Why is Mykonos just about the best-known of Greece's approximately one hundred inhabited of islands? On the face of it, nothing sets it apart from the others. They all share the same beauty, the same brilliant summer sky, the same crystalline, aquamarine waters, the same beautiful beaches, the same friendly inhabitants, the same Mediterranean climate, the same renowned light of Greece.
A first clue might be its central location among the Cyclades, that roughly circular group in the approximate center of the South Aegean Sea. This makes Mykonos the perfect base for island-hopping. Tinos is just 12 km to the northwest. Syros is 30 km to the west, with Paros and near neighbor Naxos similar distances to the south. Ikaria is 50 km east, and Delos, richest is antiquities of all the Cyclades, is just a short boat ride of 5 km to the southwest.
Mykonos, like all of the Greek islands, was very poor throughout the first half of the 20th century. The islanders fished, they tried to grow agricultural products from the poor, water-deprived soil, they had a modest ship-building industry. The nickname "island of the winds" comes from the fact that, with its highest point at only 340 meters, Mykonos is relatively flat, which allows the Meltemia, the strong, north, summer winds which keep the Cyclades refreshingly cool on hot summer days, to flow. During the winter, the Sirocco come from the south and often blows sand and dust from the Sahara which coats windshields and car bodies.
Although a poor island, like the others, something happened on Mykonos that didn't happen on the other islands: beginning in 1873, the French School of Archeology started excavations on nearby, largely uninhabited Delos, birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis. Delos had been a holy sanctuary since at least 1,000 BC. These teams of archeologists needed a place to stay, and Mykonos, just across a narrow strait, was the best candidate.
Then, starting in the 1930's, artists, wealthy Europeans, politicians, and adventurous travelers began to come to Mykonos, originally using it as a base to visit the antiquities of Delos, but eventually making Mykonos itself their destination. First and most prominent of these was the English writer Lawrence Durrell.
After that, in 1960, the first of two films about Greece opened up the possibilities of vacationing in one of the most beautiful, interesting corners of the world. Never On Sunday, the Melina Mercouri vehicle about a carefree prostitute among the lower classes of Piraeus, Athens' port, brilliantly showcased the freedom-loving spirit of Greece and Greeks. A second film, Zorba The Greek, released in 1964, did the same.
But it was the 1961 visit to Mykonos of Jacqueline Kennedy, the most famous woman in the world, that really kick-started the Mykonos boom. Jackie was dazzled by Greece's beauty, and declared that one day she would have a home there. We all know the sequel to that story.
Best hotels in Mykonos
By the late 1960's Mykonos became the place to be for the Jet Set, and the island’s fame has ebbed and flowed (mostly flowed) since then. Only about 500 families live on Mykonos, and it is said that they are all millionaires. More expensive than the other Greek islands, Mykonos is worth it if your goal is to rub elbows with the rich and famous, party all night long, get up at the crack of noon, slowly recuperate as you bake on the beach, and then start all over again when the sun goes down. But it's still the best base from which to explore Delos, and Mykonos's inland villages retain much of the old character of the island. There are also a few quiet corners of the island with reasonable prices for food and lodging.
Mykonos also nice, many say nicest, in the late spring and late summer, when the crowds who begin arriving in mid-June have dissipated by September first. The mellow, still summer-like month of September is when the sea is at its warmest, and May is when the beauty of the spring flowers have not yet faded to the brown of the summer season.
In mythology, Mykonos is named after its first ruler, Mykons, a local hero, and a son of Apollo. It was here that Hercules killed the giants, after tricking them to come down from Mt. Olympus, where they had been invincible. It was also the site of a battle between Zeus and the Titans, who were a group of 12 deities preceding the 12 Olympic gods.
There is evidence of a Neolithic tribe known as the Kares, who lived in the Cyclades around 3000 BC, as the first to live on Mykonos. The first inhabitants of significance were Ionians, one of 4 major ancient Greek tribes (the others being the Dorians, the Aeolians and the Achaeneans), from Athens, around 1200 BC.
