble pulpit and fine crystal chandeliers.
While St. Nicholas serves as the town’s principal church it is far from being its only one and many would argue that internally there are even more magnificent examples to be explored. One top contender for such an argument is the Assumption of the Virgin which also, confusingly, goes by the names of the Dormiton and Koimisis tis Theotokou. Located just back from the port, the Dormiton dates from 1828, making it the island’s second oldest church. Relatively unadorned from outside, stepping through the doors of this Orthodox building is like entering a world in which all seems to glitter and gleam. Almost everything you lay your eyes upon is decorated in some way –from the jade-green marble pillars to the ceiling frescoes and the gilded throne and pulpit to the carvings and icons. Of all that makes this church worth a visit it is its icon painting displayed in the porch which ranks as its most treasured jewel. Dating from the 16th century but only discovered in the 1980s, this is an early original work by Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the famous Spanish Renaissance painter more usually known as El Greco.
Another church which it would be impossible to leave out of any mention of Ermoupoli is the Transfiguration of the Savior.Like so many of the churches of the island which have alternative titles this one also goes by the name of the Church of Metamorphosis and the Resurrection of Christ and is the church you can see sitting atop the right hand hill of Deli as you enter the port. Exceptionally beautiful, this Orthodox church is a must-visit if only for the magnificent views it offers that stretch as far as the neighboring islands of Tinos and Mykonos. Also sporting a blue dome flanked by two bell-towers, this church dates from 1824 and is notable for its collection of relics which were brought from Psara and Chios by the town’s original refugees, one of which is the Bell of St. Nicholas.
If you continue your explorations from St. Nicholas of the Rich you will find yourself in the eastern neighborhood of Vaporia which,with its narrow streets and ornate arches, is often claimed to be the most beautiful of the town’s districts. Settled by Ermoupoli’s most wealthy when the town was created –typically the ship owners, sea captains and associated merchants -the neoclassical mansion houses here are a series of architectural splendors, many of them with direct views onto the sea and old crumbling stone stairways leading straight into the water. Featuring marble-supported balconies, grand doorways and frescoes, several of these former private homes have been transformed into hotels and holiday accommodations.
Morning Coffee in Ermoupoli
Normally, hunting down the gems in any destination when it comes to somewhere to stop and rest your legs mid-morning with a coffee can take a little effort. In beautiful Ermoupoli quite the opposite is true. Lovely tends to come as standard here and sometimes it can seem that the town is one big collection of charming choices.
One perfect example of this is the beautiful Jar which even by Ermoupoli standards is a little special. Located just a short walk east of the main square and tucked away down a marble-paved alley, this cafe and bar take the word charming and raise its definition by several notches. All is a vision of white here –the tables, the chairs, the cushioned sofa benches and the lacy drapes which hang overhead. Little splashes of color have been injected here and there by the little plant pots of cacti on each table or the blue door of the cafe, for example. The other main color is green and that comes in great supply because this gorgeous spot is so full of leafy vines and plants it is like a secret alley garden.
To ensure that every box for idyllic is ticked Jar also serves up excellent standard coffee, some say some of the best to be had on the entire island, with smoothies, milkshakes and fresh juices also on the menu.
Your next stop in your island day will be taking you to the old town –Ano Syros –and as this also comes with a seemingly endless supply of gorgeous cafes you might decide to make your way there to take your coffee break. Perched high on a hill, the constant bonus of visiting this medieval maze is the stunning views of Ermoupoli and the sea which it affords and Apanohoritissa allows you to enjoy that to the full. This glorious little venue has a beautiful terrace woven about with greenery, vines and pot plants for a garden feel while the warmth of the welcome at this traditional cafe tends to get mentioned repeatedly in reviews.
Offering real Greek coffee along with more international choices there are also cold refreshment options, some incredible loukoumi (the Greek version of Turkish Delight) and best of all a view which is jaw-dropping. This sweeps across the entire lower town of Ermoupoli with the distinctive dome and towers of the town’s hill-top Church of the Resurrection of the Saviour in the foreground with the sea as a backdrop and the neighboring Cycladic islands completing the vista on the horizon.
