If you have ever been to a Greek island, or even seen photos, you will probably be familiar with the classic white washed walls that spot the cliffside. Greek islands have a unique and uniform architectural style, yet how did it come to be this way? Join me in discovering the fascinating history behind the classic Greek home and how it has evolved until today.
For most of us, architecture is easy to take for granted. Its everywhere in our daily lives—sometimes elegant, other times shabby, but generally ubiquitous. How often do we stop to examine and contemplate its form and style? Stopping for that contemplation offers not only the opportunity to understand one’s daily surroundings, but also to appreciate the connection that exists between architectural forms in our own time and those from the past. Architectural tradition and design has the ability to link disparate cultures together over time and space—and this is certainly true of the legacy of architectural forms created by the ancient Greeks. World famous destinations like Mykonos and Santorini are immediately recognizable in photos thanks in part to their distinct architecture. Influencers love taking pictures in front of the islands’ whitewashed homes and blue accents and doors. But why are Greek island houses blue and white?
Many people recognize blue and white as the iconic colors of Greece. They’re the colors of the flag. They are also the colors of the bright sea and sky, synonymous with the beautiful Mediterranean. However, in the Cycladic islands, the distinctive blue and white coloring of houses is not based on the colors’ symbolism within Greece. In fact, there were several reasons behind this iconic characteristic of Greek island architecture, and most of them were quite practical. You will probably notice, the mainland does not have the same distinctive aesthetic. Or, perhaps it does, but it is a distinctly different one. While the mainland is filled with Greek antiquity, ancient ruins and beige stucco buildings with terra cotta roofs, the islands are filled with white stucco buildings with blue trim.
The 5 Top Reasons for the Greek Island Architectural Style
Many homes in islands like Mykonos, Paros and Naxos were originally built out of stone. This was a practical decision since there was little wood in the rocky Aegean island landscape. However, the stones were usually dark in color. This presented a problem during the sunny Greek summers. The sunlight beating down on the homes would be absorbed by the dark stones, making the interior unbearably hot. So residents started painting the stones white, in an effort to cool down their indoor spaces. However, they didn’t use white paint. Instead, they used whitewash which was easy to make and very cheap. You can make it by mixing lime (white dust), salt, and water in specific proportions. As white color is a reflector of heat it makes an environment cool and comfortable to live in. This way, it preserves the freshness and coolness inside the Greek houses during hot summer days. The process worked, resulting in cooler, more comfortable island homes.
Whitewash cures through a reaction with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form calcium carbonate in the form of calcite, a type of reaction generally known as carbonation or by the more specific term, carbonatation. It is usually applied to exteriors; however, it has been traditionally used in interiors of food preparation areas, particularly rural dairies, because of its mildly antibacterial properties. Whitewash can be tinted for decorative use and is sometimes painted inside structures such as the hallways of apartment buildings. However it can rub off onto clothing to a small degree. In Britain and Ireland, whitewash was used historically in interiors and exteriors of workers’ cottages and still retains something of this association with rural poverty. In the United States, a similar attitude is expressed in the old saying “Too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint.”Limewash relies on being drawn into a substrate unlike a modern paint that adheres to the surface. The process of being drawn in needs to be controlled by damping down. If a wall is not damped, it can leave the lime and pigments on the surface powdery; if the wall is saturated, then there is no surface tension and this can result in failure of the limewash. Damping down is not difficult but it does need to be considered before application of the limewash.
The blue originated from a cleaning agent called Loulaki (blue powder). It is a sort of talcum powder. This blue powder was found across every home in Greece. The mixture of Loulaki powder with lime produces the bright blue color that we see today. This blue color was easily available at every home and was very inexpensive. People could easily afford it and this is why they painted their houses blue. Fishermen and other seafaring men painted their windows and shutters with whatever was left over after painting their boat. And because of the elements used to create it, blue was usually the cheapest color of paint. Though blue is the most common accent color for doors and shutters in the Cycladic islands, it’s not the only one. In fact, if you walk around many islands, you will notice accents of red, green, and brown, in addition to blue.