By this time Delos had been established as a major cult center, and a destination for pilgrims from Athens as well as Mykonos, just a few kilometers away. Mykonos became a supply base and transit point for travelers to Delos.
Ownership of Mykonos passed to the Romans before and after the time of Christ, and then, later, it was absorbed by the Byzantine Empire, until the 1100's AD. Just after 1204, when the 4th Crusaders sacked Constantinople, Andrea Ghisi, a Venetian and a relative of the Doge (military ruler) of Venice, took control of the island, which was considered defeated territory after Constantinople's fall. Andrea was given Mykonos and Tinos, while his brother, Geremia, was given Skyros, Skopelos, and Skiathos of the Sporades Islands.
In the late 1200's Mykonos was devastated by the Catalans, freebooters and brigands from southern Italy who had originally hired out as mercenaries to fight the Ottoman Turks for the Byzantines but ended up mistreating the Byzantines almost as badly. Eventually, Mykonos fell under the rule of the Venetians in 1390.
Venetian rule came to an end in 1537, when Mykonos was invaded by Barbarossa, the fierce admiral of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Under Ottoman rule, Mykonos was given semi-autonomy under a local governor and a council of syndics (representatives). Mykonos did well as a center of trade and commerce. People moved there from other islands, and pirates raided periodically.
The harbor of Mykonos town, or Chora, hosted the Battle of Mykonos between the British and French fleets in June of 1794. This small battle, between the HMS Romney and the French frigate Sibylee, resulted in the capture of the French ship and 3 French merchant ships.
The HMS Romney had been escorting a fleet of merchant ships to Smyrna, when, after spotting the smaller French vessel at harbor in Mykonos, turned to give it battle. This happened 7 months after the British entered the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) which was a series of conflicts between the First Republic of France and various European monarchial powers who had objected to the abolishment of the French monarchy.
Mykonos played a subsequent important role in the Greek Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. Wealthy Mykonian Manto Mavrogenous gave her fortune to support the revolution. There is a statue of her in Manto Mavrogenous Square in Chora.
Mykonos prospered after the Greeks gained independence, mostly through maritime trade, but then declined after the opening of the Corinth Canal in 1904. But as has been noticed, the birth of tourism occurred after the French School of Archeology began its work on Delos in 1873.
Around The Island
Mykonos Town, or Chora, is the most scenic of all the villages on the island. Its classically cubist, Cycladic-style houses in which all masonry is whitewashed and all wood is painted in intense cyan, huddle together in a harbor-imitating semicircle stepping away and upward amphitheatre-like from a circular harbor. Its back streets are labyrinthine pathways of round, large paving stones whose joints are painted in wide bands of white. The white everywhere intensifies the magenta or electric purple of the bougainvillea draped overhead or dripping its color from vertical surfaces like a rainbow leaking its top and bottom stripe.
The one place where wood is painted non-cyan, are the row of upended rectangular buildings overhanging the harbor waters known as Little Venice with their bright-red balconies extended over the often-choppy waves.
You have to go early in the evening to get a table at a restaurant in Mykonos town, and even then you might have to wait for your food a little longer than usual. All of which can be better, if you are patient, because waiting for your food gives you a great chance to people watch.
Chora is closed to auto traffic most of the time, its entry points guarded by a gate that is raised to allow delivery and sanitation vehicles only. Which is not much of a problem. Distances are short, walking is both easy, and scenic. The streets can be extremely narrow, twisting and turning like a labyrinth, so that even the use of a small motorcycle is less than convenient. The town is packed with small boutiques selling the latest fashions available in New York, London, or Paris. There are cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, and jewelers, all of which can be best enjoyed in the early morning when the town is quiet and most tourists are either sleeping off their late-night activities or lounging at the beach.
