Crete is a magical tapestry of splendid beaches, ancient treasures, and landscapes encompassing vibrant cities and dreamy villages, where locals share their traditions, wonderful cuisine and generous spirit.
There’s something undeniably artistic in the way the Cretan landscape unfolds, from the sun-drenched beaches in the north to the rugged canyons spilling out at the cove-carved and cliff-lined southern coast. In between, valleys cradle moody villages, and round-shouldered hills are the overture to often snow-dabbed mountains. Take it all in on a driving tour, trek through Europe’s longest gorge, hike to the cave where Zeus was born or cycle among orchards on the Lasithi Plateau. Leave time to plant your footprints on a sandy beach, and boat, kayak or snorkel in the crystalline waters.
Rich Historical Tapestry
Crete’s natural beauty is equalled only by the richness of its history. The island is the birthplace of the first advanced society on European soil, the Minoans, who ruled some 4000 years ago, and you’ll find evocative vestiges all over, including the famous Palace of Knossos. At the crossroads of three continents, Crete has been coveted and occupied by consecutive invaders. History imbues Hania and Rethymno, where labyrinthine lanes – laid out by the Venetians – are lorded over by mighty fortresses, and where gorgeously restored Renaissance mansions rub rafters with mosques and Turkish bathhouses. The Byzantine influence stands in magnificent frescoed chapels, churches and monasteries.
If you’re a foodie, you will be in heaven in Crete, where ‘locavore’ is not a trend but a way of life. Rural tavernas often produce their own meat, cheese, olive oil, raki and wine, and catch their own seafood. Follow a gourmet trail across the landscape and you’ll delight in distinctive herbs and greens gathered from each hillside, cheeses made fresh with unique village- or household-specific recipes, and honey flavoured by mountain herbs. The Cretan diet is among the healthiest in the world. Pair your meal with excellent local wine, and cap it off with a fiery shot of raki.
Crete’s spirited people champion their unique culture and customs, and time-honoured traditions remain a dynamic part of the island’s soul. Look for musicians striking up a free-form jam on local instruments, like the stringed lyra, or wedding celebrants weaving their time-honoured traditional regional dances. Meeting regular folk gossiping in kafeneia (coffee houses), preparing their Easter feast, tending to their sheep or celebrating during the island’s many festivals is what makes a visit to Crete so special.
The west of Crete stands apart in so many ways. A land of giant mountains, grandiose legends and memorials to great battles past, it is presided over by the romantic port city of Hania, once Venice’s jewel of a capital and now filled with arty hotels, interesting shops and some of Greece’s best eateries. The region also boasts the grandest gorge in Europe, west coast beaches that are among the most beautiful in the world, Europe’s southernmost possession (tranquil Gavdos, a remote island nearer to Africa than Greece), and mountain villages hardly affected by modernity. The steep mountains that ripple across the west and into the southern sea guarantee that the region generally remains untouched by the excesses of tourism. From the olive oil to moustachioed elders, if you want to see beautiful and traditional Crete, Hania and the west is definitely the place.
Rethymno is a wild beauty. Endless ribbons of mountain roads wind through the timeless interior, passing fields of wildflowers and tiny, traditional hamlets cradled by olive groves. It’s a region peppered with historic sites and natural wonders. Descend into the spooky darkness of grotto-like caves; explore steep, lush gorges; and rest in the shade of lofty Mt Psiloritis, Crete’s highest peak. Visit enduring monasteries, Minoan tombs and Venetian strongholds. Rethymno is also a magnet for artists, many practicing age-old trades with modern twists.
The eponymous capital on the northern coast is a bustle of atmosphere-soaked, cobbled lanes, laden with shops, restaurants and bars and flanked by a wide, sandy beach. The southern coast is graced with bewitching beaches in seductive isolation. Weave your way through this spellbinding land from shore to shore.
