As a Greek-American travel writer who lived in Athens as a child and returns to the country every year, I’m constantly asked for advice about visiting Greece. But what always seems to intrigue Americans most is Mykonos, the site of all those postcards of whitewashed churches with blue domes, and paparazzi shots of celebrities sunbathing on a yacht or frolicking in the apothecary-blue sea. My advice is always: “You should absolutely go. And you should do it in the fall.”
It’s hardly a secret that Mykonos, like many other well-trafficked locales, truly shines in September and October, when the crowds have gone back to work and school but the weather is still warm. The beaches are more peaceful, the streets more serene and everything from the best hotel on the island to the hottest table in town is more affordable and accessible. But traveling to Mykonos in the fall is the kind of thing everyone knows they should do, and few manage to achieve, because the kids are in school, or work gets busy, or, well, everyone goes in the summer, don’t they?
Not if they can go in autumn.
Spending September on Mykonos feels like getting to extend your summer vacation after everyone else has gone back to class and, with some of the background noise removed, offers the chance to actually engage with the vibrant local scene. The weather is in the 80s, and the open-air cinema, Cine Manto, shows Hollywood hits al fresco through the end of the month, so you can indulge in the beloved Greek summer pastime of eating souvlaki, drinking local wine, and watching movies under the stars. (The theater then runs a program of documentaries for the first week in October, before closing for the winter.)
I know what you’re thinking—what about the beaches, and the beach clubs? Will I be able to swim in the sea, lie on the shore and dance on the sand, like everyone who’s been popping up in my Instagram feed all summer? Absolutely. And it will be fabulous.
In September, the water temperature is in the mid-70s, and while the coasts are less crowded (which means you won’t have to reserve a deck chair a day ahead on see-and-be-seen Psarou beach), Scorpios beach club on Paraga beach grooves on all month, hosting DJs and what they describe as “communal happenings” including yoga, meditation and “sunset rituals” (read: dance parties).
My favorite beach is the idyllic, desert island–like Agios Sostis, which has no lounge chairs or umbrellas, much less DJs or beach clubs; nothing but a monastery at the top of the hill, and Kiki’s, a taverna halfway up that has no stove, only a refrigerated case for the salads and an open-air grill for the fish and meats. Kiki’s serves lunch into October, weather permitting—and you might be the only customers there, as opposed to having to stand in line behind the bikini-clad vacationers who have their yachts tied up below in summer. Even though there won’t be a wait, before lunch you should, without fail, scamper down the hill to jump in the blue-green ocean; October is still warm enough to swim most days, as temperatures dip into the 70s and sea temps into the high 60s.
Diving lessons may be harder to come by, but water sports aside, virtually all of your Myconian must-sees can be enjoyed in autumn. Take, for example, the sacred island of Delos, a satellite isle off the coast of Mykonos that is said to be where Apollo and Artemis were born, and which is now a massive archaeological site encompassing Doric temples, a Hellenistic agora, Roman mosaics and what many consider to be the world’s oldest known synagogue. It’s open year-round, except for Mondays, so you can spend the morning sailing across the Aegean, then climb Mount Kynthos for the best view over the ruins of several civilizations and across the sea to Mykonos.
In Little Venice, the seaside neighborhood that is one of the best places on earth to watch the sunset, cocktail spot Veranda Bar is open through October. Sit on the balcony and watch the sun dip into the ocean and stain the windmills across the bay pink (these views are the stuff of legend), or, if you come later in the season, when Veranda is closed, go to the neighboring spot Rhapsody, and sit on their balcony, watching the waves crash against the wall below as a large boat passes, or, if you’re already several days into your Mykonos mood, leaning forward to try and catch some of the spray.
From there, it’s an easy walk to dinner, whether you want to go gluten-free on the seafront at Nice n Easy (open through early November), dance on tables at Sea Satin Market or follow the locals to what might just be the island’s best meatballs at To Maereio (open year-round). Part of the reason that the walk is just so pleasant is that the crush of tourists, both those staying on the island and those disgorged into town from cruise ships stopping in the harbor, decreases dramatically come September. You’ll no longer have to dodge the same people you might have bumped into at the Whole Foods at home as you wander the twisting alleys of Mykonos Town (also called Chora). Instead, you may stumble across one of the pelicans that are the mascots of the island.
Without the crowds, Mykonos Town is a delight at any time of day; be it at dusk, when the candles inside one of the town’s many little chapels are all aglow, or in the early morning, when the fishermen and vegetable sellers hawk their wares in the open-air markets next to the picturesque waterfront chapel of St. Nikolaos. You don’t need to understand Greek to enjoy watching them trade insults and anecdotes with each other, rubbing their luxuriant moustaches when they get in a particularly good dig, while old ladies from town and chefs from yachts docked nearby manhandle the produce.
There’s so much to see in Mykonos Town beyond the crashing waves and the roaming pelicans, from the high-end boutiques of Matogianni Street (check out the made-in-Greece label Ergon) to bakeries selling amygdalota, the local almond cookies, to museums carved out of old mansions (the Archaeological Museum is open daily except Mondays all year). In order to make the most of it, stay in or within walking distance of Chora—my favorite place to do so is the Belvedere, a luxury boutique hotel open year-round in the quiet neighborhood near the art school. (And if you prefer sea views to whitewashed roofs, Villas of Distinction offers expansive private villas for rent through November and, in some cases, into December.)
Once the tourists taper off, it’s easier to dive into the life of the island: the days get slightly shorter, and you don’t feel compelled to spend all of each one at the beach. On September 23, there’s the Mykonos Run, 5- or 10K road races which are an incredible way to get to know the surroundings. The wine harvest goes all month long—you can join in the grape-stomping at Vioma Vineyard. And October 28th brings the national holiday of Oxi Day, when there’s a parade and dancing on the waterfront to commemorate the date in 1940 when the Greek prime minister, Metaxas, was asked by Mussolini to surrender to the invading Italians during World War II, and answered, “Oxi,” or “No!”
When I think of Mykonos, I always remember when my daughter was three, and we stopped at a shop in Chora for a bottle of water. When the shopkeepers held a shell up to her ear, she was amazed to discover that she could hear the ocean as clearly as when we’d made sand castles on Agios Sostis beach earlier that day. Coming to Mykonos in fall is like holding a shell up to your ear—it suddenly becomes easy to cut through the background noise and tap into the essence of the island.
Just be warned that when you do, you may start looking for any excuse to visit year-round. Spring is amazing, too, what with the wildflowers and all the pageantry of Orthodox Easter (which falls on April 8th in 2018). But who can wait that long? Surely there’s something unmissable going on next week.