The island of Sifnos is one of the most popular in the Western Cyclades , visitors come here to enjoy the long sandy beaches and charming villages dotted around the countryside. The island is famous for its well-made pottery, and it is possible to visit some of these potteries. The island, once famous for its gold and silver mines, was a wealthy island. During this time, the islanders paid homage to the Sanctuary of Apollo, thanking them for their wealth by donating a solid gold egg every year. One year they decided to give an egg made out of stone, the gods were not pleased about this blatant cheating and exacted retribution on the islanders. The gods flooded the mines and the island fell into decline, from this time on the island became known as Sifnos, which means empty.
Apollonia the capital of the island above the port of Kamares is a warren of small houses and shops. The main street of the town is very busy, but the streets behind the square offer an easier pace in which to enjoy the town. The town named after the God Apollo, who the islanders worshipped. (Despite the retribution, he gave them when they cheated). The cafes and restaurants serve local, tasty dishes for you to enjoy. The Museum of Folklore display locally made pottery and costumes.
Kamares the port of the island is a friendly town with a decent beach, also a wide range of shops and cafes along the waterfront. Boats leave on trips to the small hamlet of Vathy known for its pottery, the hamlet has also a good beach and tavernas in which to relax. Vathy is also easy to get to by road.
Kastro east of Artemonas is the former capital of the island, and is stunning with white washed houses and massive walls overlooking the sea.
Artemonas is the twin village of Apollonia , and has impressive Ventian houses with distinctive chimneys. The churches of Agios Georgios and Panagia Konchi are worth visiting.
Platys Gialos south of the capital has a fantastic beach, overlooked by small hotels and tavernas.
We first visited Sifnos in the summer of 1977 and were enchanted! The following year we came again for our ‘honeymoon’ and found that it was exactly the same: nothing seemed to have been altered or added! We felt sure that this would not continue, so we wanted to come as often as we could before the island became ‘spoiled’. Before long we were coming in the spring too; now it’s May-June and most of September. When we first travelled from London, UK, it seemed to be such a faraway place! The charter night flights were nearly always delayed for hours, so we would miss the morning ferry. The ferry trip itself could take as long as eight hours to reach Sifnos: it was like a mini-cruise: we loved sitting on the deck, watching the Athens coast recede and feeling our anticipation develop as we arrived at Kythnos, Serifos and finally Sifnos! Maybe this is why we’ve never really liked the high-speed ferries, which now get you from Piraeus to Sifnos in less than three hours; we travel on the ‘slow’ boat (which takes about five and a half).
Sifnos doesn’t have an airport, so it’s not so popular with foreign tourists or package tour operators. Most of the summer visitors are Greek, and the busiest period is during the traditional Greek holiday period in August. The explosion of tourism we had anticipated was slow to materialise, but when Kostas Simitis became prime minister in 1996, the media began to take an interest in the island. He always spent his summer holiday there, and as people like to read about how famous people relax, there were frequent articles, photos and television programmes. Certainly over the last ten years there has been a marked increase in building, but Sifnos is still very far from being overwhelmed by tourism.
The port of Kamares, in particular, where you arrive, has scarcely changed since we first stepped off the boat thirty years ago: the rather stark mountains which surround the bay do not allow much development up their slopes, and although the one road which leads uphill to the other villages has been widened and the buses are now large and modern, you still feel slightly nervous as you look down over the rocks into the dry river bed far below. But soon the familiar white Cycladic houses begin to appear, and the bus arrives in the central square of the capital, Apollonia. Now you see narrow, paved alleys leading up through the village and you glimpse inviting looking shops and bars. Beyond Apollonia the road divides: the bus first turns to the left and travels up to the village of Artemonas, from where you have a magnificent view over fields and terraced hills, dotted with little white churches, with the constant backdrop of the sea: you can make out the islands of Paros and Antiparos and on a clear day, others even further away.
After a brief halt, the bus returns towards Apollonia, but this time it carries on across the island, allowing you brief glimpses of landmarks like the mediaeval walled village of Kastro and the famous church of Chrysopigi on its rocky outcrop, as it steadily moves down towards the sea. Finally it reaches the seaside village of Platys Gialos with its sandy beach which is said to be one of the longest in the Cyclades. In one hour you have had a panoramic trip across the island, but there is still much more to discover!
History of Sifnos
Sifnos’ colourful past is well documented by archaeology and references in Greek literature, as well as by the objects displayed in the island’s two museums, but you can find plenty of evidence of its early history, just by doing some exploring on your own.
