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Inside: Everything you need to know to plan the perfect Symi holiday including how to get there, where to stay and why it’s worth spending a few nights instead of taking a day trip from Rhodes.
For those of us who are passionate about travel, there are many places in the world that we revel in visiting, maybe even fall a little bit in love with.
But then there’s another level of travel experience, one that’s far rarer…a place that just calls to your soul.
If you’ve got a minute, the exquisitely-tiny Greek island of Symi would like a word with your soul.
Surprisingly, two months ago I’d never even heard of Symi island. But while trying to plan a route from Rhodes to Turkey, I happened to stumble across this little gem.
And I’m so glad I did.
2021 Update: Traveling to Greece right now
I just returned from another 2-week trip traveling around the Greek Islands. I wrote a comprehensive post about traveling in and around Greece right now during the Covid-19 pandemic:
It’s everything you need to know about pre-arrival testing, whether you’ll have to wear a mask, where you can get a Covid test if you need one to return home, and all the essentials for traveling to Greece right now. If you’re planning a trip to Greece in 2021, it’s a must-read.
And now, back to Symi!
How to get to Symi
There are a few direct ferries between Rhodes and the Turkish mainland, but the more common path is to arrive in Bodrum via the islands of Symi and Kos. I wanted to break up the 3-ferry trip with a stay on one of the two islands, but I couldn’t decide which one.
After a quick Google image search of both Symi and Kos, I had an obvious winner.
I was instantly smitten with the pictures of Symi with its quaint pink and yellow, Venetian style architecture. I’d never seen a Greek island that looked like Symi and I knew right away that it was an island I had to see.
I had a gut feeling about Symi, so I planned 4 nights on the island, longer than I devoted to anywhere else but Crete on this 30-day trip from Moscow to the Med.
Read More: Crete Greece in 5 Perfect Days
There’s no airport on Symi. So flights into neighboring Rhodes are the best way to get there. And luckily, that’s where I’m headed!
The Ferry from Rhodes to Symi
Symi has regular ferry service from Rhodes and the two morning options are at 8:30am and 9:30am. The 9:30am ferry makes a one-hour stop at the Panormitis Monastery on the southern tip of Symi before continuing on to the main harbor, arriving at noon.
I had hoped to book the later ferry to see Panormitis but unfortunately, it was sold out. So I settled for the direct ferry that departed Rhodes at 8:30am and arrived at 9:25am.
You can find more information on schedules and prices for the ferry from Rhodes to Symi here.
Read More: All Roads Lead to Rhodes
Love at first sight from the ferry
We departed Rhodes right on time and as we cruised along the Turkish coastline I spent most of the ride braving the wind on deck straining for a look at the stunning harbor I’d seen in photos. But as our arrival time approached, nothing but rugged cliffs and blue sea appeared in the distance.
And then we rounded the final bend into Symi’s protected harbor and I was speechless.
It was love at first sight.
Remarkably, even the stunning photos had not done the island justice. I immediately wondered if I would be able to.
The clear, deep sapphire waters of the harbor were surrounded by row after row of pastel-hued neoclassical facades stacked one on top of the other climbing the side of the mountain.
The colorful mansions were separated from the sea by nothing but a line of million-dollar yachts and sailboats.
I was hooked….and more than a little shocked that after so many years of traveling the world this magical island hadn’t even been a blip on my radar.
My home away from home
I stepped off the ferry and quickly spotted a teenage boy holding a sign with my apartment’s name, EOS Studios. I had only remembered to communicate my ferry arrival information to the owner late the night before so I wasn’t sure anyone would be there to greet me.
Luckily, Theologis (husband of owner, Sevasti) and son were waiting patiently and in minutes we were in the car, up the hill and walking into my apartment, my home for the next 4 nights.
Theologis explained that Sevasti was at church and would come by and visit me later to introduce herself and help me with any information I needed about the island. He also pointed out their house, just one row over and up in case I needed anything before then.
