General Information on Lasithi
The Prefecture of Lassithi, Crete, or Agios Nikolaos as some call it after its capital, covers the eastern part of the island. It is washed by the Cretan Sea in the north, the Carpathian Sea in the east and the Libyan Sea in the south, while its west border is shared with the Heraklion Prefecture.
The prefecture is well-known for its interesting archaeological sites, as well as the one-of-a-kind in Europe Palm Tree Forest at Vai beach. Apart from its historical monuments, amazing natural beauty, imposing mountain ranges, impressive gorges, lush fields and dazzling beaches, you will find picturesque villages and friendly, warm-hearted inhabitants. As with the rest of Crete, visiting the inland is a fascinating experience. The combination of environmental beauty and the unique flair of the villages makes the visitor experience strong feelings. The villages, mostly untouched by tourism, maintain their traditional features in terms of architecture and the villagers proudly keep their traditional lifestyle. Here, the visitor may engage in a wide range of cultural activities, where tradition blends with everyday life.
Nowhere else in Greece is the range of accommodation choices higher. Such variety allows visitors to select what best suits their needs and budget from an extensive list of hotels and rooms to rent.
History of Lasithi
The history of the Lassithi Prefecture is similar to that of the rest of Crete. The area has been inhabited since Neolithic times, testified by archaeological finds; most of them date back to the Minoan Period, thus connecting Crete to one of the most important civilizations of the world, the Minoan civilization (2600-1150 BC). Huge palace-states were erected, such as the famous palaces of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros, and the Minoans established a naval empire in the Mediterranean. This great civilization was abruptly destroyed by huge waves, in the aftermath of the eruption of the Santorini volcano in 1450BC; the invasion of the Achaeans and the Dorians later completed the job.
The capital city of the prefecture, Agios Nikolaos, is built on the site of the ancient town Leto. The town flourished during the 3rd century BC. It was an autonomous city which minted its own coins and flourished well into the Roman and Early Byzantine period. In 1204, Bonifatius of Monteferrato became ruler of Crete and subsequently passed it over to Venetians. During the Venetian occupation (1204-1669), Genoan pirates built a fortress on top of the Kefali hill, better known as Mirabello (“lovely view” in Italian). Earthquakes and pirate raids destroyed the fortress to the ground; the sole reminder of this construction today is the name of the bay, above which the fortress dominated.
The Ottomans conquered Crete in 1669. During this period, just the harbour of Agios Nikolaos was used. A small settlement emerged around the port during the latter years of the Turkish rule, accepting immigrants from Sfakia and other places of Crete. In 1881, the present capital was a small village, and in 1900 amounted to a mere 500 inhabitants. The Ottomans abandoned the island in 1898 when Russian soldiers took up position in Crete; in the same year, Crete started plans in becoming autonomous, which had positive effects on all levels, particularly on the economic and intellectual life of the city. This “renaissance” continued until 1913, when Crete was annexed to Greece. During World War II, the island was invaded by Germans, signalling a period of poverty and misery. However, in 1960s, the island emerged yet again from its ashes, investing heavily on tourism.
Towns & Villages in Lasithi
Agios Nikolaos: The town of Agios Nikolaos is situated in the northern part of the island, 67km east of Heraklion, at the large bay of Mirambello. Capital city of its prefecture, it is a very attractive city where traditional and modern architectural forms blend harmoniously. The lovely port emits its own charm, surrounded by tile-roofed houses and illuminated by boat lights. The highlight of the town, though, is definitely the Voulismeni Lake; the locals, unable to see its bottom, called the lake bottomless. In 1867, Christian commissioner Kostas Adossidis Passa connected the lake to the sea, thus creating a natural water renewal system. The city of Agios Nikolaos has the touristic infrastructure to cater for every need and budget, while its intense lifestyle will satisfy everyone's entertainment cravings.
Elouda: The coastal town of Elounda lies 11km north of Agios Nikolaos. Tourism is quite high here due to its amazing landscape and rocky coastline. This world-renowned resort is built on top of an unexcavated ancient port, the walls of which still protrude from the sea. The resort has fine sandy beaches, many excellent restaurants, lively nightlife, and beautiful vistas over the bay toward the tiny island of Spinalonga and its fortress. This Venetian fortress and later leper colony is one of the most interesting sites to explore and can be reached from Elounda by frequently departing caiques. Another interesting day trip is to travel inland through the lovely countryside and the Plains of Lassithi, to explore some of the many beautiful and traditional villages. Finally, close to Elounda lies another well-known seaside resort called Shisma. This is one of the most developed resorts of Crete, offering all kinds of accommodations and tourist facilities.
