In the North Aegean, Lesbos is the third-largest Greek island and known to many as the home of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho in the 6th century BC. Unlike a lot of the Aegean, Lesbos has stayed clear of heavy tourism, and is an island best suited to independent travellers who don’t mind travelling a few more kilometres to hunt down a Venetian castle, historic monastery or pristine beach.
It says a lot that Eressos, one of the top resorts on Lesbos, is a laid-back getaway preferred by spiritually minded tourists and a small lesbian community. Lesbos is a volcanic island and there are signs of activity at hot springs, sudden outcrops and the largest petrified forest in the world.
Let’es explore the best things to do in Lesbos:
1. Castle of Molyvos
If you find yourself in Molyvos (Mithymna) in the north of Lesbos you have to make the trek up to the Byzantine castle at the top of the town.
The Castle of Molyvos dates to the 11th century but built over a far older stronghold possibly going back to the Archaic period.
The fortress repelled attacks from Smyrna, and was beefed up by the Venetians anticipating an invasion by the Ottomans.
It held strong against the first attack in 1450 but fell in 1458 when the town was besieged by 150 ships.
The castle is constructed from a russet trachyte and to get inside you have to go through three gates, the last of which is made from sturdy metal-plated wood.
The compound’s buildings, like the powder magazine, are from Ottoman times, and at this height you’ll realise just how close you are to the Turkish coast.
2. Petrified Forest of Lesbos
Sprouting on the west side of Lesbos are hundreds of fossilised tree trunks from a forest 20 million years old.
Some also sit underwater off the coast, but the highest density of trees can be found in a 15-hectare National Forest park between the villages of Eressos and Sigri.
The petrifaction was created by lava and ash from eruptions in the Neogene Period, and in places this volcanic material has disappeared, leaving the trunks behind.
The phenomenon has no equivalent in Europe and is larger than the famous petrified forest in Arizona.
Some of the trees stand several metres tall with roots intact, and where the trunks have fallen you can trace their rings and fossilised timber in a spectrum of colours.
3. Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest
If seeing the fossilised trees up close piques your interest in their geology, the highly-rated natural history is museum close by in Sigri.
This attraction is arranged in two main halls.
The first is all about the petrified forest in the context of the evolution of plants on earth.
This is where you can discover the full diversity of trees in the forest, which includes 40 different species.
Trunks, roots, branches, seeds and leaves are all displayed alongside information signs about each species.
The second hall details the volcanic history of the Aegean over the last 20 million years, with rocks, magnificent quartz minerals, and also anthropological exhibits of Neolithic flint tools and the skulls of extinct primates that once lived in the Aegean.
4. Museum of Industrial Olive Production
In the village of Agia Paraskevi is a communally-owned olive press from 1910 that has been restored and converted into a museum.
The press is a trailblazing facility from an interesting period, when in the spirit of collectivism, several famers pooled together to set up their own press rather than using private mills.
The press operated from 1911 to 1967, only closing when members from the village’s community council were arrested.
So there’s an interesting social dimension to go with the evocative architecture of the factory, and information about the changes that industrial machinery caused for the production of olive oil.
On the technical side, the exhibits explain the cultivation of olives, how they’re pressed and how the oil is siphoned from the water in the olives.
5. Panagia Glykofilousa
The village of Petra on the north coast of Lesbos takes its name from the abrupt volcanic rock that commands the landscape.
Balancing on the top, up 114 stairs, is an 18th-century church famed for its silver Icon of the Blessed Virgin.
The story goes that this belonged to a sea captain forced ashore by a storm.
The icon went missing on two occasions, only to reappear both times at the top of this rock, so he decided to build a church here.
The icon is a pilgrimage site for people suffering ill health, and is covered with votive offerings of metallic body parts bought from icon shops across Lesbos.
And if you happen to be in Petra on August 15 for the Marian feast day there’s a holiday and special market in the village.
6. New Archaeological Museum Mytilene
As you’re on the island of Sappho you have to acquaint yourself with Lesbos’ ancient history.
The place to do this is the New Archaeological Museum in Mytilene, which opened in 1999. The permanent exhibition goes into detail on life on Lesbos from the Hellenistic Period (starting in the 4th BC) to the end of the Roman period in the 4th century AD. Most impressive are the mosaics and frescoes produced for Roman villas on Mytilene’s Agia-Kiriaki hill.
The level of artistry is staggering and indicates the economic power of the town in Roman times.
Along with an array of figurines, vases and other ceramics there’s a marble funerary relief depicting the Dinner of the Dead (a meal for the worship of the dead following their burial) dating to the 4th-century.
7. Agios Ignatios Monastery (Limonos Monastery)
In fertile farmland near the town of Kalloni is the Agios Ignatios Monastery dating to 1526. Its roots go back a long way before to Byzantine times, but the monastery was shut down for several decades after the Ottoman conquest of Lesbos in the 15th century.
