Mykonos is known for its rich history, hedonistic parties and high prices. For decades the Greek island has been considered an upmarket resort, enjoyed by the jet set. It’s a popular LGBT retreat and its beautiful old town attracts up to 15,000 cruise ship passengers a day. You’ll recognise it if you watched Shirley Valentine. The movie was filmed here.
Mykonos has been a popular destination since the 1920s. I took the four-hour flight from London to explore Greece’s glitziest destination and find out why it remains so popular. Mykonos’ Old Town has a unique appearance. Everything is white – dazzlingly so. The boxy, flat-roofed buildings are as bright as Arctic igloos!
I wandered through the town’s car-free lanes, squinting in the glare as the midday Mediterranean sunlight reflected back from the buildings. Even the cement between the marble paving slabs was gleaming white. Doors and woodwork painted in reds and blues, and spreading bougainvillea flowers, add the only splash of colour. My first view of Mykonos made an instant impression.
I couldn’t believe how narrow the Old Town’s lanes are. Some are so tight I saw two people trying to choreograph their movements to pass each other. It gets congested when all those cruise ship passengers flood the town between March and mid-November. Shopkeeper Stelios Formelis warned me that Mykonos can be a bit like a maze. “It will take you a little while to get used to but eventually you’ll find a way to get around town in about 20 minutes,” he reassured me.
It seems every new visitor experiences a mild panic when they realise they’re lost. Tour guide Antonis Pothitos is now resident but when he moved from a nearby island he says that it took him a whole season to get used to the town’s layout. “I began by spotting people who worked in certain shops. There are no house numbers and most locals don’t know the street names. The most difficult job here is a postman,” he laughed. “You have to know each person!”
Everyone I spoke with had suggestions on why the passageways are so constricted. One bar worker, Jenny, told me that the lanes were made so narrow to add protection from the sun. Antonis echoed that view. “The streets are confusingly in the way that they appear to repeat. You get a constant sense of déjà vu but in fact you are in a completely different neighbourhood.
Apparently, the real reason was to confuse intruders. The town was built close to the sea and to live here you were either a pirate or had a good relationship with them. If any unwelcome pirates arrived, then locals could protect their possessions by confusing them in this labyrinth.”
The pirates are gone now but the island is regularly buffeted by the strong winds that helped them sail over to Mykonos. Antonis believes the tightly packed buildings also offer shelter from the gales. “It can be so strong and blow for so long that it gets on your nerves,” he told me. “The lanes are narrow enough to keep it out but they also provide just enough ventilation.”
Mykonos can be thankful that its infamous winds led to the building of windmills, which have become an iconic emblem of the island. They are the island’s most recognisable sight and feature on most of the postcards on sale. A line of these towers stand overlooking the blue Aegean, at the top of Little Venice beach. Their five white stone towers support circular sails made of wooden batons and are capped with peaked thatched roofs.
Stelios’ shop is right next-door and he proudly shares facts about the structures with curious visitors who call in. “The windmills were originally built in the 16th century,” he told me. “They were grain mills to produce flour for Greece and other countries. A few of them are homes now.”
Stelios speaks with a slight American lilt. He explained that his family are from the island and he grew up in Mykonos before the family moved to Chicago, from where he used to travel each summer. But after decades of the harsh Midwestern winters he decided to return home. Admiring the stunning view from outside his shop, I could see why he longed for the island.
A few minutes walk away down the slope from Stelios’ store is Little Venice. The balconies of its buildings jut out over the water. This direct sea access made smuggling easier in the 18th century. Today the area is filled with painters rather than pirates. As you walk around the narrow walkway ribboning between the buildings and the water, you’ll need to squeeze past artists’ easels as they capture the stunning scene.
You might also have to walk around the huge pelicans that happily wander in and out of the restaurants. You get a sense that the birds view this as their place. They have right of way and you wouldn’t try and stop them. They’re big! Some stand higher than toddlers. You have to walk at their pace if there’s one in front!
Tour guide Antonis will make sure you don’t miss a thing. Strolling around Little Venice is even slower before sunset, when the waterside bars become packed by visitors wanting the best view.
“Instead of moving around and going to the same places, I can take you to the most interesting spots in town,” Antonis told me. His food walks pause at five of his favourite places. “I take you to the most important sites – the iconic windmills, the famous Little Venice and one of the most photographed churches, Paraportiani.”
That church is unique. Since the 15th century, four small chapels have been combined. A fifth, which features a dome, was added. The church’s smooth, rounded shape and brilliant whiteness makes it look like a meringue.
Mykonos is dotted with over 300 small churches. Jenny told me that every family has their own. “Some of the churches are used just once a year. The family will call a priest who will hold the service there,” she told me.
I doubted whether any visitors are up in time for Sunday church services. Mykonos is famous for it’s nightlife and some of it continues until dawn. Much of the action is out of doors, alongside bays or in gardens and courtyards stylishly decorated with twinkling lights. Cavo Paradiso is one of the most famous venues. It gets busy after 3am and clubbers will still be dancing around the pool until noon the next day.