Sitia: The town of Sitia is 69km east of Agios Nikolaos. It is a coastal town, situated within the homonymous bay, on the northern coast of Crete. Sitia is the birthplace of the famous 17th century poet Vitsenzos Cornaros and one of the most ancient towns of Eastern Crete. Fishing boats dock at the port of the city, creating a peaceful and charming atmosphere. All kinds and categories of accommodations can be found here as well as restaurants and cafes. A fine sandy beach lies east of the port and offers various rentals and sea sports. A Venetian fortress was present east of the town, but only a small part of it still remains. Once in the town, you should visit the Archaeological Museum established in 1984, housing a rich collection of pottery, tools, weapons and other items from the surrounding area. From Sitia, one can visit various monasteries, archaeological sites and swim in the crystal-clear waters of the many idyllic beaches.
Sissi: Sissi is a lovely coastal village and one of the best known beach resorts of Crete. However, despite its popularity, it remains calm and quiet. It is situated 40km east of Heraklion and 25km northwest of Agios Nikolaos. The village is a perfect alternative to the more lively and hectic resorts along the coast, and provides all necessary infrastructure for an exceptional holiday. Small, secluded and clean beaches can be found around Sissi, like the award-winning sandy beach of Boufos, with exceptionally clear waters. The other beach of Sissi is the secluded bay of Avlaki, with crystal waters and white sand. In the village, you wi’ll find a variety of taverns and restaurants, a few bars, cafes and shops.
Ierapetra: The town of Ierapetra is southeast, at the narrowest point of the island, and you can easily spot its Venetian Castle and Clock Tower when approaching. The most interesting part is the old town Kato Mera; your senses will be intrigued by its narrow paved streets and the scent of flowers.
Kritsa: The mountainous village of Kritsa is situated 10km southwest of Agios Nikolaos. In the village, give a moment to sink in the panoramic view of the area. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful traditional settlements in Crete and its charm emanates from its narrow alleys and well-preserved houses. A few accommodations and taverns serving local specialities can be found here.
Beaches in Lasithi
Vai: This magnificent beach, also called Palm Forest, is situated 25km east of Sitia and 92km east of Agios Nikolaos. It is the only indigenous wild date palm grove of Greece, extending over an area of 250km², and consists of 5,000 palm trees, making it the largest known palm tree forest in Europe. According to local tradition, the forest grew from the stones of dates thrown away by Arab pirates or Phoenician merchants. Next to this unique forest, stretch kilometres of golden sand that lead to an azure sea. This tropical setting attracts thousands of visitors and can be quite crowded during high season.
Sitia: The long sandy beach of Sitia is situated 65km east of Agios Nikolaos. Thanks to the proximity of the beach to the city, a wide range of facilities is available for visitors.
Sissi: 26km away from Agios Nikolaos, the small beach of Sissi is sandy and well organized, offering good accommodation facilities and a variety of restaurants and taverns.
Elounda: This beautiful sandy beach is situated 11km north of Agios Nikolaos. The beach is fully organized and very crowded during high season.
Agios Nikolaos: Situated very close to the centre of Agios Nikolaos, the municipal beach is fully organized and well protected from winds. Although pebbly, the beach is popular due to its facilities and the proximity to the capital.
Ammoudara: This is a beautiful sandy beach 5km south of Agios Nikolaos. The beach is organized and protected from winds. It is one of the most popular beaches in the area and can thus become really crowded.
Havania: This well-organized sandy beach is situated close to the centre of Agios Nikolaos, offering many facilities for accommodation, food and drink, nightlife and amusement, shopping and sightseeing.
Almiros: This long sandy beach is considered the best in the area of Agios Nikolaos. It is about 1km away from the town centre, inside a cove, well protected from winds. Due to its proximity to the town, its shallow waters, the sand and available facilities, it is ideal for families.
Dreros: This beach is located 13km to the north of Agios Nikolaos, just 3km north of Elounda. The beach is mainly sandy, surrounded by tamarisk trees. The beach is well organized and visitors can find every kind of accommodation, restaurants and bars.
Plaka: This beach is situated at the north part of the homonymous village, approximately 16km from Agios Nikolaos. It is a pebbly beach, with several tamarisk trees and a magnificent view of the Spinalonga peninsula.
Agios Panteleimonas: Situated 12km south of Agios Nikolaos, in front of the Istros resort, Agios Panteleimonas is very long pebbly beach, which retains a quiet atmosphere even during high season.
Erimoupolis: This long sandy beach is situated 96km east of Agios Nikolaos and 26km east of Sitia, in front of the archaeological site of Itanos. The beach is not organized and has amazing azure clean waters.