3. Military Dictatorship Law
The pretty colors of Greek island houses became mandatory during the military dictatorship that took over Greece in 1967. The regime believed the colors would inspire patriotism and were reflective of Greek nationalism. The Greek junta or Regime of the Colonels was a right-wing military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. On 21 April 1967, a group of colonels overthrew the caretaker government a month before scheduled elections which Georgios Papandreou’s Centre Union was favoured to win. The dictatorship was characterised by right-wing cultural policies, anti-communism, restrictions on civil liberties, and the imprisonment, torture, and exile of political opponents. It was ruled by Georgios Papadopoulos from 1967 to 1973, but an attempt to renew its support in a 1973 referendum on the monarchy and gradual democratisation was ended by another coup by the hardliner Dimitrios Ioannidis, who ruled it until it fell on 24 July 1974 under the pressure of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, leading to the Metapolitefsi (“regime change”) to democracy and the establishment of the Third Hellenic Republic. The 1967 coup and the following seven years of military rule were the culmination of 30 years of national division between the forces of the left and the right, that can be traced to the time of the resistance against Axis occupation of Greece during World War II. After the liberation in 1944, Greece descended into a civil war, fought between the communist forces and those loyal to the newly returned government-in-exile.
Eventually, they passed a law in 1974 to mandate the painting of Greek island homes in blue and white. Although these regulations have been relaxed now, the blue and white colors of the Greek islands have become a huge draw for travelers. Therefore, many islanders choose to keep them. In the end, this is both for the practical reasons they started using these colors, and because they are good for tourism. Wandering around the Cycladic islands today, visitors can easily find houses with original earth-colored stones or slightly different colors. However, blue and white still dominate Greek island design, as well as the image people all around the world have of Greek islands.
4. Cholera Control
In 1938, a national order accelerated the spread of this new design aesthetic. At the time, Greece was suffering an outbreak of cholera during the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas. In an effort to curb the disease, he ordered citizens to whitewash their homes. This might sound strange today, but the whitewash used to paint the houses contained limestone. Limestone is a powerful disinfectant, and not many others were in common use at the time. Greek citizens thus whitewashed their homes to help sanitize them and reduce the spread of cholera.
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine by some strains of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It is spread mostly by unsafe water and unsafe food that has been contaminated with human feces containing the bacteria. Undercooked shellfish is a common source. The study of cholera in England by John Snow between 1849 and 1854 led to significant advances in the field of epidemiology because of his insights about transmission via contaminated water.
10 of the Most Interesting Greek Islands to Visit
antorini is one of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea. It was devastated by a volcanic eruption in the 16th century BC, forever shaping its rugged landscape. The whitewashed, cubiform houses of its 2 principal towns, Fira and Oia, cling to cliffs above an underwater caldera (crater). They overlook the sea, small islands to the west and beaches made up of black, red and white lava pebbles. American and Chinese honeymooners line up to take selfies as the sun sinks behind Santorini’s caldera, the flooded volcanic crater. That view may be a romantic cliché, but it still takes your breath away. A volcanic explosion blew out Santorini’s heart 3,500 years ago, leaving black-sand beaches, vertiginous cliffs in psychedelic hues, and swirling rumours about Atlantis in its wake. The eruption also preserved the ancient city of Akrotiri under layers of ash, and created fertile ground for exceptional Assyrtiko grapes and Vinsanto wines. (Sample them at Sigalas and Vassaltis wineries, paired with delicate dishes that let the grapes sing.)
Apart from a boat trip to the smouldering crater of Nea Kameni and hot springs at Palia Kameni, there’s not much to do but gaze at the mesmerising views from your suite, dangling on the edge of the caldera. Most places to stay are concentrated in Oia and Imerovigli, but the inland village of Pyrgos is up-and-coming. Go for a twilight Bellini at Franco’s or supper at Botargo, with views that will leave you light-headed. Emborio is a smaller and even prettier village, with a smattering of old-school coffee shops and Airbnbs.
Syros, also known as Siros or Syra, is a Greek island in the Cyclades, in the Aegean Sea. It is located 78 nautical miles south-east of Athens. The area of the island is 83.6 km² and it has 21,507 inhabitants. On Syros, capital of the Cyclades, you won’t find sugar-cube villages and whitewashed lanes. The colourful 19th-century city of Ermoupoli is built on twin peaks – one Orthodox, the other Catholic, the heritage of a long Venetian occupation. There’s still a strong Italian flavour in Ermoupoli’s marble piazzas, princely mansions, and miniature replica of La Scala, the showpiece of a year-round cultural scene. Syros hosts festivals of animation, dance, digital art, film, classical music, jazz and rembetiko, the Greek blues popularised by local musician Markos Vamvakaris. A few rembetiko joints have survived in the upper town, Ano Syra.
