Lovely Matala Beach is one of the most famous beaches on Crete. Not necessarily because of its fascinating Minoan and Roman history, or even because of its picturesque hill of caves, but mostly because of its status as a major hippie hangout in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Located at the mouth of a scenic valley and enclosed by tall cliffs, Matala Beach, Crete is idyllic and boasts crystal-clear water. Just offshore are the wonderful Paximadia islands and the beach is included in the region’s Natura 2000 protected natural habitat.
Not surprising then, that first the hippies and later mainstream tourists from all over the globe began to make their way to Matala Beach to enjoy its unique combination of beauty, history and archaeology. Not to mention the story that claims Matala Beach was the very spot where the Greek god Zeus swam to shore disguised as a bull, carrying the princess Europa on his back. Some symbolic metaphors immediately come to mind but, upon further consideration of Greece’s recent economic struggles, they don’t really add up.
Nonetheless, this former fishing village turned tourist hotspot is just as engaging today as it was decades ago. While undoubtedly popular, it remains free of major resorts. There are plenty of mid-range accommodation options, though, a nice campground and more friendly tavernas than you can shake an extra-long Greek fishing rod at.
Is Matala Beach Worth Visiting?
Yes, and for different reasons depending on your particular interests. It is loaded with ancient history, starting with the impressive caves and extending to many Minoan and Roman ruins in the area.
Meanwhile, beach lovers will appreciate the standard charms of its sheltered bay and soft sand. And through it all, Matala Beach somehow still retains much of the laid-back charm of its days as a key spot on the Mediterranean hippie trail.
Matala Beach Map
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Sometimes among the hippie reputation, ancient history and modern tourism, the fabulous spectacle of Matala Beach itself can get a little bit lost in the shuffle. But the beach is objectively gorgeous – over 300 metres long, scenic bay, clear water and lots of tamarisk trees providing shade.
The beach is more fine gravel than fine sand, although still much softer than many of the rockier beaches on Crete, the sea floor is fairly rocky in some spots and the waves can get a bit rough at times but, overall, this is a pretty ideal bay.
The tall, rocky hill on the north side of the beach is riddled with man-made caves, one of which is even close enough to the sea to be used as a diving spot.
Matala Beach also has all the necessary facilities – sunbeds, umbrellas, showers, toilets, snack bars, water sports, volleyball courts and even lifeguards in high season. The beach bars lining the sand are great places for lunch or a post-beach drink, especially at sunset when the sun drops directly between the points of the bay.
Check out our complete list of The Best Beaches on Crete
Back in the Free Love days of the 60’s and 70’s, hippies discovered superb Matala Beach in Greece and its inviting caves, which they eagerly commandeered for their communal lifestyle. At this time there was nothing there except a tiny fishing village but over time its popularity grew to the point it began attracting famous musicians such as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Joan Baez. Saskatoon’s very own Joni Mitchell actually wrote the song “Carey” about Matala Beach.
Eventually the Matala Beach hippies became too much for the local church, however, which “evicted” the flower children in the late 70’s, sending them packing to other Crete hangout spots like Preveli Beach and Vai Beach. Recently, however, the hippie spirit has been revived in the area, with a growing art community building on Matala Beach’s hippie past.
Matala Beach Caves
This fascinating collection of caves carved into the soft white limestone at the north end of the beach is the most notable feature of Matala Beach. There are many different theories as to the origins of the Matala caves but most seem to think they were initially dug as tombs during the Roman era.
Many of them also have separate rooms, stairways, windows and cooking areas showing that they were eventually also used as living quarters (long before the hippies arrived, presumably).
The caves are now a protected area. You can visit (€2) and explore to your heart’s content but overnight stays are prohibited. The lower caves are easy to access but you will have to do some scrambling on the slippery limestone to access the top ones. It is best to wear good shoes (as opposed to your beach flip flops) and take care while climbing (especially on the ones close to the cliff edge).
There are even some submerged caves you can explore by snorkelling, kayaking or signing up for a boat tour.
Matala Beach Festival
If the everyday hippie vibe of Matala Beach isn’t quite enough for you, every June they also hold a big 3-day festival/party. Doing their best to recreate those “flower power” days, this free festival involves a lot of music (on 3 separate stages) featuring well-known musicians from both Greece and abroad.
Often referred to as the Matala Music Festival, there are also art workshops, theme dances, street painting, an open-air market and a fairly festive amount of drinking and, well, other stuff. Be sure to pack your best beaded headband and fringed coat. No shoes, though.
Not to be forgotten in all the excitement over the beach, bay and caves, Matala village has plenty to recommend it in its own right. While many of the villages around Crete lack much in the way of colour, Matala is filled with murals, street art and colourful buildings.
