A Guide to Chios: The Island of Mastica
By Lynn Roulo
Situated in the North Aegean Sea near the coast of Turkey lies the island of Chios (pronounced Hee-os). Chios is the fifth largest Greek island and is famous for its legendary mastic trees, medieval villages, a UNESCO-recognized monastery, and a rich history dating as far back as the Neolithic period 8,000 years ago.
This rugged island is full of surprises and contrasts. The coastline offers stunning beaches like the darkly pebbled Mavros Gialos and the soft sandy Komi Beach. Whether you like organized or secluded beachfronts, with over 70 beaches to choose from, you’ll find a seaside that fits your taste. Venture inland to wander through the winding paths of the villages Pyrgi and Mesta known for their distinct medieval architecture. In the same area, visit the famous mastic groves and learn about the production of this uniquely Chian sap. Head high into the mountains and pay homage at the Nea Moni monastery and the Temple of the Holy Cross, a commemoration of the dramatic history of fighters from the 1822 Massacre of Chios. Chios is an island with many faces, and the local residents, called Chians, are proud to share their history with you.
Getting To Chios
Chios has a national airport (code: JKH) with regular flights from Athens and Thessaloniki. The flight duration is approximately one hour. The airport is about 2 miles from Chios Town, the largest city and administrative capital of the island.
The island is also accessible by ferry from the Athens port of Piraeus. The ferry schedule varies seasonally, with more frequent connections in the summer/high season months and a few weekly crossings during the offseason. The ferry ride is approximately nine hours, so consider an overnight cabin for a good night’s sleep if you choose to sail. The Port of Chios is in Chios Town, so once you arrive in the port, you are well located to begin exploring.
Getting Around Chios
With a landmass of 325 square miles and many things to see and do, Chios is a big island that is ideally navigated by car. There are lots of car rental agencies throughout the island, so be sure to bring your international driver’s license permit. The island also offers a public bus service called the Chios Ktel with links from Chios Town to various villages and towns throughout the island. Taxis are another option, and you’ll find a taxi service in many of the major towns.
The Best Time to Visit Chios
Like Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, and Siros, Chios is an island that stays active year-round. The island is busiest in the summer months, and the beach bars and seaside tavernas often close during the winter. However, the mountain villages and Chios Town, with its population of over 26,000 people, stay lively even in the winter period. Chios is home to the University of the Aegean’s business studies program, so you can expect a student vibe on parts of the island. If you want the full experience, come between May and October, but if you don’t mind skipping the beach activities, the winter months will offer you a fresh perspective on Greek islands. Whether you are coming for a few days or a few weeks, Chios has a lot to offer.
Seven Things to See and Do in Chios
1. Explore Mastica Production (also spelled Mastiha)
Mastica is the flavored resin produced by a specific variety of mastic tree called “Pistacia lentiscus var.chia.” This small evergreen tree grows only on the island of Chios. Famous for its healing qualities and unique flavor, an entire industry has been created based on Chios mastica, and you’ll find over 50 products ranging from gum to shampoo and from liquor to coffee. Head to the southern part of Chios to one of the 24 mastic-producing villages, called “mastichochoria” where you can see the harvest and sample mastica products firsthand. If you want an organized overview of the mastica production, be sure to visit the Mastica Museum in Pyrgi, one of the mastichochoria.
2. Wander Through Medieval Villages
In the same area where you find mastichochoria, there is an abundance of medieval villages to explore. Second to its mastic groves, Chios is best known for these charming villages dating back to the Byzantine era. Mesta is one of the most well preserved and impressive medieval villages in Chios, and you can easily pass an afternoon wandering through its maze of cobbled alleyways, and exploring its unique architecture. These villages illustrate “defensive architecture” whereby the houses are built attached to each other forming a protective wall. Pyrgi and Olympi are other medieval towns worth visiting during your time in Chios.
3. Pick Up Pebbles on the Colorful Beaches
No trip to a Greek island is complete without some beach time, and Chios does not disappoint. The island is famous for its clean, sparkling water and its colorful pebbled shores. One of the most famous beaches, Mavra Volia, also called Mavros Gialos, is known for its black pebbles and dark blue water. Karfas is another popular organized beach known for its lively vibe. If seclusion and tranquility is what you seek, head to Managros Beach, a quiet spot 25 miles from Chios Town. Even at the height of the summer season, this beach maintains a low-key vibe. The most popular beaches are along the southern part of the island, but with so many beaches to choose from, you’ll have many options.
4. See the Skulls at the Nea Moni Monastery
Up in the mountains, 9 miles from Chios Town, lies the Nea Moni Monastery, a UNESCO-recognized site and one of the oldest monasteries in Greece. Rich in folklore, this is the site where three 11th century monks experienced a miracle and foresaw the rise of the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachos in 1042. The site is expansive, with a large church, smaller chapels, and a sanctuary. The area has a serene, tranquil feeling despite its history: the monastery was burned by the Turks during the Greek War of Independence, and the skulls of the massacred monks are on display in a glass cabinet inside the chapel.
5. Sample Local Chian Dishes
Greece is known for its amazing food, and one of the pleasures of island hopping is tasting the local specialties. You’ll first notice that Chian cuisine features mastica, sometimes as an after-meal drink or as a flavoring in sweets and pastries. Try masouraki, a dessert made from a thin pastry wrapped around a filling of mastica, almonds, egg whites, and lemon. Mastelo cheese, a salty white cow’s milk cheese, is another local favorite that is often served as a saganaki fried cheese appetizer. And while you’ll find fresh seafood and flavorful dishes on most Greek islands, be sure to try artichokes and peas along with fresh sea bream while in Chios. The island is known for its rustic, flavorful, and reasonably priced tavernas.
6. Visit the Archaeological and Maritime Museums
For museum lovers, the Archaeological Museum in Chios Town is well worth a visit. Built in the 1960s but renovated and reopened in 2000, this three-story building encompasses over 12,000 square of exhibition space featuring fascinating artifacts, including a letter written by Alexander the Great to the Chians, and a Macedonian style tomb found on the island.
Chios is home to many prominent shipping families. To learn more of the island’s history, head to the Maritime Museum . Located in Chios Town, this museum highlights the nautical tradition interwoven throughout the island and includes paintings, models, maps, and more. The museum also hosts exhibits and lectures, so if maritime history is an interest of yours, be sure to check the museum schedule for special events.
7. Take a Day Trip to Turkey
Because of its close proximity to Turkey, day trips to the cities of Izmir and Cesme are popular excursions from Chios. Izmir, once called Smyrna, was one of the most important cities in Asia Minor until the burning of the city in 1922. This land has an intense and fascinating history which you can learn during your visit to the Izmir Agora, the Clock Tower, the Old Smyrna City Wall, Athena Temple, and graves and homes from as far back as 700 B.C.
Another popular day trip from Chios is the city of Cesme, a Turkish resort town known for its lively promenade, its beautiful coves, and its healing waters. Visit the Cesme Castle, the Cesme Museum, or simply relax for a delicious seafood lunch at one of the area’s stunning seasides.
Turkey is not part of Europe or the Schengen zone, so be sure to bring your passport if you opt for a Turkish day trip.
Chios is a colorful island rich in history, offering visitors a glimpse into the past while staying firmly planted in the present. Come experience the island yourself–it will give a whole new dimension to every time you are served a glass of delicious, distinctive mastica at the end of your Greek meal.
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