The apartment was fantastic, plenty of space, a small kitchen, strong wifi and most importantly, a roomy terrace with a million-dollar view over the harbor.
I spent a few minutes unpacking, excited to be in the same place for 4 whole nights.
Technically, I still hadn’t made plans for the two nights after leaving Symi and I made a mental note to ask Sevasti later if the apartment was available for a 5th night.
Suitcase sufficiently unpacked, I couldn’t wait to get out and explore the magnificent harbor below me. I grabbed my camera and headed down the narrow streets made of stairs winding their way down to the sea.
A brief history of Symi Greece
Often called the “jewel of the Dodecanese,” tiny Symi was once a very prosperous island thanks to a long tradition of shipbuilding and sponge diving. The legacy of this wealth is evident in the gracious mansions and ornate churches scattered across the island.
Symi’s unique building style is maintained through a strict archaeological decree that regulates methods of construction for new buildings and restoration of old buildings.
By the mid 1900’s, Symi’s economy gradually deteriorated with the decline of the shipbuilding industry. Adding insult to injury, someone had the nerve to invent a synthetic sponge.
Many locals fled the island to find work on nearby Rhodes or further afield in Australia, Canada, and the US (I’m told Tarpon Springs, Florida is home to an unusually large concentration of Symians).
These days tourism and an influx of real estate investment from Athens and the UK are the foundation for the local economy.
Day Trips to Symi from Rhodes
There are no big resort hotels on Symi, most accommodations are similar to mine, apartments rented by locals or small B&B’s. As a result, the vast majority of tourism to the island is in the form of day trips from nearby Rhodes or Kos.
The first ferry arrives at 9:30am and between the hours of 10am and 4:00pm, the streets of Symi swell with camera-toting, socks-and-sandals-wearing tourists.
During this mid-day occupation, most locals (and those of us who wish we were) retreat to the solitude of the hills.
Escaping the day trip crowds
I take a walk around the harbor amidst the endlessly unloading ferries and quickly decide the locals have the right idea. I grab lunch, purchase a few groceries, and settle in on my lovely terrace to enjoy the view and a little peace and quiet.
Sevasti stops by mid-afternoon when she spots me out on the terrace and brings by a map and a cucumber from her garden (the first of many treats she drops off during my stay). She offers some helpful information about the island and we hit it off immediately.
She also confirms that the apartment is indeed available for the 5th night. I’m convinced this is a sign that I’m supposed to stay.
As we chat on the terrace, an orange kitty strolls by and she introduces me to Rosie, the neighborhood cat. Rosie seems to belong to no one…or perhaps she belongs to everyone, it’s hard to tell.
After the ferry containing the last horde of tourists sails out of the harbor at 4:00pm, I walk back down the hill to enjoy a bit of Symi’s “Golden Hour” – that peaceful time between when the last ferry leaves and before the taxi boats start coming back from the beaches.
Symi’s Yacht Life
The harbor area is nearly deserted during this time except for shop owners restocking, restaurants preparing for dinner service and yacht owners settled in on their aft decks with a martini and a mystery novel.
And speaking of yachts, Symi’s harbor is lousy with them. It’s like a whole other community down there affectionately known by the locals as the “yacht people.”
All of which begs the question…
Who are these yacht people who travel around the world on enormous luxury yachts slipping in and out of exotic ports of call?
And more importantly, why don’t I know any of them?
Clearly an oversight on my part. Note to self: Must make effort to find more (or any) friends with yachts.
After my stroll past Yacht Row, I return to the center of the harbor where I spot a sign advertising a full-day “Circle Island” boat tour aboard Poseidon. The tour makes stops at many of Symi’s best beaches and the Panormitis Monastery and sounds like the perfect way to spend a day.
At the desk, I meet Yiannis, the Poseidon’s skipper, who explains the itinerary for the trip, books my reservation for tomorrow, and tells me to come back at 10:00am. The price is a very reasonable 35 euro and the trip should be a terrific way to see more of the island since many of the beaches are only accessible by boat.