Once Greece’s ship-building centre, Syros still has a boatyard at Neorio. But the most splendid legacy of the shipping industry are the manor houses in Vaporia and Poseidonia. The beaches are slightly less splendid — with the exception of Delfini, Varvarousa, and Aetos in the wild north. But fabulous seaside tavernas abound: Ambela for fresh fish; CIliovassilemar on Galissas beach for samphire and sea-urchin salad and rockfish soup; Allou Yallou in the pretty seaside village of Kini for lobster with orzo. In Ermoupoli, the finest places to eat and drink are along Androu Street: Ousyra (ousyra.com), where the chef plates up Greek-ified pasta and beautifully balanced salads, and Django Gelato, where the smoked-hazelnut ice cream and fig sorbet sell out in 30 minutes flat. Perhaps the prettiest restaurant of all is Mazi) a vine-covered courtyard festooned with bougainvillaea. Before you leave, stock up on loukoumi (rose-tinted Turkish delight) and San Michalis cheese from Prekas delicatessen, and visit Zylo for hand-made wooden sunglasses.
Naxos is a Greek island in the South Aegean, the largest of the Cyclades island group. Its fertile landscape spans mountain villages, ancient ruins and long stretches of beach. The namesake capital (also called Hora or Chora) is a port town filled with whitewashed, cube-shaped houses and medieval Venetian mansions. Kastro, a hilltop castle dating to the 13th century, houses an archaeological museum. Naxiots once made considerable fortunes exporting potatoes, cheese, marble and emery. Locals bequeathed undesirable seaside plots – useless for farming – to their laziest offspring. When tourists cottoned on to the island’s scores of fabulous beaches, these wastrels found themselves sitting on gold mines. The west coast of Naxos is fringed with mile upon mile of powdery sands. Agios Prokopios and Agia Anna delight toddlers and teenagers alike with their shallow waters and beach bars. As you head south, the beaches get wilder: Plaka, where you can gallop across the dunes on horseback, Mikri Vigla for windsurfing and kitesurfing, and crystal-clear Kastraki.
Should you tire of frolicking on the shore, three supersized kouros statues are hidden in the hills and there are dozens of drowsy villages to explore. Try kitron, the local citron liqueur, at the Vallindras distillery in Halki or sample homemade wine and arseniko cheese under the plane trees in Ano Potamia village. No wonder Herodotus described Naxos as ‘the happiest of islands’.
Corfu, an island off Greece’s northwest coast in the Ionian Sea, is defined by rugged mountains and a resort-studded shoreline. Its cultural heritage reflects years spent under Venetian, French and British rule before it was united with Greece in 1864. Corfu Town, flanked by 2 imposing Venetian fortresses, features winding medieval lanes, a French-style arcade and the grand Palace of St. Michael and St. George. The island is bound up with the history of Greece from the beginnings of Greek mythology, and is marked by numerous battles and conquests. Ancient Korkyra took part in the Battle of Sybota which was a catalyst for the Peloponnesian War, and, according to Thucydides, the largest naval battle between Greek city states until that time.With its pastel villages, rolling olive groves and grand manor houses, the rest of the island recalls Tuscany – but with some of the best beaches in Europe. The smart set stay on Corfu’s north-east coast (nicknamed Kensington-on-Sea) where the Rothschilds like to unwind. It’s wall-to-wall Sloanes and speedboats at Agni, a tiny fishing village with three rival tavernas (Toula’s is the best). From here, you can rent a boat and putter to your own cove: perhaps Nissaki, Agios Stefanos or Kerasia. These idyllic bays still resemble the ‘delectable landscape’ that Lawrence Durrell fell for in the 1930s — now back in vogue thanks to the ITV series, The Durrells. Or venture inland to Ambelonas, an enchanting winery, restaurant and cooking school that specialises in unusual local dishes, such as roast pork with quince and crème brûlée with Corfiot kumquats.
