Matala is a popular destination on the rather solitary southern coast of Crete, in the region of Heraklion. A visit to Matala is one of those things that every travel book will say that you have to do in Crete. And for a reason. The place shelters a unique hippie atmosphere, and even just one day spent in Matala is enough to feel its vibe and connect with the bohemian side of Crete. So, let’s discover how to get to Matala, what to do in the village, the surrounding area, and everything there is to know about Malata Beach, let me show you the best things to do in Matala during your holidays in Crete.
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Matala Beach Crete
The Ideal Hippie Scene on Crete Island
Located about one hour south of Heraklion, the capital of Crete, Matala is a famous hippie destination as well as a super popular seaside resort on the southern coast, facing the Libyan Sea.
Matala is a laid-back village with colorful shops and alleys, the beach of Malata is a wide sandy bay with a deep crystal clear sea. The most fascinating trait that you will see on the beach is a series of man-made caves, carved on the rock on a low hill standing on the western side of the shore.
Why you Should Include Matala in Your Crete Road Trip
It’s certainly a great idea to rent a car and visit Crete on the road, road trips offer great opportunities to explore lesser-known areas and hidden spots while it also allows you to just pack and leave if you find that the place where you are doesn’t have what you are looking for.
In my opinion, car travel in Crete is the best way to go about and discover the most authentic side of the island.
Still, road trips need some planning, and planning can come with doubt at times. If you are uncertain whether to make Matala one of your stops, first consider what you are expecting to see and do once in the village.
If you are going to Matala hoping to find spectacular, solitary beaches, soft sand, and shallow waters then forget it. Set your GPS to another destination and go somewhere else.
Matala is not the best beach in Crete but it is one of the most popular ones. And there’s a lot to see, even if it’s just for a day.
So let’s see now what are the things to expect when visiting Matala!
Pro tip: If you are in Heraklion, a visit to the hippie village of Matala is among the top things to do in the region.
Matala Map & Distances From the Rest of Crete
If you’re wondering how much you need to drive before reaching Matala, these are the distances you’ll have to cover to get there from some other popular areas in Crete:
- Sitia – Matala: 190 km, about 3 hours
- Agios Nikolaos – Matala: 124 km, a little less than 2 hours
- Ierapetra – Matala: 123 km, 2 hours and 20 minute
- Heraklion – Matala: 65 km, just 1 hour and minutes
- Rethymnon – Matala: 80 km, 1 hour and 45 minutes
- Chania – Matala: 134 km, about 2 and a half hours.
You might also want to read: How to get from Heraklion to Matala.
Best Hotels in Heraklion
Affordable: Candia Studios & Rooms or Rea Hotel in the city center.
Mid-range: Capsis Astoria and Veneziano Boutique Hotel in town.
Luxury: GDM Megaron H. M. Hotel or Galaxy Iraklio in the center.
Check also Heraklion Accommodation Guide and Best Places to Stay in Crete.
STAY IN MATALA: This article includes a list of the best places to stay in Matala and the nearby villages.
Getting to Matala from North Crete: How to Reach Matala from Heraklion
It is not difficult to reach Matala if you’re traveling from Heraklio. The road from the capital, on the northern coast, takes you to the opposite side of the island in a little more than one hour (the shortest road is about 66 km).
From the center of Heraklion, you must head to the north up to Gazi, and once there, take the national road Heraklio-Festos (also written as Faistos and as Phaistos on the road signs).
Want to learn everything about this trip? Check this guide to travel from Heraklion to Matala.
The journey is pretty straight for the first 20 minutes or so until the village of Agia Varvara. Once there, keep going for about 15 minutes until you reach the village of Moires. Here you can decide to stop and pay a visit to the Archaeological Site of Phaistos, in that case, you have to stay on the road and follow the signs to the archaeological site.
Instead, if you want to go straight to Matala, once in Moires, turn left and take the road Miron – Pompias / Koraka. After no more than 5 minutes of driving the Gortinas – Matalon road, turn right and follow the signs. The road goes straight to Matala Beach.