Ano Syros – A Medieval Maze, Monasteries and a Cathedral
Sitting atop San Giorgio -one of the two hills which you see when approaching Ermoupoli by water -Ano Syros (Upper Syros) is a dazzlingly white labyrinth of narrow passages, stone stairways and tiny courtyards where visitors pass beneath ancient arches, pretty balconies and cascading bougainvillea. As you go you will stumble across pint-sized churches and equally minuscule tavernas while regularly coming across the resident cats sleeping in the sun.
Ano Syros’s history dates all the way back to the 1200s when the Venetians established a town here, walled in its entirety to protect its citizens from pirate attacks and with entry only possible by way of a series of gated portals, the main one of which is known as the Portara. The walk here from Ermoupoli is lovely but if you prefer to save your legs from the 30 minute uphill climb you can take a taxi to the Kamara gate –the lowest of the three entries -which halves the effort. Beyond that cars don’t go, unable to pass through the town’s tiny alleys and constant series of steps. This makes Ano Syros even more delightful as it is traffic-free; transport and carriage of goods here is by way of donkeys and mules.
Just wandering in what is effectively a living open-air museum, getting wonderfully lost and encountering all kinds of little surprises is by itself a lovely way to spend any time here. Included on the wonderful list of things to discover is the tiny little yellow and blue Markos Vamvakaris Square which is nothing more than a small table-covered and bougainvillea-edged terrace with a bust of Ano Syros’s beloved son Vamvakaris on its southern wall. The real draw card here is the breathtaking view over Ermoupoli and the blue Aegean which many claim is the best to be had anywhere on the island.
If you’re a music fan the nearby museum dedicated to Vamvakaris is a charming place to explore, housed in the very building where this celebrated Greek rebetiko musician lived and composed until his death in the 1970s. This small collection includes personal items, old photographs and musical manuscripts.
St. George Cathedral
Arguably the number one highlight of Ano Syros is the St. George Cathedral, along with two monasteries that sit just beneath it. Also referred to as San Jortzis, the Catholic St. George Cathedral crowns the very top of the Ano Syros hill, gazing across at its Ermoupoli-located Orthodox counterpart on its own hill -the beautiful Church of Metamorphosis.
Syros represents the center of Greek Catholicism and before the creation of Ermoupoli (which was founded by those of Orthodox faith and continues to be principally Orthodox to this day) almost all island inhabitants were Catholic. Many assume this predominance of Catholicism is a legacy of the Venetians whereas in fact it dates back even further to the time of the Crusades.
Most of what you see today at St. George dates from the 1800s although the first church on this site was constructed in the 13th century, destroyed along with its bishop by the Ottomans in the 17th century when he refused to convert from his catholic faith. Somewhat plain in appearance from the exterior, the cathedral’s complex comprises among other buildings the main church, a beautiful three-tiered marble bell-tower which appears to almost hang off its side and the episcopal palace.With St. George, as is so often found in Catholic churches in other parts of the Mediterranean, the unadorned exterior belies the beauty of what can be found within. Perhaps the most striking part of the marble-columned interior is the vibrantly blue arched barrel ceiling which, with its sprinkling of gold stars, contrasts strongly with the otherwise pale tones of the rest of the décor. Detailed wood carvings and an array of icon paintings are further noteworthy features while the cathedral also pays homage to its martyr Giovanni Andrea Kargas –the bishop murdered by the Turks in 1617 –who is buried here.
While the church is impressive so are the views that can be had from its hill-top perch. Panoramas sweep down over all of Ermoupoli, the port and the sparkle of the Aegean Sea and continue all the way to the neighboring islands of Andros, Tinos, Delos and Mykonos and even as far as Paros and Naxos off to the south. St George represents the town’s principal Catholic church but it is far from being its only religious building and there is plenty more to explore if you choose. Among these, and notable for being one of only two Orthodox churches in the principally Catholic-populated Ano Syros, tiny St. Nicholas of the Poor claims the title for the island’s oldest Orthodox church, dating from the late 1500s.
Ano Syros’s Monasteries
Ano Syros is home to not one but two monasteries, one dating from medieval times. As both are located close together and just beneath the crown of the town’s hill where its cathedral is found they are worth visiting on your way back down the incline. Both of the monasteries are attached to churches and in the past played a significant role in founding the essentials of a well-functioning society, namely hospitals and schools.
