The clacking of the donkey’s feet startles me from my daydream here on the Greek island of Hydra. It’s been so quiet that, even along this coastal path, with the wind finally settled, all I’ve been hearing – if I really tried – was the stillness.
But now there’s this bloody donkey.
I shouldn’t begrudge the poor animal. Here on Hydra, where motorised vehicles like cars and motorbikes are banned, it’s one of the few ways that people can get around without walking. It’s just that I had got so used to not sharing this path, no traffic at all, not even the four-legged variety.
It’s one of the selling points of Hydra – car and motorbike free in a country where you’re rarely far from traffic.
Before I came here, I would see it pitched as a novelty, a unique selling point to differentiate it from the other Greek islands. But after a couple of days of exploring what to do in Hydra, I am convinced it’s more than just marketing spin.
The relative silence creates a calmness that lulls you in. And, with most people getting around by foot, the pace of life slows down, stress dissipating as you realise the beautiful clock tower in the centre of the main town might as well be purely ornamental – nobody cares what time you do anything.
How do you get to Hydra?
There are about seven ferries each day from Piraeus Port in Athens to Hydra, costing about €40 one way and taking just under two hours. I would recommend booking the ferry in advance here because they do get full in the busier months.
The other option to get from Athens to Hydra is to drive to Ermioni in the Peloponnese and catch the ferry from there.
There are also regular ferry connections from other Saronic Islands like Poros and Spetses.
How long should you spend in Hydra?
I would recommend spending at least one night in Hydra so you can explore as much of the island as possible, while also giving yourself time to relax. A few nights would be even better if you want to do a long hike or spend an afternoon at the beach.
If you are only able to do a day trip, I would recommend just focusing on Hydra, rather than trying to fit in multiple islands on one day.
The leisurely traffic-free days have long been the charm of Hydra, one of the allures that brought artistic types to live on the island, from singer Leonard Cohen to writer George Johnson, painter Peter Nolan, and poet Allen Ginsberg.
But even beyond the lifestyle, the natural beauty is one of its treasures, and exploring it offers some of the best things to do in Hydra.
Natural amphitheatres surrounding bays with historic settlements nestled by the shore; secluded beaches with pristine water where you can relax all day served by tavernas; and verdant hills covered in hiking trails that take you to viewpoints, monasteries, and other pockets of culture.
There’s a good reason why Hydra is the most famous of the Saronic Islands and one of the most popular day trips from Athens. I come expecting it to be overrated, but quickly fall in love, realising that its popularity with tourists has not dulled its magic.
The fact that it is so close to Athens makes it even more appealing, with its convenience just one of the many selling points it offers to visitors.
Tours to Hydra from Athens
If you have time, please come to Hydra for at least a night – even more, if possible. It’s not a huge island but, without cars, you can only get so far on a day trip, and it takes a bit of time to explore all the best things to do in Hydra.
It’s about discovering the island, relaxing on the beaches, following the hiking trails, and spending time at the cafes and restaurants.
BUT, I do understand that not everyone has the time to come to Hydra for several days. In that case, you can still do a day trip to Hydra.
If you organise your own ferry tickets (I recommend booking in advance here) then try to come early and leave late so you can see more than just the town and not feel rushed.
For a tour where things are organised for you, there are quite a few operators that offer day trips to Hydra that also include Poros and Aegina.
I think there are pros and cons to these day trips from Athens. The main problem is that you’re on each island for such a short time that you only get a taste of each, rather than really being able to go deeper into their charms.
In Hydra, for instance, you’ll have time to wander around the main town and maybe do a little bit of the coastal path, but it’s not possible to do many of the other things I recommend for Hydra below.
The upside to the tour is that all the logistics are organised for you and, if you’re short of time, you will get to see how each of these three islands are quite different to one another. Especially if you’re travelling as a group, this may be easier.
If you’re not in a rush and are a confident traveller, don’t be afraid to arrange your own ferry tickets and accommodation and use some of these tips for what to do in Hydra to plan your visit:
The first part of Hydra you’re likely to see is the main town, where the ferries dock. (In fact, for those who just pop in on a day trip, this may be the only part they see.)
It’s a relatively big town and certainly takes a while to explore it all, but these are a few of the highlights worth seeing.
The waterfront of Hydra’s main town is, to put it simply, stunning. The way the hills form a natural amphitheatre around it, the port glints in the sun, and the boats bob along the edge is so postcard-worthy.