When planning a road trip to Matala, car rental is one of the first things to consider. Go ahead and use a powerful search engine that can compare different companies and get you the best price. Discover Cars usually makes it really easy.
Getting to Matala from South Crete: The Road to Matala from Ierapetra (East Crete)
If you are coming from the southeast of Crete, it will take you some more time to get there. The trip from Ierapetra to Matala lasts about 3 hours and it can get tedious at times, but you can devote half a day to the whole trip and make frequent stops to discover places that otherwise you would miss. This will make the trip more enjoyable:
The first time I took this road trip, my first stop was Myrtos, about 15 km from Ierapetra. The village is small and very picturesque, it has a beautiful beach and it’s worth a short visit.
The beach in Myrtos is sandy and with grey tones but good for kids because it’s protected from the winds. If you are not interested in going out at night or are looking for a relaxing holiday, this is a top destination for a peaceful vacation in South Crete.
In Myrtos, it’s possible to visit the Minoan settlement of Pirgo (also Pyrgo), reachable on foot and with a nice view of the sea.
After this first stop, you can keep going to Matala, after about a one-hour drive, you will come across a very traditional Cretan settlement, Ano Viannos, about 560 meters a.s.l.
Ano Viannos (Upper Vianos) has always been one of my favorite villages in the Heraklion region.
The mountain landscape is dotted with colorful honey bee boxes, abundant and fragrant thyme bushes, and lots of olive trees. Ano Viannos is a small village cut in half by a narrow main road with traditional cafés and tavernas on both sides.
Locals are proud of their extra virgin olive oil and their honey, which you can taste in one of the few local shops on the main road of the village.
Stop here for a driving break. Have a glass of homemade orange juice or a cup of strong Greek coffee, stretch your legs, and get back in the car, there’s still a long way to Matala.
Best Things to Do in Matala Beach, Crete
So, once you’ve made it to Matala, there’s a lot you can explore, start with the beach, and then visit the village. Check the surrounding area, the nearby archaeological sites, and other beaches too.
Let’s see which are the best things that Matala has to offer.
Discover the Beach of Matala
Parking in Matala
Once you’ve made it to the seaside village, the first thing you’ll find is a parking nightmare, especially in August, but not only. As soon as you find a parking spot, make it yours.
There is one big parking lot at the entrance of the village. Here it is easier to find where to park, but you will need to walk a few hundred meters to get to the shore.
There’s also a parking spot right by the beach, it is smaller, often full (they will let you know at the entrance whether you can go down and park, or if you need to maneuver in the chaotic lot, and go back to the main road to park somewhere else. The fee to park here is €3 for the day, there is no hourly fee.
You can get drinks and snacks for your beach day at the mini-market and grocery stores near the parking lot.
The Beach of Matala
The beach is fairly long and wide but tends to get very crowded in July and August.
Matala is, indeed, one of the most popular destinations on the island. Keep that in mind to avoid any unexpected frustration.
There are dozens of restaurants, bars, and taverns by the sea, and all of them used to be super convenient. In the last years, though, the village has become very popular and more tourists visit each year.
This has made prices go up quite a lot to eat and sleep in Matala… Worry not, some places still remain where you can eat and have a drink at affordable (more Cretan-like) prices.
The beach is a mix of pebbles and sand. The sea is wavy and it gets deep quite close to the shore, so if you’re traveling with kids you will need to be extremely careful at all times.
On the positive side, being a rather deep bay, and being embraced by hills (the famous caves we will discuss next), Matala is well protected from the strong winds.
However, there are frequent sea currents as well, so be careful.
In a nutshell, the sea in Matala it’s not calm and shallow, and it is not the perfect beach for small kids. On the other hand, though, it is a great spot for divers and submarine experiences.
Matala is also a great place to spot the sunset.
It is the most popular time on the beach as well as the best moment to visit the caves so as not to climb under the heat of the afternoon sun.
Most people gather on the beach to witness the sunset and have a drink at one of the few beach bars on the sand. Chill, listen to music, and let the sun go slowly down behind the sea.
