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Ships and sponges: The best things to do in Symi, Greece

Discover the best things to do in Symi, Greece – a charming small island in the Dodecanese just a short ferry ride from Rhodes, with a colourful Neoclassical harbour, hilltop old town and clear waters.

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Ships and sponges: The best things to do in Symi, Greece

With its brightly painted harbour houses and aquamarine seas, Symi is a small island with a lot of charm. At just an hour by ferry from Rhodes it’s a popular destination for a day trip – I first came to Symi 20 years ago on one. But it’s worth staying a while to uncover what else Symi has to offer. We spent almost a week on the island and didn’t run out of things to do.

Symi is one of the Dodecanese islands in southern Greece, alongside Rhodes, Kastellorizo, Halki and Kalymnos. It made its fortune in shipbuilding and sponge diving, with merchants building ornate Neoclassical mansion houses around the harbour with the proceeds.

Today the island has historic castles, monasteries and museums to explore, tasty local dishes like the crispy Symi shrimp, and beautiful rocky coves to swim in – some of which you can only reach by boat. So here’s my guide to the best things to do in Symi.

The best things to do in Symi

Looking down on the harbour in Symi Greece
Looking down on the harbour

Explore the harbour

Symi’s main harbour – known as Gialos – is its picture postcard location. There are colourful Neoclassical buildings stretching up onto the hillsides around the bay, and a steady stream of ferries, fishing boats, tour boats and yachts coming and going.

Most visitors to Symi start their trip in the harbour, and it gets very busy from 10am–4pm, when tour groups visit from Rhodes. But you don’t have to go too far into the backstreets to avoid the crowds. Or take one of the flights of stairs up into the hills for views over the harbour – the Annunciation Church terrace was one of my favourite viewpoints.

Symi's clock tower
Symi’s clock tower – with the Annunciation Church behind

The harbour at Gialos forms a ‘W’ shape, with a clock tower in the middle that was built in 1881 and looks a bit like a miniature Elizabeth Tower (home of Big Ben) from London’s Houses of Parliament. You can follow the road all the way around the harbour – though watch out for passing cars and scooters as there’s no pavement for most of it.

Along the way are cafés, restaurants and shops selling gifts and sponges. These natural, biodegradable exfoliators grow underwater and can be farmed sustainably. Symi pioneered the sponge diving industry in Greece, and once had the largest fleet in the world.

Gialos is bustling by day, but once the sun goes down it’s much more relaxed, with yachts lined up along the harbourside and people drinking and chatting in waterfront cafés.

Sunset in Symi harbour
Sunset in the harbour

Climb up to hilltop Chorio

The old town of Chorio sits on top of the hillside overlooking Gialos. Compared to the busy harbour it has a much sleepier, more traditionally Greek feel, with church towers, cobbled streets, sleeping cats and historic mansions draped with flowers. Most of the streets are narrow and car-free so it’s perfect to get lost in and see what you come across.

To reach Chorio from Gialos, you can either catch a local bus from the harbour, which takes around 10 minutes. Or you can climb the Kali Strata. This flight of 500 steps was built as a scenic route for wealthy merchants to get home from the port. And it’s still just as beautiful – though it is quite a climb, so it’s best to avoid doing it at the hottest time of day.

The Kali Strata steps up to Chorio old town in Symi and a colourful church tower
The Kali Strata and churches in Chorio

Admire the views from the Kastro

Symi’s kastro or castle was built for the Knights of the Order of Saint John in 1407. It’s set up on high above the harbour to help protect it from invaders, and incorporated part of an older acropolis. Today it’s mostly in ruins, but is still worth visiting for the views.

To get there, climb up to the blue and white Panagia Church and follow the path around the side of the church where you’ll get a panoramic view across the island. If you catch the bus from Gialos to Chorio, the castle ruins are signposted from the bus stop.

There’s also another great view from the windmills which run along a ridge to the east of the harbour. They originally ground grain and are now mostly in ruins – though one has been restored and you can now stay* in it – but make a great spot for sunset.

Views from the hilltop kastro – one of the best things to do in Symi
Views from the kastro

Go back in time at the Archaeological and Folklore Museum

If you want to find out more about Symi’s history, you can pay a visit to the small Archaeological and Folklore Museum in Chorio (entry €6). It’s a bit of a maze through the backstreets to find it, but there plenty of signs along the way to stop you getting too lost.

The museum is set over three floors in several Neoclassical mansions dating from the 19th century. The top two floors show off their archaeological and Byzantine collections. There are finds like Roman sculptures, pottery and coins which have been excavated from Symi and other nearby islands. And Byzantine paintings, icons and manuscripts.

Then the bottom floor is focused on local folklore, inside a merchants’ house which has been beautifully restored. You can see traditional Symian costumes, musical instruments, furniture and carvings. And there are sculptures in the shady cobbled courtyard.

