Crete, the biggest of the Greek islands, is often described as a universe on its own. Being home to stunning beaches and mountains, a complex history, and delicious gastronomy, it can be really hard to choose where to begin exploring.
This guide is packed with practical details and insider tips. It will help you plan a perfect Crete itinerary and decide what are the best things you can see and do when you visit Crete. Let’s start with some basic information about Crete Island.
FAQs for a Crete Vacation
Where is Crete?
Crete is the southernmost island of Greece, it’s located in the middle of the Mediterranean.
What’s the weather like on Crete?
The island has very long, hot, and dry summers, while winters tend to be short with mild temperatures. Some regions have very little rain during the year.
How big is Crete?
Crete is the biggest island in Greece, it can take you from 4 to 6 hours to travel from the west coast to the east.
The island is divided into four different regions; Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion, and Lasithi, all of them worth seeing.
Best Things to Do in Crete
Discover Crete’s Past in the Minoan Palace of Knossos
The second most visited archaeological site in Greece (after the Acropolis in Athens), the Minoan Palace of Knossos is a must-see place when you visit Crete.
Knossos was home to the mysterious Minoan civilization that lived on the island thousands of years ago.
Besides, according to Greek Mythology, the palace was home to the famous labyrinth of the Minotaur.
Due to its popularity, the palace can be jammed in any given season. For this reason, it’s a good idea to visit early in the morning or at sunset, this way you won’t only avoid the crowds but the scorching sun of the island.
You can easily reach the archaeological site by bus from the center of Heraklion (bus number 2, ticket €1.50).
Check out the Capital, Heraklion
Since you’re already in Heraklion, check out the landmarks in town. Start with a stroll along the old port to reach the Koules, the magnificent Venetian Fortress that stands opposite the sea.
Then, move towards the center of town, walking along 25 of August Street. It will take you only a few minutes to get to the busy Liontaria Square.
Here, stop for a cup of Greek coffee and try one of Crete’s delicious pastries, bougatsa. Bougatsa can be filled with goat cheese or custard, and it’s delicious with a drizzle of local honey on top.
Also in the area, pay a visit to Saint Titus, a former mosque transformed into a church when the Ottoman Empire ceased the rule on the island.
Go Back in Time in the Hippie Caves of Matala
The best way to visit such a big island is to travel by car. Driving on Crete is fairly easy if you follow some basic rules.
If you drive south from Heraklion, you will be able to spend a day at the fantastic beach of Matala which is known for its caves where a huge community of hippies used to live during the seventies.
If you’re in the mood for a hike, follow the signs until you reach the Red Beach, about 20 minutes from Matala. This is a hidden naturist beach with reddish sand and pristine waters. It’s also a great spot for snorkeling.
Love scuba diving? Check out Zakynthos Island
Explore the Alleys in the Old Town of Chania
Arguably one of Crete’s most beautiful cities, Chania is on the northern coast of Crete, about 2.5 hours from Heraklion. You can travel from Heraklion by bus (ticket €15.10).
Chania boasts a magnificent old town with cobblestone pedestrian alleys, unique Venetian mansions, and a stunning old port with one of the oldest lighthouses in the world.
Among the best things to do in Chania, don’t miss a visit to the mosque of the Janissaries, the old Jewish quarter and its 15-century synagogue or the church of Agios Nikolaos.
Agios Nikolaos is a very peculiar church. Inside its courtyard it’s possible to see not only a bell tower but also a minaret. In fact, during the Ottoman rule of the island, most religious buildings in town were transformed into mosques.
Check out this walking tour and food tasting tour of Chania.
Spend a Day on the Pink Sand of Elafonisi Beach
Elafonisi is a magnificent wide shore on the Southwest coast of Crete. To get to Elafonisi beach you can travel by bus from Chania (ticket €9.00) or drive through the spectacular gorge of Topolia.
The shores of Elafonisi are known for the unique pink sand as well as for the shallow lagoon, ideal for families with kids.
The shades of blue of the sea are simply stunning and contrast with the harsh mountainous landscape of the island.
Elafonisi is in a rather isolated area, there are a few beach bars where you can get the basics, but it’s always a good idea to pack enough drinks and lunch.
Trek Along one of Europe’s Longest Gorges: Samaria
Outdoor adventures have a place of their own on Crete. There are impressive mountain ranges on the island with peaks reaching more than 2000 meters.
The region of Chania is home to the White Mountains, which counts over 15 impressive ravines
The most famous of them, the gorge of Samaria, connects the Omalos plateau, in the north of Crete to the Agia Roumeli, a small village on the southern coast of the island, on the Libyan sea.
The hike along Samaria is one of the best things to do in Crete.