Symi’s Taxi Boats
Next to the Poseidon desk, there are several others for Symi’s taxi boat service. The boats run at fixed schedules for a set price and each counter has a sign listing its destination and scheduled departures.
The taxi boats are a very convenient way to get around the island and I file that idea away for another day.
The Poseidon Circle Island Trip
I awake the next morning to sunny skies and can’t wait to get out on the water and see more of Symi.
Unfortunately, when I arrive at the dock, Yiannis says that although the trip is still going, high winds on the eastern side of the island mean the waves are too rough to visit the Panormitis Monastery.
Darn it. Foiled again on the monastery visit.
He reduces the price accordingly and it’s still a great day for exploring the western side of the island. But it’s definitely looking like I’ll need to find another way to get to Panormitis before the week is out.
The revised plan for the day calls for extended stays at the stops on the western side of the island. First up, a deserted cove near Nanou Bay where we have the option to swim from the boat or take a hike up the hill to a little church at the top.
I opt for the hike and the views from the church are fantastic. Next, we head on toward the island of Seskli just off the southern coast of Symi.
Symi’s lucky residents
As we cruise along the island’s rugged coastline, I get acquainted with some of my fellow passengers. I’m surprised to discover that most aren’t tourists at all but Symi residents. Many are retired British couples who own property on Symi and either live here full-time or part-time.
Each new person I meet has a similar story, they came to Symi on holiday years ago and simply fell in love. The luckiest of them bought property back in the 80’s or 90’s when the real estate market was soft.
These days, you won’t get that lucky. If you want a second home on Symi, it’ll cost you.
As we chat, I casually mention that I’m a travel blogger and suddenly they all seem a bit more guarded. Concerned, perhaps, that I might expose their Symi secret to the world.
I, of course, can completely understand why they might want to keep this little island all to themselves. It’s bad enough they already have to share it with the world every day from 10am – 4pm.
Agios Georgious Beach
At Seskli the crew prepares a delicious BBQ lunch for us while we lounge on the beach and swim in the sparkling turquoise sea.
Our final stop is my favorite, Agios Georgious Beach. Backed by a dramatic cliff making it completely inaccessible by land, this perfect little sliver of sand is lapped by cerulean waters dotted with a handful of sailboats and yachts.
As we approach the beach from the sea it feels like we’ve drifted onto a movie set, almost too spectacular to be real.
Several of my fellow passengers take advantage of our mooring in the bay to leap off the top of the boat into the inviting Aegean Sea below. I decide to pass on the flying leap but do enjoy a nice swim. The water is still pretty cold this time of year so let’s just say it’s a refreshing swim!
From there, we head back toward town. It was a simply perfect day.
When I get back to the apartment that evening Sevasti stops by to see how my day was. She also comes bearing a delicious piece of homemade cheesecake…on her birthday!
It’s so sweet of her to keep coming by with treats. I’m comfortably settling into the role of coddled house-guest.
Another day in paradise
The next day I have work to do.
My next planned stop on this trip is Ephesus, Turkey and I have two nights open to get there from Symi. However, traveling between the two is a somewhat convoluted affair involving multiple ferries and buses.
Read More: Ephesus with Ease
I can get as far as Bodrum, Turkey in one day with a stopover in Kos which will leave me with the next day to go from Bodrum to Ephesus.
Sevasti recommends a travel agency called Symi Tours and they book my ferry from Symi to Kos for Thursday morning. They aren’t able to book the connecting ferry to Bodrum since it’s operated by a Turkish ferry company but assure me I’ll have no problem booking it once I arrive in Kos.
Read More: A Travel Day from Kos to Bodrum
Once that’s settled, I happily confirm to Sevasti that I’ll be spending a 5th night. Feeling pretty productive already, and now with an extra day to spare, I decide to spend the rest of the morning and afternoon catching up on some writing.
