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Visiting Spinalonga Island Crete

Spinalonga Island is a small island located in northeastern Crete, near Agios Nikolaos. It is one of the most popular destinations and one of the best places to visit in Crete. This tiny island is one of the strongest fortresses in the Mediterranean, but better known as the site of Greece’s last leper colony.

Welcome to my guide to Spinalonga Island in Crete. In this article, I explore the history of Spinalonga, especially its time as one of the last leprosy colonies in Europe. I also suggest tours to Spinalonga, and comprehensive advice on getting to Spinalonga Island from the three ports offering trips there.

I hope you find it helpful, and enjoy your visit to Spinalonga.

Why Visit Spinalonga

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Spinalonga Island

Spinalonga Island is one of the most popular day trip destinations in Crete.

It is best known as the site of one of the last leper colonies in Europe, where people suffering from leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease) were banished.

The tragic history of Spinalonga was made more widely known by Victoria Hislop in her 2005 novel The Island, and I think it’s important to bear witness to these dark times.

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Looking across the Gulf of Elounda from Spinalonga towards ‘mainland’ Crete
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A boat moored off Spinalonga Island

Spinalonga was also a formidable sea fortress, built by the Venetians in the late 16th century to defend the Gulf of Elounda and the northeast coast of Crete.

The setting of Spinalonga is spectacular, surrounded by gorgeous clear turquoise water. And it deserves to be recognized as one of the outstanding landmarks in Crete.

Spinalonga History

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Spinalonga Island
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Part of the 16th-century fortress at Spinalonga

The island of Spinalonga has been of strategic importance for millennia, as it stands at the entrance to the ancient port of Olous.

Under Venetian rule, the area around the island and entrance to the Gulf of Elounda was used to harvest salt from the sea. 

They recognised the strategic location of the island, and fortified it to guard the northeast coast of Crete. Along with Gramvousa, near Balos Beach in the far west of the island, and Souda) it served to guard the whole island of Crete from naval attack. The 16th-century fortress ensured that the island was impregnable.

The Ottoman Empire conquered all of Crete during the Cretan War of 1645 to 1669 – except for the three coastal forts. Spinalonga was home to Christian refugees for over 40 years, until it fell in 1715.

Spinalonga later served as a last refuge for the Ottoman Turks who fled there during the Cretan Revolt of 1878.

After the Turks left in 1903, the island became a place of exile, and was used as a leper colony until 1957. Conditions on the island were horrendously harsh for the first few decades.  Patients were banished there without any medical care. 

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Another view of the Venetian fortress of Spinalonga from one of the lower bastions

Conditions greatly improved after 1936, when a law student from Athens, Epaminondas Remountakis, was sent to the island. He had tried to hide his symptoms for years, and once on Spinalonga, set about making great improvements for the inhabitants of Spinalonga.

He founded the Brotherhood of the Sick of Spinalonga. His initiatives included the opening of the perimeter path around the island, the opening of a café and cinema, and the whitewashing of the patients’ houses. A public address system was also set up, so that classical music could be played on the streets of the island.

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Most of the buildings on Spinalonga Island have fallen into ruin

An antibiotic cure was found for leprosy in 1948 – and by 1957 the leper colony had been phased out and closed down. The buildings fell into decay and ruin over the following years.

Interest in the island was sparked by Victoria Hislop’s 2005 novel The Island.  It tells the story of the island through lead character Alexis Fielding, who discovers a family secret. Her grandmother and great-grandmother had contracted leprosy, and both were forced to live at the Spinalonga leper colony.

What Is Leprosy?

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Leprosy can have severe long-term effects if not treated properly

Leprosy is an infectious disease affecting the skin, nerves and eyes. Untreated, it could lead to nerve damage, muscle weakness, a reduced ability to feel pain, and even a loss of fingers, toes and sections of the nose.  It can also affect the respiratory tract.

