The island is now an independent municipality, with no internal boundaries within the municipality. The town of Spetses is the only large settlement on the island. The other settlements on the island are Moní Agíon Pánton, Ligonéri, Ágioi Anárgyroi, Kouzoúnos. Also part of the Municipality of Spetses are the islands of Spetsopoula, Falkonera, and Velopoula. The municipality has an area of 27.121 km2.
An unusual aspect of Spetses is the absence of private automobiles in the town limits. The most common modes of transport are walking, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, mopeds, and motorcycles. Only taxis and delivery vehicles are allowed in the downtown area. Ferries and high-speed hydrofoils arrive regularly from Piraeus. Trails encircle the island and total about 25 to 30 km. Beaches closest to the town of Spetses include: Agios Mamas in the center of town; and Kaíki beach 1 kilometre to the northwest and Agia Marina 2 kilometres to the south, both of which offer water-sports. Public buses serve beaches further outside town, including Zogeria, Agioi Anargiroi, and Agia Paraskevi.
The island of Spetses, located in the Mediterranean Sea, was first occupied during the Mesolithic Age, in around 8000 BC. During that period the island was connected through an isthmus to the island of Argolida, now named Costa. Pieces of flint from that time were found near the part of the island named Zogeria, containing a water source probably available since that time. Other archaeological finds were located in the area of Saint Marina, which contained the first Hellenistic settlement to be found on the island and dates to the 3rd millennium BC. At least three natural harbours of Spetses (Saint Marina, Saint Paraskevi and Zogeria) served as a refuge for ships carrying goods to and from the Argolis Gulf during the peak of the State of Lerna (about 2300 BC).
After the collapse of the State of Lerna, Spetses experienced a period of decline. Artefacts in the areas of Saint Marina and Saint Anargyroi show the existing settlements belonging the late Mycenaean period ; the 12th to 13th century BC. At the time of the Peloponnesian War, stone observatories were built at the sites of Prophet Elias and Zogeria.
Mention of the island of Spetses was made both by Strabo in the 1st century BC and Pausanias in the 2nd century AD, referring to the island as Pitiousa. The raid by the Goths in the Eastern Roman empire caused a wave of refugees to flee to Spetses, resulting in the re-settlement of the island, focusing on the Old Port, making it one of the three largest cities of Argolis (including Argos and Hermione).
In the 15th Century, the Venetians named the island Spezia ("Spice") for its position on a major traderoute; over time the name was Hellenised to Spetsai (Spetse/Spetses).
During the 18th century, during the conquest of the Peloponnese from the Turks and the Venetian expulsion, many Arvanites took refuge in Spetses in order to escape Turkish persecution. These refugees created the old village of Spetses, in the area of Kastelli, which is fortified by a wall that reinforces the natural protection provided by the terrain. Over the years the island developed a significant naval power. The Greek Coalition in cooperation with the Russians in the Russian-Turkish war in 1768–1774 turned the powerful merchant fleet of Spetses to a significant power against the Turks during the so-called Orlofika. In response to these events the Turks destroyed the only village on the island in 1770. For some years after the destruction of the island it remained deserted, but was re-occupied in 1774 by new settlers from the opposite coast of Peloponnese after the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca that allowed the Russian free movement of ships in the Mediterranean and the recreation of the powerful commercial fleet by using the Russian flag to establish trade routes with neighbouring countries. Merchant seafaring was the only source of livelihood for many rocky, non-arable Greek islands, and the brisk Mediterranean and Black Sea trade of the 18th and 19th centuries allowed them to prosper – especially and spectacularly so during the trade embargoes of the Napoleonic Wars, which found Greek merchantmen and crews willing and able work with, or against, both belligerent sides at tremendous profit.
After the re-occupation of Spetses the settlement began to expand beyond the Kastelli region and brought about further growth in the maritime economic activities of the island.
From 1821, the island played an important role in the Greek War of Independence and was the home of celebrated war heroine Bouboulina. Spetses was the first of the Greek islands that raised the flag of Revolution the morning of 3 April (O.S.) 1821. Its fleet, consisting of merchant ships, played a key role in the struggle, both by participating in raids against the Turkish coast and the exclusion of fortresses in the Peloponnese. Particularly important is the involvement of the Spetsiote fleet in sieges of the fortresses of Nafplion and Monemvasia and naval battles of Samos (1824) and Kafireas (1825). Along with their counterparts in nearby Hydra Island, Spetsiote captains were so wealthy they had been hoarding their gold in wells, a wealth that they tapped to fund the war of liberation.
Several ships have been named after the island, including modern Hydra class frigate F 453 Spetsai, the World War 2 era destroyer Greek destroyer Spetsai (D 98) and the historic Greek battleship Spetsai.
