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.
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 a 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
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, the 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 took a walk around the harbor amidst the endlessly unloading ferries and quickly decided the locals had the right idea. I grabbed lunch, purchased a few groceries, and settled in on my lovely terrace to enjoy the view and a little peace and quiet.
Sevasti stopped by mid-afternoon when she saw me out on the terrace and brought by a map and a cucumber from her garden (the first of many treats she would drop off during my stay) and gave me some helpful information about the island. We hit it off immediately.
She also confirmed that the apartment was indeed available for the 5th night which I was convinced was a sign that I was supposed to stay.
As we chatted on the terrace, an orange kitty strolled by and she introduced me to Rosie, the neighborhood cat. Rosie seemed to belong to no one…or perhaps she belonged to everyone, I wasn’t sure.
After the ferry containing the last horde of tourists sailed out of the harbor at 4:00pm, I walked 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 was lousy with them. It was like a whole other community down there affectionately known by the locals at 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 returned to the center of the harbor where I spotted a sign advertising a full-day “Circle Island” boat tour. The tour makes stops at many of Symi’s best beaches and the Panormitis Monastery and sounded like the perfect way to spend a day.
At the desk, I met Yiannis, the Poseidon’s skipper, who explained the itinerary for the trip, booked my reservation for the next day, and told me to come back at 10:00am. The price was a very reasonable 35 euro and the trip sounded like 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 filed that idea away for another day.
The Poseidon Circle Island Trip
I awoke the next morning to sunny skies and couldn’t wait to get out on the water and see more of the Symi.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the dock, Yiannis said that although the trip was still going, high winds on the eastern side of the island meant the waves were too rough to visit the Panormitis Monastery.
Darn it. Foiled again on the monastery visit.
He reduced the price accordingly and it was still a great day for exploring the western side of the island. But it was definitely looking like I’d need to find another way to get to Panormitis before the week was out.
The revised plan for the day called for extended stays at the stops on the western side of the island. First up, a deserted cove near Nanou Bay where we had the option to swim from the boat or take a hike up the hill to a little church at the top.
I opted for the hike and the views from the church were fantastic. Next, we headed on toward the island of Seskli just off the southern coast of Symi.
Symi’s lucky residents
As we cruised along the island’s rugged coastline, I got acquainted with some of my fellow passengers. I was surprised to discover that most weren’t tourists at all but Symi residents. Many were retired British couples who’d bought property on Symi and either lived here full-time or part-time.
Each new person I met had a similar story, they’d come to Symi on holiday years ago and simply fell in love. The luckiest of them had 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 chatted, I casually mentioned that I was a travel blogger and suddenly they all seemed a bit more guarded. Concerned, perhaps, that I might expose their Symi secret to the world.
I, of course, could 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 prepared a delicious BBQ lunch for us while we lounged on the beach and swam in the turquoise sea.
Our final stop was 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 approached the beach from the sea it felt like we’d drifted onto a movie set, almost too spectacular to be real.
Several of my fellow passengers took advantage of our mooring in the bay to leap off the top of the boat into the inviting Aegean Sea below. I decided to pass on the flying leap but did have a nice swim (though the water is still pretty cold this time of year!).
From there, we headed back for town. It was a perfect day.
When I got back to the apartment that night Sevasti stopped by to see how my day was and to bring me a piece of homemade cheesecake…on her birthday!
It was so sweet of her to keep coming by with treats and I was comfortably settling into the role of coddled house-guest.
Another day in paradise
The next day I had work to do.
My next planned stop on this trip was Ephesus, Turkey and I had two nights open to get there from Symi. However, traveling between the two was a somewhat convoluted affair involving multiple ferries and buses.
I could get as far as Bodrum, Turkey in one day with a stopover in Kos which would leave me with the next day to go from Bodrum to Ephesus.
Read More: Ephesus with Ease
Sevasti recommended a travel agency called Symi Tours and they booked my ferry from Symi to Kos for Thursday morning. They weren’t able to book the connecting ferry to Bodrum since it was operated by a Turkish ferry company but assured me I’d have no problem booking it once I arrived in Kos.
Read More: A Travel Day from Kos to Bodrum
Once that was settled, I happily confirmed to Sevasti that I’d be spending a 5th night. Feeling pretty productive already, and now with an extra day to spare, I decided 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 capped 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 was determined to get there.
The day before, when I stopped in the Symi Tours office to book my ferry to Kos, I’d asked about their bus to Panormitis but unfortunately, it didn’t run again until Friday, the day after I was leaving.
However, they told me the local bus goes every day at 2:00pm and then returns at 3:30pm. Perfect!
Later that night I discussed my bus plan with Sevasti and she called to confirm the bus times for me. She discovered there was also a 7:00am bus to Panormitis, a better plan to beat the ferry crowds at the monastery.
The next morning I made my way down the hill to the bus stop a little before 7:00am. It was a 30-minute ride across the mountainous interior of the island and as we made our descent I got my first look at the magnificent Panormitis Monastery.