As well as suffering great pain, sufferers of leprosy would also be subjected to social isolation, discrimination and stigmatization.

From ancient times to the 20th century, very little was known about leprosy.  People who contracted leprosy were forcibly banished, as on Spinalonga.  It was believed that all contact with them had to be avoided, but this is a myth. It takes prolonged contact with a leprosy sufferer, usually over months, before one can contract the bacterial infection.

An antibiotic cure for leprosy was found in 1948. However. According to the World Health Organisation, over 200,000 cases of leprosy are reported annually.

What To See At Spinalonga

1. Spinalonga Fortress

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The lower bastions of the spectacular Spinalonga fortress

As you approach the island, the most prominent sight is the Mocenigo Bulwark tower on the highest point of Spinalonga. It was added at the same time as the fortress towers close to the shoreline. These were built by the Venetians during the late 16th century. And these fortifications were never breached.

Good To Know: You should wear sturdy walking or hiking shoes when visiting Spinalonga. If you venture off the perimeter path to the ruined houses and bastion higher up the hill, there are some very uneven surfaces. Some of the terrain is what you would encounter on a moderate level hike.

2. Dante’s Gate

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The so-called Tunnel of Tears

Upon arrival, leprosy sufferers would disembark and walk through this gate and the tunnel beyond it to the leper colony of Spinalonga Island.

For many, especially in the early years of the colony, the sight of this gate and tunnel meant they wouldn’t see the outside world again. It’s a horrendous thought.

Sadly, far more suffering awaited anyone left on Spinalonga.

3. Spinalonga Leper Colony and Museum

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The houses of the leper colony were on the west side of Spinalonga Island

The residents lived in the houses on the west side of Spinalonga island, below the fortress. The houses are all roofless ruins.  This is the area where sturdy walking shoes are necessary. The terrain is often rough and uneven.

It struck me as inhumane to abandon people somewhere like this.  They were often seriously ill, and had to contend with getting around an island like this in terrible conditions.  The poor souls confined there would have dreaded the punishing heat of summer afternoons, when temperatures would often touch 40 degrees Centigrade.

When a patient arrived on Spinalonga, they were largely left to fend for themselves. There was no running water or sanitation, living conditions were primitive and basic. There was no treatment for leprosy. People were just abandoned there.

The small Museum – in the few intact buildings left on the island – documents some of these appalling conditions.  The exhibition includes some photographs and testimonies, and some board games etched into rocks.

4. Spinalonga Beach

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The rocky beach on Spinalonga Island

This beach is a small patch of rocky shoreline below the fortifications on the west side of the island. The water is crystal-clear, and the views are spectacular.

But there are many sharp rocks underfoot, so water shoes are essential if you intend to swim.  

5. Spinalonga Churches

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Agios Georgios church on the east side of Spinalonga Island

There are two churches on Spinalonga – Agios Panteleimon on the west side and Agios Georgios on the east side of the island.

Agios Panteleimon was built by the Venetians, around 1661, and restored by the leprosy patients for use. It held regular services, and also hosted baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Agios Georgios is on the other side of Spinalonga island, next to the footpath around the perimeter.

The Spinalonga cemetery is a two-minute walk beyond the church, assuming that you walk around the island in a clockwise direction.

Tours To Spinalonga Island

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Approaching Spinalonga

Many visitors opt to visit Spinalonga as part of a tour – as we did. Tours from Heraklion to Spinalonga tend to pick up from any of the resorts en route (Gournes, Hersonissos, Stalis, Malia and more). They also tend to be packages, also including stops elsewhere.

This Spinalonga tour from Heraklion also includes stops at an olive oil farm, the city of Agios Nikolaos, and the villages of Elounda and Plaka.

Several tour companies also run tours to Spinalonga in combination with a beach barbecue and time for a swim off Kolokitha beach – My wife and son, the two family fish, opted for this and had an amazing time.

