What if there was an island that had it all? A choice of sandy beaches where you can sunbathe, swim, eat or get active, whether you’re a family, a couple or with friends. Local products that outdo each other for taste. Culture that takes you to antiquity one minute and into the Middle Ages the next. And mountain villages that preserve age-old traditions. Welcome to Naxos, the largest Cycladic island, where you could return every year and still find something new. The only question is where to start.
The castle-topped main town
Cycladic or Venetian? Well, actually both. Walking to the top of Naxos’ main town (Hora), you’re rewarded not just with views of the Aegean but with a Venetian castle. As you pass through the 13th-century Trani Gate, you step into a live medieval town. Look out for the well-preserved Aperathitissas Tower and the Della Rocca Barozzi Tower (housing a Venetian Museum) as well as the Archaeological Museum. But you’ll also enjoy just seeing how the architecture merges into classic Cycladic beauty as you stroll down the narrow alleyways into town, past little stores with souvenirs and local products and lively cafes, bars and restaurants.
A stroll around the Portara
Greeting everyone who arrives by boat, the 6th-century BC Portara is the standalone ancient marble gateway that has become an emblem of the island. It’s on a little outcrop of land called Palatia (an island in ancient times) and is a full 6m tall, 3.5m wide and 20 tonnes in weight. The palace itself was never built but you can imagine its intended size given the scale of the doorway. You’ll find a cafe overlooking Hora and it’s worth staying till dusk. The sunset from here is magical.
Village-hopping your way into the past
To really feel the authenticity of Naxos, head to the villages. There are many inland that perfectly blend into the landscape, like Apiranthos (known as the ‘marble village’ because of its stonework) with a couple of interesting museums and an atmosphere reminiscent of mountainous Crete but an architecture that is undoubtedly Naxian (including Venetian arches and two-storey buildings). The largest village, Filoti is famous for its agricultural products and the enormous shade-giving plane tree in the square, and has plenty of cafes, tavernas and shops selling local products.
And you can spend hours wandering the whitewashed alleys of Sangri and discovering the neoclassical buildings and Byzantine churches of Halki. For a quaint fishing village, head north to Apollonas. There’s a nice beach nearby as well as the famous Kouros statue, fully 11m tall and dating to around the 7th century but never finished.
Getting active by the beach
On an island where every minute seems to be an experience, it’s only right that a day on the beach goes far beyond sunbathing and swimming. You’ll find water sport options on many of Naxos’ standout beaches:
Plaka, Mikri Vigla and Agios Georgios, right by town. Windsurfing, water skiing, kneeboaring, jet skiing, wakeboarding, tubing… you name it. Or perhaps you’re interested in an afternoon canoeing or stand-up paddle boarding. Agia Anna is one of the most family-friendly beaches, with water sports and pedalos for hire, as is neighbouring Agios Prokopios, where there’s a diving centre.
More and more beaches
You probably get the idea by now… there are impressive beaches everywhere on Naxos. Kastraki (a huge sandy cove), Hawaii (the name says it all), Aliko (no umbrellas or sunbeds, just a cedar forest) and Agiassos (shallow and sandy) are in the more protected southwest. On the east coast, Psili Ammos (a tropical landscape, with trees offering shade) stands out. And to the south are Panormos (an exotic hideaway, with palm trees and a small cafeteria) and the more remote Kalado.
Tasting the best of Naxos
Naxos feeds its guests like kings. It’s up to you whether it’s in a seaside taverna, a picturesque alleyway in Hora or in a village square… but it’s time you were introduced to the local cheeses – Naxian graviera (PDO) and spicy arseniko or xinomizythra – and the fresh seafood (try salatouri… steamed ray with parsley, olive oil-and-lemon dressing and plenty of onion). The meat dishes are sublime, such as rosto (pork leg stuffed with garlic and cooked in wine). And definitely, definitely try the potatoes. Greeks rave about them. To end your meal, you’ll be offered citron liqueur.
Seeking out the Temple of Demeter
A little outside the village of Sangri is another cultural highlight of Naxos. The 6th-century BC Temple of Demeter, made from some of the finest Naxian marble and dedicated to the ancient goddess of grain (it’s no coincidence that the area around Sangri is considered amongst the most fertile on the island). It is a classic example of Ionic architecture and, together with the Temple of Iria, considered a forerunner of the Parthenon (built a full century later). A museum and fantastic views of the Aegean complete the experience.
Towers that narrate history
You return to Venetian times now as you experience yet more towers that defended the island’s population during the days of pirate raids, these ones out of town. The Bazeos Tower is by Sangri and the three-storey Barozzi Tower is in the centre of Filoti.
The Zevgolis Tower, meanwhile, is another impressive 17th-century fortification built on a rock near the entrance of Apiranthos. Finally, there is a tower housing the intriguingly named Monastery of the Illuminator of Christ, built amongst the fig trees and vineyards north of the village of Danakos.
Experience Naxos island
There is so much to experience on Naxos that it’s impossible to enjoy everything in one go. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try on the island that has something for everyone… or make a date to return.