The birthplace of revered poet Dionysios Solomos, who wrote Greece’s national anthem, Zakynthos offers no shortage of things to do. Also known as Zante, this laid-back island is surrounded by the deep blue Ionian Sea, home to a huge sea turtle population and awash with silky sand beaches, world-class diving sites and diverse architecture – influenced by the Byzantines, Venetians, French and English. And since this was where the Subwing water-sports craze was created, you can expect plenty of high-adrenaline activities, too.
Take a deep dive
With some 12 spectacular dive sites beneath mirror-clear waters and the chance to meet unique marine fauna – ranging from endangered Mediterranean monk seals to massive sea turtles – it’s no wonder that Zakynthos is hailed as a diver’s paradise. If you want to see schools of barracudas, head for Marzelou reef, also known as Barracuda reef. For bigger fish and tunnel formations, take a deeper dive at Elephant reef. Novice divers will be glad to know that they can hone their skills at Little Bay or Marathonisi.
Meet the local wildlife
The National Marine Park of Zakynthos, stretching from the Cape of Marathias to Gerakas Beach, is the best place to spot some of the island’s endangered wildlife. To get up close to turtles and monk seals in an ecofriendly way, book a day trip to Marathonisi, better known as Turtle Island. Before you go, read up on proper etiquette at the Exhibition Centre of the National Marine Park in Agios Ioannis, and make sure to never disturb the turtles.
Hit the town
Rebuilt in the Venetian style after an earthquake destroyed many of the buildings in 1953, Zakynthos Town is a hotchpotch of elegant architecture, cool cafes and streets packed with boutique stores. Make sure you visit the 17th-century mansion of Alexander Roma – former president of the Greek parliament – near Solomos Square, which is packed with family portraits, works of art and period furniture. For a little retail therapy, head to Alexander Roma Street, crammed full of jewellery stores and indie boutiques. If you’re here in August, don’t miss the festival dedicated to patron saint Dionysos, which coincides with a huge, open-air flea market that lasts for over a week.
Get an adrenaline high
Zakynthos is the birthplace of the Subwing, the boat-towed underwater board invented by teen-genius Simon Sivertsen, which lets you glide through the waves like a dolphin. Apart from trying this super subwater sport at the Peligoni Club, adrenaline addicts can get their kicks base-jumping at hard-to-reach Navagio (also known as Shipwreck) Beach, or flyboarding and parachuting above Banana Beach.
Take a train ride
It might sound cheesy, but Zante’s cute little tourist train is a great way to sit back and see more of the island. After taking you out to see the main sights of Zakynthos Town, the toy train plies various routes. To see ceramic makers in a local workshop, visit the laid-back Kalamaki beach resort, or pay a visit to the city’s Venetian castle and a traditional perfume workshop. Look out for other little trains on the island, including the Trainaki leaving from Alykes Beach, which takes you to visit traditional mountain villages.
Discover the island’s beaches
There’s a reason why turtles love Zakynthos’s beaches, but as long as you respect their space, those endless swathes of soft sand are great for humans, too. The pick of the crop is the iconic Navagio or Shipwreck Beach – so-called because of the rusted remains of the MV Panagiotis that washed up on the beach after a storm in the 1980s. You can reach this picturesque beach by taking a 30-minute boat ride from Agios Nikolaos, Zakynthos Town, Skinari or Porto Vromi. However, currently Navаgio is closed fοr the public because of а potential landslide danger and no boats cаn aсcess the beach. For less touristy alternatives, try the beaches of St Nicholas, Alykes and Tsilivi.
Climb to Bohali Castle
For the best views over the harbour of Zakynthos Town and the distant, beach-studded Vasiliki peninsula, hike the steep, winding road to Bohali Castle. Once you’ve wandered the ruined battlements of this 15th-century castle repaired by the Venetians, descend to nearby Bohali village, and order a beer and local meze snacks in one of the small cafes. Take water with you – it’s a thirsty climb, and there are no cafes at the top.
Explore the parks on Zakynthos
Zakynthos was dubbed Il Fiore di Levante (Flower of the East) by the Venetians. Even now, if you visit one of the island’s parks you’ll see brilliant carpets of wildflowers, or aroma-filled areas covered with wild herbs – depending on the season. The best of the bunch is Askos Stone Park, where you can wander out along wooded hiking trails and encounter wild animals, including endangered platonia deer.
Visit the Blue Caves
The picturesque coastline of Zakynthos is dotted with limestone caves, but if there’s just one cluster of grottos you need to visit it has to be the Blue Caves – named for the sea’s breathtaking colour here. Only boats can reach these limestone caves near Cape Skinari, but many tours will visit on their way to Shipwreck Beach. Head out in one of the glass-bottom boats with the Potamitis Brothers so that you can see every glittering detail.
Escape the heat in cool museums
As the birthplace of Greece’s national poet and boasting a rich ecosystem, Zakynthos has some great museums where you can escape the midday heat. In the village of Agia Marina, Helmi’s Natural History Museum is packed with rocks, fossils and stuffed animals representing the island’s wilder side. Poetry lovers, on the other hand, should make a beeline for the museum dedicated to local hero Solomos, who penned Greece’s national anthem in 1823. The museum is home to personal items belonging to the poet, but also a mausoleum containing his remains.
Sample sumptuous local food
Zakynthians have been producing world-class, extra-virgin olive oil for millennia – and the 2,000-year-old olive tree in the village of Exo Hora is living proof. Apart from health-giving oil, this food-loving island has plenty of local specialities that you should try, including sofigadoura, a kind of beef stew in a rich tomato sauce, and the egg-white and almond sweet treat mantolato. If you want to learn even more about the local olive oil, head for Aristeon Ecological Olive Press, where you can try your hand at picking olives and even press your own oil during the autumn months.
Looking for more? Make a weekend of it and book a stay at one of the best hotels in Zakynthos. Too pricey? These great budget hotels are a more affordable option. During the day, you can take it easy and relax on one of the best beaches in Zakynthos. To top it all off, you can end your night with a delicious feast at one of these great restaurants.
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