The Greek Island of Crete is a great place to explore staying within a fairly reasonable budget and without leaving the European comfort zone.
Crete is a large island with a varied landscape ranging from high mountain peaks, to deep, stunning gorges, and some of the most beautiful beaches on earth.
Such a vast landscape allows for incredible adventures and there are a lot of things to do in Crete.
The island has a fascinating century-long history that sees many different civilizations battling for and conquering this rich land strategically located in the center of the Mediterranean.
As a result, Crete is also home to old towns with eclectic architectural traits and some of the best dishes you could ever try, combining magnificent Middle Eastern flavours and locally sourced fresh products.
This Crete destination guide will help you plan a basic itinerary on the island with a length that you can adjust according to your interests and available time.
Trust me, the more you explore, the more you will want to extend your stay!
Things To Do In Crete
The island has often been described as a universe on its own.
You can go from the exotic beaches on the West coast to hiking one of Europe’s largest ravines, the Samaria Gorge, in a question of hours.
Or you could even sail to the small island of Gavdos on the southern coast of Crete and be back after a day or two to explore the lonely, wild East coast of the island.
On the northern coast of the island, four different main cities with touristic attractions, interesting museums and some of the oldest archaeological settlements dating back to the Bronze Age, a period when the Minoan civilization strived on the island and the whole Mediterranean sea.
Include some unique remote monasteries, abandoned castles and the legendary hospitality of the locals and Crete turns into a destination to visit over and over again, always discovering something new.
Getting to Crete
The capital of Crete, Heraklion, and the city of Chania are the two main gates to the island, whether you arrive by air or with a ferry boat from the capital of Greece, Athens.
If you’re coming from Europe, it’s easy to reach Crete with a direct budget flight during the peak season (May – October).
Getting Around Crete
There are no trains on the island while and the public bus system mostly covers the northern coast.
As a matter of fact and due to its geography, crossing Crete’s different mountain ranges to reach the South can be somehow limited as many places are not reached by the public bus.
Those wanting to see this wilder side of Crete will find that the most efficient way to explore the island is by renting a car. Car rental on Crete can be extremely convenient if you plan to move around a lot.
What to Pack for Crete
Although packing is something really personal, it’s a good idea to always consider Crete’s landscape and climate so as not to leave home essentials such as hiking boots or sandals.
Even if you are not planning to go trekking, chances are that you do need to hike down a hill or a mountain to reach a gorgeous shore.
In summer, the Mediterranean sun can be really strong and still you wouldn’t notice thanks to the breeze blowing from the sea.
A high factor sunscreen lotion, a hat, and sunglasses are three other essentials to add to your backpack.
Finally, always remember to pack a light jacket that you can fold and tuck in the bottom of your backpack when you don’t use it. It can sometimes be a bit chilly on the highest peaks of Crete.
Regions of Crete and Top Things To Explore
The island of Crete is divided into four different regions that alternate from west to east, all of them with access to the Sea of Crete on the North, and the Libyan sea on the South.
There are great places to discover in each of them and it’s a good idea to devote at least three days to every region. Let’s see the highlights of Crete one region at a time.
Chania is the easternmost region of Crete, home to a magnificent old town, a modern and vibrant city, beautiful, exotic beaches, and some breathtaking gorges with unique native flora and fauna.
Chania is indeed a great region to combine adventure, culture, and gastronomic experiences.
Highlights of Chania:
Considered to be one of Greece’s prettiest cities, the old town of Chania can be easily explored on foot in just one day. There are different neighbourhoods to visit, each of them with something unique or characteristic to offer.
The so-called Topanas or Venetian quarter is home to beautiful historic Venetian buildings dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries.
The area is also home to the old port, the Egyptian lighthouse and the well-known Mosque of the Janissaries, right on the waterfront.
Moving towards the east of the old town, the Turkish quarter is a more modest place, yet colourful and less touristic.
It’s a place where to breath the most bohemian side of Chania, with hidden minarets, old churches, and gardens but also with interesting beer bars quant traditional cafes, where old men still gather to play board games and drink tsikoudia, Crete’s strong alcoholic beverage.
The White Mountains
If you’re all into adventure and outdoor experiences, you’ll be happy to know that there are several gorges you can cross in the region.
They are nested in the White Mountains and count some of Crete’s most breathtaking cliffs.
Crete’s longest hike is the Samaria Gorge, which can be crossed in about 6 hours. The path will take you from the northern Omalos plateau to the southern Agia Roumeli, a lost village bathed by the crystal clear waters of the Libyan sea.
Shorter gorges are Imbros, which can be crossed in about three hours, and Topolia, which can get you close to one of the island’s most famous beach, Elafonisi.
Beaches in Chania
You will find more than 30 magnificent beaches in Chania, being the pink sand beach of Elafonisi the best-known of all. With its pristine turquoise waters and wide pink sand shore, this small islet is located in a rather remote position.
On the extreme west of Chania region, the wide bay of Falassarna is a great place for water sports due to its windy conditions.
Instead, if you want to combine an off-road adventure with a magnificent landscape and exotic views, drive to Balos Beach and Lagoon.
Those who are not renting a car can easily visit Balos with a day cruise departing from that departs from the small port of Kissamos, about an hour away from the old town of Chania
There is plenty to discover in the region of Rethymnon. Third, in importance on the island, the old Venetian town of Rethymnon is a great place to get an overview of Crete past and traditions.
However, there are three other things you should see in this area, take a look.
