Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades islands, located in the south Aegean Sea. Just a short ferry ride away from the more famous islands of Santorini and Mykonos, Naxos is still relatively unknown and hence far less crowded than her famous sister islands.
Spend a weekend to discover Naxos’s treasures, the longest beaches in the Aegean, picturesque mountain villages where the preferred means of transport is still mules, ancient ruins, Venetian castles and mansions, and delicious seafood. This being Greece, naturally tales and legends of the ancient gods and their antics surround Naxos, too. The best known is about Ariadne, princess of Crete, Theseus, and Dionysus, the god of wine and merriment. After Adriadne helped Theseus to kill the monster Minotaur in Crete, they fled and stopped on Naxos on their way to Athens. Ariadne fell asleep on the beach; Theseus remained on board his ship. Dionysus fell in love with the beautiful Ariadne and persuaded Theseus to leave. When Ariadne woke up and found that she had been abandoned, she married Dionysus instead.
The god Apollo was also worshipped on the island, and one of Naxos’s best-known (and most photographed) landmarks is the remains of his temple, standing on a small islet in the capital. If you favor real history over legend, you’ll love to explore Chora, the Venetian quarter.
Reaching Naxos for a weekend from wherever you might make your base in Greece is easy. There is a national airport with direct connections to Athens, but, if you have the time, it’s more enjoyable to take a ferry.
Things To Do In Naxos
Whether you come by air or ferry, you’ll land in the island’s capital, Naxos city, also called Hora or Chora. To start your weekend, check into a fabulous hotel which, on the one hand, is by the beach and on the other, close enough to spend the day exploring the many sights of the capital and to enjoy the atmosphere of the lovely port and sample some of the best foods. A good choice, and where I stayed, is the Saint George Hotel. You might want to have a dip in the sea off the golden sands of St. George Bay before heading out. A lot of walking is required, some of it up quite steep and fairly slippery roads and alleys, so wear comfortable shoes and don’t forget a sun hat. No need to carry water as you will find refreshments at every corner.
Naxos’s best-known landmark is the huge, gate-like ruins of an unfinished Apollo temple, called Portara. It dates from around 530 B.C. and is located on the small islet of Palatia near the entrance to Naxos harbor. The islet is reached via a narrow paved causeway. Be prepared to get sprayed as the waves of the sea crash against the causeway with some force. They also make the path slippery in places. Palatia is closely connected to the legend of Ariadne and Dionysus. Climb carefully over the ruins surrounding the gate and visit a 6th-century Christian church that was built on top of them. Halfway down the causeway, you’ll see some stairs leading down to a natural swimming pool where you can take another dip if you like.
On your way back from Portara, you can already see Kastro, which is the old town of Naxos city. The Venetians came to Naxos in the 13th century, and Kastro is the place where they settled and built an impressive fortification and watchtower as well as their townhouses. The tower, which is the highest point, is called Glezos, and the Venetian quarter is also known as Sanoudos after the Venetian conqueror who supervised the construction of the tower and fortress. The entire complex is very well preserved and cared for, and you can spend hours walking around. The streets are quite steep with several stairs connecting them.
You reach the Venetian quarter from the port of Naxos through a narrow alley that is lined with many delightful shops and small restaurants and cafes. I found the art galleries particularly pretty and got a few lovely souvenirs. The houses are still lived in, some by descendants of the original settlers. The doors and windows are narrow but everything always looks freshly painted. Stop for a visit at the interesting Archaeological Museum, which explains the history in bright colors.
Port Of Naxos
A promenade leads along the port of Naxos and what will immediately catch your eye are the many restaurants and cafés with displays of row upon row of one of the island’s most famous delicacies: octopus. The entire creatures are strung up on ropes over the doors or counters to dry. There is indoor and outdoor seating with plant and flower-covered trellises separating one place from another. Rest your feet after your long walk, have a snack, a Greek coffee, a shot of the local lemon spirit Kitron, or a huge helping of assorted ice creams and watch the world go by. Or witness the spectacular sunset behind Portara.
Nightlife in Naxos can’t compare to that of Mykonos or Santorini, but it gets lively during the summer months. If you fancy dancing the night away at a nightclub or would rather listen to traditional music, here is a selection of the places to go.
If you prefer to spend a weekend day on the beach, you are in the right place in Naxos because the island has the best, whitest, and largest beaches of the Cyclades islands. Agios Prokopios is located only about three miles from the capital and close to Saint George Beach. Plaka is another wide beach, a bit further away from Naxos city as is Agia Anna. All are easily reached by taxi and have facilities including restrooms, beach bars, umbrellas and loungers.
This street, which runs parallel to the port, is your best shopping and market experience, in Naxos city. Small shops sell everything from baskets and ceramics to the best of Naxos cheeses, olives, bread, wines, and Kitron. It’s a lively place where tourists jostle with locals for the best bargains.
Things To Do And See Around The Rest Of The Island
If one day of your weekend is taken up with exploring the capital, the next should be dedicated to finding out what the rest of this fertile island has to offer. For a personalized tour, consider this one (you don’t have to go on a bus). It’s a full day but can be adapted to your time schedule. I find private guides very satisfying. Here are the highlights.
This is Naxos’s highest peak. The trip from the capital leads over winding and mountainous roads that will make you happy not to have to drive yourself. The mountain is visible from quite a distance, You don’t have to climb it but can see the marble quarries.
Kouros Of Apollonas
One of the first stops is the fallen statue of a kouros. They are giant marble statues, often representing the God Apollo, destined to be placed in a temple. This one however never made it there, because it’s unfinished and broke when the sculptors tried to move it. Left where it fell, you can climb around on it and see parts of these artists’ fine craftsmanship.
Chalki Vallindras Kitron Distillery
Chalki is a charming mountain village, best known for the oldest Kitron Distillery of Naxos. It is run by the fifth generation of the same family, and the liquor is made the old-fashioned way, which you can see in the distillery. Kitron made from the fruit and leaves of the citron tree comes in three varieties: green, which has the lowest alcohol content; yellow, the strongest and highest proof; and transparent, which is in between. You can taste samples of each in the shop.
Temple Of Demeter In Sangri
Demeter, the goddess of grain and harvest, was much worshipped on fertile Naxos, and her sixth-century B.C. temple features great examples of high-quality Naxos marble. In 1990, the temple, which had deteriorated over the centuries, was restored by German archaeologists to its former glory.
Eggares Olive Press Museum
This is a very small museum, no more than two rooms, but it’s located in a memorable 19th-century building. You can see and learn everything about olive growing and processing with heavy wooden presses. Many old photographs and jugs are on display and you can sample (and buy) olives and oil as well as soap and other cosmetics that contain the olive oil.
Best Places To Eat And Drink In Naxos
Can you imagine a better place to eat than at a table placed directly on the beach in the shade of some olive trees right at the water’s edge? All of this you find in the aptly named Paradiso on Agia Anna. Indulge in fresh fish and seafood, papoutsakis (eggplants stuffed with minced meat), moussaka, fresh salads dressed with tzatziki (Greek yogurt with garlic, cucumber, olives, and olive oil), and squid.
Another popular and good restaurant is Kontos on the beach of Mikri Vigla. I have a special heart for the small restaurants in the port of Naxos because I love the display of hanging squids and the huge ice cream portions with nuts and chocolate sauce.
The best time to visit Naxos is spring and fall. Naxos is mountainous and the streets are cobbled ad steep. Sturdy shoes are a must and so are a sun hat and sunscreen. Visit sites in the early morning to avoid tourist buses and direct sun, which is strong in the Aegean.
Editor’s Note: Also consider our picks for the 9 Best Beaches In Greece.