One of the can’t miss sights on Mykonos is Peter the Pelican, who may be a 3rd generation descendant of the original Peter, has been posing with tourists on the seafront promenade for a number of decades now. Peter, or Petros, has been Mykonos’s official mascot for many years. The story is that the original Petros found refuge in Mykonos harbor in 1954, was adopted, and his successors have likewise been adopted.
There are the numerous nightclubs, some of the best-known being Jackie O, The Scandinavian Bar, Space, Aroma, Caprice, and Katarina’s Bar. If it’s your thing, you’re in for a lot of fun. Just know that it’s very loud, very intense, and can be very expensive. But then there’s always the possibility that you may bump into that star of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster or some aging rock and roller out to party while he can still stand upright, and then warm his old bones in the sun on the beach the next day.
There is the church of the Panagia Paraportiani. Like a chronological work in progress, this church, which was begun in the 1500’s and keeps getting added on to, has turned into an organic, growing, asymmetrical thing which also happens to be a great place to see the sunset from, and thus attracts tourists in various poses upon its many slopes and shelves like members of a rock band dong their next cover shoot. Like most other buildings on the island, its every surface is whitewashed, its corners rounded from multiple coats. There is a lumpy Cycladic beauty to the old church, as if the sunlight and winds of the island have grown and shaped it into the lovely, white, bell-surmounted thing that it is.
There are a number of windmills on Mykonos, the most famous of which is the Kato Mili, (Lower Mills), a series of 6 windmills on a hill in a row on the sea in Chora oriented to the north to catch the Meltemia. One of the mills is missing its sails and its conical roof. The Venetians built them in the 1500’s. They served as grain-milling machines until well into the 1900’s. They have conical roofs of wood and straw. Island-wide, a number of mills have been updated with amenities and now either serve as homes, or as tourist rentals.
Little Venice is a place that attracts a lot of tourists for the sunset. It doesn’t have canals like Venice, but its name comes from the proximity of its buildings to the water. Several buildings overhang the sea, and buildings often have ground (or sea) level doors to admit boats. This easy egress and ingress led people to believe that the houses were owned by pirates who used their proximity to the sea as cover for their activities.
Several of the houses are now bars, cafes, galleries, or shops. This is one of the most sought-after places in this small town, and a favorite for romantics. It’s a popular gathering place for sunset watchers. It’s also a favorite subject of painters and photographers.
The Archeological Museum was built in 1902 in order to provide exhibition space for finds from the “Purification Pit” on the nearby islet of Reneia (Delos’ necropolis) by archeologist Alexandros Lykakis. The museum’s white-washed, cubic architecture is typically Cycladic, with a wing added in 1972. There is a large selection of vases dating from 2500-100 BC. There are also a number of grave sculptures, stelae (sculpted head stones), and funerary urns dated from 100-200 BC. The museum also has clay figurines dating from the same 100-200 BC period, and other small objects and jewelry. There is a large (1.4 meter) burial pithos (similar to a very large vase), dated from 700 BC, with a relief worked into it depicting the capture of Troy, showing the descent from the wooden horse, and Greek soldiers dispatching Trojan citizens.
Mykonos also has a Nautical Museum and a Folklore Museum. The Folklore Museum, which has a wide variety of household artifacts and furnishings from a typical 18th-19th century Mykonian home, was once the house of a sea captain who lived in the 1700’s. The Nautical Museum, more properly called the Aegean Maritime Museum, has as its goal the presentation of Greek merchant maritime history. It features a number of scale-model ships from throughout Greece’s maritime history. This award-winning museum has sponsored a number of ship restoration projects.
Mykonos boasts some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean. They are almost without exception blessed with abundant sand and breathtaking, beautifully clear water. Here are 10 of the best, going counter-clockwise around the island:
Megali Ammos Mykonos is the closest beach to Mykonos Town (Chora). It’s about a 600-meter walk south. Megali Ammos, which means Great Sand, is not too overcrowded because of its proximity to the main road, and because umbrellas don’t work there very well because of its strong winds. It’s a great place for a stroll, and has a small tavern, and a few places that rent rooms.
