While most travelers bound for “the Greek Islands” are heading for the Mediterranean, as these are largely the only islands people think of in connection with Greece, there are lesser-visited islands in the Aegean Sea, too. Chios is the fifth largest of all the Greek islands and very different from the iconic white and blue architecture in the Mediterranean. Probably the most common phrase used to describe it is “a step back in time.” Chios is full of unique and well-preserved medieval villages, with several UNESCO World Heritage designations. The thing it has in common with the rest of Greece is the abundance of kitty cats!

The primary population hub is the town of Chios, and it’s a good place to base for several days of exploration. You can reach Chios by ferry or airport, but in order to best explore the island, it’s advisable to rent a car, available at the airport. You can hire taxis to get around but that will cost you more money; you can take buses to some locations but that will cost you more time. The cross-island highways are nice, paved routes with wide lanes; the town streets, however, are your typical old cobblestone lanes that are very narrow, so I recommend a compact car.

Based in Chios Town, you can easily spend three days packed with activities, or slow down a little, spread them out, and discover even more. These are some suggestions and don’t-miss attractions for three days. Four nights is recommended so you can get a full day in your first day.

DAY 1. Explore Chios Town and Visit a Monastery

Chios Town
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

Walk through town in the morning into early afternoon, and take a scenic drive in the afternoon, visiting Nea Moni Monastery. Chios Town itself is perhaps one of the less picturesque towns, but there are still interesting things to see.

Chios Town

Chios Shrines
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

Much of the town, as all over the island, was destroyed in an earthquake in 1881. In Chios town, the rebuilding of the rubble didn’t adhere to the old medieval architecture. But don’t let that fool you into thinking the rest of the island is the same. Still, the town has many historical sites and pleasant places to hang out during your stay. 

The waterfront ringing the harbor is lined with cafes, restaurants and taverns. It’s a great area to start your morning from with breakfast by the sea. At the end of day, a drink while looking at the city lights reflected on the harbor water is a nice way to wind down and recount the day’s memories. A unique place to have a meal is Milarakia next to a set of stone windmills on the road toward Vrontados.

A medieval town center preserves the narrow passageways and a central courtyard with cafes and shops. Additionally, a pleasant central park with lots of trees and park benches is ringed by cafes. During soccer matches, TVs are moved to the outdoor seating areas and a jolly social atmosphere ensues. 

Places to visit include the Byzantine castle, which surrounds the old city that includes Turkish baths and Turkish style houses. Turkey is just 12 miles across the sea from Chios, and the Turks had a prominent presence including the brutal 1822 massacre of the Greek residents. 

There are several worthy museums to hit: the Archaeological Museum, appropriately enough on Museum Street. The descriptions of artifacts are in both Greek and English. The Byzantine Museum in a 19th century Ottoman mosque by the central square. The Guistiniani Museum by the central gate of the castle, featuring Byzantine and Genovese art. 

Nea Moni Monastery

Chios Nea Moni
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

In the afternoon, you can get out for a scenic drive. All the little shrines you see along the road, which are each unique and often picturesque, we were told are (sadly) memorials to people who have died on the road. Where they lost their life, loved ones erected shrines.

Don’t miss driving up the hill about 15 kilometers from town to the mid-11th century Nea Moni Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Parts of the site have been preserved or restored, and parts are in ruins. It’s a nice mix to give you a sense of both the past and the time that has passed. 

Try Mastiha Liqueur

Try Mastiha Liqueur
photo from Pixabay

For your happy hour drink or aperitif tonight, be sure to try some mastiha liqueur. There are three levels of alcohol content — the lowest brings out the most flavor of the mastic, the highest content packs a punch, and middle one is, in this author’s opinion, just the right amount of each. You will also find other mastic products in town such as candies and body care products.

Mastic trees are grown on Chios Island and nowhere else in the world.  Mastic is the sappy resin in the tree bark from which the liquor is made. Farmers bore holes into the bark, put a plastic tarp skirt around the base of the tree, then let the resin run down the trunk and collect onto the skirt. You will see terraced groves of the diminutive trees from the roads. 

Day 2. Mesta and Pyrgi

Chios Archangels
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

Now that you’ve tried mastiha, it’s a perfect day to visit some mastic villages in the southern part of the island. The group of southern mastic villages are designated by UNESCO as places of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Mesta and Pyrgi are two outstanding and well-preserved villages that you shouldn’t miss. 

