Mykonos Travel Guide

Overview

Set like gems in the sparkling blue Aegean Sea, each of the Cyclades islands has its own character. For Mykonos, the local culture is a mix of the sacred and the profane. This island is the gateway to the neighboring unoccupied island of Delos, the sacred center of the Cyclades.

With more than a million visitors a year, this 30-sq-mi/80-sq-km island gets busy in high season. For those who don't like crowds, spring and fall are the best times to visit.

If your notion of a Greek island is old ladies in black and fishermen mending their nets by the harbor, Mykonos will be an eye-opener. In fact, it will probably surprise even the experienced traveler. Mykonos has more than 400 churches and chapels, as well as several nude beaches and its share of gay striptease and drag shows. Fashion models strut their stuff, and the nightlife can be as wild as anywhere in the world. Prices are high, too, but the food and shopping are better than almost anywhere else in Greece.

Mykonos Town, the capital, is the center of activity on the island. Don't let its reputation for bacchic behavior discourage you from visiting. Go during the daytime if you want to experience a more traditional side of town. Take time to stroll its warrenlike streets, many of which are no wider than a sidewalk. On each side are smooth, whitewashed cubes whose doors and windows are splashed with bright colors. Bougainvilleas, clematis and geraniums cascade from the wooden balconies.

Be sure to peek inside a few of the red-domed chapels scattered around the island. Most are tiny, peaceful places. There are also several small museums that contain some interesting artifacts.

Outside the capital, the beaches are superb, provided you don't mind sharing them with a few thousand other people. Inland are few trees and lots of rocks, so although it's not the most attractive of islands, it does have character.

Geography

Mykonos would be an almost circular island if it weren't for the bite-sized bays along the coastline, which give it a ragged butterfly shape. Its area, covered by barren rock and excellent beaches, is less than 30 sq mi/80 sq km. The island has two high points, both called Profitis Ilias, one in the extreme east (1,152 ft/357 m) and the other in the northwest corner (1,221 ft/378 m).

The island is part of the archipelago known as the Cyclades. This name derives from the rough circle the island chain forms around Delos. Mykonos is to the northeast, at around 2 o'clock on the dial. Its capital, Mykonos Town, sits halfway down the island's west coast, looking inward toward some of the other Cycladic islands. The sacred island of Delos, now an archaeological site, is just a mile/kilometer to the southwest.

The focal point of the town is the harbor, with the main square of Platia Mavrogenous (also known as Taxi Square) in the southeast corner. South of the harbor you'll see a line of white windmills, one of the great images of Mykonos, though better viewed from a distance. These structures, no longer in use, were built to capture the prevailing northwest winds for grinding wheat into flour.

South of the windmills is a trendy district called Alefkandhra. This area is also known as Little Venice, because its balconied buildings back onto the water. Alefkandhra gets packed at times because so much of the town's cultural life is squeezed in there—not only within the cafes, tavernas, discos and art galleries, but in the streets as well.

Most of the beaches and small resorts are along the south coast, within fairly easy reach of Mykonos Town. The island's only other major settlement, Ano Mera, is about 5 mi/8 km east of the town. Ano Mera is a large village hardly touched by tourism. Beyond there the roads peter out, although there are some quiet beaches and coves that can be reached by footpath or by boat.

In the center of the island is a reservoir lake that attracts flocks of migrating birds.

History

Not much is known about the early history of Mykonos. When recorded history began, it was being used as a stopping-off point for the holy island of Delos. In fact, Mykonos is named after the son of a king of Delos. According to mythology, the island got its rocky shape when Hercules killed several giants there and threw them down, turning them to stone.

During the first millennium, the island was inhabited by seafaring peoples who found their way there from Egypt, Phoenicia, Crete and the Ionian islands. In 1207, the Venetians conquered the island, and in 1537, it came under Turkish rule. It remained under Turkish occupation until 1822, though it retained a certain amount of autonomy, providing ships and sailors to fight against the Turks in the war of independence.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, pirates plagued the island. In an effort to confuse them in Mykonos Town, the narrow streets were contorted into labyrinthine designs. Visitors have felt the disorienting effects ever since.