Maridati: This 200-meter beach is situated 93km east of Agios Nikolaos, 23km away from Sitia. The beach is partly sandy and partly pebbly with no tourist facilities. The sea is marvellous here and if you like beaches untouched by tourism, this should be your first choice.
Psili Ammos: This exotic and remote sandy beach is situated 95km northeast of Agios Nikolaos. Strong winds blow here and the beach is not organized. Apart from the crystal clear blue sea and the fine golden sand, after which it has been named, the beach does no’t offer any kind of facilities.
Top Things to Do in Lasithi
1. Petras: This important Minoan settlement lies on a low hill by the sea. It has a large harbour and was the centre of an area bordered by Chamaizi to the west, Praisos to the south, and Analoukas to the east. Despite evidence of habitation since the last part of the Neolithic period (3500 BC), the first settlement dates back to the Early Minoan II period (2600-2300 BC). It remained inhabited until 1450 BC, when it was destroyed, along with other Minoan centres. The settlement flourished during the Old Palace period (2000-1650 BC), when the central building of palatial character was built on the hilltop. The remains of the town are still scattered on the hill and extend around a central building. The houses contained storerooms and workshops on the ground floor, while the upper floor consisted of the actual living quarters. Two completely excavated houses date to the New Palace period. One was abandoned during the Late Minoan Ia period (1500 BC) and the other was destroyed by fire a little later (1450 BC). The central palatian building, which is also worth visiting, covers an area of 3,000m² and is constructed on two terraces, on an artificial plateau on the hilltop. The building was surrounded by a retaining wall with a tower-like bastion. To the west of the building was a garden which separated the main part of the buildings from the workshop areas.
2. Gournia archaeological site: Gournia, –the ancient name of which is unknown,– is the most characteristic of the excavated medium-size settlement, dating to the period of the peak of the Minoan culture (1550-1450 BC). The site is located at the Isthmus of Ierapetra, close to Pahia Ammos beach and occupies a low hill, close to the sea. The first inhabitants settled here in the Early Minoan III period (2300 BC). Remains of the Middle Minoan period (2000-1600 BC) are also preserved. In 1600 BC, the palace was erected, but was destroyed along with the surrounding town in 1450 BC, at the same time with all other palatial centres of Crete. Fifty years later, the site was partly resettled and was finally abandoned in around 1200 BC. Today, the most important monuments of the site include the unfortified town on the slopes of the low hill, the town of Gournia offering a view in the everyday life of Minoans, as well as the palace –seat of a local ruler– on the hilltop.
3. Kouphonisi or Leuke: This small island, close to Sitia, had been inhabited since the Early Minoan (3000-2200 BC) until the Early Christian period. It was a main place of sponge collection and processing of murex shells, which were the resource of the precious and expensive purple dye. The most important monuments of the area include a theatre –on the northeast part of the island, the Public Baths, the Settlement which extends to the southeast of the theatre, the Temple on the southern part of the island and the caves on the west coast. Those caves have been used as chapels and preserve an engraved representation of saints, and Latin inscriptions.
4. Lato: Lato was one of the most important Doric city-states in Crete, although it must have existed before the “Coming of the Dorians”. It is built on a saddle between two hills, at a site protected by possible attacks but also with a splendid view over a large area of the Mirambello Bay. It was named after Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis, although the main goddess of worship in the city was Eileithyia, who was also depicted on the coins minted here. Before the end of the 3rd century BC, the inhabitants of Leto participated in the League of the Cretan cities and shared the same laws. Lato formed alliances with Rhodes, Teos, and king Eumenes of Pergamon. However, it was locked in conflict with the neighbouring city of Olous, due to a border disagreement. The most important monuments of the site include the fortified city on the saddle between two hills, the Agora, including a deep square cistern and a small rectangular temple, the Prytaneion, –a monumental complex, reminiscent of an ancient theatre–, and the Temple – south of the Agora.
5. Trypetos: On a small headland called Trypetos, 3km to the east of modern Sitia lies a city of the Hellenistic period (middle of the 4th quarter of the 1st century BC), most probably the ancient city of Itea. A hellenistic dockyard has been unearthed at the east coast of the headland. In 1960, the landowners created arable plots using machinery that caused severe damage to the buried antiquities. The hellenistic city covers the whole of the headland and was built on terraces, following the terrain. The south side was protected by a massive wall, separating the main area of the headland from the mainland. Along the inner side are rooms and other structures, parts of houses and military installations. The most important room seems to be a hall, at the centre of which lies a rectangular hearth, formed by the surface of the bedrock, enclosed by porous slabs. Among the most important finds is a series of coins by this city, which had its own mint.
