The Cyclades are the most famous island group of Greece when it comes to tourism. Renowned and beloved for their sugar cube houses, the blue dome churches, the wonderful vistas and landscapes, the crystal-clear beaches, and the wind that cools you down from the relentless Greek summer sun.
There are several islands in the Cyclades, but the biggest and most diverse of them is Naxos. Naxos is also the greenest of them all, combining the aesthetic of the Cyclades with the much-needed shade and charm of trees and canopies of crawling plants like bougainvilleas.
It is a bonus that Naxos is yet undiscovered compared to other Cycladic islands like Mykonos or Santorini (Thera). That means that even when you visit during the high season, you have better chances of enjoying different places in Naxos without massive crowds everywhere.
There are many things to do and see in beautiful, diverse, verdant Naxos. The better to enjoy the island and get the most out of your vacation, here are the things you should know and consider adding to your program:
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- Where is Naxos?
- How to get to Naxos
- Getting around Naxos
- A brief history of Naxos
- Things to Do in Naxos
Where is Naxos?
Naxos sits in the middle of the Cyclades, in the Aegean Sea.
Like all of Greece, Naxos has Mediterranean climate, which means it gets mild winters with a lot of rain and very hot, sunny summers.
During the summer, temperatures get around 30-35 degrees Celsius on the average, but during heat waves they can get as high as 40 degrees Celsius. During the winter, temperatures drop to around 10-12 degrees Celsius, with cold spells about to push them down to 0 – 5 degrees Celsius.
Heat during the summer is tempered by the wind, which is strong and frequent in the island. When the wind blows, it can get below 30 degrees Celsius.
During the winter, the wind is intense and frigid, making the cold bite more and temperatures drop to below 10 degrees Celsius.
The best time to visit Naxos is from June to mid-September, where the sea gets to its warmest and the temperatures are high enough not to make you feel chilled by the wind. Keep in mind that while August is the hottest month, it’s also when the wind tends to be the fiercest.
How to get to Naxos
You can reach Naxos by plane or ferry.
If you go by plane, there are flights to Naxos from Athens. The flight is about an hour long in a small plane.
If you go by ferry, there are ferries from Rafina or Piraeus port that run every day.
If you already are in the Cyclades, you can get by ferry to Naxos from other islands such as Paros, Mykonos or Santorini (Thera).
Click here for my detailed guide on island hopping in Greece.
Check the ferry timetable and book your tickets below.
Getting around Naxos
The best way to get around Naxos is by car. While there are buses and taxis that will take you to basic places but true freedom and versatility, as well as the capacity to get off the beaten path, is only granted with a car.
You can rent a car in Naxos, but make sure you book yours in advance as there is a finite number of cars on the island.
I recommend booking a car through rentalcars.com where you can compare all rental car agencies’ prices, and you can cancel or modify your booking for free. They also guarantee the best price. Click here for more information and to check the latest prices.
A brief history of Naxos
According to the myths, Naxos is the island where the ancient Greek hero Theseus, the slayer of the Minotaur, took Ariadne, the Cretan princess that helped him with the Labyrinth, on his way back to Athens. There, he abandoned Ariadne (the why differs across versions). A little while later, the god Dionysus saw her and fell madly in love with her and took her with him.
Naxos was very important in the ancient times as a center of civilization and commerce. It was part of the islands that revolted and contributed to the Persian war. Later in the Peloponnesian war, Naxos became controlled by the Athenians and the Spartans alike.
In medieval times, the island was occupied by the Venetians from the 1200s to the 1400s, where the Ottomans took over. The Ottomans allowed the Venetians their benefits in the island, until Naxos became part of the Greek War of Independence, supporting the cause of an independent Greek state, and became part of it in 1831.
Things to Do in Naxos
Chora and the Castle
Chora is the main town of Naxos, and it is a beautiful sprawling town that grows outwards from the Castle (“Kastro” in Greek). It has the characteristic Cycladic architecture with a bit of a Venetian blend here and there to remind of the island’s Venetian past.
You will see the beautiful sugar cube houses with colorful doors and shutters, stroll down whitewashed winding paths decorated with bougainvilleas and basil, and walk under arches.
As you explore, you will find the Castle, the most well-preserved Venetian castle of the Cyclades. It has two entrances, the Main Gate (“Trani Porta”) and the Wicket Gate (“Paraporti”). Inside you will find some of Naxos’ oldest buildings and several historical places such as the schools founded by the Jesuit monks, the Catholic Cathedral, The Kapela Kazaza, which was a chapel of the Duke of Naxos, and the Tower of Krispi or Glezos.
