With shoulder season rapidly descending into full-on off season in Crete, we decided to make tracks for Paleochora (pronounced Pally-ah-hora, at least that’s how I pronounce it), one of the more remote spots on our Crete bucket list. Even though we still aren’t completely sure what the correct spelling is in English (in general, Greeks don’t seem to care how things are spelled in English as long as they sound more or less right) – is it Paleochora Crete? Palaiochora? Paleohora? Palaiohora? Is it okay if we just call it Pally for short? However you spell it, the name basically means old city, which isn’t nearly as exotic as I would have guessed.
You certainly can’t call Paleochora undiscovered as it is a very popular beach town on a small peninsula, reputedly one of the fastest growing in all of Crete. However, it is very much a beach town, with very little else that draws people to the end of this tiny peninsula in a distant corner of south west Crete. Meaning things start getting awfully quiet when the temperature starts dropping in late fall. Which seemed to be around, oh, the day we arrived.
Actually, it wasn’t overly cold during our one-week stay but the wind was howling the entire time, making if feel much more like winter. Greek winter, of course, which bears no resemblance to Canadian winter, and which is obviously one of the big reasons we’re here. Nonetheless, we did get some sun here and there, enough to do a bit of hiking, explore some nearby villages and visit a few more of Crete’s amazing beaches.
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History of Paleochora Crete
Built on the site of Kalamydi, an ancient Dorian settlement, not a whole lot of detail is available about the town until the 13th century, which is when world powers of the time began fighting over it like the last deep-fried shrimp in the basket. First the Byzantines, then the Genoese, then the Venetians, who managed to hang on long enough to build a fortress, known as Selino Kastelli.
Of course, it takes more than a small hilltop fort to hold an island the size of Crete, and about 50 years later the Cretans captured it back. Then promptly lost it back to the Venetians again. Fast forward a few more centuries, a few major sackings (that dastardly pirate Barbarossa was at it again), some Ottoman occupation, enter the British, at which point things got really heated (a pretty common pattern), emancipation (of a sort), repopulation from the island of Gavdos, WWII and the Germans arrive on the scene, then move on to deal with bigger problems, agriculture gains importance in the area, enter the 1970’s and a hippie invasion, then, voila, modern tourism and “beach town” status.
Anyway, all of this is mostly my way of explaining that there is a lot of history in this area, including ruins, churches, forts, statues and, most of all, stories. Very little of which I can explain in detail or, realistically, remember very clearly. To us, it is mainly “a lot of cool old stuff”. Which, for us, is enough.
Yes, I know the title specifically says that Paleochora is about more than just beaches. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have great beaches. Is that a double negative? Triple? Anyway, you get the picture. There are many things to keep you occupied during your visit to Paleochora Crete, but you’re still going to want to check out all the amazing beaches.
Many of the beaches around Paleochora are rocky, which is why the long sandy stretch at Pachia Ammos, right in town, is so popular. And the entire region is very popular with nudists/naturist/naked dudes, most of whom occupy the smaller, more private coves at the ends of the beaches. And all the beaches have crystal clear water.
Beaches right in Paleochora:
The main beach in Paleochora, Pachia Ammos is a long, curved stretch of soft sand (by Greek standards) on the west side of the peninsula. The name could mean “Sandy Beach”, “Coarse Sand” or “Thick Sand”, depending on whether you go by local preference, Google Maps or Google Translate. And how much you ignore basic logic when using these tools.
It is a Blue Flag beach (officially recognized for cleanliness, facilities and environmental practices) with sun beds, umbrellas, showers, bars and even a lifeguard in the summer. The coves farthest from town are often staked out by nudists and there are great sunsets any place along Pahia Ammos.
This smaller, rockier beach is on the east side of the peninsula right across from a street lined with many of Paleochora’s best restaurants. You can also get loungers and umbrellas here and the views down the dramatic eastern coastline are impressive.
Beaches West of Paleochora:
The first beach west of Pachia Ammos, Kalamia is scenic and rocky but the water can be rough and you need to take care among the rocks.
Psilos Volakos Beach
This tiny little cove isn’t quite sandy but does feature smaller, more comfortable pebbles than full-on rocks. It is an adorable little place with loungers and even a small snack/drink hut.
Beach might be a strong word, although there are some places to relax near the water, but most people come to Karavopetra to get a look at the huge rocks.
Another beach that is small and scenic, Plakaki is a good choice when trying to escape the main crowds in high season and to watch the dramatically crashing waves.
Azzurro Beach and Alonaki Beach
From a distance, Azzurro and Alonaki are easily mistaken as one long beach. However, for whatever reason, they are considered two different beaches, presumably divided by the Pelekaniotikos River.
