I leaned against the rail of the small Sebeco ferry as it bounced over the waves of the Aegean Sea away from Rhodes and towards my next destination. Like many of the Greek Islands, this new island looked sparse and rocky. Much of it covered in low, scraggly bushes with a few trees higher up in the hills. I kept my eye on the island as the ferry came closer to a small bay, tucked away around a corner. The ferry veered in and our final destination revealed itself to us. Brightly coloured houses in shades of yellow, blue, and red and even a couple of pink ones cascaded down the steep hillside. In the port, fishing boats of all sizes bobbed in the bright, clear blue sea. It looked nothing like the stereotypical Greece we see in advertisements and postcards and yet I knew as soon as saw it that I would love Symi, Greece.
How to Get to Symi, Greece
Since Symi is so small there is no airport so you need to arrive by boat (unless you have a helicopter, I did see a helicopter pad). There are frequent ferries from neighbouring Rhodes as well as some of the other islands in the Dodecanese chain.
Ferry tickets can be bought in advance online to secure your spot, especially during the busy summer season. They also tend to be cheaper when you buy in advance. I use Ferry Hopper for booking all my Greece Ferries. You can also book at the port in person, but again be mindful that during summer months the ferries do fill up quickly with locals and tourists alike.
You can also choose to do a day tour to Symi. There are high-speed boat options that make the journey in 1 hour instead of 1.5 hours. These trips also allow you to do a bit of sightseeing around the island to some of the best-known bays. So if you only planning on doing a day trip, it’s the best way to make the most of your day. You can look at some of these day trip options:
Getting Around Symi, Greece
Symi is very small and the highlights are the port area, Chorio at the top of the hill, the beaches around the island, and Panormitis monastery. The port and Chorio can be reached by foot (there is also a bus up to Chorio) and several of the beaches are only accessible by boat. You can rent a car, motorbike, or quad but everyone I spoke to said there isn’t really a point. The Panormitis Monastery is the trickiest place to get to, however, the public bus does run there as well. Just make sure you know the itinerary in advance.
How Long to Spend on Symi Island
Most people only come to Symi on a day trip. They explore the waterfront area, grab some of the tiny and delicate Symi shrimp in a taverna with a view, and head back to Rhodes for the evening. This means that mornings and evenings in Symi have a very quiet, local feel to them. For me, that alone is worth spending a night but after my 3 days on Symi, I still wish I had stayed longer. Yes, the island is quiet. No, it’s not a party place and yes, at 32 I was one of the younger people visiting. However, I still found a lot of things to do in Symi and think it’s absolutely worth spending at least 2 nights to explore this Greek island.
Things to do in Symi, Greece
So, if this island really is so small, what is there to do in Symi, Greece? Here are my recommendations.
Explore Gialos and the Harbour
The main town in Symi looks like one town but is actually two. Gialos is the lower town on the waterfront. Higher on the hill is Chorio. Most tourists stick to Gialos which is made up of a number of tavernas, cafes, bakeries, and shops lining the waterfront. It’s busiest during the day with the day-trippers but understandably so because it looks like a postcard. Make sure to walk the full way around the bays, past the clocktower to the far point to get in all the best views.
As pretty as the waterfront is, don’t forget to take some of the little alleyways to wander around the town behind as well. There are still plenty of shops and tavernas (some with better pricing than those right on the waterfront) and tucked-away churches.
Climb the Kali Strata to Chorio
Chorio, perched on top of the hill, is the old town. While some of it is old and crumbling, there are still plenty of scenic buildings, tavernas, some shops, and beautiful viewpoints that just get prettier as you keep climbing.
You can take a bus up to Chorio, however, the best way to explore is to take the Kali Strata, a set of about 500 steps or so from the port area up to the Kastro which is the old castle ruins. According to a local, the castle was blown up by German soldiers during the war as they fled the island. Not long after, their submarine was torpedoed as they were making their escape.
While 500 steps seems daunting, especially in the heat of the Greek Islands, it really wasn’t that bad. The steps aren’t too steep and are spread out. There will be 8-12 steps then a smooth walkway, then another series of 8-12 steps. The trail winds up the hillside and through the village which means you will have lots of places to stop for a rest, to take in the view, or even to grab a cold beer at a taverna if you please. The whole climb only took me 40 minutes and that included me stopping and take photos (including self-portraits) multiple times along the way. So just put on a comfortable pair of shoes, pack a water bottle, and you’ll be good to go.
Take in the View from the Old Windmills
I loved the scenery of the climb of the Kali Strata but the view from the Kastro, while pretty, wasn’t quite what I wanted. So I continued my adventure through the town and across to the other side where the remains of the old windmills can be seen standing on the hill over the town. This view was, in my opinion, the best one. I went in the early evening as the sun was setting so the lighting wasn’t the best, but the views were still stunning.
