Leros (Λέρος) in the Dodecanese (Δωδεκάνησα) is a beautiful island, a true jewel of the Aegean, that remains relatively unknown. Traditional settlements, beautiful beaches, historical monuments, excellent food, and unforgettable landscapes, Leros has something for everyone. Although small, it has a geophysical relief with gentle mountains, deep bays, olive groves, and pine trees that make it stand out from any other Aegean island. With a quiet atmosphere, short distances, and hospitable residents, it is the ideal vacation spot.
According to mythology, it was considered the island of Artemis. The ancient Greeks left behind important monuments, and the Byzantines adorned it with churches. Then the Greeks of Egypt enriched it with their mansions, and the Italians left their own stamp on the island’s identity.
THE HISTORY OF THE ISLAND
Leros has been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic era. During the 5th century BC, it experienced its first great prosperity under the influence of Miletus. It was also a member of the Athenian Alliance. Afterwards, it was conquered by the Persians and liberated by Alexander the Great. In the Byzantine period, it experienced significant development and was conquered by the Knights of Saint John and the Ottomans. In the period 1912–1943, it passed into the hands of the Italians, who turned it into their most important base in the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, on March 7, 1948, it was integrated into Greece along with the rest of the Dodecanese islands.
After the war, the Greek governments used the Italians’ buildings for various reasons. In 1949, the “royal technical schools” were established on the island as a centre for the national education of children who found themselves in the civil war without family. Also in 1957, the state psychiatric hospital was created on the island. This fact led to the long-term dependence of the local economy on its operation. Finally, during the dictatorship period (1967–74), it was a place of detention for political prisoners in two camps, in Lakki and Partheni. All these contributed for many years to the creation of an unfavourable reputation for the island.
AN IMPORTANT MONUMENT OF WORLD WAR II
Leros, with its history, is an important international monument of World War II. During the period of the Italian Occupation, the Italians set up a grand plan to turn the island into a fortified military and naval base. The island had a strategic location and large natural ports. The establishment of a large base at Leros ensured that the Italians controlled a vital area that included the Aegean, the Dardanelles, and the Near East.
Leros was bombed by the British Air Force from 1940, after Italy’s entry into World War II. On September 8, 1943, Italy signed an armistice and went over to the Allied side. After the armistice, British troops arrived in Leros, resulting in continuous German bombardments. One of the largest attacks was on the destroyer Queen Olga, which was sunk by German bombers on September 26, 1943, in Lakki Bay. The island of Leros was finally captured by German troops during Operation Taifun in November 1943. The incident became known as the “Battle of Leros”.
The legacy of World War II on Leros is evident in a significant number of buildings, sites, and monuments. Unfortunately, most are not maintained and have been given over to the wear and tear of time. Also, the seabed around the island is scattered with wrecks and planes from the Battle of Leros.
You can also read our article: Leros, a unique monument of World War II
AGIA MARINA – PLATANOS – PANTELI
Platanos – Agia Marina – Agia Marina beach – Panteli
Agia Marina (Αγία Μαρίνα) is the capital and the old port of the island. Together with the settlement of Platanos (Πλάτανος) and the fishing village of Panteli (Παντέλι) they form a single settlement. Starting from the picturesque port, the traditional houses are spread amphitheatrically on the surrounding hills of Agia Marina and impress with their diversity. At the edge of the settlement’s beach stands the characteristic windmill that is the trademark of the island, built in the sea.
You will see the magnificent homes of the Greek-Egyptians from Leros as you ascend towards Platanos. The houses are a distinctive residential complex on the Greek islands, having been constructed in the early 20th century. The Nicolaideio Primary School and the Archaeological Museum, located in this area, are two structures of significant artistic value that were donated by Greek-Egyptians. Platanos’ square, dominated by the Town Hall, is the beginning of many picturesque alleyways that lead to charming churches like Christos (Χριστός).
Finally, Panteli, although it has developed into the centre of tourist interest on the island, manages to maintain its colour and the feeling of a traditional village. In Panteli, you will find a number of excellent taverns with tables on the beach.
CASTLE OF LEROS
The Castle of Leros (Κάστρο Λέρου), also known as Panteli Castle, is the symbol of Leros. It is a Byzantine structure, probably built on the site of an ancient acropolis. During the reign of the Knights of Saint John (15th century), the fortifications were strengthened, and there are two inner precincts from the Middle Byzantine period. The castle has large underground storehouses, water tanks, and chapels. But above all, what you will remember is the panoramic view that will take your breath away. Almost two-thirds of the island are visible from the Castle. The relief of the island with its settlements, bays, and beaches spreads out in front of you in a unique colour harmony.
