Updated: May 24
Pssst – it can be done on the cheap!
My Gap Year was nearing its end but I wasn’t quite finished. There was one more location I wanted to tick off my list. Fuelled by my love of ABBA, Meryl and good food, of course it was the Greek islands. Luckily, I found an equally crazed Mamma Mia fan keen to fill the role of travel partner (my friend Constance) and we were off! Islands synonymous with sun, partying… and high prices. However, I am writing this to let you know that if you are open-minded and crafty – you can explore these magnificent islands on the cheap.
Let me talk you through our journey, give some food & accommodation recs – and give you some top tips and tricks too for backpackers, too!
We booked our trip for mid-May. This was the best decision we made; it was cool enough to explore the narrow lanes of Santorini, and quiet enough to be the only ones there! For those looking for beach parties, however, I would recommend going a bit later. We generally found ourselves mixed amongst retired Americans on tours, and lots of natives. When booking a trip to ‘the Greek islands’ it can seem quite overwhelming – at least to a naïve soul such as myself. First of all, your most important choice is which islands to go to (I hadn’t quite realised how many there are & just how far apart they were!)
After deliberating, we decided to hop the glorious and infamous Cyclades. This was because, not only was there was guaranteed sun, but the journeys between the islands were shorter and therefore cheaper!
There are a couple of options when flying to the Cyclades. It’s easiest to fly to Athens, but working in the cost of the initial (lengthy) trip to Mykonos from there, it ended up costing the same amount. Instead, we flew directly to the smaller Mykonos airport. Beware of pricey flights! To try and limit the cost, we flew bright and early in the morning – 6am. A tough price to pay but worth it, especially considering that it meant we landed at midday and gave us almost a whole extra day to explore.
The airport in Mykonos is tiny – and there are no taxis waiting for people to arrive. Instead, try your best to organise a shuttle to your hostel.
Okay, beware: Mykonos is the party island, for sure. As we were flying out of Mykonos at the end of the trip, we split our time on the island into two smaller chunks. I would definitely recommend doing this, as it can feel quite busy and claustrophobic, even in May (AKA – not high season).
For our first three days in THE party island, we stayed at THE party hostel (unbeknown to us when we booked!) Paraga Beach Hostel is located right on the coast, and boasts a lovely, if busy, beach, pool and restaurant. Cheap for the island, but pricey when comparing it to the rest of the trip’s accommodation. This is a theme in Mykonos – it is by far the most expensive island!
If you’re planning on visiting in May, like we did – it’s quieter, the beaches are basically your own and the service is really good. In fact, everyone we met was super friendly and welcoming – something that they assured us wasn’t the case in high season. One man explained that normally it’s just too busy, but in low season it gives them the chance to get to know their visitors. This is worth noting; I feel like we had a better experience because of this.
The hostel's actual accommodation was communal bathrooms and glamping style ‘rooms’. Really, they were just glorified tents. Because of the season, it was COLD at night. If you go to reception, they’ll give you more sleeping bags. I would definitely recommend this as it makes all the difference!
Just a stone’s throw away is ‘Paradise’. Walk over the cliff and you are in party-ville. Tame and harmless in the low seasons, I’m sure this is where it is AT during the summer holidays.
On our last few days we stayed at a pensione in the centre of the town. I can’t remember the exact name of it… BUT this is definitely something to take into account. Whilst you may like the security of pre-booking, some of the nicer, friendlier and more traditional hostels are lacking in the technology of websites and thrive through word-of-mouth.
Watch the sunset… but don’t rush to the crowed balconies and DO NOT pay to sit in in the seats overlooking the water (if you’re keeping to a budget.) We went to order a beer from a restaurant perfectly located for the sunset, and even though it was near empty we were told we had to pay £20 for a cocktail or move to the seats inside.
Instead, head right up the island and sit underneath some of the smaller windmills. You can bring your own (significantly cheaper) drinks, take a picnic and sit amongst the locals.
Get the bus – but bring cash! It's the best way to see the island amongst locals on their daily commutes, but don’t bother trying with a credit card. You’ll notice that daily life is slightly laid back and slower. I like it that way, personally.
There’s an open-air cinema in the summer! Check it out – I’m sure there’s only one and it’s in the centre. They show absolute classics, and there's a bar/restaurant there too. Maybe something to do when you're tired of wandering the streets (if that's possible?!).
If you fancy a tasty pastry, freshly squeezed orange juice and an artisan coffee, Il Forno di Gerasimo is the place. Bustling in the morning, you’ll feel like the glamorous Greek you wish you were.
Getting the ferry:
There are lots of different recommendations when it comes to ferrying across to your next hop, but this is my advice.
Book in advance. Although the allure of the spontaneous Mamma Mia lifestyle may be calling your name, in the long run, prebooking will be your best friend. The timetables are regimented, and the queues are much easier – just arrive in good time and hang out by the port before hopping on. The most stressful part is finding somewhere to stack your luggage below but that all becomes second nature after your first hop!