- There are prehistoric tombs (3000-2000 BC) at Platys Gialos and Vathy, and the remains of Mycenaean citadels (1450-1100 BC) on the hills of Agios Nikitas and Agios Andreas – the fortifications here were apparently as extensive as those of ancient Troy.
- The island was first known as Sifnos about 1100 BC, when it was inhabited by settlers from Ionia (the modern Aegean coast of Turkey).
- Sifnos was particularly affluent in the period 800-500 BC and even minted its own coins. The historian Herodotus (about 525 BC) refers to gold and silver mines: modern excavation has not revealed traces of gold, but we know that silver and lead were mined at Agios Sostis, a promontory on the east coast.
- The clearest indication of the island’s prosperity is the ‘Sifnian Treasury’ at Delphi. This is one of the most elaborate of the treasuries which many city states erected there to store the gifts they dedicated to the god Apollo to show gratitude for his oracles.
- At some point the mines at Agios Sostis became flooded, (The ancient galleries extended below sea level, and are still filled with water today.) In ancient times the flooding was attributed to Apollo’s anger when one year the islanders failed to offer him the promised one tenth of their wealth. The comic playwright Aristophanes (423-385 BC) tells a joke about Sifnians connected with this story, which suggests that their prosperity had diminished before 385 BC.
- According to Herodotus, during the Persian Wars, Sifnos, along with Serifos, and Milos fought with the Athenians at the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC. After this it joined the Athenian Alliance, known as the Delian League.
- During the period 146 BC-324 AD Sifnos was a Roman colony. You can still see some marble sarcophagi in the fields near Kastro, and a sacrificial altar is part of an altar in one of the churches.
- From 330-1207 Sifnos was part of the Byzantine Empire. During this period, like other Cycladic islands, it suffered from frequent attacks by pirates. After the crusaders captured Constantinople in 1207 the Cycladic islands, including Sifnos, came under Venetian rule, and were known as the Duchy of Naxos. From 1307 Sifnos was governed by the Spanish Da Corogna dynasty.
- In 1537 Sifnos was annexed to the Ottoman Empire and was controlled by Turks until 1821, when it joined the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman occupation.
One of the heroes of the Revolution was the Sifnian School Principal Nikolaos Chrysogelos. Afterwards he was Minister of Education in the government of Kapodistrias.
- From 1941-1944 Sifnos was again occupied, this time by Italians.
In the late 19th Century, as in ancient times, mining was important in the economy of Sifnos. Iron ore was mined extensively in the hills surrounding Kamares: the ruins of the buildings and loading dock can still be seen, and if you walk to the top of the Agios Simeon Mountain, you notice lumps of ore beside the path. Today the Sifnians make effective use of the old mineshafts: this is where the island’s rubbish is burned, far away from habitation. In fact, the occasional wisps of smoke in the distance contribute to the stark atmosphere of the landscape here, which at this height is rather barren!
Getting to Sifnos is very straightforward! If you’re coming from Athens, you don’t have a choice about which route to take – the regular and high-speed ferries leave from Piraeus and follow the same route, calling at Kythnos (usually), and Serifos.
The regular ferry will take about five and a half hours There’s usually some land to look at as you travel: reckon nearly three hours following the Attic coast (you can just see the ancient temple of Poseidon at Sounio), then one hour to Kythnos, one hour to Serifos, and then you have to get your things together, as the first rocks of Sifnos appear very quickly!
The high-speed ferry takes just under three hours, but the fare costs nearly twice as much.
In high season (July and August) there will usually be about two high-speed ferries and a regular ferry every day; in May-June and September-October there will be one or two a day and possibly one day in the week without a boat. In winter the number of ferries each week is reduced dramatically!
You can check the ferry timetables in advance: try www.gtp.gr
Where to Stay
Like other small, less well-known Cycladic islands, Sifnos has a very short ‘high season’: from the middle of July till the end of August. If you plan to visit the island then, it would be better to book in advance: try the Aegean Thesaurus Travel Agency (www.thesaurus.gr). From April-June and September-October you should have no problem finding a room, and even in winter one or two hotels remain open.
