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Zakynthos - mixture of tourist resorts and charming, relaxed Greek Island life

Zakynthos is a curious mixture of tacky tourist resorts and the most beautiful aspects of Greek Island life. Although its tourist hubs were out of our style and comfort, the island also offered us a blissed-out week to unwind, swim in the turquoise water and enjoy copious amounts of wine and fresh food.

We were dreaming of a little break after months of organising our new home and the endless DIY projects. And so on the spur of the moment we booked flights to Zakynthos Island (Zante) as we found flights for a mere few pounds with the national carrier. Although we had always enjoyed the Greek islands, the minute our reservation was confirmed I was already regretting the booking as in my mind I had always associated Zakynthos with package holidays, rowdy college kids, English breakfast and tacky bars. In the end we thought if nothing else, at least we could gorge on Greek food, drink bottles of wine and enjoy the rays of sunshine on our face for a week.

We were surprised by how nice Zakynthos actually was. The transparent turquoise water characterises the island above anything else. It also had beautiful sandy beaches for swimming, majestic mountains covered in olive trees, hospitable people and delicious, fresh food. We spent a blissful week swimming, relaxing and detaching ourselves from the house renovations and work.

However, without sugar-coating it, the island is extremely touristy, most of the income coming from tourism. But that is only one side of the coin, co-existing simultaneously with the side that exhibits the most beautiful aspects of Greek culture and heritage. While Zakynthos does not have the most iconic Greek whitewashed houses with blue domes and shutters, it has charming and picturesque architecture, influenced by Venetian style. The 1953 Ionian earthquake destroyed most of the island, however, many of the historic houses were rebuilt. The countryside is characterised by stone farmhouses, especially the further you go from the tourist traps.

My partner was still working on our new patio hours before the holiday so our total aim was to take it easy, wind down and dedicate time to each other. But we also wanted to stay in three different places as we get easily bored on beach destinations and have itchy feet. As we booked the flights last minute we could not be too picky with the accommodation and we wanted to keep the budget low. But we did find great places that were all quite different, exemplifying the diversity of the island.


We booked the first three nights near Alykanas, a town in the northern part of the island. We stayed in a two-bedroom apartment, Photographer’s Apartment, a traditional three-storey building with three simple, no-frills apartments, each located on their own floor, equipped with a private patio or balcony. We had a long double balcony and it was truly magical to be able to witness the sunrise, sunset and the boats going by. We loved the apartment’s beautiful, quiet location, about a 20-minute walk from the town. Although we saw some other holiday homes in the vicinity, it was pretty rural with authentic family houses surrounded by fruit trees. Each morning roosters gave us a wake up call and it was serene and blissful to feel the morning breeze with that specific scent of wildflowers and salty sea. Little walks around the area were one of my favourite aspects of Alykanas as the meandering rural road was lined up with family houses, old men sitting outside talking, people working in their gardens and taking care of animals.

We love exploring breakfast spots when travelling, and so we eagerly had a stroll to Alykanas town the first morning. It was a disappointment. It was clearly designed for tourists, full of tourist shops with loud signs selling beach flamingos, sunscreen and tacky slogan T-shirts. We wanted to get some fresh authentic breakfast but all the places that were open seemed to advertise English Breakfast. We found a bakery and as the owner learnt we were Brits he started to offer us bacon rolls. Disillusioned by the town we just had a cup of coffee, found a supermarket and got loads of fresh produce to take back to the apartment. So each morning we ended up having delicious thick Greek yogurt with local honey and piles and piles of fresh sun ripened fruit on our balcony admiring the views – something we actually cherished enormously. We didn’t go to Alykanas town after that and only walked towards it in the evenings to dine. Our favourite restaurant in the area to enjoy Greek food and copious amounts of wine was Vrisaki, a casual, unfancy restaurant that luckily was just on the edge of the tacky main tourist hub. Although the customers were mainly foreigners the food was Greek, fresh and delicious. The friendly waiters told us that they work hard during the summer for tourists and in the winter when the town is hibernating they do some farm work.

Apart from the centre we enjoyed the small town. A rural path from our accommodation took us to crystal clear water in less than five minutes. Instead of being a massive beach with tons of sunbeds it was pretty secluded, full of natural beauty, and had just a tiny stretch of about ten sunbeds that belonged to Shoestring restaurant on top of a hill surrounding the beach. It was a beautiful place to swim, spot fish in the crystal clear water, read, chill and have nice lunches at the restaurant. And so, we did enjoy our little stay just outside Alykanas. Although we were disappointed by the touristic town itself, three days enjoying calming sea views from our balcony, walking to the quiet beach and swimming did some magic.


From Alykanas we continued to Tsilivi. On our way there we drove past some dusty villages, olive groves and old buildings, showcasing the rural beauty of the island. Although my sister-in-law had been to Tsilivi and warned us that it was a massive tourist trap, we found an unbeatable hotel deal. As the views from the hilly hotel balcony looked spectacular, made for sipping wine whilst watching the wonders of this corner of the world, we decided to take a risk for two nights.

Our accommodation, Balcony Hotel was an ideal choice to stay in Tsilivi since we did not want to stay in the middle of the tourist hub. Located on top of a steep hill, the hotel was about a 20-minute walk from the town. The view from our big balcony was memorable with miles of turquoise water. As weird as it sounds, our balcony really became our favourite spot to hangout in Tsilivi; a drink in hand, watching the sunset and boats.

