Spinalonga is a small island on the northeastern coast of Crete, right in front of the exclusive seaside resort of Elounda, and not far from the city of Agios Nikolaos.
However, there’s more to Spinalonga than that. The island’s tragic past and rich history fascinate everyone who visits. It even inspired author Victoria Hislop to write The Island, a best-seller since its publication.
If you’re planning a visit, keep these tips handy and get ready for a day trip to Spinalonga island.
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Best hotels in Lasithi
Affordable: Porto Maltese and Katia Apartment in town.
Mid-range: Ostria Apartments in Ammoudara or Villa Olga.
Luxury: Elounda Peninsula in Elounda and Miramare Resort in Agios.
Check also Rental Homes in Agios Nikolaos and Best Elounda Resorts.
Getting Ready for a Spinalonga Tour: General Information for the Trip
The Island of Spinalonga, also officially known as Kalydon, is located on the gulf of Elounda, along the coast of the Spinalonga peninsula (also known locally as Big Spinalonga, Kalydon, or Kolokitha). It’s in the regional unit of Lasithi, eastern Crete, very close to Agios Nikolaos, the capital city of the region.
– 67 km from Heraklion.
– 15,5 km from Agios Nikolaos.
– 4,8 km from Elounda.
– 800 m (5 to10-minute boat trip) from Plaka.
Get Ready for Crete!
RESOURCES TO BOOK YOUR TRIP:
Book your flight: I use Skyscanner to compare prices before booking a plane ticket.
Book your ferry: When ferries are more convenient than air travel, I use Ferryhopper.
Book your accommodation: I’ve tried many different platforms for accommodation, but none of them beats the advantages of Booking.com.
Book your car: The best way to find an affordable car to rent is to use a powerful search engine that compares all the rental companies in the market. I use Discover Cars.
Don’t forget travel insurance: Things can go wrong at times, but travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I recommend Safety Wing for peace of mind.
– From April 1st until October 31st, 8.30 am – 8.30 pm, daily
– According to the official website, Spinalonga is closed in winter (from Nov. 1st to Mar. 31st) but opens on weekends with good weather conditions. For more accurate information call +30 28410 22462 / 28361 or check this site.
Full ticket €8.00, reduced €4.00. This fee is paid on the island and has no relation with the boat ticket.
The first boats of the day depart from Plaka at around 9.00 am. The first departures from Elounda are from 9.30 to 10.00 in the morning.
Location of Spinalonga on the Map
The small islet of Spinalonga is one of Crete’s most popular touristic places, receiving a high quantity of visitors, especially during the summer months.
It’s a fortified island which you can visit in about one hour, and it’s mostly famous for its past as one of Greece’s leper colonies during the last century.
The island of Spinalonga, now open to the public for daily visits, has also been the subject of several books, a best-seller novel, and a famous Greek TV series. Spinalonga was also featured in the lesser-known short film, Last Words (W. Herzog).
Can you Visit Spinalonga?
Of course, and it’s quite simple to visit Spinalonga if you’re traveling around the Lasithi region, especially for those staying in Agios Nikolaos and Elounda, as well as for those based in the nearby villages of Neapolis or Mochlos, but also in the mountain villages of Kritsa and Kroustas.
Day Trip to Spinalonga Island
Day trips from Heraklion and Sitia are also a possibility, both by booking an organized tour or traveling on your own. If you intend to travel to Spinalonga from Rethymno or Chania, I will recommend planning for an extra day in the area and spending the night.
There are different options to reach Spinalonga. Boats depart from the nearby small village of Plaka, but also from the port of Elounda and Agios Nikolaos. Let’s see them in detail:
Boat from Plaka to Spinalonga
Departing from Plaka is probably the fastest and the cheapest way to reach Spinalonga. The tiny village of Plaka is located right in front of the islet, less than a km away. The boat trip from Plaka lasts 10 minutes or less. Remember, however, that this option is not available from October to March.
The price of the ticket from Plaka at the time of writing (November 2019) is €10 per person. It’s a good idea to talk with the boat owners of Plaka if you’re part of a big group to discuss a better price.
In that case, you can also arrange a pickup time if you’re interested in a longer visit. Check the Plaka Boat cooperation for more details and an official timetable.
Boat Trip to Spinalonga Island from Elounda
The most convenient way to reach Spinalonga is from Elounda. Get to the main square of the village, right in front of the port, and choose one of the many available Spinalonga boat operators on the shore.
