While tourists and cruise ships make a beeline to popular islands like Santorini and Mykonos, head off the well-trodden path and find a slice of paradise in Naxos.
Picture Greece and no doubt you’ll conjure up images of romantic whitewashed villages and azure bays. Cuboid shaped houses with domes of blue, a windmill here and there, and breathtaking beaches. This idyllic image becomes real when you visit the Cyclades – a cluster of picture-perfect Greek islands that roughly form a circle. While hordes of tourists and giant cruise ships make a beeline to popular islands like Santorini and Mykonos, head off the well-trodden path and find a slice of paradise in Naxos.
Naxos in Ancient Greek Myths
Naxos features prominently in Greek mythology. Here are some of the most common legends attributed to the island.
According to legend, the Greek god Zeus was raised on Naxos, in Zas Cave, until he was old enough to lead a campaign against the Titans.
Naxos also claims a strong relationship with the Greek god of wine Dionysus, who ensured the fertility of vineyards on the island.
Naxos at a Glance
The largest of the Cyclades, Naxos is the lushest of the islands and is truly an undiscovered gem. The capital city Hora (or Naxos Town) lies right along the coast, and has that classic vista of traditional whitewashed houses lining a hilly town. Perched above it all is the Kastro – a Venetian castle that was once the seat of power in the Cyclades for over 300 years.
Below lies a labyrinth of charming cobblestoned alleys and courtyards, teeming with artisan shops, restaurants and shopping. Naxos has something for every kind of traveller – rich Byzantine history, mouthwatering local cuisine, and some of the most pristine beaches in the world.
Exploring Naxos Town (Chora)
If you arrive by ferry, the first thing you’ll see is the ancient Portara, a huge marble gate and sole remain of an unfinished temple of Apollo. Towering on the islet, at the entrance to Naxos Harbour, this monumental gate is an emblem of Naxos and dates back to 7th Century BC. You can walk up to this islet from the mainland for some stunning views of Naxos Town. This is also a spectacular place for watching the sunset.
Take some time to explore the Kastro, the 13th Century medieval quarter of Naxos Town. Venetian mansions still survive in the centre of Kastro, and you can see the remnants of the castle, the Tower of Sanoudos. You can also visit the Della Rocca-Barozzi Venetian Museum. This unique private museum is housed in a Venetian mansion and you can wander through the rooms to see how the original Italian aristocrat owners lived, what they wore, and how they furnished their rooms.
Be sure to head down to the bustling waterfront for a gorgeous walk along the harbour. This is the centre of Naxos Town and the streets are lined with taverns, cafes, bars and restaurants with some great seaside views. The best way to soak in the charm of Naxos Town is to let yourself get lost in the streets and you’ll come across some iconic Greek scenes like lazy cats, charming courtyards with pink bougainvillea flowers, and blue and green doors of traditional houses.
Top Beaches in Naxos
If relaxing by the sea is your idea of a perfect Greek getaway, Naxos will not disappoint. Just a stone’s throw away (or a quick bus ride) will take you to a stunning stretch of some of Greece’s best beaches.
Agios Prokopios is probably the most popular beach on Naxos and is considered one of the best European beaches to visit! This long, sandy beach with turquoise waters is also the place to go for a scuba diving adventure. You’ll find the established Blue Fin Divers here, that offer a mix of cave, wreck and reef dives.
If you decide to keep walking down, you’ll eventually reach Agía Ánna, another beach with golden sand and turquoise waters. It also has a picturesque little port, complete with bobbing fishing boats. It’s another popular beach and has great facilities like umbrellas and beach chairs for rent and multitude of beachfront taverns.
Looking for something a little less busy? Keep heading down that stretch and you’ll hit Plaka Beach. Extending for more than 4 km, only parts of this beach is organized with umbrellas and sun beds, and walking along the beachfront is a popular activity. Some parts of the beach are also good for snorkeling and you’ll see an impressive variety of fish in the crystal clear waters.
Naxos is known for its cheese, wine, honey and potatoes, and is also a great place to have some freshly-caught seafood. Plus, a personal favourite about dining out in Naxos? It’s customary to receive your bill with a complimentary local dessert – this can be anything from fresh fruit to delicious honey-steeped pastries. For a fabulous meal overlooking the harbour, Meze 2 is well-known for its fresh seafood and offers delectable Naxian and Cretan fare. Try the grilled sardines, rice with mussels or seafood pasta and wash it down with a shot of local ouzo.
To eat where the locals eat, check out Maro’s Taverna, located south of Plateia Evripeou. There’s no view here but the food more than delivers. Expect enormous portions and try some of the town’s best gyros platters here. Their moussaka is also splendid. Another nearby joint is To Elliniko. Try their Pastitsio – the Greek version of lasagna, and order a plate of Naxian fried potatoes! When in Naxos Town, try to walk into the little bakeries and cafes for a taste of local sweets like Loukoumades (Greek donuts with cinnamon and honey) or the quintessential baklava.
Getting to Naxos
Due to its central location, it’s quite easy to get to Naxos. If you’re coming from Athens, you’ll find daily flights and ferries. A flight is around 35 minutes while a ferry ride can range from four to six hours, depending on whether you book a fast or slow speed ferry. For a true Greek experience, take the ferry. You’ll also be able to catch a ferry to Naxos from Santorini Island, Paros Island, Tinos Island, Mykonos, Ios, Amorgos, Koufonisia, Iraklia, Schinoussa, Folegandros, Astypalea and Milos.
Staying in Naxos
Decide where you plan to spend your time when selecting a place to stay. For the most part, Naxos Town is the ideal place to stay. You can explore the village and take easy day trips to the popular beaches. Hotel Grotta is a great, friendly place with character and offers great views of Naxos Town. It’s close enough to walk to all the major attractions and only a 14 minute walk to the town beach. If you’re a dedicated beach goer, consider accommodation near one of the big beaches, like Agios Prokopios. A great luxury option is Naxian Collection where you can rent a luxury villa.