In antiquity some big hitters lived on the island of Samos, like the philosopher Epicurus, the astronomer Aristarchus and, most famous of all, the mathematician Pythagoras.
You may remember him from the Pythagorean theorem in your school days, and on Samos you can journey to the caves where he is believed to have lived and taught during a self-imposed exile in the 6th century BC. The island is almost touching distance from Turkey, on the other side of the Micale Strait, while its coast is dimpled with coves and natural harbours like the idyllic Kokkari.
As well as being the island of Pythagoras, Samos is also synonymous with a sweet Muscat wine made from grapes grown on high mountain terraces.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Samos:
1. Heraion of Samos
This temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Pythagoreion, the ruins of the ancient town of Samos.
Begun in the late-Archaic Period in the 6th century BC, but with much older roots, this massive Ionic temple to Hera was the first of Ancient Greece’s large free-standing temples.
It was the third to be built at this location, and was never actually completed, with construction continuing into the Roman Period.
In Byzantine times the temple, obsolete as a pagan place of worship, was gradually dismantled and quarried for its marble.
Only one of 115 original columns is still standing, but you can see their torus-shaped bases in the ground.
Also here and there are architectural elements like the ionic capitals, stones from the cornice and a set of headless votive statues, all labelled with informative signs.
2. Tunnel of Eupalinos
The ancient engineer Eupalinos was the brains behind this tunnel up the slope of Mount Kastro from Pythagoreio.
Built in the 6th century BC the tunnel was the first in the world to be excavated from both ends using mathematical calculations.
It was built as an aqueduct to convey water through Mount Kastro to Ancient Pythagoreion, so the city could survive in times of siege.
The aqueduct functioned for a whole millennium, and is staggering, both in terms its length (more than 1 kilometre) and when you think about the calculations that made it possible.
When you come you’ll be given hardhats and can choose between a basic (20 mins) and longer visit (1 hour). Whichever you pick, come early as things do heat up in the tunnel.
The fishing village of Kokkari is almost too pretty for words.
The harbour here sees less fishing traffic now, but still has little wooden boats anchored in the water.
Today it is encircled by tavernas and cafes that have terraces filling the narrow quaysides.
From your table you can survey the harbour, which is screened by a mole that pushes out east from a picturesque headland, topped with pines and with houses and clinging to its base.
At the restaurants the water will almost be lapping at your feet as you dine, and people bathe on the narrow pebble beach.
Beyond the two headlands framing the harbour are yet more pebble beaches, to give you everything you could want from one pocket-sized coastal village.
4. Panagia Spiliani Church
Surrounded by cypress trees and looking out towards Anatolia at a height of 125 metres on Mount Kastro is a monastery with a cave church.
The cave is deceptively long, running 100 metres into the mountainside and has been venerated for millennia.
One theory suggests that this is also where Pythagoras hid from the Tyrant of Samos, Polycrates in the 6th century BC (as opposed to the Cave of Pythagoras which we’ll talk about below). Here you’ll see the sanctuary where the marble icon of the Virgin is kept, and just outside is a spring with sanctified water that fishermen would drink from before setting off on voyages.
5. Potami Waterfalls
Near Karlovasi is a waterfall that feeds a long, narrow gorge with high walls.
To get to the base of the first waterfall you have to wade through the pools on riverbed, and to do this you’ll need sports shoes or even swim shoes as you’ll spend a lot of the time in the water.
Now, if you’re in good shape and know a thing or two about climbing, you can scale the waterfall with the help of a rope.
If not, you can inch up a rickety wooden stairway to be greeted by an isolated taverna.
From there you can take a trail to rejoin the river at a higher point and with a little effort you’ll come to another waterfall five metres high and with a glimmering pool at its base.
6. Metamorphosis Church
On the stiff woodland trail by the gorge on the way to the Potami Waterfalls you’ll come to the oldest Byzantine church on the island.
The Metamorphosis Church is from the 1000s, with a cruciform plan and dome, and combining Byzantine and Genoese architecture.
The most exciting element here is the set of marble columns holding up the dome, which have probably been repurposed from an ancient monument.
From the chapel you can battle up the hill to inspect the ruins of a Venetian castle.
In coniferous woodland, with beautiful vistas are remnants of gateways, towers and curtain walls.
7. Tsamadou Beach
Moments west of Kokkari is an exquisite pebble beach down a crumbling track from the main coastal road.
Tsamadou is the only official nudist beach on Samos, and this applies to the eastern end under the cliffs.
On the remainder of the bay are three beach bars with long rows of sun loungers.
These are recommended as the fine pebble surface might be a bit uncomfortable to lie on.
Fortunately the bar on the western end has sun loungers included in the price of a drink.
The sea is everything people hope from a Greek Island, as clear as an aquarium and on a light slope.
8. Pythagoreio Archaeological Museum
After exploring the Heraion you can get a more rounded idea of Ancient Samos at the newly constructed museum in the modern city.
