Set your sights — and camera lens — on the tiny, historic Greek isle of Spinalonga. (Photo: Michael Hess)

Culture + Style

The Ancient Greek Island That Should Be on Every Photographer’s Bucket List

The island fortress of Spinalonga off the northeastern coast of Crete has a past that makes it worthy of a visit by any photographer. But first, a brief history lesson is in order to understand why the island is so unique.

The island was first fortified by the Venetians in the late 16th century to safeguard Crete’s harbor of Olous from pirates. The stronghold proved so impenetrable that even when the rest of Crete fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1669, the tiny island remained in Venetian hands!

However, when push came to subjugating shove, the Turks ultimately took control the isle in 1715.

(Take in the Venetian and Turkish architectural influence as you approach by boat. Photo: Michael Hess)

Fast forward a few hundred years.

In 1903, following a Cretan revolt and the Ottoman abandonment of the region, the island of Spinalonga came to be used as a leper colony. Those affected by Hansen’s Disease were quarantined here to live out the rest of their days.

Despite their illness, the people on the island built a thriving community, and when a cure was discovered in 1948, the inhabitants were cleansed and able to leave (woo!).

So why do these historical soundbites matter for taking photos?

(Wander along the ancient paths and step inside the ruined homes of the lepers. Photo: Michael Hess)

Traces of each of the island’s inhabitants can still be found here. Hundreds of years later the isle still shows architectural elements of both the Venetians and the Turks — a rarity for the region.

The ghost town of one of Europe’s last active leper colonies is still standing, waiting to be explored. The island itself is a time capsule of several eras in Greek and world history — and a visit allows photographers to capture it all.

Capturing the Island

For a dramatic start, capture sunrise over Spinalonga from a vantage point on Crete. In the spring and summer months, the sun peeks out directly behind the distant island.

The island doesn’t open to visitors until 8 a.m., so if you’ve gotten yourself out of bed to photograph the sunrise, reward yourself with some strapatsada (think: a fluffy Greek spin on scrambled eggs) or other delicious meal.

(Snap shots of the traditional caique boats passing the island. Photo: Michael Hess)

Spinalonga is accessed by boat from the towns of Plaka, Elounda and Agios Nikolaos. Tourist boats depart daily from each, though Plaka is the closest and cheapest option for visitors.

Once docked and paid for, the island is yours to explore. Depart from the admissions stand and head left, clockwise, around the island.

(Marvel at the age old ruins that are still prominent on the island. Photo: Michael Hess)

Enter the homes of the lepers to find traces of normal, everyday life. Old strategy games carved into stone can be found in many of the rooms alongside pottery and printed histories of former inhabitants.

(Monopoly circa 1900? Many old stone games can be found in the homes of the lepers. Photo: Michael Hess)

Continue on to pass Dante’s Gate, the old entrance point for lepers on the island, and the hospital erected to treat them. Snap some shots of the hospital’s ruins and ‘gram the gate for good measure.

Take in the views of the surrounding mountains as you make your way up and around, following the age-old pathways. End your visit with photos from the top of the fortress ruins overlooking the harbor, the passing boats and, of course, the crystal-clear waters.