There is said to be a venue for every taste. There are piano bars and chilled-out lounge music hangouts, which are particularly popular during sunset watching. There are also high-energy and disco bars, which are popular with the well-heeled gay crowd that spans all ages. Antonis explained that Mykonos was first discovered by large numbers of LGBT travellers in the 1960s. The island had been viewed as a tolerant destination since the late 19th century. “Locals didn’t care how you were dressed or your sexual preferences and it became a popular place for hippies,” he told me.
There’s competition between venues, which means standards are high but the prices can be extortionate too. I decided not to drink at one bar when I saw that the house wine was on sale at €25 a glass! But you can find reasonably priced food and drink if you look for it. There were bars selling good wine at €5 a glass and main courses at around €15, although that’s still more expensive than many other Greek islands.
The sign outside Stelios Formelis’ shop, in the shadow of the windmills, piqued my interest. It read ‘Don’t be a Tourist.’ Stelios explained it’s to encourage visitors to seek out authentic Greek cuisine. “If you go into a restaurant in Greece and the waiter comes up with a menu, that would be a ‘semi-Greek’ restaurant,” he told me, before explaining his words. “If you asked the waiter what he has and he says ‘I have chicken with potatoes in the oven, I have stuffed peppers and tomatoes,’ that would be a proper, old taverna-style Greek restaurant.”
Stelios has some local food recommendations including a dry cured ham made from tenderloin. It’s seasoned in sea salt and rolled in thyme and black pepper before being dried in the wind.
One of the stops on Antonis’ food walk is the Gioras Bakery, operated by Chloe Papaianou and her husband. It’s been in the family for 200 years. I stepped down from the main street into what looked like a whitewashed stone cellar. It could have been a monastery or castle kitchen. It’s hidden away, so that bakers could lock themselves in these tunnels during an invasion.
“It was established by the Venetians close to the windmills, so it was convenient to supply the flour to the bakery,” explained Chloe, as she handed me a plate of spanakopita – a delicious filo pastry pie filled with spinach and feta cheese. “We have a late breakfast in Greece – around 10am – and we grab one of these huge pies and eat a piece every few minutes through the morning,” she explained. “It contains a mixture of local herbs and greenery that exist all over the island. The Greek philosophy and wisdom about herbs is unique. Old ladies pass on the traditions and the value of herbs from mother to daughter,” Chloe said.
You can also taste a popular local drink at the bakery. “There’s a big movement for Greek mountain tea, which I have adapted in the bakery,” said Chloe. “People realise the benefits of the natural herbs and teas. They are not cultivated. They grow wild in the mountains of Greece.”
Mykonos enjoys up to 300 days of sunshine each year and it is famous for its beaches. There are over 30 around the island, so there’s one for every taste and interest, whether you want to windsurf, play volleyball or hang out with the hip crowd. Jenny’s personal recommendations were for some of the quieter bays. “There’s Lia and also Fokos, which is 13 kilometres northeast of the town and is very secluded. Another is Mersini, next door to that.”
Getting away from the party crowd might be your goal and if you want to find the most secluded stretches of sand then you should contact Dimitra Asimomyti. She can guide you around the best beaches and the island’s special spots on her cycle tours. “Mykonos isn’t flat and that’s why I rate the gentlest of my eight routes with a difficulty level of two,” she told me. “But my bikes have 24 gears to make hill climbs easier. I change the routes when the island’s infamous wind whips up.” Your incentive to compete the climb is Dimitra’s homemade lemonade and almond cake. That’s the reason why her business is named Yummy Pedals.
I chatted with one of Dimitra’s satisfied customer – a York resident, whom I reckoned was in his early fifties. Paul told me that he cycles regularly at home and booked this break because he wanted an alternative holiday. “Dimitra’s bikes are excellent and well-maintained by her team,” he enthused. “But it’s the history and places you learn about – and the cake – that makes it outstanding!” he told me.
Your day of cycling, swimming and sightseeing ends with a visit to the five-acre vineyard owned by Dimitra’s dad, 8km from town. He plays classical music to the vines to improve their yield. He started it 22 years ago and she told me she’s unsure whether it works or not but it creates a relaxing vibe! The vineyard is in a picturesque village, Ano Mere, which is also home to a 16th century monastery.
Mykonos has dozens of small boutiques packed into its alleyways and squares. You’ll find all the usual high-fashion brands, but it is not as brash and as bling as I had expected.
There are also some lovely artists’ studios here. I went to meet Irene Syrianou, who spends up to a month creating each of the mosaics she displays in her gallery. She chiselled away as she described the many different stones she works with. “This is black marble and I also work with pebbles that I find,” said Irene. She told me that working with the stones is therapeutic. “It is like meditation. If you are angry you can bash the stones and you feel better,” she said.