One of the most famous murals is right next to the beach stating “Today is Life, Tomorrow Never Comes”. Legend has it this was painted to welcome George Harrison of the Beatles. Yes, that George Harrison.
Music is everywhere in Matala village, with many of the bars sporting live acts each night in high season. Plus, if you are the shopping sort you’ll be thrilled to browse the many shops selling crafts, handmade bags, leather sandals, hippie clothing and various trinkets.
The fish tavernas lining the beach are lively and the food is generally very good. And if nothing else, the views and atmosphere are well worth it.
Where to Stay: Matala Beach Hotels
There is a decent variety of Matala Beach Hotels with options that should fit most price ranges.
Boutique Hotel Die Zwei Brüder
At the Boutique Hotel Die Zwei Brüder you can choose from rooms, suites and even two bedroom apartments if you prefer to cook some of your own meals. All the rooms have a deck or terrace with a view. The hotel is very conveniently located just a minute’s walk from the beach, as well as being close to many restaurants and shops. There is an excellent included breakfast that is made with local ingredients.
Hotel Coral Matala
Another within easy walking distance to the beach, Hotel Coral Matala is just enough off the main road to ensure a peaceful stay. The pool and gardens are a great place to relax and cool down.
Things to Do Near Matala Beach
Hike to Matala Red Beach
From the opposite end of the beach from the caves you can follow this scenic trail to Matala Red Beach. It only takes about 30 minutes but you do have to go up and over the hill so it will probably get your heart rate up a bit.
Unfortunately, although the sand is definitely darker at Kokkinos Ammos (Red Sand) it isn’t actually all that red, per se, although from certain angles (and in contrast with the blue water) it can look a little bit red. Ish.
Regardless, it is quiet and secluded (making it a popular nudist spot) and there is good snorkelling in the colourful bay.
Wander Kommos Beach
Also included in the Natura 2000 network, wild Kommos Beach is about 2 kilometres north of Matala Beach (also about 30 minutes on foot). Here you can find the ruins of the former port of Kommos, a unique species of white lily and caretta caretta sea turtle nesting areas.
Of course, it’s not just about nature and history, the beach is pretty nice as well, and there is a small snack shop, sunbeds for rent, showers and a lifeguard on duty in summer. Once again, be prepared to encounter “naturists” baring it all, usually up in the “Potamos” section on the north end.
See the Views from the Agios Panteleimonas Church
While you’re there, be sure to venture up to the nearby church to enjoy some outstanding views over Kommos Beach and out to sea.
See the Vrontisi Monastery
This 14th century Venetian monastery is fully enclosed and was known for its impressive art collection. The famous painter, El Greco, even spent time there. It is considered one of the most well-preserved monasteries of the “Cretan Renaissance” period.
Check Out the Agia Triada Archaeological Site
One of the more underrated Minoan sites, Agia Triada is blissfully quiet and the views out over the Gulf of Messara are stunning.
There are some exceptional Minoan frescoes and vases in this former royal villa. Or maybe it was a rich merchant’s mansion. Or maybe just the fancy starter home for a distant prince or something. Whatever the truth is, it’s quite a nice place.
And pretty quiet. We were the only people there when we visited.
Tour the Minoan Palace of Phaistos
Meanwhile, Phaistos, one of the most important archaeological sites on Crete (which is saying something), is also close by. Here you are likely to find far more visitors than at Agia Triada.
For good reason, though, as this amazing Minoan palace is one of the largest sites on the south coast. One of four Minoan palaces on Crete – and believed to be the oldest – Phaistos boasts a terrific location atop Kastri Hill with views out over the rolling hills. It is a big place so plan to spend at least 1-1.5 hours.
Legend says it was founded by King Minos and first ruled by his brother, Radamanthys. More importantly, however, this is where the famous Phaistos Disc was discovered. Now enjoying a position of prominence in the lauded Heraklion Archaeological Museum, this mysterious disc is one of the best examples of the Minoan language, “Linear A”, also known as “Minoan hieroglyphics”.
Check Out the Gortyna Roman Ruins
A little to the east of Matala Beach you’ll find the captivating Roman ruins of Gortyna. And, although the best-preserved ruins are Roman, the history of Gortyna actually goes back much further.
With discoveries up to 3,000 years old, it was one of the largest Minoan cities, outpacing Phaistos itself by the 3rd century BC and even taking Matala as its own port in Roman times. During this period it was known as Gortys and was the capital of Crete.