Panagia tou Kastrou – Castle of Leros
On the west side of the Castle is the church of Panagia tou Kastrou/Virgin Mary of the Castle (Παναγία του Κάστρου), built at the end of the 17th century with a gold-plated iconostasis and remarkable paintings. The miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary is believed to be the work of Luke the Evangelist. According to tradition, the icon appeared from the sea on the island and was miraculously installed in the gunpowder storage room of the Castle. Here is also the Ecclesiastical Museum, where rare manuscripts and books, icons, vestments, and other ecclesiastical objects are exhibited. Panagia tou Kastrou, protector and patron of the island, celebrates on August 15th.
Access to the Castle is either via the approximately 500 steps that start from Platanos or via an asphalt road that starts from Panteli.
WINDMILLS OF LEROS
Going up towards the Castle from Panteli, there are six windmills on top of the hill. The windmills date from the 17th century to the 19th century and were originally nine. The two that are missing were destroyed by the road works, while the foundations of the third are still visible. In one of the mills, there is a small folklore museum on the theme of the traditional Leros house. Also, in the mill, located at the lowest point, the Harris cafe operates with a magnificent view towards Panteli. A stop at the mills is imperative for the most impressive photos and a coffee or drink while staring at the endless blue of the Aegean.
The Tower of Belenis (Πύργος Μπελένη) dominates the centre of the beach road in Alinda. It is a unique sample of eclecticism that combines mediaeval and neoclassical elements. It was built in 1927 by Parisis Belenis, a wealthy Greek from Egypt and a great benefactor of the island. The tower today houses the Historical and Folklore Museum of the island. On the first floor, costumes, crockery, embroidery, ecclesiastical utensils, musical instruments, and period furniture are exhibited. Α room is dedicated to the painter Kyriakos, who was exiled on the island. Another room represents an infirmary from the period when the tower functioned as a German military hospital. Additionally, on the second floor, there is memorabilia from the destroyer Queen Olga and exhibits from the Battle of Leros.
LAKKI – THE UTOPIAN ITALIAN CITY
Lakki (Λακκί), which is today the second-largest settlement and the central port of the island, was built entirely during the period of the Italian Occupation. It is one of the largest natural ports in the Aegean. Initially, in the 1920s, the Italians built a seaplane base and barracks along the coast. A decade later, they decided to turn the area into a large naval base capable of housing sailors, officers, and technical personnel along with their families.
In 1923, Mussolini sent the architects Petracco and Bernabiti to design and build the ideal city in Leros that would become a symbol of Fascist Italy. The Italian fascist style was called razionalismo and was one of Europe’s post-World War I modernist movements. The new town in 1939 had 7,000 inhabitants and was named Portolago after Mario Lago, the Italian Governor of Leros from 1922 to 1936.
The Portolago was built on a rational and functional design. All administrative buildings were placed along the beach. A commercial area was just behind it, and services such as barracks and the hospital were on the edge of town. The residential area was divided according to the occupations and classes of the residents, with different house styles for each group. The streets were wide, with sidewalks and roundabouts. The most characteristic buildings are the elementary school, the theatre, the hotel, the market building with the clock tower, and the church of San Francesco (today Agios Nikolaos). Lakki is considered the only rationalist city outside of Italy and is undoubtedly a world heritage site that will impress you.
WAR MUSEUM OF LEROS
Among the World War II monuments on the island, the War Museum stands out. The museum is housed in a restored Italian war tunnel. It was part of an extensive network of tunnels and land defence positions constructed in the Merikia area to store ammunition. A large number of items from World War II are on display in the tunnel. Among them, you will find weapons, maps, photographs, uniforms, and various other memorabilia from the war. The surrounding area has been turned into a military park, where decommissioned military vehicles and a fighter aircraft are on display. Also inside the museum, you can watch an informative video about the Battle of Leros.
THE MOST SCENIC CHAPELS
Leros, like any other Greek island, is scattered with dozens of beautiful, picturesque chapels that, in their own unique way, beautify the island and are in perfect harmony with the natural landscape. And of course we can’t help but start at the small church of Agios Isidoros (Άγιος Ισίδωρος). It is definitely one of the most characteristic images of the Aegean. The white chapel is located on a rock in the Gulf of Gourna and is connected to the mainland by a narrow concrete path. On the other side of the same bay, in Drymonas, is the tiny chapel of Agios Georgios (Άγιος Γεωργιος), a splash of white and blue by the sea.
Agios Georgios – Kavouradaina – Theologos – Gourlomata – Agia Kioura
In the bay of Xirokampos, Panagia Kavouradaina (Παναγία Καβουράδαινα), whose icon was found according to tradition in a nest of crabs, is a one-room chapel wedged under a rock. It is also worth visiting the Byzantine churches of Agios Ioannis Theologos (Άγιος Ιωάννης Θεολόγος) in Lakki and of Panagia Gourlomata (Παναγία Γουρλομάτα) in Drymonas. The latter owes its name to the outstanding frescoes that have been preserved. In the frescoes the figures of the Virgin Mary and Christ are depicted with unnaturally large eyes.
