A Greek mosaic brought to life
The Ancient Greeks have long been admired for their beautiful, intricate mosaics and if there could be one living, breathing personification of this colorful art form, it would be the island of Kos. Because Kos truly is a metaphorical collection of all the stunning pieces of Greece’s past and present, nature and architecture, sun and culture. And each little fragment fits seamlessly together to paint a vibrant picture of Kos that will leave you feeling intimately tied to the past but reveling in the present, happy to explore the island’s mountains and forests while admiring the enchanting buildings in the cities and towns, eager to casually dip in breathtaking seas while soaking in countless treasures hidden in Kos’ museums and churches.
The third-largest island in the Dodecanese complex, Kos boasts of beautiful mountains and adrenalin-spiking sports. It brings together cultures, religions and histories in a way that will make you feel like you’ve jumped in a time-machine and gone back centuries on one street corner and in one town - and then brought back to the bustling present in the next. This island is one of the most popular travel destinations in the Aegean, but if you let Kos work its magic on you, you’ll find yourself far from the crowds. You’ll meander across a moat-turned-boulevard under the shade of giant palm trees as you make your way to a castle once full of sword-sporting Templar Knights.
Surrender to Kos’ multicultural charm and weave through alleys to find a 19thC mosque and towering minaret. Become part of the past and really live history – replicas of Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman settlements will pull you into family homes complete with kitchenware and votive offerings to ancient gods. Hike up the island’s two mountains and let a blood-orange sunset repaint the Aegean. Catch Kos’ passion for cycling and explore the island’s capital through a vast network of bike lanes. Find freedom on a catamaran. Go bird-watching in the wetlands. Do all this, and you still won’t experience all the pieces of Kos’ mosaic – but you’ll begin to feel how it’s all intricately woven together.
The past in the present – just for you
Walk down the paths of the island’s past in Kos town – or better yet, rent a bike and ride through history. Kos town, the island’s capital, is a jigsaw-puzzle of histories all its own that’s easily navigated by bike. Neoclassical buildings are woven together with the stoic Templar Castle by swaying palm trees that have watched over the locals throughout the centuries. Kos is famous for its bike-friendly atmosphere, so join locals and visitors alike by cycling through the maze of bike lanes to visit all the major attractions. Begin by cycling down the majestic Boulevard of Palms – an enchanting stone bridge that crosses over what was once a salt-water moat. Under the welcome shade of enormous palm trees, this bridge is an impressive way to be ushered into the castle built by the Order of the Knights of St. John in the 15th Century. What’s even more enchanting is the fact that the castle once stood on a miniature island of its own, surrounded by the moat. Now part of the mainland, the castle is no less enchanting and generously offers history buffs much to explore. A very well-preserved tower – called Del Caretto’s Bastion – along with stone-carved coats of arms, cannon-posts, and storage areas offer visitors a storybook experience.
Once you’ve walked where the Knights once patrolled, go back into town, admire the Italianate and Ottoman architecture and then head to Platanos Square. Stand under the huge plane tree. You’ll be in good company because Hippocrates, a native of Kos and the father of Western medicine, planted that same tree 2500 years ago and taught his students under its leafy shade. Boasting a trunk with a diameter of 14 meters, this tree is the oldest in Europe.
If literally standing in the shade of living history makes you want to experience more of Ancient Greek life, you’re in luck. Kos’ illustrious archaeological history is something locals are extremely proud of and love to share with the world. But in Kos you won’t just admire artifacts in a museum, you’ll actually be able to stroll through a life-size replica of a 5th Century BC Ancient Greek settlement. Called Arhaion Oikos (Ancient Home) - The Hippocratic Garden, this unique cultural center in the village of Mastihari lets you live like a native of ancient Kos, just like Hippocrates. Tall garden walls, stone-built villas complete with a working chimney and kitchen, a philosophical lodge, a beautiful theater that seats 80 people and a library that faces east so as to maximize sunlight and minimize humidity-damage to documents are just a few of the gems that will have you yearning for that era. Part of the cultural center’s mission is to foster environmental education, so kids will welcome the opportunity to add to the center’s botanical garden by planting flowers and medicinal herbs of their own.