Paradise. This was by far my favourite island. Its charm, laidback lifestyle and cheap prices sold us as soon as we got off the ferry. We stayed for three days, which gave us time to lazily explore – and take a daytrip to Antiparos, a neighbouring island, which is a nice change of scene. Tiny streets that mimicked the popular style of Mykonos (without the crowds!) lined with traditional cafes and boutiques took my fancy, whilst my friend Constance loved the views of the harbour – stunning sunsets every night; this time, however, you didn’t need to pay! We also took a trip to the secluded beach by bus. Although not sandy, the water was crystal clear and made for a nice change of scene. In the summer months, I imagine that these would be bustling with locals, with the mainly closed up tavernas teeming with life and music. A hidden gem!
We stayed at Aegean Village pensione – family run and a nice change from the chaos of Mykonos. Although a bit basic (and the cheapest rooms are basement level) it was perfectly located and boasted a lovely garden. For an afternoon I just lay in a hammock reading my book with a gorgeous cat lying beside me – definitely living my Mamma Mia life, if you ask me! The man that ran it was also very happy to give directions and recommendations. A picturesque, classically Greek exterior with most rooms boasting their own kitchenettes, which is great for people on a budget and don't want to spend money on eating out every night!
Top tips & recs:
Check the bus schedule! Because the island is less tourism-oriented, buses were slightly irregular… and you don’t want to get stuck on a remote beach at nightfall! Even better, hire a bike or car to explore on your own.
Okay, this one is slightly vague (and I apologise) but near Aegean Village, if you walk as though back towards the port/into the centre, you’ll find a hub of shops and restaurants. In one square, there is the most delicious restaurant. Whilst it is run by a Brit, do not be put off by this. After about a week of feta, falafel and souvlaki, we were ready for some pasta. And boy did they deliver. Also, opposite this restaurant (pictured) was a great little breakfast place, with yummy sandwiches. Plus you feel truly amidst all the hustle and bustle of the village.
The Cornwall of the Greek islands, with rugged beaches, beachy smoothie bars and proper surf, Naxos was next on our list. It had a bigger town than Paros – with more of a traditional feel than Mykonos. The restaurants were either quaint and tucked away or more classically touristy – with views from the harbour. Both were nice! There’s a pizza place on the marina which was really friendly, so don’t be put off by the more commercial side of it.
The Apollo Temple at sunset is glorious – I definitely recommend checking it out.
We didn’t stay in the town, but instead opted for the beachy opposite end of the island. (I make it sound like these two parts are far apart – it’s only 15 minutes to get to either end, most likely).
Whilst in Naxos, we actually ended up staying in two different places. I can’t remember exactly why – I think one opened a day after the other? In retrospect we could’ve just stayed put but I suppose it meant we got to see different sides to the island!
Both were hostels – nicer than the previous ones (both boasting pools). Still very basic but felt more like a traditional hotel than those in Paros and Mykonos. The owners were still very friendly. We were staying in Agios Anna and Agios Prokopios! These beaches are fantastic, so definitely recommend! It was also very easy to get sunbeds and had crystal clear water.
Our last stop, and worth the wait!
Santorini was pretty much what you would expect – the gorgeous landscape of the cliffs, the picturesque streets… and lots of crowds. Santorini was probably my least favourite shopping area for this reason. Not to mention, if you are wanting to stay in those instagrammable hotels with infinity pools, be prepared to spend the big bucks.
Perhaps more of a questionable opinion, but something I would recommend doing: taking a donkey ride down to the old port. If you imagine the typical Instagram skyline of Santorini, down below there’s a little port with a café. You can walk down but it does take a long time – so we decided to have a new experience and take the donkey ride! You might cringe and think, that can’t be nice for the animals, but we took a long time analysing how they were looked after, and they seemed to be perfectly happy. Not only this, it is traditional for the donkeys to make these trips up and down the steps, and so they seemed content. Either way, it was so much fun and I would totally recommend it.
If, like me, you’re wanting to save to accommodation… in order to splurge on food and shopping, then I have some great tips for you!
Don’t stay in the main town of Fira if you’re looking to save money! Instead, stay in Kamari. It’s right on the beach (hot, black volcanic sand) and has some lovely, more upscale restaurants. It feels more upmarket and definitely gives off a holiday vibe – and yet is much quieter than the towns. It feels less claustrophobic and the sky just seems to open up. Head over to the main towns for the sunset though, as you can’t see it from Kamari.
The Cyclades are the most gorgeous islands I’ve ever visited and do not disappoint, despite all of the hype! Also, we prove that you can stay on a budget. If I were to revisit, I think I would try and take a boat somewhere, as I imagine the beaches will get packed in the summer, and that would take the Mamma Mia trip to the next level!