You’ll want to take some photos and wander along the water’s edge to see it from different vantage points. But I would recommend also just sitting down and enjoying the view for a while.
Luckily there are lots of cafes and restaurants around Hydra’s port. Unsurprisingly, they’re all a little overpriced, but they’re not bad considering the location. You can’t really go wrong at any of them for a Greek coffee or a Freddo cappuccino, but I would recommend Isalos.
Cathedral of the Assumption
One of the most obvious things to see in Hydra’s town is the clock tower, built in 1874, which rises up from the centre.
Walk through the passageway beneath the clock tower and you’ll reach the Cathedral of the Assumption, the main church on Hydra. The domed basilica was founded in the 17th century and its three aisles inside are richly decorated with artworks and artefacts.
The most important part is the altarpiece (called a reredos) which is made from pure white marble and is adorned with icons like sculpture crosses and parapets.
You’ll find a lot of shops in Hydra town and, although many of them are aimed at visitors, they are actually pretty good at avoiding tacky souvenirs and focusing more on local goods and boutique products.
But there are, of course, also lots of shops for locals. And one of the most famous of these is Rafalia’s Pharmacy, on Miaouli Street.
It was founded in 1890 as a traditional pharmacy and still looks just the same, with the yellow shutters outside and the ornate wooden shelves inside.
The grandson of the pharmacy’s founder runs it today and it’s full of all the things you could want from a local chemist… as well as some older-style items that add to the atmosphere.
While you’re looking for the pharmacy, why not just continue walking through the backstreets of Hydra’s town? At times it feels a bit like a maze – particularly the higher up you go – and getting lost is part of the fun.
You’ll discover small tree-covered squares with local tavernas, beautiful viewpoints to look out across the harbour, quaint shops selling local produce, and probably quite a few unattended donkeys.
In particular, you might be interested in finding Leonard Cohen Street, named for the famed singer who owned a house on the block. You’ll find it off Kriezi Street in the southwestern part of town.
You probably don’t come to the Saronic Islands to see museums (they’re more the kind of things to do in Athens, probably). But there are a few here that are of interest and will help you understand a bit more of the island’s heritage.
Museum of Hydra
The Museum of Hydra (also called the Historical Archive) is in the harbour, right next to where the ferries arrive. Set in an old stone mansion, it mainly tells the island’s history from the past couple of centuries.
There is an exhibition of clothes, showing how the wealthy residents once dressed, along with swords and portraits from the same period. There are also small wooden replicas of ships and other maritime artefacts (a big focus of the museum).
As part of the archives, there are also thousands of books and manuscripts, so there’s plenty of information if that’s what you’re after.
Ecclesiastical and Byzantine Museum
In the same monastic complex as the Cathedral of the Assumption, you’ll also find the Ecclesiastical and Byzantine Museum. The collection is relatively small, but it has some beautiful items that certainly add to a visit to the church.
The museum houses the monastery’s most important relics, including vestments, manuscripts, and gospels. Along with various artworks, it’s interesting to see the clothes and objects still used in important religious ceremonies.
The Kountouriotis Mansion is a lovely museum because it doesn’t just have its collection on display, but the house itself is one of the main attractions.
The mansion was built in 1780 by the wealthy shipowner Lazaros Kountouriotis, who was also one of the biggest supporters of the Greek War of Independence and went on to become a senator.
What you see in the house are rooms that show how the upper class of Hydra lived in the 1800s, including luxuries like their art and furniture, as well as essentials like the kitchen.
The Kountouriotis family is an important one for Greeks, but even international tourists will be interested to learn more about its role in the country’s history.
In the warmer months, one of the most popular things to do in Hydra is head to the beach. And, while it may not have long stretches of golden sand, there are some charming little areas to swim and spend the day.
The first spot to mention is Spilia, which is actually more like a bathing platform than an actual beach. But if you’re looking for somewhere to swim near the main town of Hydra, this is the closest spot.
Just on the western edge of town near the bastion, you can take some stairs down to the rocks at Spilia, or find some space on the concrete platform.
The nearby bar will serve you food and drinks, so it’s a convenient spot for a quick dip (especially in the morning) or to hang out for a while.
Go a bit further around the coast and you’ll reach Avlaki, which is a proper beach – although not the best beach on Hydra, in my opinion.
