The Greek island is rich in sights, olives, and thousands of years of history.
Text and photos by Catie Funk
Lesvos (also known as Mytilini, and Midilli in Turkish), just a few kilometers off the Anatolian Aegean coast, is Greece’s third largest island. Miraculously, Lesvos has not succumbed to the pressures of mass tourism, and for the do-it-all traveler who likes diversity, Lesvos is an ideal destination; fantastic food, beautiful beaches, pine and hardwood forests, rivers, and more than one million olive trees.
Mytilene: the capital
On Lesvos, you can find enough to do for the day just by staying in the capital city of Mytilene. Mytilene Castle, one of the Mediterranean’s biggest, is located on top of a hill in the northern part of town. Visitors can walk around the castle and visit its cistern, the Ottoman baths, the Crypts, and the Queen’s Tower. The view of Mytilene town from the castle is magnificent.
From the castle, head towards the main shopping street, Ermou. Start from the Yeni Tzami, a nineteenth century Turkish mosque, and walk down Ermou street towards the Agios Therapon Church. Take your time window shopping along the streets lined with lovely buildings, and shops selling souvenirs and traditional products of the island.
If you have time, learn about the island’s history at the Archeological Museum. Due to its proximity to the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Anatolia), Mytilene is considered to be one of the most culturally rich cities in Greece, full of historical monuments and buildings. Because of its shared history with Greece and Turkey, the museum is rich in interesting items spanning over three thousand years.
Island of olives
Visitors on a two or three day trip to Lesvos can explore the northwestern part of the island by rental car. After picking up your rental car near the harbor, an hour drive west from the port city of Mytilene takes you to the Olive Oil Museum situated in the middle of the island.
While it does explain olive oil production, this museum focuses more on the exemplary communal efforts to restore the olive press of Aghia Paraskevi (which you can see in action daily at noon, except on Tuesdays) and the effect it has had on the region’s social fabric and economic health.
A fifteen minute drive from the Olive Oil Museum, the bay of Skala Kallonis is easily one of our favorite memories. Sitting at the shaded beachfront restaurant of Dionysos Fish and Meat Restaurant, we took our time eating our weight in Greek salad, fried cheese balls, and grilled meat, while our friend’s kid played on the beach.
Petra and Molyvos
As you drive towards the western coastline, Petra’s cliff-top church, Glykfylousa Panagia (Our Lady of the Sweet Kiss), can be seen from miles away. The first church was built on the site in 1609 and the present one in 1747. After a half-hour drive from the olive oil museum, the 114 carved rock step climb to look at the Orthodox church will stretch your legs and reward you with a panoramic view of the red clay roofs lining the north shore. If you’re lucky enough, you might witness a local wedding, as we did.
The city itself surrounds this rock mountain. More recently, Petra’s council has worked to improve the peaceful ambience for locals and tourist alike, closing off the center of the village to traffic.
A twenty minute drive north along the coastline, after passing multiple beaches, you’ll see Molyvos Castle sitting atop a winding hillside town, claiming first place for Lesbvos island’s attractions on its west coast. Although built by the Byzantines, there are stones here from a previous castle dating from the Trojan War. From the Venetians to the Catalans, to the Genovese and the Ottoman Turks, this castle has seen it all. Families with strollers be warned; most of this city requires steep uphill walks that are not stroller friendly.
The town’s winding, narrow walking streets below the castle are well worth walking through. During spring, hundred-year-old vines drape over the passageways, blooming fragrant, purple wisteria, providing shade for residents and visitors.
From Molyvos, you can drive an alternative 90 minute route back towards Mytilene Port. Near the still active Moni Agios Taxiarchis Monastery, a small café sets out 100 tables and chairs under shady trees. Order their special fried doughnut-like sweets, called loukoumades, dipped in syrup. For extra flavor, ask for a drizzle of white or plain chocolate with chopped nut sprinkles.
Near the Moni Agios Taxiarchis Monastery is a small handicrafts town known for its pottery, called Mantamados. Even though it’s popular, the handmade ceramics workshop, Stelios Stamatis, remains a small space packed from floor to ceiling with pottery.
Bright flower designs or olive branches adorn all types of dishes and plant holders. The prices are reasonable but you need to bring cash—credit cards are not accepted. While photos are allowed inside the shop, it’s always best to ask before taking pictures of the person hand-painting the ceramic dishes.
The list of tourist attractions in Lesvos goes on and on. If you have more time, visit other parts of the island including Eressos, Sigri Museum, and the Petrified Forest. You can also take part in exciting outdoor activities including horseback riding, rock climbing, mountain biking, and sailing.
Where to stay
There are a wide range of hotels and apartments to suit all budgets. For larger groups (four adults and two kids), there are many apartment style rentals in Mylos.
What to take home
The island not only offers olive oil, but also olive oil products such as natural soaps, lotions, bowls and other items made from olive oil wood, and souvenirs with hand-painted olive branches.
When to travel
Traveling to Lesvos is best in the summer, from May to September. The island comes to life, and all the shops are open. The cultural center also organizes many festivals and traditional exhibitions throughout the island during the summer. But if you want a more relaxed getaway, consider coming in the off-months, October to April.
How to get there
From Ayvalık, Turkey, take the 1 hour and 15-minute ferry ride to the port city of Mytilene. In the summer, boats travel daily, but in the off season they only travel a few times a week. Be aware that the schedule changes frequently. Booking ferry tickets online is easy from several websites; www.marmarisferry.com provides a diverse selection of routes. If you’re coming from Istanbul, it is a six hour bus trip to Ayvalık.
Vehicles are easy and cheap to rent. Even if you have a car, you will find that renting one for a day or two will be cheaper than paying for your car ferry fee and required insurance on the island.