A Local’s Guide to the Best of Mykonos

Rethink the Greek party capital this summer


Photographer Lizy Manola spent the past year chronicling the island of Mykonos for her new travel tome, Mykonos Muse (Assouline, $85), but her obsession with the island is a lifelong story. “Even though I’ve lived and spent all my summers—the last 40 years’ worth—on the island, I still learned so many things in the last year,” she says. “I found streets I’d never walked before, and met different people I’d never had the chance to talk to—local people.”


Her robust discovery process is proof that, despite Mykonos’ small footprint (just 40 square miles) and decades-long popularity among the international jet set, many of the island’s charms have flown under the radar. Here, an insider’s guide to the Greek isle that’ll contain surprises for even the most loyal of visitors.


“I’ll tell you something,” Manola begins. “I love eating.” So where does this self-proclaimed gourmand indulge on the island? “Tasos is a small tavern at Paranga beach, and I like it especially because the tables are on the sand and the fish is so fresh.” (Her favorite dish is the fish-and-tomato salad with capers.) Also at the top of her list is Oti Apomeine. “It means ‘whatever is left,’ and it’s a small family tavern that is really my best recommendation. It’s a grill house, and they have the most tender meats; the tomato meatballs are excellent.” The pictured spread, however, comes from Scorpios, which Manola categorizes as “one of the famous beach bars with all the people—a good place to sit at the bar, have a salad and a drink, and mingle with nice couples.”


Though most people flock to Mykonos for its exceptional beaches and crystal-clear waters, it’s nearly impossible to have a sliver of sand all to yourself during peak season. That is, if you’re not in the company of a local in the know. Manola’s favorite places to soak up the Aegean sun include scenic Kapari, which has sunset views over Delos, and secluded Mersini, with shallow waters off the island’s northern coast. Agios Sostis, pictured here, is a place where you’re more likely to see fishermen than lithe models. “There is a big caveat with these beaches, though,” she warns. “They don’t have umbrellas or sunbeds or music. But this is my Greek vacation.”

Ask Manola how she defines Mykonian hospitality, and she’ll say that it’s all about the people. “The Mykonians make Mykonos what it is today—they know how to give visitors what they want,” she says. “They’re free spirits, good dancers, and on the other hand, very, very hard workers.” But the most important quality they share, she says, is that Mykonians are generally open-minded. “Puritanism and tourism don’t go together,” she adds.


At the San Giorgio Hotel, you can find Mykonos’s buzz and its boho spirit at once. A gypset-inspired design includes white-beamed ceilings, rattan rugs, and weathered wood furnishings; it’s a sparse but chic look that would pass muster in Ubud or Tulum.


The intimate Panagia Tourliani monastery dates to the 16th century. “When I’m on the island, I always attend the mass there,” Manola says. “The abbot has been serving for 60 years.” Behind the whitewashed walls is a gilded, ornamental interior dripping with Cretan iconography, Moorish lamps, and an impressive hand-carved altar. Go during services or visit in the early morning hours to get a local feel; otherwise you’ll be surrounded by cruise tourists that pour into the village of Ano Mera.


“I believe that Mykonos still has its bohemian soul, no matter what they say” asserts Manola. “Of course, it’s flashy, but it’s also simple. Yes, it’s cosmopolitan, but it’s also traditional. It’s a mosaic of different things.” The beach in front of the popular bar Alemagou (above) proves the point.


To catch the island’s best weather—and enjoy such uncrowded landscapes as this one, in Agios Sostis bay—Manola suggests planning trips in the early summer. “To be honest, I never go in August,” she explained. “Only in June, and through the middle of July. From then until the end of the summer, it’s just too many people.”

“When I’m with my husband, he wants to go sit under an umbrella because he cannot sit under the sun,” says Manola, with equal parts affection and exasperation. For shade-seekers such as him, there’s Kalo Livadi beach on the southeastern end of the island. It’s ideal for guests who want a bit of a scene—if not too much volume—and a long, silky stretch of sand.


Sunsets are one of the island’s mythical draws. Catch the most beautiful evening vistas in Little Venice, one of Mykonos's oldest, most colorful corners (above). If that feels a bit too on-the-nose, follow Manola to the 127-year-old Armenistis Lighthouse, just north of Chora town. “The scenery is amazing from there—you see all the boats that come and leave from Mykonos, and you feel like you can almost touch Tinos, the next island to the north, it looks so close.”


Manola's favorite place on the island, though, is a surprise. “If you ask me, it’s the old port,” she says, referring to the area tourists visit when taking a ferry over to historic Delos. “I get up early in the morning and take my first coffee there. It’s the place where you can see how locals start the day, how they talk to each other, how they collect the gossip of the island.” Fishermen still pull into the harbor in the early hours to clean and sell their catch; farmers sell fruit, vegetables, and flowers from their gardens. “This is the icon I don’t want to lose,” she continues. “Around 8 a.m. is best—by 10 or 11, the cruise boats come and we [the locals] disappear. We run.”


Some mainstream attractions are worth visiting, even to locals. Delos is one. Known in Greek mythology as the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, it’s a protected archaeological site that’s been uninhabited since the 7th century.


“Of course, Mykonos is a magnet for celebrities and artists, models and designers,” Manola says. “And the Mykonians that used to be fishermen are now club owners. It’s not the same. Decades change,” she explains. Yet, behind the throngs of partygoers and post-midnight revelry, there’s still a quieter, more intimate side to the island. Sometimes, it’s in plain sight—like this evening scene at Scorpios. And sometimes it requires a local guide with an expansive black book. “This is a different island now, but you can have a great time here without doing the same things that everybody else is doing,” says Manola. “In so many ways, Mykonos is still intact.”

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Nikki Ekstein, www.bloomberg.com