Now that you’ve “lived” like Hippocrates, want to feel like a medical pioneer and one of his trusted students as well? Head to the International Hippocratic Foundation where acres of land are devoted to showcasing the medicinal herbs the world’s first Western doctor used to treat his patients. Over 170 species of herbs are found here, including rare plants, that helped ailments ranging from coughs to mental health problems. There’s a stunning museum in the gardens that will give you a more in-depth look at Hippocrates’ life. One must-see artifact is a bust of Hippocrates donated by the Archaeological Museum of Rome. Believed to be a likeness of the man in his old age, it stands alongside a bust of him in his youth.
But don’t stop here – continue your journey into the next period of Kos’ history. If you’ve always wanted to know what it was like to live in the Roman Empire, Kos offers you that opportunity as well. A life-size replica of a Roman house, called Casa Romana, is open for exploration. Situated downtown, this luxurious Roman villa that belonged to a Roman officer was restored under the Italians. Meander through the halls and over 30 rooms arranged around three atriums and admire murals and mosaics depicting leopard and dolphins. Look for the altar devoted to the god Asklipios and walk through the columned gallery in the largest atrium.
East meets West in the villages of Kos
If visiting a traditional Kos village hugged by lush valleys and boasting refreshing natural springs sounds like perfection, then head to Pili located in the middle of the island. Nestled amid olive groves, go on a walking tour of the area to appreciate the lushness of the surrounding countryside. When you’re back in the town square, take a refreshing drink from the natural springs that flow from 1920s Italian-crafted fountains – locals insist it’s far superior to bottled water. Get a taste of 19thC life in Kos by examining the Traditional Model Home of Pili where you’ll see household utensils and agricultural tools on display as well as the unique layout of the homes in Kos, where bedrooms were part of the formal living room. If you’re up for adventure after this informative tour, hike up to the remains of the castle in Palio Pili. Although difficult, the trek will reward you with beautiful views of the Aegean and surrounding islands.
To further immerse yourself in the Kos of the past and to get a taste of traditional island architecture, make it a point to visit Lagoudi village in the mountains. Squat white homes with bright blue window-frames line winding streets, while colorful gardens give bright bursts of color as you pass. Pass by the local pottery workshop for beautiful souvenirs. Take a break in a local taverna and make sure to order mouth-watering krasotiri – a traditional wine-dipped cheese that’s been made in Kos for thousands of years. Then round out your architectural excursion by exploring Asfendiou village, located 14 km south-west of Kos town in the foothills of Dikeos Mountain and surrounded by lush countryside. A visit to the Church of Taxiarhon is a must, as it boasts a beautifully hand-carved wooden altar.
Continue your journey through Kos’ hidden gems by going to Antimahia town for a day-trip. About 22 km from Kos town, Antimahia is a modern village that boasts a few special secrets – a stone windmill open to visitors, a traditional home, a castle built by the Templars and a stunning pine forest inhabited by enchanting peacocks. First, stop by The Priest’s Windmill, the only working one that remains standing in the Dodecanese. Built over 160 years ago, you’ll still see the windmill’s traditional layout over 3 floors. Then go to the traditional Antimahiotiko home where you’ll find the local folklore museum with artifacts ranging from musical instruments to local costumes. Once you’ve gotten a taste of the local culture, hike through the fields and up a hill for about 3 km to the Castle of Antimahia. Established in the 15th Century, this Venetian fortress was built using volcanic boulders and the remains of homes, storage areas, and two beautiful churches devoted to St. Nicholas and St. Paraskevi can all be explored. Make it a point to find the beautiful murals in the chapels and to admire the intricate masonry. End your trip by walking through Plaka Forest, a lush pine forest full of friendly peacocks accustomed to humans. It’s a favorite location amongst local photographers.