Symi's Archaeological and Folklore Museum
Symi Archaeological and Folklore Museum

Hit the beach

Symi doesn’t have a lot of sand, but there are plenty of pebbly beaches where you can swim in clear, turquoise waters. They’re a mix of organised (with sun loungers to hire) and more remote beaches. Some you can hike or drive to, others are only accessible by boat. Shuttle boats run from Gialos harbour to the main beaches around hourly in high season.

Here’s our pick of the best beaches in Symi, split into three sections, starting with those to the west of Gialos, then those to the east, and ending with the remoter beaches.

  • Nos is the closest beach to Gialos so can be busy. There used to be a taverna here where you could rent sunbeds and umbrellas, but it’s now closed down so there’s just a small pebbly area for sunbathing (650m walk along the road from the clock tower).
  • Nimborio is further along the same road, a sheltered bay with a simple taverna that’s popular with families (3km west of Gialos, accessible on foot, by road or boat).
Nos beach in Symi
Nos beach
  • Pedi is another sheltered bay, with a thin strip of beach backed with a few restaurants and a hotel with sunbeds (2.5km east of Gilaos on foot, by road, bus or boat).
  • St Nicholas can be reached on foot along a coast path from Pedi. It has shady pine trees, and sunbeds and umbrellas available to hire from a taverna with basic facilities (20-minute walk from Pedi, or boat from Pedi or Gialos, no road access).
  • Agia Marina is to the west of Pedi, and has a shallow bay good for swimming and snorkelling. It’s a favourite with families and has a tavern with sunbeds for hire (45-minute walk from Pedi, or boat from Pedi or Gialos, no road access).
Boat from Pedi to Agia Marina beach in Symi
Boat from Pedi to Agia Marina
  • St George’s Bay is the island’s best-known beach, with clear blue waters backed by 300-foot cliffs. It’s a stunning setting, only accessible by boat with no facilities.
  • Nanou is a big, pebbly bay in the east of the island. It’s a fairly peaceful spot but does have a taverna with sunbeds (35 minutes by boat from Gailos or a long walk).
  • Marathounta beach is further south, on the route to Panormitis Monastery. It’s a sheltered bay with sunbeds to hire from the taverna – look out for the resident goats who might try to steal your lunch! (accessible by road or boat from Gialos).
St Nicholas beach on Symi island Greece
St Nicholas beach

Take a boat trip

One of the best ways to see Symi is from the water. If you want to explore some of the smaller, lesser-known beaches around the island, you can hire a boat. You can rent boats from local owners through SamBoat,* either with or without a skipper.

Or you can take a guided tour around the island with Poseidon Excursions. Their hugely popular day trips take place on board a traditional wooden boat and are led by Captain Yiannis, a local legend who’s been running tours of Symi for over 20 years.

Trips are normally run daily from June–October. The itinerary varies slightly by day but includes stops in St Nicholas Bay and Seal Cove, with its resident seal. There’s also a BBQ lunch with wine on Seskli island and swimming stops in several different bays.

Poseidon boat trip – one of the most popular things to do in Symi
Poseidon boat trip

Visit Panormitis Monastery

Holy Monastery of the Taxiarch Michael Panormitis (better known as Panormitis Monastery) is one of the most popular things to do in Symi. Its current Venetian-style building dates from the 18th century and was built on the site of an older monastery.

It’s dedicated to Archangel Michael, patron saint of Symi, and on 8th November each year people come from across the region for a festival in his honour. Inside the monastery there are ornate murals and a two-metre-high silver icon. And there are two museums in the grounds – one on folklore and one on ecclesiastical art – and a beach outside.

Panormitis Monastery is in the south of Symi, 18km south of Gialos via a winding mountain road. If you don’t have a car there are buses from Gialos several times a day in high season. Or many boat trips from Rhodes to Symi make a stop at the monastery.

Panormitis Monastery Greece
Panormitis Monastery

Try some local dishes

As well as the usual Greek dishes, Symi has a few local specialities to try. Most famous are Simiako garidaki or Symi shrimp – tiny, sweet-tasting shrimp fried until crispy and eaten whole. There’s also akoumia, bite-sized doughnuts made from cooked rice and flavoured with orange and ouzo. Or misokofti, a creamy dessert made with prickly pear juice.

Our pick of the restaurants in Gialos were Pantelis for high-end Greek food (though you do need to book ahead). Sea Me for fish and seafood in a quiet spot in the backstreets. And Taverna O’Haris for well-priced traditional taverna food and fast service. And there are a couple of great restaurants in Chorio too – Taverna Zoe and The Secret Garden.

Pantelis restaurant in the harbour in Symi
Pantelis restaurant

The details

When to visit Symi

The main tourist season in Symi runs from May to November – July and August are the busiest months, with crowds of day-trippers from Rhodes. Symi’s summers are hot and dry, with average high temperatures of 32°C (90°F) in July/August. It stays up in the 20s at night too, so it’s a good idea to book somewhere to stay which has air con.

