Only four kilometres off the coast of Turkey, Kos is the third-largest island in the Dodecanese. As a key administrative centre from Classical Greece to Roman times, the island is littered with ancient ruins.
Many are right on the edge of Kos Town, where the Agora has hundreds of years of history and a rebuilt Roman house is furnished with ancient frescoes and mosaics. The ancient physician, Hippocrates spent some of his career on Kos at the Asklepion, which is also the most remarkable site of all.
Something else to adore about Kos is its catalogue of beaches, that can be bursting with facilities or uninhabited and in the middle of nowhere. The best picks tend to be in the west, where Agios Stefanos near Kefalos faces a charming islet and the more exposed Cavo Paradiso is washed by rolling waves.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kos:
The place where Hippocrates was trained in the 5th century BC was discovered not far from Kos Town in 1902. Raised above the Kos plain, the Asklepion is the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of medicine.
People suffering maladies would travel from far and wide to seek treatment at the permission of the sanctuary’s priests.
A modern visitor can download an app to see 3D reconstructions of the sanctuary as they wander through it.
Accessed by a grand stairway, the site is on four enormous terraces, the lowest of which has the foundations of the patients’ rooms with busts still visible in the niches.
The spas, medical school and abaton (priests’ sanctuary) are on the level above, while at the uppermost terrace stood the “Great Altar”, once commanded by a monumental statue of Asclepius that was later replaced with a church.
2. Ancient Agora
The commercial and social soul of Ancient Kos, the Agora is near the port, a few steps down from Nerantzia Castle.
One of the largest Agoras in Greece, it was first laid out in the 4th century BC and its houses and sanctuaries had to be rebuilt repeatedly after a series of earthquakes.
As limestone is used in the oldest constructions and marble in the new ones, it was possible to identify the ages of the muddle of ruins here, and information boards have been set up every few steps to make things clearer.
You can check out a section of the old city wall, a colonnade, sanctuaries to Hercules and Aphrodite, the foundations of private homes and pieces of port infrastructure like warehouses.
3. Casa Romana
Discovered in the 1930s, this 36-room villa in the south of Kos Town has been completely restored to shed light on affluent domestic life on Kos almost 2,000 years ago.
Constructed around two peristyles with splendid columns and a smaller atrium, the house dates to the 2nd century AD and sits on the foundations of an earlier residence from the Hellenistic Period.
The reconstruction makes clear what is real and what is new, and there are statues of nymphs and Athena, amphorae, coins, mosaics and faint frescoes to see, all well-labelled with interpretive signs.
4. Palio Pili
If you have a car make sure to spend a day travelling across the island’s interior, where you’ll happen upon delightful little villages, mountains and historical sites like the abandoned village of Palio Pili on Mont Kieo.
It seems impossible today, but from the 11th century to the 19th century this was the capital of the island.
Palio Pili was abandoned from 1830 during a cholera epidemic and its houses are in various states of ruin.
On the mountaintop are the crumbling walls of a Byzantine castle founded in the 9th century and later Bolstered by the Knights of St John as a last refuge from pirate attacks.
The panorama here is magnificent, and you can pick out the Turkish coast, the islands of Pserimos and Kalymnos and almost the entirety of Kos.
5. Agios Stefanos Beach
A few things come together to make Agios Stefanos Beach a scene of real beauty.
The beach itself is likeable, with a mixture of white sand and pebbles.
But what makes it so special is that it sits on a channel of twinkling turquoise water, facing Kastri, a picturesque islet crested by a tall rock.
You can hire a pedal boat to cross the channel, explore the islet and see the church of Agios Nicolaos.
On the low promontory on the eastern fringe of Agios Stephanos beach are the ruins of two early-Christian basilicas, built in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. The buildings were eventually toppled by earthquakes and excavated in 1932. It’s easy to make out the basic shape of the buildings, while columns and a set of mosaics have been left where they were found.
6. Roman Odeon
On the southern outskirts of Kos Town stands the ancient city’s restored Odeon.
Built in the 2nd century AD this was a music conservatory and doubled as a meeting place for the senate.
At that time the Odeon had a roof and was able to seat 750 people on 14 rows of stone benches.
The first nine were made of marble and reserved for the city’s elite, while the granite back five were for normal citizens.
Since the structure was excavated in 1929, those front nine rows have been restored.
Mosaics have been found on the passageways leading to the scene, while the statues that once adorned the inner galleries are now in the Kos Archaeological Museum.
Check what’s on the calendar when you come to Kos, as the Odeon is still used as a music venue in summer.
7. Tigaki beach
This beach in the north of the island, a breeze from Kos Town, faces the south coast of Pserimos across the straits.
