The largest island in the Cyclades, Naxos is also the most fertile, growing olives, potatoes and citrus fruit on its hills. Mount Zas, the highest peak in the archipelago traps clouds, creating more rainfall for agriculture and is a satisfying climb if you’re the hiking sort.
The capital is Naxos Town (Chora), on the northwest coast, with an endearing old town of meandering alleys and stairways. Above the old town is Kastro, a Medieval citadel that has kept some of its Venetian houses.
In ancient times Naxos was a source of marble and in a couple of these Naxian quarries are damaged and incomplete statues that were abandoned up to 1,700 years ago. You can’t talk about Naxos without mentioning the west coast and its gorgeous beaches, from windswept bays for watersports to coves with glimmering turquoise sea.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Naxos:
A beguiling landmark for the whole island, Portara is one of the first things you see as your ferry approaches the island.
This monumental marble frame measuring 6 metres by 3.5 is what’s left of a portal to an Ionic temple of Apollo, started in the 6th century BC but never finished.
It stands on the islet of Palatia, once a hill on the island’s northwest coast but now only joined to Naxos port by a causeway.
The remainder of the temple’s stone was recycled for the Kastro (Castle of Naxos), but this doorway proved too heavy to dismantle and relocate.
Call it touristy, but after dining at the harbour or the Old Town, you can join the throng of couples streaming to Palatia to watch the sun go down behind the Island of Paros.
2. Old Town
Rising from the harbour up to the Kastro is a confusing little world of alleys, stairways and passages.
Like all the best historic centres, the Old Town is somewhere you could wander idly for hours, and has irregular marble paving stones and beautiful white Cycladic houses.
Many of these have doors, banisters and window frames painted deep or pale blue.
Couched in this chaotic, traffic-free settlement are souvenir shops selling handmade jewellery and replicas of prehistoric Cycladic figurines, and an abundance of tavernas, bars and cafes.
If you ever feel like you’re losing your way, just remember that the citadel is up and the harbour is down.
Above the Old Town is Chora’s citadel, built by the Venetian Duke of the Archipelago Marco II Sanudo in the 13th century.
Still partly guarded by Medieval walls, the Kastro is a peaceful maze of little flowery squares linked by narrow alleys that have monasteries, churches and noble mansions, some still bearing their coats of arms.
If you enter the Kastro via the northern Trani Porta gate you can see the official measure for merchants selling fabrics, etched into a marble pilaster.
Greece’s greatest modern writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, studied for a year at the School of Commerce in the Kastro, which has since become the Naxos Archaeological Museum.
In the southern part of the Kastro is a terrace with a cafe, accessed via an elevator and with a dreamy view of Chora’s sea of white houses, the inland hills of Naxos and the sea.
4. Agios Prokopios Beach
A mere five kilometres south of Chora, Agios Prokopios is a heavenly Blue Flag beach, close enough to the town that you could go by bike or on foot.
The beach is a sweep of golden sand, 1.5 kilometres in length, and with crystalline turquoise water that deepens quite quickly but is sheltered from strong winds and currents.
Towards the south things are a bit more built up and there are seafront restaurants and cafes, and large blocks of sun loungers and sunshades.
Further north things quieten down, and here Agios Prokopios is edged by low dunes and three old salt pans.
5. Plaka Beach
A picture-perfect stretch of shore on the west coast, Plaka Beach is long and wide, with dunes and just the occasional building behind.
At four kilometres there’s plenty of room for everyone, whether you want to sunbathe in solitude or hire a sun lounger and make use of the beach bars and tavernas behind.
The more secluded southern end on the way to the village of Plaka is preferred by naturists, while to the north there’s a watersports centre for wakeboarding, stand-up paddleboarding and windsurfing.
Everyone else will be content just floating in sparkling turquoise water that is even better than in looks in photos.
6. Kouros of Apollonas
In an ancient marble quarry near Apollonas at the very north of the island is an incomplete 10-metre-high statue from the turn of the 7th and 6th centuries BC. The statue is a kouros, a nude sculpture of a man, and these were produced throughout the Archaic period.
It’s a thrill to behold this work in its unfinished state, with cuboids for arms and long un-carved planes making up the body.
On the head you can see that the beard, eyes and nose have started to take shape.
The statue has an estimated weight of 80 tons and has only been cut free on three sides.
There are a few theories for the statue’s abandonment, a plausible one being that cracks had started to appear in the marble at this early stage.
7. Mikri Vigla
People who want their beaches to be long, deserted and windswept come to Mikri Vigla, which is still only ten kilometres from Naxos Town.
Pushing out from the small namesake resort down to Kastraki, the white sandy beach, also known as Sahara, is open to the Etesian wind, which blows through the Cyclades from the north.
This produces low, rolling waves and powers the sails and kites of windsurfers and kite-surfers.
You can join in or watch from the comfort of the sand.
At the north end of this beach is a craggy hill which has a cove at its base, out of the wind.
8. Mount Zas
Naxos has the highest peak in the Cyclades, which crests at 1,004 metres.
