A day in Naxos is a historical and gastronomical lesson in one. Due to a lack of natural ports, fishing was never as prominent here as on other Greek islands. Luckily Naxians, or Axians as the locals call themselves, aren’t solely dependent on the sea: unlike other islands in the Cyclades, Naxos has very fertile soil and produces almost everything that is needed for a diverse Mediterranean diet. Still, Naxians know their seafood just as well as any other islanders.
The island doesn’t have an international airport, so take a domestic flight or the ferry from Athens. From afar, the iconic mountains of Naxos stand out in the horizon. Mount Zas, the tallest point at 3,300 feet, carries the name of the ancient god Zeus in the local dialect. Zeus, or Jupiter in Latin, was the chief Olympian god and was born in Crete. The locals like to claim he grew up on Naxos, hence the name.
The largest island in the Cyclades, Naxos is far less touristy than Mykonos, Santorini, or neighboring Paros. If you are searching for trendy clubs or international jet setters and glamor, you will most certainly be disappointed. Instead what you’ll find is authentic and true: a rich past dotted with everyday treasures.
Complementing the unique culture are some of the finest beaches of the Cyclades. But since it’s just too easy to spend a lazy day on the fine-grained sand (everybody can do that), it is worth exploring the inland, hunting for its hidden treasures. But first things first:
Portara in Chora
There is only one way to start your day in Greece: drinking iced coffee. And if you can do that with the view on the Aegean Sea, well, then it’s already off to a promising start. Sit at one of the numerous cafés at the seaside promenade in Chora, as the main town is called.
Choose one close to the port with a view of the ferries and portara, an almost 20-foot-high relict from a temple to Apollo that, despite never being completed, today serves as the town’s signature landmark. Although the name portara can be translated as big door, it looks more like a big window opening up to the azure blue of the Aegean.
The most popular iced coffee is called a frappé: a spoon of instant coffee, some sugar and water, all shaken up well and served with a lot of ice. Spending leisurely time with friends is the main social activity in Greece, and a frappé should never be drunk fast. Sipping for an hour (or more) is quite normal.
(This valley covers most of the island)
Now that you have a little caffeine buzz to get you moving, hop into a car and head east, where you will enter the valley of Tragaia, with its numerous Byzantine churches, some dating back to the 7th century. You will also pass the agricultural fields and thousands of olive trees that make this valley the economic heartland of Naxos. Products of Naxos—such as potatoes, meat, and yogurt—are sold all over Greece and even exported, and have established a reputation for undoubted quality.
Fish & Olive, Chalki
Platia Halki, 843 02
Make a short stop in the village of Chalki with its neoclassical buildings and visit the boutique Fish & Olive: the owners produce and sell ceramics and jewelry, influenced by traditional styles of the Cyclades and the Mediterranean. By continuing and modernizing these ancient trades, the artisans create pieces of unique beauty. This is a great spot for souvenirs that will make people back home both happy and jealous.
The Taverna Platanos
Apeiranthos, 843 02
The steep and winding way up to Apeiranthos will make you realize that besides being big, Naxos is also very mountainous—which means it can easily be defended. Unlike other islands in the Cyclades, Naxians were able to endure the attacks from pirates in the Middle Ages, which repeatedly depopulated smaller islands. Roaming through the narrow streets of Apeiranthos with its castle-like houses is a good time to reflect on the colorful past of the Cyclades. Finish your walk with lunch at the Taverna Platanos. The terrace has a nice view, but the food is even better: delicious salads, homemade cheeses, and local meat—try lamb chops or rooster–on the grill.
On the way back to Chora make a stop at Filoti, another village, for an aperitivo. Sit in a traditional kafeneion under the oak trees in the centre square and order a kitron—a local liqueur made of Citron, a citrus fruit. Kitron, a drink you will find only on Naxos, comes in different variations; some sweeter, some with more alcohol. Native to the area at the foot of the Himalayas, citron is the oldest citrus fruit imported to Europe. It is unclear who brought it to Greece: some say it came with the ancient Persian armies, others with the returning army of Alexander the Great. Before you leave Filoti, buy some of the famous Naxian cheese like graviera or kopanisti. Farmers and shepherds are selling it on the street; it really just can’t get more authentic! While your Kitron will be around $3, the price of the cheese depends on the mood of the salesman.
Back in Chora, just before sunset is the best moment to explore the Kastro, the remains of the Venetian castle overlooking the city. Let yourself get lost in the narrow streets where the Venetian nobility used to live and hundreds of small shops and cafes are located now. The castle dates back to the 13th century, with only one of the original 12 towers still in place. All over the island you will find similar towers, built on points of strategic importance. The town is built around the castle with houses in the traditional Cycladic design—painted white with the characteristic blue or brown doors and windows.
Ariadnis, 843 00
It’s time for dinner at the restaurant Antamona. Situated on the southern part of Chora’s promenade, this is a family-run restaurant that serves Greek cuisine with a modern twist. I recommend starting with the green salad with figs and nuts, then go on to the catch of the day—you can’t go wrong here! For dessert try some of the famous (and notoriously heavy) Greek sweets, a legacy of Ottoman times—don’t miss the baklava in particular. You will definitely be happy to go for a walk after that.
Let the evening end in one of the many small bars in town. Have a glass of Naxian red wine like mandilaria or rozaki—the ancient poet Archilochus imagined it to be the nectar the Gods drank. Unfortunately we can’t get our hands on divine nectar, but a glass of good wine on a Cycladic island is probably the closest you can get to Elysium—heaven.