|Syros - The elegant lady of the Aegean Sea (Photo: alexcoitus, Flickr)|
As summer approaches and the sun shines brightly, travelers around the globe begin their search for this year's holiday destination. With Greece being one of the best summertime destinations in the world, it offers a broad variety of islands to choose from, which can also make picking one particular island quite hard.
However, among the 170 inhabited islands in Greece, there are some that stand out in many ways. Syros, the capital of the Cyclades island group, is definitely one of them. We’ve put together a list of the 10 best qualities of this gorgeous summertime paradise that make it a unique holiday destination that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.
1. Extraordinary history
Let’s start with some basic historical facts as they will help to explain why this island stands out from the rest. Syros’ glorious history goes back to the times of the the founding of the city of Ermoupolis – meaning ‘the city of Hermes’, the god in charge of commerce and thieves (yes, thieves). Ermoupolis has always been a significant port town and during the 19th century it was even more significant than the port of Piraeus, which is why it was Greece’s capital city for many years, before Athens eventually claimed its spot.
Since ancient times, Syros has been continuously inhabited by not only Greeks, but also Romans, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, Franks and Venetians, too. A big part of this island’s diversity is due to the fact that many different civilizations have shaped its appearance, architectonically and culturally speaking. Each one of the civilizations that thrived on this particular island has left his something behind, forging Syros into what it is today.
|Greeks call Syros "the lady of the Aegean Sea," as it's one of the really few places in Greece that actually experienced an artistic, architectural and cultural boom during the Renaissance due to its rich past. (Photo: alexcoitus, Flickr)|
2. Perfect location
Syros is located in the center of the Cyclades island group in the Aegean Sea, just a few miles away from its sister islands of Mykonos, Tinos, Milos and Santorini and only three and a half hours away from Athens. This means that Syros is probably the best possible base for an island-hopping tour around the Cyclades.
The vibrant nightlife of Mykonos is only 45 minutes away by boat, just a few minutes farther than Tinos Island, whose picturesque houses are actually visible from Ermoupolis. The Mars-like scenery of the famous Milos Island and the romantic atmosphere of Santorini are only a couple of hours away. And that’s not all, there are another ten islands located even closer to Syros, each one of them ideal for a day-trip - although no one usually wants to leave Syros to go to another island…
|The island is full of remote beaches, but there are also some with restaurants and bars for those who cannot do without them! (Photo: Archway Anders, Flickr)|
3. Incredible beaches
The Cyclades are known for their crystal-clear blue waters and their laid-back atmosphere. Syros, located at the heart of the Cyclades region, is not an exception.
As the slideshow below proves, Vari, Foinikas, Yalissas and Kini, as well as Possidonia - also known as Dellagrazia - are home to some of the best, most beautiful, beaches on the island.
Ninety percent of the island’s beaches are located along its western and southern coasts. All of these are sand beaches and some are nudist friendly. Ormos Grammaton on the northern coast is famous for its archaeological finds, including numerous ancient inscriptions carved into the local marble rocks.
|Markos Vamvakaris' Museum in Ano Syros|
4. The best ‘rebetiko’ in Greece
We all know that every country has its own unique and distinctive culture. To really ingest the culture of Syros, a foreigner should explore its folk music background, as it always paints a vivid picture of the country it represents. Music is a universal language, after all.
Greece’s most traditional and distinctive music style is rebetiko, also known as Greek blues, and it is still played in the koutoukia around the country. However, in some places it may be difficult for tourists to find an authentic koutouki to go to listen to some good rebetiko songs. Luckily for them, this simply does not apply in Syros as Ermoupoli is where Markos Vamvakaris, one of the best Greek bouzouki players and rebetiko singer/songwriters was born and raised.
Markos Vamvakaris characterizes the typical Greek man of the 1930s to 1950s. His songs tell about the hard times experienced during the two World Wars and the poverty they brought, but also about the beautiful women that caught his eye in the alleys of Ermoupoli. So let’s take a break for one of his classics!
|Apollon Theater, Ermoupolis (Photo: Alexandros Petrakis)|
5. An island of arts and architecture
As mentioned before, Syros’ history goes back to ancient times. Syros is where Greek tradition and western influence live in perfect harmony. The magnificent public buildings of this island, such as the City Hall, the Customs Office, and “Apollo” theatre, are testimony to its glorious past.
Syros is actually one of the few regions in Greece that experienced the Renaissance, and its influence is evident in the design of its neoclassical houses and beautiful town squares. Due to its long-running economic activity, Ermoupoli has been called the “Manchester of Greece,” and its history is presented at the Industrial Museum.