Finally, we must make a special mention of the church of Agia Kioura Matrona (Αγία Κιουρά Ματρώνα). The church is dedicated to a local saint who lived here 600 years ago. It is a building of the 18th century, which during 1969-1970, the years of the dictatorship, was painted by the exiles on the island. Agia Kouria is a unique artistic monument with its distinguishable frescoes and a symbol of the recent history of Greece.
THE BEST BEACHES
Leros, although small in area, has an extensive, accessible coastline with dozens of small beaches that can satisfy every preference. The long sandy beach of Alinda (Άλιντα) offers all possible amenities (umbrellas, sunbeds, water sports, bars, etc.). The also sandy beach of Gourna (Γούρνα) with its shallow waters is ideal for children. While the beach of Vromolithos (Βρωμόλιθος) is particularly impressive with a reef in the shallows and deep blue waters afterwards.
But there are also three truly stunning beaches that are worth discovering. The beach of Agia Kioura (Αγία Κιουρά) is located below the church of the same name and is a small sandy beach with impressive green waters. Kokkina (Κόκκινα) beach in Lakki Bay (near the War Museum) is also a unique beach. It has red sand and crystal-blue waters. Finally, Dyo Liskaria (Δύο Λισκάρια), at the edge of the bay of Alinda, is a beautiful sandy beach protected by rocks with an impressive view of the Castle and Agia Marina. Here you will also find Zephyros, the best beach bar on the island.
Leros has its own share of traditional products worth trying. First of all, you have to try the leriki cheese pie (λέρικη τυρόπιτα). It is a local variation of the pie they make in the Dodecanese at Easter. It is a “nest” of dough that is filled with a fluffy mixture of mizithra (μυζήθρα), egg, pepper, sesame, and oil. What gives the cheese pie its exceptional taste is the goat cheese mizithra. The cheese is prepared by adding sea water, and you can find it in various shops on the island. At Manetas‘ (Μανέτας) bakery in Kamara, we tried a fluffy cheese pie. But the best place to eat leriki is Paradosiako (Παραδοσιακό), an excellent patisserie in Agia Marina.
In Paradosiako you will also find Leros’ pougkia (πουγκιά), which are made with dough filled with honey, nuts, and sesame seeds and then rolled or sprinkled with powdered sugar. You will also try nice pougkia at the Repapis (Ρεπάπης) pastry shop in Lakki.
Also, in the small workshop Tastes of Leros (Γεύσεις Λέρου) in Gourna, you will find authentic handmade products such as sauces, capers, salt, jams, and traditional sweets. Among the sweets, gavafa (γκαβάφα) stands out, a fruit brought to the island by the Greeks from Egypt. Finally, at the Lalas (Λαλάς) workshop, you will find the traditional salted kolios fish (παστός κολιός) of Leros. This product is an unknown delicacy of the Greek tradition that is worth discovering.
THE BEST restaurants
Leros offers its visitors excellent food at good prices. It is no coincidence that the locals are proud of the island’s taverns. Dimitris o Karaflas (Δημήτρης ο Καράφλας) restaurant is located in one of the most enchanting locations on the island, overlooking the bay of Vromolithos. Here you will taste excellent, creative Greek cuisine. In our opinion, it is one of the best restaurants in the Dodecanese. Also at Mylos (Μύλος), next to the mill of Agia Marina, you will try original recipes and fresh seafood. Mylos is the restaurant that introduced modern gastronomy to the island and turned the world’s eyes to the culinary tradition of Leros.
In the fishing village of Panteli, there are many taverns by the sea. Among them, we singled out Psaropoula (Ψαροπούλα) and Pyrofani (Πυροφάνι). Both serve excellent seafood dishes. Also at Paradisos (Παράδεισος) in Vromolithos, you will taste homemade recipes in hearty portions. Finally, you will eat the best souvlaki at Krioupa (Κριούπα) in Agia Marina. However, if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you will find the best dishes at the small cafe Stis Annas in Krithoni.
Good ice cream is a necessary addition to every meal in the summer. The best place for ice cream on the island is Sorbet in Panteli.
WHERE TO STAY
The island of Leros, not having the same tourist flows as other islands, has a comparatively limited availability of hotels. Nevertheless, there are accommodation solutions that can meet every need. Of these, we singled out the Alea Mare Hotel and Alidian Bay Suites Leros in Alinda. While in Vromolithos, we singled out the Tony’s Beach hotel. Finally, for something really different, it is worth booking a room in a traditional windmill in Pandeli at the Leros Windmills guesthouse.
All tourists can expect to find something unique on Leros. Leros is a special place that will leave you with images, tastes, and recollections because of its distinctive personality and significant history. You’ll experience a sense of immediate familiarity, as if you’ve been there before. On the other hand, as you’re leaving, all you’ll be thinking about is when you’ll be back. You’ll always remember the sight of the crystal-clear seas of Agia Kioura or the view of the perpetually serene bay of Vromolithos. The Aegean island of Leros is a gem that must be discovered.