Santorini and its spectacular crater apart, the Cyclades islands aren’t generally known for their intrinsic natural beauty. There are other attractions—whether nightlife, archaeology, or beaches—that draw visitors to this mostly scrubby Greek archipelago set amid the wine-dark seas of the central Aegean. But green and fertile, hilly Naxos is the exception. It’s the largest island in the Cyclades—about three times the size of nearby Mykonos —and still a place where tourism hasn’t ruined the local flavor.
From the moment you land at the ferry port below Naxos town (also known as Chora), it’s clear that this isn’t just another vacationer-swamped Greek island. The development here far predates tourism, and though visitors will certainly find warm Greek hospitality, the island doesn’t depend on summer traffic for its livelihood. Naxos is self-sufficient—agricultural income from olives and fruit pays most of the bills—and you really get the sense that the rhythms of life here are for and by the locals. To get into the swing of things on this island, it’s recommended that you stay at least a few days.
Naxos has been continuously inhabited for about 6,000 years, and there are remarkable vestiges of its long and storied past just about everywhere. Architecturally, the island is perhaps best known for its Venetian castles and towers dotting the landscape. These were built from the 13th to the 16th century, when Venice ’s maritime republic ruled the island. In those days, the wealthy lived in a walled citadel above Chora town called the Kastro. Today, this area is Naxos’s main tourist attraction, where visitors can wander among evocative arched alleyways and gaze up at the impressive residences of the powerful Venetian families who lived here 800 years ago. One of the palaces has been converted into the excellent Domus Venetian Museum, with exhibits and tours that bring the bygone aristocratic era to life. Earlier art-historical treasures on Naxos include many Byzantine chapels, which have fine frescoes from the 9th to 13th century. In the island’s interior, don’t miss a trip to the upcountry village of Apiranthos, with its handsome architecture, laid-back pace, and shady plateas (squares) filled with men playing backgammon.
Of course, who plans a trip to the Greek islands without at least some sunbathing on the agenda? Fortunately, Naxos also has some of the Cyclades’ best beaches, like Agios Prokopios, Plaka, and Agios Georgios, whose long strip of golden sand comes as a shock after you’ve seen what passes for a “beach” on most Greek islands. The water offshore is a blissful turquoise, and the seafront is lined with atmospheric tavernas where you can break up the sunning and swimming with some fresh grilled seafood, or a hand-picked salad of local veggies, and a glass of crisp white wine.
Naxos’s central location in the Cyclades, a new airport, and frequent ferry connections from north and south make it very easy to incorporate into any Greek islands itinerary. Accommodations tend to be small, independent affairs with quirks (there are no real resort hotels here), so don’t come expecting five-star luxury and amenities.