Before Mykonos was a popular tourist island, another one just off its coast was where the rich and famous would come. They bought houses, shopped in the markets, cavorted with people from across the world.
But all of this was more than 2,000 years ago.
“Like Mykonos, Delos was the island for VIPs,” says my guide as she starts to show me around.
“It was the island of acceptance,” she explains. “Everyone was welcome – as long as they were wealthy!”
A tour to Delos is one of the most popular things to do from Mykonos these days because, of all the 2,000 Greek islands, it’s one of the most significant historically. During the time of Ancient Greece, it was the commercial and navigational centre of the Aegean Sea.
Just try to imagine all the successful merchants who came here and constructed mansions, attracting the region’s best builders and artisans. And around the port where they would’ve all arrived, luxury shops and boutiques selling perfumes and gems.
That was two millennia ago and, of course, much has changed. What you find in Delos today is not a vibrant bustling city, but a large and fascinating archaeological site stretching out from the water’s edge.
It’s a large site because the ancient city was once home to up to 30,000 people. Although none of the monumental buildings are in their original form, a lot has been excavated and it takes a few hours to walk through the highlights on a guided tour of Delos.
Is Delos worth visiting?
For visitors to Mykonos, it’s certainly worth visiting Delos. Not only does it offer something different to the beaches and the clubs of the larger island, it’s a remarkably easy half-day trip to see one of the most significant archaeological sites in the Aegean Sea. (Delos is also a World Heritage Site.)
What is Delos famous for?
Delos is famous as one of the most important cities in the Aegean Sea two millennia ago. It was a powerful commercial centre that controlled much of the economy of Ancient Greece.
Delos is also said to be the island where the gods Apollo and Artemis were born, and the city built here had an important religious and mythological role in the empire.
Are there tours to Delos?
Yes, there are tours to Delos and I think it’s definitely worth taking one. Although it’s relatively easy to visit Delos independently, you’ll definitely benefit from a guide’s explanation of the site. I would recommend this Delos tour from Mykonos, or I have some more information later in the article.
It may just be a short journey by boat from Mykonos to Delos, but it’s a journey that takes you back 2,000 years, into a fascinating part of the history of Ancient Greece, and to one of Greece’s World Heritage Sites.
It’s a story that can sometimes get a bit lost on the Aegean islands, with its focus on modern tourism, so this is an excellent way to dive straight into it.
History of Delos
Delos did not start as a luxurious haven for the rich and famous. In fact, it had existed for centuries already, and this earlier period is, in many ways, much more important.
There’s evidence that people have lived on the island since the 3rd millennium BC (up to 5000 years ago!), but it was Ionian settlers who really transformed Delos when they arrived around 1000 BC.
They brought with them the cult of Leto, a female Titan who, in Greek mythology, had been impregnated by Zeus. To escape Zeus and his furious wife, Hera, Leto looked for somewhere to hide – and she found the island of Delos.
So, it was here that mythology says she gave birth to her twins: Apollo, the god of music, and Artemis, the goddess of wild animals.
Apollo, in particular, became the focus for Delos. He was one of the most important gods of Ancient Greece and, with Delos said to be his birthplace, an enormous sanctuary was built here for him.
The Sanctuary of Apollo is believed to have been founded in about the 9th century BC and it attracted worshippers from across the region and beyond.
With all these pilgrims coming to Delos, you can understand why commerce also grew on the island and it continued to be an important trading port in the region.
But, with such a strong economic and religious position, Delos also became a target for people with political power. The most consequential example is when the island fell under the control of the Athenians.
They undertook a series of ‘purifications’ to make the site more holy, by digging up all graves and moving dead bodies to another island, and then later forbidding anyone from being born or dying on Delos!
Throughout the first millennium BC, there were constant political and religious shifts at Delos.
The Athenians deported all the locals from Delos in 422 BC, for instance. Then the island became independent again in 314 BC. Then the Romans took it over in 166 BC and made it a free port. And so on…
It would take a whole article to cover the details of the history of Delos. But the important thing is to know that just as the worship of Apollo was a defining factor in the growth of the island, so was the money and power that it brought.
Towards the end of the first millennium BC, Delos had become the most important trading centre in Greece. But then it all came crashing down.
Delos was attacked and sacked in 69 BC by the pirates of Athenodoros. Then the trading routes changed and the island was no longer convenient.
It was quickly abandoned by those who were here for just the money and power. Only a few people remained to look after the temples to Apollo… but even the guardians eventually left as the Roman era took hold.
