This article on Matala, Crete is a part of our personal paradise series, be sure to check out our other off-the-beaten-track finds!
Words: Erin Hardie | Photos: Ryan Platten | Matala, is a tiny beach town on the south coast of the Greek island of Crete. Have you heard of it before? We definitely hadn’t before travelling to Crete for 14 days to try our very first all-inclusive holiday package as a travel cheap tactic! We came across Matala whilst searching for places to visit around the island of Crete. It’s main drawcard: the Roman Burial Caves cut into a sandstone cliff, which had piqued our interest enough to hire a car and make the three hour drive through the centre of the island, over a narrow mountain pass, down into the fertile wine country below to pop out onto the southern side of the island’s coast, to Matala.
Matala, Crete – a Personal Paradise
It took all of about half an hour to realise that Matala was destined to be one of our personal paradises’. It ticked all the right boxes instantly! The moment we stepped out of the car we could feel this vibe of calm and serenity. The weather was warm but not too warm; the sea calm with pristine clear crystal waters; the cliff full of caves looked as impressive as promised; and there were not too many people around. It was certainly off the beaten track, to visit you have to fly into Crete’s only airport of Heraklion and then drive across the island (as mentioned above) a drive made more challenging by Cretan drivers having their own code of road rules imperceptible to a visitor. Although on the plus side our hire car only cost about AUD $50 to hire for three days and we didn’t even have to put down any ID!
After lunch in one of the terraced restaurants overlooking the beach we set off to explore the caves. This was majorly cheap at 3 Euro per person entry fee and we were permitted to cavort in and around this sheer face of caves like mountain goats for as long as we liked/remained with ankles untwisted. Having worked up a thirst we found a bar further up the beach still overlooking the calm waters. From here we spotted what looked to be an even better bar: it looked like a pirate town from the movies! We made our way over to it, realising that behind the coast hugging bars was a perfectly picturesque square lined with alfresco bar/cafes and market style shopping. By the time we’d finished one drink at the pirate bar (Hakuna Matata) we realised we didn’t want to leave… We’d spotted a hotel further along the bay again also cut into the cliff with the highest viewpoint in the tiny town and made the pact that if they offered a room for under 80 Euro we’d just stay the night. The room was 75 Euro, we stayed, and the next day, decided to stay again.
What is it that makes Matala, Crete so Magical!?
We were hooked! If it weren’t for fears that our hotel back in Hersonissos on the northern coast of Crete might chuck out our baggage and report us as missing persons, I’m pretty sure we would’ve stayed on for the rest of our final Cretan week there! What makes Matala so magical? A perfect storm of things. For one its natural geography, its a beach formed around a natural bay cutting into sandstone cliffs onto which the townspeople have built their dwellings, shops and restaurants, so that most enjoy an awesome view out over the water and of the lit up burial cave cliff by night. Secondly the townspeople themselves, everyone we spoke to was so friendly and REALLY practised the Cretan culture of “Filoxenia” (φιλοξενία). This culture holds that a household/business must welcome any visitor who knocks at their door by offering food and drink. Even if it is a mortal enemy, they must be fed and watered before they are sent away. We were eternally being given extra drinks, shots, ice-cream etc! Thirdly but not lastly, the history! Matala features in ancient Greek mythology as being the beach to which the seduced and kidnapped princess Europa was brought to by Zeus when in the form of a bull. A more recent 2000 years ago the burial caves were hewn into the sandstone cliff as attributed to the Romans or early Christians. In the 1960’s visiting hippies took up residence in these caves and the town and it’s then residents were then immortalised in the song Carey by Joni Mitchell in 1971. The town’s last and perhaps most famous hippy, Matala George is now deceased but his words echo on as the town’s adopted slogan: “Today is life, tomorrow never comes!” Which you will find painted all around the town still today.
Not to be Missed in Matala, Crete
The Ancient Burial Caves
The most famous landmark in Matala, the caves are accessible to visitors on foot today for a small fee at the entrance from the northern end of Matala Beach.
Matala Town Entrance Carved Tree Sculpture
This tree stands at the entrance of Matala. The sculpture carved into a tree depicts the face of Matala George, the last hippy to live there. His catchphrase “Today is life, tomorrow never comes” are painted on the ground around the sculpture. The sculpture was carved by Cretan artist Spyros Stefanakis.
The main town beach on a naturally formed bay bordered on the Northern end by the Matala Ancient Burial Caves. Yellow sand and sparkling crystal clear waters. The caves can also be viewed underwater by snorkeling/ scuba but we couldn’t see anywhere to hire gear, people were bringing their own. We visited at the very start of the tourist season though, so perhaps their would be vendors in high season.
The secondary town beach is only accessible by foot. It is located behind the cliff that borders the southern end of the Matala Beach. There are signs throughout the town pointing out a path to the beach. The path is a short hike of approximately 1 kilometre first rising up the cliff then descending steeply down the other side to the beach. There are no amenities at this beach except for one bar serving only mojitos (said to be the best in Matala!). It is designated a nudist (clothing optional) beach and is worth a visit not just for the quiet serenity but also the carved and stacked rock art to be found along its sandy shores.
Matala Town Square
Matala Town Square is the place to be around late afternoon/ sunset daily. Locals and tourists alike will fill the alfresco seats from the bars that line the small square to enjoy the last drop of daily sunshine and watch their children run around in a pedestrian-only zone. There are some great authentic spots for lunch to be found around the square too – particularly the γύρος (giros/yiros) cafe which serves this famed dish an authentic Greek-style kebab of chicken, tomato, tzatziki and not much else in pita bread with chips. The market style handicraft shops are all to be found just off this square also, featuring jewelry, clothing, art, beach inspired crafts and more!
Know Before You Go to Matala, Crete
- Crete currently has seasonal tourism which is officially April to Mid-October, it can be a lot harder to visit outside of these months as many Cretans return to their farms to harvest their olives and grapes during the winter.
- We visited Matala at the very start of the tourism season, in early April, just before Easter. A lot of larger businesses/resort towns won’t open until after Easter every year. Visiting as we did at the very start of the season there were very few tourists around, and this made business owners in Matala more receptive to us, hence we made genuine friends and really enjoyed learning more about their lives, their businesses, their homemade wine and so on!
- Cash is preferred, in fact cash is nearly the only mode of payment. I cannot think of a single place we paid with a bank/credit card and we found only one ATM in the local supermarket.
- Getting around is limited to being on foot only! Once arrived at Matala you will park your car in the main beach car park for a nominal fee and leave it there until you leave! Some of the natural attractions of Matala require sturdy knees to walk ie the Red Beach and the Burial Caves. None of the bars and restaurants we visited had accessibility options, all were located up steep stairs.
Where to Stay in Matala, Crete?
There is only one choice! (Well that’s a lie, actually there’s several spanning a number of budget ranges) but… if you can get a room (they only have 3!) we strongly suggest you stay at the SCALA Fish Bar Restaurant and Boutique Hotel. They have the highest cliff side views over the bay towards the burial caves and the rooms are beautifully furnished, clean and bright. It was 75 Euro a night for a mini-suite with fridge including breakfast at anytime served in the restaurant. If you can’t get a room be sure to at least dine in the restaurant one afternoon or evening. They don’t seem to have a website but they do list a phone number: +30 698 138 8135
So, are you convinced to visit Matala, Crete? We hope so! We first mentioned Matala in our general guide to Crete which you can find here. Until next time, Γεια μας! (Cheers! Sounds like ya-muss!) Erin & Ryan