Guide to Symi, Greece - Best Things To Do, How to Get There and More
By Lynn Roulo
Greek islands are famous for their signature blue church domes and white buildings, but if you are looking for something with a bit more variety, come to Symi and visit Greece’s most colorful port. This tiny, peaceful island near Rhodes falls under the tourist radar and offers visitors a leisurely-paced and authentically Greek experience.
Getting to Symi
Located near the coast of Turkey, Symi is one of the Dodecanese islands, and getting to this island is an adventure in itself. There is no airport in Symi so if you are traveling from mainland Greece, your options are to take a 17-hour ferry ride from Athens or fly to Rhodes and take a 50+minute catamaran or ferry ride to the island.
I opted for the 17-hour ferry from Athens and loved the experience. I rented a sleeping cabin which made the trip extremely comfortable. I purchased WiFi on board, had a private room and bathroom, and enjoyed a restful, easy voyage.
If you choose to fly, the Rhodes airport code is RHO, and you can check ferry options with Ferry Hopper.
Best Things to See and Do in Symi, Greece
While Symi is a sleepy island, there are still plenty of things to see and do, and whether you stay for days or weeks, you’ll find your time is easily filled.
1. Light a Candle at the Monastery at Panormitis
The Monastery of the Archangel Michael at Panormitis is one of the most popular visitor sites in Symi. Located along a charming seaside about 11 miles from Symi town, this monastery dates back to the 18th century and is visited by people of all religions who come to pray for health, protection, and fertility, among other things.
Within the monastery grounds, you’ll find two museums featuring paintings, icons, and chandeliers adding to the sacred feeling of the site. While the energy of the space is amazing and the museums are interesting, the monastery itself is small, so plan to either spend your afternoon relaxing along the beach or have a taverna meal after your visit. The monastery itself can be seen in under an hour.
2. Hike to the Castro and Windmills
Coming in at less than 23 square miles in size, Symi is a small island and one of the benefits of this is that despite the fact the hiking paths aren’t well marked, you can just look up and around to understand where you are. There are lots of hikes you can plan for during your stay, and exploring on foot is one of the best ways to take in the natural beauty and stunning views of this island.
I went for a beautiful hike from the port up to Symi Castle (the Castro) and over to the windmills. It took less than two hours and gave me a chance to see the windmills up close, as well as offering beautiful vistas of the port.
While only ruins remain today, the location of Symi Castle was an ancient acropolis until the castle was built in the same location by the Knights of the Order of St John in 1407. The castle’s ruins aren’t such an attraction, but the view is, and from this vantage point, you look over the colorful homes dotting Symi port.
From Symi Castle, it is an easy hike to visit the island’s famous windmills. These windmills are not working turbines but rather circular stone buildings that supported windmills in prior times. There are over a dozen of these structures running along the hills above Symi port. If you are feeling adventurous, you can even book a stay in a windmill as some of them are refurbished and available for nightly accommodation.
3. Go Sea Sponge Shopping in the Port
Symi is a fishing island famous for its sea sponge industry. All along the Port, you’ll find merchants selling Symian sponges, natural loofahs formed in the sea from silica, calcium, or calcium carbonate materials. If you are inspired by the sea sponges, there is even a small sponge factory to visit.
In ancient times, these sponges were used as currency, underscoring how connected to the sea Symian life has always been. Explore the sponge industry in Symi and take home some of these natural gifts.
4. Swim in the Crystal Clear Waters
Symi offers visitors many stunning beaches, including Nanou Beach, Marathounda Beach, Santa Marina, and St. Nicholas Beach. While Symi beaches are tranquil and beautiful, getting there requires some planning because many are accessible only by boat or on foot. Most beaches are organized, offering sunbeds and light food service for a fee. All of the beaches listed above have nearby tavernas if you want a more substantial meal.
If you want to add a little adventure to your beach experience, head to Agios Georgios Dysalona Beach, one of the beaches accessible only by boat. This amazing beach is surrounded by hundreds of cliffs and offers impressive views, especially in the late afternoon as the sun starts to fall. This is not an organized beach, so bring your own supplies, including sunscreen since there are no beach chairs or umbrellas to rent.
5. Taste the Local Cuisine
It is no secret that Greek food tastes amazing, and because of the vibrant fish industry in Symi, you’ll have lots of chances to explore seafood cuisine while visiting. The island is famous for Symian shrimp, a tiny red shrimp that is typically served boiled or fried and eaten whole. You’ll also find lots of classic Greek dishes like gemista (stuffed tomatoes and peppers), spanakopita (spinach pie), rice-stuffed grape leaves, and an array of fresh fish, often caught that same day. In addition to the Greek classics, you might notice Turkish influences with dishes like imam on many taverna menus.
Where to Eat in Symi
Located along the seafront of Symi Port lies Odyssia, an understated restaurant offering remarkably delicious food featuring classic Greek dishes with innovative twists. You can easily spend an afternoon sampling the grilled mushrooms, fresh ceviche, colorful salads, and tasty fish dishes.
The Secret Garden is by far the most well-known restaurant in Symi and even earned an award as being one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, but the restaurant is charming and the owner, nicknamed Bouloukos, is a colorful character who will keep you entertained with the adventures he had as a seaman traveling the world for 12 years. Located above the port in Symi town, this spot is definitely worth a visit.
If you want a low-key but delicious meal, try Trata Trawler at Symi Port. This taverna offers delicious traditional Greek dishes with classic flavors and good portions. They also offer take-out. Pantelis is a great choice for fresh seafood, and if you want to relax, sip tsipouro, and nibble mezedes for an afternoon, head to Elpida.
Where to Stay in Symi
You’ll have a variety of options to choose from for your stay in Symi, from windmills to hotels, and from Airbnb apartments to luxury accommodation.
The Windmill is a great choice for anyone who wants a unique housing experience. Located above Symi Port along a row of ancient windmills, this refurbished living space is something you won’t experience on most Greek islands.
The Opera House hotel and apartments is located a short walk from the port, and offers comfortable accommodation and easy access to Symi town. You’ll have your choice of rooms or suites, and this hotel offers a roof deck for sunbathing, a dining room, and a kid-friendly buffet.
I stayed at Casa Rinio, an Airbnb which is owned by two sisters who are also my friends. These charming apartments offer three floors, making them a great option for friends or family who want to travel together and also have some privacy.
If you want to go upscale, head to 1900 Hotel, a 19th-century neoclassical mansion located right on the seafront. Also called Mastoridis Mansion, the hotel offers four suites with a touch of elegance.
Best Time to Visit Symi
Symi follows the typical Greek rhythm where the islands come to life after Greek Orthodox Easter (usually April to early May) and stay lively until September or October. Spring and fall are ideal seasons to visit to take in the beautiful surroundings and avoid the extreme heat. July and August tend to be very hot months, so if you visit in the summer, plan to spend most of your days at the sea.
If you are looking for a colorful, low-key island, Symi is a wonderful addition to your Greek island-hopping experience. This tiny island offers charm, a relaxed pace, amazing food, and local hospitality. It’s the kind of island where you might find the mayor of the island sipping tsipouro at the table next to you and where everyone seems to know each other. If an authentic Greek experience is what you seek, pay Symi a visit.