Spend a Day on a Boat with Poseidon Cruises
Symi is known for its beaches and swimming spots but the best ones are pretty remote which means taking a boat tour around the island is the best way to go. I was told that Poseidon Excursions was the best option so I booked a ticket online and showed up ready to explore Symi by boat early in the morning.
The traditional boat is run by Captain Yiannis who has been running the tour for 30+ years. He took us to multiple swim stops (including one with a cave where, if you are lucky, you might meet the resident seal). The lunch stop is at another small island with a huge BBQ lunch with meat and vegetarian options. It was the perfect way to explore by water and I absolutely loved my time on board.
I also loved that I was, somehow, the only newcomer on board. The boat was full of regular visitors to the island, mostly from England and Scotland. Some of which had been coming for 30+ years. It was great to listen to their stories and love for the island and to get some insider tips as a first-time visitor.
Book your trip here or visit him at the port where you can book in person.
Beach Hop with the Taxi Boats
Symi Island is full of beautiful beaches best accessed by one of the taxi boats in Symi port. They have multiple departure and pick-up times throughout the day and there is also the option to beach-hop if you choose to do so. Tickets as of June 2022 were 12 euro for the return trip. The beaches on offer are:
- Marina Beach
- St Nicholas Beach
All beaches except for St. George have a taverna and sunbeds available. St. George is absolutely stunning but there is no shade and no facilities so while worth a visit, you need to plan wisely (Poseidon Tours stops here for a swim break too).
Marathonta is meant to be the ‘best’ but also the furthest away. Since I needed to be mindful of my ferry back to Rhodes I chose Nanou which was a beautiful beach with cheap lounge beds and umbrellas (3 euros per bed in June 2022).
Visit Panormitis Monastery
I did not get the chance to visit Panormitis Monastery (perfect excuse to go back!) but I’ve heard it’s pretty impressive. As mentioned earlier, you can take the bus here if you don’t want to rent a vehicle. My new friends also told me that they have an absolutely incredible bakery here as well with the best cheese pies.
Symi Restaurants and Shops Worth Visiting
There are tons of restaurant options in both Gialos and the port area and up in Chorio so you’ll have no trouble finding a place to eat. The ones along the main waterfront area do tend to be the most touristic thanks to the views, but that doesn’t mean the food is bad. Just a bit pricier.
I went to Tratta Restaurant which was recommended by my host. According to the regular visitors I met, it’s one of the best spots on the island for seafood. Another favourite that I didn’t get to try is Tholos- it’s considered to be one of the best places to eat on the island with decent prices and friendly staff. Be sure to try the Symi shrimp; tiny shrimp that you eat with lemon (and the shells on!).
In terms of bakeries, there is a delicious local Greek bakery with cookies, bread, pastries, and Greek pies called “The Oven of Panormitis”. Of course, the name is in Greek both on the signage and maps so just look for the building in the photo below. The address is Ano Symi 856 00.
For bars, I was introduced to (and loved) Eva’s bar. It’s along the waterfront and has a huge cocktail menu including a hand-illustrated menu of gin cocktails. The bartenders take their time but the cocktails are delicious and picture-perfect.
For shopping, Symi is best known for its sea sponges. You will find them for sale all along the waterfront. There is also a spice shop where you can get spice mixes for traditional Greek dishes like souvlaki. If you are looking for something unique you can also check out Taki’s Leather products.
Where to Stay on Symi Island
Symi has lots of accommodation options. Most are small apartments, don’t expect any all-inclusive, fancy resorts. But this means pricing is pretty fair as well. I do recommend making sure that you stay in Gialos, not Chorio. While climbing those 500 steps up the Kali Strata was great, it’s not something I would want to do several times a day.
I stayed in Elena’s apartments. It had a shared kitchen space and was very central. Small and basic but comfortable and clean and a little balcony. You can take a look here.
I was also told that the following properties were quite nice as well
Final Thoughts on Symi, Greece
As I said, I knew I would love Symi as soon as I saw all the colourful houses. It really does look like the scene from a movie and I love that despite its beauty it still feels relatively ‘undiscovered’, especially in comparison to the Cyclades islands.
That being said, if you are coming to Symi you need to know that you are coming to a quiet, slow island. It’s not a party place. There is a large expat community, mostly from the UK, but they do tend to be older (although, in my experience, still fun!). I was definitely one of the younger ones who came for longer than a day trip but I didn’t mind. I felt welcome, safe, and enjoyed my time there immensely.
I highly recommend a visit to Symi Island. Stay a couple of nights if you can, because it really is a fantastic place.
A Note on Travel Insurance in Greece
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.