While Greece has well over 2,000 islands and islets scattered around its seas, only 227 are inhabited. Many are well known to the international visitor, the obvious ones that stand out are Santorini and Mykonos. And yet, with so many other choices, small islands shouldn’t be ruled out. Often more authentic and lacking in hedonistic crowds and cruise ships, take a look at my recommended 2 gorgeous lesser-known Greek islands that should definitely be on your itinerary.
There is no airport at Symi as it is a very small island, only 22 square miles and with a local population of around 3,000 people. That means it’s a great place to escape the mass crowds like on more traditional islands.
You will travel by ferry or catamaran from the island of Rhodes, the nearest largest Greek island which has an airport with regular direct European flights in summer, as well as connections from Athens. Be warned though, Rhodes’ proximity means it can be inundated with day-trippers during the summer months, and temperatures top 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The best time of year to visit is spring and fall.
One of the best views of Symi is when you round the headland and enter its harbour. Ceded to the Italians in 1923 – although it joined Greece in 1948 after several years of occupation by Germany and the UK – means you’ll find Venetian architecture everywhere as the colorful merchants’ houses and mansions seem to fall from the hill into the sea. Keep that camera handy because you’ll need to be ready for the view!
Things to do on Symi
As with most places in Greece, churches and monasteries play a big role in their importance, Symi being no different. The 18th century Panormitis Monastery – or Monastery of the Archangel Michael – is one of, if not them main attraction of the island.
It is a large monastery with a bell tower that stands on the port of the bay of Panormitis in the southwest of the island. Inside the park is an ecclesiastical and folkloric museum, plus an added bonus, for those of you looking for a really peaceful alternative place to stay, is that there are basic rooms that can be rented at night. Contact the monastery to check prices, but they cost around €20 a night at 2022 prices.
Pro tips: Ferries from Rhodes stop here on the way to or from the main port of Symi, so stay on the ferry or take a boat from the main port. It is possible to reach the monastery by land from the main port of Symi, but this involves crossing the mountains.
Just over half a mile northwest of the main port, Gialos beach is an easy walk along a mostly flat road, but not much shelter, so be sure to wear a hat and take plenty of sunscreen. The bay is very sheltered in Gialos which means there is very little wind and as it is a less busy part of the island it is not particularly crowded.
As this is a pebble beach, it is recommended that you bring water shoes to protect the sensitive soles of your feet. And just lay your towel on the pebbles and relax – no organized area here.
Pro tip: Walk to Gialos, past the clock tower on the main harbor and spend the morning and early afternoon relaxing. Before the real heat of the day (from 2pm), head back, stopping at one of the many tavernas along the way for a delicious salad.
Walk the Strata of Kali
Ano Symi / Chora – or the upper town – is literally the upper part of the island. Many people miss this part of the island, especially day trippers as it’s quite a hike to get here, literally.
The Kali Strata is a “road” or set of steps that connects the port to the upper town, and these steps are steep, though wide. There are around 500 steps to climb at a very steep angle, but once in Upper Town you will usually be cheered on by the locals sitting in the cafes at the top – they appreciated the difficulty of the walk – and rewarded with prizes. fantastic views over the Mediterranean, all the way to the Turkish coast.
There are many merchants’ homes to see on the promenade, some intact but many abandoned, only adding to their haunting beauty.
- Take a bus or a taxi (few on the island), then walk down. If you want to climb, good shoes are a must as the steps can get slippery. You might even want a hiking stick.
- Symi is a very hilly island, so make sure you are in good physical shape. There are only five or six taxis on the island, but there are water taxis in the summer months to reach those remote places.
- Don’t drink the water, as the island has its water shipped and stored in wells. Don’t forget that sheep and goats roam the land and droppings can end up in wells! And be sure to conserve water by not letting it run constantly while showering.
To 10 square miles and a year-round population of around 330, but swells considerably with day-trippers in the summer, Halki is a much smaller island than Symi, but still worth a visit. It is about 24 miles from Symi, and in summer it is possible to connect directly by a 2 hour ferry ride between the islands, but only once a week. Daily services do however operate from Rhodes, from the small marina of Kamiros Skala on the north coast of Rhodes, which is only a 30 minute crossing.
Due to its small size and lack of an airport, Halki is untouched by mass tourism and this is reflected in its unique charm of captains’ mansions, picturesque harbor and small beaches.
Things to do in Halki
Nimborio – The main (and only) town
Similar to Symi but on a smaller scale, as you circle the headland into the island’s capital and only inhabited village – Nimborio, keep your camera handy as you will want to get away from the traditional architecture of the Isle. This includes the old captains’ houses and Venetian buildings, as well as several cafes, taverns and fish restaurants along the waterfront. Don’t forget to look to your left at the ochre-coloured building on the promontory. It was an olive oil production factory, now a hotel with bathing platforms directly in the sea.
Nimborio is where you will undoubtedly be based if you choose to stay one or two nights on the island as there is a selection of private house or villa rentals, as well as the aforementioned hotel and one or two small guest houses.
Life on Nimborio is reminiscent of the island as a whole – there is literally no rush. Stroll the cobbled streets, drink a Greek coffee or choose which tavern for lunch.
Medieval Castle – Chorio
The original capital of Halki was the Chorio, located above a hill in the center of the island. It was phased out in the middle of the 19e century, when piracy was kept at bay, people moved closer to the sea to create a new settlement and make a living from fishing.
It is possible to visit the 14th century medieval castle which still stands in the Chorio. In its heyday it protected the island from pirate invasion and at its base are three small chapels.
It’s a unique place to spend time exploring and although a small paved path has been created today to access it, it’s still quite a strenuous hike, but worth it for the sea views and the whole island. It is easy to understand why the islanders of the time chose this isolated place to settle and defend themselves against invaders.
Pro tips: It is best to do this in spring or fall and there is very little shade. Bring good walking shoes, plenty of drinking water, sunscreen, and a hat. A hiking stick can also be useful.
It is a day trip from Halki or Rhodes that you not want to miss. Located between the two islands, Alimia is a true desert island, once inhabited until the end of World War II, now abandoned as people moved to neighboring islands to create livelihoods.
All that remains are the ruined houses, free-roaming sheep and goats, and several very tame cats. Indeed, the only real resident is a caretaker who lives all year round, maintaining the church of Agios Georgios and having supplies delivered from Rhodes or Halki every week.
With no electricity (except by generator for the caretaker’s house) and no cell phone or Wi-Fi coverage, Alimia is the perfect escape for a day trip to the island. You can swim, hike to the ruins of the fortress, or divers will enjoy diving the Italian wreck of the Elvira Vaselli, torpedoed and sunk in 1942.
Pro tips: Alimia is a completely abandoned island, so there are no facilities here. The well-maintained church has restrooms, but be sure to pack a picnic on your day trip and some good sun protection – and maybe some cat treats!