In the years afterwards, there’s evidence that people came and went, and Delos was inhabited by different people over different periods.
But it was eventually completely abandoned in the 6th century AD. Captured by the Byzantines, then the Slavs, then the Venetians, then the Ottomans, these successive occupiers took the stones that had once formed majestic temples and opulent houses.
It wasn’t until archaeological work started here in 1872, that the site began to regain some of its dignity, and the treasures of Delos were again unearthed.
Things to see at Delos
The island of Delos is actually pretty small – a maximum of only about five kilometres long and 1.3 kilometres wide, with an area of 3.4 square kilometres (exactly the same size as New York’s Central Park).
Most of the island is barren, though. The archaeological site is in the northwest of Delos and the main attractions are concentrated in this area, where the centre of the city would’ve been.
There are lots of things to see at Delos. You’ll discover most of them if you wander in the same direction as everyone else, but these are the main Delos sights to look out for (in the order you’ll likely come to them).
Agora of the Competaliasts
There are a few different market areas in the city and I’m mentioning this one because it’s the first you’ll come to, located right on the water where the boat from Mykonos to Delos arrives.
Around the edges of the agora (market) are the remains of shops that would’ve ben based here, while holes in the stones on the ground show where tents would’ve been erected for temporary stalls.
There are also the remains of monuments that were dedicated to the god Hermes.
Sanctuary of Apollo
From the Agora of the Competaliasts, you’ll walk down a paved road called the Sacred Way until you reach the Propylaea, which was once part of the Temple of Apollo.
The area beyond this is known as the Sanctuary of Apollo, and it’s where you’ll find the remains of many of the temples on Delos that were built by different people over the centuries.
The Oikos of the Naxians would once have had a nine-metre-high statue of Apollo in it.
Next to it, the Temple of the Delians was the biggest of the temples here, construction starting in 476 BC.
Next, you’ll see Poros Temple, the smallest and oldest of the Apollo temples, built in the 6th century BC.
And, on the other side of the path, is the Temple of Artemis, dedicated to the twin sister of Apollo who was also said to have been born here.
Terrace of the Lions
Beyond the sanctuary, past the Agora of the Italians, is one of the most important sights in Delos – the Terrace of the Lions.
These marble statues of squatting lions lined one side of the avenue, looking out towards the Sacred Lake. Added by the people of Naxos around 600 BC, the lions were supposed to protect the sanctuary.
There were originally between 9 to 12 of the lions here (nobody knows for sure), but now there are only four complete ones left. The ones in position on the avenue are replicas, with the originals in the Delos Archaeological Museum for protection.
Across from the Terrace of the Lions, the Sacred Lake is not much to look at these days, but it’s one of the most significant parts of the Archaeological Site of Delos.
It’s here that Leto is said to have given birth to Apollo and Artemis, and was an important part of the worship that took place on the island.
The lake was drained in 1925 to stop the breeding of mosquitos that were carrying malaria.
The Archaeological Museum at Delos is well worth a stop and is included in the price of the entrance ticket. While it’s not particularly large, it displays some of the important artefacts that have been found at the site.
There are frescoes and mosaics, along with busts and other sculptures. But the highlight is the marble statues of the lions that once lined the Terrace of the Lions.
As of December 2023, the museum is closed until further notice for renovation work.
House of Dionysus
From the museum, a good path to follow is back to the port and then south, into a neighbourhood full of grand houses (well, the remains of them, at least).
You can walk into some of them, and just peer into others. If they’re open, definitely have a look at the House of Cleopatra and the House of the Trident.
The most impressive residence to visit is the House of Dionysos, with a central courtyard containing marble columns and a large mosaic on the floor. An intricate artwork, it shows Dionysus, the god of wine, riding on a tiger.
Ancient Theatre of Delos
Because of the religious and economic importance of Delos, the city’s theatre can feel a bit neglected – by both tourists and authorities – and it looks a bit rundown unfortunately.
It was built in the 3rd century BC and had room for about 5000 spectators. It’s not nearly as imposing as the Epidaurus Theatre, for example, but it still gives you a sense of the wealth of the settlement here.
Along with all the structures within the archaeological site (and there are many more than I have mentioned), there’s one natural landmark worth noting – Mount Kynthos.
It’s only about 120 metres high so you can walk to the top for a spectacular view across the layout of Delos and the surrounding water. There were probably some buildings on the top during Antiquity, but they’re gone now.
