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Astypalea is one of the lesser-known Greek islands or at least it was for me. Up until recently, the only image I had in my mind of Astypalea was a photograph of the main village or Chora, cluster of whitewashed houses spreading over a hilltop by the sea and crowned by an impressive castle. I often confused the Chora of Astypalea with the similarly built Patmos and never made the effort to learn more about this butterfly-shaped island. Therefore, when an unplanned week of holidays met with a friendly offer to borrow a small house in the old town of Astypalea I had no idea what to expect.
We arrived on the island in the middle of a night, sleepy and tired after the 10-hour long voyage from Athens. We had nowhere to go unless we woke up the elderly neighbor guarding our keys. Rather than that, we traveled through the dark, unknown island searching for a quiet beach where we could settle for the night. Gipsy as we are, we found a closed beach bar and snuggled into our sleeping bags on the deserted sunbeds. Then the morning come, and we were woken up by the sun rays peering above the magnificent silhouette of the Chora above a bay full of crystal clear water. In that moment I knew we won’t be disappointed.
Astypalea belongs to the Dodecanese Archipelagos and has the typical landscape of the southern Aegean islands. Its hilly terrain is bare and dry during the summer months covered mainly in shrubs, aromatic herbs and the occasion blossoming Oleander trees. The rocky coast is full of bays, inlets and pebbly beaches washed by turquoise, clear (and very salty) waters.
Thanks to its shape, Astypalea is called The Butterfly of Aegean. It’s split into two equal parts connected by a narrow strip of land. The Exo Nisi (Outer island) is home to the island capital while the Mesa Nisi (Inner island) belongs to the protected Natura 2000 reserve and is mostly uninhabited. The airport, the port, the second large village called Maltezsna are all squeezed in between those two. To enjoy the island to its full potential you will need either boat or a 4×4. Except for the central part around the Chora, most of the roads are dirt roads of varying difficulty. Some of the beaches are accessible by a long hike and other only from the sea.
Chora of Astypalea
But the main highlight of Astypalea is the Chora! Even though the island officially belongs to the Dodecanese, its architecture is closer to the Cyclades with whitewashed houses all tangled up together and beautified by colorful wooden shutters and artistically painted streets. The best time to explore the narrow maze-like alleys climbing up to the castle is the late afternoon. When the temperatures drop and all is washed by the sweet golden evening light it becomes almost unbearably romantic and movie like! Unless the Meltemi winds decide to blow, a very probable thing during the summer. Then the romance becomes a comedy, with tourists staggering in the wind, hair flying everywhere and skirts wrapped around the waist, trying to strike an elegant pose for the holiday picture. I was one of them just last night, so I know!
The castle on its own is worth the long climb. It was build in the 13th century by a Venetian family as a shelter against the pirates and up until the 19th century, it was the only settlement on the island. The castle is quite large, however, how they managed to fit up to 4000 permanent citizens among its walls is a mystery to me!
Just underneath the southeast walls of Kastro, overlooking the wide blue sea sits the impressive Church of Panagia Portaitissa (The Guardian of the Gate). This is the most important religious center of the island hosting a huge πανήγυρι on 15 August. The construction of the church was started in 1762 by Saint Anthymos, who also acquired the church’s most treasured possession, the Icon of Panagia Portaitissa. This is the exact replica of the Icon of Panagia Portaitissa of Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos and is said to inherit some of the miraculous powers of its ancestor. Even its creation is shrouded in mystery.
A legend has it, that elderly iconographer Luke, working on the copy, had difficulty finishing the face due to his old age. Therefore, the icon was buried overnight and prayers sent to all the right places just to uncover a finished icon in the morning. Other sources claim, that the icon rid away all the snakes of the island and refused to leave its place in the church when Agios Anthymos tried to remove it after a squabble with the islanders. However, even if holy icons and its miracles aren’t your thing, this is a beautiful place for a walk, photos or just good old sea gazing.