The path is about 13 kilometers long and it takes about 5 hours to cross. It’s one of Crete’s most popular attractions, with thousands of tourists visiting each summer.
If you’re not a seasoned hiker, it’s a good idea to book an organized tour.
7. Hike Down to Balos Beach and Lagoon
Another beach you should visit during your Crete holidays is the exotic beach of Balos, on the extreme west of the island.
The beach has often been described as Crete’s Caribbean and for good reason. The white sand and unique emerald color of the sea give the lagoon an exotic feeling.
However, a trip to Balos is not only about the beach. The trip also includes a drive along an infamous dirt road on the edge of a cliff, as well as a 20-minute hike which can be very tiring in summer.
However, no matter how difficult the road might be, it’s one of my favorite things to do on the island. The views of the calm, shallow lagoon are a great reward once you leave the road behind.
If you don’t feel like driving, it’s also possible to go to Balos with a day cruise that departs several times a day from the nearby city of Kissamos.
8. Take an Insane Road Trip down the Mountains
There are several impressive drives all over the island. If you enjoy winding mountain roads and breathtaking cliffs, driving on Crete can be an unforgettable experience.
Some of the most scenic drives are the ones that take you from the north of Crete to the south, passing through a very rugged landscape
The road between the villages of Kapsodasos and Kallikratis, for example, is considered to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world, with 11 kilometers of continuous hairpin turns with a precipitous descend towards the sea.
Avoid it if you suffer from vertigo!
Indulge in Cretan Gastronomy
Crete is a paradise for foodies! The Cretan diet mostly consists of fresh seasonal products, that produce simple and healthy tasty dishes.
The top-quality extra virgin olive oil produced on Crete is the main staple of the local gastronomy. It is used on salads, to cook and bake, and even on freshly baked bread as a quick bite, with some fresh oregano on top, and a sprinkle of sea salt.
Despite being an island, however, stewed or grilled goat and lamb are far more popular than fish.
Other local delicacies include cheese, both aged and soft, honey, and a variety of greens and fruits such as grapes, figs, and oranges.
10. Taste Crete’s Olive Oil in a Monastery
Crete is the second biggest producer of olive oil in Greece. The island has more than 30 million olive trees, some of them over 3,000 years old.
There are two main olive tree varieties growing on the island and they produce very small olives that are able to stand the dry, hot summers of Crete.
The taste of the local olive oil is very concentrated, fruity, and sometimes even spicy.
Some of the best olive oil comes from the local monasteries. In the region of Lasithi (east Crete), Toplou monastery produces some of the best quality olive oil in Greece.
If you’re staying in the west coast, instead, you can taste authentic Cretan olive oil in the ancient monastery of Agia Triada.
Snap a Selfie above Seitan Limania Beach
The lightning-bolt shape of Seitan Limania put this beach on Instagram not so long ago and made it a famous place to visit in Crete.
Seitan Limania is a beach with fairly difficult access that involves a zigzag road and a hike down a steep hill.
The beach is not organized, so it’s better to take with you everything you need to spend the day. Remember that the cove is subject to strong currents so it’s not always safe to unskilled swimmers.
12. Test Your Dancing Skills with Pentozali
Crete is a land where customs and traditions are pretty much alive, and dancing is one of the things that locals and visitors alike enjoy the most on Crete.
Pentozali is the traditional Cretan dance that you can witness during festivals and local celebrations all over the island.
Despite pentozali literally meaning “five steps”, the dance is a combination of 10 different steps in which different dancers take turns to put their skills to the test with jumps and complex figures that follow the rhythm of the Cretan Lyra, and ancient musical instrument with Byzantine origins.
Learn About the Leper Colony of Spinalonga Island
This small, fortified island can be visited in less than an hour and it’s well-known for its turbulent past as one of the last leper colonies of Greece, which closed its doors in 1957 when a cure for the disease was discovered.
Today, you can take a boat from the seaside village of Plaka and discover Venetian fortifications of Spinalonga.
As you pass the entrance tunnel, you’ll discover the world where the patients lived an isolated but prosperous life.
Their shops, their abandoned houses with gardens, the churches, and the hospital of Spinalonga.
Get Lost in the Old Town of Rethymnon
Rethymnon is another important city of Crete, located between the regions of Chania and Heraklion.
Probably the best-preserved Venetian city on Crete, the old town of Rethymnon has a charming old port with a lighthouse and several tavernas lining the promenade.
In the old town, you can visit some of the most impressive minarets of Crete, beautiful mansions with Turkish balconies, and the remains of the star-shaped Venetian fortress or Fortezza, located on top of a hill overlooking the sea of Crete.