This long stretch of sand is wide and open and the water is shallow, making it a good spot for families with young children. And they even have their own version of the popular Instagram swings popping up in scenic spots all over the world. Unfortunately, the crooked stick hanging from some frayed twine seemingly hasn’t taken the world by storm like they imagined.
While the walk (or very short drive) to Grammeno Beach is not at all inspiring (despite all those beaches along the road), this wind-swept little peninsula is absolutely worth the effort. The hills across the road are covered in greenhouses thanks to a slightly warmer microclimate. Meanwhile, the sharply curved beach offers up views, calm, shallow water and some minor exploration opportunities.
It will take about 30 minutes to walk to the end of the peninsula and back, through sand dunes, past rocky blowholes and stopping to either climb or just admire the huge rock offering up a panoramic view of the best beach in the Paleochora area.
Small and wavy (as you might expect from the name), it is a photogenic spot right before the town of Kountouras.
Also rocky, it is at least larger and roomier in high season. It is also one of the few surfing spots in the area.
Another well-equipped beach not far past Kountouras, Krios Beach is large, has lots of facilities (mostly at the east end) and is another that is quite popular with nudists (who mainly stick to the west end).
Beaches to the east of Paleochora:
Despite what the map and many other websites say, in our opinion, Gialaskari Beach is the only real “beach” in the immediate vicinity east of Paleochora. The rest are really just spots where the terrain is marginally less steep and rocky, allowing you to (very carefully) find a way into the water (if you’re into that sort of thing).
Don’t get me wrong – the area east of Paleochora is fantastic, definitely our favourite section. Huge hills, steep cliffs, massive rocks, fascinating tide pools and an excellent hiking trail running all the way to, well, the other end of Crete. We’ll get to that in our hiking section. But the beaches? Meh.
Located roughly a kilometre before Gialiskari, Keratides Beach is wide and very quiet. The mix of sand and rocks appeals more to swimmers and wanderers than sunbathers.
Also spelled “Anydri”, this pebbly section at the bottom of the aptly named Anidri Gorge (which came first, the gorge or the beach?) is a great place to take photos and an even better place to go for a dip after hiking all the way down the gorge from Azogires.
The best and most organized beach on this side of Paleochora, Gialiskari Beach occupies an impressive point so you can choose your side depending on the direction of the wind. There are good facilities – tavernas, kayak and pedal boat rental, sunbeds, umbrellas and even trees for shade.
There is also plenty of parking (although every parking area on Crete eventually fills up in high season) and a couple of good hikes starting out from the beach. Nudists generally hang out at the east end.
The downside is the rough 4 km dirt road to reach Gialiskari Beach. Or maybe it is the highlight. I suppose it all depends on your feelings regarding narrow, bumpy, dirt roads running along oceanside cliffs with a precipitous drop on the side and not always enough room for two cars to pass each other. Personally, I think the views are more than worth the journey and even if you’re not as big a fan, the road never actually feels unsafe. Just go slowly, yield to oncoming vehicles if you’re unsure about the width and definitely be careful with that tiny rental car.
Things to Do in Paleochora
Okay, so let’s just assume that you aren’t going to spend all of your time on the beach. What else might help you pass your days?
We’ve already talked about the insane history of the castle/fort, so you are certainly going to want a closer look at something that has been fought over this many times. Of course, in that context it may be a little underwhelming.
However, the climb is short and easy and the views from the top are terrific. There are several ways up to – and down from – the castle, making it easy to turn your walk into a loop.
Church of Evangelistria
This beautiful, colourful building sits directly below the castle and contrasts noticeably with faded grandeur of the old ruins. It also features a very impressive bell tower.
The main thoroughfare of Paleochara, this pretty, cobblestoned street is lined with cafés, restaurants, shops and rental places. It turns into a pedestrian street on weekends and busy evenings. Realistically, it is too narrow and busy for traffic and should probably be pedestrian-only at all times. Either way, it is the place to go when you want to see what’s happening around this small town.
Explore the Alleys of Gavdiotika
The area directly below the castle is the old town of Paleochora, mostly created during the momentous land exchange that took place between Crete and Gavdos back in the middle of the 20th century. Which is why the neighbourhood is known as “Gavdiotika”.
Find Your Favorite Shop
A favourite hippie hangout in the 70’s, it still retains a fair bit of that creative Paleochora hippie spirit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the multitude of artistic craft shops along the Piazza.
Head out for a Hike
Backed by hills, surrounded by gorges and with the famous E4 long-distance hiking trail passing through, there is some excellent hiking in Paleochora. You can follow the E4 along the coast as far as you’d like in either direction. Going west, you’ll be following the road as far as Krios, though, so if you are just day hiking it makes sense to drive the first bit and walk from there.
Going east, the trail is a bit nicer but still doesn’t really impress until after Gialiskari so we would recommend driving the wild road to that great beach first. But the trail from that point is phenomenal, running along undulating ridges along the rocky shoreline, with unbelievable views of the hills up and down the coast.