The oldest of the two –the Monastery of the Capuchin Fathers of Syros –honors St. John/Agios Ioannis and was established in 1653 under the direction of the French king, Louis XIII, when the Catholics of Syros benefited from the protection of France and Rome. It is the French connection that sometimes gives the church its alternative title of St. Jean.
The crypts beneath the church which can be explored were once used as safe havens for the townspeople during times of pirate raids and once this era had passed began to house tombs. The era has also passed for the community of monks too as today only an abbot serves here. The church interior has a beautiful barrel ceiling painted duck-egg blue, dotted with stars and adorned with circular icons.
The second monastery is the Jesuit Monastery, established a century after its counterpart in 1744 and which remained active until the 1990s. Housing the church of Our Lady Carmel (also known as the Virgin Mary of Karmilos), the most notable feature here is the valuable icon of the Virgin brought from Rome and for which the church is named. The monastery is today home to two nunsas well as a valuable and rich historical collection of antique books, manuscripts and documents, many of them centuries old.
Lunch in Ermoupoli
Offering a higher standard of cuisine but lower prices than many of the neighboring Cycladean Islands, Syros is slowly developing (and intentionally so) as a foodie destination. Whatever you have in mind you can probably find herein this capital city, from tiny tavernas with home-cooked Greek cuisine to more sophisticated restaurants offering international choices.
With its frozen-in-time loveliness of old stone houses and breathtaking views, Ano Syros is filled with exactly the kind of traditional tavernas which you probably dreamed of before arriving on the island. Many of the options here give you the opportunity of experiencing truly authentic Cycladic home cooking and as your morning finishes up in this beautiful fortified town you are perfectly placed to take advantage of it.
Apano Chora –also known as Apano Hora –is one of the tavernas in this category and for those who want one of those typical Ano Syros sensational views it probably gets no better than this. Located above the Markos Vamvakaris Museum and the house in which this beloved rembetika musician and songwriter lived, Apano Chora’s open terrace is charming, even without the jaw-dropping views. These take in the beautiful Transfiguration of the Savior church perched atop the opposite hill, the whole of Ermoupoli and the Aegean Sea with neighboring islands visible on the horizon.
The whole of the rooftop restaurant has elements of the intimate and tucked away with a balcony spot which makes you feel as if you are sitting on top of the world. If you prefer shade there is also a small roofed section off to the side. The set menu of this family-run gem is quite small but is doubled by a choice of daily specials which are decided according to whatever is fresh and in season. Possibilities include pittakia (Greek pies), locally made sausages and Greek meatballs along with plenty of sweet and savory ‘spoon sweets’. Otherwise, you will find all kinds of traditional dishes which you may have no idea of what they are until they arrive but will almost certainly enjoy if you are prepared to be a little adventurous.
Lunch is also a wonderful opportunity to see something of the island outside of Ermoupoli or its old town counterpart Ano Syros. The island has a wealth of pretty beaches to choose from (all Blue Flag certified incidentally) so your midday meal can be right at the sea with endless views of those dazzling shades of Aegean blues yours for the taking. Nowhere is far away on compact little Syros so a short bus or taxi ride brings the entire island within reach.
One option in the beach dining category is the lovely Achladi which sits at the northern end of the picturesque pale-sand Vari beach. Here you will find a small protected bay where the waters are pond-like calm, shallow and of that certain turquoise kind which is almost impossible to resist for a refreshing dip. Achladi’s jutting terrace with a canopy for shade places you right beside the waters and amid a palette of whites and blues with color splashes added by the boats bobbing at anchor in the bay.
Top-rated seafood tends to steal the show at this Greek and Mediterranean cuisine restaurant with everything from mussels, lobster, fish and octopus all on the menu, much of it probably delivered earlier that day by one of the fishing boats you see right in front of you. If you can’t decide which to settle for you can have a bit of everything with the seafood pasta or paella and everything comes artistically presented. Some Greek classics are also included such as moussaka, keftedes(meatballs) and a wonderful feta, pepper and chili htipiti while the house specialty is a sun-dried mackerel dish known as gouna.