When you arrive in Kamares, if you are looking for a place to stay, you should go to the Aegean Thesaurus Travel Agency, or to the Information Office. Both of these are almost the first buildings you see as you come into the village from the boat. Sifnos has accommodation to suit every pocket: it is not really a ‘backpackers’ island’ (most of the summer visitors are Greeks, who will have booked their accommodation in advance), but there are organised camp sites at Kamares and at Platys Gialos. When we first came to Sifnos most people stayed in simple rooms: there were only a few hotels, and swimming pools were unheard of! Now they are an essential item in a hotel’s brochure: the new 5* Elies resort hotel at Vathy has an ‘Olympic sized’ one, as well as private pools for some of the suites.
There are places to stay in most of the villages, and those on the smaller and more remote beaches, like Apokofto and Cheronissos look appealing, but in July and August rooms here will be hard to find, while in low season restaurants will have closed and transport into the centre will be difficult.
The two major beach resorts, Kamares and Platys Gialos, offer the best choice: Platys Gialos in the south is the more popular, and this is where the greatest concentration of new building has been in recent years. We stayed here every summer for years, and loved its vast beach, its simplicity and the feeling of being far away from ‘civilisation’, but now it does get crowded in high season, and basic rooms are harder to find: there are more hotels now and many ‘apartments’ and ‘studios’. There are plenty of tavernas, bars and cafés but shopping is still limited to the two ‘mini markets’ and more recently, one or two summer shops selling beach items and clothes. (Despoina’s ‘Studio D’ always has a desirable selection, not limited to beachwear!) Platys Gialos can’t really be described as a ‘village’, as several of the usual features are missing: it doesn’t bake its own bread, and there isn’t a parish church. It does have an impressive ‘square’, though, and during the summer there are often concerts here organised by the local community.
The B class Alexandros Hotel at the entrance to the resort was the first of the modern hotels with a swimming pool to be built here. It was cleverly designed to fit as unobtrusively as possible into the side of the hill, with attractive rooms and balconies on several different levels. Its poolside bar-café is open till late throughout the season.
The older style C class Panorama Hotel owned by Antonis Benakis is half way along the beach. It offers different types of accommodation, including rented rooms and a recent addition, comfortable studios with cooking facilities looking onto a paved terrace which leads directly to the sea.
I can also recommend Margarita Karavou’s complex of modern, beautifully furnished rooms on the opposite side of the road from the Alexandros Hotel. These rooms also command a panoramic view of the bay, and the uninhabited island of Kitriani, but at a lower price! Getting to the beach does involve a short walk, but at this end of the resort you are close to some excellent tavernas.
There is also an organised camp site at Platys Gialos, some distance away from the road, at the far end of the beach, where the bus stops.
The port of Kamares, where your boat will arrive, also has a range of accommodation to suit every taste. You can choose rooms near the harbour, in the liveliest part of the port (and the noisiest – but we like that!), or in one of the newer buildings further up the hill, with a panoramic view of the harbour and the mountains opposite. The C Class Hotel Stavros here has a wonderful reputation for hospitality, and it’s a favourite with families, as it’s so close to the beach and shallow water. There are very attractive hotels and pensions along the road which curves round the bay: there’s a camp site here too, with very well organised facilities. The area opposite the harbour itself is called Agia Marina: this is a quieter setting for rooms with patios right on the water, very well placed for Argyris’ excellent taverna! There are not so many buildings in this part of Kamares, but higher up on the rocks overlooking the bay is the B class Hotel Delfini, which has a magnificent view of the bay, and its own little jetty among the rocks.
Faros, on the east of the island, is a small fishing village which is becoming a popular beach resort. In recent years there has been an increase in the accommodation available here, with rooms to rent, pensions and the very new, elegant Lighthouse hotel with its spacious, tastefully decorated apartmentsand huge range of facilities, set on a hill overlooking the sea.
Probably most of the people who visit a Greek island during the summer months prefer to stay near the water, but there is also a good choice of accommodation in the villages, where you possibly feel closer to ‘real’ island life. In the hillside villages of Apollonia and Artemonas you’re also likely to have a wide view of the countryside. If you don’t have your own transport it’s certainly better to stay in a village in the spring and autumn, when the bus service is greatly reduced, and some cafés and restaurants close earlier in the evening. The island’s capital, Apollonia, offers a wide variety of accommodation, from simple village rooms to the new, luxurious ‘Boutique Hotel’ Patriarca opposite the Cathedral. This was the first ‘Boutique Hotel’ I’ve seen – I’m still not quite sure what it means! The C class Hotel Sifnos, just a few metres down the paved path, is very popular. It looks onto a quiet square, and is open all year.