When the weather permits you can take the ferry from Paleochora to Sougia then walk back, a distance of 14 km with 450m of elevation gain (roughly 4 hrs hiking time). If it is too windy for the boats to run or you are visiting in the off-season, you can just hike as far as you’d like from Gialiskari then turn around. It may be the same trail but the views are very different in each direction.
Other great hikes are down (or up) the lush, river valley of Pelekaniotis Gorge or down (by far the most popular direction) the phenomenally scenic Anidri Gorge from the charming little village of Azogires.
The Charming Little Village of Azogires
Who doesn’t love a little obvious foreshadowing? Blatant overuse of the word “charming” aside, tiny Azogires is a fantastic place to spend a couple of hours. Just a 10-minute drive up an adventurous (but smooth) gorge road, Azogires has clearly worked hard to attract tourists.
While the attractions aren’t mind-blowing, they are all intriguing and picturesque, not to mention thoroughly marked and signed to make them easy to find (and understand the importance of).
There is a small, forest waterfall (actually several), an ancient monastery (built into the side of a cliff), an old bridge (yes, it certainly seemed old) and the “Carved Caves” (impressive, and obviously involved a lot of work). There are also a couple of other sets of caves with hugely historic backstories, a few small churches and a good traditional restaurant where you can grab a bite and a beer.
Don’t forget to stop along the road just outside of town on the way up (or down) for the best vantage point of the monastery in all it’s rocky, cliffside glory.
Boat Trips from Paleochora
In season, you can take incredibly scenic boat trips down the coast in either direction. East, past Sougia and Agia Roumeli (with its beautiful 11th century Byzantine church of Agios Pavlos) to the lovely, remote village of Loutro and historic Frangokastello. West along the increasingly wild coast as far as the fabulous pink sand beach at Elafonisi.
Rent a bike/e-bike
There are relatively flat biking options as far as Gialiskari to the east and Krios to the west, or you can take a deep breath and head uphill into one of the three nearby gorges. This is where an e-bike can really come in handy.
Or you can join a bike tour where they will transport you by van to the start of different routes, most of the time taking you at least partway up the steepest of the hills.
Sabine Travel is a good choice for renting bikes or booking bike tours. They also sell ferry tickets, gorge transfers and many more adventures. We found them to be very professional and accommodating.
Depending on the weather and wave situation, you could rent paddleboards, kayaks, surfboards or snorkelling equipment to enjoy this relatively calm section of Cretan coastline.
Things to Do Around Paleochora Greece
The most famous and popular of the dozens of beautiful gorges on Crete. While it is possible to visit using drive/boat/taxi combos or take the boat to Agia Roumeli and hike up and back a portion, the most logical method is to book a Samaria Gorge transfer from one of the tour agencies in Paleochora (€27 per person for a bus to the trailhead and boat ticket back from Agia Roumeli to Paleochora).
It is a national park and is only officially open from May 1st to October 15th, although sometimes that will be extended to October 31st if the weather holds. We tried 3 times to go and each time it was cancelled due either to poor weather in the gorge (it suffers from a bit of a rainy microclimate certain times of year) or big waves which shut down the ferries. I guess it’s always nice to have something left for next visit…
There are also several other gorges in the area to explore, either on your own or as part of a tour, including Anidri, Agia Irini and Lissos.
The southernmost island in Europe, Gavdos has a fascinating history that seemingly features every major empire throughout the ages. It is also an interesting, scenic place to visit on a day trip from Paleochora.
The narrow, picturesque isthmus and extraordinary pink sand of Elafonisi Beach make it one of the consensus best beaches on Crete. As expected, it can get very busy in high season but the sand continues all the way out to the lighthouse, allowing the crowds to spread out the length of the peninsula/island.
It is well worth taking on the 45-minute walk to the lighthouse, caves and cross at the point but keep in mind that some of the best views can actually be had from the main road in just a couple of minutes before the parking area (as happened for us when we took this photo with very weird sunlight streaming through the clouds).
Also, at this point you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that sometimes Elafonisi is sometimes also spelled Elafonissi.
Agia Sofia Cave
Roughly 45 minutes north of Paleochora on the way to Kissamos or Chania, you’ll find this fascinating cave just off the road. It is surprisingly free (although donations are encouraged) and well worth the steep 5-minute climb up the stairs to check it out.
There is a small chapel just inside the mouth of the cave and quite a bit of exploring available. You’ll need good shoes and either a head lamp or the ubiquitous light on your phone. Be sure to take a closer look at all the shiny bumps on the floor – stalagmites in the making.
Where to Stay: Best Paleochora Accommodation
Paleochora Apartments offer well-equipped, affordable apartments right on the water just up from Chalikia Beach.