We were thinking of doing some excursions and being active, but as we reached Tsilivi we realised that we just wanted to unwind as the DIY projects at home and a busy work schedule had really hit us. So we ventured to the beach both days, spending the days swimming, lazing with a book, eating. The busy beach is a kind of a beach I normally hate, but we found a good, quieter spot and just decided to make the most of it. Popping into that warm water and relaxing with a book whilst the sun was stroking our skin somehow compensated for the touristic atmosphere.

Tsilivi town was full of tourist shops, restaurants and excursion agencies. It definitely was not our cup of tea but luckily there were plenty of good places to eat delicious, fresh Greek food. In the evening the town was pretty much our idea of hell with tribute bands and blasting hits from the 80s. Randomly we found a quieter, secluded bar closer to our hotel that looked like someone’s private garden and so offered a calmer spot to enjoy some very cheap wine. Although I would not travel back to Tsilivi because it was overrun by tourists, we had a good time there. The little two night stop was enough and offered just what we were looking for; reading, sunbathing, swimming, doing very little.

Zakynthos Town

Although our Greek Island holidays are often synonymous with food, outdoors and relaxation, we always want to explore the capitals as they tend to be vibrant places to see the locals, eat much cheaper food, and enjoy the routine and local rhythm of each island. We stayed two nights in Zakynthos Town, the charming capital of the island. We really liked its small alleys, churches, pulsating life and a quaint seafront with fishermen catching and selling fresh fish and cleaning their nests. Architecturally the city feels quite ordinary, as the 1953 Ionian earthquake destroyed the capital and as a consequence it lacks some historic, antiquated architecture often associated with Greek cities. Everything needed to be rebuilt, including some old buildings. Worth mentioning are the Venetian style buildings in the heart of the city centre around Solomos Square. Our accommodation, Phoenix Hotel (Plateia Salomou 2), was located by the Square, offering a prime spot for people watching from our balcony.

What we really appreciated was that in the capital there were many nice local hangouts to grab little bites in the mornings and coffee was a serious business in many cafes. Black Bean - The espresso bar (Tavoulari 54) is a specialty coffee shop that also roasts their beans on the premises behind a glass wall. They offer a variety of origins and house blends. Black Bean was nicely located just outside the busy hub and was a calm spot to chill, read and watch the quieter street life from our window table. My weak point in the capital was the bakeries selling authentic fresh pastries and bread. We went to Artopiio (Koliva), a corner bakery and a small coffee bar so many times that the staff started to recognise us. Their Greek pies were just divine. As well as being our staple snack station Artopiio’s coffee was so flavoursome, intense and smooth that we got a silly amount of takeaways while exploring the old streets.

There is no shortage of restaurants in Zakynthos Town. We always try to avoid those on the main square as fairly often they are aimed for tourists. A local girl recommended Stathmos (42 Filita) and we ate there both nights as we really enjoyed the incredibly fresh food, dangerously big carafes of wine, and the casual, unpretentious atmosphere sitting on little alleyway tables. We spent hours there just talking, eating slow and drinking wine. Close to Stathmos we also found our favourite bar, Thirty-four (34 Filita), a great retro spot for some pre- or after meal drinks and spotting cool locals.

Although the capital offers a vibrant atmosphere, there is nature and quieter spots just around the corner. We walked to Bochali, a little village of around 900 habitants just outside Zakynthos Town. It was a good 25 minute walk up a hill but the views along the way were beautiful. Bochali feels rural with sleepy streets patrolled by cats, old houses with big gardens, laundry hanging in the air. The quaint village stands proudly over Zakynthos Town, offering gorgeous views of the rooftops and the turquoise Ionian Sea. The main square has a beautiful old church and a couple of restaurants. We had a blissful coffee break overlooking the city below before starting our descent. Although due to the views there were a fair share of tourists, Bochali was not overrun by them.

As we like to move around when on holiday, Zakynthos Town was strategically good since it is a bridge between many places on the island. Also, it offers relatively good and cheap bus connections, although with slightly unreliable timetables. As we wanted to see the clear turquoise water and sandy beaches one more time before being shipped back to the cold, rainy routine, we took a local bus to the south of the island. Although the south is synonymous with bars and active nightlife, it also has some of the best beaches on the island and the tip is a good spot for water sport, swimming and sunbathing. We got hesitantly off at Banana Beach as we were worried it would be overrun by youngsters from the ill-famed party resort Laganas. But it was surprisingly quiet. The beach is extremely long with plenty of sun lounges, and most of them were empty – we had no one near us so it truly was blissful. The water was so warm with barrelling waves – their anticipation was a good adrenaline kick. Also, the views of the mountains, olive groves and mountain villas surrounding the water are breathtakingly beautiful. I wish I could have taken my camera to the water to capture it all!

Although this felt the most touristic holiday we have ever done, Zakynthos really fulfilled the purpose we had for our break; swimming, reading, eating, and relaxing on a small budget. In hindsight we probably should have explored more quaint villages, mountain hamlets, dusty olive groves and deserted beaches reachable only by hiking. Or, as the capital has multiple great, authentic restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops with local vibes, I wouldn’t mind staying there longer and doing a few day trips to the beaches and villages from there – some food for thought. Despite my initial hesitation we really enjoyed ourselves and the island.