An Afternoon in Ermoupoli and Syros
Your afternoon hours are the perfect time to get out exploring other parts of the island and on the menu of choices here are such things as Neolithic Age archaeological sites, historic caves or the chance to head out on a horse or boat safari. However, taking a tour of the many villages is a way to see a truly traditional side to the island along with their beautiful churches –including one inside a cave -and often equally pretty beaches. As Syros is so small you can cover all of the island if you have the time and energy and want a whistle-stop tour or you can concentrate on one area and explore more in-depth.
Alternatively, if you would rather stay in town you can take in one of Ermoupoli’s museums which are small but fascinating and diverse.
Exploring the Villages and Countryside
The kind of traveler looking for the real Greek experience can find themselves a little disappointed on some of the more over developed islands. At best, visitors have to work quite hard to hunt down its still remaining pockets of authenticity as modern resorts, fast-food eateries, hotels and mass tourism gradually take over. Syros is different, a true treasure for those seeking a Greek island as they all used to be, more full of Greeks –both local and vacationing –than overseas visitors and relying on other industries besides tourism for its wealth and livelihood.
Even the town-sized capital city offers beauty, culture and history at every turn but head away from the more built-up areas and you will soon find yourself amid olive groves, wandering goats and wild orchids while encountering traditional villages untouched by tourism and where life continues much as it has for centuries. Syros is small enough that you can tour the whole island in an afternoon if you just want to glimpse it all but if you’d like to explore a little more closely it is better to pick the north or south to focus on.
The north of the island beyond Ano Syros, known collectively as Apano Meria, is rugged and rocky, the coastal fringe thinly populated and the mountains full of caves in which shepherds once kept sheep. With the aromas of thyme, sage and sea-salt drifting in the air, the beaches here are isolated but naturally stunning. The northern area is home to four of the island’s archaeological sites which include prehistoric Chalandriani and the fort site of Kastri where an ancient cemetery has been unearthed.
Villages in this region tend to be tiny, often with just a handful of residents typically reliant on growing crops and raising animals and in which the scattered farms are often only inhabited in the summer months. One of this kind is that of Sa or Ai Michalis, located in a mountainous area just 3 miles from Ano Syros which has a small year-round population and is famous for the cheese of the same name which you will find in restaurants throughout the island. Small and picturesque with cobbled streets, Ai Michalis has been inhabited since ancient times and still has a well from those bygone times to prove it.
There is a tiny church –St. Michalis –along with some beautiful traditional tavernas serving local specialties among them the well-regarded Plakostroto with its enviable view of the Aegean.
South of Ermoupoli the landscape is very different and the villages a little livelier, many of the coastal settlements having developed tourism on a small scale while still retaining their authentic village feel. The villages worth considering including on any circuit here are Vari, Kini, Posidonia, Finikas, Galissas and Chroussa.
Around 6 miles west of Ermoupoli can be found the small picturesque port village of Galissas, which has an array of typical Cycladian blue and white buildings and a long sweep of sandy beach. One of the west coast’s tourist destinations and next door to an ancient archaeological site, Galissas has a tiny white church on an elevated headland, reached by a short climb via a pathway but you’ll need to make a little more effort to see the village’s main attraction. Representing what ranks as a top contender for the island’s most unusual church, Agios Stephanos is located inside a cave after following a narrow path from the beach. Here you will find a tiny shrine chapel which was constructed by a local fisherman after he had survived the unwanted attentions of a giant-sized octopus, an escape which he put down to the intervention of St. Stephen who he prayed to fervently while in the arms of the creature.
Finikas –about 8 miles south-west of Ermoupoli and 2 miles south of Galissas –is one of the most built-up of the southern villages with a collection of accommodations, tavernas and bars set around its small natural harbor.
Just south of here and sharing the same bay can be found Poseidonia, named for the god of the sea and also with an established tourist infrastructure. What makes this village remarkable is its fantastic collection of stunningly beautiful neoclassic leftovers, mansions and villas built in the 1800s by Ermoupoli’s wealthy residents as beach houses. The most photographed of these is the former Villa Tsiropina which now functions as the town hall. Looking nothing like a municipal building, this stand-alone stone structure surrounded by gardens was built in 1916 by Konstantinos Tsiropinas, a former mayor of Ermoupoli, and is a perfect example of the grandeur of a bygone era.
