Elegant Charm in a Small Package: A Guide to Symi

Colorful, stylish neoclassical houses, great restaurants and fantastic beaches are part of the reason Symi has acquired a dedicated following.


EVERY STEP TELLS A STORY:  Just before sunset, take a stroll along the Kali Strata, the 500 stone steps that once served as the island’s main commercial thoroughfare and the only link between the neighborhoods of Horio, high up on the hill, and Gialos, Symi’s port. The scenic path offers a lovely view of the port below and is lined with halata, as the locals refer to the neoclassical houses, many of which were destroyed in World War II. Those that survive testify to Symi’s late 19-c. economic boom, fueled by shipping, shipbuilding and sponge-diving.


  • Area: 57 sq. km.
  • Population: 2.690 (2011 census)
  • Distance: 255 sea miles from Piraeus
  • Highest Peak: 55m (Vigla)

THE EYE OF THE OX: Looking up at the neoclassical buildings of Gialos, you’ll notice a circular opening in the middle of the pediment of the houses. It is known as “the eye of the ox.” Originally, it functioned as a type of open skylight and a structural element that allowed the air pressure above and below the roof to equalize. In more modern constructions, it has a purely decorative function, while on a symbolic level it is thought to ward off the evil eye. 

BEACON OF FAITH:  Dozens of legends and stories surround the Monastery of Panormitis, an important site in Greek Orthodoxy, located 20km from Gialos in the island’s south. It was built in the 15th century; since then, believers from around Greece have been throwing bottles into the sea that contain written wishes, prayers and even money in the hopes they would reach this monastery!


A large number of such offerings are on display inside the church, along with some lovely pieces of folk art, murals and icons. If you’re lucky, the monastery’s keepers may treat you to some of their delicious fig liqueur. Before you head back, take a dip near the small harbor.


BEST SWIMS: Wake up early to catch the first excursion boat leaving Gialos for Ai-Giorgis Dysalonas, a beach on Symi’s eastern shore. The island’s most impressive beach, it can get very crowded at peak season, especially around midday. Surrounded by sheer cliffs that make access by land impossible, this natural bay has gorgeous waters, small pebbles and a little church that gave it its name. Make sure to bring water, snacks and a beach umbrella, as there are no facilities here and the rocks don’t provide shade until late in the afternoon. 

At the island’s westernmost point is Aghios Emilianos, another lovely beach accessible only by excursion boat or water taxi from Gialos. A narrow strip of land connects the beach to an islet with the small church after which this area was named. The waters here are shallow and crystalline. There are no facilities here, either, so come prepared.


LOCAL FAVORITES: With a view of the port and Gialos bay, Elpida’s at the dry dock is a traditional kafeneio that serves properly prepared Greek coffee, ouzo and tsipouro with meze, and a selection of larger dishes. 

At Pantelis’ restaurant, menu highlights include the lamb with cracked wheat, the pasta with two types of lobster, and the grilled octopus with truffle oil. Petalo, which opened in 2017, boasts a menu designed by chef Gikas Xenakis, featuring a range of high-end dishes, from lobster pasta to oven-roasted goat with chickpea puree, as well as risotto inspired by classic stuffed tomatoes. 


WINE LOVERS REJOICE:  It is a rare treat to find a liquor store on the Greek islands that has such a comprehensive range of Greek wines. Nektarios Fotaras has made some excellent selections, and you can also find a wide range of cold meats and cheeses at his store, Georgina’s Market

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