Irene became interested in mosaics in her former job, guiding visitors around the archaeological ruins of the adjacent island, Delos. Irene assured me that it was a place I simply had to visit during my time on Mykonos. Delos is six miles from Mykonos and helped put its larger neighbour on the tourist map. Visitors came to view the remains of the ancient civilisation uncovered by archaeologists.
Antonis operates tours through his business Delos Guide. After a short boat ride, our group assembled on the small stone quay. The ancient city of abandoned buildings, white marble columns and pillars stretched up the barren hillside into the distance. “This place is the largest island-based archaeological site in the world,” he explained. “It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Monument and is so important in archaeology that there is a science called Deliology, which only studies findings on this island.” An impressive start!
Antonis strode forward towards the settlement, along a stone-paved ancient street. “This rock was a commercial and religious centre of great importance centuries ago,” he told us, adding, “Delos offers a story full of money and glamour.” Delos does indeed offer a great story, but it takes a great storyteller to bring these ruins to life. Antonis had everyone’s full attention during the hour-long tour.
Delos was said to be the birthplace of the gods Apollo and also Atermis, who was worshipped there. When the temples were built, pilgrims came and the island hosted major events. “People from all the surrounding islands, mainland Greece and Asia Minor – today’s Turkey – would come here to take part in the special celebration called the Delian Games. It was the Olympic Games without steroids,” he joked.
When the Ionians of Athens arrived in the sixth century BC, they used religion to get what they wanted. Apollo was the god of sunlight, the opposite of death. Ionians felt that he would want all visible graves removed. When Athens suffered the plague, locals thought it was because Apollo was angry, so they purified Delos by banning deaths. They made dying illegal. You were sent elsewhere to breathe your last!
Antonis helped us imagine how the people of Delos lived. We saw the wide market place and the amphitheatre. We peered inside the roofless shells of buildings. Their thick granite and mica stone ceiling-height walls are still standing and it is easy to imagine how they would once have looked. Antonis described how the high street would have sounded and smelt centuries before. “These shops would have sold ceramics, aromatic spices, works of art, fast food including dried fruit and snails in red sauce, and incenses or essential oils,” he told us as he breezed along the main street.
We tried to guess each building’s former use. Antonis pointed out grooves scored into a marble slab inside a building. They were knife marks suggesting that the building was once a butcher’s shop. Inscriptions on houses were also revealing. On the facades of the homes of wealthy families, you’ll find symbols of Hercules holding a club next to a phallus. That was a warning to burglars that there was a slave inside who would harm any intruders. It was similar to ‘beware of the dog’ but in a more aggressive way.
“Here is a fig tree growing on the walls,” exclaimed our guide. “Figs were a very precious, expensive fruit for the ancient Greeks and they had their own guards. They were called the sycophants, which came from the Greek name for fig. In Greek, sycophants are people who accuse you of breaking the law when they have no evidence. In English the meaning has changed to somebody who uses sweet words – as sweet as the fruit – without meaning it.”
The city’s homes and businesses would have appeared very different to whitewashed Mykonos. Delos’ residents preferred pink and ochre colours to whitewash. We looked at the advanced water and sewerage system before Antonis explained that, at times, it would have stank. “According to the visitors of those times, it was a smelly place. Under the surface is a complete sewage system. It was built with curves so it flowed continually and slowly down to the sea. 30,000 people’s droppings would not have been nice to experience.”
I often watch the TV series Grand Designs to see how clever details can enhance the quality of life. Delos’ architects did the same, particularly in the homes of the wealthy. “90% of the windows face north and gusts of wind blow through the atrium in order to take all the bad smells out of the rooms. Everything was thoroughly studied before they started work.”
The island was abandoned in the 6th century, and that’s why so much has been preserved, although there has been widespread looting of antiquities. People came to search for marble, gold, silver and any statues they could carry. Most of the time they sold them for as little as a bucket of olive oil. That ended in 1873 at the start of the excavations by French archaeologists.
When you visit Delos you can clearly see how the city was laid out. It’s hard to comprehend the massive amount of work required to remove the centuries of the debris that shrouded and preserved this ancient civilisation, still unseen when the Victorian archaeologists arrived. Three-quarters of the island has still not been cleared. Who knows what remains to be uncovered?
You can’t come to Mykonos and not see Delos. I’d recommend booking a trip at DelosGuide.com.
I was kindly accommodated in Mykonos’ stylish Rochari Hotel. It’s at the top of the town and offers stunning views over the harbour and Aegean Sea. There’s a lovely pool and the rooms are uncluttered, with olive wood furnishings and features. The breakfast is excellent too.
The hotel offers exceptional value. A shoulder season double with a spacious bathroom and terrace is around €120. Single rooms are available from €88.
I enjoyed the charm and atmosphere of Mykonos. Visit in the quieter period – late April or from the end of September – and your money will go further. British Airways offer the four-hour flight direct from London City or Heathrow in the summer, with one-way fares from under £70. Easyjet also fly from Luton, Manchester and Gatwick during the season.