Apart from the comfortable C class Hotel Artemon, with its excellent restaurant, on the main road, there are not many hotels in Artemonas itself, but there are some rooms to rent – you might be lucky enough to find one in one of the old, renovated windmills at the very top of the village.
Between Apollonia and Artemonas is a settlement (not really a village) called Ano Petali. This lies along a paved path which leads up from the square in Apollonia, and can’t be reached easily from the main road. In recent years the B class Hotel Petali, which is open all year, was built here: it’s very attractive, with a restaurant and pool, but it’s also very unobtrusive, built in the traditional Cycladic style, to blend in with its surroundings. This is the part of Sifnos where we stay, but not at the hotel: we have ‘our’ room at the Gerontis pension, directly opposite the hotel (and with the same amazing view!)
Mrs Eirini and her husband Dimitris are the kindest, most hospitable couple: the rooms are spotless (they BOTH clean them every day!) and on every visit we find new touches to make the visitors’ stay more comfortable. (You don’t usually find electric blankets (in the spring), a kettle and crockery in a rented room.) Truly a home from home, especially as it includes the friendly neighbourhood cats!
How to get around
It is not difficult to get around Sifnos! I don’t drive, so I’ve never hired a car or scooter: my normal means of transport is by bus, occasionally by taxi. (Taxis aren’t expensive, and if there are several of you it can be as cheap as the bus!) Exploring the ancient archaeological sites will involve a hike along some of the old paths, as most of them are at the top of hills, but you can drive for part of the way, or take a bus.
Sifnos is a small island (its area is about 74 sq. km.): there are not many roads, and not many buses. The service is efficient – but the buses are not very frequent, so you need to plan your excursions carefully! At the height of the season the buses from Kamares to Platys Gialos and back again run every hour from about 7.30 am until 11.30pm. (This trip from one side of the island to the other takes about an hour.) There are also regular buses from Artemonas in the centre of the island to the beach villages at Cheronissos (in the north), Kastro and Faros (east) and Vathy (west), which connect with ones coming from Kamares or Platys Gialos.
The bus service is cut back dramatically during September, so if you’re travelling out to a village to eat in the evening, you may find you have to finish your meal by 10.00pm!
There are at least ten taxis on the island. It’s not difficult to find one, even at night. The central taxi rank is in the main square in Apollonia, and the taxis are always waiting at Kamares when the boats come in. In high season you may have to wait for one when you arrive: sit at one of the harbour cafés, hail a taxi driver with a full car and ask him to come back when he’s delivered his passengers. You can enjoy the wait – and your first frappé on Sifnos, while you take in the stunning view: the curve of the bay with the long beach, and the backdrop of the dramatic mountains.
This is a popular form of transport, especially for young visitors who might be staying in a village and want to get to and from the beaches easily. (The buses can get very crowded in high season, especially when people are going to the beaches, or returning from them!). This used to be a much more dangerous form of transport: many of the roads were old and full of potholes, and there were loose chippings at the edges. However, in recent years there has been a dramatic improvement in the quality of the road surface – now you don’t see so many bandaged limbs! There are plenty of rental offices both in the port, Kamares and in Apollonia.
You don’t really need a car on a small island like Sifnos, especially when there is a reliable bus service, but I know people who feel completely marooned without one. Hiring a car does make it easy to explore the island quickly, which may be important if you’re ‘island hopping’, and if you come before or after the high season you won’t have to worry about reduced bus timetables. You can rent a car in Kamares, when you arrive, or in Apollonia. In high season the main road from Kamares to Apollonia can get very busy, especially when a boat has arrived, but there is now a ring road which by-passes Apollonia altogether, if you are heading for a village beyond Apollonia: Exampela, Platys Gialos, or Vathy.
Places to Eat
Sifnos has long had a reputation for superb cooking: this is mainly because a very famous chef and cookery writer called Tselementes was born and lived here. When we first came to Sifnos we certainly found more than the usual ‘souvlaki and moussaka’ menu that British visitors tended to expect in Greece. Now I think other places have ‘caught up’ – but Sifnos also has a few restaurants now which produce what could be called ‘gourmet cuisine’ –with prices to match!