It’s quite small and there’s a bit of a steep scramble on stone steps to go down (and back up). There’s not much in the way of facilities here, so it’s probably not an ideal spot to plan to spend half the day, for instance.
But what Avlaki does offer is convenience! It’s the closest beach to Hydra town and you can get there really quickly, so it’s a good spot for a refresh and catches the glorious afternoon sun.
A much better option for somewhere to relax for a while is Vlichos, possibly the most beautiful beach on Hydra. It’s about 30 minutes walk from town along the coastal path.
The water is beautifully clean and most of the stretch of pebbly beach is occupied with sun lounges and umbrellas, which you can rent. With food and drink service, this is definitely the kind of place people come to as a destination for much of the day.
There’s also a little village around the beach here with a couple of other places where you can get something to eat.
If you head out of Hydra town in the other direction, towards the east, walk for about 30 minutes and you’ll reach Mandraki Beach. Most of the sand (and it is quite sandy, for a change) is used by the Mandraki Beach Resort, from which you can rent a sunbed and order food and drinks.
There’s definitely a bit more of an exclusive resort feel to the beach here, and part of the luxury of that is that it’s quieter and not many day-trippers come in this direction.
Another option at Mandraki is a smaller beach on a different part of the bay where a local taverna has traditional Greek food and sunbeds that can be used for free for customers (although the reviews on the quality and value of the meals is mixed).
While all the Hydra beaches I’ve talked about so far are easy to reach from town, there are a few on the other side of the island that feel far from the crowds and offer a very different experience.
The best of them is Agios Nikolaos, which is on the southwestern tip of Hydra. The stretch of sand and pebbles isn’t near anything, yet it is set up with lounges and umbrellas, and a little snack bar.
You can only reach Agios Nikolaos by boat (a water taxi costs about €125 for up to eight people) so it’s quiet, with the green hills around the beach framing the turquoise water perfectly. It’s a special spot for a day out.
There’s one other remote beach, Limnionizia, that’s also worth mentioning – but I’ll go into that in more detail when I talk about hiking because that’s one of the best ways to reach it.
Along the coast
There’s more than just the beaches, and some of the most interesting things to see on Hydra’s coastline are quite easy to reach from the island’s main town.
On either side of the entrance to the harbour of Hydra, the bastions still stand watch as boats come in to dock.
The bastions are key fortifications that were built in the 18th century to protect against the Turkish fleet. They were equipped with cannons, which turned out to be mainly precautionary.
Many of the cannons are still in place at the bastions, though, and heading to these fortifications is a reminder that the history of Hydra hasn’t always been peaceful and glamorous.
Fort of Mandraki
Even before the bastions were built, another fortress was constructed on Hydra, a bit further east at the beach (and small town) of Mandraki.
The Fort of Mandraki is from the end of the 16th century when the island was under Venetian occupation. Mandraki was used as the main naval station, so the fort (along with another on the other side) was to protect the bay. It was reinforced during the Greek Revolution.
You can still see the remnants of the fort on the western side, but the eastern one is more impressive these days. It’s a nice walk along the coast from Hydra town to reach it.
The small fishing village of Kamini, not too far to the west of the main town of Hydra, gives you a sense of the even more relaxed settlements on the island – and how things would once have been.
From the small protected harbour with space for just a couple of dozen fishing boats, there’s a central avenue heading inland with a couple of tavernas. Along the water are other casual spots for a drink or a meal.
Even though Kamini effectively acts as an extension of the main town these days, it feels much less touristy – because it lacks both the crowds and the souvenir shops – making it a nice spot to hang out.
If you’re only visiting Hydra on a day trip, you may not think you can get too far along the coastal paths. But Kamini is easy enough to reach in under 20 minutes, so it makes for a good destination if you are looking for a short scenic walk.
With all the walking on Hydra, you’re sure to work up an appetite, and there are plenty of places in town to eat. (You won’t find much on some hikes, though, so you may want to take snacks during the day.)
If you’re looking for something a bit special, I would recommend one of the restaurants along the coast on either side of the main town (and I’m not referring to the ones in the port itself).
Just past the bastion on the western side of town, there are a couple, including the famous Sunset Restaurant, which is popular with the rich and famous (although, with a seafood main course of about €26, it’s not too expensive).
Keep walking west along the coastal path to Kamini and you’ll find more restaurants that feel a bit more casual, with a lovely local taverna feel and without the day-tripper tourists who often don’t leave the port.