Coming from the village of Filoti, Mount Zas can look pretty fearsome, but you don’t need to be an expert mountaineer to conquer it.
On the north ascent there are two trails, one more direct and a lot more challenging, and another lighter and longer beginning at the Agia Maria Church.
There are two caves and a spring for detours during the climb.
In spring and summer the trails are trimmed with wildflowers and herbs, which will be pointed out to you if visit with a guide.
Try making an ascent at sunset something you’ll remember for a lifetime, but don’t forget to back a torch for the descent.
Back around Filoti there’s a clutch of bars and restaurants, some endowed with mountain views.
9. Panagia Drosiani Church
At the mountainous heart of Naxas, on a circuitous road between the villages of Moni and Tragaia is an exceedingly old Byzantine church.
Panagia Drosiani was built in the 6th or 7th century, and has three apses, a dome and is crested by a trademark campanile.
The inside walls were painted in two phases, in the 7th century and then in the 12th or 13th century.
That second coat has been transferred to the Byzantine Museum in Athens, while the first coat is still visible.
You can make out the Archangels, the Ascension of Christ and the Panagia with the Madonna and the infant Jesus.
Christ Pantocrator on the dome shows Jesus with two phases, one older with a full beard, and the other younger and less hirsute, symbolising both his divinity and humanity.
10. Venetian Museum
In the citadel one of the finest houses contains a private museum about the days of Venetian dominion on Naxos, from the 13th to the 16th century.
The house is from that time, dating back 800 years and was the Venetian military headquarters and then an administrative building when the Ottomans took over.
The building itself is the main attraction here, and you’ll be given a 40-minute tour through the reception, dining room, bedrooms, library, gallery, study and onto a balcony, where there’s an unobstructed vista of the Portara.
After that you’ll descend to the vaults, where Venetian-era artefacts like jewellery, ceramics and sculpture are laid out.
11. Agios Georgios Beach
For a convenient afternoon of sun, sea and sand, Agios Georgios beach is right on the southern edge of Chora.
And being so close to the town, this beach is cleaner and more welcoming than it has any right to be.
There a slender but long curve of pale, slightly course, sand facing Paros across the strait.
The remarkable thing about Agios Georgios is just how far out you have to wade before the sea gets above waist height, which is music to the ears of people travelling with little ones.
And being on the edge of town, the rented sun loungers have full service so you’ll hardly have to lift a finger.
Somewhere to get away from it all, Alyko is in a natural reserve in the southwest of Naxos.
This reserve is spread out over a cape indented with rock, shingle and sandy coves, one of which is Alyko Beach to the south.
Being a natural park, there are no signs of tourism at these beaches, apart from the ruins of an unfinished hotel atop a promontory.
The nearest taverna is just outside the park’s limits, a few hundred metres east of Alyko Cove.
Just in from the coast a cedar forest has been planted against the dunes.
13. Kouroi of Flerio
There’s another pair of unfinished statues from the 7th and 6th centuries BC in situ at the village of Melanes, ten kilometres east of Chora.
The bodies of both are more defined than the Kouros of Apollonas, but both their faces have been left blank as their legs had broken in transit.
The first lies alongside a drystone wall in an idyllic village garden.
You can see the indentations made on the body by ancient stonemasons, and the broken right leg with the shin and ankle left in place.
The other Kouros here is above the village in a quarry on a marble outcrop.
This statue is also unfinished, and lies just a few metres from the rock that it was cut from.
It was probably dropped as it was about to be transported, and the detached feet rest a short distance from the body.
14. Eggares Olive Press Museum
Open in the high season is a bite-sized museum at one of the island’s 90 olive presses, barely ten minutes outside Chora.
You’ll be given a tour to hear the inside story of an industry that is intrinsic to Greek culture and goes back millennia.
Both the 19th-century building and the grounds have been restored, and in the two rooms are an olive mill with a hefty grindstone, a wooden press, antique jugs and lots of archive photographs on the walls.
You’ll hear how olives are cultivated for nutrition, but also for body care, making soap and using the oil as a moisturiser.
Oil, olives and olive jam produced here are available to taste, and you can also sample the skincare products.
Naturally, these are all for sale at the shop attached to the museum.
15. Vallindras Kitron Distillery
Kitron is a liqueur distinct to Naxos.
This is made by distilling the fruit and leaves of the citron tree, a citrus fruit not too different to lemon.
You’ll see the drink all over the island and it is as commonplace as raki, served in bars and sold at souvenir shops.
It comes in three varieties: Green, which is the sweetest and least alcoholic, yellow, the strongest and with the highest proof, and clear, somewhere between the two.
For a Naxos-specific experience you could journey into the hills to see how kitron is made at the distillery in the village of Chalkia.
This started making kitron in 1896, and has been in the Vallindras family for five generations.
Things are still done the old-time way, using vintage copper stills and big fermenting jars with wicker baskets.
You’ll get to try some kitron at the end, and may be tempted to buy a bottle to take home.