Exploring these villages thoroughly will give you a good idea of the flavor of the medieval heyday of these towns. Mesta is the furthest south, so a good way to do it would be to start there and work your way back toward Chios through Pyrgi and other villages if you choose, which could include Vessa and Olympi.

Mesta

Chios Mesta
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

Mesta is a classic medieval mastic village and supposedly the best preserved. Here and at all of the small villages on Chios, as a visitor you must park your car outside the old city walls and walk in. The streets were built to scale for donkeys, not cars! Mesta was built in the Byzantine era (approx. 14th century) and its high defensive walls and central tower were designed on account of the pirates and Turks who were always trying to raid them and their valuable mastic stores. 

If you are a wanderer who likes to get lost in mazes of cobblestone alleys, this town is for you. In the heart of the village a large central courtyard is ringed by several restaurants.

Don’t miss the Megalos Taksiarhis, aka “the big Archangels Church,” the largest orthodox church on the island and one of the biggest in all of Greece. It was built in the mid-1800s where the original castle tower had been built in the Byzantine era. The interior simply dazzles with richly painted walls, alcoves with painted statues of saints, golden fixtures, blue painted ceilings and enormous chandeliers. 

Pyrgi

Chios Pyrgi
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

Now to Pyrgi, the largest of the mastic villages, and often referred to as “the painted village” because of the unique black- or gray-and-white geometrical decorative motifs on the facades of the buildings. It’s called Xysta and the designs are actually etched into the walls, not painted, in spite of the “painted village” moniker. It’s believed by some that Christopher Columbus is descended from a family in Pyrgi and spent some time in the village. 

A central feature of Pyrgi is the 14th-century Church of Ayioi Apostoloi (Holy Apostles). It mimics, on a smaller scale, the architectural structure of the larger Nea Moni monastery. The interior walls and ceiling of the church are covered in frescoes. 

While you’re down south, you can also stop at stunning black sand and pebble beaches near the village of Emporios.

Day 3. Drive to the northern hill towns.

Chios Hilltop Village
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

This day will take you the opposite direction from Chios town as yesterday, north into the rolling hills. 

The hill towns are usually built in a layout like classic medieval fortresses, or fortified cities, perched on prime hilltops. There are few roads in the island interior, so driving along the main arteries, you will encounter a number of picturesque villages you can stop to walk around in. Two larger ones that you shouldn’t miss are Anavatos and Volissos — quaint villages with impressive ruins and sweeping views.

Anavatos

Anavatos
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

Anavatos is abandoned now except to the wandering tourist and a handful of people who man the cafe and gift shop and feed the cats — truly they are everywhere on the island. A Byzantine fortress perched at the very top of a range of hills, it still was raided numerous times by pirates, and brutally sacked along with the rest of Chios in 1822 by the Ottoman Turks. Many of its ruins feel like those of mainland Europe. 

Volissos

Chios Volissos
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

Volissos is still inhabited in large sections, and therefore has a selection of restaurants and snack shops. While Anavatos is in the interior of the island, Volissos is nearer the coast and commands authoritative views of both land and sea. You will get your exercise walking up and down the rolling topography of the town. It, too, was raided and then sacked in the 19th century. Parts of the town now lie in ruins, slowly being digested by vines and other plants. Yet it’s a picturesque setting for ghosts.

The town has a very long history, and persistent legend names it the birthplace of Homer. Even the revered Herodotus makes mention of Homer writing his epic stories here.   

Extra: Easter Rocket Wars

Chios Rockets
photo by Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel

If you visit at Easter, you can witness the renowned Rocket Wars on Holy Saturday in the town of Vrontados. You will not experience anything like this elsewhere in the world. Residents spend most of the year building and stockpiling rockets of sticks and gunpowder. On Easter Eve, buildings surrounding the two warring churches are boarded up, launch pads are installed at the two churches, and at 10:00 p.m. the war begins. The two churches, only 400 meters apart from each other, barrage each other trying to hit the opposing bell tower.  You can watch the rockets fly above you from inside the town or you can drive up Mount Aepos and park along the roadside to look down on the rocket volley.

So now you know the flavor of Chios Island and some completely unique things it has to offer. By all means, hit the Mediterranean, too. But for a more rounded experience of Greece, spend a few days on this deeply historical Aegean Island.