The dish for which Sifnos is famous is the ‘revithada’ (chickpea soup). This is made all over Greece, but on Sifnos it is traditionally served for Sunday lunch: if you’re invited to anyone’s home on Sunday, this is almost certainly what you’ll be eating! It’s also an essential item on the menu of the restaurants and tavernas. The recipe is simple, requiring only chickpeas, onions and water; after long soaking, the chickpeas are baked slowly in a traditional clay pot on Saturday night, usually in the local baker’s oven. (Some of them are still wood fired.) A familiar sight in the villages on Sunday morning is the men (it’s always the men!) carrying home the clay pots they’ve collected from the baker. It’s hard to believe that such a simple dish can taste so good – it’s traditionally served with olives and lemon. Recently we were given this in a village on the island of Lesbos. It was prepared in exactly the same way, except that a little fresh tomato was cooked with the chickpeas. This was an even more delicious variation – but I don’t think I’d dare mention it on Sifnos!
Another island speciality, also cooked in a traditional clay pot, in a slow oven, is Mastello (the name of the pot). This is a rich lamb stew, which on Sifnos is always eaten on Easter Sunday. (You won’t see lambs roasting on spits here – a great surprise when we first spent Easter on the island.)
There’s a wide range of places to eat: restaurants, tavernas, ouzeria (the bars which serve ouzo with mezedes, the tapas style snacks) cafés, traditional coffee houses (kafeneia) and pastry shops. Over the years that we’ve been coming to Sifnos we’ve got to know the owners of tavernas and kafeneia in different parts of the island, and many have become close friends. Of course we love returning to those places and spending time with them, so we haven’t investigated many of the new additions, which tend to be closed after the holiday season.
We have two favourites in Kamares: at lunch time and when we’re about to take the ferry back to Athens, we go to the Poseidonas, run by Sophia and her husband Zannis: this is the very last place to eat before the bus terminus and the boats. This may not be the most picturesque restaurant in the harbour, but there is a shady covered area looking directly onto the water. (But we prefer to sit by the door and watch the bustle of activity when a boat is arriving or departing!) There is always a huge selection of delicious food, including freshly caught fish. (This is not as regular an item as you might expect – much of the fish caught locally is immediately shipped to Athens). Sophia often has dishes which are hard to find elsewhere, like the delicate wild greens in spring time, which a relative will bring from the hills in the north of the island.
We also love to eat at Argyris’ Taverna, on the Agia Marina side of the harbour. This is a wonderful place to spend the evening: you can walk up a path above the restaurant for a spectacular view of the sunset, and then watch the lights appearing in the cafés and restaurants across the bay, as the sky gradually gets darker and the outline of the mountains disappears.
This is our refuge if we’ve walked on the paths across the hills from Artemonas: the last part of the hike is incredibly dusty and tiring, but Agia Marina lies at the end of the road! Argyris presides over a wonderful charcoal grill: his paidakia (lamb chops) are from local animals and are probably the best I’ve tasted. There’s also a delicious rabbit stew, and the chips (French fries) are freshly cooked. Here too the choice of dishes is vast: afterwards, if you can manage it, a piece of fragrant baklava freshly baked by Arguris’ wife, Stella will round off a perfect meal.
In Apollonia the Perantzada is a psistaria (grill house) on the road leading out of the village, just before the crossroads. This was the very first restaurant we ate at, when we first came to Sifnos; but then it didn’t specialise in grills – it was a traditional small taverna. It’s still run by Mrs Flora and her sons, but the little boys who used to clear the tables thirty years ago are now cooking the steaks and gyro. In those days there were very few places to eat in the village, and you had to be prepared to wait in the street for a table. Actually, this still happens today – the seating area is small and it’s very popular, especially with local people. We’re always given a warm welcome here, and hailed as ‘Demestica!’ when we pass. This was the wine we always drank then, which you rarely see nowadays. Now we drink the delicious barrel wine which nearly all the restaurants have.
On the edge of the quiet square at the top of the narrow alley in Apollonia is another of our favourite places: a traditional kafeneion which seems unaffected by modern tourism, although in high season plenty of foreign visitors come to enjoy a drink in this peaceful spot. Inside are green painted tables, where the elderly village men play cards and drink coffee. The shop is owned by a lovely couple: Mr and Mrs Drakakis Mrs. Eleni took over the running of it when her husband retired, and she moves about the tables outside, chatting with the customers. In addition to the coffee and ouzo, they also serve simple snacks like saganaki (fried cheese) sliced sausages and salad. We spend hours here reading, talking to friends or just soaking up the atmosphere.
