Derived from the Greek word for “circular,” this is what springs to most peoples’ minds when they hear the words “Greek island.” The approximate center of this circular group is the sacred isle of Delos. Delos was the most important center of cultic worship in the Aegean world during the thousand years before Christ. The twin gods Apollo and Artemis were said to have been born there, with Apollo worship predominating.
Characteristic images of the Cyclades include cubic, whitewashed houses, Greek-style windmills with their sail-like fins, and Cycladic sculpture, which flourished from 3300-2000 BC and feature highly stylized, geometric forms (usually female) and has had a great influence on contemporary artists and in some cases are indistinguishable from modern art.
The Cyclades include the spectacular volcanic island of Santorini, Greece’s top tourist destination, whose white villages perch on top of the cliffs of the volcano’s caldera like frosting on a German chocolate cake. No one ever forgets a trip to Santorini, and most people come back. Mykonos, famous for its wild nightlife,is also hugely popular. Mykonos was first visited by Jackie Kennedy in 1961, an event that was instrumental in the remarkable tourist boom of the Greek islands which continues to this day.
Right next door to Mykonos is the sacred island of Delos, which, while not having hotels and beaches on offer, gives day trippers from Mykonos an awe-inspiring overview of the island’s importance in the religious life of the entire Aegean, when it was a destination of pilgrims every bit as important as the Vatican and Mecca are to today’s contemporary religionists. Tinos, sometimes called the “Lourdes of Greece,”is a modern-day sacred destination, where it is almost impossible to find a room, or a seat on a ferry, for the annual August 15th celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Paros is a cheaper alternative to sometimes-pricey Mykonos, with plenty of bustling night life, pristine beaches and crystal-clear water, and pretty villages in the interior. Next-door Antiparos is noteworthy for its many fine beaches and campgrounds. Andros is one of the largest and closest islands to the mainland. One of its most interesting features is its kilometers of flat dry stack fieldstone walls dividing its local properties. At about 20 kilometers off the coast of Attica, Kea is the closest to the mainland, and the least “Cycladic-looking” architecturally. It’s a favorite of weekenders from Athens. Siros, the capital of the island group,is another one with a different architectural look, more medieval than Cycladic, with many elegant neoclassical and Venetian mansions.
Serifos also close to the mainland, is only 2 hours out of Athens. It has an informal, relaxed vibe, and its lack of packaged tourism gives it an authenticity that some other islands may have lost. Nearby Sifnos is another island little-visited by foreign tourists. Its quaint capital town of Kastro has narrow streets and nooks and corners made for exploring. It offers a pleasant combination of the authentic Greek experience along with some decent night life.
Milos, the most southwesterly of the group, is home to the world famous Venus de Milo statue, now living in the Louvre. Sarakiniko Beach, a field of convoluted grey-white rock sculpted by the sea is unlike anything else in the island group, is described by visitors as “moon-like.”
Naxos, for centuries the hegemonic power of the Cyclades, is the largest island of the group, and the most self-sufficient, which means that if the tourist trade suddenly dried up, Naxos would survive more comfortably than the other islands. This is where Dionysus, the god of wine, was supposed to have been married. A great sanctuary to this god was built there. The Portara, a huge “doorway to nowhere,” stands sentinel-like on a hill near the harbor and is the first structure the visitor notices.
For those who like to get off the main track, there are the Small Cyclades, off the southeast coast of Naxos. This grouping of half a dozen small, lesser-visited islands, Iraklia, Schinoussa, Keros, Koufonissi, Donoussa, and Amorgos have a charm all their own, with the great advantage of being (still) mostly undiscovered. Some of them are unpopulated.
There are a number of other islands in the group other than the 19 mentioned, including Anafi, Folegandros, Ios, Iraklia, Kimolos, Kithnos and Sikinos. All are extraordinarily beautiful.
The Cyclades’ close proximity to one another lends them to one of the savvy tourist’s favorite activities: island hopping. It’s pure pleasure to stay on one island for a few days, then hop on a ferry for a few hours’ trip to another island, and continue to repeat the process for the entirety of one’s vacations.