Traditional hilltop villages, ancient Byzantine history, delicious regional delicacies and a breeze scented with fresh basil. Naxos is one Greek island that many simply don’t know about, but they really ought to.
This is the largest of the Cyclades, and whilst it may not have the same sheen and tourist madness as the more popular Mykonos and Santorini, Naxos has one very big thing going for it.
It’s a tad more real.
As soon as you step off the ferry at the main port you’re met with a promenade that’s teeming with eateries, tour operators, banks and shops. Yachts bob about in the marina, boys toss lines into the water hoping for a bite, fresh octopus dangles in the breeze and butterflied mackerel dries in the sun.
The first introduction to Naxos for many of its visitors is Chora, or the Old Town. A maze of unnamed lanes and passages that traverse the hill, all lined with an eclectic variety of gift and jewellery stores, plus fashion and plenty of local art.
Tyrokomia Naxou Koufopoulos – Papavasileiou Street
Aside from the scent of basil that’s grown in pots outside just about every house in the village, if your nose fills with the heady aroma of cheese, you’re probably close to Tyrokomia Naxou Koufopoulos.
Made using goat and cow’s milk from farms on the mountainous region of the island, these guys specialise in over 20 hard, semi-hard and spreadable cheeses unique to the island.
Arseniko (aged sheep & goat’s milk), kommos (peppers & herbs), skordotyro (with garlic) and Agios Isidoros (aged spicy sheep & goat’s cheese) – just to name a few. There are plenty of other food-related goodies, as well.
Tzimblakis Store – Papavasileiou Street
A little further up the street is another place definitely worth nosing around. The Tzimblakis Store has been going strong since it opened in 1938, now into its second generation of selling just about anything you could image. From local cheeses, bulk rice and pasta, sugar, coffee, dried herbs & spices, oils, wine and liqueurs, twig brooms, wicker baskets and mouse traps. It goes on and on.
Artopoio Bakery – Protopapadaki Street
Yummy Bakery – Protopapadaki Street
Bacon, egg & cheese koulouri at Rendezvous Café – Petrou Protopapadaki
Starting off the day, Greek style, involves two things. Well, this is what we observed, anyway. Coffee and a cigarette. Maybe a few cigarettes to each coffee, more like it. Cancer sticks are so cheap in Greece it’s no wonder almost everyone does it. Ok, maybe a few people eat something, as well.
Starting off our day wasn’t so ‘traditional’, for us. Yes, we went for the coffee, but we preferred something like a fresh spanakopita from our favourite bakery – Artopoio. Their selection of sweet and savoury pastries is nothing short of excellent, their espresso is one of the better ones in town and their sour cherry tart, orange syrup cake and baklava is also really good.
Down the hill a bit is Yummy Bakery, a tiny joint that’s perfect for a morning coffee and one of their pastries, donuts or pizza. Or if a water view is preferred, Rendezvous down on the main promenade does it all. They may call them bagels for the tourists, but the bacon, egg & cheddar koulouri they serve up is a nice change from the norm.
Getting lost in the laneways of Chora is an absolute delight, and the deeper you go, the more you discover. At the top of the hill above all the whitewashed houses is Kastro, or castle, which was built following the orders of Markos Sanoudos II, the Venetian Emperor that conquered the Cyclades in 1207.
Several Venetian residences can be found within the medieval Kastro walls, plus a 13th century Catholic cathedral and the Archaeological Museum of Naxos that’s housed in a former Jesuit Commercial school.
After a morning of schlepping the maze of passages in Chora, some cooling down is beyond necessary. Something cold to drink, a cool breeze, maybe even a view.
You can get all of that at 520 Bar, a fab little spot overlooking the port. As beautiful as it is downstairs, the best place at 520 is one level up. Plenty of seating options, plenty of cocktails to choose from, coffee and free wifi if you want it, and that gorgeous view over the port.
