Mykonos is the classic Greek-island stop and, along with Santorini, it's the most touristy. But being on Mykonos recently reminded me how enduringly charming the Greek islands are — even when they're extremely crowded.
Mykonos' port, Chora, is a humble seafront village crouched behind a sandy harbor, thickly layered with blinding-white stucco, bright-blue trim, and bursting-purple bougainvilleas. Thank goodness for all that color, since otherwise this island — one of Greece's driest — would be various shades of dull-brown. On a ridge over town stretches a trademark row of five windmills, overlooking a tidy embankment so pretty they call it "Little Venice."
The sea, the wind, the birds, and the weather-beaten little whitewashed churches all combine to give the town a vibrant allure. Everyone gathers in the cafés and pubs to nurse an ouzo or other drink, and to watch the sun set to the rhythm of the sloppy, slamming waves.
While Chora has some museums, they merely provide an excuse to get out of the sun for a few minutes. The real attraction here is poking around the streets: shopping, dining, clubbing, or — best of all — simply strolling. The core of the town is literally a maze, designed by the Mykonians centuries ago to discourage would-be invaders from finding their way. That tactic also works on today's tourists. But I can think of few places where getting lost is so enjoyable.
When you're done exploring the town, it's time to relax at one of the enticing sandy beaches around the island. Each beach seems to specialize in a different niche: family-friendly or party; straight, gay, or mixed; nude or clothed; and so on. (Keep in mind that in Greece, even "family-friendly" beaches have topless sunbathers.)
The low-key beach in Ornos, ideal if you brought your kids, is easy to reach since it's in a sizeable town in the middle of the island. Or you might try Psarou and Platis Gialos — two beaches along a cove to the east of Ornos. Psarou is considered a somewhat exclusive, favorite retreat of celebrities, while Platis Gialos feels more geared toward families.
My favorite beach is Agios Ioannis, a remote patch of sand tucked behind a mountain ridge that gives me the feeling of being on a castaway isle. From Ornos, head toward Kapari and look for a turn-off on the left at some low-profile beach signs. You'll drop down the road to an idyllic, Robinson-Crusoe spot where two restaurants share a sandy beach.
Paradise is Mykonos' famous "meat-market" beach, a magnet for partiers in the Aegean. Located at the southern tip of the island, Paradise (a.k.a. Kalamopodi) is presided over by hotels that run party-oriented bars for young beachgoers — perfect if you want to dance in the sand all night to the throbbing beat with like-minded backpackers from around the world.
All of these beaches have comfortable lounge chairs with umbrellas out on the sand. Figure around $14–20 for two chairs that share an umbrella (or half that for one chair). Just take a seat — they'll come by to collect money. Be warned that in peak season — July and especially August — all beaches are very crowded, and it can be difficult to find an available seat.
From the port, you can take a public bus to any of these beaches, or you can cruise on a shuttle boat to Psarou, Platis Gialos, or Paradise. Another alternative is to rent a car, motor scooter, or ATV. If I wanted to drive a scooter or ATV on a Greek isle, I'd do it here, where the roads are not too heavily trafficked (you'll pass more fellow scooters and ATVs than cars), and idyllic beaches are a short ride away.
Popular as Mykonos is today, it was just another island centuries ago, and the main attraction was next door — the island of Delos. According to Greek myth, this was the birthplace of the twin deities Apollo (god of the sun) and Artemis (goddess of the moon), making it was one of the ancient world's most important religious sites.
Today Delos is reachable only by a 30-minute boat trip from Mykonos; it has no residents — only ruins and a humble museum. If you go, you'll see the much-photographed Lions of the Naxians — a row of seven sphinx-like lion statues — some nice floor mosaics, and a windswept setting pockmarked with foundations.
Delos was a pilgrimage site for believers who came from all over to worship this "birthplace of light." Judging by the present-day sun-worshippers who scramble for the best patch of sand on Mykonos each summer, things haven't changed much around here.