When we’re staying in Ano Petali we spend most of our evenings at the Ouzeri Margarita in the square in the village of Artemonas.
This is another home from home: we’ve known Margarita and her husband Antonis since we first came to Sifnos, and watched their children’s progress through school, college and National Service. Margarita is a creative cook: she serves the traditional Sifnian dishes, but also adapts recipes and invents new ones. Her patatopita (potato ‘pie’) is frequently requested. Her revithokeftedes (chickpea fritters – another Sifnian speciality, like falafel) are delicious, and are usually included in a ‘poikilia’. This means ‘variety’ – it’s a plate of mezedes served with drinks, more elaborate than the little snacks which come with ouzo. Antonis has an incredible collection of music: people bring him CDs from all over the world, and spending an evening there can be rather like being at a concert.
At Platys Gialos Foni is another inspired cook: with her husband Manolis she runs a little fish taverna at the beginning of the beach.
They aren’t actually from Sifnos, but they’ve had the taverna for about fifteen years and it’s an essential feature of the summer for us. Specialities here include marvellous fish soup and prawn saganaki: prawns baked in a rich tomato sauce, with feta cheese. Manolis is a well known musician: in the winter he plays the bouzouki at a club in Athens. In the summer he may be working in a club like the Aloni on Sifnos, but when he isn’t, he often plays at the beach and Foni’s customers have a treat.
At the opposite end of the beach, just where the buses finish their route, is a taverna called the ‘Kati Allo’.
This means ‘Something Else’ – it’s a good name, as the food is superb! The owner, Kostas isn’t from Sifnos, but he’s married to a Sifnian lady, Antigoni. He comes from Trikala, much further north, where the local spirit is tsipouro, which is stronger than ouzo. This is served in the taverna, also accompanied by mezedes, and he and his wife produce a delicious selection. This is another place to linger over a drink and a snack in the early evening, at the end of a strenuous day on the beach!
Unlike some of the better known Cycladic islands, which cater for an international clientèle, Sifnos is not an island renowned for its nightlife: you will not find a wild all-night party atmosphere here, but (at least in the summer!) you can certainly have a very good time until the early hours. There is a vast number of bars and clubs offering a wide choice of music in the main villages of the island and in the popular beach resorts. There are also discos where you can dance until sunrise.
The main centres of entertainment are the port, Kamares and the capital of the island, Apollonia. In the harbour of Kamares you can watch the sunset from a beachside bar or ouzeri. There are few beaches on the western side of the island, so there are not many places where you can actually do this! The Old Captain’s Bar is very comfortable and attractive, with a relaxed atmosphere. There is often live music, and as it’s open till early in the morning, it’s a great place to spend the hours if you’re waiting for a late ferry boat! There are also bars by the sea at the Agia Marina end of the beach: at the new and elegant Café Folie Folie you can sit and enjoy your cocktail right at the water’s edge.
In recent years Apollonia has become well-known for its variety of bars. As you go up the steps of the paved path which leads from the central square, you find one at almost every turn, set in tiny spaces, with inviting looking nooks and stairs leading to subtly lit interiors. The popular Argo Bar plays Greek and international rock; a little further on, just before the alley broadens into a shady square, Michalis has a little bar, with an exquisitely decorated interior and low tables on the path itself.
Just outside the village itself, on the road to Artemonas, the Aloni club has live music until the early hours. It specialises in traditional Greek folk music and bouzouki but plays modern, international music as well.
There is a popular disco bar, the Castello, in a beautiful setting which you see as you approach the fortified mediaeval village of Kastro. You would need transport to get here at night, though, unless you’re staying in Kastro itself.
There are several bars along the beach at Platys Gialos, and if you don’t mind a walk up the hill, you should visit Menelaos’ restaurant and bar, in a picturesque setting overlooking Lazarou bay. This used to be an isolated spot, with a farmer’s cottage and a difficult path leading down to a tiny cove, but it’s gradually been developed, very successfully: it’s still some way ‘off the beaten track’, but the house has become a very popular traditional restaurant, while some distance away, further down, there’s an inviting Hawaian style bar. Here you can dance to the music until sunrise. It’s nice, when you’re walking back from the restaurant late at night, to stand at the top of the hill in the moonlight and listen to the music wafting up from below. (We once met a young couple from Britain here, who said it was the best place they’d been to in all the islands!)