Explore the Matala Caves
Different sources agree that Matala’s caves are works of men who carved them out of the cliffs on the north side of the beach, and they are thousands of years old.
In Ancient times, Matala was the port of Phaistos during the Minoan period (although some sources claim that Kommos was the port of the ancient Minoan Palace. Then, back in 220 BC, Gortyn took over, and, subsequently, during the Roman period, Matala became the port of Gortyn (also known as Gortys and Gortyna).
It has been suggested that the caves were once used as tombs from Roman times, and in fact, you will see signs indicating the place as a Roman cemetery.
However, for a longer period of time, they were mostly used as living spaces.
The caves in Matala are thought to belong to the Early Christian period but there is no fact proving any speculation.
Most of the caves show spaces with areas devoted to sleeping or storing food. They are not just simply caves, they have windows, porches, and even carved seats and beds. The caves of Matala were used as real homes thousands of years ago.
You might also want to read: Red Beach Matala Crete: Everything about the Stunning Kokkini Ammos.
It’s possible to visit the caves, but it’s not allowed to settle for the night. There’s a protective fence surrounding the cave (to avoid entering but not actually to protect you from falling as you visit) and a small entrance fee (€4 in 2021-22).
The caves are open from 10 am to 7 pm (from 6 to 7 is the best time to visit). If you are an EU citizen under 25 and show proof of ID, access is free. Reduced fees apply to senior citizens, journalists, and other categories.
It’s important to be careful during the visit. Yes, you will see people climbing the different levels of the caves, but I wonder if that is simply a consequence of the caves being right by the beach. I suggest you pack a pair of tennis shoes to visit.
They are not dangerous but pay attention if you’re not super skilled to climb (especially when going down). At the entrance booth, you will even find a sign that says: Enter at your own risk. if you’re visiting with kids, pay close attention to them at all times.
During the early 60s, when Matala was nothing but an unknown fishing village, the area became popular, and little by little, they were occupied by hippies until the next decade when the hippies were sent away by the Greek military Junta (1970s).
Matala’s hippie atmosphere is pretty much alive all year round, however, it fully comes to life every year in June when locals celebrate the Matala Beach festival, with bands coming from the mainland, music, and dances for three days in a row.
You might also want to read: Travel Tips: How to Plan a Fabulous Road Trip in Crete.
Enjoy the Laid-Back Hippie Village
The town still lives on the fame gained during the sixties.
Back then, alternative rock singers such as Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell lived in the caves for long periods, composing and enjoying this remote island still pretty much unknown to mass tourism.
Does the line under a starry dome…beneath the Matala Moon ring the bell? It’s Carey, the song in which Joni Mitchell talked about the free life of flower children.
>> Do you want to read an authentic source from the 70s? Check this link to open a Life Magazine issue where there’s an article describing the nomads from those years and their life In Matala!
Hippies all over the World overtook Matala in the ’60s and ’70s, a place and time when they could live a simple and natural life, made of love, peace… and probably other ingredients too!
Today, the village is small and easy to visit, full of small bars, pubs, taverns, and tons of souvenir shops. There are colors and music everywhere, street artists, and a fun, entertaining atmosphere at all hours.
Most cafeterias surround a small central square with trees and flowers. The best places to hang out are on the eastern side of the beach, where a long promenade extends all the way until the end of the bay. Here you will find lots of bars playing cool music until almost the morning after.
Other interesting places to visit in Matala are the bookstores, most of which sell curious books about the island as well as about Matala’s glorious past and famous residents. Some also sell old records and classic CDs.
If you – just like me – enjoy curious bookshops, music from the 70s, elephant pants, colorful sarongs, hippie outfits, handmade leather sandals, crochet bags, and handmade ceramics, this will be heaven!
Finally, and for families with kids – but also the child still living in you – the colorful roads painted by visitors who especially gather for the occasion are really fun.
Every year, street artists from different corners of the world come to Matala to pain and leave their messages on the streets.
Shopping for Souvenirs in the Village and Market of Matala
The streets of the village seem to be a huge souvenir market whit dozens of colorful stalls and shops selling handcrafted souvenirs.