Despite being mostly destroyed by the Arabs in the 9th century, there is still proof of habitation all the way up to and through the Byzantine era. On-site information is a bit thin on the ground but it can still be pretty fascinating to explore the engraved rocks, impressive theatre and the ruins of St. Titus Church.
Take a Boat Trip to Preveli Beach
Small tour boats offer day cruises to see the lovely and rather famous Preveli beach. Home to one of two magnificent palm forests on Crete, popular Preveli Beach is one of the most beautiful and photogenic spots on the entire island.
The palm forest is hemmed in by steep cliffs and from above you can see the trees, the river, the beach and the lagoon that splits the beach in two.
For more info, check out: Preveli Beach: How to See Crete’s Spectacular Palm Forest
When to Go: Matala Beach Weather
Like most of Crete, Matala Beach enjoys a very mild climate year-round thanks to the surrounding Mediterranean Sea. Summers are warm (some would say hot) with almost no rain. Most precipitation comes in the winter months, although that is still pretty minimal compared with many coastal cities.
Crete is one of the most southerly islands in Europe and compared to most of the continent the weather remains bearable all year, with the daily average temperature in Matala Beach only dropping as far as 10 / 12 (low/high) in January. Which is why Crete is one of the best places to visit in Europe in winter.
Matala Crete gets very crowded in July and August so it is best to visit in the shoulder seasons if possible. May-June and September-October are perfect for good weather and fewer tourists. It will also be far less crowded early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
How to Get to Matala Beach in Sitia
Public transportation on Crete can be tedious so we highly recommend renting a car so you don’t miss out on any of the best spots. Plus, it is nice to be able to set your own schedule. We find that Discover Cars usually has the best deals in the area.
Matala Beach is easily accessible by car as there is a paved road that goes right there. There are also two large pay parking lots close to the beach, one regular one (cheaper) and one that is covered to provide shade (€4). In high season you may need to arrive early to get a spot (in either one).
Driving Times to Matala Beach in Crete
Heraklion to Matala Beach: 65 km / 1 hr
Preveli Beach to Matala Beach: 65 km / 1.5 hrs
Rethymno to Matala Beach: 80 km / 1.5 hrs
Agios Nikolaos to Matala Beach: 125 km / 1.75 hrs
Lerapetra to Matala Beach: 120 km / 2 hrs
Chania to Matala Beach: 135 km / 2.25 hrs
It is also possible to reach Matala Beach by public transport if you are based in Heraklion as direct KTEL buses travel between Heraklion and Matala Beach twice daily (1.5 hrs). From anywhere else, however, you’ll need to transfer at least once.
Other Gorgeous Beaches Around Crete
If you love Matala Beach, you should probably check out some of the other beautiful beaches on Crete.
Up in the extreme northwestern corner of Crete, you’ll find Balos Beach, the most photographed beach in all of Crete. It can only be reached via rough dirt road or on a boat tour but is still well worth the journey for the spectacular viewpoints and beautiful turquoise water.
What sets Balos Beach apart, however, is the narrow sandy isthmus connecting mainland Crete to tiny Cape Tigani. This isthmus divides the area into a warm, shallow lagoon on one side (south) and a relatively sheltered bay on the other (north).
You may also want to check out our Ultimate Guide to Balos Beach
Rivalling Balos Beach for sheer beauty, Elafonisi Beach is tucked away in the southwestern corner of Crete about an hour from Kissamos.
The narrow, pink sand isthmus separates two great beaches and shallow swimming areas, features sand dunes and leads to an island with caves, a church and phenomenal views.
Have a look at Elafonisi Beach: Is it Worth Visiting?
Not far from the major city of Chania, Seitan Limania features a small but incredibly photogenic rocky gorge leading to a miniscule beach sheltered by tall cliffs on each side.
It only gets a few hours of sun each day but is worth a visit for the view from the top alone (although we would highly recommend taking on the rugged 10-minute descent to explore more closely).
Find out how to visit at Seitan Limania: Guide to Crete’s Most Unique Beach
Relatively few tourists make it to all the way to Vai Beach, located at the extreme eastern end of Crete. However, it is similar to Preveli Beach in that it is home to a large, beautiful forest of palm trees.
It also has some great viewpoints in the hills surrounding the beach, as well as several secluded coves and there are even some more Minoan ruins nearby.
For more info, check out Vai Beach: Stunning Palm Forest and Ancient Ruins
Matala Beach Summary
Another beach on Crete, Greece that started out as a hippie enclave, today Matala Beach still retains much of that relaxed vibe. With its colourful buildings, varied art scene, a nice, sheltered bay ringed by welcoming tavernas and limestone cliffs filled with ancient caves, it is sure to be one of the highlights of your visit to Crete.
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