The Dodecanese islands stretch across the Aegean Sea, leaving picture-postcard villages in their wake. The Dodecanese are made up of 12 main islands plus another 150 islands; only 26 islands are inhabited. Travelers who are interested in Greek mythology and ancient ruins will have a field day here. The islands also are a perfect destination for those who want to chill out in less crowded destinations where they can hike, walk on pebble beaches and absorb a colorful local culture.
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Nisyros started out life as a volcano, which after 130,000 years is still active but not erupting. There are some sandy beaches but most of the coastline is rocky. It is popular as a summer vacation spot, through travelers should not expect five-star luxury. Mandraki is the island’s capital and harbor. The houses here are made of volcano rocks and insulated with pumice-stone. The island contains many Orthodox Christian churches as well as monasteries, the largest of which is Panagia Spiliani that is next to a medieval castle built by the Knights Hospitalier in the 14th century. Travelers may want to try the traditional island drink, soumada, which tastes like almonds and is non-alcoholic.
Kastellorizo is the smallest of the Dodecanese, but don’t be fooled by its size. It’s a peaceful island, with picturesque village buildings right down to the waterfront. Because it is sparsely populated, it is a good place to enjoy the biodiversity of nature, including water turtles and monarchos seals. With only about 200 residents, Kastellorizo is known as “the red castle” after an ancient castle the Knights of Saint John built from colored rocks. Scenic Kastellorizo village is the island’s only populated area. It sports cobblestone alleys and traditional colorful mansions with wooden and iron balconies.
Halki, the smallest of the inhabited Dodecanese islands, has less than 500 residents. Also known as Chalki, many of its residents migrated to Tarpon Springs, Florida in the last century. They left behind them the ruins of a medieval castle that still contains original frescoes. The island does not have a natural water supply – all water has to be imported from Rhodes or saved in cisterns when it rains. Nimporio is the only village and main port of the island. The island has been ruled by everyone from the Romans to the Turks to the Italians and the Greeks. Tourism is its main industry, with fishing coming in second.
Astypalaia is connected to Greek mythology, since Astypalaia was a woman who was kidnapped by a disguised Poseidon. Chora is the island’s capital town and port. It is one of the most picturesque towns in the Aegean, perched on a rock that advances into the sea, forming two bays. On the top is Chora’s castle towering over the town. At one time, the Querini castle was the town’s crowning glory, though stones from it have been used to build houses. A museum near the old port houses a collection of Neolithic pottery. An ancient graveyard contains the remains of infants and small children in pottery urns; the cemetery is believed to date back to 750 BC. Other ancient religious ruins can be found throughout the island. Other Roman ruins, such as a bath with a mosaic floor, can be found on the island.
Symi is a most picturesque island, with buildings stretching from the coastline up the mountains. Its main town, commonly referred to by the same name as the island itself, is one of the most impressive ports in the Greek island with elegant mansions on the slopes of a hill. One of the key sights on the island is the Monastery of the Archangel Michael Panormitis, which is still used by monks and which attracts visitors from all over the world. The town of Symi alone is home to 13 churches. The island is popular with day trippers, but visitors with more time might want to charter a boat to visit a secluded beach.
Leros is a great place for travelers who just want to kick back, do a little beachcombing and soak in the local culture. The relaxation starts with an 11-hour ferry ride from Piraeus, though travelers in a hurry can take a 45-minute plane ride from Athens. The island has an interesting history, having been ruled over the centuries by the Byzantines, the Italians, the Germans and the Greeks, among others. Its port was second only to Crete in the number of times it was bombed in World War II. Perhaps the key tourist attraction is the Knights of Saint John medieval castle. Island hosts offer simple accommodations and a variety of taverns.
Patmos, one of the most northern of the Dodecanese, may not have many people – the island’s total population is about 3,000 – but it does have a significant religious history. It was mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, when John of Patmos had a revelation from Jesus. Many sites on the island are connected to John, making Patmos a good destination for a religious pilgrimage. Christian sites include the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse where Jon had his vision. Archeological remains date back to 2000 BC. The largest village, as well as capital and port of the island, is Skála where visitors will find accommodation and fresh-fish tavernas among buildings used by the Italians during the Italian Rule of the Dodecanese Islands.
Travelers seeking a more active vacation may want to head for the island of Kalymnos for some hiking and rock climbing. Travelers, however, should be experienced climbers who can handle the difficult terrain. Unlike some of its neighbours, the island is comparatively green, its roads lined with pink oleanders contrasting with brilliantly blue water. Kalymnos has a rich history in sponge diving. A disease however killed off the sponges in the sea, but the island still celebrates its “gold” with a Sponge Week festival that takes place the week after Easter. Because of the rocky terrain, the island has little agriculture, though it is famous for its citrus fruits, as well as painted head scarves or women.
Because it’s more remote than other islands in the Dodecanese, Karpathos has retained much of its cultural and ethnic heritage. Its Folk Art Museum reflects this heritage. Beaches are particularly popular with visitors though not all of the island’s have sandy beaches or are easily accessible. Karpathos has a glorious history, including being mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. Travelers interested in archeology may enjoy a visit to the ruins of ancient altars and sanctuaries, some of which date back to the 6th century BC, including the chapel of Agia Fotini, an early Christian basilica.
Characterized by long strips of clean, white beaches and rolling farmland rich in grapes, figs, olives, corn and wheat, the island of Kos offers beautiful landscapes, historic sites and great beaches all in a relaxed atmosphere. Visitors can explore attractions like the ruins of an ancient marketplace and the 14th century fortress built by The Knights of Saint John of Rhodes. In the charming city center of whitewashed buildings in Kos Town, there are an abundant selection of hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands, also having the biggest population of any of the islands. Located in the east Aegean Sea, it is the historical capital of the islands. Think Colossus of Rhodes. The City of Rhodes’ medieval center draws visitors from all over Europe. Picturesque small villages and beach resorts can be found outside Rhodes Town. The island, which dates back to the Neolithic period, has lots of rocky shores, while inland a variety of crops such as wine grapes, olives and citrus fruit are grown. At one time, the city was a cultural and commercial center of the Mediterranean.
Read more: Top Rhodes Attractions