As one approaches the port of Ermoupolis (named after Hermes, the god of commerce), the main town of the island of Syros and capital of the Cyclades, one cannot help but marvel at its beauty and grandeur. Imposing public buildings and private mansions, marble-paved streets, a large Italian-style piazza and numerous churches make the city one of the best preserved examples of 19th-century architecture in Greece.
This should not come as a surprise: in the aftermath of the 1821 Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, Syros developed into an important commercial, cultural and industrial center, as refugees from Asia Minor, Chios, Crete and other areas found a safe haven from the war on the small island.
What makes Syros and Ermoupolis so different from the rest of the Cyclades is not solely the architecture; it’s the fact that the island feels like a real Greek place where tourists are guests and package holidays are almost non-existent. With a population of around 20,000 people and a small community of students, Syros remains lively even during off-season. Dotted with endless shops, cafes and bars, it’s a great place to see on foot or bicycle – especially with the recent construction of the bicycle path along the port, as well as the municipal bikes available to rent for a nominal fee.
The heart of the island is Miaouli Square, dominated by the beautiful town hall on its northern side, designed by famous Bavarian architect Ernest Ziller and finished in 1891. This is where locals meet for a morning coffee or an evening meal, and it is paradise for children, who can skate or ride their bikes on the marble. One of the nicest places to enjoy a traditional Greek breakfast with local honey, eggs and cheese, or some ouzo with meze is Ellinikon Kafeneion. It has tables both on Miaouli Square and on the opposite quiet little square, and its menu offers quality products from all over Greece that you can also purchase to enjoy at home. Another favorite place with the locals is Stellas, situated at the side of the grand town hall stairway. The interior is reminiscent of European cafes of the 19th century, and the place is mostly known for loukoumades, the syrupy fried donuts one can find all over Greece. Like most places on the square, it also serves snacks, coffee and drinks.
On the eastern side of the square is Chios street, the main food-shopping street in town. It is a bit touristy nowadays, but there are still great places that sell local products – such as Salimbaki, a butcher’s shop that specializes in traditional sausages and loutza, the local cured pork loin seasoned with cloves and cinnamon. Sausages in Syros are very aromatic and are usually flavored with the wild fennel (marathos) that grows on the island.
At the end of Chios street, just before you reach the sea, you will see Prekas, the biggest, most famous food store in Syros. Founded in 1993 by Kostas Prekas, it was very forward thinking for its time, offering a wide variety of local specialty products from all over the Aegean and Greece. It stocks San Michali, the excellent local DOP cow’s milk cheese, and a good selection of other local and Greek cheeses, some of which are very hard to find. It also offers traditional products made in-house, like pastelaries, sun-dried figs filled with sesame and flavored with cinnamon, sun-dried tomatoes and pickled kritamo (Crithmum maritimum), also known as sea fennel or rock samphire, a spicy plant typically eaten in salads. Other food shops stocking quality Greek products include Topon Gefseis and Meidani, which is particularly notable for carrying products from Crete.
Loukoumia (Turkish delight) arrived in Syros in 1832 together with refugees from the island of Chios and have become part of the island’s gastronomic culture. Loukoumia from Syros are highly regarded in Greece and are a typical souvenir to bring back home. Korres, right on the side of Miaouli Square, is one of the best loukoumi producers on the island. Of all the wonderful flavors available in the shop, our favorites are rose and bergamot. We also recommend the excellent halvathopittes (halva pies), a tasty sweet reminiscent of nougat.
If you have a sweet tooth, you shouldn’s miss Athymaritis, a pastry shop hidden away on a small street near the waterfront. Founded in 1924, it specializes in sweets like baklava, but the best-selling item is the mouth-watering mastihaki, mastic-flavored almond paste wrapped in phyllo and doused in syrup. Finally, while waiting for the ferry, don’t forget to try the artisanal ice cream at Daidadi. Founded in 1997 by Italian native Daniele Mentri, the shop serves ice cream made daily from fresh local milk and features flavors such as “imperial fig,” “Cuban chocolate” (with rum) and, of course, all the classics.
Shipbuilding was an integral part of commercial life in Syros in the previous century. The large shipyard, Neorion, was founded in 1861 and is still functioning, although financial difficulties have depleted its workforce. Another small shipyard, Tarsanas, specializes in fixing wooden boats and is one of the few surviving ones in Greece. It also hosts a great little eatery with the same name, where, amongst half-finished wooden boats, one can enjoy meat or fish dishes and various meze while listening to live music (weekends only).
Vaporia (“ship” in Greek) is the most picturesque neighborhood in Ermoupolis. Home to rich sea captains, it features beautiful neoclassical mansions dating to the 1850s and built right on the water. Some of these have even been converted to boutique hotels. A stroll there to see the view, the buildings and the stunning church of St. Nicholas is a must. If you want to linger a bit more and enjoy the atmosphere you can sit in Sta Vaporia, which has the best location on the whole island for a drink or coffee (the food is less than stellar, however, and very overpriced), or head down to Asteria, a beach bar and café right on the water. You can also swim in Vaporia, although there is no beach per se, just small concrete jetties with stepladders to access the crystal-blue waters.
The medieval settlement of Ano Syros, or Apano Chora, rises above Errmoupolis and is crowned by the Catholic church of St. George. It is very different from cosmopolitan Ermoupolis and closer to what most visitors have in mind when they think “Greek Islands”: narrow, steep, winding streets and whitewashed houses with blue shutters. Home to the Catholic community of Syros and birthplace of the musician Markos Vamvakaris, it is a favorite amongst locals and visitors for late afternoon strolls, a bit of artisanal shopping and, of course, the beautiful vistas towards Ermoupolis and the Aegean. Ano Syros has several eateries and cafes, with or without views. One of the most well known is Frangosyriani, an old-style kafeneion on Vamvakaris Square, which serves traditional meze, including a great froutalia, or omelet similar to a Spanish tortilla, with potatoes, vegetables and Syros sausage. Maison de Meze is also a good place to stock up on homemade local products like sun dried-tomatoes and pickled capers. You could even enjoy them there with a glass of ouzo at one of the few tables they have set up in the adjacent alley.
The rest of Syros offers not only beautiful beaches, but also some great food. Most eateries are seaside tavernas where one can enjoy a meal before or after a swim. Tis Filomilas in Azolimnos serves traditional dishes with a twist, including the best roast pork knuckle we have eaten in Greece. During winter one can enjoy the warmth of the fireplace while gazing at the waves outside. Floisvos, on stunning Agathopes beach, is a very simple eatery, famous for its meatballs and fries, but its traditional Greek dishes are very good too. Ambela, situated on the quiet beach of the same name, combines good traditional Greek dishes made from fresh ingredients with a lovely atmosphere. It also offers an interesting wine list, including Fabrika and San Ta Maratha, whites produced on Syros.
Galissas is a busy beach with the only “resort” on the island and some below-average tourist eateries. Among them, Iliovasilema really stands out and is the closest one can get to a gourmet restaurant in Syros. Owned by chef Kostas Bougiouris, it offers beautifully prepared dishes using local ingredients. Most recipes are inspired by the varied cuisine of the Aegean.
In the western part of the island, the cosmopolitan picturesque settlement of Kini has a long sandy beach, as well as many options for staying in or going out. It’s worth making the trip there just to enjoy a meal in either the simple Tzitzikia (Two Cicadas on the Armirikia) or the adjacent, more upmarket Allou Yiallou.
Syros is not just a wonderful place to spend your holidays, but also a good base for exploring many of the Cycladic islands nearby, such as Mykonos, Tinos, Paros and Kythnos and more, as it has good boat connections to Piraeus all year round.