Traveling east from Poseidonia brings you to the charming and ultimately tranquil rural village of Chroussa which despite a population of less than 200 also has a collection of majestic 19th and 20th century mansions. Otherwise notable for its lush greenery, the orchards and market gardens of this village complete with traditional farmhouses supply the capital with a steady stream of fruits and vegetables.
Chroussa has two churches, the older 17th century-built one sitting in the courtyard of its newer and more impressive cousin which was built in 1890. Located on a hill, the view from here is worth the visit alone. Around two miles south-east of Chroussa can be found Vari, another very old farming village whose nearby beach has developed a tourist infrastructure and which has a small Venetian tower and church to explore, both complete with beautiful views.
Six miles away and almost directly opposite Ermoupoli on the western side of the island is the little fishing village of Kini. Repeatedly and justifiably described as charming and beautiful, Kini lines the sandy shores of a big bay and its pint-sized harbor was once a principal port of the island in Venetian times before Ermoupoli emerged.
Kini is a tourist destination but everything is low-key –just a handful of traditional tavernas and an absence of any big hotels. Those drawn here are the kind of travelers looking for tranquility and the chance to take in the sunsets from a waterside cafe while watching fishermen attend to their colorful little boats.
Agios Petros, the village’s tiny little white church, has a simple blue and white interior which is incredibly peaceful while another village highlight is a poignantly beautiful bronze statue at the beach. Known as the Panagia Gorgona Memorial and dedicated to all those lost at sea (a very real fact of life in this historic fishing village), the moving artwork depicts the Virgin Mary as a mermaid, holding a drowned sailor in her arms.
Kini’s main attraction is actually a little outside the village, on the road that connects it with Ermoupoli. The stark white-walled and red-domed Convent of Agia Varvara is impossible to miss, standing out in stark contrast from its greenery-surrounded mountain slope. Dating from 1900 and built on the site of an older chapel, the church within the complex is home to some beautiful frescoes and icons. Additionally, the convent’s nuns operate a weaving school which you can visit and the products they sell make great mementos of your time on Syros. Last of all the convent’s highlights is the stunning views of the bay and surrounding countryside to be had from its mountain slope location.
An Alternative Afternoon –The Museums of Ermoupoli
Considering its size Ermoupoli has a wonderful collection of museums with diverse themes for those who would prefer to stay closer to the port for their afternoon hours. None of them are very big so if you can’t quite decide which to dedicate your time to you can easily take in more than one. Arguably foremost of the museum choices is the Archaeological Museum, housed inside the gorgeous 19th century City Hall. Originally founded almost 200 years ago, the museum comprises four rooms exhibiting finds from the island’s own archaeological sites of Kastri and Chalandriani as well as those of nearby islands. Items date back to prehistoric times and cover various other eras in the history of Syros with items on display including carvings, grave columns, marble vases, weapons and figurines.
The fascinating Industrial Museum lies at the southern edge of town, located in an old factory alongside a tannery, a lead factory and a paint works and is rather more engrossing than its dry title suggests. Showcasing the entire past of both the port’s shipping heritage and its many other industries, the museum is a great way to get acquainted with how booming and forward-thinking the capital was during the 1800s.
Covering themes such as printing, spinning, engineering and sewing and displaying some rare antique relics related to them, one of the museum highlights is its huge paddle-wheel in the outside area.
Two other museums in the town are the free-to-enter Ecclesiastical Museum with its collection of vestments, religious vessels, books and images and the Cycladic Art Replica Museum. This latter exhibits copies of ancient Bronze Age art excavated from sites on Syros itself and other islands in the Cyclades group.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Ermoupoli
This elegant town built on wealth from the 1800s is almost bursting at the seams with places to drink and dine. The town itself has a little of everything –from old traditional tavernas infused with atmosphere to contemporary offerings -with the gorgeous main square and the waterfront two hotspots. However, not far away are a whole other world of possibilities. Up the hill the weaving and endlessly charming medieval alleyways of Ano Syros have the kind of authentic bars and restaurants which most picture when thinking of Greece and which typically come complete with sensational views while any number of nearby beaches have their own collections of waterfront bars and tavernas. Wherever you head be sure to sample tsipouro somewhere in your evening, this strong spirit is the island’s very own take on raki, concocted from what is leftover from the wine-presses.