However, there is an actual traditional market (Paradosiako Agora Matalon) that was established back in 1973.
Stalls mostly sell hippie memorabilia and flower-power garments including leather sandals, t-shirts, hippie bags (like the one I bought for myself, see the picture above inside the cave!), beachwear, sarongs, and elephant pants.
The shops that are not inside the market sell ceramics, home decor, cups, paintings, music, books, and much more. Prices can sometimes look a bit high. If you’re on a budget and still want to buy your Matala set of souvenirs, I suggest you buy your beach sarong at the nearby village of Kalamaki to save a few euros.
Matala Street Art
Matala is the place to visit in Crete if you enjoy street art and graffiti. Everything is lively and colorful everywhere you look.
At the entrance of the village, you will be greeted by a legendary black Beetle painted in Matala style that has made its way to all photos of Matala during the last decades. It belongs to a shop that sells the same stickers which you can also get for your own house as a Matala souvenir (we got our sticker flower for our car too!).
Here are some photos of Matala’s best colors…
Where to Eat in Matala Beach
The beachside tavernas are colorful, picturesque, and many of them very convenient. In general, not all of them are heavily priced (nor truly memorable) but the food quality is good.
If you’re on a budget, avoid eating by the sea or choosing fish as a main course. Instead, head to the center of the village, the main square, or the clothes market.
Here, there are a few small grills serving regular gyro wraps, you will eat great food and your pocket will be happy.
There are also a few pubs in the central square, they are great for an afternoon drink, an ice cream, or a sweet, but a whole meal at a Matala pub can be expensive.
We often ate at the market at midday when we wanted something quick and light. We also had a fairly informal lunch by the sea once (grilled octopus and dolmades – grape leaves, stuffed with a rice mix, shaped into little rolls, and boiled-) at Taverna Eleni, right on the beach.
The food was pretty good and kids eat without making any fuss… and that’s saying something. For dessert, the usual shot of tsikoudia came with delicious warm loukoumades with tons of local honey. The prices were affordable.
Another good place to eat is Gianni’s Family (you must book as it is always full). We had rabbit stifado and delicious grilled meat. The place is almost at the end of the main road, heading to the sea.
Boho Beach Bar is perfect for pancakes with all kinds of delicious chocolate sauces on top and really affordable at a fantastic location.
Sunset Taverna is another simple and traditional tavern by the sea, while you need to visit Scala, also by the sea, for premium seafood.
And for a drink, don’t doubt it and head to Marinero, right next to the sea, the cocktails are good!
All in all, I always enjoy visiting Matala, the atmosphere and the beach. Shops and bars have a bohemian touch, there are bookstores and pubs everywhere. Everything is colorful, cheerful, and stimulating to the senses.
It’s a little fishing village where to spend a day, or many, that’s up to you!
Matala in Greek Mythology
According to Greek mythology, Matala played a key role in the development of Crete’s history. The myth reveals that Zeus seduced princess Europa by taking the form of a white bull and that, later on, he crossed the sea bringing her to the beach of Matala.
Once there, he changed his shape from the white bull into an eagle and flew her to Gortys where he had sex with her. Europa and Zeus had three sons, Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon.
Later on, she married Asterios turning into the stepmother of his daughter, Crete.
You might also want to read Top Amazing Things to Do in Heraklion, Crete.
Archaeological Sites Near Matala
There’s more to Heraklion than Knossos the region is a great place to explore if you love archaeological sites, near Matala you can visit a few of them, take a look
The Archaeological Site of Phaistos (Φαιστός)
One of the best things you can do near Matala is to pay a visit to the Minoan Site of Phaistos (also Faistos and Festos).
The archaeological site of Phaistos is located in the Messara plain, roughly in the south-central portion of the island, and a little more than 50 kilometers from the capital Heraklion. It’s also quite close to another spectacular archaeological site, Gortys, and just minutes from Matala too.
Phaistos is one of the most important archaeological sites in Crete, receiving many thousands of visitors annually, so get ready to queue also here (and not just in Knossos).
