Located near the coast of Turkey in the eastern Aegean, Symi has a quiet elegance with grand neoclassical buildings, great beaches, stunning monasteries and divine food. Below are ten reasons to visit:
1. The Beaches
Ai Giorgis Dyssalonas, with its 300-meter vertical rock face, is the nicest beach on the island. However, it should be noted that it doesn’t have a lot of shade-giving trees and its large pebbles can make getting in and out of the water tiring for some. The beaches of Aghia Marina and Aghios Nikolaos are appealing as well, but Nanou, Toli and Marathounda (the last is known for its free-roaming goats) are even better. Some of these beaches are accessible only by boat. If you’re interested in an organized excursion, you might want to contact Poseidon Excursion, which offers sea trips that include meals and refreshments.
2. The Natural Sponges
The island was traditionally home to expert sponge divers and keen merchants, and back in the 19th century they made fabulous fortunes by selling their hauls to the Italians, English and French. As times changed, however, the Symiots “missed the boat” by failing to make the transition from sail to steam. At the same time, the Italian occupation of the Dodecanese, which began in 1912, signaled the decline of the sponge trade in Symi. Today, all that remains to remind us of this fabled past are the souvenir shops in Yialos, which sell kapadiko (honeycomb), fino (natural sea silk) and lagofito (elephant ear, or coral) sponges from the Aegean, as well as imported items, such as the grass sponge, brought over from US waters.
3. The Handmade souvenirs
Takis is an artisan and shopkeeper whose slogan is “Come to Symi to see me,” and you can do just that at Takis Leather Fashion in Yialos. There, in addition to classic leather items, such as belts, sandals, suitcases, coats and other accessories, shoppers can find art objects fashioned out of leather, such as one based on The Triumph of Neptune (or The Birth of Venus), a 17th-century Baroque-period painting by Frenchman Nicolas Poussin. This Takis creation required 11 million notches using a pyrography pen. Takis uses calf leather, which he brings to Symi from Athens and Crete.
4. The Traditional eateries
The Pahou kafeneio (traditional coffee shop) is located in the center of Yialos. It opens daily before dawn and only closes after the very last customer leaves. There are only two days a year it doesn’t open: on the feast day of Panormitis (November 8), and on the day after Christmas. Another business that embodies the Symiot identity is Tolis (Tel. (+30) 22460.716.01) in Pedi, where you can taste a delicious Symi shrimp, the island’s signature dish.
5. Apple pies and cocktails
Petalo (Tel. (+30) 22460.723.89) is an all-day establishment situated on the coastal road Akti Daniel in Yialos. Between sips and bites, you can dive into the sea from one of its decks, and then come out of the water and do some sunbathing on its big cushions. Alternatively, if you prefer shade, you can take a seat at one of the little tables by the bar. The extensive menu includes breakfast offerings such as kagianas (scrambled eggs with tomatoes) and lemon cream pancakes, lunch and dinner items such as shi drum fish and picanha meat, as well as cocktails such as the Paloma, made with tequila, lime and grapefruit soda.
Arguably the most distinctive spot on Symi is The Secret Garden (Tel. (+30) 22460.721.53), situated between the settlements of Yialos, Horio and Pedi. It has a fabulous courtyard with grapevines overhead, and offers outstanding apple pie and simply divine lemon sorbet.
6. For the Art and Culture
The building in Yialos where the agreement was signed in 1945 handing the Dodecanese over to the Allies has been converted into a multi-purpose venue called Los. The restaurant (Tel. (+30) 22460.725.08), which is on the first floor, is ideal for gourmet fish lovers (it serves sashimi and an exquisite lobster soup), and there’s a contemporary art gallery on the second floor. Strangely enough, you won’t find any explanatory texts in the gallery, so ask the curator for information about the items on display, including the spectacular three-dimensional plexiglass flowers, a copy of an original creation by the late artist Pavlos Dionysopoulos, better known simply as Pavlos.
7. The Fine-Dining
The restaurant Tholos (Tel. (+30) 694.099.7916 / reservation required) is one of the best – if not the best – on Symi. The menu draws its inspiration from Greek cuisine, which it plays with – without, however, compromising its essence. A perfect 10 goes to the Kolokythakia avgolemono (zucchini in egg-lemon sauce). This isn’t the zucchini in egg-lemon sauce familiar to all Greek kids, but rather one to be savored by someone who is now grown up, who has traveled the world and who has now returned to the family hearth for a Sunday dinner prepared by older, wiser parents. In other words, it’s still a zucchini in egg-lemon sauce created with love, but now it’s one prepared for more sophisticated palates.
8. The Archaeological Museum and Hatziagapitou Hall
In Horio, near the Ioannideio Elementary School, you’ll find signs pointing you in the direction of the Archaeological Museum of Symi. Items on display here include old nautical equipment and a wood-carved ship’s figurehead in the form of a female head, dating to the 19th century. Next to the museum is the Sala Hatziagapitou (or Hatziagapitou Hall), an old mansion which, together with the museum, operates as a single, unified space open to visitors. Everything you see inside the hall is truly stunning: silver coins from abroad that were discovered hidden inside one of the walls of the house, marble sinks, an interior balcony for musicians, and the gerontomiri – that is, a personal space that once belonged to Hatzidoukaina, located next to the office of her son, the successful merchant Hatziagapitos. A visit here will give you a good idea of how wealthy and powerful Symi once was.
9. The traditional desserts
If you head downhill from the museum towards Syllogou Square in Horio, you’ll pass Tsatalios Bakery, with its voutyrenia (buttery cookies great for dipping into coffee) and its ammoniakena (fluffy cookies, great for dunking in milk). Just next to the bakery is Stani, a famous patisserie whose sweets, including its delicious ravani (semolina cake), mille-feuille, muhallebi pudding and ice cream arrive daily from Rhodes, having been prepared using fresh milk from local cows.
10. A trip to Panormiti Monastery
The journey to Panormiti Monastery, the most important on the island (with a small detour to take in a cypress forest), is a hike to remember. When you reach your destination, you’ll find, in addition to the monastery, guest rooms, a bakery, a grocery, a restaurant and a snack bar. Buy yourself some ice cream and enjoy it by the sea as you listen to psalms and hymns coming over the loudspeakers and mingling with the warbling of the birds and the chirping of the cicadas.