One thing you can see on the way up is the Temple of Isis, which is quite prominent because it’s facade is relatively intact with columns and a pediment.
How to visit Delos
Delos is less than three kilometres off the coast of Mykonos and the only way to reach it is by boat. Thankfully it’s a popular destination so it’s easy to get there and there are a few ways to do it.
It’s possible to visit Delos independently – or you can do it as a tour. I’ll run through both options now, but my recommendation is to do a tour. The site needs a lot of interpretation from a guide and this Delos tour, for example, doesn’t cost that much more than paying for transport and entry fees yourself.
Another bit of important advice – make sure you bring lots of water and sun protection! You’ll be out in the fierce sun for hours, and there are only very limited opportunities to buy drinks.
Visiting Delos independently
There are a few steps for visiting Delos from Mykonos. The first is to get to the Old Port of Mykonos, from where the boats to the island leave.
There are several boat companies that do trips to the island, and you may see advertisements around town for them. If you’re unsure which to choose I would recommend going with the main operator (which also has the biggest boats) called Delos Tours, which leaves from the southwestern point of the Old Port, near the Town Hall.
Check online for current boat departure times, but its usually at 10:00 and 11:30… with return departures at 13:30 and 15:00. To guarantee a spot and avoid the queue (it gets pretty busy in summer) you can buy your ticket here in advance.
The boat trip to Delos takes about 30 mins. Once you arrive, you’ll need to buy a ticket to enter the archaeological site, which costs €12 regular and €6 concession. The queue at the ticket office gets long when the boat arrives, with a wait of up to 15 minutes or more, so I suggest trying to get off the boat before as many people as possible.
You will then have about three hours to explore the site before the return boat leaves, taking you back to where it departed from.
Where is Delos?
The island of Delos is just 2.5 kilometres off the coast of Mykonos, and less than a kilometre from the island of Rhenia, in the centre of Greece’s Aegean Sea.
The archaeological site of Delos is in the northwestern part of the island.
How do you get to Delos?
Most people will get to Delos from Mykonos, and it’s about 10 kilometres to get from port to port. Private boats can’t land at Delos so you need to go with a local operator.
There are lots of tours to Delos that include transport. If you just want the boat transfer, I would recommend booking in advance here.
When is Delos open?
In summer, Delos is open from 08:00 – 20:00.
In winter, the site is open from 08:30 – 15:00.
Remember, though, your visiting hours will probably be determined by the boat schedule.
How much does it cost to visit Delos?
Entry to Delos costs €12 for a regular ticket and €6 for concession.
The cost of the boat transfer is extra. (Depending on which operator you choose, it’ll be around €20-25 for a return trip.)
Are there tours to Delos?
Yes, there are lots of tours to Delos and I think it’s a really good way to see the site. It doesn’t cost too much more, because the price includes the boat and entry – and it’ll really help you interpret the ruins.
I’ve got details on a few options below, but the standard one that many people take is this Delos tour from Mykonos, which includes transport and a guide.
Often there are local guides waiting at the entrance, offering to take you on tours of the site. Generally, you’ll need to negotiate a price with them.
This can be a good option if you want a private tour on your own terms, but it usually doesn’t end up being much cheaper than going with an organised tour from Mykonos (unless you’re in a large group already).
Tours to Delos
I don’t always think tours are necessary when travelling, but this is one of those situations where I really would recommend having a guide.
Not only does a guided tour to Delos make the logistics much easier, but the guide’s commentary will really add to your visit. All the buildings are in ruins and it makes a big difference to have someone explaining it all.
The best value tour, which has everything you need, is this half-day guided tour. It includes the return boat ride, skip-the-line entrance ticket, and guide.
Or there are a few other similar options here:
Another fun way to visit Delos by tour is to do a boat cruise that also goes to nearby Rhenia island, perhaps includes some swimming and lunch.
Let’s be honest, the archaeological ruins at Delos are really interesting, but if you can combine it with a dip in the ocean and a trip on a sailboat, it makes for a much more enjoyable day out!
I would recommend this sailing trip to Delos and Rhenia, or there are some other options here:
It’s interesting to travel from Mykonos to Delos, because in just a short boat journey you will go from one of the most luxurious Greek islands today, to one of the most luxurious Greek islands of the Ancient World.
Are the parallels between the two? In some ways, yes. Of course they look very different now, though. But it does make you wonder what the vibrant tourism centres of Mykonos may look like in 2000 years time!