My packed bus pulled up to Piraeus Harbour and slotted itself neatly alongside a stately line of other tour buses and coaches. Peering out the window, I saw long lines of tourists weaving their way towards the docks, clustered in bustling groups outside enormous, multi-storey ferries.
After boarding, I slowly made my way through the decks, where every seat had been quickly claimed by travellers better prepared than I. Eventually, I found myself on the deck, where I sat down on my bag next to other similarly unlucky travellers, and watched the Aegean Sea open up in front of me. The waters that have claimed a million cliches about their unique shade of blue truly lived up to their reputation.
As the ferry slowly ground to a halt at the port several hours later, the passengers instantly flocked to the exits. Peering over the heads and shoulders around me from my perch on the bow, I could see a couple more ferries docked nearby, each releasing a swarm of bleary-eyed tourists into the scorching Mediterranean sun. We had all made it to the port, but not yet to the town. Only one more 15-minute ferry and we’ll have arrived: Mykonos Town.
Two days later, I’d weather the same stressful, sweaty and crowded experience to visit another Cycladic gem: Santorini.
Clearly, even among this heaving number of tourists, I found it impossible not to fall in love with each island’s complete individuality. Mykonos, with its whitewashed buildings and pristine coastline, is a heady blend of small town exploration and beachside lounging. Santorini boasts a surreal scenery of blue-domed buildings perched on volcanic cliffs, along with hiking and unparalleled sunsets.
Both islands are an essential stop on any trip to Greece and it was, in equal measure, easy and devastating to see how they’d found themselves on the frontline of the worldwide struggle with overtourism.
Of course, there are always methods for avoiding the crowds, despite their infamous size in this part of the world.
Sunsets: Little Venice or Boni’s Windmill
Cycladic sunsets rival the Aegean Sea in their attraction of a good cliche. And, of course, they are undeniably beautiful. I found myself starting every night on the islands quietly watching the sunset with a cold beer. So did everyone else.
On Mykonos, crowds tend to congregate in the sunset bars of Mykonos Town and Little Venice, overpriced cocktail in one hand and selfie stick in the other. If you have the cash to splash, then these spots are your best picks.
If, like me, you only have the funds for a cheap bottle of wine, try climbing uphill to the main road on the eastern edge of town and sitting in front of Boni’s Windmill. From this vantage, I watched the sunset slowly touch all of Mykonos Town — including the other tourists below.
Beaches: Raging party or beachside lounging?
Mykonos has a reputation for its beaches. If you’ve turned up with a group of friends and you’re all in the mood for some drinking, Paradise, Super Paradise and Paraga run beachside parties all day that slowly evolve into late night ragers.
If you’d rather avoid the drunk crowds but still want a buzzy atmosphere, try Ornos and its trendy beachside bars. Sunbeds fill up very quickly, so arrive early or face the prospect of throwing your towel down on a rocky outcrop.
For the complete opposite end of the spectrum, try Agios Ioannis, where you’ll find nothing but a couple of sunbeds and locals bathing in that beautiful blue sea.
Sites: Make the most of Mykonos Town
Luckily enough, a considerable chunk of the tourists on my ferry to Mykonos headed straight for the party beaches, leaving Mykonos Town relatively quiet. Even in the height of summer, I was able to wander around the town and take in the sights with ease. Paraportiani Church, five individual churches joined as one under a whitewash finish, was a highlight, especially in the afternoon as the sun shone directly through the bell tower. From there I walked down the coast and explored the famous Windmills at Kato Mili, then headed into town for a baked treat from the ridiculously named Gioras Wood Medieval Mykonian Bakery. Indulge yourself further by doing some shopping in one of the town’s myriad boutique fashion, art and designer stores.
Sunsets: Spoilt for choice
Santorini, which is actually the rim of a dormant volcano, is even better placed for a sunset view, as most of its major towns sit up to 1,200 feet above sea level. There’s a fantastic viewing point at all of the island’s popular hubs: Fira, Imerovigli, Oia and Firostefani.
From my experience, the most popular spots were in Fira, the island’s main town, and at Oia, the high-end fashion capital of the Cyclades. I especially struggled to find a comfortable view among the crowds at the former, even after wandering down nearby alleys and back streets for a glimpse.
The best sunset views I found were at Firostefani. Slightly lesser known and a solid 20-minute walk along the coastal path from Fira, it provided the added bonus of being able to watch the sunset cascade over those iconic white buildings and their incumbent crowds.
Beaches: The one and only Perissa
Santorini doesn’t offer anywhere near as much beachside lounging or partying as its buzzier neighbour Mykonos, but its one major contender is Perissa. With otherworldly black sand, here you’ll find an impressive array of sunbeds, bars and restaurants. For a more crowded option, you have Kamari on the island’s east coast, and for a quieter option, visit Red Beach on the south coast, aptly named for its deep red sands.
Sites: Hike the rim of a volcano
The rim of a dormant volcano, Santorini caters more for outdoor adventures, chief among them the three-hour hike from Fira to the island’s northern tip at Oia for a glimpse of the sunset. Switching out my now tired flip flops for trainers and packing a considerable quantity of water and snacks, I set out in the middle of the afternoon (on a cloudless 35 degree day, rookie error), taking the path right along the edge of the caldera. With spectacular views of the sea on one side and the dramatic volcanic rock ahead, the hike was one of my favourite experiences in Greece. A quiet walk with barely another soul in sight, it lends the bizarrely isolated churches I found along the way an almost eerie atmosphere. I was lucky enough with my timing to find a seat in one of Oia’s many cocktail bars, ready to enjoy the spectacular view with a well-earned margarita in hand.
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Feature photo by Stew Miles.