Overview of Symi
Built into the steep slope of a mountainous island around a natural harbour, the town of Symi (aka Simi) is a colourful Greek settlement that is home to approximately 3,000 people year-round. The island is located 41 KM northwest of Rhodes, and is actually closer to the Turkish communities of Datça and Bozburun than it is to any part of Greece.
According to archaeologists, Symi has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The island's location and large natural harbour made it a convenient way point for trade, so it is believed that Symi played an important role in the transportation of goods throughout the Mediterranean. But surprisingly little is documented about the island's history before the 14th century.
Symi's backstory similar to other islands in the Dodecanese region – with wars and conquests a regular occurrence since the beginning of time. Coming under the rule of the Romans, the Knights of Rhodes, the Ottoman Turks, and the Italians at various points in history, the island has only been a part of Greece since 1948. Each period left an indelible mark on the community, but the Italian occupation is perhaps most obvious. For example:
- Many compare the rich colours of Symi's homes and businesses to the colours of Italy's Amalfi coast;
- Many of the buildings on Symi are classified as Venetian in style;
- And, the Symi police station is a textbook example of Italian architecture.
Painted in rich hues from nature, Symi's buildings are a splendid mixture of Aegean and Venetian architecture. Each has a small footprint, but expands upwards to meet the space needs of its occupants. Some of the larger mansions are five stories tall. Steep stairways and ladders are not uncommon in houses around Symi, which can pose a challenge for those with mobility issues.
In 1971, the communities on Symi were declared protected settlements. This means that, while the old houses and buildings can be restored, renovators must adhere to aesthetic guidelines maintained by the municipality. This is one of the major factors in the island maintaining its feeling of authentic, old-world charm.
The Town's Structure
The harbour town of Symi is made up of two settlements – Gialos (aka Yialos) and Chorio (aka Horio or Ano Symi). They are connected by a long staircase called Kali Strata.
Chorio was the original settlement on the island, high on the hill over-looking the harbour. The lofty location was selected to provide some protection from pirates and featured a Byzantine era defensive fortress ("Kastro") which was destroyed in a long-ago battle. The Knights of St. John built a new castle on the same grounds after they conquered the island in 1309. Other notable landmarks in the Chorio settlement include:
- Windmills used to grind wheat into flour. Most are in ruins, but a few have been restored and are now used as tourist accommodations.
- Spetsaria (1884) – the island's original municipal pharmacy
- Archaeology and Folklore Museum
- Many narrow and winding cobbled streets and passageways
- A combination of ruins and beautifully restored mansions, plus an abundance of small cafes where many locals while away their days
As the threat of pirates declined in the Mediterranean, the citizens of Symi started building homes closer to the water. This area around the harbour is referred to as Gialos. In addition to many beautiful houses and shops, the harbour front is home to:
- Timiou Prodromou Monastery (1838)
- The old customs house (now operating as a duty-free shop)
- Fish market
- Kalderimi, a stone bridge joining the two sides of the harbour, sometimes referred to as Lovers' Bridge
- Statue of Michalaki, the little fisherman, by Symiat sculptur K. Valsamis
- The municipal clock tower (1880) – paid for by a prosperous sponge-fishing family
- The police station
- A nautical museum in the old boat yard at Harani
- An array of boutiques, cafes, tavernas, and bars
The Rest of the Island
Apart from Chorio and Gialos on the northern end of the island, most of Symi is uninhabited. There are a couple of other small settlements (Nimporio, Pedi, Marathounta, and Panormitis) catering to tourists who want to escape life for a while, but otherwise the island is a natural wilderness – a perfect destination for hikers, artists, and photographers.
There are several lovely beaches around the island – many of which are only accessible by boat. There are no amusement parks or water slides, just the basics provided by Mother Nature, including some of the clearest water imaginable! But for anyone seeking peace and quiet, that's what makes the island such a wonderful vacation destination.
The climate and soil of Symi are suitable for viticulture (growing grapes), and the island has a reputation for producing a tasty white wine from its vineyards. The practice goes far back in time and over 100 wine presses have been found around the island.
As with other Greek communities, the Greek Orthodox Church has a large presence on Symi. The Monastery of Archangel Michael of Panormitis is located on the southern tip of the island, and there are dozens of churches and chapels scattered about the island. (There are 13 major churches in Chora alone!)
Modern Day Symi
Nowadays, Symi's main industry is tourism. Each year, from Orthodox Easter until Panormitis Day in early November, thousands of people visit Symi to enjoy the peace and quiet of the colourful community, and soak up the authentic Greek atmosphere. Far from boring - the island hosts several major cultural, music, and religious festivals each year, the bars and restaurants stay open into the wee hours, and there's always gossip about which movie star or royal's yacht has just arrived in the harbour - the overall atmosphere on Symi is laid-back and relaxed.
The island has everything a visitor could need – including banks and ATMs, a pharmacy, markets, souvenir shops, bars and tavernas, a medical clinic, and even a dental clinic. Just be aware that prices are generally higher than you might pay on the mainland because almost all goods are shipped to the island from other points in Greece. (Even drinking water is shipped in to meet peak demand during the summer!)
As there is no airport on the island, Symi is only accessible by boat. Many visitors fly into Rhodes and then take the short boat trip over, while others arrive by ferry from mainland Greece or Turkey. It is also a popular yachting destination, so it is quite common to see private yachts of all shapes and sizes in the harbour area. The harbour town is also a port of call for massive cruise liners who manage to navigate the relatively small harbour with amazing skill.
Whether you visit on a quick day-trip from Rhodes, or stay longer to unwind from the pressures of every day life, if you're seeking a peaceful Greek escape, then Symi may be the destination of your dreams!
Exploring Symi, Greece: A Photo Gallery
Click on any image to enlarge.