Mykonos is a no-brainer stop on the Cyclades island-hopping trail. The island situated the closest to the center of the Aegean sea, has been famed as the “Ibiza of Greece” and there’s no doubt that it has earned its title of party maven.
However, when I arrived on the island during off season it was only me and a few other travellers amongst the locals. Though I missed out on the party scene at its peak, I was able to see an authentic Mykonos, one that may get less recognition due to relentless hangovers or the magnetic draw of parties that run from dusk to dawn.
Here’s what has me hooked on this beautiful Greek island, and what will have you hooked too…
Step inside a postcard
The tale of narrow cobbled streets winding around whitewashed, stone cubic buildings with purple bougainvillea flowers flowing down from windowsills is not just a pretty thought. Mykonos Town, called Chora by the locals, delivers. The maze of streets in this town were said to have been crafted to confuse looting pirates.
Follow the wanderlust-inducing labyrinth around this cosmopolitan center and you can peruse boutiques selling artisan jewellery and souvenirs along Matogianni St. This is the perfect promenade to draw you to more laid-back hangouts like Alley Cafe & Cocktail Bar. Doubling as a great bar to check out at night, I found that it’s equally as idyllic to chill out on the terrace during the day .
Visit Alefkanda, better known as Little Venice, for its seaside verandas and narrow paths leading to the water, reminiscent of Italy’s Venice. The 18th century settlement has a rich elegance while preserving the beautiful, simple architecture. Here you’ll have a great view of the windmills of Kato Mili, strategically placed for the strong winds known as meltemi, the wind blowing from north to northwest across the Aegean Sea.
These landmarks of the island were once responsible for grinding wheat and barley. Although not operational now, the mill’s production of flour explains why there is such a rich history in bread-making on the island.
You can get your fix of fresh-baked goods from Gioras Wood Bakery, the last bakery in the Cyclades to bake bread in traditional wood-fired ovens. George Vamvakouris, who inherited the 2nd oldest building on the island along with the artisan bread making techniques from his grandfather, raves about the amigdalota, meaning almond cookie in Greek. Since I’m not one to deny dessert for breakfast, I was seduced by some sweet treats to start off the day.
Contemporary art scene
In complement to its liberal party scene, the island of Mykonos has become a hub for international contemporary artists to showcase their work in its galleries.
Follow the cobbled streets of Chora for a gallery crawl. Start out at Dio Horia, a space that sets out to evoke debate over the dichotomy of Mykonos’ intoxicating charm and beauty, along with its excessive indulgence. My favourite, Rarity Gallery, is the first gallery to bring internationally known contemporary artist’s exhibits to the art scene in Greece. Rarity’s thoughtfully curated venue houses both avant-garde and traditional paintings, sculptures and photography. They curate five rotating solo exhibits annually, yet there’s always varied work to check-out year round.
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Ouzo: The social magnet
The hedonistic social scene didn’t come out of nowhere. In Mykonos, happy hour starts in the afternoon and sets the social tone for the day. The first time I drank ouzo, I was offered the shot glass filled with cloudy liquor, let out a gia mas (cheers), then swiftly threw back the shot. This was when I was enlightened of the art of sipping ouzo by local ouzo revellers.
Ouzo isn’t just a drink— it’s a reflection of the hedonistic way of life of locals and visitors alike who come to the Cyclades to indulge. There was nothing sweeter than sitting in the sun and savouring the subtle notes of the anise-flavoured liquor.
Don’t forget to sip the ouzo, this isn’t a sprint — it’s a marathon! Add mezza (Greek for appetizers) to the mid-day rotation; the ideal accompaniment to ouzo.
Take in the view of Old Port from Madoupas Cafe, which will more than take care of all your mezza needs. They also serve up the Mykonian staples: fresh tzatziki, ocean-to-table seafood as well as kopanisti, a spicy cheese dish with olive oil and tomato.
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The gateway to offshore archaeology
The name Cyclades is from the root word cyclos, meaning circular formation, which refers to the arrangement of the Cyclades around the sacred island of Delos. Delos is a UNESCO World Heritage site that remains uninhabited and, since staying overnight on the island is prohibited, Mykonos is the best launch point for exploring its history. (There’s just a few miles between them.)
Delos is considered the mythological birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. It is the largest island-based archaeological site on the globe, full of ancient gems, among them being the terrace of the Lions.
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Since public transportation isn’t the island’s strong point, it’s worth renting a 4-wheeler or motor bike to explore the northern coast. Mykonos’ off-road taverns deliver the authentic dining experience to satisfy that ever-craved Mediterranean diet.
Kiki’s Tavern, above the beach at Agios Sostis, has no phone to call to reserve nor any set hours, opening when the sun rises and closing when it gets dark. I followed the aroma of the charcoal barbecue to this modest restaurant and tasted a few of the many fresh salads, unable to choose just one – the indulgent spirit had rubbed off on me.
(For a more comprehensive explanation of Greek food, check out this guide and this foodie trip.)
My favourite spot to party was Panormos beach bar situated on the north side of the island, opposite of the restless Paradise beach. With wooden bench tables with multi-colored pastel cushions and ornate lanterns, they’ve mastered the boho-chic deco, while creating a lively atmosphere with house music and punchy cocktails.
On the northwest of the island, Mersini beach is a paradise — no umbrellas, no sunbeds, no blaring music, just clear waters. With a gradual sloping descent into the ocean, this secluded beach showcases Mykonos in its natural state. And, really, it shows how much more there is to the island than mere parties. Bliss.
Tempted to visit this stunning island? Check out our range of small group adventures in Greece.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, iStock, Intrepid Travel, iStock x2, Intrepid Travel)