If you travel to Elounda by car, you can find a parking spot near the harbor, however, it tends to get crowded in summer (to avoid crowds, the earlier you arrive, the better).
We booked our tour with this company and I was happy to see that the boat navigates close around Spinalonga. This offers great photo opportunities and shows you a different perspective of the island which you would otherwise miss once on land. Check booking info and availability here.
The price of the ticket from Elounda at the time of writing (November 2019) is €12 per person. When departing from Elounda, it’s fairly easy to discuss how much time you want to spend on the island since many are the boats covering this route. The trip lasts about 30 minutes.
Boat Trip to Spinalonga from Agios Nikolaos
Bigger ships cover the route Agios Nikolaos – Spinalonga every day. This means that you’ll be traveling with more people, but also that you won’t find this trip available off-season.
These organized trips normally last several hours, they are more expensive and usually include a swim and BBQ on the beautiful beach of Kolokitha (Spinalonga peninsula). To check about the prices, visit this website.
Day Tour from Heraklion to Spinalonga
If you’re staying in Heraklion and don’t feel like driving to Elounda, you can pick a day tour to the area.
You won’t only tour Spinalonga with an official guide, but the itinerary also includes a visit to Agios Nikolaos, Plaka, and Elounda. You can see down below that Viator has good offers from Rethymno and Heraklion, remember to check the reviews before booking!
The History of Spinalonga
According to different sources, Spinalonga was an area protecting the port of the ancient city of Olous (today partly submerged) also known as Elounda (modern Elounda). Different findings have been discovered in this ancient important city, the ruins can be visited in the Kolokitha peninsula.
Also occupied during the two Byzantine periods of the island (the second of which ended in 1204), Spinalonga was a remarkable and strategic place in the Venetian times.
The Venetian Period of Spinalonga
Elounda was a strategic port for the Venetians who built saltworks in the shallow waters. It was an important commercial port for the Venetian merchants as well.
Due to Crete’s unique position in the Mediterranean, piracy was a common danger. The Ottoman empire always represented a threat, so it was logical to fortify areas close to strategic ports. This took place in the main cities, but also on the island of Gramvousa, Souda, and Spinalonga.
The Venetians built the bastion of Spinalonga in 1579. The high double walls and towers are still well-preserved in different areas.
Spinalonga was one of the longest-lasting Venetian outposts (1715) when the Ottoman Empire had already conquered Crete more than 45 years before.
The Ottoman Period of Spinalonga
The Venetians handed Spinalonga to the Ottomans in 1715, and both Christian and Turkish families settled on the island. More Turkish hid and established on the island during the Cretan fights for independence. Finally, in 1903, the last Turkish families left Spinalonga.
The Leper Colony of Spinalonga
Maybe the most famous part of the history of Spinalonga is the one that starts with the establishment, in 1903, of a leper colony active until 1957. Since a cure for leprosy had not been found, the affected ones were sent to live isolated on Spinalonga.
Despite its long and turbulent history, today Spinalonga is mainly known as the Leper Island or (sadly enough), as the Island of the living dead.
DID YOU KNOW? The word leprosy comes from the Greek word λέπος (lépos) – skin and λεπερός (leperós) – scaly man (source: Wikipedia).
Without a cure for leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) the condition was regarded with horror. Those affected carried the burden of stigma and isolation.
The most common solution was isolation in a leprosarium or a dedicated hospital. Through the centuries and in many areas of the world, islands were usually devoted as a leprosarium as well.
And an island like Spinalonga was an ideal place: It was still close to Crete to allow for the transfer of patients and the delivery of supplies, but far enough from the coast.
Initially, patients arrived from Crete, but after the unification with Greece (1913), the island also received patients from the mainland. Later on, Spinalonga was classified as an International Hospital for Leprosy.
Life on the Leper Colony of Spinalonga
Despite the stigma and the first years of terrible conditions for the first inhabitants, as time went by, and mostly after the 1930s, residents of Spinalonga managed to lead a rather normal life. Many had the privacy of a house, there were shops, and funds would arrive from the government.
Life was bearable, the residents organized their community and voted. They also established a school, an open market, a hospital, a cinema, and a kafenio. They cultivated aloe and used the plant for treating their sore skin. On the island, there were also churches and a cemetery.
The island closed in 1957 when an antibiotic cure for leprosy was found. Every resident left while a priest remained, until 1962, to maintain the Greek Orthodox traditions in terms of mourning times.
After 1957, the island remained abandoned until the beginning of the ’70s, when the local authorities started excavation and restoration works.