Eating in Astypalea
Astypalea is a paradise for any seafood lover! I haven’t eaten so much octopus or shrimps in my whole life like I have in the one week holidays in Astypalea! It’s definitely not as cheap as it is advertised but its plentiful and delicious. It’s hard to resist, too. Walking from the beach with a rumbling stomach and seeing the octopus drying in the sun outside of the taverns is a sure way to work your appetite. Most of the “nightlife” of Astypalea is centered around the windmills at the entrance of Chora. However, there are few shops hidden in the alleys up under the walls of Kastro worth a visit.
Kafeneio tou Mouggou
Our absolutely favorite place in Astypalea was the Καφενείο του Μουγγου, as it is called among the locals. There is no sign but it can be found easily, sitting at a corner just under the Δημαρχείο (Town Hall). This is most possibly the oldest working kafeneio in the island and definitely one with the most character. It has a balcony and few tables outside on the street for those who enjoy watching the street life. However, the insides of the shop with its mismatched décor and hundreds of photos from the past events are what makes this place so special. The cherry on the cake are the elderly gentlemen sitting in the corner playing cards looking like they’ve been the since the beginning of times.
Even though the shop is considered kafeneio (coffee shop) it serves food in the evening. Seafood is the main lure and the sun-dried and later grilled octopus is just one of its many delicious temptations. It is not the only option, though. The menu teems with all kinds of meatballs, vegetable balls, sausages, salads to satisfy any gourmand.
Another kafeneio serving tasty μεζεδάκια is hiding all the way up at the Kastro’s walls. With tables arranged over a large terrace shaded by olive trees and with an amazing view across the Aegean sea and Mesa Nisi the atmosphere of this place is much more calming and romantic. This is the perfect spot for a couple to share few plates of tasty appetizers (grilled shrimp and smoked eggplant salad being my favorited) and a pitcher of wine after an evening walk around the Kastro.
There is the time during every holiday when you realize the wallet become much lighter much sooner than it should have. When we got to this point and started searching for a more economical way of dining we stumbled upon a tiny shop called Torquise in Pera Gialo (old port). This little shop specializes in Lechmatzoun, an eastern dish containing tin pita filled with minced meat, vegetables, spices and a sauce of your choice.
Another alternative is the traditional Greek Peinirli, a boat-shaped pastry filled with many different toppings. We haven’t tasted the Penirli, but Lechmatzoun was delicious and for 3 euros a piece exactly what we needed! However, take away is a safer option than eating at one of the tiny tables outside of the shop as we did. This way, after first Leachmatzoun, come a second, all accompanied by a couple of beers, which made the long climb back to Chora a Herculean task!
Vathy Bay at Mesa Nisi
Looking at the map of Astypalea the deep inlet of Vathi on the Mesa Nisi is begging for attention. The lake-like shape and wild countryside make it look like the perfect day-trip destination. In reality, the arrival to Vathi is quite anticlimactic. The deep inlet, surrounded by barren hills, dry fields, few abandoned houses and a couple of small white churches dotting the countryside is pretty but doesn’t seem like it has much to offer.
However, we spent a surprisingly pleasant afternoon in the only tavern in this corner of the island in a tiny port called Mesa Vathi. It serves fresh fish and few other Greek classics like fried eggplants or χοριατικη (Greek salad) and looks like it was cut out from an old Greek movie. The décor is a mix of shells and other treasures washed out by the sea, hand-drawn murals on the walls, mismatched plants and layers and layers of the obligatory blue and white paint. It overlooks the calm waters of the bay with few fisherman boats wobbling in the foreground and is the perfect place to forget the world and relax. There is no real beach anywhere in Vathy but diving from the pier in front of the tavern is a lot of fun, too.
Astypalea has plenty of beaches to choose from but don’t expect never-ending golden sands of Lefkada or Milos. In Astypalea, beaches are mostly small and pebbly with a rocky seabed and almost non-existent natural shade. The water, on the other hand, is magnificent, sparkling clear and full of fish. Not for nothing the island was called Ιχθυοεσσα, in the ancient times ( ιχθύς = fish). This makes Astypalea the perfect spot for snorkeling or scuba diving.