The Roman Catholic quarter, or Ano Syros (meaning upper Syros), and the fortress-like St. George’s cathedral are located on St. George Hill. Climb up the stairs to the top of the hill, navigate through the picturesque narrow streets, past the traditional whitewashed houses, archways and open spaces, and you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the island.
The Orthodox community that is spread across the second hill of Ermoupoli, has contributed some outstanding religious monuments to the local architecture, such as the churches of Metamorphossi tou Sotiros (Transfiguration of Jesus Christ), St. Nicolas the Rich (Áyios Nikolaos Ploussios), Dormition of the Mother of God (Koimissis tis Theotokou).
6. Traditional food
Syros is well-known throughout Greece for its gastronomic peculiarities. Its culinary tradition stems from the days of Syros’ maritime links with the rest of Europe, and Crete has also played a major part in shaping the local cuisine. And because Syros is an island, seafood is a staple of the local diet.
Just like most of us, Syros' citizens love sweets. Their most unique dish is the halvadopita, which is a pie made with thyme honey and roasted almonds. Ermoupoli is also the best and biggest producer of lukumi, sweet candies made from water, starch and sugar that go perfectly with a cup of coffee. And yes, they are delicious, but they will also go straight to your hips, so take it easy! Loosa ham, fennel sausages and the famous San Mihalis spicy cheese will no doubt satisfy even the most demanding taste buds.
|Panoramic view of Ermoupolis port city, with its picturesque hills. The one on the left is the Catholic one with St. George's Cathedral visible at the top, and on the right sits the Orthodox Church of Anastasi. (Photo: Bernard-G, Flickr)|
7. Fascinating diversity
Syros is a truly diverse island, as it’s the only one in Greece with so many Catholics and actually, it is one of very few places in the world where Orthodox and Catholic Easter are celebrated on the same day! Tourism picks up during Easter in Cyclades, with Syros and Tinos getting the biggest pieces of the pie.
Ermoupoli port city spreads across two wonderful hills – one for each of this island’s two official religions. At the top of one of the hills lies the Orthodox Church of Anastasi and on the other, St. George’s amazing cathedral. This diversity is what makes this island unique and it has had a major influence on Syros’ culture, gastronomy and architecture.
Another interesting fact about the island is that a part of it is full of 18th century mansions complete with fascinating gardens open to tourists and foreigners to explore. A walk around the other parts of the island will also reveal other intriguing evidence of Syros’ past as the country’s most important trade and industrial center.
8. A thriving city
A few years back, Greece started decentralizing its education system by building several universities outside its biggest cities, such as Athens and Thessaloniki. Syros, with a permanent population of more than 21,000, had the good fortune of being selected to become the home of two new universities over the past decade, which means that there are a lot of students on the island and a lot of bars for them to hang around in.
So, Syros went from flat to frenetic, as far as nightlife is concerned. Its port is now full of bars and cocktail clubs and its well-known alleys hide some of Cyclades’ best restaurants. Ermoupoli is also home to one of the best casinos in Greece. Ok, it’s not Las Vegas, but it’ll still do for blackjack lovers.
9. Internationally acclaimed festivals
The International Cyclades Music Festival, the Classical Music Festival, Ermoupolia and Musical May are only some of the island’s internationally acclaimed annual festivals, offering a wide range of performances for all tastes. Syros’ people love the arts almost as much as they love the sea that surrounds their beautiful island, they say. So a great tip, if you plan to visit Syros, is to time your visit with these festivals.
Furthermore, make sure not to miss a visit to the Archaeological Museum, and the museum commemorating the famous rembetiko musician Markos Vamvakaris.
Last but not least, the Apollo Theater was fashioned after the famed La Scala Opera House, and is sometimes called "La Piccola Scala." In 2014, it will celebrate its 150th anniversary. The Apollo Theater is a key venue of the annual Festival of the Aegean held each July. In addition, visitors to the island can enjoy full-scale opera productions all year round.
10. Ano Syros
The beautiful Venetian settlement of Ano Syros, built around 1200 CE, constitutes the Catholic district of Ermoupolis. Overlooking the port, it offers an amazing view over the deep blue waters of the Aegean Sea.
The combination of the typical Cycladic blue and white color scheme and medieval architectural elements makes for an interesting and beautiful result that will charm every visitor wandering around the little streets and whitewashed steps of Ano Syros.
This wonderful settlement has been built amphitheatrically to protect it from enemies, with houses built one on the top of the other to form a defensive fortress of stone walls, narrow streets, wooden balconies and many arches and arcades. It is definitely a must-see place when in Syros and the perfect day-trip destination offering a window into this unique island’s beauty.