Lasithi is the wildest area of Crete with the richest biodiversity and least trampled ranges; it’s so rugged in places, you half expect Pan to emerge, pipe in hand, from the meadows. With its abundance of caves, gorges, gas-blue coves and snow-capped mountains, the region seems to have been naturally lavished by the gods. And that’s not forgetting its rich ancient history, with Minoan and Mycenaean sites waiting for you to explore at every turn.
This is also where you’ll find the island’s top resorts. Agios Nikolaos smoulders with cosmopolitan cool and, just around the bay, Elounda, the preserve of Tinseltown’s finest, glitters with uber-swanky hotels. For the true Grecophile in search of adventure and gastro delights, Lasithi ticks all the boxes; cyclists head up to misty Lasithi Plateau, trekkers tackle gorges such as the dramatic Valley of the Dead, and foodies enjoy some of Crete’s finest tavernas and restaurants. Then there’s attractions like the historic monastery of Toplou and Vaï’s beguiling palm-lined beach, while scores of towns and villages maintain a rich undertow of Cretan history and spirit.
Iraklio is Crete’s most dynamic region, home to almost half the island’s population and its top-rated tourist site, the Minoan Palace of Knossos. Priceless treasures unearthed here, and at the many other Minoan sites around Crete, have catapulted the archaeological museum in the capital city of Iraklio onto the world stage.
Admittedly, the coastal stretch east of Iraklio is one continuous band of hotels and resorts. But a few kilometres inland, villages sweetly lost in time provide pleasing contrast. Taste the increasingly sophisticated tipple produced in the Iraklio Wine Country, walk in the footsteps of painter El Greco and writer Nikos Kazantzakis, and revel in the rustic grandeur of remote mountain villages such as Zaros.
On the quieter southern coast, the ex-hippie hang-out of Matala is the only developed resort, while in the charming villages the laid-back life unfolds much the way it has since time immemorial.
Crete’s capital city, Iraklio (also called Heraklion), is Greece’s fifth-largest city and the island’s economic and administrative hub. It’s also home to Crete’s blockbuster sights: the must-see Heraklion Archaeological Museum and the nearby Palace of Knossos, which both provide fascinating windows into Crete’s ancient past.
Though not pretty in a conventional way, Iraklio can grow on you if you take the time to explore its layers and wander its backstreets. You’ll discover a low-key urban sophistication with a thriving cafe and restaurant scene, good shopping and bustling nightlife. A revitalised waterfront invites strolling and the newly pedestrianised historic centre is punctuated by bustling squares flanked by buildings from the time when Christopher Columbus first set sail.
Palace of Knossos – The Palace of Knossos is one of the most popular attractions in Crete, but its immense size, little signage, and complex history means it’s worth visiting with a local guide. The best way to explore is on a guided walking tour, taking in highlights of the Minoan palace such as the Central Court, the Throne Room, the Tripartite Shrine, the Grand Staircase, and the Queen’s Hall.
Chania Old Town – The best way to explore Chania Old Town is on foot; take a guided walking tour to admire the historic architecture and immerse yourself in local life. For a more personalized experience, opt for a small-group or private tour. Or, combine a sightseeing excursion with a food and wine tasting tour, and sample Mediterranean specialties such as mezedes (appetizers) and raki (a traditional drink).
Acqua Plus Water Park – Acqua Plus Water Park is the most popular water park on the island of Crete, and it is located less than 20 miles from Heraklion. It’s situated on a hill which offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscapes. The water park is split into two different sections, one for adults and one for children. The garden section combines local Cretan plants and flowers with more exotic ones. There is a water slide beneath a weeping willow tree, and games are located among the palm trees, bougainvillea’s and French marigolds. Acqua Plus Water Park offers more than 50 slides, games and facilities. Some slides are slow and calm, while others are fast and exciting. Some are body slides and some slides have tubes. The park also has different pools, some specifically for kids, where visitors can swim and enjoy the water. There’s even a lazy river where visitors float calmly in a tube as a more relaxing way to experience the park. If you want to take a break from the rides, the park offers food and drinks as well as sun beds and umbrellas.
