Here are the things to do in Symi that one shouldn’t miss when coming to Rhodes due to its proximity.
The island of Symi was on my list when I came to Rhodes Greece right next to all those places to visit on the island like Lindos, Prassonissi, and Kamiros. I booked a boat trip with Ivana, our Odeon World Travel guide, and as the day of the excursion was approaching, I got more and more impatient.
Whenever I mentioned to any of the locals that I will be off to Symi soon, they would immediately say that I would love the place praising its architecture and colors. That just added up to my impatience.
Things to do in Symi
And so, the day has come. We were leaving early in the morning on a large catamaran ship that was packed with tourists from all over the world. It was more fun to sit on the deck than in the air-conditioned space inside, even though the wind was a bit stronger than I expected. Still, beautiful weather, dark blue sea reflecting the sun, and we were sailing into the Aegean Sea, northwest of Rhodes, even closer to the Turkish mainland.
(Greek island of Rhodes is located about 9 kilometers from Turkey, while Symi is even closer to the border at about 5.5 km or so. Between the two, there are 21 nautical miles or roughly 39 kilometers.)
I looked over to Rhodes that we have left behind, and there was the west coast peeking proudly out of the beautiful sea. I was here a few days ago, driving along the shore, admiring Kamiros Rhodes and its rich historical heritage. And now I was off to see traces of another heritage that made the small Greek island of Symi resemble – Italy.
As our ship approached the bay, one could see a few scattered houses painted in various colors. It was getting crowded on the deck as more and more buildings appeared behind the mountains. We were entering the harbor of the town of Ano Symi. Oh my, just like Positano!
The bay was packed with colorful houses that looked as though hanging from cliffs or being built one on top of the other. It was obvious that the town was not that big. Otherwise, it would be too large for a small bay. There was the lovely quay going around the marina with shops and restaurants, the Clock Tower was peeking from the right, and a church from the nearby hill, while the bay was full of huge yachts and ships that seemed way bigger than the place itself. Like the 21st-century ships sailed through time and into a small town still unspoiled by modern gadgets.
Remember the story about the Knights of Rhodes? The order was founded in Jerusalem by merchants from the Italian area of Amalfi who were permanent residents of the Holy Land. They moved their headquarters to Palestine, Cyprus, and then Rhodes (now it’s located in Malta). After establishing a stronghold on Rhodes, they conquered surrounding islands. Italians were also present on these islands after the Turks left in the 19th century. Hence the similarity to the Amalfi towns.
No roads, no hotels
According to mythology, the god Glaucus abducted the beautiful king’s daughter from Ialyssos town on Rhodes and brought her here. Her name was – Symi.
Symi is one of the most picturesque islands in the Dodecanese with mountains that plunge straight down to the sea. The traditional architecture, neoclassical houses with pediments and pebbled courtyards, make the impressive scenery that mostly dates to the 19th century.
The small island covers an area of 68 square kilometers and its coast is about 85 kilometers long. There is no road around the island and the only way from Ano Symi to the opposite side is through the hill area. Other bays could only be reached by boats or on foot. It sounds a bit isolated, but then again, people here were such good seamen for centuries, that it might sound complicated only to someone who is used to roads and cars (like myself).
At the beginning of the 20th century, Symi was inhabited by a population of 30,000 (compared to 2,600 today) and was the capital of the Dodecanese. It was the largest sponge-fishing center in the world. The simple and carefree way of life has changed over the last few decades. Still, with the expansion of tourism, Symi gets more and more attention. It’s possible to rent an apartment here, since there are no hotels.
They say that Symi is even warmer than Rhodes in the summer, so the best time to visit is June or September. There is no way to hide in shades. I rushed down to the quay impatient to go around. Everywhere I looked, there were steps going up. I smiled remembering how our tour guide said that “women here have beautiful legs due to going up and down all the time”.
The promenade Yialos encircles the bay. Lovely traditional Greek tavernas, a lot of people on scooters and bicycles, and small souvenir shops. I turned to one of the narrow streets and it took me up among colorful houses. More steep steps were emerging on both sides, disappearing behind tiny corners.
The plan was to go to the other side of Ano Symi and climb a few hundred steps to the Greek Orthodox church. It was hot, but the views from up there were so rewarding. It seemed that there was nobody around, the church was closed, but it was possible to walk around and take photos.
And when you look at the sea, there is the entrance to the bay, beautiful dark blue waters, and contours of distant islands. Breathtaking! Down below – there was the city beach. The beach is artificial but equipped with sunbeds, a restaurant, and a shower (which wasn’t working at the time). One is supposed to pay for food and drinks, or the sunbed (prices are similar to those in Rhodes). But one can also just take a plunge and a shower for 0,50 Euros. If the latter works, that is.
The rocks in shallow waters are sharp, but once you plunge in, you don’t really care since the dark blue sea is so beautiful and fresh. (Other beaches around Symi island can be reached by foot, water taxis, by bus, or car rentals.) This was just a break I needed so that I could continue to stroll around.
Look at these herbs”, the man says selling the so-called Sex Tea. “Just in case”, he says. I was passing by fishing boats floating on such transparent waters, and shops selling sponges. I had enough time to have a coffee and something to eat, and then we took off to another bay of the island.
We came to the renowned Panormitis Monastery at the southern tip of Symi. Dedicated to Archangel Michael, it is the second most important monastery in the Dodecanese. The original church of St. Michael was built around 450 AD on the site of an ancient temple to the god Apollo.
The monastery houses an icon of the saint made in gold, a lovely bell tower, two small museums, and an amazing “chochlaki” floor. St. Michael is one of the most honored saints in Greece, being the protector of sailors and travelers.
One is supposed to dress appropriately (you will be given clothes at the entrance if needed), leave a contribution, and pay a small fee for the museums. The first houses silver icons, various religious items, and souvenirs. The other displays folk culture items. The monastery also hosts a library with Byzantine manuscripts of religious, historical, and philosophical content, some dating to the 16th and 18th centuries.
When you get to the gold icon, make a wish. They say that St. Michael will most certainly grant it.
Farewell, for now
And this was our last stop and the last one of those things to do in Symi. Bear in mind that it can get very hot, especially in July and August. After this daily excursion, I felt exhausted. People were napping during our catamaran ride back to Rhodes.
I was looking at the horizon and glanced over the Rhodes’ shores we were sailing to. “What an amazing island this is, one can learn so much.”
I was supposed to leave in a couple of days. The time has come to say farewell.
“At least for now“, I heard myself whispering.
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