Throughout the Chora and the Castle you will find a wide array of cafes, restaurants, pubs, and clubs, as there is a thriving nightlife in Naxos as well as good dining. There are also noteworthy art galleries and museums to visit, so keep an eye out for them!
As soon as you enter Naxos’ harbor, you will see its Castle reigning on the right and the monument of Portara doing the same on the left.
Portara is a huge, ancient marble doorway that doesn’t lead anywhere except to making wonderful memories. It has a mystifying feel that makes you think of magic and romance.
It is located on an islet of the island and it is more than 2,000 years old. Originally it was part of a great temple dedicated to the god Apollo. It was built during the time that Naxos was a great ancient cultural center. Now, only the door remains standing, offering great views of the sea and the Chora, as well as a stunning sunset you shouldn’t miss.
Chalki was once Naxos’ capital town and is considered the most picturesque village on the island. While remaining within the general aesthetic of the Cycladic village, it is also full of renovated neoclassical buildings and narrow stone paths. Alive with flowers and crawling plants, it’s like a living, breathing romantic painting.
Chalki was the place where the local famous liquor, Kitron, was made and you can still visit the traditional Valindras distillery that made it to learn of the process and sample the drink.
Visit the byzantine church of Saint George Diasoritis, built in the 11th century, and walk to the Venetian Barozzi tower for a breathtaking view before resting at one of the quaint cafes or plentiful restaurants.
This village is 28 km from Chora and is yet another gorgeous, picturesque mountain village full of Venetian influences in its architecture. It is worth exploring it all through its various winding side streets and paths.
Apeiranthos also features the Museum of Folk Art and the Geological museum, as well as a beautiful church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Panagia Apeiranthitissa.
Moutsouna and the Transportation Cable Railway
Moutsouna village is a seaside settlement on the eastern side of the island. It is unique in that it not only has a port, but also a rare system of transport for emery, a dark granular rock that was one of Greece’s top exports up until WWII. Emery is a mixture of corundum and magnetite used for grinding and polishing.
There are several emery mines scattered around Naxos and it was transported by the overhead emery transportation cable railway. This was constructed in the 1920s and was a great improvement from the arduous transport with beasts of burden. It is 9 km long, stretching from Stavrolagada to Moutsouna, where the shipping station was.
It has now been designated as one of the most important industrial sites of Greece and you can follow its route and take it the artistry of the industrial designs.
The Ancient Temples
Naxos has several archaeological sites that are worth your visit, especially the ancient temples.
The temple of Dionysos at Iria dates from the 14th century BC and was the first to have marble used as a building block. It remained in operation until Roman times and was dedicated to the god of wine Dionysus as well as a mysterious, unknown female deity.
It was a complex of about four buildings, of which you’ll be able to enjoy the partially restored temple of 580 BC.
There is another one dedicated to the goddess of spring and harvest Demeter, located near Sangri. This one is almost fully restored with more than 50% of its original building material in place. The temple was in operation until the 3rd century BC. Later, it was repurposed as a Christian establishment with the addition of a small chapel built right in front of the ancient temple.
The unfinished statues of a kouros and a kore at Melanes can be found at the ancient abandoned quarry of Florio. It is thought that the statues were abandoned there in 570 BC because accidents made them unsuitable for use: one of the kouros’ legs is broken off.
The kouros is 6.4 meters tall and an imposing example of Naxian marble sculpture.
A similarly impressive sample can be seen near the village of Apollonas which is even bigger, at around 10 meters tall, again left unfinished by the ancient sculptors.
The Windmills at Vivlos
Vivlos village is also known as Tripodes and is one of the biggest villages in Naxos. It’s known for its landmark windmills, built in the 19th century. They are mostly in disrepair right now but you can still enjoy their imposing forms and wonderful vista.
Vivlos also has several other picturesque places to see in it, from winding streets to great views. There are also the ruins of Plaka tower, and the beautiful church of Panagia Tripodiotissa to see.
The churches and monasteries
There are several amazing churches and monasteries to visit dating back to various eras of Naxos. Each has its own style and uniqueness, so don’t assume you’ve seen them all if you have only visited one.
