In the southeastern Aegean, Karpathos is an isolated island that has kept hold of its dialect, traditional dress and customs. These are manifested during the Panagias Festival on 15 August, and at weddings in villages like Olympos and Menetes, lasting for a whole week in the summer.
Those settlements in the Karpathian interior are stunning, and have purposely hard to reach mountain roosts to protect them from pirate attacks in the Middle Ages.
Most holidaymakers will spend their trip on the east coast of Karpathos, which has picture perfect beaches traced by jagged cliffs and washed by transparent water. The south has bays in a flat landscape swept by the Meltemi wind.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Karpathos:
Built amphitheatrically at 300 metres on craggy cliffs, the white and pastel houses of Menetes make up one of the island’s most pictured sights.
The best photos of the village, and the wider Pigadia area, can be taken from the terrace of Kimissi tis Theotokou from the north.
This church dates to 1845 and was built using recycled stones from the ancient settlement of Arkesia.
The marble columns inside are from the early-Christian basilica of Agia Anastasia, dating to around the 400s, while the church is the focus of a big celebration on the Assumption (15 August). Pottering around the flowery streets, there are constant views of the surrounding rocky terrain, and you can check out the folklore museum, which has traditional lacework, tools for old-time trades and musical instruments like the laouto and lyra.
Set precariously on a majestic mountain ridge in the north of Karpathos, Olympos was isolated until not long ago when the road was laid.
Until this route was completed, the only way to get here was by water to the port of Diafani, five kilometres down the slope.
The reason for this hard-to-reach setting was to create a safe haven in 600 AD, when Karpathos was frequently raided by pirates, and living in perfect seclusion allowed the village to retain its centuries-old Doric dialect, costume and customs.
With colourful houses garlanded with bougainvillea, Olympos is now a kind of outdoor museum in a spectacular location.
An ideal time to come is Assumption (15 August), which we’ll talk about later.
3. Apella Beach
Possibly the most famous beach on Karpathos, Apella is 18 kilometres up from Pigadia and can be tricky to reach by road.
But the route is most definitely beautiful, and there’s a spot on the cliffs where you’ll get sweeping views of the coastline before the road wends its way down to the beach.
Another option would be to simply board one of the regular boats from Pigadia to Apella.
What you’ll find at the end of the journey is a glorious sand and pebble beach dwarfed by mountains and cliffs that keep the Meltemi north wind at bay.
The sea at Apella is a postcard-worthy turquoise colour, and so clear you have to bring a snorkel if you have one.
The beach is fringed by pines where you can doze in the shade, or you can rent the usual sun loungers and parasol.
4. Amoopi Bay
On the south coast, six kilometres from the port at Pigadia lies the resort of Amoopi.
This location is served by an hourly bus that deposits crowds of sun-seekers.
Instead of one beach, the rough-hewn coastline in the bay has seven, each with different personalities.
For a well-appointed tourist beach there’s Megali Amoopi (Great Amoopi), which has a crescent of golden sand, backed by tavernas and beach bars and bathed by rippling, transparent sea.
For more privacy, the other choices are the smaller sandy beach at Mikri Amoopi, and Votsalakia and Kastelia, small pebble coves bounded by low cliffs.
5. Achata Beach
Another isolated bay on the east of coast of Karpathos, Achata Beach is a few kilometres closer to Pigadia than Apella and no less beautiful.
The main difference is the size, as Achata is in a small cove walled by cliffs that are riddled with little caves.
If you’re the adventurous type you can spend a while exploring these cavities from the water, one of which is 30 metres long.
Back on the beach the surface is pebbly, but you can rent a sun lounger for added luxury, while there’s a single taverna behind.
Like Apella, the water clarity is staggering, and you can see horizontally for up to 40 metres.
Like Olympos it wasn’t so long ago that Mesochori could only be accessed on foot or by water.
That changed in 1960 when the road was built, but as with most villages on the island the narrow alleys of Mesochori remain car free.
The village is on a plateau, 200 metres high and gazing out to sea from the northwestern foothills of the Profitis Ilias mountain.
Hikers love Mesochori for its mountainscapes, and you can set off for high ground at dusk to watch the sunset.
The church of Panagia Vrysiani is a venerated pilgrimage site, constructed over a natural spring.
According to popular belief, if a single woman drinks from these waters she will soon be married.
7. Lefkos Beach
The west coast of Karpathos can be pretty windswept, and is caught by the full force of the Meltemi.
But at Village Beach in Lefkos there’s a lovely clam-shaped bay facing south and almost completely fenced off from the open sea by rocks.
The beach has soft sand beside a natural swimming pool of shallow water, ideally suited to families with smaller children.
Dining is not a problem either, as there are more than 10 tavernas and bars on the beachfront or in the streets behind.
