Stone windmills, some in ruins, dot the hillsides, and the town and surrounding villages are home to more than 350 churches and chapels. Hydra’s status as a national historic landmark protects its unique and beautiful architecture. Any new buildings must stay in keeping with the island’s historic architectural style, using authentic colors and maintaining the traditional Hydriot character. As a result, no modern building developments (high-rise apartments, hotel complexes) can spoil Hydra’s traditional atmosphere. In addition to cars and mopeds, neon signs have been banned. Hydra’s architecture, which includes simple houses as well as grand manors, is unique to the island.
Built by wealthy Hydriot shipowners, the island’s great, fortresslike mansions bear witness to its period of economic prosperity at end of the 18th century. Though impressive in size and magnificence, they also retain many elements of the island’s simpler homes. Made of grey stone from the nearby island of Dokos and usually built into the sloping hillsides, thus three or four stories tall, most of the manors have quite modest facades, with windows outlined in whitewash and limestone cornices. The spacious, high-ceilinged interiors, however, are generally adorned with wall paintings, garlands, carved wooden ceilings with hand-painted borders, door casings, stone arches, and geometrical designs embedded in the marble floors. Mostly build in the mid- to late 18th century by Italian architects, These mansions generally had separate rooms for men and women, a large lounge, room for displaying icons, and a special smoking room for the men. Famous for their quality and craftsmanship, Hydriot furnishings showed a Western influence and gave the already imposing manors of Hydra an added majesty. These mansions generally have beautiful walled gardens and spectacular views of the sea, often from magnificent private terraces.
When a few Albanian families settled on Hydra in the seventeenth century, they built their homes on the higher slopes of the mountains at the back of the harbor as they could defend this area more easily from roving bands of pirates. Called Kiafa (“top” in Albanian), this neighborhood still exhibits the building styles characteristic of that time, including the arched bridges over narrow streets by which residents crossed from one house to another without having to go outside.
Hydra’s regular houses are generally tall, narrow two-story structures built into the hillsides and surrounded by walled courtyards. The older houses are generally constructed of whitewashed stone, with tiled roofs. Most also have cisterns for collecting rainwater and marble drinking fountains. The custom of whitewashing the gray stone houses and cobblestone streets with lime developed in the nineteenth century as a sanitary measure to prevent the spread of disease. Another charming characteristic of Hydra’s architecture is the bright colors on the shutters, doorways, windows, balustrades and loggia walls of the houses: because of the lack of water, the houses do not have gardens or a lot of plants, so the inhabitants add a touch of bright color in order to break the monotony of the grey and ochre of the stone walls.