As the ship approaches Syros, two hills - one with vast neoclassicals tumbling down to azure waters and one with small medieval houses - come into view through the rugged landscape of rocky cliffs. Hermoupolis and Ano Syros, respectively, pleasantly surprise those who expect the blue-and-white-cube Cycladic archetype.
Capital of the island and of the Cyclades complex, Hermoupolis is a thriving town by the sea. A walk through its vibrant streets and squares, princely mansions and stunning neoclassical buildings dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century with amazing sea views will sweep you off your feet! Shelter for Greek refugees during the revolutionary war against the Ottoman rule, Syros accepted hundreds of merchants, shipowners and entrepreneurs who fled their islands and Asia Minor to escape the atrocities. The foundation was set in 1822, when the first wave arrived. The newcomers created Hermoupolis, fittingly naming it after the Greek ancient god Hermes, and rapidly developed their town into an important international commercial, cultural and industrial hub linking West and East. Old World grandeur reigns in every corner and every little nook, in public spaces, in every palazzo or majestic mansion. Reflecting the wealth and the influences of Romantic Neoclassicism, lordly neoclassicals with immense grace and flourish in expensive details flank marble-paved streets or overhang the sea rightfully demanding admiration. Walking under ornately corbelled balconies, passing by monumental facades, marble pediments and murals with mythical scenes painted on ceilings, it’s difficult to remember this is in fact a small Greek island. Until you look at the bright sun glistening on the deep blue sea.
But whatever you discover in Hermoupolis the introduction is always the same; It starts with the island's most iconic landmark - the majestic Town Hall. Designed by Ernst Ziller to impress, the 19th-century building of palatial proportions is an absolutely marble-ous masterpiece inspired by three architectural styles bearing an imposing staircase of 15.5 meters width and striking features. The Town Hall dominates the Miaoulis Square, one of the most remarkable 19th century squares of Greece. Flanked by imposing neoclassicals, tall palm trees and a marble music stage dedicated to the ancient Greek god of music Apollo, this square is where the heart of Syros beats. Here you can visit the Archeological Museum of Hermoupolis where finds from the Prehistoric Period, the Early Cycladic and Byzantine periods are exhibited. Here you will get to enter the former Club Hellas and nowadays home of the Cultural Center where the Cycladic Art Replicas Exhibition and the Municipal Library are hosted.
Stroll around to absorb the town's unique character, notice its architectural landmarks, visit the Apollo Municipal Theater to enter a world of another era where the audience sank into plump-velvet seats in the auditorium or the plush boxes beneath a ceiling of murals depicting poets and composers. Ascend the imposing marble staircase with the propylaea and Ionic columns of the cathedral dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Hermoupolis, to admire its magnificent Byzantine architecture, archaic motifs, arcades and array of sculpted decorations. Peek inside elegant shops, pause in one of the numerous cafés and chic restaurants where the food scene is incredible. Lazy at the town’s port, where yachts nose a shore lined with 19th-century neoclassical beauties and old warehouses long turned into cafes and restaurants with outside tables overlooking the sea and Hermoupolis and the stone lighthouse, the tallest in Greece and the first with a revolving machine in the Aegean Sea. Or swim at Asteria, the popular urban beach of Vaporia district where glorious neoclassicals loom over the sea. Here you will find yourself in a dilemma of what is the most beautiful to photograph; the view of the sea from the land or the view of Hermoupolis from the sea?
Climb up the hill to Ano Syros, the Cycladic citadel of the later Byzantine era. Enter through the archway, you may have to duck if you are six feet tall, to one of the island’s most atmospheric places; Ano Syros is a fortress town high above the Aegean Sea on a conic hill with humble quaint houses featuring vibrant-painted shutters and tiny terraces draped in canopies of bright bougainvillea. Follow the coiling cobbled alleys and winding staircases up to the top where the Church of Saint George overlooks the capital town, the port, the neighboring islands and, of course, the endless blue of the Aegean. Discoveries of local artisan creations, tiny cafés, shops and tavernas that line this delightful labyrinth reward the wanderers who spend time exploring. Must-see attractions are the Historical Archive of Ano Syros, the Exhibition of Traditional Professions, the spring of the Orthodox Church of Saint Athanasios, the Capuchin monastery, the Catholic Cathedral of San George, the house dedicated to Markos Vamvakaris who was one of the most influential Greek rebetiko musicians.
Venture further inland to discover atmospheric villages like Episkopio, a resort on the slope of a pine-covered hill with imposing mansions and lush gardens of the 19-century wealthy bourgeoisie of Hermoupolis. Or Chroussa with old manors dating back to the early 20th century and picturesque chapels and churches. Tour around the southern part of Syros with seaside resorts to unwind into the tempo of the Cycladic lifestyle and enjoy organized beaches lined up with seaside hotels, restaurants and beach bars. For all-out glitz and glamour, Posidonia with grand manors of the past embellished with towers and the prestigious Agathopes beach is the obvious choice and where everyone heads for the daybeds and parasols, modern cafes, restaurants and tavernas. Galissas is one of the beaches that live up to the poster-famous Cycladic beach scenery. Komito, Ambela, Achladi, Delfini, Lotos and Kokkina will introduce you to all things related to “living on island time”.
Megas Gialos, Vari, Azolimnos and Kini boast shallow waters, umbrellas and sunbeds for hire, beachfront cafes and taverns. Dotted by houses in white and hues of blue interjected by the masts of the resting sailing boats at its marina, the cove of Finikas with its long beach and water sports facilities is perfect for swimming, enjoying meals in family-run tavernas and sipping drinks at unpretentious cafés.
Climb aboard a small boat in Kini for a tour of the northern unspoiled beaches of Aetos, Lia, Marmari and Gria Spilia. Or follow tracks over sage-and thyme-scented hills to far-flung coves such as Grammata (meaning Letters), where inscriptions carved on the rocks by passing sailors tell stories about how this bay has been a refuge from the fierce northern winds of the Aegean throughout the centuries. Go on a hike to the island's northern tip and to the prehistoric sites of Chalandriani and Kastri, both considered as the most important fortifying construction of the 3rd millennium BC in the Aegean. The extent of the settlements, the variety in the plan views of the excavated houses, the findings of pottery, stone carving, miniature art and metalwork indicate a flourishing society dating back to the late Neolithic era, between 4000 and 3000 BC.
Set in the Aegean Sea, Syros has a discreet glamour, an air of prestigiousness without any hint of showiness. Not having succumbed to the often damaging result of mass tourism, is the destination of choice for island-enthusiasts, foodies, art-lovers and seekers of an under-the-radar holiday destination.