Phaistos is “Φαιστός” in Greek and you may find it also written as Festos, Phaestos, or Faistos, but you pronounce it Festòs.
The Minoan Palace of Phaistos corresponds to a flourishing city that arose in the fertile Messara Plain in prehistoric times, from 6000 BC to the 1st century BC, as archaeological studies have confirmed.
The history of the palace is made of turbulent ingredients and legendary stories. The first Palace of Phaistos dates its construction to about 2000 BC.
King Minos is described as its mythical founder while his brother, Radamanthys, was the first king in the Palace.
You might also want to read: Remarkable archaeological sites in Crete
The palace suffered from the consequences of a strong earthquake in 1700 but it was rebuilt immediately.
The site has been the main religious and cult center of south Crete for ages and a visit to the ruins confirms the magnificence that the place still displays.
A few hundred years later, when the neighboring Gortys took over and dominated the region decadence took place in Festos, which started its slow decline.
Best Things to See in Phaistos
The unique architecture of the palace, defined as almost perfect, makes Phaistos the finest and most typical Minoan palace as well as the best-preserved of all. Maybe the most beautiful characteristic of this Minoan Palace is the impressive monumental entrance also known as the West Propylon.
The palace is contemporary to Knossos but if you have already visited the first one, you might either be stunned at the differences or recognize the similarities between both archaeological sites. Phaistos did not undergo the same level of restoration that interested Knossos.
On the other hand, there are certain construction traits shared by both sites, and by the other two unearthed Minoan Palaces in Crete (Malia, close to Heraklion, and Zakros in Lasithi).
Both the old (protected by a shed) and the new Palaces of Festos spread on different terraces, and are completely built with blocks of stone (known as ashlar). During your visit, don’t forget to check the storerooms, the workshops, and the royal quarters.
The court of the new Palace of Phaistos and the Temple dedicated to the Great Mother Rhea are quite stunning as well, although they belong to a more recent period in history. Remember that you can see all the artifacts and findings from Festos in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, including the enigmatic Disc of Festos or Disc of Phaistos.
Hours, tickets, and special fees
The Archaeological Site of Phaistos has the following timetable:
On Mondays from 13.00 to 19.30
From Tuesdays to Fridays, from 08.00 to 19.30
From November 1st to March 31st, from 08:30 to 15:00
Full price 8€, Reduced fee 4€. Reduced fees apply to the following categories:
– Greek citizens and citizens of other European countries over 65 years old (ID card or passport needed)
– Escorts on educational visits (primary schools)
– University students (high education institutes or equivalent, student ID card needed)
– For free admission categories, check this site.
The Archaeological Site of Agia Triada (Αγία Τριάδα)
Agia Triada is another imposing archaeological site located 4 km from Festos. The site is located on a scenic spot, overlooking the Gulf of Messara.
Despite the unique frescoes and vase findings, among the finest examples of Minoan art (and also exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion), the site is thought to have been a royal villa.
Others believe, instead, that the place was the home of some wealthy merchant or even a prince.
Agia Triada might not be as popular as Knossos or Festos, but that’s what’s special about it, there are no crowds or queues to visit, and the views are inspiring. The ticket full price is 4€ (2€, reduced), and more there’s information about the site here.
Best Places to Visit Near Matala
When spending some time in South Heraklion, explore more and discover the following areas too… You won’t regret it!
Red Beach (Kokkini Ammos)
The Red Beach has slowly turned into a legend in Crete both among locals and visitors. There is no magic to it anymore because… everyone wants to hike to Red Beach!
Famous for being a naturist spot, the only way to reach this secluded bay is through the mountains, you will need to hike up, and then down to get there, but you will be rewarded by the views, both of the sea and the inland.
As its name tells you, it has reddish-golden sand and the waters are crystal clear, it’s a good place for snorkeling thanks to the colorful seabed.
The hippie spirit is a bit more authentic than in the more popular Matala. There is just one beach serving – first and foremost – mojito! Gianni’s Mojito bar is a legendary place in Red Beach.
The price for a mojito was €8 (September 2021), but trust me, it was delicious. And the tavern is a great place to cool down when the beach gets really hot. There are music and wall decorations in authentic hippie style!
