Life is today, tomorrow never comes” That’s one of the many signs you can read when you reach Matala, a popular destination on the rather solitary southern coast of Crete. A visit to Matala is one of those things that every travel book will say that you have to do when visiting Crete. The place is really beautiful, and even just one day spent there is enough to feel its vibe and connect with the hippie side of Crete. So, let’s discover which are the best things to do in Matala during your holidays in Crete.
What to do in Matala, Crete
- What to do in Matala, Crete
- Why you should include Matala in your Crete road trip
- Matala map & distances from the rest of Crete
- Getting to Matala from north Crete: How to reach Matala from Heraklion
- Getting to Matala from south Crete: The road to Matala from Ierapetra
- Best things to do in Matala, Crete
- Matala in Greek mythology
- Archaeological sites near Matala
- Best places to visit near Matala
- Where to sleep: Matala and other villages
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 back and leave if you find that a doesn’t have what you were looking for.
In my opinion, find that car travel in Crete is the best way to go about and to really 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. If you are hoping to find spectacular, solitary beaches, then forget it. Set your GPS to another destination and go somewhere else. Matala is not the best beach in Crete, but there’s definitely a lot to see there. Even if it’s just for a day.
So let’s see now what are the things to expect when visiting Matala!
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.
INSIDER’S TIP: If you are in Heraklion, a visit to the hippie village of Matala is among the top things to do in the region.
Getting to Matala from north Crete: How to reach Matala from Heraklion
Getting to Matala if you depart from Heraklion is probably the wisest way to go. 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 (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.
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 Moires. Here you can decide to stop and pay a visit to the Archaeological Site of Festos. If that’s what you want, stay on the road and follow the signs to the 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 driving the Gortinas – Matalon road, turn right and follow the signs. The path 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 is able to 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
If you are coming from the southeast, it will take you some more time to get there. The trip from Ierapetra to Matala lasts about 3 hours, it’s a bit bendier and can get tedious at times, but there are a few tips you can consider and that can make the trip more enjoyable.
The first time we did this, right after the departure, our first stop was Myrtos, about 15 km from Ierapetra. The village has a beautiful beach and it’s worth a short visit. The village is rather small but very characteristic.
>> Check this property if you loved Myrtos and want to spend a night or two <<
The beach 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, reachable on foot and with a nice view of the sea.
If you 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. There, the mountain landscape is dotted with colorful honey bee boxes, abundant and fragrant thyme bushes, and lots of olive trees.
Ano Viannos is divided in half by the main road. 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 for a break, have a glass of homemade orange juice and a cup of strong Greek coffee, stretch your legs, and get back in the car, there’s still a long way to Matala.
>> If you’d like to rest some more and depart once again after a good night’s sleep, check this unique lodging opportunity in Viannos <<
Best things to do in Matala, Crete
Checking the local hippie art is another of the great things to do in Matala, Crete. Here, a carved tree at the entrance of Matala.
So, once you’ve made it to Matala, there’s a lot you can explore. Let’s see which are the best things that Matala has to offer.
Discover the beach of 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. The beach is fairly long and wide but tends to get very crowded too almost in every season. Matala is, indeed, one of the most popular destinations on the island. Keep that in mind to avoid any unexpected frustration.
The beach is a mix of pebbles and sand and one thing that I found disturbing, maybe because I was not expecting it, is that once you are in the sea, it’s nothing but shallow. As soon as you enter the sea, it gets deep quite quickly, something you might want to consider if you travel with small kids.
On the positive side, being a rather deep bay, and bein embraced by hills (the famous caves we will discuss next), Matala is well protected from the strong winds. There are sea currents as well so be careful.
In a nutshell, the sea in Matala it’s not calm and shallow. So, if on one hand, it’s not ideal for small kids, on the other, it is a great spot for divers and for submarine experiences.
Explore Matala caves
Different sources agree that Matala’s caves are work of men who carved them out of the cliffs on the north side of the beach, and they are thousands of years old.
The caves in Matala are thought to belong to the Early Christian period (others believe them even older, considering them tombs from the Roman times) but there is no fact proving any speculation.
However, there are some of them that are not just simply caves, they have windows, porches, and even carved seats and beds. For many, the caves of Matala were used as homes thousands of years ago.