The Greek name, Kerkyra or Korkyra, is related to two powerful water deities: Poseidon, god of the sea, and Asopos, an important Greek mainland river. According to myth, Poseidon fell in love with the beautiful nymph Korkyra, daughter of Asopos and river nymph Metope, and abducted her. Poseidon brought Korkyra to the hitherto unnamed island and, in marital bliss, offered her name to the place: Korkyra.They had a child they called Phaiax, after whom the inhabitants of the island were named Phaiakes, in Latin Phaeaciani. Corfu’s nickname is the island of the Phaeacians.
5. Cephalonia / Kefalonia
Kefalonia is an island in the Ionian Sea, west of mainland Greece. It’s marked by sandy coves and dry rugged landscapes. Its capital, Argostoli, is built on a hillside overlooking a narrow harbor. Kefalonia’s indented coastline is made up of limestone cliffs, bays and short strips of white sand, like Myrtos Beach in the north. Many beaches are only accessible on foot or via narrow twisting roads.Every Greek island has that “wow” beach that visitors hire cars or take long, unwieldy buses to see. On Kefalonia, that’s Myrtos. A blinding-white, half-moon of sand at the bottom of forested cliffs in the northwest, its sandy shallows drop off to plunging depths, meaning the waters appear equal parts neon turquoise and inky navy. Take photos from the slopes above before trekking down to drape your towel on the pebbles – there are no beach clubs or facilities here. Kefalonia’s capital is a handsome old town built around a natural port, where you’ll see fishing boats setting off and the beady eyes of sea turtles emerging from the harbour. Go there to shop, dine and learn about the island’s history at the History and Folklore Museum, where island traditions are brought to life with folk art, costumes and black-and-white photos. Don’t miss a feast of fresh-off-the-boat seafood at one of the port’s old waterfront restaurants.
The northern fishing village of Fiskardo is a favourite among long-time Kefalonia fans for its mellow pace of life and small-town Greek scenery. Peach- and lemon-coloured buildings huddle around a petite harbour, where bougainvillea petals flutter down, confetti-like, beside sleepy bars and cafes. If you haven’t got a hotel room here, go for the afternoon and evening, booking a waterfront restaurant and staying for cocktails – Theodora’s Cafe Bar is a legendary spot.
Sifnos is a Greek island in the Cyclades island group. It’s fringed by sandy beaches such as Chrysopigi beach in the southeast, home to the striking white Chrysopigi Monastery. The long, shallow Vathi beach sits in a protected cove in the southwest. Sifnos is known for its traditional pottery and there are many small pottery workshops in villages like Vathi and Kamares, the island’s main port in the northwest. Sifnos owes its foodie reputation to its most famous descendant, Nicholas Tselementes, who wrote the first Greek cookbook in 1910. Forget souvlaki and moussaka: here, chickpea croquettes and stewed capers are taverna staples. The island is peppered with potteries that produce the earthenware casseroles used for revitháda (baked chickpeas) and mastello (lamb with red wine and dill). Traditional dishes are slow-roasted in a wood-fired oven at To Meraki tou Manoli, a local institution on sheltered Vathy bay. (While you’re there, invest in some timeless tableware from Atsonios pottery, in business since 1870.) In postcard-pretty Artemonas, all roads lead to Theodorou, purveyors of nougat wafers and almond sweets since 1933. You can eat in your bikini at Omega 3, where locally foraged and fished ingredients are given an exotic twist: baby-calamari tempura, smoked eel in chilled melon soup with wasabi, and chickpea sorbet with wild apricot jam and pine nuts. In 2020, Omega 3’s previous energetic head chef Giorgos Samoilis opened Cantina, an equally experimental restaurant in Seralia, a pretty little bay below the beautiful medieval village of Kastro. Lobsters are plucked straight from the sea at Heronissos, then served with spaghetti on the jetty. It’s just the right balance of low-key luxury and unspoiled authenticity. Rather like Sifnos itself.
Hydra, or Ydra or Idra, is one of the Saronic Islands of Greece, located in the Aegean Sea between the Myrtoan Sea and the Argolic Gulf. It is separated from the Peloponnese by a narrow strip of water. In ancient times, the island was known as Hydrea, a reference to the natural springs on the island. Hydra has always been the artists’ muse of the Greek Islands. Leonard Cohen set the scene in the 60s; now Brice Marden, Sadie Coles and Juergen Teller have homes here. Athenian artists take up residence at the School of Fine Arts, one of the vast, grey, stone mansions overlooking the horseshoe harbour. Musicians of all stripes rehearse and record at the Old Carpet Factory, an 18th-century residence whose double-height ceilings and underground cistern have incredible acoustics. Less than two hours from Athens, Hydra fills up with chic Greeks at weekends. . They come to disconnect and slow down, but also to see and be seen. Wily cats and weary donkeys patrol the back alleys, but all the action happens along the waterfront. Who cares if there are barely any beaches? You can always find a slab of sun-baked rock from which to leap rock from which to dive into the clearest water in the world.