6. Zakros: The palace of Zakros is the fourth in terms of size, among the Minoan palaces. It was located at an advantageous strategic position, a protected bay, and was the centre of commercial exchange with eastern countries, indicated by the excavation finds. Two main building phases are identified: the old palace was built in 1900 BC and the new one was built in 1600 BC, but was destroyed in 1450 BC along with the other centres of Minoan Crete. The palace was the administrative, religious and commercial centre, and was surrounded by the town. Today, the monuments in the area include the palace and its annexes which cover a total area of more than 8,000m², a stepped corridor, the west wing, which was devoted to religious activity, the east wing which included the royal quarters and the administrative centre, the south wing which included a small complex of workshops for the production of perfume oils and small objects of faience, rocky crystal etc, and finally the north wing, which includes a large staircase leading to the upper floor, the “magazines of the royal quarters”, a bath complex and a spacious room, accessible from a corridor, interpreted as a kitchen which served the banquet hall on the upper floor. The palace was surrounded by the town, although the buildings in the immediate vicinity of the palace are actually annexes serving its organised life. The main area of the town had a complex network of stone-paved streets, forming large building blocks, each consisting of 2-4 small houses, with many rooms and two or three floors.
7. Dionisades: This is a complex of small islands, north of the bay of Sitia, about 10 nautical miles away from the city port. The complex is made up of four rocky uninhabited islets: Giannisada, Dragonara, Paximada and Paximadaki. In antiquity, the islets belonged to Itanos. According to legend, Dionisades was a sacred place dedicated to the worship of Dionysus, after whom the complex was named. Dragonara is the only islet of the four with some vegetation, and the municipality of Sitia has made plans for a wildlife park, as well as hostels for accommodation. The islets of Paximadi and Paximadaki are interesting, due to the rare bird species that nest there. Unfortunately, access to the islets is possible only by private or rented yacht.
8. The Cave of Psychro: This is one of the most important religious places of Minoan Crete. The Cave is situated at the Lassithi plateau, some 65km away from Agios Nikolaos. The use of caves as sacred places was one of the basic characteristics of the religious beliefs of the ancient Cretans. Cult practice probably begins in the Early Minoan period, –although in the antechamber traces of an even earlier occupation– have been found; however, the most important finds date back to the Middle Minoan period and later, as it was used for many centuries, until the Geometric period. The finds prove that it was visited as late as the Roman period. Pilgrims dedicated many offerings, such as figurines of humans, gods, animals, double axes etc. The excavator and several scholars identify the cave as the famous “Diktaian Cave”, where Zeus was born and brought up with the aid of Amaltheia and the Kouretes, and which is connected with such myths as the ones of the seer Epimenides who “slept” here, or the coupling of Zeus with Europe. The cave is found at a height of more than 1,000m and access to it is possible via an uphill path, starting from the public road.
9. Spinalonga Islet: The islet of Spinalonga is located in the eastern part of Crete, near the town of Elounda. In 1579, the Venetians built a fortress on the islet over the ruins of an acropolis. Spinalonga remained under Venetian rule until 1715, long after the island of Crete had passed to the Ottomans. In 1903, by law of the Cretan government, the island was appointed as the leper isolation place of Crete. The last inhabitant of Spinalonga, a priest, left in 1962. This was to maintain the religious tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church, in which a buried person has to be commemorated 40 days, 6 months, 1, 3, and 5 years after their death. Today, the unoccupied islet is one of the main tourist attractions in Crete. In addition to the abandoned leper colony and the fortress, Spinalonga is known for its small beaches. It can be reached from Elounda and Agios Nikolaos with tourist boats that depart daily.
How to Reach Lasithi
Ferry: There are several ferries per week connecting Piraeus to Agios Nikolaos, especially during summer months. The trip to Piraeus lasts about 12 hours.
Air: Lassithi Prefecture has no airport but you can use the airports of Heraklion or Chania.
Getting Around in Lasithi
Weather in Lasithi
The climate of Crete is the mildest of Greece and maybe of Europe. It is a temperate Mediterranean climate with hot and dry summers moderated by north winds, and mild, rainy winters in the plains. In the mountains, winters are quite harsh and it snows from January to the end of February. Autumn is the mildest season in Crete because the temperatures are often higher than in spring and lower than in summertime.
Because the island is mountainous, weather changes can be sudden and the mountains create a weather barrier that isolates the north from the south.
Top 10 Destinations in Lasithi
All Destinations in Lasithi
Map of Lasithi