It’s not hard to see why families love Tigaki Beach; the shore is well-served by accommodation, there are tavernas at regular intervals, and best of all; the sea is as calm as can be on normal summer days.
The beach is long, sandy and broad, and is also low-shelving, leaving a large expanse of clear, warm water to swim in.
Hang around until dusk when you can look west to see the sun go down behind the island of Kalymnos.
8. Western Archaeological Zone
Opposite the Odeon is a sprawling archaeological site at the intersection of the ancient city’s primary north-south (Cardo) and east-west (Decumanus) streets.
You can inspect the 3rd-century surface of the Cardo, still etched with grooves from ancient wagons.
There are also two early-Christian basilicas, a stadium from the 2nd century BC and a gymnasium from the same period with 17 white marble columns.
By the portico to the gymnasium are the Western Baths from the 3rd Century, with one of the largest mosaics on the island.
Another fabulous mosaic is waiting in the remnants of the “House of Europe”, laid in the same century.
9. Neratzia Castle
The Knights of St John built this fortification in the 15th century to guard the entrance to the harbour at a time when Kos was in the sights of the Ottoman Empire.
The castle has two layers of walls, the innermost being older and dating to the mid-15th century, while the outer wall is from the turn of the 16th century.
After Kos was captured by the Ottomans in the 1500s the castle was a garrison and the seat of the island’s commander.
The space inside the walls is mostly empty, with broken columns strewn across the ruined courtyards.
But you may be intrigued by the abundance of spolia (recycled ancient building material). This can be found throughout the castle, but is most visible on the main gate, where there’s a Hellenistic frieze of garlands and masks, under the newer coat of arms of Grand Master Emery d’Amboise.
10. Cavo Paradiso
For a beach in a wilder environment make your way south from Kefalos towards Capo Crichelo at the far south of the island.
There isn’t the smallest sign of human habitation on the rugged, arid slopes framing Cavo Paradiso.
At the deserted southern end stands a tall, craggy headland, and this part of the beach is for people who really value privacy.
You’ll find a bit more life towards the north at an isolated beach bar renting out parasols, sun loungers and windbreaks.
The breezes and surf are a little livelier at Cavo Paradiso so swimming can be tricky, but there’s a big shallow area to paddle in.
11. Plaka Forest
When the sun’s beating down you can seek some shade at this pine forest just west of the airport.
Plaka Forest has a popular recreation area, with picnic tables where you can meet the many peacocks and tame cats that live here with the help of a volunteer keeper.
The peacocks are the stars of the show, especially when you see one of the colourful males showing off his tail, but there’s also a little pond, edged by rhododendron bushes with resident turtles.
12. Paradise Beach
This arcing sandy bay is one of a sequence of beautiful beaches east of Kefalos.
The name “Paradise” comes from the blend of pale sand and shallow, clear water.
The sea here is calm enough that an inflatable play area for kids is set up in the bay during the high season.
You can also rent sun loungers and parasols, and go water-skiing and banana boating thanks to the watersports centre.
At Paradise Beach there’s also the strange phenomenon of bubbles rising from the seabed, caused by the volcano on the island of Nisiros a few kilometres south of Kos.
13. Therma Hot Springs
In a natural reserve that covers much of the east of Kos is another beach with hot springs bubbling up through the rock.
The shore is dark gravel and not too enticing, but it’s the springs that people come for.
These salubrious waters were discovered in 1934 and have been partly walled from the sea by rocks to create a small oval-shaped pool.
The water is claimed to help rheumatism, arthritis and other complaints, and is rich in calcium, potassium, magnesium and sulphur, which you can smell without it being too pungent.
14. Agios Theologos Beach
Close to Cavo Paradiso, Agios Theologos is another beach for people who prefer their coast to be remote and weather-beaten.
It can be an adventure getting down here on the southwest coast, driving on the dirt track from Kefalos.
And while the surf is quite powerful at Agios Theologos, the waves break quite a long way offshore, leaving a broad shallow space to wade in.
Agios Theologos is private, so you’ll have to rent a sun lounger and parasol, but these are inexpensive.
The beach itself has large pebbles and sand, backed by low, scrubby cliffs with a restaurant on top.
Come in the evening for one of the best sunsets on the island and be sure to amble down to the blue and white Agios Theologos church amid the pines.
15. Aquatica Water Park
Built on to the slope next to the sea south of the airport, this water park is a fun family day out.
In a small-ish area there’s a good range of rides, like single and multi-laned open slides with views of the Dodecanese and Turkish mainland, a water vortex, a river for tubing and three covered flumes of various speeds.
The littlest members of the clan have their own pool and playground while there are lots of reclining chairs for parents to laze in the sun.