The area has been a protected archaeological area since the 1970s. Today, it’s possible to visit the colony but also the museum that exposes different artifacts from the different periods of the history of Spinalonga.
The Book about Spinalonga
There is more than one book about Spinalonga, I prefer Spinalonga – the True Story – Document, by the local author Anna Giakoumaki. It was written after over 10 years of research and it’s mostly based on true documents.
However, and as you might be expecting, the book that really put Spinalonga in front of a massive audience was The island. It was written by Victoria Hislop, a mostly fictional novel based on the history of the leper colony. It also resulted in one of Greece’s most famous TV series, To Nisi. You can watch the series online here.
What to See on Spinalonga Island
When embarking on a visit, don’t miss these Spinalonga sights and places to see…
Through the years this has been known as the Dante’s Gate or the Tunnel of Tears, as a matter of fact, those going through this passage were certain they were destined to remain forever on the island.
As a consequence, this entrance was their last connection with the rest of the world. And the beginning of a completely new, and unknown life.
Spinalonga has two entrances, the main gate you will use as a visitor (Dante’s Gate) and a second one located close to the disinfection chamber and has access to a tiny pebbled beach. From this gate the island received supplies.
The Museum and the Village
Right after the tunnel and once inside the colony, you will notice a line of some small colorful buildings, formerly shops.
These now host permanent exhibitions dedicated to showcasing findings from different eras (the board games found are impressive!) as well as some medical instruments related to the leper colony.
Once past the museum, you can take a closer look at the abandoned buildings in the old village. The most imposing building is the hospital (closed to the public), standing higher over the road.
You can also see the wood ovens in some of the houses, a Venetian cistern, and a garrison, later on, used as the disinfection chamber.
Next up, check also the small church of Agios Nikolaos and the Turkish mosque.
Pay attention to the maps along the road, they tell you where you’re standing, what route to follow, and what buildings you can see from that position.
The Churches on Spinalonga
The first church you will encounter as you follow the path is right in the middle of the village. This church is dedicated to Saint Panteleimon the Healer and there, the priest lived on the island.
Saint Panteleimon dates back to 1709. Every year, there is a pilgrimage to the church to commemorate those who suffered and died on the island.
High up the main road, and close to the hospital, stands the second church of Spinalonga, Agios Nikolaos.
Opposite the cemetery, there’s a church of Agios Giorgos. From here, there are spectacular views of the nearby peninsula, the sea, and the bastions of Spinalonga.
One of the most significant places on the island is the small cemetery on the northeast bastion (Donato Bastion). I found that this moment during my Spinalonga tour was definitely the most touching… There are a few graves bearing no names. A plaque stands in memory of all those who suffered, hoped, lived, and perished on the Greek island of Spinalonga.
Finally, don’t forget to look to the shore to understand what the people of the island might have felt being so close… And still, so far from the land.
Practical Tips to Get Ready for a Spinalonga Tour
Unless you visit in winter, Spinalonga is hot and arid because there’s very little shadow. There’s just one place where to get cold drinks (therefore rather expensive). We visited in November, and it was about 30 degrees (86 °F).
>> In Winter, the island closes at 14.30 and the price of the entrance ticket is reduced, this is a great opportunity to tour Spinalonga if you’re traveling on a budget in Crete off the main season. <<
First, carry plenty of water. On the other hand, sunscreen, and a hat are a must too.
Depending on your interest, an hour should be enough for a visit. I stopped for pictures and to see the museum in detail, but I also walked on different routes. So, it took me two hours to see the island really well, but you can easily see it in less time. Maps are available and exposed all over the itinerary signposts on the island.
Since it’s an archaeological site, alcohol and smoking are forbidden from the main gate until you exit via the cemetery door. It’s also forbidden to visit with pets, wear a swimsuit, use tripods or fly drones over the island.
- When you visit Spinalonga, please avoid leaving your name carved on the cactus!
Where to Stay Near Spinalonga
There are endless accommodation opportunities along the coast of Plaka and Elounda. In this area, you will find some of the most exclusive resorts and villas in Greece. If you’re more on a budget, check prices and availability in the hotels and rooms in Agios Nikolaos.
Have you ever heard about the story of Spinalonga before?
Let me know in the comments below!
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About the author of this blog:
Gabi has been living in Crete for the last five years. On the island, she juggles being a solo mom, hosting culinary tours in summer, translating, and freelance writing.
She’s written for Greek Reporter, published several travel guides about Greece, and had more glasses of frappe than any regular person would be able to handle.
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