For those that want sundowners with a water view all you need to do is head to the port and wander along the string of choices until you find one that looks idealfor you. The majority are clustered around the head of the harbor where the National Resistance Monument is located and although early in the evening these are all serene spots several of them get pretty lively later in the evenings when DJs play sets to partying locals and visitors.
Another location choice for waterside cocktails before dinner is Asteria Beach in the upmarket Vaporia district although don’t go expecting sand or a real beach. Sun-worshippers do indeed lie out on loungers on the concrete platform here which has a ladder to get down into the crystal water and swim but it is the views which most come for, particularly at sunset. There is a bar right at the water here but for even better views and far more charm head to Sta Vaporia. The lovely olive tree-shaded terrace here is elevated so not only do you get those views of the beautiful old sea captain villas from the 1800s but you can also see as far as Tinos and Mykonos as you sip on your glass of wine, sangria or choice of cocktail.
If you want to take in the sunset with your drinks you will have to head to the beaches on the west of the island but as the closest of these is less than 5 miles away you won’t have to make too much effort. Kini is a charming fishing village with a sprinkling of beachside tavernas and bars, one of which is the wonderfully-named Two Cicadas on the Armirikia Tree(Dyo Tzitzikia Sta Armyrikia).Principally a seafood restaurant whose wide menu and food quality are constantly gushed over in reviews, this little gem has tables set right at the water’s edge on the sand so you can literally feel the sea lapping around your feet. If you’d prefer to stay dry there are further tables set back a little, shaded by thatched umbrellas and olive trees.
The undeniable elegance of Ermoupoli is extended to its cuisine which also incorporates a melting pot of influences taken from its long centuries of history. This element is something which at times makes it quite different from any other Greek cuisine you may have tried. Additionally, Syros is actively striving to put itself on the world’s map of culinary tourist destinations and its tavernas, restaurants and cafes have embraced this wholeheartedly. Many insist this is the best dining experience you can have in the Cyclades and despite the raised level of quality, its prices are generally lower than those of its more popular island cousins.
Freshly-caught fish and seafood feature largely but so too do a wealth of traditional island recipe dishes which make use of the multitude of wild herbs growing on the island (hence the often found fennel pie) and there are plenty of Italian-influenced options also widely available. Local products include such delights as the spicy San Michalis cheese, thyme honey and the handmade Turkish delight-like loukoumi.
Trying to decide where to dine can prove difficult as there are so many exceptional places on the menu of choices. One that ranks as special even by Ermoupoli standards is the Mazi which offers a stunningly enchanting secret garden to dine in. Only open for dinner, Mazi’s courtyard is bursting with the leafage and blooms of its plants, mature trees and vines which interweave everywhere, all set beneath and within old brick and stone arches and walls. With not a hint of its industrial past (this used to be a ceramics factory), this romantic restaurant’s tables and chairs in stark white contrast beautifully with the greenery and the overall look is one of elegance, taste and extreme beauty.
One might think with such a setting Mazi wouldn’t have to try too hard with its food to ensure a steady stream of customers but quite the opposite is true. The Italian-influenced menu here is large, the food quality high and the presentation artistic with choices for beef, pork, chicken, fish and other seafood.
If you headed off to the west coast for your sundowners it is worth considering staying there for dinner as both Kini and Galissas a little further south have some lovely options, especially if you are a seafood fan. One of the choices in lovely little Kini offers a truly unforgettable experience of the gastronomical kind along with the type of setting which is also likely to linger in the memory. Allou Yiallou offers prime sunset viewing if you time it right and at this restaurant over the water you can almost imagine the sizzle as the sun dips into the Aegean, seemingly right in front of you.
It would appear that when describing the Greek and Mediterranean dishes here reviewers don’t have enough superlatives with words and phrases such as ‘ambrosia’, ‘out of this world’ and ‘the best in the islands’ featuring consistently.
