“Hydra is a very special rock, entered as a pause in the musical score of creation by an expert calligrapher,” wrote Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi.
Few Greek islands have aroused as much artistic adoration as Hydra, Greece’s answer to Portofino. Famous fans of this picture-perfect Saronic Gulf getaway rove from Miller to Mick Jagger, to iconic Greek painter Nikos Ghikas, whose cubist renderings of Hydra created the template for modern Greek art—and, of course, star resident, the late Leonard Cohen: patron saint of the bohemian artist colony who lit the island’s open-air tavernas with poetry and music in the 1960s.
Hydra’s splendid beauty comes courtesy of 18th century sea captains and merchants who built their grand Venetian palazzos on the bare brown hills above the crescent-shaped port.
No cars, no mopeds, no bikes. Donkeys haul luggage and essential supplies. The only other traffic you’ll encounter? Luxury yachts and the water taxis that are to Hydra what the vaporetto is to Venice.
Hydra regulars don’t care a fig about the lack of long sandy beaches. The cliffs leading out of town are a dream stage for sunset cocktails and leaping into some of the clearest waters on earth (when Sophia Loren went diving for sponges in Boy on a Dolphin, the whole world became hooked on Hydra).
Just 37 nautical miles from Piraeus, handy Hydra still attracts artists and intellectuals, as well as curious daytrippers and quietly-affluent Athenian weekenders. They come to tap the international art buzz, wander the steep, blossom-draped lanes of Hydra Town, and hole up in chic crash-pads converted from old sponge factories and mariner’s mansions. Beyond the port, compact Hydra has a hypnotic beauty that’s wild and unchanged. It’s in the pine forests and prickly pear bushes; the rasp of cicadas and the clang of goat bells calling from the hills.
Friday: Dazzling dips and arty adventures
The harbour is where it’s all at, so cut right to the chase and head to Isalos, opposite the ferry dock. Everyone goes for iced coffees and ice-cream sundaes (and to keep tabs on who’s coming and going). To Roloi, next to the clock tower, is another popular people-watching classic—although perky Papagalos, by the fishing boats at the far end of the port, steals punters away now with great coffee.
You won’t have to resist the siren call of Hydra’s deep, velvety-blue seas for long. Some of the best swimming spots are right near the harbour. Plant your pareo on the rocky platform below cosmopolitan Spilia Beach Bar, about 50 metres along the coastal path heading west, and ease into the groove of swim, dry off, repeat. Mix it up and take the plunge beneath the thatched parasols and cannons of neighbouring Hydronetta Bar. The bathing areas below these two landmark café-bars are public and free to use. Spilia is best for morning dips and dives; Hydronetta, to capture the sun’s last gasp (preferably with cocktail in hand).
Rouse yourself to explore Hydra’s arty assets. Slap on a hat and your comfiest shoes and set out 15 minutes the opposite way, towards Mandraki, to the old Slaughterhouse. This somewhat eerie, cliffside art space was repurposed by Greece’s foremost art collector Dakis Ioannou to host DESTE’s annual summer exhibition and draws big hitters from everywhere (look out for Ioannou’s splashy yacht in the harbour; Jeff Koons painted it).
Climb above the port and see what’s shaking at Hydra School Project—an exciting hub of international art run by Greek artist Dimitrios Antonitsis (this year, his annual show has moved to the Naval Academy). Hydra also lays claim to one of Greece’s greatest post-war artists, Panagiotis Tetsis. Visit the typically 19th century Hydriot house and atelier where Tetsis began painting to admire his euphoric canvasses conveying all the colours of Greece (buy your ticket at the Lazaros Koundouriotis Historic Mansion and one of their guides will escort you there).
On to dinner. Leonard Cohen fans can enjoy unpretentious Greek fare on the rooftop of his old hangout Geitoniko or venture to the backstreets to Xeri Elia Douskos, another of his haunts, in a pretty square beneath a canopy of vines (follow the sound of the old sea dogs strumming live bouzouki). Otherwise, seek out Stathis and whatever fresh catch he’s serving up at Ostria (off the harbour, a little way down Votsi) or plump for tasty Italian in the winsome courtyard of local’s favourite Caprice (spot the caique and you’re there). For some of Hydra’s most fashionable flavours, book at picturesque Téchnē on Avlaki Bay and load up on gourmet Greek appetisers like smoked eggplant with pomegranate and walnuts, or dolmades with white anchovies and smoked yoghurt.
