Aglow with flowering oleanders and hibiscus, the island of Kos is the third largest in the Dodecanese. It certainly remains one of the most verdant in the otherwise arid archipelago, with lush fields and tree-clad mountains, surrounded by miles of sandy beaches. Its highest peak, part of a small mountain range in the northeast, is a respectable 2,800 feet. All this beauty has not gone unnoticed, of course, and Kos undeniably suffers from the effects of mass tourism: its beaches are often crowded, most of its seaside towns have been recklessly overdeveloped, and the main town is noisy and busy between July and early September.

In Mycenaean times and during the Archaic period, the island prospered greatly. In the 6th century BC it was conquered by the Persians but later joined the Delian League, supporting Athens against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Kos was invaded and destroyed by the Spartan fleet, ruled by Alexander and his various successors, and was twice devastated by earthquakes. Nevertheless, the city and the economy again flourished, as did the arts and sciences. The painter Apelles, the Michelangelo of his time, came from Kos, as did Hippocrates, father of modern medicine. Under the Roman Empire, the island's Asklepieion, its renowned healing center, drew emperors and ordinary citizens alike.

The last millennium saw Kos chart a similar path to that of Rhodes, with invading Crusaders replaced by Turks, followed by Italians. But Kos was never as richly developed by the Knights of St. John as Rhodes, and fewer relics of their medieval pomp remain. What survived are ancient Roman and Hellenic sites, many discovered in the 1930s after earthquakes ravaged Kos Town. It is also the most bike-friendly of the islands, giving over a chunk of its city sprawl to large cycle lanes. The temptation to escape the crowds for pedaling the flat coast and the hilltop villages of the center is one you should most definitely give in to.

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Fodor's Essential Greece: with the Best of the Islands

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