With a focus on seafood but also offering meats such as lamb and pork, the menu is otherwise eclectic and extensive taking several beloved Greek staples and presenting them with innovative twists. Included in your possible dinner feast could be mussels with retsina and rosemary, caper and feta sauce squid, sea urchin pasta, prawns in ouzo and taramasalata mousse.
Your surroundings are as perfect as the dishes with the restaurant incorporating all kinds of tasteful decorative touches and with a color scheme of only white which always works so perfectly when the backdrop is a vibrant blue sea. Allou Yiallou stretches itself out along the beach and has different little areas within its whole so you can dine on the open-air deck which has trees growing through it, settle yourself beneath shades or seat yourself in the main section where lace and linen drapes blow in the breeze. With the sea so invitingly close and crystal clear you can go for a dip while you are waiting for your order to arrive if you can’t resist its call. Otherwise, you can just relax with a drink watching either the sunlight sparkling on the water or marveling at the sky’s palette of sunset colors, depending on the time of year and what time you dine.
An Evening in Ermoupoli
While it is hard to beat just sitting back beneath the stars at some taverna in town with a glass of ouzo and watching the world go by, Ermoupoli has several other choices of how to spend your evening hours and round off your day perfectly.
For those who do just want to find a place for a nightcap or two but would like live music as well that is never far away in Ermoupoli. Wander until you hear the strains of rembetika drifting on the night air and follow it to its source or head to Seven30 right on the waterfront to catch some live jazz. The lovely Mikraki located in a cobblestone alley hung with bougainvillea is often a good bet to catch some folk music or, for a different setting, head north from the port to beautiful Miaouli Square which is atmospherically lit at night and whose cafes sometimes have live music. If you are in town at the right time you might catch one of the regular summer events which are held here and feature not just music but also food, dancing and other cultural offerings.
Culture and Arts
If classical music and formal performances are more to your taste you are in luck as Ermoupoli represents a very active cultural center in the Cyclades in which music features heavily. The island is home to the Syros Music Association who established itself in the 1980s in an effort to preserve something of the island’s musical heritage and who can regularly be found hosting choral and instrumental events.
For the grandest setting of all the magnificent Apollon Theater’s calendar often includes opera and classical music performances and, so lovely is this 19th century theater, it is worth attending any performance just to surround yourself with its glamour, atmosphere and history.
Syros also plays host to the International Classical Music Festival of the Cyclades every year and even if you are not fortunate enough to be visiting the island in August when it is held you have a high chance of coinciding your time here with some other festival, musical or otherwise.
Syros is an island of festivals in fact and besides the religious feasts and celebrations there is also a seemingly endless round of cultural and arts festivals, many of which span a week or two. Some of these are music based such as the Rembetika Festival, the Guitar Festival, the Accordion Festival and the Jazz Festival while the dance-focused include the Syros Dance Festival and the Tango Festival.
Otherwise, there are such offerings as the International Film Festival and the Stray Art Festival.
The stunning Apollon Theater already mentioned also hosts other performances besides the orchestral and the operatic with recitals, comedy, theatrical works from both local and international talent and an otherwise full calendar of events year-round.
A Cinema Under the Stars, Night Views and a Casino
Besides simply being a beautiful place Miaouli Square with its historical buildings also has an open-air cinema in the summer months which gives you views of not just whatever is currently being screened but also the lovely neoclassical buildings behind the movie screen.
If you want to gaze at the whole city dazzlingly lit after-dark make your way up the hill to Ano Syros. You can simply stroll or linger at the tiny square perched high above Ermoupoli or find a bar with a view to take in an array of twinkling lights and town landmarks, atmospherically aglow under a night sky. The illuminated blue-domed St. Nicholas is easily picked out as is the hill-perched Transfiguration of the Savior which almost seems to float in the air. At night when the town’s lights reflect in the waters of the harbor and the Aegean sea this whole sight is especially magical.
For entertainment of a totally different kind make your way to Ermoupoli’s casino, the only one in the Cyclades, located at the port. While this is no Las Vegas it does have plenty of slots and table games including all the most commonly found casino offerings such as roulette, blackjack and poker.
Windstar Cruise Line_Antigua_Dec18
Image by Ian Halsey
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