This is the original island-hopping destination, and with BA recently launching direct flights from Heathrow to both Santorini and Mykonos, it’s easier than ever to escape to gorgeous Greece. Each of the Cyclades has its own personality, but regardless of where you end up, you’re certain to find exceptionally beautiful landscapes and delicious local cuisine; we could happily feast on fava and souvlaki, washed down with crisp white wine, for weeks on end…
The Cyclades is a unique collection of islands – packed with character and Greek charm – that have been enticing visitors ever since ancient poet Homer walked the land. The islands fulfil their traditional name (kyklos, meaning circle) by surrounding the sacred UNESCO-listed island of Delos – the mythological birthplace of twin Greek gods, Apollo and Artemis. Today the Cyclades remain classically Greek, with white-washed villages, blue-domed churches, beaches coated in volcanic sand, hillsides covered in wild herbs and vineyards, and tavernas overlooking the glistening Aegean Sea.
With so many islands choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin or which to visit; here we take a whistle-stop tour of our top picks that all deserve a place on your travel wish list.
It’s hard not to fall in love with postcard-perfect Santorini, created about 4,000 years ago by one of the mightiest volcanic eruptions in human history. The people here are proud of their fiery beginnings, and the still-active volcano’s presence is at the forefront of the island’s personality, from the black and red sand beaches of Kamari and Perissa, to the volcanic-rock jewellery on offer in Oia, and the incredible ancient rubble-coated Minoan site of Akrotiri, often believed to be part of Plato’s lost city of Atlantis.
Kameni (lava) islands, Santorini
The island is also famed for its sunsets and, trust us, they are incredible. Cosy up with a glass of wine on the terrace of one of our coastal retreats, and watch the sun vanish into the waves. Or, if you’d rather be closer to the vineyards (and the wine-tasting opportunities that go hand-in-hand) reside at restored mansion, Zannos Melathron.
Perivolas Traditional Houses, Santorini
The Cyclades’ other big name is Mykonos, one of the Greek islands’ original, and classiest, party destinations. There are sandy beaches galore (Paradise and Super Paradise are legendary), hidden coves, blue waters, white-washed windmills, and a gorgeously Greek capital that is often said to have the region’s most picturesque harbour. It’s also worth knowing that this is one of the few Greek islands that allows water sports – so water-skiing, windsurfing and scuba diving are all very much available.
Seriously sexy Grace Mykonos and supremely stylish Hotel Belvedere are both perfectly positioned, just a short walk from Mykonos Town’s boutiques, restaurants and bars; be sure to enjoy a sundowner in Little Venice. While you’re here, head over to uninhabited Delos for the day (there are frequent boat trips across the water) and explore the incredible archaeological remains, dedicated to Apollo, that cover the entire island: there’s the ‘Terrace of Lions’, an impressive amphitheatre and numerous temples. It’s pretty amazing to think that people have been taking trips to this tiny island for thousands of years – ensure you’re one of them!
Grace Mykonos, Mykonos
Naxos is the travel interchange, and the largest, of the Cyclades Islands, so if you’re island-hopping there’s a high chance you’ll be changing ferries here. Naxos Town is a deservedly popular, very photogenic seafront town capped by a well-preserved Venetian castro. It’s a great place to stay at any time of year, and combines Cycladic beauty with authentic Greek bustle. At the centre of the island lies a plateau covered in olive groves, with quaint villages, Byzantine chapels, ancient grave circles, kouros statues and a crumbling castle scattered around. See our favourite places to stay on the island.
The most northerly island in the Cyclades, and one of our editor-in-chief Mike’s all-time favourite destinations, is the relatively undiscovered Andros, whose dramatic mountainous interior is made up of lush valleys and cascading waterfalls. Onar, a secluded cluster of stone houses, is nestled into a quiet cove on the eastern coast of the island, right next to a large natural park. Sit around a glowing fire in the evening, bask in the morning sunshine over a communal breakfast and spend your days exploring: head to sandy Fellos beach, or perhaps the twin coves of Vitali, to swim, tan and feast on fresh seafood in the local tavernas.
Despite its small size, Syros has the largest capital in the Cyclades. Once a major Venetian base, Ermoupoli is characterised by neoclassical Italian architecture and an impressive port which spreads between 2 hills – stay at Hotel Syrou Melathron. Out of town you’ll find various unspoilt beaches; we love the cove at Kini fishing village, on the west coast, and visitors can spend the night at gorgeous Pino di Loto.
The Venus de Milo was discovered at the amphitheatre in ancient Melos, on Milos island, a fascinating archaeological site well worth a visit. Milos has the largest number of beaches of all the Cyclades Islands, and the slow pace of life encourages you to fully utilise them. The caique (fishing boat) trips to the island’s coves and rock stacks are a real highlight – they leave from Adamas harbour every morning in summer (weather permitting). After all that sun and sea, retire to uniquely charming Milos windmill.
Milos windmill, Milos
Finally there’s Folegandros, one of the smallest islands in the Cyclades. It’s little more than a lump of rock covered with fields, sprinkled with white-washed hamlets, and fringed by coves dug into the steep coastline. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in charm – that relaxed, outdoor living, blue and white, Greek charm. Stay at stunning cliff-top hideaway, Anemomilos Apartments.
Anemomilos Apartments, Folegandros
When to go
The best time to visit the islands is in spring (late April – May) and autumn (September – early October) when bright sunshine is pretty much a given, the sea is warm enough to swim in, and the restaurants and ferry routes are still operating. The prices tend to be slightly cheaper than summer, and you won’t be jostling for space in the baking heat. Many of the local restaurants and other tourist facilities close over the winter as the weather can get very stormy.
Our top tip
The best place to start your Greek odyssey is on either Santorini or Mykonos: both have international airports and direct ferry connections from the mainland. There are frequent ferry and hydrofoil connections between the two, as well as to the other smaller islands.
See our destination guide for more information on the Cyclades and places to stay.