Only an hour’s ferry ride from the Greek capital, Aegina is a classic weekend destination for Athenians; but this accessible, unpretentious island is largely overlooked by foreign tourists. Those who do come either hop over on a day cruise – or end up staying forever. German second-homers have restored the pink stone houses in Pachia Rachi, the island’s prettiest village, and a coterie of French photographers, journalists, and film directors have become permanent residents.
Less photogenic (and a whole lot less expensive) than its glitzy Saronic neighbours, Aegina doesn’t have the cachet of Hydra or the glamour of Spetses. “It’s not the most beautiful Greek island, but it is one of the most authentic,” says Isabelle Zigliara, a Parisienne who relocated to the island during the Covid-19 pandemic. “It’s small enough that you know a lot of people, but big enough that you keep discovering new places. There’s life all year-round and a lot of variety in relatively small distances.”
This vitality and diversity is obvious as soon you step off the boat into the port capital. Children on bicycles race along the waterfront, a strip of scruffily handsome neoclassical houses, while their parents gossip over cured anchovies in superb seaside ouzeri such as Skotadis and Petra. Old timers nurse Greek coffees in the traditional kafenia clustered around the fish market, where the silvery sardines and pearly katsoules (a tasty local razorfish) come straight off the fishing boats moored along the harbour. On a promontory jutting out to sea, a solitary column stands like a sentinel – the last bastion of an ancient temple dedicated to Apollo that once guarded the port. Now it’s the centrepiece of the majestic archaeological site of Kolona, flanked by twin bays where you can swim beneath the ruins.
Admittedly, Aegina doesn’t have great beaches, which is probably why the island has been spared over-development. But there are secret coves where you can swim naked, even in August. Along the pine-fringed coastline of Plakakia, footpaths between the trees lead to rocky perches where locals sunbathe or spearfish in solitude. The low horn of a passing ferry punctuates the silence and sunbeams spotlight the Peloponnesian hills across the straits. Faded manor houses along the shore hark back to the island’s fleeting 19th century heyday as the first capital of modern Greece.
This illustrious heritage – along with the penetrating clarity of the island’s light – is what drew many Greek artists, poets, and writers of the so-called 1930s generation to Aegina. Most evenings, they congregated at the home of Nikos Nikolaou, a masterful painter, sculptor, and inveterate bon viveur. Nikolaou’s friends included the titans of Greek art and literature: Nikos Kazantzakis, Odysseas Elytis, Yannis Tsarouchis, and Yannis Moralis. “They talked, argued, and laughed about art, philosophy, and politics deep into the night,” says Theodore Zoumboulakis, an architect and gallerist, whose aunt was married to Nikolaou. Zoumboulakis has converted the guesthouse where he spent his boyhood summers into three charming studios (nikolaouresidence.gr). Plans are underway to turn the artist’s studio into a museum.
“Aegina is not love at first sight, but it’s full of surprises because you discover things slowly,” says Marina Coriolano-Lykourezou, who moved to the island in 2012. She and her partner, Yanis Zagorianakos, produce all-natural, zero-waste soaps, homeware, and ceramics under their eco-brand The Cool Projects (thecoolprojects.com).
For Marina, the most exciting discoveries happen in Aegina’s mountainous interior. Follow one of the hiking trails mapped by Paths of Aegina (aegina-hiking.com) to Paleachora, the island’s hillside capital for one thousand years. All that remains are 35 stone chapels decorated with faded frescoes and tender arrangements of icons. Or follow the aroma of roast meat to fantastically affordable tavernas like Argyris in Mesagros (the moussaka is legendary), and To Steki tou Kinigou for fat, juicy chops in the remote hamlet of Anitseo. Descending from the mountains, Athens suddenly appears on the horizon, a smoggy blur framed by green hills. It’s only then that you realise how close to the city you really are.
Where to stay
Nikolaou Residence (00 30 6972580671; nikolaouresidence.gr), the home of Greek painter and sculptor Nikos Nikolaou, is aesthetically perfect. Three peaceful garden studios, furnished with Nikolaou’s own art and antiques, overlook pistachio groves and the sea. Two more guestrooms in the main residence will be ready this summer. Studios from €80 per night.
What to eat
Aegina’s pistachios (fistikia in Greek) are as renowned as Sicily’s. Try the pistachio ice cream from Cherouveim dairy and spaghetti with pistachio pesto at Il Posto, a cosy Italian on Kypseli village square.
The stunning temple of Aphaia, on the crest of a pine-forested hill, and a gentle hike among the ghostly Byzantine chapels of Paleachora.
How to get there
Fly to Athens, then take the hydrofoil (45min) or ferry (1hr 15min) from Piraeus port. Check Aegean Flying Dolphins (aegeanflyingdolphins.gr/en/) and Saronic Ferries (sf.gr/eng) for boat times and tickets.