In antiquity, Sifnos was a wealthy island, thanks to its gold deposits. If you've been to Delphi, you'll have seen the sculpture from the impressive treasury the Sifnians build there. When the island was an important center of shipping, pottery, and trade in the 19th century, wealthy Sifnians built the handsome houses you'll see across the island. After World War II, when shipping dried up, the island had some very lean years. Now, Sifnos's fortunes follow the fortunes of Greek tourism, although the island seems to have enough year-round Greek visitors to ward off more seriously lean years.
The capital town of the island, Apollonia (also called Hora and Stavri) is the name given jointly to the seven settlements on these lovely interior hills. It's 5km (3 miles) inland from Kamares; a local bus makes the trip hourly (from about 6am-midnight) every day in summer. The town's central square is the transportation hub of the island. All vehicle roads converge here, and this is where you'll find the bus stop and taxi stand. The small Popular and Folk Art Museum (great old photographs) cunningly does not post its hours, but is often open July 1 to September 15 from 10am to 1pm and 6 to 10pm (admission is 2€). From the square, pedestrian paths of flagstone and marble -- lined with boutiques, restaurants, and cafes -- wind upward through the beautiful town. If you stumble upon the Church of the Panagia, look for the carving of St. George besting the dragon, over the door, and the ancient marble column in the courtyard. The column was probably looted from a temple dedicated to Apollo, after whom Apollonia was named. As you go up and up the stepped-stone streets, once you get past the enormous cathedral, you'll find yourself in residential neighborhoods, with small courtyards, some with enormous caper and rose bushes. This is a great place to wander, admire the perfect whitewashed sugar-cube houses, get a bit lost, and hope you end up at the wonderful Gerontopoulos pastry shop for a restorative espresso and some sweet, dense chocolate pudding.
Tip: If you rent a car and have trouble finding a parking place in Apollonia -- and you almost certainly will -- head down the hill toward Kamares and turn right into the large municipal parking lot just out of Apollonia. From the parking lot, avoid walking up the main road by taking the side street that runs back up hill into the Main Square.
Kastro is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the Cyclades, built on the dramatic site of an ancient acropolis. Until several decades ago, Kastro was almost entirely deserted; as tourists began to infiltrate the island, Kastro sprouted cafes, restaurants, and shops. The 2km (1-mile) walk from Apollonia is easy, except under the midday sun. Start out on the footpath that passes under the main road in front of Hotel Anthoussa, and continue through the tiny village of Kato Petali, finishing the walk into Kastro on a paved road, or the marked footpath. Whitewashed houses, some well preserved and others eroding, adjoin one another in a defensive ring abutting a sheer cliff. Venetian coats of arms are still visible above doorways of older houses. Within the maze of streets are a few tavernas and some beautiful rooms to let. The little Archaeological Museum (tel. 22840/31-022) here has a good collection of pottery and sculpture found on the island; it's often open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to 2pm, Sunday and holidays from 10am to 2pm. Admission is free.
Artemonas, about 2km (1 mile) north of Apollonia, is a small village with streets lined with 19th-century mansions built by wealthy Siphnian ship owners. The walk from Apollonia in not-too-hot weather is lovely; if you drive, there is a good-size parking lot just as you come into town. When you get to Artemonas, you can have some homemade almond sweets (amygdalia) at any of the local sweet shops.
About 2km (1 mile) south of Apollonia, on the road to Vathi, is a trail leading to the hilltop church of Ayios Andreas. Until recently, this was an excursion to make simply for the amazing almost 360-degree view of Sifnos and neighboring islands. Since 2011 there has been another reason to visit here: the excavations of an ancient acropolis, and its excellent small site museum. Broad stone steps begin a long climb to the summit; count on at least 20 vigorous minutes to make the ascent. Having done this excursion previously on foot and on donkey back, I am happy to say that when I visited in 2011, I drove on the new road right up to the summit! People have lived on this spot from perhaps the 13th century B.C. until at least the 4th century B.C. The site was protected by massive walls that once stood some 6m (20 ft.) high and still reach more than 3.5m (11 ft.) in height. The walls encircled the settlement, with its sanctuary of Artemis, and small houses. Standing on the summit on a lovely early summer day it is hard to imagine how miserable life must have been here when winter winds whipped across the site and people huddled in their tiny dwellings. From the site, you can see the remains of some of Sifnos's more than 80 stone towers that were used for defense and for communication: bonfires could flash messages quickly across the island from tower to tower. All this and more is explained in the excellent museum, where everything is labeled both in Greek and English. The site and museum are usually open Tuesday to Sunday 8:30am to 3pm; entrance was free in 2011, but a fee is to be expected soon.
The pottery on display in the museum is a reminder that pottery making flourished on Sifnos well into the 1980s. Now, only a handful of potteries remain. The distinctive brown-and-blue glazed Sifnian pottery still being made has become something of a collector's item. If you fall for a piece, buy it -- with more potteries closing down, you can't be sure you'll find this distinctive ware again.
A Special Feast for the Prophet Elijah -- Prophet Elijah's feast day (July 20-July 22) is one of the most important religious holidays on Sifnos, which has had a monastery dedicated to this saint for at least 800 years. The celebration begins with a mass outing to the monastery of Profitis Elias on the summit of the island's highest mountain, and continues through the night with dancing and feasting.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.