The island may be relatively small, but some of the best things to do in Hydra will require a little bit of exercise because, with no cars, you can’t just drive everywhere.
But exploring on foot and getting amongst all the local experiences is one of the things that makes your time here so special.
Profitis Ilias Monastery
For a relatively small island, it’s quite surprising to learn that there are about 300 churches on Hydra, along with six larger monastic centres.
One of the most interesting monasteries to visit on Hydra is the Profitis Ilias Monastery – not just because it’s a charming complex full of iconic religious heritage – but because of the journey to get here.
The Profitis Ilias Monastery, founded in 1813, is at the top of a hill about 500 metres high. The only way to get here is to walk up through the labyrinthine streets of the town before joining a hiking path that heads up through the forest.
It’s a long walk and will take at least an hour from town (probably longer for most people) but the views along the way are spectacular and also make the hike worthwhile.
I’ve actually quite enjoyed doing a bit of hiking on each of the Saronic Islands where I’ve spent some time, but Hydra definitely has some of the best – probably partly because walking is such a focus here.
Hiking trails lead along stretches of the coast and crisscross the hills inland. Depending on how long you’ve got, you can create a route that fits your plans. However, there are a few official trails to follow if you prefer not to plan it.
The short ‘Heroic Harbour’ trail is 6.6 kilometres long and creates a loop from Hydra town along the coast to Mandraki and then back inland.
The ‘Eastern Hydra’ trail is 12.4 kilometres one way and goes out to the lighthouse on the very eastern tip of Hydra.
The ‘Western Hydra’ trail is a 15.8-kilometre loop that includes the hike up to Profitis Ilias Monastery but then continues through the centre of the island before coming back along the northern coast from Palamidas.
An unofficial hiking trail that I would also recommend is from the main town to Limnioniza Beach, on the southern coast. It’s about 5 kilometres and has some steep sections, but it’s a great way to get to a beautiful secluded beach away from the crowds.
If those hikes sound a bit too long (and, let me promise you, they are not easy routes!), you may prefer something more of a stroll. That’s why a walking tour around the main town might be a better option for you.
With Hydra Walking Tours, local historian Maria can show you different parts of the island’s heritage through the buildings of the town and through the stories she shares.
Her art walk is a good way to explore, heading to the houses of some of the artistic types who’ve called Hydra home (including Leonard Cohen, of course) as well as the places that inspired them.
And there’s also a family-friendly treasure hunt walk that will get the kids involved in what they’re seeing along the way.
Fishing with a local
Seafood has long been an important part of the culture and the economy here on Hydra, and you’ll no doubt have the opportunity to eat some great fresh food while you’re here.
But it doesn’t get any fresher than catching the fish yourself and then cooking it straight away for lunch – which is what a fishing trip with Captain Dimitris offers!
This local fisherman will take you to his favourite spots, guaranteeing you a catch, and then you’ll head to a quiet beach where you can swim while he cooks up the meal.
You can check his availability here for a really special Hydra experience.
The donkeys waiting at the port in Hydra all look a little sad, I think, although it’s probably fair to acknowledge that this is one of the traditional ways that people have moved – and goods – around the island for years.
I think walking is the best way to explore Hydra but, if you do want to do something a bit different, perhaps some horse riding would be a better option.
Although there are horse rides offered down in the port, I would recommend having a look at Harriet’s Hydra Horses to see the range of treks that she’s able to offer.
And, finally, I want to mention the small and uninhabited island of Dokos, which is just three kilometres off the northwestern coast of Hydra.
It has beautiful beaches, some lovely inland walks through the olive trees, and also a few significant archaeological sites, including the ruins of a Byzantine castle.
There is no public transport to Dokos from Hydra so most visitors come by private boat. You can arrange for a water taxi to take you here if you like, and it will cost about €125 (for up to eight people) one way.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN HYDRA
The coastal resorts will pick you up by boat, but otherwise, I recommend staying near the port – you’ll have to carry your luggage, remember!
Although Hydra is not known for its budget accommodation, you’ll get great value at Theano Guesthouse.
With a few options to choose from, Loukia’s Apartments are a great base if you need more space.
A beautiful mix of modern and heritage touches, I think Hotel Leto Hydra is one of the nicest hotels in town.
For five-star luxury on the beach and away from the crowds, Mandraki Beach Resort is the perfect retreat.