Sightseeing – Regions and Villages to visit
Unlike many other islands, Sifnos remains comparatively peaceful and is not overwhelmed by tourism even in the short high season. One reason for this is that it does not have any really well-known tourist ‘attractions’. Although the monastery of Chrysopigi does draw large numbers of Greek visitors, mainly from other Cycladic islands, on its feast day in May-June, this is not on the same scale as the annual pilgrimage to Tinos on the 15th August, and there are no famous ‘beauty spots’ like the caldera of Santorini.
Nevertheless, there is plenty to see on Sifnos, and as it is the ideal ‘walkers’ island’, it is easy to combine ‘sightseeing’ with a hike: from the top of the highest mountain, Profitis Ilias (682 m.) for example, you will have an amazing view of the whole of Sifnos, and of many of the other Cycladic islands.
However, you can enjoy walking on Sifnos without putting on hiking boots and a backpack. There is a network of old stone paths which connects the villages. You can follow the one which links Apollonia and Artemonas without ever setting foot on the main road.
This is a beautiful walk, as you have a constant panoramic view of the fields and terraces, the sea and the distant islands: it should take no more than thirty minutes.
Within the villages themselves you can explore the cobbled alleys and steps which wind past the white washed houses and churches, and link the different levels. In Apollonia the paths take you past fascinating shops full of exquisite jewellery, ceramics and clothes.
Artemonas does not provide the same shopping opportunities, but there are bakeries selling the traditional island delicacies – and you must be sure not to miss the sweet shop ‘Theodorou’, a few metres along the paved path from the square. Here, in a traditional Sifnian house, you will find freshly made sweets, including the island speciality, ‘amygdalota’ made of ground almonds and sugar. As you continue along this path you will see some of the old Venetian mansions: you can peer through the gates at the beautiful gardens!
Further on, on the right, is the little 18th Century church of the Virgin Mary ‘Tis Ammou’.
You could easily miss it, as the door is right on the street, and it blends with the surrounding houses. There are many historic churches in Artemonas, but this is our favourite. The amazing icons are beautifully cared for, and the church is always open during the day, so passers by can step in to light a candle.
The village of Kastro, the ancient capital of Sifnos, deserves an extended visit. Its name means citadel, referring to the Venetian castle which was built on the ancient acropolis: the remains of both ancient and medieval defences can still be seen.
Kastro is quite different from the other villages: from the moment you enter through one of the original archways you have a real sense that you are stepping into the past. The remains of ancient columns are scattered about and there are marble sarcophagi from the Roman period in the tunnel like lanes, while on the walls everywhere you see carved reliefs and Venetian coats of arms.
Defence against pirates was the essential concern for the medieval inhabitants of Kastro, which has an almost sheer drop to the sea on three sides: here the houses, which looked inwards, were built with two or three storeys and acted as a fortification. The lower classes lived in the houses on the outside, while the upper classes lived within the walls, and on a higher level. In order to make the most of the limited space available within the walls, some buildings and even streets were constructed on top of what were originally one storey houses.
All this makes Kastro a fascinating place to explore: as you wander through the maze of narrow passageways you discover some of the oldest buildings on Sifnos, particularly the churches, such as Saint Nikolaos (1566) and a church of the Virgin Mary (1646) which used to be the Cathedral. The altar in this church dates back to Roman times.
Sifnos is an island of churches. Wherever you look, you will see tiny chapels, larger parish churches, monasteries on the top of hills ….. You will often read in tourist guides that it has 365, ‘one for each day of the year’. This gives the impression that every church is dedicated to a different saint, but this is not true. The number of churches IS probably close to 300, with more than one taking the names of the most well known saints. There are so many dedicated to the Panagia, the Virgin Mary, for instance, and Her most important festival, on the 15th August, that the ceremonies can’t all take place on that day, as there aren’t enough priests! The churches in the more remote parts of the island will have their festivals on the following day: this does give the islanders, and visitors, the chance to attend more than one!
Don’t miss the panigyria!
You should certainly try to visit Sifnos’ two little museums, as each has quite different collections. The Archaeological Museum is housed in a traditional island building in Kastro, while the Folklore Museum is in the main square of Apollonia.
Apart from the Bronze Age finds from the St. Andreas acropolis, the Archaeological Museum has sculptures and architectural artefacts dating from the Archaic to the Roman period (6th Century BC to 1st Century AD.) There are also ceramics found in Kastro which date from the 8th to the 2nd Century BC, a collection of coins and many other objects.
