The capital of Crete’s Lasithi region, Agios Nikolaos is a favourite with visitors drawn by nearby Elounda (famous for its golden beaches and cosmopolitan charm) and the lakeside atmosphere of the town itself. Whether it’s the appeal of Lake Voulisma or the beaches in and around Agios Nikolaos, it provides an ideal base for your holidays in eastern Crete. Just a short drive away are authentic villages and cultural sites, as well as nature trails and food and drink experiences that will bring you closer to the essence of Crete. If all this sounds like your kind of holiday, then sit back and enjoy all the best things to do in and around Agios Nikolaos.
Enjoy a stroll around Agios Nikolaos
The first of your things to do in Agios Nikolaos is to simply soak up the atmosphere. The narrow streets give it an island feel, but the busy squares and marina also create a lively vibe. And the focal point is Lake Voulismeni which, legend has it, is bottomless and where the goddesses Athena and Artemis once bathed. Not a bad thing to contemplate while enjoying a coffee or a bite around the lake (every hour of the day has a different mood). There is a footpath up Agios Charalambos Hill for a view of Agios Nikolaos from above. The main shopping area is on and around 28th October Street, with cafes and restaurants and souvenir shops, and the city’s cathedral is in Eleftherias Square. Cultural highlights include the Folklore Museum in the old Port Authority building next to the bridge crossing the canal by the sea and the Archaeological Museum, where you are introduced to the region’s history, from Neolithic and Minoan times all the way to the Roman occupation and beyond.
Take a tour of Spinalonga island
The island of Spinalonga is one of the undisputed cultural highlights near Agios Nikolaos. Seen from Plaka, a fishing village just north of Agios Nikolaos, it is the site of an offshore Venetian fortress, built in the 16th century to protect Mirabello Bay from attack.
And it is true that the thick fortress walls are the first thing you see when you arrive by boat (which you can do from Plaka, Elounda or Agios Nikolaos itself).
Closer inspection, however reveals the ruined houses of a settlement that was Greece’s official leper colony from 1903 to 1957.
One of the houses has been turned into a museum with photographs and historical information and a 1.5km path takes you around the island, past the school, shops and tavernas of a community that reached 400 patients.
You pass a hospital and a theatre and end at the Church of St George and the island’s cemetery, where a plaque commemorates those buried there.
The priest was the last inhabitant of Spinalonga to leave, in 1962.
Experience the authentic villages around Agios Nikolaos
Let’s get you into the heart and soul of the region now and take you to the villages close to Agios Nikolaos. Here you’ll find Crete at its most authentic, with traditional tavernas in village squares serving Cretan food and meze, shops selling local handmade products and – the heart of village life – traditional kafenia where locals drink coffee and play backgammon. Just a few kilometres outside Agios Nikolaos are the villages of Kroustas (with views over Mirabello Bay) and Kritsa (with a hiking trail into the countryside). And 10km further south is Prina, famous for its honey and reached through a dense pine tree forest.
On the road from Agios Nikolaos to Sissi (30km away on the north coast) are numerous villages, including Limnes (known for its watermills), Houmeriakos (with only a couple of hundred inhabitants but an incredible 17 churches) and Vryses (on the slopes of Mount Kavalara and one of the oldest). Kasteli and Fourni (so close that they are often considered one village) and Vrahasi are other options, before arriving at Sissi, a fishing village but also more cosmopolitan than the rest. Other village excursions close to Agios Nikolaos are Plaka (with many tavernas for after your boat trip to Spinalonga) and Vrouhas, just north of that. Finally, Mesa and Exo Potami are around 50mins away, just by the fertile Lasithi plateau, from which you can continue to the many other excursions the region has to offer.
Indulge in the beaches of Agios Nikolaos
Finding a beach for the day or a quick swim between all the other things to do in Agios Nikolaos couldn’t be easier. There are beaches in Agios Nikolaos and plenty more just a short drive out of town. Ammoudi and Kitroplatia (from where the path to the marina begins) are the closest beaches to the centre, with plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from. Likewise, Gargadoros is a small beach that’s relatively quiet. On the outskirts of town are Havania (one of Agios Nikolaos’ quieter beaches) and, a little further away in the opposite direction are, sandy Almyros and Ammoudara.
Cosmopolitan Elounda beach is rightly known around the world and either side of that are beautiful Kolokytha beach (on a small island islet-like peninsula connected to the mainland) and Plaka (perfect for a swim before or after your boat trip to Spinalonga). Heading south from Agios Nikolaos are Karavostasi (popular with windsurfers), Agios Panteleimonas (quiet and with typically calm waters) and Voulisma (a hit with families and water sports fans). Finally, on the north coast are Boufos (a 10-minute walk from Sissi village) and Avlaki (a little gem of a beach at the mouth of Skinias Gorge).
Get active in nature
Agios Nikolaos offers a rich and varied landscape for activities such as kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. The coastline by Kolokytha beach (especially the hidden coves) is made for exploring and you can even hire a kayak and paddle from Plaka to Spinalonga rather than get there by boat. Meanwhile, windsurfers have plenty of options (such as Hiona beach in Elounda Bay, and Ammoudi and Karavostasi, considered the best spots for the sport in the wider Agios Nikolaos area).