Highlights of Rethymnon:
The Holy Monastery of Arkadi was, according to the tradition, built sometime during the first Byzantine Empire of Crete, approximately in the 5th century BC.
However, the building became known as one of the symbols of the Cretan fights for independence when over 900 people, hiding from the Ottomans, took their own lives in order not to surrender to the Turks.
A visit to the Baroque church, the gardens, and the museums of Arkadi is a unique journey into the history and the suffering of the local population who struggled for ages to be free.
There are enchanting mountain villages in every region of Crete, however, some of the settlements that stand in the valleys of Mount Psiloritis (2456 m above the sea level), Crete’s highest peak, treasure some unique traditions.
You can learn everything about local ceramics paying a visit to the pottery village of Margarites. Instead, the historic village of Anogeia is known for its musicians and the Cretan Lyra, a three-cord musical instrument never missing in any village festival or panigiria.
Southern beach of Plaka
Once you’ve crossed the mountains of the region, if you keep going south, you’ll be able to discover the fantastic village of Plaka, and the unique collection of beaches of the area.
These shores are ideal for subaquatic sports, such as snorkelling and scuba diving, and there are even a few immersion schools offering courses from May to October.
The different tavernas in the area serve traditional goat and lamb dishes, one of the most delicious staples of the Cretan cuisine.
Heraklion is the most central region of Crete and it’s also home to the island’s capital. It’s Greece’s fourth biggest city which makes it a place full of things to do with activities catering to any taste.
Crete’s cultural hub, Heraklion is the perfect region for those interested in the history and past of Crete.
You can explore unique archaeological sites, magnificent museums, and – again – some characteristic beaches. Let’s check the three best things you can discover in this region
Highlights of Heraklion:
Crete is known for its unique collection of archaeological settlements and ancient ruins, the most famous one being the magnificent Minoan Palace of Knossos, just a few minutes away from the centre of Heraklion.
The ruins, which have been partially reconstructed, allow visitors to understand the complex society that ruled on Crete as far as the Bronze Age.
The impressive buildings, engineering works, the yards, the magazines, and the colourful frescoes depict a clear landscape of one of the most mysterious civilizations that once populated the Aegean Sea.
Knossos is one of Greece’s most visited archaeological sites, which makes it really popular among visitors.
The best way to avoid the crowds is to visit early in the morning or right before sunset, especially because this way, you will also be avoiding the extreme temperatures of the Cretan summer.
Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
There’s no better way to learn more about the Minoan civilization than spending the rest of the day visiting the Archaeological Museum in the centre of town.
Here, visitors are able to admire objects found not only in Knossos but also in the several other Minoan Palaces and archaeological settlements that have been unearthed on Crete, such as the Minoan Palaces of Malia and Faistos, both of them also located in the Heraklion region.
Paying a visit both to Knossos and the museum as a cumulative ticket allows you to save quite a few euros. Compare a cumulative €16 ticket including access to both the Museum and the Palace to a €13 ticket for just one of the venues.
A cumulative ticket is valid for 3 days.
Beach of Matala
On the southern coast of Heraklion, there’s a fantastic beach that has earned a worldwide reputation during the 60’s. A striving hippie community lived in the village and inside the caves that stand on a hill on one extreme of the beach.
They used to lead a simple life, spending their time fishing, singing, and playing musical instruments.
The hippies of Matala attracted international figures such as Cat Stevens or Bob Dylan, who spent several months on Crete during those years.
Lasithi can be considered the less-explored area of Crete and yet one of the most authentic regions you can visit.
Less touristic and full of off-the beaten track wonders, the region of Lasithi can be difficult to explore without your own car.
Yet, driving along the lonely roads of Lasithi can be an unforgettable experience that can take you through some of the most stunning landscapes of Crete.
Highlights of Lasithi:
The fertile Lasithi Plateau spreads surrounded by the Dikti mountains, more than 800 meters above the sea level.
When touring Crete, it’s a good idea to drive along the eighteen different mountain settlements in the area and stop for a visit to the Cave of Zeus, one of Crete’s most impressive caves in the small village of Psychro.
According to Greek mythology, the cave is the place where Zeus, the Olympic god born on Crete, spent his youth and grew far from the sight of his terrible father, Cronos.
Palm Tree Beach of Vai
On the extreme coast of this eastern region, the landscape is harsh and lonely.
Over here it’s possible to visit Europe’s largest natural palm tree forest in Vai, a unique shore with beautiful clear waters, and a few hidden coves attracting naturists as well.
Less than 20 minutes aways from Vai, the Holy Monastery of Toplou is a must-visit religious centre on Crete.
The old, fortified construction stands on a pre-existing church from the 15th century.
Yet, the building was reconstructed several times as it was destroyed not only by an earthquake, but it was also often the object of Ottoman attacks during the over 260 years of Turkish domination on the island.
If you’re looking to discover new tastes, the winery of the monastery is a great place to discover the vibrant landscape of the native wine production of Crete, as well as the top-quality olive oil that Toplou has been producing for years.
About the guest author:
Gabi Ancarola is the writer behind the Crete travel blog The Tiny Book. A long-time expat, she moved to Crete a few years ago to show the best of the island to first-time visitors. Every summer, she hosts gastronomic tours in Chania, and she has recently published her second travel guide. She also talks about Crete on her Facebook group.
So be sure to add Crete to your travel plans!
For a good guidebook to Crete pick up the Lonely Planet Crete guide.
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