Saturday: Holy hikes and seaside bites
Rise with the birds to beat the heat on an early morning hike into the hills. You’re headed for the Monastery of Prophet Elias, where the hero of the Greek Revolution, Kolokotronis, was imprisoned. Wear trainers or hiking boots for this 1.5 hour trek through the pines—the last leg’s a bit of a killer—but the views are oh-so worth it (especially from the bell tower). Or saddle-up and go on horseback with Harriet, a young English local who arranges wonderful personalised rides.
Clamber back down to sea level for lunch at quaint Kamini port. Choose from Christina’s taverna, an unflashy local legend set back from the waterfront with the freshest of flavours plucked from the family garden (think bright red peppers filled with goat’s cheese or creamy beetroot salad). If sea views are essential, hop down to salt-white Kodylenia’s. With its raised corner setting, you’ll feel like you’re eating in a theatre. Admire the tableau of bobbing fishing boats and hard-working sea taxis delivering diners to the pebbly shore and linger until sunset: they’re smashing here.
Shop the chic and breezy “Hydra Look” or score some stylish souvenirs from around the harbour. Turquoise is great for colour-drenched block print textiles from India; Kashish, for floaty smocks and kaftans; and Elena Votsi for chunky jewels and donkey mugs.
When evening falls, experience a joyful Greek summer staple with an open-air flick at the Gardenia cinema in Hydra Town—or join the late night antics at Pirate Bar where locals shimmy the night away next to the international jetset. Amalour Bar, a little back from the harbour, is another fun and funky spot for flirty night owls.
Sunday: Sweet vibes and watery rides
Sweeten up your Sunday morning with a traditional Greek treat such as galaktoboureko (custard slice) or rice pudding made from local goat’s milk at Flora’s Pastry Shop in Votsi Square. Craving something crunchier? Tsangaris, a few metres from the port, has the island’s crispiest florentines and amygdalota (almond cookies).
Hydra’s beaches aren’t in the same league as, say, Lefkada or Skiathos. But when the urge to laze on a lounger by the shore hits, Hydriots hail a water taxi. For many, Agios Nikolaos, a sheltered cove ringed by shady trees in the south-west, is the stand-out, and active types can also rent a canoe.
Blast your way back around the coastline to compact Vlychos beach, just before Kamini, for a final meal at Marina’s taverna. This Hydra hotspot ticks every box for a magical Sunday lunch by the sea and you can cool off while you wait for your food (order the fried barbounia and octopus and throw in some glistening horta greens).
As you sail away from Hydra, stash your phone and commit to memory the poetic drama of this magnetic island with your own eyes. Your parting glimpse will be of a Tetsis painting come to life.
Good to know...
- Hotels are scarce on this small sought-after rock and the most popular lodgings (such as Orloff and Bratsera, among the few with a pool) book out in a flash.
- Hydra is not buggy-friendly. It’s best suited for tweens and teens.
- Enjoy your dose of Greek history? Visit during the last week of June to catch the annual Miaoulia Festival—a three-day romp of fireworks and traditional Hydriot dancing—in honour of Admiral Miaoulis, a hero of the Greek revolution of 1821.
Hellenic Seaways services Hydra several times a day from Piraeus all year-round (although times differ from summer to winter). Smaller, faster ferries take between 60-90 minutes; larger vessels around 2 hours. Compare prices and schedules and book on Viva, Ferryhopper or Ferryscanner.
Alternately, it’s a 3-hour drive from Athens to the port of Metochi. From here, you can catch a 25-minute water taxi or passenger ferry to Hydra for around €6.50 per passenger. To find out more about Hydra, visit here.
Cars, motorbikes and bicycles are banned on Hydra so come prepared to explore its many steep lanes on foot. Water taxis are readily available for beach hopping and are reasonably priced.