Marathi Beach – Marathi Beach is located about 10 miles east of Chania in the western part of the island of Crete. Marathi is a small but popular resort village in the region with two sandy beaches separated by a pier. The beaches face south and enjoy calm, clear, and shallow waters. From the beach, visitors can view the gorgeous scenery of Drapanos Cape and the White Mountains. Due to its location, the beach is protected from the wind and there aren’t any big waves here. This makes Marathi Beach an ideal spot for sunbathing and swimming. There are plenty of sun beds and umbrellas on both sides of the pier, as well as a variety of nearby restaurants and cafes that serve traditional Greek food.
White Mountains (Lefka Ori) – Capped with snow throughout the winter months and sculpted by steep limestone cliffs, dramatic gorges and high desert valleys, the mighty White Mountains (Lefka Ori) are as impressive up close as they are from a distance and stretch for more than 50km through west Crete. While Crete’s highest peak, Mt Ida, lies in the central Psiloritis range, the White Mountains are still the island’s highest range, with more than 50 peaks towering above 2,000 meters and the highest summit, Pachnes, reaching a dizzying 2,453 meter. Hikers have long claimed the White Mountains as their playground and an abundance of trails run throughout the mountains, with endless opportunities for both easy half-day walks and challenging multi-day hikes. The most popular trek runs from Omalous village through the famous Samaria Gorge, but if you’re looking to escape the crowds, the nearby Imbros Gorge makes a scenic alternative.
Samaria Gorge – The Samaria Gorge hike is a favourite among walkers and a must-do for adventurers in Crete. A steep stone pathway with wooden rails leads down to the trailhead on the gorge floor; from there, the path continues between sheer limestone canyon walls, known as the Iron Gates at their narrowest point. Often more than 1,000 hikers hit the trail each day in summer, so it’s best to start early in the morning before the crowds arrive. The simplest way to manage the logistics of getting to and from the gorge by far is to join a walking tour from Chania, which includes hotel pickup, transportation to the trailhead on air-conditioned bus, and the ride back from Chora Sfakion. Ferry tickets for the trip between where the trail ends and Chora Sfakion are not included in Samaria Gorge tours.
Lion Square & Morosini Fountain – Lion Square is a central hub for both tourists and locals. It is a wonderful place to people-watch, have a pastry at one of the many cafes or check out the historic Morosini Fountain. The lobes of the fountain are decorated with scenes from Greek mythology carved in relief, mainly mythical water beings such as Tritons (son of mythical God Poseidon), dolphins and nymphs. At the centre of each lobe were the coats of arms of the Doge, the Duke, the Councillors and Morosini himself.
Balos Beach and Lagoon – The best way to experience the natural beauty of Balos Beach, is on a boat trip, which affords stunning views of the lagoon and the Mediterranean Sea. A typical full-day tour begins at Rethymnon, Georgioupolis, Kolymbari, or Chania. Continue to discover the caves around Kissamos Bay, the beautiful beaches of Ramous Island, and Imeri Gramvousa fortress, before diving in to swim in the lagoon’s turquoise waters. Bridging the gap between the wild Gramvousa Peninsula and the idyllic Cape Tigani, Balos Beach is a startlingly blue lagoon, framed by jagged sea cliffs and pristine pink and white sand beaches. A pocket of paradise, Balos Beach is one of Crete’s most photographed natural beaches.
Chrissi Island – Chrissi Island sits about 9 miles south of the town of Ierapetra on Crete. It is 4.35 miles long and 1.25 miles across at its widest point. The island is a protected area and has been designated as a wildlife refuge. The largest naturally formed Lebanon cedar forest in Europe can be found here. Many of the trees are around 200 years old and 23 feet tall, though some are as old as 300 years old and 33 feet tall. There is a small bar on one side of the island, a small tavern on the other side, an Orthodox church of St. Nicholas, and a lighthouse. The beaches are covered in bits of shells that give the sand a pinkish golden look. The relatively shallow waters surrounding Chrissi Island make for good snorkelling. Other popular activities include swimming and walking through the cedar forest.