Syros: heritage & classical culture

City of Hermes:

The expansive Plateia Miaouli is the heart of the neoclassical town, a pleasant marbled square of palm trees, cafes and arcades dominated by the monumental town hall.

Holidaymakers who may be left with a feeling that the ‘real Greece’ has eluded them after a visit to throbbing stereotypes such as Myconos, Santorini and Rhodes, or even to those off-the-beaten- path, picture-postcard empty beaches and tranquil fishing villages, are certain to have missed Syros, the seat of the Cyclades. Heritage goes a long way toward shaping the character of a place, and Ermoupolis, the island’s capital and the administrative center of the Southern Aegean region, has loads of it. Without Ermoupolis, Syros would have looked like most other Cyclades islands, which nowadays are more or less defined by their tourism industry. Founded in the 1820s around the naturally sheltered Syros harbor by enterprising Greek refugees fleeing mainly from Asia Minor and the island of Chios after the outbreak of the War of Independence, Ermoupolis was named after Hermes, the ancient god of commerce, as Greeks turned to their classical roots for nation-building. It soon became the fledgling nation’s biggest port and economic capital. Along with the transit trade, shipbuilding and its related industries spearheaded the drive to prosperity, which brought a flourishing of the arts and letters and a wide array of imposing neoclassical public and private buildings. Its population was 22,000 in 1889 – much greater than today. But by the end of the 19th century, the opening of the Corinth Canal and the continuous growth of Athens had already set the slow decline of Ermoupolis in motion.

 

Tourism revived the island in the 1980s, aided by the shipbuilding industry, a sizable farm sector and administrative devolution. Helped by extensive restoration work in recent decades, Ermoupolis has seen much of its faded luster return and can still boast the most impressive collection of 19th century architecture among the islands, if not in all of Greece. But it is very much a vibrant, working, year-round city, with a great deal of cultural life, dozens of restaurants of all types, cafes, nightlife, shops and a casino. Blending splendor and decay, it feels like a little Palermo on the Aegean. The expansive Plateia Miaouli is the heart of the neoclassical town, a pleasant marbled square of palm trees, cafes and arcades dominated by the monumental town hall. Adjacent grand mansions house the Municipal Cultural Center and the historical archives. Directly behind the cultural center is the Apollon Theater, said to be a scaled-down model of Milan’s famous La Scala. It neighbors the Vaporia quarter, with the impressive mansions where the island’s wealthiest families once lived, above the Orthodox Cathedral of Aghios Nikolaos.

Syros on the Map

Outside Ermoupolis, picturesque Kini is probably the best place on Syros to stay if you want to avoid city bustle. Only a 15-minute drive from Ermoupolis, sitting in a big bay on the western coast, it has a long sandy beach and a small fishing harbor on one side, trees for shade, a few small hotels, a scattering of rooms and summer houses and a handful of fish tavernas. By the waterline, a fountain features a fisherman held by a mermaid, Panagia Gorgona (Virgin Mary the Mermaid), patroness of fishermen.  The sculpture pays tribute to fishermen lost at sea.

Sailboats and yachts can moor further south in Galissas, one of the best beaches with several tavernas, homes and rooms to rent. From a chapel on a promontory to the south, the view in all directions is breathtaking. Adjacent Armeos is a nudist beach. Continuing south, Finikas is a yachting center, the best sailboat harbor on the island, separated by a tiny headland from its neighbor Posidonia, or Dellagracia, which sports a number of ornate mansions with landscaped gardens. Megas Yialos, on the south coast, is a long, sandy beach lined with shade trees and a handful of hotels and tavernas. Northern Syros, or Ano Meria, is a rocky barren place and most of its untamed beaches can only be reached by boat from Kini or Ermoupolis. Here, the necropolis of Halandriani and the acropolis at Kastri, above the eastern shore, attest to one the most important settlements of the neolithic Keros-Syros phase of Cycladic culture. There are marked footpaths that cover the whole island for those who want to explore its most remote churches and settlements, but a car or a moped is advisable if you wish to optimize your time available. A sailboat ideally gets you to the remote beaches.

Where to Eat

Syros has a history of good food and outstanding eateries.

In the port quarter, Kouzina, Seminario, Petrino, and Ithaki tou Ai

In Ano Syros, the hidden gem, Maison de Meze.

In Papouri, San Michalis

In Kini, Allou Yialou, seafood with a fine view

Syros is famed for its loukoumia (Turkish delight) and sweets. Several shops dot the harbor street. For fabulous ice cream, try Daidadi Gelato in Papagou Square.

What to See

Ano Syros, the medieval Catholic hilltop quarter that overlooks the port, typically Cycladic in feel and criss-crossed by steep and winding alleyways; the Vrondatho quarter, on the adjacent hill topped by the Church of Anastasi, is reached via an immense flight of steps. It affords superb views of the sea, the port, the dockyards and nearby islands; the Syros Industrial Museum, free entry, exhibits aspects of the town’s industrial heritage; the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin near the port contains an icon of the same name by El Greco; and the Archaeological Museum.

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