On land, there are hiking trails through forested routes from the villages of Kritsa and Krousta. And nothing in the area beats the Adrianos Gorge for dramatic scenery. Meanwhile, an ancient footpath takes you from the village of Nikithianos near Neapoli to Kremaston Monastery and there is a trail that takes you high up to Ancient Naxos, from where there are fantastic views over Spinalonga and Mirabello Bay. And the hike to the Milatos Cave takes you to a small church literally built into the cave. Finally, there are scuba diving centres in and close to Agios Nikolaos (including at Kantia beach and near Minos beach) and horse riding excursions for the whole family that set out from the village of Fourni.
Treat yourself in cosmopolitan Elounda
Built on the southern shores of the bay of the ancient city of Olous (from which it takes its name), Elounda is a tourist resort with a well-deserved reputation as one of Greece’s most cosmopolitan holiday destinations. Its sandy beaches have attracted visitors for decades, and even if you’re not staying there, it’s the perfect place to spend the day.
Swimming in the morning can be followed by a stroll past the century-old windmills at Kanali (the channel leading to the peninsula on which Kolokytha beach is located), before ending the day with a cocktail and a romantic dinner by the sea You’ll have no trouble finding a place to eat in Elounda, from traditional tavernas to high-end restaurants.
Learn the secrets of the Cretan diet
Crete is the home of the Mediterranean diet, with fruit & vegetables, wild greens and pulses that are as delicious as they are healthy and unforgettable local products like olive oil, cheese and honey. If you’re a self-confessed foodie, there are food & drink experiences that will take your holidays in Agios Nikolaos to the next level. Olive oil tours & olive tasting, cheese-making, cooking classes and wine tastings are offered by the likes of the Vassilakis Estate (with over 150 years of experience) and the Lyrakis Family Olive Mill near Neapoli, the Cretan Olive Oil Farm just north of Agios Nikolaos and Mourello Olive Oil in Kritsa village.
Alternatively, the delicatessens and grocery stores of Agios Nikolaos sell locally produced cheese, honey, wine, olive oil and much more. And not quite food-related, but for those who appreciate natural products, you can find 'farm to skin' organic cosmetics and fragrances at Bioaroma, which has its own farm and offers cosmetics workshops.
Add a bit of culture to your day
Adding a cultural stop to your day in Agios Nikolaos couldn't be easier. The Ancient City of Lato is around 20-min drive away. It was founded by the Dorians in the 7th century BC, but the well-preserved remains of the agora (marketplace), residences and workshops date from the Hellenistic period. Another highlight is the Museum of Rare and Endemic Plants ‘Rodanthi’ in Kritsa village (named after a young Greek woman who rebelled against the Ottomans), which includes a collection of rare plants used by in the everyday life of locals. Rodanthi’s house in Kritsa is now the Kritsopoulas Folk Museum.
Elsewhere, the Folk Collection of Neapoli and the Archaeological Collection of Neapoli are housed in different wings of the 19th-century building that was once the town’s high school. And around 15mins from Neapoli, in the village of Vrahasi, is the House of Vrahasi, built in 1880 and now preserved as a folk museum.
Discover the historic monasteries and churches
You’ll immediately understand the importance of religion to the identity of Crete from the stature of the monasteries and churches close to Agios Nikolaos. Many are beautifully maintained despite being founded centuries ago, such as the Metropolitan church of Megali Panagia (built on the site of a monastery) that dominates the central square of Neapoli. Nearby are Kramaston Monastery (founded in 1593 and used as a Hidden School during the Ottoman occupation) and the Monastery of Koufi Petra (once abandoned but reestablished in 1886 and with panoramic views over the Bay of Mirabello).
Near the tiny settlement of Karydi are the Monastery of Areti (from the 16ᵗʰ century and, despite its destruction during the Greek Revolution of 1821, still functioning with renovated sections) and the neighbouring Kardamoutsa Monastery (with a main church from 1580). Finally, the colourful Monastery of Agios Giorgos Selinari is located near the Selinari Gorge on the road north. Legend has it that the original church was built by a monk from Rhodes who discovered an icon of St George on the site.
Fill up on the local spirit at a festival
Last on your list of things to do in Agios Nikolaos is to combine your stay with a local event. Every September, the Street Food Festival (featuring traditional Cretan dishes) takes place near Kitroplatia beach in Agios Nikolaos, with local and famous chefs from all over Greece and several Cretan wineries. Another popular choice is the summer Ftazimo Festival in Krousta, where you can sample the village’s famous seven-yeast bread and dance to local music.
The Raki Festival in Limnes in August is also popular, as is the Festival of Cretan Music at Lake Voulismeni in June. And finally, the village of Kritsa holds its Grape Festival in August (where you can enjoy local theatre, dance, singing and a traditional Cretan wedding performance) and Neapoli is famous for its August 15 Festivities around the Church of Megali Panagia, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whose feast day is celebrated then.
10 best things to do in Agios Nikolaos in Crete
So what grabbed your attention most out of all the things to do on your holidays in Agios Nikolaos in eastern Crete? Was it wondering around Lake Voulismeni or enjoying all those beaches and villages around Agios Nikolaos? Or maybe you can’t wait to try one of those foodie experiences or get active in the countryside?
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