Agios Ignatios was a place of worship, but also education, as you’ll tell from the library, which has 5,000 volumes, some as old as the 6th century AD. The church (katholikon) was erected in 1526 when the monastery was revived and is a three-aisled basilica with frescoes that were painted in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Ottoman Baroque style.
These evoke passages from the bible and depict animals and plants, while between the nave and apse is an exuberant giltwood templon (sanctuary barrier).
8. Skala Eressos Beach
The pick of the beaches on Lesbos, Skala Eressos Beach is 400 metres of volcanic sand around a gently arcing bay.
Settled in the 20th century by hippies and people from the LBGT community, the village behind has a progressive feel and a surplus of yoga, massage and alternative medicine centres.
On the rocks over the beach is a string of cafes and tavernas, some catering especially to vegetarians, and these buildings are all raised on piles that are buried in the sand.
They all afford lovely views of the beach and arid hills to the east and west.
9. Castle of Mytilene
With a footprint of almost 25 hectares the Castle of Mytilene is one of the largest strongholds in the Mediterranean.
Its foundations date back to the rule of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, and these may have been constructed on Ancient Greek acropolis.
In the 14th century the castle the Queen’s Tower here was the residence of Francesco I Gattilusio, the Genoese ruler of Lesbos.
The complex is partially in ruins, but some exciting elements remain, like the Queen’s Tower, carved with coats of arms, the Byzantine cistern, an Islamic monastery (Tekke) and Ottoman hammam.
Underneath are the subterranean vaults where Mytilene’s women and children would seek refuge during raids.
10. Agios Isidoros Beach
In the very south of Lesbos at the village of Plomari is a heavenly beach beloved for its multicoloured marble pebbles.
If lying on a pebble beach seems uncomfortable Agios Isidoros is fully serviced and the attached restaurants will bring food and drinks direct to your sun lounger.
On sunny days the sea is a bright turquoise colour and couldn’t be more tempting, whether you feel like snorkelling or just sitting in the light surf.
If you have to share photos to make your Facebook friends jealous there’s also free Wi-Fi.
11. Eressian Hammam & Spa
Relax and enjoy a sanctuary of well-being at the Eressian Hammam & Spa in Eressos.
Relax with the effects of heat and water, revitalize your body with ketsea and soap, enjoy a deep cleansing and scrub or simply enjoy a relaxing massage.
12. Agios Taxiarchis Monastery
The most venerated site on Lesbos contains the island’s patron saint, an icon of St Michael with an interesting past.
According to tradition, all of the monks at this monastery were massacred during a Saracen raid.
The sole survivor was a young novice who was hiding on the roof and saw the Archangel Michael wielding his sword against the attackers and fighting them off.
While the vision was still fresh in his memory the novice made an icon of the saint using earth and the blood of the fallen monks.
Pilgrims buy metallic shoes to offer to the icon, the rationale being that Michael will wear them at night and appear to them in visions.
There’s a festival in Michael’s honour in the nearby village of Mantamados on the third Sunday following Easter.
Over three days there are pilgrimages and a the ritual slaughter of a bull, the cooked meat of which is offered to visitors.
13. Barbayannis Ouzo Museum
Ouzo is a pillar of the island’s economy, and Lesbos is believed to be the birthplace of this prized anise-flavoured spirit.
The Barbayannis distillery in Plomari was founded in 1860 by a Russian immigrant who took advantage of the area’s plentiful water and the herbs growing in its fertile countryside to develop his recipe.
Almost 160 years later the Barbayannis name is a byword for high-quality ouzo, and the museum is set beside the brand’s modern distillery.
You’ll learn what is needed to make a first-class ouzo, get to know the Barbayannis family history.
One of many artefacts is an alembic (still) dating to 1858 that the founder Efstathios Barbayannis brought with him from Constantinople.
The tour also takes you into the 21st-century distillery, and you can sample the different varieties and a pick up a bottle or two at the shop.
14. Roman Aqueduct of Moria
Spanning a valley outside the town of Mytilene are the stirring remnants of an aqueduct.
Dating to the 2nd and 3rd century AD this 160-metre structure is the largest remaining chunk of an aqueduct that channelled water 26 kilometres to ancient Mytilene from the springs on Olympos Mountain.
The ruins in Moria are built from Lesbos’ characteristic grey marble and have up to three levels of arches between each pillar.
Two spans are complete at the top, giving a clear idea of the magnitude of the aqueduct 1,800 years ago.
15. Kalloni Salt Pans
South of Kalloni on the larger of the island’s two enormous bays is an expanse of large rectangular of salt ponds.
This environment might seem pretty nondescript to the untrained eye, but the pans support an abundance of birdlife.
You don’t need to be an expert birdwatcher to get a kick out of the sight of hundreds of flamingos wading in the foreground and sheep grazing in the meadows behind.
The best time for spotting migratory birds is in spring and autumn, when you should see varieties of stints, avocets, redshanks, storks, sandpipers, plovers, stilts and egrets.