With multicoloured cliffs soaring above a sea-drowned caldera, Santorini looks like a giant slab of layered cake. The main island of Thira will take your breath away with its snow-drift of white Cycladic houses lining the cliff tops and, in places, spilling like icy cornices down the terraced rock.
The largest of the Cyclades, Naxos packs a lot of bang for its buck. Its main city of Hora (known also as Naxos) has a gorgeous waterfront and a web of steep cobbled alleys below its hilltop kastro, all filled with the hubbub of tourism and shopping. You needn’t travel far, though, to find isolated beaches, atmospheric mountain villages and ancient sites.
Paros rests nonchalantly in the shadows of the limelight. Long tagged as primarily a ferry hub, its stylish capital, fashionable resort towns and sweet rural villages are all the more charming for their relative lack of crowds and tourist kudos. For holidaymakers looking for Mykonos without the hype and price tag, this might be the spot. But word is spreading.
Hora has the colour and bustle you'd expect of the island's port and capital. Settled on the west coast, the old town is a tangle of steep footpaths and is divided into two historic Venetian neighbourhoods: Bourgos, where the Greeks lived, and the hilltop Kastro, where the Roman Catholics lived. Despite being fairly large, Hora can still be easily managed on foot.
Ios’ image has long been linked to holiday sun, sea and sex, with a reputation for nonstop booze-fuelled partying. It’s partly true: there’s no denying that from June to August, the island is the much-loved stomping ground of youth and hedonism. But it’s so much more – if you want it to be – and the partying doesn’t infiltrate every village or beach.
Sifnos has a dreamlike quality. Three whitewashed villages, anchored by the capital Apollonia, sit like pearls on a string along the crest of the island. The changing light kisses the landscape, and as you explore the flanking slopes of the central mountains you’ll discover abundant terraced olive groves, almond trees, oleander and aromatic herbs.
Volcanic Milos arches around a central caldera and is ringed with dramatic coastal landscapes of colourful and surreal rock formations. The island’s most celebrated export, the iconic Venus de Milo, is far away in the Louvre, but dozens of beaches (the most of any Cycladic island) and a series of picturesque villages contribute to its current, compelling, attractions.
For its small size, Parikia packs a punch. Its labyrinthine old town is pristine and filled with boutiques, cafes and restaurants. You’ll also find a handful of impressive archaeological sites, a waterfront crammed with tavernas and bars, first-class midrange accommodation, and sandy stretches of beach – particularly popular is Livadia, a short walk north of town.
Andros, the second-largest island of the Cyclades, has a long and proud seafaring tradition and, conversely, is a walker’s paradise. Its wild mountains are cleaved by fecund valleys with bubbling streams and ancient stone mills. A lush island, springs tend to be a feature of each village, and waterfalls cascade down hillsides most of the year.
Hora, Ormos & Mylopotas
Ios’ three main centres sit nearly on top of one another on the west coast. The port, Ormos, is lined with tavernas and cafes and stretches out into sandy Gialos Beach, backed by beach bars. Just 2km uphill (or 1.2km up a stone staircase) sits the capital of Hora, a stunning traditional village and nightlife hub.
The tiny islands that lie between Naxos and Amorgos are like miniature outposts of calm. In the days of antiquity, all were densely populated, revealed by the large number of ancient graves that have been uncovered. During the Middle Ages, only wild goats and even wilder pirates inhabited these islands.