The long, narrow island of Hydra—just 37 nautical miles from Athens in the Argo-Saronic Gulf and separated from the Ermionida region of the Peloponnese by a thin, 11-mile gulf—is both cosmopolitan and tranquil. Donkeys and boats are the only form of transport as laws prohibit automobiles (except for a few small garbage trucks), mopeds, and even bicycles. Horses and mules do most of the heavy lifting on the island, and you will see locals occasionally riding their private donkeys to and from town with their shopping. Otherwise, sea taxis are the primary method of transport, other than foot, between the island’s villages. The main inhabited areas, however, are densely populated, and residents and visitors typically walk everywhere.
Due to the island’s status as a national historic monument, strict building laws also regulate development, protecting Hydra’s traditional architectural style and enhancing its old-world charm. Sights on the island include the old mansions built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the Hydra Island’s prominent merchant and ship-owning families. Other sites include the Hydra Historical Museum and Archives, the Ecclesiastical Museum in the Hydra Cathedral complex, and the cathedral itself, in the center of Hydra Harbor. Above Hydra Harbor, the monasteries of Profitis Ilias and Agia Eupraxia are the most commonly visited, often by foot or by horse trek. There are also several other more remote monasteries (Agia Matrona, which can be visited by appointment in the mornings; Agia Triada, which is closed; Agia Fotini, which is closed to the public; Agios Nikolaus; Zourvos Monastery).
In 2007, Hydra was rated eleventh, the highest of any Greek island, as a unique destination preserving “integrity of place” by a National Geographic Traveler expert panel.
Hydra’s municipality covers 72 square kilometers and comprises Hydra, Dokos island, and a few uninhabited islets. The main town, known as Hydra Harbor, Hydra Port, or simply the Port or the Limani, is built amphitheatrically around the island’s main, horseshoe-shaped harbor, lined with large and small yachts, as well as traditional caicques, or fishing boats. Shops, hotels, cafes, and tavernas line the port, while cobblestone streets and alleyways thread through the back streets of town and climb the steep, rocky hillsides, leading to the island’s various neighborhoods and villages. Most of the island’s hotels and restaurants are located within the confines of the level area of Hydra Town. Hydra Town’s neighborhoods include Hydra Harbor, Town & Bougia, Kala Pigadia, Kiafa, and Avlaki. Other inhabited villages on the island include Kamini, Mandraki, and Vlichos; sparsely inhabited or mostly uninhabited settlements include Palamidas, Episkopi, and Molos.
Though Hydra has a year-round population of less than 2000 (per 2011 census), which can swell to 6,000 over the summer, the interior is nearly uninhabited. Fires burned through this once densely forested area in 2007, destroying trees and other vegetation covering nearly one-third of the island. Periodic fires still pose a huge threat on Hydra in the summer months (fire season officially begins on May 1). The institution of a dedicated volunteer fire brigade on Hydra has greatly improved the response to outbreaks, and in 2020 the island began implementing plans to build a proper waste treatment facility and to retire the municipal dump, in operation for over 50 years and a source of many fires on the island.
Reminiscent of Hydra’s proud past, the architecture of the main town is extraordinary. Mingled among the islanders’ cascading whitewashed homes, with their brightly colored windows, stately, gray-stone mansions, built in the eighteenth century by wealthy merchants and ship owners in the Venetian style, watch over the main harbor. Many of the Hydra island mansions have been faithfully restored, and several house museums or galleries and are open to the public.
The Tsamados mansion, on the west side of Hydra Harbor, today houses the Merchant Marine Academy. The Tombazis Mansion, directly across the harbor, houses the Hydra branch of the School of Fine Arts of the University of Athens. The Lazaros Kountouriotis mansion today operates as an extension branch of the National Museum of History. The mansions of Lazaros and George Kountouriotis, Boudouris, Kriezis, Voulgaris, Sachinis, and Miaoulis are all closed to the public.
Despite the island’s rich history as an eighteenth and nineteenth-century naval and commercial power, Hydra’s economy today depends primarily on tourism. Athenians are probably the largest cohort of visitors, but people come to the island from all over the world, especially during the tourist season, either to stay on the island for a few days or weeks, or on one of the tour boats that dock in the harbor throughout the morning and early afternoon.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Hydra became a small artists colony, with expatriate painters and writers, such as George Johnston and Charmian Clift, Canadian poet Leonard Cohen, and Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen, coming to live on Hydra either full-time or for part of the year. Since it has served as the setting for numerous movies and novels, as well as a destination or residence for artists and intellectuals, both Greek and foreign.
\Local traditions remain very much a part of the fabric of life on Hydra, with religious celebrations dotting the calendar. As Hydriots take particular pride in the role their ancestors played during the 1821 Greek War of Independence, each June, the island also hosts a spectacular commemoration of Hydriot Admiral Miaoulis’s battle against the Turks, bringing Greeks from all over the country for a weekend of festivities, a naval reenactment, and fireworks. … Because its fleet was the body of the marine war during the Greek War of Independence in 1821, as it is still witnessed by the castle, the canons and the representation of the important marine battles and victories that still exist in the town of Hydra and on the entire islande
The sea around Hydra is deep, clear, and cool. Most of Hydra’s swimming areas are located on the rocks lining the island’s coast, though there are a few sand or pebble beaches. The main bathing areas in Hydra Town include Spilia and Hydronetta, and Avlaki’s swimming platform and Kamini’s pebble beach are another five to fifteen minutes respectively along the coast road heading toward Vlychos, another pebble beach with umbrellas, and Vlychos Plakes, a sand beach. Heading along the coast road in the opposite direction from Hydra Harbor will take you to Mandraki. Other beaches include Molos, Bisti, and Agios Nicolaus, reachable by boats leaving hourly from the Hydra’s main port.
Though the name Hydra means ‘water’ and refers to ancient springs that once provided the island’s water source, these days the island is dry, with its water generated by a desalination plant located behind Mandraki Bay, and those who don’t have private cisternas (wells for trapping rainwater) mostly drink bottled water. For this reason, Hydra is a particularly arid island, and any farming and animal husbandry are generally limited to family concerns.
On a visit to Hydra, soak up the island’s rich history and culture by visiting the island’s mansions, museums, galleries, churches, and monasteries. Wander the quaint and charming cobblestone streets past brightly colored doors framed with brilliant bougainvillea or plumbago, stroll the road along the coast with its stunning Mediterranean views, or hike the island’s rural trails, past pine trees and olive groves, shepherds herding sheep, and donkeys grazing patiently in the fields. Browse the boutiques and gold shops and admire the yachts moored in Hydra’s bustling port. Enjoy a quiet, traditional taverna meal in one of the neighboring villages. Have a night out on the town, dining in one of Hydra’s restaurants, then partaking in the active nightlife on the Port.