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Faye and Our Little Man swimming off Kolokitha Beach

We visited Spinalonga on this tour, which also took us to Agios Nikolaos and the mountainous hinterland of Crete. This included the gorgeous Lassithi Plateau and Cave of Zeus in one of the hills above it.

You can also go on a Spinalonga tour from Rethymno. This includes a visit to the island, a swim in Kolokytha Bay and time in Agios Nikolaos.

Bear in mind that you don’t tend to find tours to Spinalonga from Chania. It’s just too far away. It’s almost a 4-hour drive each way.

Spinalonga Tip: Check how long your tour allows you on Spinalonga. Most tours seem to give you an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half.

We spent an hour and a half on Spinalonga island. This is enough for many visitors. With hindsight I would have liked an extra half an hour or so.

Where Is Spinalonga Island

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A distant view of Spinalonga Island from Elounda

Spinalonga is a tiny island at the entrance to the Gulf of Elounda in northeastern Crete,  3 miles (5 km) north of the small town of Elounda. It’s part of Lassithi province. It’s also just off the northern end of the Kalydon Peninsula, which is sometimes referred to as the Spinalonga Peninsula.

Distances from Spinalonga Island:

  • Plaka – 1 km
  • Elounda – 5 km south
  • Agios Nikolaos – 15 km south
  • Heraklion – 67 km west

How To Get To Spinalonga Crete

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A boat near Spinalonga Island

Ultimately, the only way to get to Spinalonga is by boat. You can do so from Plaka, Elounda or Agios Nikolaos. Many tour packages tend to use the Plaka Spinalonga ferry, the shortest boat trip to the island.

Plaka to Spinalonga Boat

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The boat jetty at Plaka
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Faye disembarking at Spinalonga

The boat from Plaka to Spinalonga takes around 10 minutes. The adult return fare in 2024 is €12, and children cost €6. Make sure you bring cash – the ticket booth on the jetty in Plaka doesn’t accept card payment.

And you can’t book online either.

You can drive to Plaka or catch regular buses from Agios Nikolaos bus station or Elounda.

Elounda to Spinalonga Boat

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The boat to Spinalonga at Elounda
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Approaching Spinalonga from Elounda

Regular boats run from the port in Elounda, which is next to the marina. The journey takes 20-30 minutes. The boats leave every 30 minutes between 9 am and 5-6 pm. The return journey costs €15.

Agios Nikolaos to Spinalonga Boat

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Faye (right of frame) enjoying the final approach to Spinalonga

The further your starting point is from Spinalonga, the higher the cost. So if you’re just planning to visit Spinalonga from Agios Nikolaos, you’re looking at €20. Some operators offer a guided tour of the island as part of the package.

The Agios Nikolaos Spinalonga boat trips often also include a swimming stop at Kolokitha Bay.

Spinalonga Opening Times

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One of the bastions on Spinalonga ISland

The official Spinalonga opening hours are between 8.30 am and 8.30 pm from April 1st to October 31st.

The island of Spinalonga is then nominally closed from November 1st to March 31st. However, the island is open on weekends in favourable weather conditions. My advice, having spent a November in Crete, is not to count on it or plan ahead around it!

You can also check the official Greek culture and monuments website, Odysseus. Click here for information on Spinalonga.

Bear in mind that it’s an old website, and if the link takes you to a homepage instead (it shouldn’t, but…) then click on F in the alphabetical index and then click on ‘Fortified Islet of Spinalonga’.

Spinalonga Tickets

Adult tickets cost €8.

Children and reductions (seniors, students) cost €4.

Bear in mind that these entrance fees are not included in any Spinalonga tour costs. 

Spinalonga Island Crete FAQs

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The cafe on Spinalonga – superb setting, way overpriced

Is Spinalonga Worth Visiting

Yes, Spinalonga is definitely worth visiting.

Does Spinalonga Have A Beach?

Yes, Spinalonga does have a beach.  The water is beautiful, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to visit the beach. It’s full of sharp stones and rocks, so water shoes are essential if you plan to go there.

