Travel tales

Off-season in Ios, Greece

Chora in Ios, Greece

My first trip to Greece was back when I was 21 – a week’s package holiday to Faliraki in Rhodes to celebrate graduating from university. It involved plenty of fishbowls of cocktails and dancing on tables, mixed in with a bit of sightseeing and a lot of sunbathing by the pool. My travel style has changed just a bit since then (as has my alcohol tolerance) and I’ve discovered that Greece has so much more to offer. But when it turned out that the Greek villa I’d spontaneously bid on in a travel auction and ended up winning was in one of the country’s top party destinations, I couldn’t help getting a few worrying fishbowl flashbacks.

Chora windmill, Ios Greece

Chora’s last remaining windmill

Set in the blue waters of the Aegean Sea, Ios is one of the Cyclades Islands and just a 30-minute hop by ferry from Santorini. But where Santorini is full of cruise ship passengers and honeymooners, Ios attracts a whole different crowd. In the summer months it’s a hedonistic haunt for 18–30s backpackers island-hopping around the Mediterranean. It’s a place where you party all night and sleep it off on the beach all day.

The tiny main town of Chora has something like 30 clubs, where you can down shots for a free t-shirt (or while getting hit over the head) and then dance until the sun comes up. Nothing wrong with that, unless you’re nearer 40 than 20 and can’t remember the last time you stayed up past 1am. Let alone my parents who were coming along with me! But it turns out there’s a whole different side to Ios.

Ios harbour, Greece

Boats and beaches in Ios’ harbour

The party season in Ios is actually pretty short, running from mid-June until mid-August. So by the time we arrived in mid-October the crowds had long moved on and our ferry from Santorini dropped off just a few of us before heading on its way north to Athens. We were a mix of couples and family groups, with a distinctly older age range than you’d have seen disembarking a couple of months earlier.

Our home on Ios for the week was On the Rocks villa, set on the brow of a hill overlooking the port on one side and across the Aegean to Santonini on the other. It was an unbelievably peaceful place, where all you could hear was the bleating of sheep and the bells of the goats grazing around the villa (and occasionally nipping into the gardens when they thought no one was looking). It would’ve been pretty easy to let the whole week pass in a haze of reading, swimming and lazing, but there were places to explore.

Chora, Ios Greece

Looking down onto the town of Chora

Down a rocky track from the villa is Valmas Beach, a small cove with turquoise waters so clear you can see straight down at the sand below. There’s a taverna right on the beach, but by October it had closed for the season and there was no one else in sight. It was like having our own private beach. You could walk up onto the terrace at the taverna and imagine what it was like in the summer – packed with people eating and drinking. But now it was eerily deserted, with the shutters up and the owners relocated for the winter.

About 15 minutes’ walk from the villa is the biggest town in Ios, Chora (though that’s more a description than a name – the word Chora means ‘main town’ and you’ll find them all over the Greek islands). Ios’ Chora has a line of shops along a main road, and on the opposite side the old town stretches up into the hillside. From a distance it looks like an impenetrable mass of tightly packed whitewashed buildings, but up close you spot the narrow gaps between them that lead into twisting and turning cobbled passageways.

Sunset churches in Ios Greece

Churches glowing at sunset

Everything closes down in Ios from 2pm to 5pm, so as we wandered uphill through the old town the only signs of life we could see were the island’s many cats – searching for scraps of food or grabbing a siesta in the shade. At 5pm the town started to come back to life, with shopkeepers opening up their shutters and café owners laying out chairs ready for the evening. There are a few shops and restaurants that stay open into October, but you’re more likely to see locals than tourists there at this time of year.

We carried on climbing to the top of the hill where there are four tiny white churches. Apparently there are 365 churches on Ios – one for each day of the year – and that’s with only 2000 permanent residents too. Most are locked up and looked after by a local family who make sure they don’t fall into disrepair. Chora’s highest church is Ios’ top sunset spot, where you can look down onto tiny boats in the port in one direction and Chora’s mass of white dotted with blue domes in the other. The sunlight made the churches glow before it dipped down out of view behind the neighbouring island of Sikinos.

Sunset from Ios Greece

The sun disappears behind Sikinos

A bit further past Chora is Mylopotas Beach, a 1.5km-long stretch of golden sand that’s Ios’ most visited beach. In the summer you’ll find beach clubs and lines of sunbeds, but in October I counted less than 10 people on the whole length of it. The bay is really sheltered so it’s great for watersports, and even off season you can hire a stand-up paddleboard or rent a boat and explore some of the hidden coves along the coast. One café at the far end of the beach had stayed open and we stopped for lunch there along with a mix of late-season visitors, locals and expats about to leave the island before winter.

After getting used to almost having the island to ourselves, it was hard to picture what it would’ve been like in the middle of summer. When the streets of Chora pounded to the beat of music pumping out of the bars and its narrow streets were packed full of people. When the beaches were covered in sunbathers and the waters full of boats and windsurfers. I loved our peaceful version of Ios, but I can’t help wondering what it would be like to see the other side – I guess I’ll just have to go back and see for myself.

Mylopotas Beach, Ios Greece

The empty sands of Mylopotas Beach

Should you visit Ios off season?

Do if: you want a peaceful trip, you don’t like crowds, you don’t mind self-catering or eating out at a limited selection of restaurants, you want to have more interaction with the locals, you want good value.

Don’t if: you’re after good nightlife, you want to meet lots of other travellers, you want to eat out for every meal, you want a big range of activities to keep you occupied.

