Matala is one of the most famous beaches of Crete, for both its beauty and its history – in addition to ancient history, this beach was also famous in more recent eras, particularly the 1970’s. It’s a must visit destination in Crete.
Where is Matala, Crete Located?
Matala is on the gorgeous south coast of Crete on the Libyan sea, a pristine harbor on the Bay of Messara. This is the Heraklion regional unit, roughly in the middle of the island at one of the widest sections.
How to Get to Matala, Crete
It’s very easy to get to Matala. If you are arriving at the Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport in Heraklion, you’ll find your car at Rental Center Crete directly at Heraklion airport, so you can be on the road in no time. From the airport, the main road that runs along the north coast connects to one of the main roads connecting across the island to the coast of the Libyan sea in the south. The road takes you straight to Matala, and the 66 km drive takes about an hour.
If you’re arriving in Crete on a ferry, a car can be waiting for you at Heraklion harbor so that you can be on the road as soon as you dock.
If you prefer to take public transportation, you’ll find buses leaving a couple of times a day from the Heraklion KTEL station.
The History of Matala
Matala has a long history! This famous beach is known for the caves in the wall of the cliff that lines the beach. These caves are in recent history very famous for attracting the international counter-culture in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s – hippies (flower children) came to enjoy the natural environment and live free, making their homes in the caves.
They however were not the first to make use of these caves, or this splendid beach. In fact, mythology has it that Zeus – in the guise of a bull – brought the Princess Europa to the beach of Matala on his back.
In the era of the Minoans – the Bronze Age civilization of Crete – Matala served as the port of the Palace of Phaistos. Later, in the Roman era, this was the port of Gortyn.
Historians estimate that the caves were used as tombs in the Roman or the Christian period. This area was certainly inhabited, as ruins under the sea also attest. You can see them if you go snorkeling in the Bay of Messara.
In the 20th century and before, this was simply a quiet fishing village, one of many, before the hippies discovered it and catapulted it to international fame. It’s even in a song by Joni Mitchell.
Other famous names of that era who spent some time enjoying the Matala sun and lifestyle are Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan.
In recent years, Matala has become more developed so you’ll find plenty of accommodations and facilities. However, it also remains unspoiled: the beach is also part of the Natura 2000 network – a protected natural habitat.
What to See and Do in Matala
There is plenty to do in Matala itself. This is one of the most famous beaches of Crete. It’s quite large – 250 meters long and nearly 50 meters wide. You can try out some fun watersports. You can snorkel (keeping your eyes open for ruins) and you can explore the caves in the cliffs.
Enjoy a beach holiday – Gorgeous Beaches Near Matala
Matala is an extraordinary beach. In addition to being awarded the Blue Flag – a designation that reflects not only the superb quality of its waters but also the environmentally sustainable practices of the beaches upkeep and its cleanliness and safety – the gold standard in beach awards. This is a full service beach, with showers and toilets, a life guard, and first aid. You’ll also find beach bars for socializing and refreshments.
Just south of Matala is the beach of “Kokkinos Ammos” – this means ‘Red Sand,’ and it really is – striking by the blue of the sea. Like Matala, this was a popular spot with the flour children. Unlike Matala, it kept a little more of the free spirit. This is one of the more nudism-friendly beaches of Crete.
Kommos beach is 2 km north of Matala. This is a beach protected by historic preservation laws, so it’s a little wilder. The ruins of the port of Kommos are on the beach. Both this beach as well as Kokkinos Ammos also belong to the Natura 2000 network along with Matala. In the case of Kommos beach, this is a nesting area for the famous caretta caretta sea turtle, the beloved protected species of Crete. You can also see a type of white lily growing in the sand. There is a cantina and sunbeds, showers and a lifeguard. But if you have grown tired of civilization, and textiles, you can join the naturists who are said to prefer the beach’s northern part, called ‘Potamos’ or ‘Potamoserma’.
Stena Beach – 20 km from Matala but a 40 minute drive on a winding road – must be the southernmost beach of mainland Crete (we say “mainland” because Crete has its own little islands, too). This secluded, enclosed bay of jewel-toned sea and a small rocky island in the middle of it is like a dream. It’s a wild beach, so bring what you need and by all means bring a mask and a snorkel – it’s a wonderful place to explore.
Activities Around Matala
Matala is a great region to really get in touch with nature. Archelon – the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece – has a center where you can learn more about their activities.
Take a day cruise to explore yet another beach – boats leave from Matala for another lovely beach on the south coast – the famous Preveli beach. Many years ago, this beach was only accessible by hike.The beach is in its own cove at the mouth of a river, the banks of which are lined with a palm tree forest. It’s absolutely lovely. A huge set of stairs climbs the cliff for stunning views. While you are up here, visit the magnificent late 16th century monastery. The monks here have been active in all Cretan struggles, including the resistance movement in WWII during the German occupation- an inspiring tale.
Cultural Excursions around Matala
This part of Crete is very rich in history and mythology. There’s a cape south of Matala, thought to be the Cape Nyssos of the Odyssea, where the ship of Menelaus was wrecked. And we already spoke of the tryst of Zeus and Europa.
There is a lot to see around Matala if you are interested in history. Phaistos is one of the four Minoan Palaces discovered in Crete (the others are Kato Zakros – on the eastern edge of the island, Malia – east of Heraklion, Kydonia – buried beneath modern-day Chania, and of course the show-stopper – Knossos, restored so drastically by Sir Arthur Evans at the turn of the 20th century.) Dramatically situated on the slope of Kastri hill, overlooking the fertile Messara plain, the ruins of Phaistos, believed to be the oldest of the palaces of Crete. The famous Phaistos disc, a record of “Minoan hieroglyphics” – Minoan linear A. was found here, one of the treasures of the Archaeological museum in Heraklion.
You can also visit Ancient Gortys (not to be confused with the ancient city of the same name in the Peloponnese), a fantastic archaeological site with 3,000 years of history.This was one of the large cities in the Minoan period, and in the 3rd C BC it surpassed Phaistos in size. During the Roman era, the capital of Crete was Gortys. The city thrived until finally being destroyed by the Arabs, in 828 AD. It has monuments from various eras, including of Byzantine Christianity. You’ll see the famous inscription the “Law of Gortyn,” the Roman Odeon, the Roman baths, and the luxurious “Praetorium” – the headquarters of the province of Crete and Cyrenaica (Libya).
The Vrontisi Monastery is a gem of the “Cretan Renaissance” – a Cretan monastery of the 14th century (the Venetian period) that was rich in art. In fact, according to tradition, the great painter El Greco (did you know he was Cretan) is supposed to have studied here for a time. The Venetian era monastery is enclosed, like many of the famous monasteries of the era.
This beautiful landscape is rugged and dramatic. But it also produces some interesting wine. Visit the Kourkoulou winery, a gorgeous hour and 20 minute drive that takes you through Spili – make sure to stop and see the Lions’ fountain. This new family winery specializes in propagating ancient indigenous Cretan varietals – terroir with serious roots.
The south coast of Crete is famous for its superb beaches, its cultural attractions, and above all its unspoiled character. This is a beautiful area of Crete to explore with a rental car.