Is Spinalonga a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

No, not yet. It was accepted onto the UNESCO Tentative List in 2014. It can take a decade or more for a submission to reach acceptance onto the UNESCO World Heritage List. I worked on a successful bid for UNESCO World Heritage status back in 2011 – and it took ten years for it to be formally accepted.

Is there somewhere to eat and drink on Spinalonga?

Yes, there is a café with an adjacent souvenir shop. However, it is ridiculously expensive – €3 for a small bottle of water, €5 for a small can of Coke – so my advice is to bring your own!

Visiting Spinalonga – Personal Thoughts

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I think it’s a great thing that Victoria Hislop’s book brought the story of Spinalonga to a much wider audience.

However, I feel much more of the story of the leprosy patients should be told. These people were demeaned and discriminated against, indeed dehumanized. One of the most shocking stories of Spinalonga is that the patients were forced to give up their healthy babies. The whole story is absolutely appalling.

I hope that this and other stories are better documented in future.

Spinalonga Island has been made famous by Victoria Hislop’s book. This in turn inspired to Greek TV series To Nisi about the island.

In my research for this article I was also delighted to come across a short early film by one of my cinema heroes, the German director Werner Herzog.

His film Last Words (Letzte Worte) was shot in two days in 1968, based around a fictional character who was the last inhabitant to leave the island. You can watch it on YouTube here. It is quite bizarre, but worth seeing just for the scenes with the two policemen.

Spinalonga Island Crete – Final Words

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Looking over the south-west bastion on Spinalonga ISland

I hope you have found my guide to visiting Spinalonga useful.

Spinalonga is one of the most popular places to visit in eastern Crete, and we have written many more articles on this region. Don’t miss my guide to Elounda Crete, one of the most exclusive resorts in Greece, and still a lovely seaside village.

Take a look at my guide to the best Agios Nikolaos beaches. This covers all the beaches around Agios Nikolaos city, a half-hour drive south of Spinalonga and Plaka. There are some superb beaches around Agios Nikolaos, particularly Almiros Beach, just to the south of the city.

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A summer day at Voulisma Beach

Also don’t miss my guide to Voulisma Beach, a stunning tropical paradise a short drive or bus ride from Agios Nikolaos.

Agios Nikolaos is a short drive from some of the most beautiful landscapes in Crete, including the gorgeous Lassithi Plateau. Check out our Unique Crete Tours Review for more on this. Also take a look at my guide to Kritsa Crete, one of the most beautiful villages on the island.

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Sissi Crete Harbour

Don’t miss my guide to Sissi Crete, one of the most beautiful villages in Crete. This small harbour village below the mountains is gorgeous, with superb mountain views and stunning summer sunsets.

It’s not far from there to the party town of Malia. Check out my guide to the best Malia Beaches, and my individual guide to Potamos Beach.

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Sunset on Malia Beach
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Rock formations at Gefyri Beach Hersonissos

There’s plenty more to see along this highly developed stretch of coast. Take a look at my guide to Stalis Beach (also known as Stalida Beach) and the nearby Lychnostatis Open Air Museum.  And don’t miss my guide to the best Hersonissos Beaches and Old Hersonissos village, a taste of a quieter Crete on the hill above the resort town.

Finally, don’t miss my guide to the best things to do in Heraklion, the capital of Crete, including the Knossos Palace, beaches and superb Greek food. And see my guide to visiting Heraklion Archaeological Museum, the best museum in Crete.

Image of David Angel found of Delve into Europe Travel Blog / Website

David Angel is a British photographer, writer and historian. He is a European travel expert with over 30 years’ experience exploring Europe. He has a degree in History from Manchester University, and his work is regularly featured in global media including the BBC, Condé Nast Traveler, The Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Times.  David is fluent in French and Welsh, and can also converse in Italian, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Czech and Polish.