After admiring local traditions, if you want to feel like you’re experiencing a little corner of the Middle East and yet also part of Kos’ long history as the crossroads of the Mediterranean, head to Platani village just 2 km from Kos town. A vibrant population of over 1500 Muslim-Greeks established this beautiful town as a way of preserving their Ottoman heritage – and as a testament to the peaceful relationship they maintain with the island’s predominantly Christian natives. Visit the minimalistic-style mosque, dating back to 1884, where you’ll not only find it welcomes both Sunni and Shiite Muslims but also boasts a number of important artifacts for visitors to see. Be sure to admire a stunning handwritten Quran on parchment adorning one of the walls of the mosque. What’s unique about this is that it has been written in miniature so that the entire Quran could fit on one piece of parchment. Then take a stroll around the town and visit all the winding alleys and quaint gardens - and don’t forget to sit down to a sumptuous meal at one of the many restaurants that fuse Middle-Eastern cuisine with traditional Kos fare.
Nature and sports for all
Wetlands teeming with endangered birds, mountains begging to be explored, cedar and cypress forests perfect for long meandering hikes, and a stunning array of adrenalin-spiking sports are just a fraction of what Kos can offer all avid eco-tourists. And spelunkers won’t be disappointed either, with Aspri Petra cave boasting its Neolithic artifacts.
Begin by exploring the juniper and cedar-tree forest that literally sprouts from rolling sand dunes near one of Kos’ most beautiful beaches. Head to Kefalos Bay on the island’s western coast, and take a stroll past Paradiso beach and into the sand dunes above. Get lost between the trees and be sure to admire the formidable root systems that are visible on occasion – they play a crucial part in protecting the coast from erosion by stabilizing the sand dunes. As the Aegean is one of the areas which might be affected by erosion, this very unique ecosystem not only provides a beautiful backdrop for a refreshing swim but also performs a vital role for the future of Kos and its inhabitants. Once you’ve taken a dip, hike up the mountain nearby or explore Kastri islet in the bay, which looks like a stone fortress guarding the cove. If you’re a sports junkie, watersports are the featured attraction in Kefalos Bay, including catamaran sailing and wind-surfing taught by a number of expats.
Birdwatchers, Kos will become one of your favorite vacation spots year-round. Go to Lake Psalidi about 4 km from Kos town. Part of the Natura network on the island along with the Aliki wetlands in Tingaki and the forest of Dikaio Mountain, fresh-water Lake Psalidi is an important stop and breeding ground for migratory birds including rare ducks and flamingoes. You’ll also find turtles here, along with a number of endangered species of birds and well-organized observation posts and an educational center as part of the local municipality’s efforts to make Kos an eco-tourism destination. Afterwards, take the time to explore the forest by the lake. The Aliki wetlands in Tingaki are less organized, but nevertheless provide migratory birds an ideal ecosystem. Kos’ plans in the area include a study of the wetlands, further protection and the banning of all road traffic. If you’re a hiker, make it a point to trek up Dikaio Mountain and through the lush forest to watch for eagles and falcons – and keep an eye out for sulphur pools, vestiges of Kos’ volcanic past.
And of course Kos offers all visitors a veritable endless list of beautiful beaches to choose from. There are isolated coves, such as Limnionas beach, for those of you who enjoy a refreshing dip while feeling like the only person on the island. If you love snorkeling, explore the underwater world at Agios Stefanos beach. Surfers, you must include Psalidi beach in your itinerary for ideal wind conditions. If you’d also like some therapeutic time in the water, head to Thermi beach where the nearby thermal springs have reinvigorated the locals for generations.
Nature- or sports-lover, architecture or culture buff, archaeologist or beach enthusiast, everyone will find a little piece of the beautiful mosaic that makes up Kos to fall in love with. And after spending a few days with the welcoming locals in this vibrant and stunning island, that little piece of Kos will become part of the mosaic that makes up your own heart as well.