Read about more naturist beaches in Crete here.
If you decide to hike, you need to just follow the white arrows signs, there are plenty in Matala, literally everywhere! Don’t forget to carry water with you, and a hat, or even better, check what to pack for a remote beach in Crete.
Kommos, the Village, and the Archaeological Ruins
Kommos is worth visiting and not just to find convenient accommodation. In the area, you can visit Ancient Kommos.
Unfortunately, the archaeological site of Kommos, which looks pretty big, remains closed to the public, but you can take a very good look at it from the perimeter fence or from above.
Experts consider Kommos to have been a Minoan harbor town (probably the main port of Agia Triada or even Phaistos). There is also a beach, maybe a little windy, but very pretty on days without wind.
There’s no worthy accommodation in town, the closest place to sleep is Kalamaki.
If you decide to spend the night here, check Kritkies Elaia, a traditional Cretan house made of stone, the typical building material on the island.
Studios have always been a cheap and popular option, but you can upgrade to a villa all to yourself for just a few euros.
Spend the Night in the Area: Matala and Other Villages
It’s pretty difficult to find accommodation in Matala if you show up without a reservation, especially during the high season. For that reason, I’ve written a special guide to the best hotels and rental homes in Matala.
But if you plan to book in advance, some of the best places are the Matala Caves apartments located right opposite the legendary caves of Matala with a great view of the sea and the bay.
Another good option is Elektra, a great apartment with pretty decorations in the Greek style, and superb views.
Where to Sleep in Kalamaki
Not far from Matala, there is a good place where to spend the night if you are doing Crete on the road and want to avoid overpriced accommodation in Matala.
Kalamaki is a small town, we only found a few tourists and even fewer shops. If you plan to stay for more than a night, choose Rodanthi guest house.
The atmosphere is more relaxed and solitary. The sandy beach is great for kids and the great landscape in the distance includes the wonderful mountains of Crete, as well as the village of Agia Galini.
It’s a perfect place for sunset pictures. The place was truly magical, powerful, silent, and memorable. Maybe with a more hippie spirit than Matala.
Where to Sleep in Kamilari
The village is located on a hill and has a rather decent and varied offer of tavernas and accommodation due to the ex-pat community that lives in the place.
It’s a good compromise if you don’t want to stay in Matala but still want a place to have a drink at night with a bit more sophistication than the usual Greek taverna.
Villa Lemoni is a beautiful house that can accommodate smaller and bigger groups.
Click here for more information and to check the latest prices.
Where to Sleep in Pitsidia
Many consider Pitsidia to be a great alternative to Matala in terms of accommodation opportunities. The place is only 5 km from the beach and it is, in fact, less crowded.
The village is quite characteristic and preferred by younger travelers, so the options for accommodation as well as for lunch and dinner are quite affordable too.
Kritikies Elaia is a traditional Cretan stone house offering excellent accommodation in Pitsidia.
Click here for more information and to check the latest prices.
Please, help us protect the beaches in Crete. Respect the environment and don’t leave any trash on the beach.
Have you heard about Matala before?
Let me know in the comments below!
You might also want to read these articles about the island of Crete:
- Discover the Most Stunning Archaeological Sites in Crete – A guide to visiting the most important archaeological sites in Crete.
- Gavdos, Crete: The Only Guide to the Island you Need – A guide to the small island of Gavdos, off the Cretan coast.
- Top Nudist Beaches in Crete: Complete Insider’s Guide – A guide to the best naturist beaches on the island.
- Day Trip to Chrissi Island, Crete: Super Guide to Visit – A guide to the heavenly island of Chrissi.
- Balos Beach Crete: Complete Insider’s Guide – A visit guide to Balos Beach and Lagoon.
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About the author of this blog:
Gabi has been living in Crete for the last five years. Here, she juggles being a solo mom, hosting culinary tours in the summer, translating, and writing for The Tiny Book and her other blogs.
She’s written for Greek Reporter, published three travel guides about Greece, and had more glasses of frappe than any regular person would be able to handle.