It’s possible to visit the caves, but it’s not allowed to settle for the night. There’s a protective fence and a small fee to visit.
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.
>> 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!
The village is colorful, there are nice bars that come alive with music in the evening, there are also lots of craft shops as well as a few small churches along the main road.
Other interesting places to visit in Matala are the bookstores, most of them 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’re into elephant pants, sarongs, and hippie outfits, handmade leather sandals, and crochet bags, there are a few special places to check in the main square.
Finally, and for families with kids – but also for the child still living in you – the colorful roads painted by visitors who especially gather for the occasion are really fun.
Where to eat in Matala Beach
The beachside tavernas are colorful, picturesque, and many of them very convenient. In general, they’re not heavily priced, nor truly memorable but the food quality is good. some of them are rather touristic and serve the typical Greek dishes… nothing really special, but fine by me because I love Greek food in general.
We tried 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 great warm loukoumades with tons of local honey. The prices were affordable.
All in all, I liked Matala, the atmosphere and -a little less- 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. I know I would have enjoyed it more had the sea been more child-friendly.
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 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, 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 step-mother of his daughter, Crete.
Archaeological sites near Matala
The archaeological site of Festos (Φαιστός)
One of the best things you can do near Matala is to pay a visit to the Minoan Site of Festos. The archaeological site of Festos (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.
Festos 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). Festos is “Φαιστός” in Greek and you may find it also written as Phaistos, Phaestos or Faistos, but you pronounce it Festòs.
The Minoan Palace of Festos corresponds to a flourishing city which 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, apparently, made of turbulent ingredients and legendary stories. The first Palace of Festos 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 about the most 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 Festos
The unique architecture of the palace, defined as almost perfect, makes Festos the finest and most typical Minoan palace as well as the best-preserved of all.
Maybe the most beautiful characteristic of Festos 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.
In fact, Festos 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 Festos 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.
>> Not in the mood for driving? Check these tours to visit Matala, Faistos, and the south of Crete <<
Hours, tickets, and special fees
The Archaeological Site of Festos is open with 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
Red Beach (Kokkini Ammos)
The Red Beach has slowly turned into a legend in Crete both among locals and with visitors. There is no magic to it anymore because… everyone wants to hike to the 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 all the way up, and then down to get there, but you will be definitely rewarded by the views, both of the sea and the inland.
As its name tells you, it has reddish-golden sand and 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.
>> Read about more naturist beaches in Crete here.
There’s just one canteen on the beach. If you decide to hike, you need to just follow the white arrows signs, there are plenty in Matala. 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 closes 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 Festos or Agia Triada). There is also a beach, maybe a little windy, but very pretty on days without wind. There’s not 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.
Where to sleep: Matala and other villages
Best places to stay in Matala
It’s pretty difficult to find accommodation in Matala if you show up without a reservation, especially during the high season.
But if you plan to book in advance, some of the best places are 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.
>> However, if your accommodation style is to rent a house, check this top-rated home close to Matala <<
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, go for a 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.
>> Check my favorite Airbnb in the area <<
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 expat 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.
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.
Have you heard about Matala before?
Let me know in the comments below!
Travel Plans for Crete?
More Resources to Organize Your Trip!
Start by heading right to my tips to plan a trip to Crete for in-depth details you need to know about Greece. You can also check my post to better know what to pack for a trip to the island or read this info to visit Crete with children!
Get in touch if you need extra help to plan your trip. If you want to tour West Crete, check my guide. Want more? Join my Private Facebook Group to connect with like-minded travelers who love Crete as much as you do!
Make Sure You’ve Got Everything For a Hassle-Free Vacation!
I never move around the islands without my Osprey backpack, a sturdy but light travel partner I just love. For short trips, I carry this little crossbody bag. If I drive, I pack my Nikon D7200 and a good travel guide: Lonely Planet’s Best of Greece & the Greek Islands.
For accommodation, I personally use Booking.com. Traveling to remote places is easier with Discover Cars. Other times, I join organized tours with GetYourGuide, which features anything from cooking lessons to airport transfer!
Are you coming to Crete any time soon?
Get in touch and let me know!
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