The choice of the beach for the day, be it in Astypalea or any other Greek island, shouldn’t be based solely on its beauty or its proximity to a beach bar or tavern. The crucial factor is the wind, its strength, and direction, and the best source of information and tips are the friendly locals. The most common Greek wind of the summer months is the northern Meltemi making the northern beaches of Astypalea almost unusable. And don’t be fooled by the calm weather in Chora, sheltered from the surrounding hills, like we were!
We choose the pebbly Vatsed Beach for our first swim in Astypalea based on few photographs we saw at the information board in the center of Chora. It lies at the southern end of the Exo Nisi and is accessible via Livadia. About half of the drive is over a dirt road, although in a good condition, passing through a wild, dry landscape frequented only by hoards of goats and an occasional cow.
The beach has natural shade and a beach bar with sunbeds and umbrellas. However, it is not enough to buy drinks in the bar to win the right for a sunbed, you have to pay 6 euro for a 2-person set, too. I find this unacceptable any time, but on a day when the beach is almost empty and every visitor staying for a couple of hours will make a huge difference to the day’s earnings, it’s just plain stupid. The sign at the entrance, prohibiting visitors from eating their own snacks on the sunbeds they paid for was hopefully just a bad joke. Except for that and the annoying wind blowing through the valley, the pebbly beach is beautiful and worth a visit under better conditions.
Plakes, Ble Limanaki and Maltezana
On our way to Vathy we explored the beaches between the Chora and Maltezana, a small fisherman port at the entrance of the Mesa Nisi. There are some nice looking beaches just outside of Cora but as it is also the home of the organic cleaning station and a small DEI plant I wouldn’t feel so comfortable swimming nearby. However, from Steno onwards, there are plenty of clean beaches to choose from, from longish and organized to tiny coves cringing under the cliffs.
We prefer the second option and choose Plakes for our swim. There is some walking involved to get to the beach but the path is comfortable and not very long. The flat rocks just before the beach are an ideal place for diving, snorkeling or sunbathing once the beach is full or falls into the afternoon shade. It is a favorite naturist spot, too, so either enjoy or ignore it based on your point of view.
Just before Maltezana on a long and narrow peninsula hides Ble Limanaki (Blue Harbour) and few other, very small beaches. Some of these tiny strips of pebbles fit only one couple or family making them the perfect private hideout. The waters of Ble Limanaki are as splendid as anywhere else in Astypalea and the close by Maltezana provides all the refreshment and supplies needed for a great day on the beach.
Maltezana and the adjoining Schinondas are a great option for those preferring the comfort of sunbeds and the close by cafeteria. The beaches are very narrow, hardly fitting a single row of sunbeds and the road to Mesa Nisi passes just behind the beach. However, even if the tourist brochure calls Maltezana “seaside resort” this is just a sleepy little port where nothing disturbs the peace and quiet of the holidaymakers. The few wooden boats rocking at a pier and weather-beaten fisherman untangling their nets make for the perfect coastal backdrop.
Just underneath Chora lies Livadia, the largest “seaside resort” of Astypalea. It consists of long sand and pebble beach with multiple cafés, taverns and mini markets, small harbor and platitude of small hotels and rooms to let. This is a popular beach and nice place for a lunch by the sea. However, there are much more beautiful beaches nearby and we used this one mostly just to get our supplies.
Following the road starting at the bridge in the middle of Livadia and heading inland you will reach a dam with a water reservoir. It lies about 2 kilometers away from the coast and the middle section follows a dirt road (again). Arriving at the dam it doesn’t seem particularly interesting. But once outside of the car and on the path following the right banks of the lake the dry landscape suddenly comes to life. There were hundreds of colorful dragon-flies flying erratically from one stem to another, a variety of birds playing a chase just above the surface of the lake and a family of ducklings begging to be fed.