Have I mentioned my Symi office has a pretty great view?
Dinner in the harbor caps off a perfectly lovely day.
Third time’s the charm at Panormitis…sort of
After striking out twice with the Panormitis monastery (the ferry from Rhodes and the Poseidon trip), by Day 4 I’m determined to get there.
The day before, when I stopped in the Symi Tours office to book my ferry to Kos, I asked about their bus to Panormitis. But unfortunately, it doesn’t run again until Friday, the day after I leave.
However, they tell me the local bus goes every day at 2:00pm and then returns at 3:30pm. Perfect!
Later that night I discuss my bus plan with Sevasti and she calls to confirm the bus times for me. She also discovers there is a 7:00am bus to Panormitis, an even better plan to beat the ferry crowds at the monastery.
The next morning I make my way down the hill to the bus stop a little before 7:00am. It’s a 30-minute ride across the mountainous interior of the island and as we make our descent I get my first look at the magnificent Panormitis Monastery.
A miscalculation on bus times
As I step off the bus, I ask the driver what time the bus returns to town. Since the 2:00pm bus returns at 3:30pm I assumed the morning bus does something similar. But I neglected to ask before I boarded (rookie mistake).
To my dismay, the driver replies “3:30pm.”
While it’s a lovely monastery, 8 hours to explore it seems like overkill.
My only other option is to snap a few pictures quickly and get right back on the bus back to town. That doesn’t seem like a good option either so I decide to stick it out and sightsee a little in the area.
Symi’s Panormitis Monastery
Dedicated to Archangel Michael, the patron saint of seafaring Greeks, the Panormitis Monastery is considered one of the most beautiful in the Aegean Sea.
Its most spectacular features are the bell tower, the mosaic floor and the Saint’s icon. Thousands of pilgrims visit the monastery every year to honor the icon of the Saint. And, of course, they are often joined by thousands more tourists.
But Panormitis is more than just Symi’s number one tourist attraction. You can actually rent a room here if you’re looking for true peace and quiet on your holiday. A monk’s cell goes for about $10 a night.
I decide to file that under “quaint” and stick with my lovely apartment in town.
After exhausting my monastery experience in about two hours, I take a walk over to the nearest beach, Marathounda. I know taxi boats take people to and from this beach from town each day. So I’m thinking maybe I can catch one of those back to town earlier than 3:30pm.
The walk is about two miles down the main road. It’s uphill, then downhill, then uphill again but it isn’t too bad on a beautiful day. And since I haven’t seen many of Symi’s beaches this is a good chance for a little quality beach time.
It’s 10:00am by the time I emerge onto the pebbly beach and I’m slightly surprised to see it totally deserted. The beach chairs are stacked up, the lone tavern is closed and there’s not a soul in sight. Not exactly like the busy beaches of Mykonos I’m used to.
In fact, the only signs of life on Marathounda at this hour are the goats. And there are lots of them.
But the beach is pretty so I wander around taking a few photos. Unintentionally striking fear into the goats who scatter in poorly-thought-out directions as I crunch along the pebbles.
A beach all to myself
Satisfied with my photo shoot, I decide to stop stressing out the poor skittish goats. So I un-stack a lounge chair, pop open the striped umbrella above it, and settle in for a little quality time with my book. Thank goodness I threw my iPad into my bag this morning.
I mean, really, where else in the Greek Islands can you have a whole beach to yourself?
Around 10:30am the family that runs the local tavern arrives to open for the day. They seem just as surprised to see me as the goats were. Apparently, no one typically arrives at this beach before noon-ish.
During the next hour, a handful of other beach-goers arrive by car and settle into nearby chairs. But still no sign of any taxi boats. Over lunch at the taverna, I inquire about the taxi boats. I learn they aren’t running today because of the waves.
Just my luck.