The first half of the 20th century saw the island become a popular spot with archaeologists working on nearby Delos. In the 1950s, the first waves of tourists began to arrive, including glamorous names such as Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. Since the 1970s, Mykonos has been one of the gay capitals of the Mediterranean, and it remains a part of the island's cultural mix.

Sightseeing

The narrow streets of Mykonos Town are one of the main attractions, provided you can visit out of season and see them when they're quiet and pretty. Whitewashed walls and blue doors and windows draped with deep pink bougainvillea make up the archetypal Cycladic scene, which you'll see on many postcards. You may also get a glimpse of one of the pink pelicans of Mykonos. The original, Petros, was caught in a fisherman's net in 1955 and became an island mascot.

Visitors congregate in the cafes of Little Venice at the end of the day to watch the spectacular sunset, though the sunset views are actually better from the hill where the windmills sit.

There are a few small museums. The Archaeological Museum, with some finds from Delos, is worth a visit. The Folklore Museum displays Myconian art, ceramics and embroidery. The Aegean Maritime Museum contains some interesting models of ancient sailing vessels. A trip to the neighboring island of Delos is the must-see excursion for those not dedicated to beaches. Try to get there early so you'll have plenty of time to look around the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site.

In town, Panayia Paraportiani is the prettiest of the island's numerous churches. You will find it near the remains of the castle, at the southwest end of the harbor.

The remains of many churches, chapels and shrines dot the island's landscape. According to traditional lore, fishermen who ran into trouble at sea would pray for their lives to be spared, and those who made it back to land built shrines in gratitude. Many of these tiny, private chapels are near the homes of fishermen.

Across the island is the only other large town, Ano Mera. It is well worth visiting to get a feel for typical Greek daily life. The Monastery of Panayia Tourliani is near the main square, and it's a charming example of a Greek monastery.

Nightlife

Nightlife is why many people go to Mykonos, and to them the wee hours are when the action starts. They spend their days on the beach, sleeping off the fun they had the previous night.

Mykonos has the best nightlife in the Greek islands, and Mykonos Town has the best on the island. Behavior can be quite outrageous or simply objectionable, so be warned. Inside certain clubs, you can find drag acts and gay striptease. If that's not your style, then you may want to get an early night's rest. If that is your style, then hit the harbor area, especially around Platia Mavrogenous, and farther south in Little Venice—a popular spot for watching the sunset, but the party doesn't get going until about 11 pm.

Later on, the action moves to out-of-town beach clubs such as Paradise Club and then after-hours Cavo Paradiso, where the party continues till after dawn. Be aware that drinks are expensive on Mykonos.

The "in place to sin" changes from season to season, but there are some long-established favorites, such as Caprice, Galleraki and Jackie O, located on the waterside in Little Venice, which are popular venues for sundown cocktails before a rather wilder party mood sets in around midnight.

Dining

Mykonos is far more expensive than the average Greek island, but you can find establishments that offer good value. You'll have the opportunity to try some innovative dishes rather than just moussaka or stuffed tomatoes: Some restaurants show a French or fusion influence.

One island specialty is taramasalata, the codfish roe. In most of Greece, taramasalata is dyed pink, but on Mykonos, it's served white. Try Mykonos sausages, flavored with oregano, pepper, olives and spices, and louses, slices of pork marinated in the same blend of spices and then dried, sliced and served as an appetizer.

The best dining is, naturally, in Mykonos Town, and most of the good places are in the old part of town, known as Hora (the Greek name for the upper town, to distinguish it from the harbor area). Elsewhere on the island, you will find restaurants mainly in hotels and tavernas overlooking the popular beaches. (The tavernas may close in the evening and during the off-season.)

As a rule, eating places will be open from about noon until the last customer leaves, and then again in the evening from 6 or 7 until late. Greeks tend to eat late, at 9 pm or after, but restaurants are prepared for the earlier eating habits of visitors.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 15 euros; $$ = 15 euros-25 euros; $$$ = 26 euros-40 euros; and $$$$ = more than 40 euros.

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