The mercantile hustle of Hermoupolis, Syros's hillside harbour capital, comes as a surprise to most visitors when they first set foot on the Cycladic isle. Often overshadowed by its hedonistic neighbour, Mykonos, travellers disembarking from the two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Athens expect to find a sleepy backwater base on the 32-square-mile isle. Instead, Syros greets them with an atmosphere of urban cool. It's less Mykonos, more Manchester.
Don't believe us? Pull into port and you'll immediately spot the elegant architecture which distinguishes this diminutive Cycladic island from classic Greek clichés; love-heart hued neoclassical homes tumble down the capital's two hills, interspersed by the elegant skeletons of industrial construction. Shaped by a trading history - 19th-century Syros once rivalled the Greek capital in its international maritime commerce - the island lives up to its industrious reputation with a bustling community of artists and craftspeople. They are helping to shape its ever-evolving cultural fabric and transform the former industrial island into an alluring destination for not only summertime island hoppers, but also nomadic Greeks.
Oana Aristide, left, and enviable interiors inside the recently opened hotel.
Syros is now Greece's artistic enclave, home to an off-beat, creative clique."It's a lived-in place," says Oana Aristide, the new owner (alongside her mother and sister) of Hotel Aristide, the island's latest boutique stay. "Tourists adapt to the rhythm of Syros, rather than Syros adapting to the rhythm of tourists."
Delayed by the pandemic, the Aristide's nine-key hotel opened this year in the well-heeled Vaporia neighbourhood of the capital. It feels like the island's lodestar. The family painstakingly restored the elegant neoclassical mansion, formerly the Cycladic Tax Office, into a sustainability-driven hotel with swoon-worthy interiors. Keeping true to the character of the island, the hotel hosts an art gallery, artists' residence and workshop alongside its rooms and restaurant.
We sat down with Oana to find out why Syros captured her family's attention, and to ask for insider info on where to visit when we next head to Greece's edgiest island.
Seductive Syros: A local's guide to the need-to-know restaurants, beaches and artistic enclaves
Bedside views in Hotel Aristide's Tinos suite, left, and the hotel's roof terrace.
Describe the Syros vibe to us
Greek island meets urban cool. The island is atypical in that it still has an industrial base, but also carries the legacy of a very wealthy past in its palatial buildings, roads and pavements of marble. You never really know if you're in Venice, Manchester or Crete.
What's the best time to visit?
September and October. It's still hot but not too hot and it's not that busy. The sea is warm and the restaurants are still open. May is also nice, although the sea is not very warm.
What's the best way to explore the island?
Strolling through the capital Hermoupolis. If you want to get out around the island, it makes sense to rent a car or a scooter.
Where should we base ourselves?
Vaporia, where the hotel is located, is the island's neoclassical neighbourhood overlooking a beautiful coastline. It's central, near the beach, and is an all round pleasure for the senses.
Space to relax on Hotel Aristide's roof terrace, left, and one of the hotel bathrooms
A great place to grab breakfast?
Definitely our hotel. We use only local, organic ingredients and serve dishes based on traditional recipes. Breakfast is served in a garden, which is pretty rare on the dry Cycladic islands. For coffee, I would suggest Plastico, a chic café that doubles as an art gallery, run by a lovely Greek-Italian couple; it's a local daytime hub.
How about a low-key lunch?
Allou Yallou in Kini. They serve wonderful Greek salads and seafood on the beach. A leisurely lunch is best combined with a swim.
Where's good for an evening drink?
Theosis, a tiny bar in the picturesque Cycladic hilltop settlement of Ano Syros, recently opened and is run by one of Greece's top bartenders. Or our rooftop at Hotel Aristide, for cocktails with epic views.
Any other gourmet suggestions?
For casual dining, try Cantina Analogue and Laoutari. These venues are much cherished by locals and hark back to Syros's industrial heyday. Both offer creative takes on local dishes and occasional live music.
For somewhere special, I'd recommend Mazi or Avantgarden in Hermoupolis. Mazi serves seafood in a spectacular setting; a bougainvillea covered ruin of an old pottery factory. Avantgarden, tucked into a beautiful neoclassical garden, specialises in elegant dishes with Cycladic ingredients.
The white-washed restaurant Allou Yallou, perfect for a low-key lunch.
Where can we find some sea breeze or fresh air?
We always advise our guests to take a dip early in the morning at the 'urban' beach just below the hotel in Vaporia. The backdrop of the neoclassical architecture is glorious and, in combination with the clear water and the quiet time of day, it is something special.
The north of the island is a nature reserve, and great for walks when it's not too hot. Try the path from Kampos to the remote Grammata beach. In summer we love full-moon walks - on clear nights, the light and scents make it the closest thing to visiting another planet.
We also arrange foraging trips and cooking classes with a local expert in the northern part of the island. Maria is an encyclopaedia of knowledge about Cycladic herbs and plants (and an award-winning chef), and she organises these walks in a gorgeous landscape in which participants collect local herbs, spices and other plants which they then use for cooking.
Theosis, a tiny bar in Ano Syros, is run by one of Greece's top bartenders.
Where can we explore the island's story?
At Hermoupolis Heritage. It's a restored textile factory that dates from when Syros was the mercantile capital of Greece and a wander through its sepia-toned spaces provides a near time-travel experience. You can book an evening tour, which includes a light dinner.
A tour of the island's private neoclassical homes is a must. Syros was, for about a hundred years, the mercantile and cultural capital of Greece, and the island's architecture shows this. The island has some of the most beautiful examples of neoclassical architecture in the Mediterranean. At the hotel we organise tours of public and private buildings.
Tell us about a place only locals know...
Delfini beach is a wide sandy beach on the island's west coast that only has unpaved road access. Taxis refuse to go; even in the middle of August, you're unlikely to meet a tourist there.
Any must-visit artisan boutiques or creatives we can drop by?
Try Kriari for fashion from contemporary Greek designers, and Chimera Craft for curated artisanal ceramics from regional artists. Manos, at Chimaera, also runs pottery workshops if you want to try your skill at the wheel.
A book to read while we're there?
The Great Chimera by M. Karagatsis is a Greek classic set on Syros in the early decades of the 20th century - it has love, adventure and local history. Also, I think any time is the right time to read My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, even if it's set on Corfu.
Something to bring back as a souvenir?
Artisanal ceramics, a jar of capers - Syros is the caper capital of Greece and, trust me, they really are much tastier than anywhere else - plus a love for all things Cycladic.
Discover more stories from the Craft issue here.