A miscalculation on bus times
As I stepped off the bus, I asked the driver what time the bus returned to town. Since the 2:00pm bus returned at 3:30pm I assumed the morning bus did something similar but I had neglected to ask before I boarded (rookie mistake).
To my dismay, the driver replied “3:30pm.”
While it was a lovely monastery, 8 hours seemed like overkill.
My only other option was to snap a few pictures quickly and get right back on the bus back to town. That didn’t seem like a good option either so I decided 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 decided to file that under “quaint” and stick with my lovely apartment in town.
After exhausting my monastery experience in about two hours, I took a walk over to the nearest beach, Marathounda. I knew taxi boats took people to and from this beach from town each day so I thought I might be able to catch one of those back to town earlier than 3:30pm.
The walk was about two miles down the main road – uphill, then downhill, then uphill again but it wasn’t too bad. And since I hadn’t seen many of Symi’s beaches this was a good chance for a little quality beach time.
It was 10:00am by the time I emerged onto the pebbly beach and I was slightly surprised to see it totally deserted. The beach chairs were stacked up, the lone tavern closed and there was not a soul in sight.
In fact, the only signs of life on Marathounda at that hour were the goats. And there were lots of them.
But the beach was pretty so I wandered around taking a few photos and unintentionally striking fear into the goats who scattered in poorly-thought-out directions as I crunched along the pebbles.
Satisfied with my photo shoot and concerned about further stressing out the goats, I un-stacked a lounge chair, popped open the striped umbrella above it and settled in for a little quality time with my book (thank goodness I had thrown my iPad into my bag at the last minute 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 ran the local tavern arrived to open for the day and they seemed just as surprised to see me as the goats had. Apparently, no one usually arrives at this beach before noon-ish.
During the next hour, a handful of other beach-goers arrived by car and settled into nearby chairs but no sign of any boats. Over lunch at the taverna, I inquired about the taxi boats and they said they weren’t running today because of the waves. Just my luck.
They offered to call me a real taxi (there are a few on the island) which would have cost about 30 euro but by this time it was after 1:00pm so I figured I could manage the walk back to Panormitis and catch the bus.
When I arrived back at the room, Sevasti stopped by to bring me some local cheese and honey (I love this woman). When I relayed my bus experience she had no idea the morning bus didn’t return on the same schedule as the afternoon bus. This made me feel slightly less stupid.
But regardless of the more than ample time spent on the other side of the island, it was a pretty fantastic day overall.
An experience that was uniquely Symi, you might say.
A Symi storm rolls through
Late that afternoon, Theologis stopped by to take down the big umbrella on my terrace. He said a big storm was coming tonight with high winds.
Oh goody, an adventure!
That evening as the clouds moved in I headed into town for dinner by the harbor and to ponder my options for the next day. By the time I got back from dinner the winds had picked up considerably and I could 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 hadn’t seen wind like this since the infamous Bora Bora cyclone incident.
The wind and rain continued through the night while I slept. Sometime in the middle of the night, a wave of particularly hard gusts roused me from slumber. My own shutters, which I’d thought were pretty well secured in the open position, were now banging ferociously.
I’d been sleeping with my windows open since I arrived but with the sudden noise, I worried I might be waking up the whole neighborhood. Better get up and try to close them.
Enter a cat with a plan
As I opened my front door I nearly stepped right on Rosie the cat who was huddled by my front stoop.
She had the look of a cat hoping to improve her current circumstances. With the door still open, she gazed up at me pitifully as if seeking permission to enter…and then she waltzed right in without even giving me the courtesy of a chance to respond.
Rosie knows a sucker when she sees one.
After a brief battle, I finally managed to secure the shutters and went back in to see what kind of trouble Rosie had gotten into.
She walked around the apartment sniffing things and purred wildly pleading for head scratches. I poured her some water and when I got back into bed she curled up on the corner of the bed like someone who’d run this racket before.
The next morning, Sevasti stopped by to see how I’d weathered the storm. I told her about the middle of the night shutter adventure. Judging from the hint of disapproval on her face when I got to the “frightened kitty in the wind” bit, Rosie may or may not be worthy of Academy Award consideration.
But I was glad Sevasti didn’t mind too much because 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.
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 offered to take me on my final night on the island (did I mention she’s the best?).
That morning I took 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 spent some time wandering down various side streets looking for even better views.
That evening, Sevasti came by to pick me up and we were off for Toli Beach. Unfortunately, the weather still wasn’t cooperating and dark clouds towards the west threatened to quell our sunset experience.
But a great time was had by all despite the fact that the sun remained stubbornly buried behind the clouds. It didn’t matter, it was so nice of Sevasti and Theologis to drive me across the island just for the chance to see the sunset.
By 9:00pm I was back in my room and sadly packing up to catch the ferry to Kos in the morning. I didn’t want to leave Symi but I had a pretty ambitious week ahead in Turkey and the one extra night was all I could 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!!