According to my map, after reaching the opposite side of the lake the path climbs up to the Stavros Church on the hill above. I didn’t go all the way as my companions were impatiently waiting to leave for another octopus based feast. However, for a hiking-obsessed person like me, this is a great place to unwind and see a slightly different face of this beautiful island.
Driving from Livadi in the direction to Agios Konstantinos there is a sign for Tzanaki pointing down the hill. It’s about half kilometer walk and pretty steep one but this small pebbly beach is worth it. Not only it has the same beautiful sea so typical for Astypalea. The view across the bay towards Chora sitting on a hill exactly opposite is just stunning. Bring an umbrella and enough water, though as there is no natural shade. We choose a day with no wind whatsoever for our visit (a rare sight in Astypalea) and even with an umbrella, we were absolutely fried most of the time.
Agios Konstantinos is a large beach (at least for Astypalea) about 3 km south of Livadi. It has a mix of small pebbles and sand with a sandy seabed. There are a small, snug beach bar and sunbeds covering half of the beach but it still leaves enough space for those of us preferring to bring our own umbrella. Agios Konstantinos not only abounds in the same amazingly clear waters and a beautiful view of Chora like the close by Tzanaki.
The valley behind the beach is covered by a surprising amount of trees, bushes and reeds feeling almost jungle-like in this barren, dry landscape. The rocks on the left side of the beach have few good spots for cliff diving and the small church of Agios Konstantinos to the right is the perfect spot for a walk with plenty of photo opportunities. Overall, this was probably my favorite beach on the island and I wish we haven’t discovered it only at the end of our holidays!
Boat trip to Kounoupoi and Koutsomiti
By far the best way to enjoy the beaches of Astypalea is by boat. For those not lucky enough to own or rent their own sailboat or yacht there are organized boat trips to some of the islands best beaches and the southern islets. We choose the second and embarked on an hour-long voyage to the islets of Kounoupoi and Koutsomiti. This was my favorite day of our holidays and one that I recommend to anyone!
The boat leaves from the old port at Pera Gialos at 11:00 and returns at 18:00, claiming to spent 2 hours at each island. In reality, we spent most of our time at Kounoupa and just a short break a Koutsomiti, supposedly due to the weather conditions. However, I have a suspicion that bringing business to the small beach bar based at Kounoupa had something to do with it, too.
In the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Four hours were just enough to enjoy swimming and snorkeling in the crystal clear waters of the bay, to sip a Mojito or two at the cozy bar and to climb to the top of the adjoining islet for amazing photos of the beach.
The trip costs 15 euros per person and it is recommended to make a reservation few days in advance. This is a popular day-trip from Astypalea and even before the start of the main season, the boat was packed. Don’t expect any kind of solitude on Kounoupoi, either. With the arrival of four full tourist boats the small beach soon filled with colorful umbrellas and holidaymakers of all ages and nationalities splashing in the waves.
It’s not necessary to drag a huge fridge filled with water and food like we did. The beach bar at Kounoupoi has it all, from coffee to snacks and cocktails all followed by reggae music and friendly chatter of the bar’s staff.
The stop at Koutsomiti on the way back was short but very entertaining. The pebbly beach at Koutsomiti is sheltered by a small islet some hundred meters away. This creates a narrow inlet with calm, emerald and swimming pool-like waters perfect for few dives from the boat’s diving board. For those who didn’t want to get wet again, there was a complimentary snack of watermelon on the board. However, I wouldn’t miss this much fun for the world!
Overall, the dry and rocky Astypalea, charming as it is, is not the kind of island one falls in love from the very first moment. Or at least it wasn’t like that for me. But it has its own way to get under your skin and as days go by its more and more difficult to leave. It’s no surprise that so many foreigners ended up buying a house on this charming piece of land lost in the middle of the Aegean sea and return every year to recharge. I already miss my morning stroll to the bakery observing all the peculiar characters of the town getting on with their everyday life and I keep dreaming about lazing on the rooftop of our old house in the evening watching yet another colorful sunset fall over the immense sea.