Nudge your way through the crowd disembarking from the daily ferry, traverse a boardwalk where dried octopus dangles from awnings, and step into a labyrinth of cobblestoned alleyways opening onto shops and outdoor restaurants. You’ve arrived in the main town, or chora, of Naxos, Greece.
A four-hour ferry ride southeast of Athens, the island of Naxos is a calming escape from bustling neighbors Mykonos and Santorini. It’s the largest of the Cyclades Islands—and the only fully self-sufficient one, with all food resources available directly on the island without need for imports. Resident Naxiots have cultivated the island’s 165 square miles of verdant, diverse terrain over millennia of habitation, and today hundreds of thousands of tourists a year flock there to feast on its gastronomic treasures.
According to Greek mythology, Dionysus, the god of wine, blessed the island of Naxos with fertility. It’s true the island’s landscape yields a hearty abundance that informs its hyper-local cuisine. Due to a lack of natural ports, fishing isn’t a primary food source. Instead, cows graze coastal fields that soak up sea mist, free-roaming goats and sheep gnaw wild oregano and thyme in the rocky hills, and roosters and rabbits help themselves to locals’ veggie-heavy compost. Unique among the dry, barren Cyclades, Naxos produces a rich harvest of cheeses; meats; butter; potatoes; oil; honey; spices; and Kitron, a local spirit made from the leaves and fruit of the citron tree. (Visit the islands where most Greek marble statues were made.)
Naxiots honor these bold natural flavors in recipes that don’t need fistfuls of salt. It’s easy to find superb traditional dishes in the town of Naxos itself, but you’d be remiss not to tackle the winding, cliffside roads to enjoy dinner with a taste of the mountain villages’ local culture as well.
Kokoras me Makaronia (rooster braised in red sauce): Longer cook times are needed for the tough meat of Naxos roosters, which roam rugged territory and bulk up their muscles. Hours of simmering the chicken in red wine and tomatoes creates a luxurious sauce that’s spooned over fresh spaghetti. Though this dish is ubiquitous, it’s best eaten at village taverns: Try Pigi in Ano Potamia or Matina & Stavros in Koronos.
Wild rabbit: At family-run Taverna Axiotissa in Kastraki, cooks accentuate the animal’s naturally sumptuous flavors by braising it with lemon, onion, and oregano in a dish called kouneli riganato. Head to the village of Melanes to try the rabbit at O Giorgis: It’s slowly cooked into a stew (stifado) with red wine, tomato sauce, and aromatic spices.
Goat: Often boiled alongside hórta (wild or cultivated greens), goat brings forth strong flavors from its wild herb–heavy diet. Simple recipes, like goat roasted with onions (kleftiko) or goat stew, can be best enjoyed at Taverna Lefteris and Taverna Platanos in Apeiranthos, a village known for its communal celebration of food.
Melachrino (walnut cake): Walnuts grow in droves throughout the island. In addition to traditional baklava, Naxiots create a dense cake moistened with local Kitron. Using dairy, olive oil, and produce from their on-site farm, Apolafsi, a restaurant in Kastraki, serves a full and indulgent menu that triumphantly concludes with melachrino.
How to visit
Book a daily ferry to Naxos from Athens or surrounding islands like Crete, Mykonos, or Santorini. Boats are overcrowded in the summer, so pay extra for more spacious first-class seating—or visit during shoulder seasons (May-June and September-October). You can also fly directly from Athens via Aegean Airlines-Olympic Air. Rent a car for easy access to the villages, as the bus system can be a puzzle and some trips could take hours. For a general overview of traveling to Naxos, Discover Greece provides handy guidance. (Here’s an insider’s guide to the best of Greece.)
Check into one of the chora’s several hotels, then poke around specialty stores like Tyrokomia Naxou (artisanal cheese) or Tziblakis Traditional Shop (herbs, teas, tinctures, and kitchen supplies). For a deep dive into culinary exploration, book a tour or cooking class with Vioma Naxos. And if, after all that, you still have an appetite, end the night at Oniro Wine Bar Restaurant to discover modern takes on classics like beef stew (kalogeros) or slow-cooked pork leg (rosto). (Meet the tourist who became the only nun on the Greek island of Amorgos.)
Though many old-world traditions remain engrained in family-run taverns, Oniro is part of a trend of new techniques ushering dishes into the modern era.
“Younger generations who left Naxos to pursue schooling and careers elsewhere are returning with new outlooks,” said Vaggelis Foutakoglou, a native Naxiot and co-owner of Ep’Avlis, a small, self-catering hotel. “They are coming back, but keeping traditions alive.”
Danielle Bernabe is a lifestyle, history, and culinary writer based in Los Angeles. Find her on Instagram @dbernabe.