Scirocco Restaurant – Platia Protodikiou
Gyro Gyro Grill House – Platia Protodikiou
Naxos isn’t short on eateries, and whilst the majority of options are of the Greek variety, you can still get your dose of waffles, pizza or hot dogs; just in case you need a rest from local food.
Where did we eat?
Well, if you head up to Platia Protodikeiou you’ll find Gyro Gyro Grill House amongst a bunch of other restaurants that face the square. These guys are open from midday to late and pump out cheap and tasty gyros, plus things like souvlaki, grilled haloumi, saganaki, even burgers.
Pork souvlaki at Sergiani Restaurant – Protopapadaki Street
Head down the hill towards Saint George Beach and you’ll find Sergiani Restaurant, a very friendly family set-up in a comfy patio. The menu is typically Greek with all the local favourites, plus you may see rabbit, lobster and some those cheeses unique to the island. That pork souvlaki (7.5) was juicy and charred perfection.
Maro Restaurant – Paparrigopoulou Street
Our favourite restaurant on the island was none other than Maro, a few steps down from Protodikeiou Square. It’s the kind of place that heaves with people almost as soon as it opens, and before you know it, there’s a crowd waiting to get in.
Well-priced local dishes plus some unique to the village of Apeiranthos, up in the mountains. Things like boiled goat, lamb belly in tomato & onion sauce, fried intestines etc. The roasted lamb shanks with fresh and sun-dried tomatoes and feta was insanely delicious. The hernoudaki (8; fried pork in wine) was very tasty, and the kokoretsi (8; rolled meat & offal wrapped in intestines) is definitely one for the adventurous. I loved it!
Nikos Restaurant – Paparrigopoulou Street
Right next door to Maro is Nikos Restaurant, another traditional Greek and Cycladic taverna that’s almost as popular as its neighbour. These guys pride themselves on sourcing all of their produce from the island, including the barrel wine.
The complimentary bread and dips at the start was a nice touch, as was the fresh watermelon and raki at the end. Our meals were wonderful. The rabbit stifado (8.5) was nothing short of divine and the lamb with lemon sauce wasn’t too far behind. I could have done without the excessive and tacky flirtation from the young waitress, though.
Saint George Beach (Agios Georgios)
Getting around the island is a breeze thanks to a very decent public bus network, plus there are many inexpensive car rentals about town. Lots of little villages to explore and lovely beaches to take a dip.
Saint George Beach is the best option if you’re staying in Chora. Not the most beautiful beach around, but popular nonetheless as it’s nice and shallow and is lined with many restaurants and cafés. It’s very popular for windsurfing, too.
Spend a couple of euro and you can catch the #13 bus to Placa Beach, a windswept part of the coastline 20-30 minutes from Chora. The beach strip is very long, plus there are several other smaller coves and beaches closer to town. Agía Ánna is another nice one.
Overlooking Plaka Beach is a string of new and old accommodation. One of the newer places got our attention, in particular the Tortuga Beach Bar at the very boutique Naxian on the Beach. The stunning open-air pavilion that makes up the bar is surrounded by golden tufts of swaying grass, and the decor is simple, yet quite stunning. Whether it’s for coffee, cocktails, local & international food, it’s one very stylish way to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
Grab the #13 bus tickets, plus others, from the Naxos Bus Transfer office opposite the port carpark. Check my map for location.
Tortuga Beach Bar
Portara – Temple of Apollo
Ending the day with a sunset view from the islet of Palatia (Palaces) has to happen at least once, when in Naxos. This is the site of the unfinished Temple of Apollo and its iconic Portara (Big Door), which is the gate of the temple.
It was built in 522 BC by Lygdamis, the tyrant of Naxos, and had it been completed, it would have been the largest temple in Greece. Lygdamis was overthrown by the Spartans in 524 BC, so the unfinished temple was used as a Christian church for a short period, then dismantled and its blocks used in the construction of other buildings up in the Kastro.
Mali Kanela, just below Portara
Blue Star Ferries has a daily ferry from Piraeus to Naxos, which departs around 7.30am and arrives around 12.45pm. Check the updated timetable for more information here.