The Jesuit monastery at Kalamitsia was actually a Jesuit palace in the 15th century. It is in ruins now, but enough of it is still standing for you to take it the sheer splendor and opulence that characterized this complex. So much so, that the Jesuit monks were said to have refused to live in it since they had taken oaths of poverty.
The paleochristian church of Panagia Drosiani is one of the oldest churches on the island, built around the 6th century. It boasts frescoes from that era and up to the 14th century, including a renowned dome that pictures Jesus Christ as a young man, but also a wealth of artifacts and old carvings.
These towers are mostly from the Venetian era of the island are scattered everywhere. Some have been reduced to ruins and aren’t really visible anymore while others are preserved or fully restored.
Some towers, however, date from antiquity and are thought to be part of a complex defense system in the same logic as that of the Venetians much later.
Cheimarros tower is one from antiquity (4th century BC) with the added bonus of being nearly complete and in the process of restoration. It stands at 15 meters tall and offers a stunning example of how formidable the fortifications must have been in those times.
The Bazeos castle tower at the Monastery of Timios Stavros (the Holy Cross) was originally built as fortifications against pirates. Since the 19th century, it is owned by the Bazeos family and was used as summer quarters. Today it is restored and features several medieval rooms and courts where the Naxos Summer Festival takes place each year.
The tower of Ayia is located at the north of the island, standing tall and facing the sea to ward off any aggressors. It was built in the 17th century by the noble Kokkos family but was destroyed in a fire in 1992. Its battlements and tower walls still remain.
Mount Zas and Zas Cave
Said to be where the child Zeus would live and grow, it is 1003 meters to the summit! It’s worth the hike to the top just for the eagle’s eye views of the entire island, and the sensation of walking on the same ancient trails as the Ancient Greeks of Naxos.
There is also Zas Cave, which offers the same gorgeous sweeping views as well as cool shelter from the unforgiving sun and impressive chambers with stalagmites and stalactites as well as other interesting formations that run for 11 meters.
The street art at Alyko
Near the lush sandy beach at Alyko, there is an abandoned 1960s hotel that has been repurposed as a street art museum. There you will see several works of the famous street artist WD (Wild Drawing) as well as those of other street artists in a colorful ode to open-air art.
Tip: If you don’t want to rent a car to explore Naxos I suggest this full-day historical bus tour of the island that includes a visit to the temple of Demeter, a visit to Halki and Apiranthos village, the big Kouros at Apollonas, and finally a visit to a traditional olive press. Click here for more information.
Naxos has some of the most beautiful and renowned beaches of the Cyclades. Several have white sand that contrasts perfectly with the cerulean blue of the sea.
The best three are Agios Prokopios, considered one of the best beaches in Europe. It has the advantage of gentle winds and golden-white sand that stretches for more than 1 km.
Near Agios Prokopios, you will find the lush beach of Agia Anna. This one is organized, so you can enjoy it from your sunbed while you sip cocktails under the provided beach umbrellas.
Plaka is perfect for sea sports like windsurfing and kitesurfing. It also has beautiful sand and crystal clear waters for you to enjoy!
Naxos is lined with near-perfect beaches so don’t limit yourself to just these three. Discover your own, or even take the catamaran cruise to have a sweeping look at all of them. If you do take the catamaran cruise, you’ll have the chance to snorkel and visit the famous Rina Cave, which is a gorgeous sea cave with emerald waters for you to enjoy.
If you’re a lover of windsurfing, you’re in luck because Naxos is a windsurfing hub! The winds are perfect for the sport, though always inquire and be advised of which beaches are best for you, as the strength and capriciousness of the winds vary. Make sure you pick the place that best fits your skill!
That said, the peak time for surfers is the early afternoon and the most popular surfing spots are the beaches at Laguna, Agios Prokopios, Plaka, and Agios Georgios.
The day trips
Mykonos and Delos Day Trip: You can take day trips to other islands from Naxos, namely Delos and Mykonos. Delos is a virtual open-air museum, as it is full of archaeological sites of great significance without any inhabitants. In Ancient Greece, it was a tremendously important religious site for the god Apollo.
If you take the day trip tours, you will have three hours to explore Delos before you then hit Mykonos. For another three hours, you will be able to explore Mykonos’ Chora with the famous windmills and the gorgeous Little Venice.
Day trip to Koufonisi Island: Another day trip you shouldn’t miss is to Ano Koufonissi, where you will have six to eight hours to explore the virgin little island, swim in its crystal clear waters, its sea caves, and the famous Piscina before you go to Kato Koufonissi.