“Do you like nachos?” The question, asked by the Greek driver of our hotel pickup, took me by surprise. It took me two seconds to realize that he wasn’t asking if I liked cheese-covered chips (an improbable find on this glorious Greek island anyway), but if I liked Naxos, the name of said Greek island and our weekend getaway locale. Once I figured out the question, I answered without hesitation, a resounding Yes! I’d been here for about 4 minutes and I already knew I was going to love Naxos as much I love nachos.
Love at first sight? How does that work? Well, if you take the ferry, you dock in Naxos City, and as you exit the rumbling boat, you’re can already see the three qualities that make Naxos one of the best islands to visit in Greece.
Why you should visit Naxos
History, Mythology, and Architecture
You can’t miss it as you come off the ferry—a 26-foot (8-meter) tall door that appears to lead to nowhere. It’s called the Portara, which in Greek means…big door. According to research, it used to lead into either a temple for Apollo, the god of war (based on the orientation of the door’s facing what was allegedly Apollo’s birthplace), or a temple for Dionysus, the god of wine and merriment, for whom the island has a special affinity. Whoever it was dedicated to, the temple must have been an epic sight. Now connected to the Naxos mainland by a narrow causeway, it stands on a well-rounded hill and fronts the ruin of a long, wide rectangle foundation. It’s an epic site, especially considering that the temple doorway is estimated to be 2,500 years old.
The Portara isn’t the only ruin on Naxos. If you venture to the southern beaches, you can easily make a side stop at two other temples—the temple of Demeter and a (maybe) second temple of Dionysus. You can’t visit Naxos and not go to the temple of Demeter, the goddess of fertility. It’s a well-restored white marble structure that seems to pop randomly out of the dusty Grecian farmland. Sheep graze the golden grass, and a hedgerow of well-watered pink and red flowers lining the walk give the temple a slight feeling of being an oasis. We didn’t make it to the smaller temple of Dionysus before it closed, but through the gates, it looked like more of a proper ruin set in the middle of a lovely garden. Somewhat incongrously, it’s located between what appears to be two modern dairy farms.
The ferry pier T-bones—left, to the Portara causeway, and right, to the wide waterfront promenade running the length of the old city of Naxos. This clustered old town rises straight back from the promenade, into a labyrinthian market full of spice shops, jewelry stores, open-air restaurants, tiny bars, linen clothiers, and residences. Each one feels perched on top of the next, layered like a cake right up to the Castle of Chora, a medieval castle-cum-museum.
Probably our favorite part of our visit to Naxos was wandering through the old city’s narrow alleys. Some of them tunnel beneath the buildings, making it feel even more like a maze, especially for Tim, who is 6’5 (195cm). When you want to escape the fierce heat of the midday sun, the shade of the clustered white buildings offers the perfect respite. My personal favorite shop was Papyrus, a glorious second-hand bookshop that offers well-organized reading sections in English, Danish, Swedish, German, and Greek—but that’s just because I’m a bookworm. Tim’s favorite spot was any of one of the number of rooftop bars. You just can’t beat a sunset Ouzo on a Grecian rooftop.
See what other places we recommend in Naxos City.
The Sparkling Sea
And last but not least, what everyone comes to Greece to enjoy. That sparkling Aegean sea. Naxos City offers a few beaches in walking proximity, but we found them too crowded and busy to really enjoy. We did, however, love taking a sunset swim in the lagoon next to the Portara (followed by wine and snacks on the causeway while the sun sank).
Our hotel guide told us to go south to find untouched beaches, so bright and early Saturday morning, we took his advice, making a multi-stop beach crawl until sundown. Kastraki, Glyfada, Aliko, and Pirigaki—each beach more beautiful and less crowded than the one before. Next to Pirigaki, we stopped for a break from the sun at Notos Seaside, enjoying a deliciously fresh light lunch. Then back to the sand for another dip in the ocean and a few more hours soaking up the brilliant sun and a trashy paperback. All in relative solitude.
When American friends have gone island-hopping in Greece, I’ve heard about two islands: Santorini and Mykonos. Santorini, the Princess of Pinterest, is a hotspot for romantic honeymoons, while Mykonos is the party island, a favorite of the study abroad crews. Friends in Europe recommended Thessaloniki and Korfu (Google photos doesn’t disappoint), but I hadn’t ever heard of Naxos. Located at the half-way point between Athens and Santorini, is every much the picturesque paradise of its heavily-pinned neighbor, but relatively unknown amongst Americans, if not by Europeans. When I told friends about our visit to Naxos, the response was word-for-word the same: “Naxos! My favorite place in the entire world.” And after our weekend there, I can easily see why.