The Museum of Folklore and Popular Art concentrates more on the recent history of Sifnos, with artefacts which illustrate the Sifnians’ rich cultural heritage and aspects of traditional island life. Among other exhibits there are collections of swords and guns; Sifnian costumes, embroidery and lace; pottery, household objects, farm tools, Sifnian newspapers and books.
There is another fascinating museum: to see it will involve a little effort on your part, as it does not have actual ‘opening hours’ and you need to make a special appointment. This is the Museum of Ecclesiastical Art and Tradition, which you will find in the monastery of the Virgin Mary called Panagia Vrysiani (Virgin of the Spring), on the main road from Apollonia, just outside the village of Exampela. If you’re interested in Byzantine Art and ecclesiastical artefacts you will be enthralled by the objects on display, such as antique handmade embroidered vestments, parchments, manuscripts, old publications of the Gospels and beautiful, valuable icons. The telephone no. is 22840 31937.
Hiking on Sifnos
Many visitors, usually from other parts of Europe, come to Sifnos specifically for walking, as the landscape is ideal. You can hike along the donkey paths, which are easy to follow, although they aren’t used very much by donkeys any more. In the north of the island you will find the remains of the old paved path used in the 19th century by the men going out to work in the mines. This is a very good, solid path, but much of it was destroyed when the modern road to Cheronissos was built. In recent years all over the island signposts indicating the way to places of interest have appeared, so it is easier to be sure you’re going in the right direction. One word of warning: whatever you do, don’t be tempted to ‘terrace hop’! The goat paths at the edge of terraces can look very much like ‘proper’ paths leading down, but it’s so easy to end up scrambling over huge boulders in a dry river bed. We once did just this when we were trying to follow a poorly marked path from Kamares to Artemonas: after about six hours of wandering, we finally stumbled out onto the main road from Kamares – to find we were about one kilometre from where we’d started!
If you are very energetic, you can follow the zigzag paths to the tops of the mountains: these paths are built with shallow steps and are designed to avoid perpendicular climbs! On most of the hills you will find interesting monasteries where you can rest and drink some water from the well. The monastery of Profitis Ilias, the highest point on the island, is said to date from the 8th century; it has a 12th century inscription and a carved marble screen. The buildings include massive outer walls, a large refectory and a fascinating warren of underground galleries and rooms. Some people manage to combine this trip with a visit to the excavations of the Mycenaean citadel at the top of the neighbouring Saint Andreas mountain. (I’ve never had the stamina to do both on the same day!) The excavations here are still in progress – a special extension to the Archaeological Museum in Kastro has been built to house the finds.
At the top of Saint Nikitas mountain in the North West is an interesting little church and the remains of an ancient citadel.
This is a rather barren walk, but the view from the top is amazing: you look right across to the Profitis Ilias monastery on the opposite mountain range. There is a really beautiful walk from Artemonas to Saint Simeon monastery which looks down on Kamares and the bay.
This will take you on a well-signposted path beside olive groves and terraces, past a very picturesque spot called Tris Piges (Three Springs) where (not surprisingly!) there is plenty of fresh water. Later you’ll be walking over more desolate terrain near the entrance to the mines. This hike will take about three hours, but you CAN get to the top of the mountain more quickly! In recent years an asphalt road has been built from Kamares: if you have access to a car it will take no time at all to get there!
Where to swim
There are many beaches on Sifnos, each offering something different to suit most tastes: long sandy stretches backed by cafés and tavernas in the popular resorts; smaller, quieter beaches in less accessible spots; rocky outcrops beside deep turquoise pools in remote areas ….
Some beaches have been awarded the coveted ‘blue flag’ for their high standard of cleanliness and facilities, but there are no ‘organised’ activities on the beaches of Siphnos. You may be able to hire loungers and sun umbrellas, but you will not find pedaloes or canoes and there are no water sports or windsurfing schools. Sometimes you may see a jet ski or a speedboat and water skier at Platys Gialos, but these will probably be connected with one of the private yachts which sometimes anchor in the bay – they will not be close enough to the beach to alarm swimmers!
Long distance telephone code for Greece: 0030
Useful telephone numbers (area code: 22840)
- Municipality of Sifnos: 31345
- Police: 31210
- Port authority: 33617
- Medical clinic: 31315
- Post Office: 31329
- Aegean Thesaurus Travel Tourism (Kamares): 33527
- Municipality of Kamares: 31977
- Accommodation: 31333
- Municipal Camping 71286