Kapari is about 6 km west of Chora. It faces Delos, the Sanctuary Island, which is just a few kilometers across the way. Kapari is one of only a few unorganized beaches on Mykonos. It can be found just behind a local small church called Agios Ioannis. It’s a little tricky to find, but if its peace and quiet you want, look no further.
Agios Ioannis (which is further away from the Agios Ioannis chapel than Kapari) has the reputation of being the most beautiful beach on Mykonos. Soft, deep sand and crystal-clear waters characterize this beach just a couple kilometers down the coast from Kapari.Like Kapari, it has a nice view of Delos across the way.Although the Mykonos Grand Hotel and Resort is close by, Agios Ioannis is only moderately crowded, so it’s a good place to get away from the sometimes suffocation crowds of places like Paradise and Super Paradise.
Paraga is about 6 km south of Chora, on the western end of the island’s southern coast. It is bookended by two narrow headlands which extend south from the beach a few hundred meters which helps protect it from strong winds and high waves. Paraga is well-organized, and reachable by local bus, or by one of the water taxis which can make a stop there on its way to the more popular Paradise Beach just to the east,
Paradise Beach, east of Paraga, and west of Super Paradise, can also be reached by bus or taxi boat. Paradise has earned its reputation as one of Greece’s most beautiful and popular beaches. The beach itself is level and sandy. It offers water sports and a diving center. Nudity is not prohibited on Paradise beach, so it may not be the best choice for families with children. Its clientele are young, and they frequent the many bars along the beach, which stay open all night long. The Cavo Paradiso is a self-contained resort up the hill from the beach, with a night club, a pool, a beach bar, and a restaurant. Paradise Beach becomes one huge night club after sunset, with drinking, dancing on the beach, and other assorted activities not fit for family consumption going on till the sun rises.
Super Paradise is the next inlet to the east of Paradise, again reachable by taxi boat, or local bus. It, too, has a reputation for beauty. It’s not as organized as Paradise, and its waters are translucently pure aquamarine, with golden sands. Super Paradise is the favorite of the homosexual trade, but attracts its share of heterosexuals as well. It can be packed during the months of July and August.
Elia and Elia Mykonos are the end of the line for the water taxi. Elia Mykonos is frequented by a lot of nudists. It’s the longest of Mykonos’ sandy beaches, and well-organized. There are a number of tavernas and bars, as well as water-skiing, parasailing and windsurfing.
Kalafatis is famous for its variety of water sports. It’s a beach for the athletic and active beach-goer. Off to one side of Kalafatis there is a place whish rents out snorkeling equipment. There are also facilities for the rental of windsurf boards and jet skis.
Panormos is on the north side of Mykonos. It’s one of the most secluded corners of the island, and perfect for a getaway from the crowds. There are no real facilities there or water sports on offer, but who cares, when you can relax and have the beach almost to yourself any day of the summer? The only problem is that the beach is reachable only by motorcycle rental or by taxi. No busses or water taxis.
Agios Stephanos is very close to Chora, just to the north. Known as the “new port,” ferries now disembark there, and visitors must either use a water taxi, taxi, or their own feet to get to their lodgings in Chora. The beach is north of the new port. Its headland protects the waters from strong winds, and there are a few hotels and tavernas. This 100 meter-long beach is quite popular during the high season.
A site worthy of a visit just a couple km north of Agios Stephanos is the Armenistis Lighthouse (5 km north of Chora). It’s octagonal, 19-meter high tower is especially beautiful when the sun is setting and the tall glass viewing windows at its top are alight with a rosy glow. It was built in 1890 and still functions as a lighthouse.
The favorite destination of day trippers on Mykonos is the legendary sanctuary island of Delos,just a few kilometers southwest. But that will be dealt with in a separate article.