Rethymnon has several interesting museums, such as the Archaeological Museum and the Historical and Folklore Museum where it’s possible to learn about traditional local crafts, such as pottery and embroidery.
Spend the Night in a Mountain Village
Those who want to experience an authentic Crete destination should not miss a trip to any mountain village on the island.
The most traditional villages are known for different reasons, some have played an important role in the battles for the liberation of the island, while others produce unique crafts or staple products.
One thing is certain, though, time seems to have stopped still. Life is very simple in the mountains, and there’s nothing like one of these villages for those wanting to relax during their Cretan holiday.
Visit the Historic Arkadi Monastery
The most famous monastery of Crete is Moni Arkadi, in the region of Rethymnon. It’s a beautiful fortified building, with a baroque church and gorgeous gardens.
Back in 1866 hundreds of locals sought refuge from the Turks inside the monastery but after weeks of siege, they decided to commit suicide instead of surrendering.
This event played a key role in the final liberation from over 200 years of Turkish occupation of the island, leading to Crete’s unification with Greece.
Today, traces of that battle are still visible in the walls in Arkadi.
Yet, despite its tragic past, this is one of the most beautiful and peaceful buildings you can see on Crete Island.
17. Sail to one of Crete’s Smaller Islands
There are a few beautiful islands surrounding the coast of Crete. If you’re staying in the region of Lasithi, it’s possible to take a boat and sail to the uninhabited island of Chrissi.
Also known as Gaidoruronisi or the island of the donkeys, Chrissi is a very small island off the southern coast of Crete, on the Libyan sea, just an hour away from the coastal city of Ierapetra.
Chrissi island hosts Europe’s largest juniper tree forest, a rare tree often confused with cedars. It’s a protected reserve, no more than 2 km wide and 7 km long.
There are a few different bays, the closest to the pier is Chrissi Ammos, however, it’s usually crowded with daytime visitors arriving from Crete.
For a more isolated experience, head to the east of Chrissi Ammos. Here, the beach of Kataprosopo is a perfect spot for snorkeling and it’s usually deserted.
Remember that it’s not possible to spend the night on Chrissi, there are no hotels, shops, or anything!
A few canteens sell food and drinks on the beach but they are quite overpriced. It’s not a bad idea to pack a light lunch for the day.
The boats to Chrissi depart daily from the port of Ierapetra if the weather conditions allow.
If you really want to visit this deserted island, it’s wise to book more than one night in Ierapetra, just in case you encounter strong winds and the boat to Chrissi is canceled for the day.
Drive around the Lasithi Plateau
The 23 km road that circles the Lasithi Plateau is a fantastic drive that you can enjoy during your Crete vacation.
The plateau stands about 805 meters above sea level and has great views of the mountains and the fertile plain below.
When driving around the area, it’s a good idea to discover any of the 18 villages of the plateau, one of the most famous is Psychro, known for the magnificent Cave of Zeus.
According to the myth, this is the place where the God Zeus, born on the island, was raised by a goat while his mother was trying to hide him from his father, Chronos.
The cave is made of several chambers with beautiful columns of stalactites and stalagmites. According to research, this is one of the many ancient Minoan places of worship of Crete.
Here, archaeologists have found religious figures and other objects connected with ancient religious rituals.
Go Wine Tasting in one of Crete’s Wineries
When you visit Crete, you cannot leave the island without first tasting one of the 13 unique grape varieties of the local vineyard.
A very old wine press found in the wine region of Heraklion proves the island’s long history in wine making, an industry continuously active since at least as far back as the Bronze Age.
Today, there are over 35 wineries open to the public where you can taste the wines of Crete.
If you love reds, go for the kotsifali and the liatiko varieties. If you prefer the whites, instead, definitely try the vidiano variety, one of the oldest white grapes, known as the rising star of the local varieties.
Check out this winery and olive oil day tour from Chania.
Drink a Shot of Tsikoudia
Not everything is wine on Crete! Tsikoudia, also known as raki, is Crete’s most popular drink and a clear expression of the local hospitality.
Even if you’re not so much into strong drinks, chances are that you will experience everything about raki from day one on the island.
Raki is a local distillate, with a rather high alcoholic gradation (about 45 degrees), served in any given restaurant or taverna as a complimentary treat at the end of every meal.
It’s usually paired with fresh fruit or a small dish of yogurt and honey, also on the house, and it’s the perfect excuse to learn your first words in Greek (Gia mas! Or Cheers!), make a toast, and engage in friendly conversation.
For more ideas about things to do on that road trip, planning information, beautiful photos, and practical maps to help you plan your travels, check out ZigZag On Earth’s eBook: Road Trip Guide to Crete.