They offer to call me a real taxi (there are a few on the island). It will cost about 30 euro but by this time it’s already after 1:00pm. I figure I can manage the walk back to Panormitis and just catch the bus.
When I arrive back at the apartment, Sevasti stops by to bring me some local cheese and honey (I love this woman). When I share my bus experience she is surprised. She had no idea the morning bus doesn’t return on the same schedule as the afternoon bus.
This makes me feel slightly less stupid.
But regardless of the excessive time spent on the other side of the island, it was a pretty fantastic day overall.
An experience that is uniquely Symi, you might say.
A Symi storm rolls through
Late that afternoon, Theologis stops by to take down the big umbrella on my terrace. He explains that a big storm is coming tonight with high winds.
Oh goody, an adventure!
That evening as the clouds move in I head into town for dinner by the harbor and to ponder my options for tomorrow. By the time I get back from dinner, the winds have picked up considerably. I can hear a steady chorus of banging shutters around town.
When they say on Symi that they’re expecting high winds, they’re not kidding. I haven’t seen wind like this since the infamous Bora Bora cyclone incident on Round-the-World #5.
The wind and rain continue through the night while I sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, a wave of particularly hard gusts rouses me from slumber. My own shutters, which I thought were pretty well secured, are now banging ferociously.
I’ve been sleeping with my windows open since I arrived. But with the sudden noise, I worry I might be waking up the whole neighborhood. Better get up and try to close them.
Enter…a cat with a plan
As I open my front door I nearly step right on Rosie the cat who is huddled by my front stoop.
She has the look of a cat hoping to improve her current circumstances. With the door still open, she gazes up at me pitifully as if seeking permission to enter. And then she waltzes right across the threshold like she owns the place. I’m not even given the courtesy of a chance to respond.
Rosie knows a sucker when she sees one.
After a brief battle, I finally manage to secure the shutters. Then I head back inside to see what kind of trouble Rosie has gotten into.
She’s walking around the apartment sniffing things and purring wildly pleading for head scratches. I pour her some water and get back into bed. In 5 seconds flat, she’s curled up on the corner of the bed like someone who’s run this racket before.
The next morning, Sevasti stops by to see how I weathered the storm. I relay the middle-of-the-night shutter adventure. Judging by the hint of disapproval on her face at the “frightened kitty in the wind” bit, Rosie may or may not be worthy of Academy Award consideration.
But I’m glad Sevasti didn’t mind too much. It was nice to have a kitty around for a night. I miss mine!
An attempt at sunset
On my first day in Symi, I asked Sevasti if there were any good spots in town for watching the sunset. I love a good sunset and the Greek Islands are known for some of the world’s best.
Since Symi’s mountainous harbor faces north, it’s not the best for sunset viewing. Toli Beach, she said, on the western side of the island. There’s no boat or bus service to Toli but there is a road if you have a car.
Amazingly, she and her husband offer to take me on my final night on the island (did I mention she’s the best?).
That morning I take a walk up the hill (way up the hill) to the village of Symi, high above the harbor. The views are magnificent from up there and I spend some time wandering down various side streets looking for even better views.
That evening, Sevasti picks me up and we’re off for Toli Beach. Unfortunately, the weather still isn’t cooperating. Dark clouds towards the west threaten to quell our sunset experience.
But a great time is had by all despite the fact that the sun remains stubbornly buried behind the clouds. It doesn’t matter. It’s so nice of Sevasti and Theologis to drive me across the island just for the chance to see a sunset.
By 9:00pm I’m back in my room. Sadly, it’s time to pack up to catch the ferry to Kos tomorrow morning. I don’t want to leave Symi but I have a pretty ambitious week ahead in Turkey. So the one extra night is all I can spare.
But if there’s one thing I do know for sure about Symi, it’s that I’ll be back. Sooner, rather than later (and hopefully on a yacht!).
Next stop, a ferry to Kos and onward to Turkey for my long-anticipated visit to Cappadocia!!