The artistic, family-run Aris Hotel has comfortable rooms in a beautiful setting right on the edge of the old town below the famous Castel Selino. The rooms are modern and the breakfast buffet is terrific.
The best value sea view rooms in town (well, partial sea view) can be found at Nicole Rooms, just back from Pachia Ammos beach. Basic, clean and modern rooms at a bargain price.
Camping Paleochora is a friendly, pleasant campground just out of town toward Gialiskari Beach. They accept vans, RVs and tents, and you can even rent you a tent if you don’t have your own.
Full list of Paleochora hotels
Where to Eat: Great Paleochora Restaurants
Paleochora Kreta is famous for its locally grown tomatoes and olives (although the olive thing is pretty common around Crete, as you may have noticed by now). As a result, the salads are pretty outstanding.
There are many great (and relatively affordable) restaurants and tavernas scattered around Paleochora, making it hard to go too far wrong. Nonetheless, here are a few of our favourites:
Pizzeria Odysseia – no extra marks for guessing what their specialty is, what we ordered or why we loved it so much.
Enigma Café – a Paleochora institution, the Enigma boasts a prime spot right on the busiest corner of the tourist area and seemingly always features at least one table of old local men (very) occasionally chatting and just scowling in general (as old Greek men are wont to do).
Karakatsanis Café – another great choice for a snack or drink.
Anatoli Bakery – amazing bread and addictive pastries.
Cape Crocodile – wonderful service and a rack of ribs we expect to reminisce about well into the future.
Agios Bar – a Paleochora icon, it has been around since early 20th century, is still run by the original family and is the centre of everything that passes for nightlife in Paleochora (which is really just different levels of drinking).
To Votsalo – right across from Chalikia Beach, it has a nice, relaxed vibe and some of the best Greek salads in town (which is saying something).
How to Get to Paleochora
Paleochora to Kissamos – Paleochora is 45 kilometres (1 hr) directly south of Kissamos on a slow, scenic and rustic little road. Kissamos is the gateway to some of the best beaches on Crete in Falasarna Beach and Balos Beach.
Paleochora to Chania (pronounced Han-ya) – this is the closest major city, roughly 80 km north and east (about 1.5 hrs) of Paleochora. The road to Chania couldn’t be considered large by any stretch (or straight, for that matter) but you are able to drive a little faster than the relatively basic road to Kissamos (or Elafonisi).
Paleochora to Elafonisi takes a little over an hour by car.
Anendyk ferries travel daily east along the coast:
Paleochora to Sougia (€11)
Paleochora to Agia Roumeli (€17)
Paleochora to Loutro (€20)
Paleochora to Chora Sfakion (€21)
Daily private boat tours run west to Elafonisi during high season:
Paleochora to Elafonisi (€15 one-way / €25 return)
Alternatively, you can drive to Sougia in about an hour. Agia Roumeli and Loutro can only be reached by boat and if you want to drive to Hora Sfakion you need to go way north and around (roughly 2.5 hours).
As with most places in Crete, it is best to rent a car for your stay. The public transportation exists but it is much easier to get a car hire and make your own way around the island.
Is Paleochora worth visiting?
Yes, especially if you prefer a good selection of smaller, quieter beaches than you can find on the north coast. Most of the beaches are a bit on the pebbly/rocky side, but not all, and the relative solitude is well worth the lack of powdery white sand.
The hiking east toward Sougia is terrific and Paleochora is close to several impressive gorges that can be visited on day trips.
Like most of Crete, Paleochora enjoys a very mild climate year-round thanks to the surrounding Mediterranean Sea. Summers are warm with almost no rain. Most precipitation comes in the winter months, although that is still pretty minimal compared with many coastal cities.
The south coast is typically warmer than the north and also gets less rain. It does, however, get its share of wind, something we experienced firsthand. Although with a different bay on each side of town you can usually avoid the worst of the wind on one side or the other.
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 Paleochora only dropping as far as 9 / 15 (low/high) in January. Which is why Crete is one of the best places to visit in Europe in winter.
Not surprisingly, summers get very busy, especially in beach towns like Paleochora. For warm weather, minimal rain and fewer people taking up the sun beds, we would recommend visiting in the shoulder seasons. June and September are practically perfect, with May and October appealing more to those who prioritize peace and quiet over hot beach weather.
With a multitude of beaches to choose from, superb hiking, outstanding boat trips on offer and even a few fascinating little villages to enjoy, Paleochora is a great choice for an extended stay. Boasting slightly warmer weather and slightly less rain than the north coast and seeing noticeably fewer tourists, Paleochora is a particularly good option in the shoulder seasons. Plus, as a fully functioning town all year-round, you don’t have to worry about the entire place shutting down in the off-season like the beach villages that rely entirely on tourism. For your time on Crete Paleochora is a great place to base yourself or spend some time.
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