There are finds here from a Neolithic settlement atop the Kastro Mountain and the Geometric necropolis of Samos (900 BC to 700 BC). One piece sure to hold your attention is the marble statue of Aiakes (540 BC), who was the father of the Tyrant Polycrates, the dictator that Pythagoras disagreed with.
There’s also an imposing marble sarcophagus from roughly the same period, crafted like a temple.
The museum is arranged chronically and in the Roman and Byzantine galleries there’s a larger than life-sized statue of Trajan on horseback, busts of Claudius and Augustus and a stash of 300 Byzantine coins from 600 AD.
9. Livadaki Beach
Only ten kilometres from Samos Town, Livadaki will seem further because you have to drive a coastal road that hugs the craggy coastline.
Your destination is a beach in the island’s far northeast, managed by a bar and laid with a grid of sun loungers up to eight-deep.
None of that should put you off because the beach is fabulous, and there’s isn’t a single building to be seen on the green slopes around this narrow cove.
The sea is so shallow that you have to wade out 50 metres before you can even swim, and you can borrow a paddleboard from the bar for no extra charge.
10. Archaeological Museum of Vathy
If you still have an appetite for ancient Samian culture there’s another repository of artefacts in Vathy.
In amongst the carved ivory and clay figurines there’s some outstanding sculpture from the Archaic Period, the time of Pythagoras and the Heraion.
One thing you can’t avoid is the colossal Ionic kouros (figure of a naked youth), measuring 5.5 metres and dating to the beginning of the 6th century BC. From the same century is the Geneleos group, which are more of the votive statues you can see at the Heraion, made up of five female and one male statue.
Some of the compelling bronze items here include a breast plate from a horse, showing Heracles fighting the three-headed dog of Hades, and a bronze statuette of a horseman.
11. Mount Kerkis
Samos’ rocky hinterland has 45 signposted hiking routes, but if there’s one natural sight that captures everyone’s imagination it’s the 1,433-metre Mount Kerkis, unavoidable on the western half of the island.
This peak is an extinct volcano and is the second-highest landform in the Aegean.
Mount Kerkis is laced with caves and gorges, and on your hike you’ll be greeted by small chapels and monasteries (Megali Panagia, Moni Evangelistrias Marathokambos). The good news is that that the trail has a lot of cover from the pines on the lower slopes, and you’ll have mountain goats for company with bells ringing on their necks.
Less fun are the big fields of scree near the top, which will test even the most seasoned hikers.
A round trip may take more than half a day, so it pays to be prepared.
12. Cave of Pythagoras
At one of the trailheads for an ascent of Mount Kerkis is the possible location of the cave where Pythagoras, the ancient philosopher and mathematician hid from Polycrates in the 6th century BC. There are actually two caves, the larger of which is up the main steps and was used as a classroom and source of drinking water.
At the entrance to this cave is the small white Panagia Sarantaskaliotissa chapel.
The trickier of the two caves to access is Pythagoras’ dwelling, at the end of a tough trail marked by red signs and with a fig tree not far from the entrance.
For both caves the real purpose of a visit is to be able to tell people you’ve been there, and for the spectacular seascapes.
13. Lemonakia Beach
Next door to Tsamadou is the captivating Lemonakia Beach, which is slightly smaller but matches its neighbour for natural beauty.
Down a 100-metre stairway, Lemonakia feels a lot busier than Tsamadou, maybe because there’s less room.
With a surface of pebbles, the beach is filled with sun loungers and these are a necessity for comfort.
A pair of loungers and a parasol will cost €6 for day.
Don’t forget to bring flip flops or sandals, as the pebbles can be painful underfoot.
Where Lemonakia really shines is in its blue-green water, which is more sheltered than Tsamadou and as clear as can be.
14. Psili Ammos Beach
Far from the other beaches on this list, Psili Ammos is on the Mycale Strait facing Turkey’s Dilek Peninsula, which is only 1,200 metres way.
The name “Psili Ammos” literally means “fine sand”, and that’s exactly what you get here.
So the beach already has an advantage over some others on Samos.
You won’t need swim shoes to enter the water, and looking at the sandy seabed you’ll spot little fish around your feet in the rippling, crystalline sea.
As ever, Psili Ammos is an organised beach and sun loungers cost €6, a small price to pay for the green setting.
15. Samian Wine
In wine circles, Samos is a byword for sweet Muscat wine, and the best conditions for growing these grapes is on the northern slopes, where vineyards are on tight terraces etched into the mountainsides at 600 to 1,000 metres.
At this elevation the “meltemia” north wind has a tempering effect on the scorching summer sun.
But the wind can also be vicious, and for this reasons vintners prune their fines to glow close to the soil.
About 95% of all the wine produced on Samos is Muscat and if you want to see firsthand how it’s made and sample a few varieties, the Vakakis Winey in Karlovasi is the place for you.
If Muscat isn’t up your street, Vakakis also does a couple of red and whites.