Milos or Melos is a volcanic Greek island in the Aegean Sea, just north of the Sea of Crete. Milos is the southwesternmost island in the Cyclades group. The Venus de Milo and the Asclepius of Milos were both found on the island, as were a Poseidon and an archaic Apollo now in Athens. Everyone knows the Venus de Milo (which has stood in the Louvre since the 19th century). Until recently, very few had heard of Milos, the volcanic island where Aphrodite’s graceful likeness was discovered. Those in the know jealously guard their treasured island, and especially its 70 (or more) beaches — surely the most diverse and dramatic coastline of all the Greek Islands.
Little by little, though, Milos is being discovered. Instagram is saturated with no-filter shots of the undulating white cliffs at Sarakiniko, the bottle-green swimming hole at Papafragas, and colourful, rickety syrmata, tiny boat houses wedged between rock and sea. (You’ll find the best photo opportunities at Klima and Mandrakia). This painterly landscape was shaped by the minerals that have long been a source of wealth – obsidian, alum, barite and sulphur, which still bubbles up in the island’s many hot springs. As the 11,000-year-old mining industry is gradually giving way to tourism, several chic hotels have made an appearance. Go now, before the trickle of visitors turns into a tide.
Serifos is a Greek island municipality in the Aegean Sea, located in the western Cyclades, south of Kythnos and northwest of Sifnos. It is part of the Milos regional unit. The area is 75.207 square kilometres and the population was 1,420 at the 2011 census. The sleeper hit of the Cyclades, Serifos is the summer retreat of interior designers and architects who prefer to keep the sandy beaches to themselves. (One French home-owner is so protective of her hideaway that she tells all her friends she summers on nearby Sifnos.) Even in August, you’ll find coves where you can skinny dip in blissful solitude. That’s because the best beaches (Kalo Ambeli, Vagia, Skala) are only accessible via bone-rattling dirt roads or donkey tracks. Better still, rent a motor boat from the laidback harbour, Livada. Make sure to moor outside Anna’s taverna on Sikamia beach for freshly caught fish and garden-grown salads.
In the cascading hilltop Hora, there’s barely any nightlife, no smart boutiques or fancy hotels. But who cares when you can kick back with fennel pie and raki at Stou Stratou, pick up Natassa Kalogeropoulou’s minimalist ceramics at Kerameio, and listen to Greek folk in the open-air amphitheatre? And all less than three hours from Athens.
Amorgos is the easternmost island of the Cyclades island group and the nearest island to the neighboring Dodecanese island group in Greece. It’s not easy to get to Amorgos. In high winds, the fast ferries stay grounded and the slow boat takes upwards of eight hours from Athens. When you disembark at Katapola, a sleepy harbour lined with great little fish tavernas (our favourites are Prekas and To Mouragio), a sign announces: ‘Welcome to Amorgos. Nobody will find you here.’ That’s just the point. This craggy Cycladic island has always attracted loners, hikers, divers and pilgrims, who shuffle up the cliff face to the Monastery of Hozoviotissa, a sliver of white dangling 300 metres above the sea. The water here is a million shades of blue and so startlingly clear you can see every sea urchin lurking on the rocky shore. Even the sage-scented hiking trails are called Blue Paths, because the sea and sky are visible in all directions.
With a population of under 2,000, the locals are outnumbered by shaggy goats that blend in perfectly with the burnished landscape and hippie vibe. But you don’t have to be a recluse to fall for Amorgos. There are plenty of all-day, late-night bars where Amorgos groupies meet, summer after summer: Jazzmin, in Hora, for backgammon and cocktails; Pergalidi in Langada for herbal infusions and jazzy tunes; Seladi in Tholaria, with giddying views and a telescope for stargazing.
While Greece does in fact have varied architectural styles, there is a reason everyone has seen the iconic white and blue houses that mark the Greek Islands. The history reveals economic, social, and national impetus for the predominance of this colour scheme.