The shoulder season months of May/June and September/October are the perfect time to visit Symi, with highs of 25–29°C (77–84°F). And the sea stays warm enough to swim into November. Winter is mild, with daytime highs of 13°C/55ºF and night-time lows of 7°C/45°F. Though the island does get most rainfall between December and February.

Sunny autumn days in Greece
Autumn in Symi

How to get to Symi

There’s no airport in Symi – the nearest is in Rhodes – so you need to take a ferry to the island. Ferries run frequently between Rhodes and Symi, taking 55–90 minutes. There’s a mix of catamarans and ferries sailing on the route, run by Dodekanesos Seaways, Sebeco, SAOS, Sea Dreams and Blue Star Ferries, with up to 12 services a day in summer.

Ferries from Rhodes depart from a couple of different harbours in Rhodes Town, so you need to make sure you’re at the right one. Dodekanesos Seaways and Sebeco ships depart from Kolkonas harbour, next to the Sea Gate on the edge of Rhodes’ old town. The others run from the larger Akandia harbour, a 15-minute walk from the old town.

Dodekanesos Seaways ship arriving into Symi harbour
Dodekanesos Seaways ship arriving into Symi

You can also reach other islands like Tilos, Kalymnos, Kos and Kastellorizo by ferry from Symi. And Blue Star Ferries run a route all the way from Athens’ Piraeus port. It takes 16 hours on board a huge ship with restaurants, shops and overnight cabins.

Or if you’re short on time, you can take a day tour to Symi from Rhodes which includes transport. There are several different versions available, some just visiting Symi* and others stopping at Panormitis Monastery* or for swimming in St George’s Bay.*

Book your ferry travel to Symi*

Blue Star ferry leaving Gialos as seen from the kastro in Chorio
Blue Star ferry leaving Gialos

Getting around Symi

Ferries to Symi arrive into Gialos harbour, with a lot of the main sights within walking distance. There are a couple of bus services from the harbour – one runs to Chorio and Pedi around once an hour and another less-frequent bus goes to Panormitis Monastery.

You can also travel by boat, with shuttle boats from the harbour to the main beaches like St Nicholas, Agia Marina, Nanou, Marathounda and St George’s Bay. They depart once an hour in the morning and return hourly in the afternoons. Or if you want to explore independently, cars, scooters and ATVs are available for hire in the harbour.

Read more: How to get around Symi without a car

Shuttle boats in Symi harbour to take you to the island's beaches
Symi beach boats

Where to stay in Symi

Symi has a few hotels, and more guesthouses and houses or apartments to rent. It’s most convenient to stay around Gialos, but if you want to get away from it all then there are some peaceful rural properties too. And if you do stay in Gialos, hills rise up steeply around the harbour so check how far up you’ll be as there can be a lot of steps to climb.

We stayed in a traditional Symian apartment on the edge of the harbour which sleeps up to four. It has an open plan living/sleeping space with another bed on a mezzanine above. But the best part was the huge terrace, where you can sit and watch the boats come and go.

Views from the terrace of a traditional Symian apartment
Our apartment terrace

The Old Markets* is a 10-room luxury hotel set inside Symi’s restored agora or meeting place. There’s a mix of suites with balconies and lounges or smaller rooms, as well as a terrace bar and restaurant. It’s partway up the Kali Strata so there are steps to climb, but the views from the top are fantastic and there’s an indoor pool to cool off in.

Or if you’d rather be near the sea, Pedi Beach Hotel* is right on the water’s edge. It’s decorated in a calm, minimalist style, and some rooms have sea view balconies. There’s a bar and two restaurants, and sun loungers and umbrellas for guests. You can swim in the harbour or hike/take a boat to nearby St Nicholas and Agia Marina beaches.

Looking for somewhere to stay in Symi?*

Sunbeds on the beach in Pedi
On the beach in Pedi

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Discover the best things to do in Symi, Greece – a charming small island in the Dodecanese just a short ferry ride from Rhodes, with a colourful Neoclassical harbour, hilltop old town and clear waters | Symi Greece | Symi travel guide | Greek islands | What to do in Symi islandDiscover the best things to do in Symi, Greece – a charming small island in the Dodecanese just a short ferry ride from Rhodes, with a colourful Neoclassical harbour, hilltop old town and clear waters | Symi Greece | Symi travel guide | Greek islands | What to do in Symi island

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Phillippa Lee

Wednesday 3rd of April 2024

I love Symi - I am just about to do across from Kos for a few days before going to Patmos for Greek Easter. Another beach which has a great taverna is Tolis beach.

Lucy Dodsworth

Friday 5th of April 2024

Thanks for the tip – will check it out next time!