You also have other beach options within a minute or two, at the Middle Cove and the more exposed North Cove.
Middle cove is hemmed by west-facing promontories where you can sit with a loved one and watch the sun go down.
8. Kyra Panagia Church
Around the cape a few kilometres southeast of Apella Beach is an exceptionally beautiful coastal scene.
The Church of Kyra Panagia sits on a promontory beside the beach of the same name.
In the traditional style, the church is completely whitewashed, expect for the blue borders around its door and window openings, and a bright red dome.
Amateur photographers will want to capture the building from all angles, while there’s a tree-shaded terrace in front, with a beautiful perspective of the small beach at the base of the promontory, framed by cliffs.
Surrounded by this scenery and washed by crystalline waters, the beach is a blissful place to while away an afternoon.
9. Diakoftis Beach
In a natural reserve south of the airport, Diakoftis Beach is at the end of a dirt road on a sheltered bay edged with dunes.
There are no signs of tourism, which is exactly how it should be at a beach that looks like it belongs on a tropical island.
The sand is fine and pinkish white, and the water is an enchanting light blue.
Check the forecast before making the journey, as Diakoftis is at its best on windless days, otherwise things can be a bit rough (though experienced windsurfers won’t mind). When all the conditions are right, this is hands-down the best beach on the island.
It’s also the sort of beach where you’ll have to bring a picnic and parasol, as there’s only a single snack stand and a handful of sun loungers that fill up early on clear days.
10. Michaliou Kipos Beach
Also close to the airport on the south coast of Karpathos, Michaliou Kipos is one for people who need to break away from the tourist herd.
There are no beach bars here, so you need to pack everything with you.
But that won’t matter when you get to spend the day at this heavenly bay with coarse sand and guarded by low cliffs and interesting rock formations like an outcrop with two natural arches.
As with Diakoftis Beach, choose a calm day to come as a lot depends on the weather.
11. Panagias Festival
Assumption (15 August) is a special time to be in a few villages on Karparthos, but Olympos most of all.
At this time of year the village swells with the descendants of emigrants who want to get in touch with their Karpathian heritage.
They’ll meet their extended family, and female members will dress up in colourful outfits bespangled with a double row of gold coins hanging from necklaces as a traditional display of wealth.
There are church services for which women will bring bread in baskets decorated with flowers as an offering to the Virgin Mary.
The service is followed by a big open banquet, and afterwards musicians will play folk songs on the laouto and lyra at Plati, the central square and the dancing goes on until dawn.
12. Boat Trips (Kasos)
In summer tourist boats depart the port at Pigadia throughout the day.
If you’re staying on Karpathos without a car, this is the easiest way to get to the top beaches like Achata and Apella, as well as the village of the Olympos in the north of the island.
Many tours will also drop anchor at Saria off the north coast of Karpathos.
This stark volcanic islet, ringed by cliffs and strange rock formations, has many more goats than people and is a breeding ground for Eleanora’s falcons.
On the shore are the remnants of houses believed to have been constructed for pirates when they used the island as a base.
If you’re inspired by the rocky and coniferous Karpathian countryside there’s no lack of trails, mostly marked with red or blue paint.
The village of Aperi, eight kilometres from Pigadia, is an excellent jumping off point, in the greenest part of the island.
All around is mountainous farmland, flecked with white chapels and criss-crossed by drystone walls, and where olive groves are stacked on terraces.
This is the trailhead for two of the best walks.
The first leads down through a canyon etched with caves to the Achata Beach five kilometres away.
Or you could stay in the upland and take the eight-kilometre trail west to Pyles, calling in at delightful Karpathian villages like Stes, in a verdant valley with vines, olive groves and vegetable patches.
The incredible water clarity and rocky geology in the Aegean around Karpathos puts diving on the list of things to keep in mind.
The island’s one diving centre is in Pigadia on the main promenade and provides all the courses in the PADI curriculum, whether you’re diving for fun or working towards technical certification.
There are 18 dive sites around Karpathos, from wrecks to reefs, underwater arches and caves like the magical St Peter’s Cathedral, where shafts of light filter illuminate a massive chamber.
Trips are also arranged to Saria, which has colourful wildlife in its protected waters.
In summer Karpathos is buffeted by the Meltemi wind, which you may not notice on the sheltered east coast, but can be fierce in the flatter southern region around the airport.
This wind is at its strongest from June to September, so the windsurfing and kite-surfing seasons coincide with the tourist rush.
The windsurfing capital is Afiartis, which has three main locations: Chicken Bay, Gun Bay and Devil’s Bay, each named for its level of difficulty.
Chicken Bay is the one for beginners and kids, while Gun Bay is just right for “blasting” and freestyle.
There are guesthouses in Afiartis set up especially windsurfers and two windsurf centres to kit you out with everything you need.