The Poseidonion Hotel was built by Sotirios Anargyros, descendant of a great 18th century Spetsiot shipping family. His branch of the family had fallen on hard times and he emigrated as a young man in 1868, when Spetses was declining as a maritime center. In 1899 he returned from the USA, now a wealthy tobacco tycoon and started to transform the island of his youth. He built an impressive mansion and met with the rich Athenian hunters who visited Spetses from August to October, to hunt the turtledoves and quail migrating between Africa and Europe. Anagyros had pine seedlings planted in the hills, and now the island is one of the most wooded in the southern Aegean.
He saw the need for a comfortable hotel and built the Poseidonion in the style of its models, the Carlton in Cannes (1911) and the Negresco in Nice (1912). The hunters could now bring their wives and children to enjoy the comfort, the spa, the donkey rides, dancing to the orchestra in the evening and mixed bathing on the beaches across the channel. The Poseidonion rapidly became the favorite vacation spot for high society, royalty and the rich Athenians who came to enjoy a small slice of the grand life.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the island attracted a number wealthy Greek vacationers from Athens and elsewhere, owning villas or living on large yachts in the port. Some had children who became students of the Anargirios School. Although some hotels were present, tourists often stayed in purpose-built holiday homes. From the 1980s, these were often supplanted by north European tourists, especially from Britain, who were attracted by the low cost of a holiday.
Package tours to Spetses declined and eventually ceased during the 1990s; nowadays the island's holiday clientele remains more upmarket and largely Greek.
"Spetses is where superyachts bob up and down next to traditional wooden fishing boats and where the super-rich rub shoulders with the locals in quayside tavernas. All are drawn to this pine-covered island for its secluded coves and clear waters and the glories of Spetses Town, the island hub, untainted by package tourism."
The main Athenian tourist season lasts for only two months of the year, although most hotels and restaurants are open from Easter until October. Efforts are being made to extend the season with the addition of major events:
In the early 21st century, there was a distinct shift away from package tourism on Spetses and the island once again became fashionable amongst the wealthier Greeks. Nowadays, the majority of visitors are Greek or independent travellers from around the world. Whilst it is still possible to find traditional lower cost rooms to rent and tavernas to eat in on the island there are now many higher priced restaurants and so called ‘boutique’ hotels around the town.
Since package tours were actively discouraged by the island in the early 1990s, the island's holiday clientele remains more upmarket and largely Greek. The fact that most tourists to Spetses are wealthy Greeks has led to inflated prices in all of the shops on the island, meaning that Spetsens have to pay premium prices for even the most basic foodstuffs.
On 8 September (O.S.) 1822 the Turkish fleet, coming from Monemvasia, endeavoured to supply the town of Nafplion, which was at the time besieged by Greek forces since the spring of 1821. Sailing between Trikeri and Spetsopoula, the Turkish force confronted the combined fleets of the three nautical islands, Spetses, Hydra and Psara. The admiral of the Greek fleet, Andreas Miaoulis, gave orders to withdraw to the Gulf of Argolis, in order to outmanoeuvre the more numerous and powerful Turkish fleet.
According to general descriptions, the battle consisted in distant and ineffectual cannonade between the two fleets. An Algerian brig was damaged by fire, having boarded by mistake a Greek fireship.
According to Spetsiot local historian Anastasios Orlandos, however, the retreat of the Ottoman fleet was the result of an attack by the fireship of Kosmas Barbatsis (1792–1887) against the Ottoman flagship. The latter fled to avoid it, followed by the other Ottoman ships. The besieged castles of Nafplion could not be relieved, and fell to the Greeks two and a half months later.
Each year, the second weekend of September is dedicated to celebratory events aimed at commemorating the events of the battle of Sept. 8, 1822, in combination with the feast of the chapel of Panagiá Armáta (the Madonna-in-arms), near the lighthouse. The events culminate with a fictionalized re-enactment of the battle, including the torching of the Turkish flagship in the harbour, an incident not mentioned in historical depictions of the battle.
Spetses is one of nine European cities that participates in the European Network of Historical Reconstructions (Brussels, Belgium; Dublin and Cork, Ireland; Bailen, Spain; Slavkov, Czech Republic; Tewkesbury, UK; and Hydra and Spetses in Greece).
Spetses was the basis for the island of Phraxos in John Fowles' 1965 novel The Magus. Many locations described there actually existed, including the "Lord Byron School" (the private Anargyrios & Korgialenios School of Spetses) and the "Villa Bourani" (located on the south side of the island above a popular public beach). Both the school and villa still exist, although the house is under private ownership.