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Off season in Ios, Greece – On the Luce travel blog

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  • Reply
    November 6, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    Oh so different from the IOS I visited back in 1971 when a girlfriend and I hitched through Europe and ended up on Mylopotas Beach in our little two-man tent for a fortnight. Only two tavernas then, one at either end of the beach where we ate breakfast – fried eggs or yoghurt and honey – and dinner, freshly caught octopus! Camp fire on the beach, Spanish hippies playing guitars. Nights up in Chora supping ouzo and chatting with the old men who would sometimes do the Zorba the Greek dance for us whilst we laughed with sheer joy, or pop in to the one and only disco with a dance floor the size of a wagon-wheel where we’d shuffle in the heat to the Rolling Stones ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and of course ‘Satisfaction’. We were stuck for an extra week as the ferry was unable to land due to storms, and we saw Jacques Cousteau’s yacht moored nearby. No roads then, no cars only donkeys. No tourist shops. So unspoilt. But we knew then it wouldn’t remain like that, in fact only two years later I returned to find it was already changing.

    What an amazing time, and thank you for bringing back some super memories. Are there any places left like the 1970s IOS I wonder?

    • Reply
      November 6, 2015 at 7:13 pm

      How lovely, it sounds like an amazing experience! It’s definitely changed a lot since then, but I still found it a really charming place. There are so many Greek islands out there that I hope there are still a few out there that are undeveloped and a bit more like you remember.

  • Reply
    November 6, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    Sounds perfect and your photos are so inviting!

    • Reply
      November 6, 2015 at 8:47 pm

      I think Greece must be the most photogenic place I’ve been – I took so many photos!

  • Reply
    Cathy (MummyTravels)
    November 6, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    This sounds blissful, definitely my kind of experience these days (was never very good at staying up late clubbing). And what an incredible sunset view.

    • Reply
      November 10, 2015 at 9:40 am

      Yes I’m with you there – I am hopeless at staying up late now and can’t remember the last time I was in a club! Sunset view and a glass of wine all the way.

  • Reply
    November 7, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    I loved your lead-in and, of course, the photos of yet another lovely Greek isle. My mom is from Greece, so I’ve seen quite a but of the country but never Ios – thanks for the introduction!

    • Reply
      November 10, 2015 at 9:41 am

      You’re very welcome! Ios was lovely, it’s set off a desire to go and see some more Greek islands now (there are enough to keep me going for a while!).

  • Reply
    November 9, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    **adds to travel bucket list**

    • Reply
      November 10, 2015 at 9:41 am

      Greece is so beautiful, it’s well worth a spot on the list!

  • Reply
    Angela Fakou
    November 12, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you for this article ..It was also really nice to meet you in WTM London expo …just I d like to mention that the party season is also smaller than you described (mid June till mid August) then it s still crowded till beginning of September with different kind of travellers 35-55 couples, families.
    Thank you once more for your vivid description
    Angela Fakou

    • Reply
      November 12, 2015 at 2:38 pm

      Thanks Angela, it was lovely to meet you at WTM too and really glad you liked the article, I loved the island (I have edited the dates so thanks for that too!).

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    November 12, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    This sounds like my kind of trip – taken at the end of the summer when you’re ready for some relaxation and time to soak up the last rays of the year. Bliss 🙂

    • Reply
      November 12, 2015 at 2:36 pm

      It was perfect for that – so relaxing!

  • Reply
    November 14, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    I think I’m in love, Lucy! Wonder if I can persuade Mick to sell our Algarve home 🙂

    • Reply
      November 14, 2015 at 7:19 pm

      It definitely had that classic Greek beauty – though the Algarve is pretty wonderful too!

  • Reply
    November 23, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    I have to go there, it looks absolutely amazing. My parents were talking about going to Greece next year in September, this would be just perfect. How can you get to Ios by the way?

    • Reply
      November 23, 2015 at 2:50 pm

      September’s a really good time to go, still warm but much more relaxed than in summer. Ios is pretty easy to get to – no airport so you need to take the ferry, but it’s 4 hours on a fast ferry from Athens or 35 mins from Santorini (quite a few direct flights there or you can fly via Athens).

  • Reply
    Andrew Petcher
    November 12, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    Love your pictures. One of my favourite Greek Islands, I have been many times, always in September where I meet old friends at Homer’s Inn hotel on the road from the port to the chora. A pity you missed the taverna at Valmas, it serves the most exquisite squid!

    • Reply
      November 13, 2016 at 6:59 am

      Thank you! I loved Ios and hopefully will make it back a bit earlier in the season sometimes – will make sure to check out the squid when I do!

  • Reply
    April 20, 2017 at 11:45 am

    I’m very happy to have found this page, and especially the comments by Heyjude. I was on Ios in March 1973, as an 18-year-old backpacker. There were still no cars at that time, only donkeys, but I was there when the first TV sets arrived in the bars. From one day to the next, people’s attention switched from each other to the box on the wall. Sad. And although I now want to go back there, 44 years later, I’m going to find it a shock to see the roads, cars and nightclubs. This article has made it clear that I have to go out of season. I even lived in a cave for a few days, and would love to find it again.
    Like Heyjude, I too wonder if there are places that still reflect the 1970s Ios…

    • Reply
      April 23, 2017 at 7:18 pm

      That’s so interesting to read! I’m sure you will find it so different going back. I visited a few places in Thailand about 20 years ago that I loved and have heard since that they’ve changed so much, I’d be fascinated to go back but on the other hand it would be so odd to see them changed so much. I think off-peak is definitely the way to go in Ios as it has much more of a local feel as it can be crazy in summer!

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