Where to Stay – Tips & Recommendations
- Best Places to Stay in Crete: My favorite towns in Crete are Chania (romantic seaside town with loads of charm) and Agios Nikolaos (beautiful, relaxing, less expensive). Rethymnon is a less-polished, less touristy version of Chania. Elounda is a string of high-end beach resorts. Heraklion is a mid-sized city, less picturesque but definitely worth a visit. Knossos (just outside Heraklion) is the top historical site on the island.
- Elafonisi (a 90 minute drive from Chania) is the best beach on Crete and one of my favorite beaches anywhere.
- Best Hotel in Chania: Serenissima Boutique Hotel
- Best Hotel in Heraklion: GDM Megaron Hotel
- Best Hotel in Rethymnon: Avli Lounge Apartments
- Best Hotel in Elounda: Elounda Beach Hotel
- Best Cheap Hotel in Crete: Mantraki Hotel Apartments – great budget hotel with large family rooms.
- The best restaurants in Crete are Chrisostomos (Chania), Tamam (Chania), Avli (Rethymnon), Kastella (Heraklion), and To Karnagio (Agios Nikolaos).
- Best Crete Tours: Hiking Tour of Samaria Gorge (great for transportation and pickup from Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion, Agios Nikolaos, Elounda) • Chania Walking Tour and Food Tasting (walking tour of the charming Old Town) • Heraklion Bites and Sights Walking Tour (Heraklion is a great town if you know where to go)
- For most travelers, I recommend getting a rental car in Crete.
The 9 Best Hotels in Chania
All of the hotels listed below are in the wonderful Chania Old Town and surrounded by shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes.
1. Serenissima Boutique Hotel – Chania (Old Town)
Minimalist and lovely 7-suite boutique hotel in the heart of Chania’s Old Town and housed in a 16th-century Venetian manor featuring parquet floors, open stonework/exposed brick walls, high ceilings with wooden beams, and cement sealed bathtubs. Rooms have eco mattresses and coffee & tea-making facilities while upgraded suites add lounge areas with sofa beds and private furnished terraces. The top-end split-level suite has a large outdoor terrace with mountain views. The hotel has a wine bar and a great restaurant. Hotel Phone: +30 2821086386.
2. Casa Delfino Hotel & Spa – Chania (Old Town)
Beautifully restored, individually decorated 24 room/suite, boutique hotel in a 17th century Venetian mansion in the Old Town. Rooms have handmade Italian furniture, white marble bathrooms, and mini-bars. Suites add lounge areas, sofas that convert to single beds, jacuzzis (some), and balconies overlooking the courtyard/old town. Upgraded suites can be split-level, have bigger/deluxe jacuzzis, sofa beds, dressing rooms. The Ottoman Suite has an authentic marble hamam while the top-end Presidential Suite has a private panoramic roof terrace with harbor & sea views. Within easy walking distance of the beach & the main harbor. Hotel Phone: +30 28210 87400.
3. Domus Renier Boutique Hotel – Chania (Old Town)
Stunning, individually decorated 9 room/suite, townhouse boutique hotel with designer furniture, hydro-massage showers, Espresso coffee machines, mini-bars, libraries (some), and sweeping sea/harbor/alley & lighthouse views. Junior suites have furnished balconies and outdoor jacuzzis, while high-end suites have lofts, painted ceilings, bathtubs with hydro-masssage, rain showers with chromotherapy. Close to many restaurants and bars. Hotel Phone: +30 2821088806.
4. Palazzo Duca – Chania (Old Town)
Charming and traditional 8 room hotel, steps from the Old Harbor. Rooms are spacious and well-appointed, with traditional Venitian architectural details like stone walls and beamed ceilings artfully preserved. Modern conveniences as well, like Cocomat mattresses, elevator, air conditioning, and good wi-fi. All rooms have kitchenettes, most have balconies with partial water views, and the top floor suite has a patio with outdoor jacuzzi. Excellent complimentary breakfast. Phone: +30 2821 070460.
More Good Hotels in Chania
4 Best Hotels in Rethymnon
1. Avli Lounge Apartments – Rethymnon (Old Town)
Romantic all-suite property set in Venetian-era buildings (Venetian arches, antiques) featuring a total of 12 individually decorated, delightful, character-filled lounge apartments & suites with antique fireplaces and fittings, carved sofas, jacuzzi bathtubs, iron artwork/hand-painted beds, refrigerators, glass wardrobes. Top-end apartments add balconies, while the colorful/spirited candy suites (with names like cookie, brownie, jelly) have elements like antique chairs, handmade pillows, canopy beds. Hotel phone: +30 2831058250/26213.
2. Veneto Boutique Hotel – Rethymnon (Old Town)
Exquisite boutique hotel set in a restored 14th-century Benedictine monastery amid the narrow alleys of the historical center, with 12 medieval-like, luxury suites with beds tucked under stone arches, wood/terracotta flooring, beamed ceilings, sofa beds, private balconies. Upgraded suites add private verandas and handmade orthopedic mattresses. Has a great on-site restaurant and wine cellar. Hotel Phone: +30 28310 56634.
3. Casa Vitae – Rethymnon (Old Town)
Picture-perfect, renovated old Venetian castle house with 8 historical, Venetian-style luxury rooms & suites featuring exposed stonework, four-poster beds, refrigerators, mini-bars, balconies/juliet balconies, jacuzzi bathtubs, and courtyard views. Suites add sitting areas. The old town center is a few minutes walk away. Hotel Phone: + 30 2831035058.
4. Grecotel Creta Palace – Rethymnon
Massive family-friendly beachfront resort with a great range of elegant, bright guestrooms, suites, bungalows, 2-story maisonettes & traditional villas, with stone/wooden floors, handcrafted furnitured balconies/terraces, mini-bars (on request), refrigerators, and garden/sea views. Maisonettes and family bungalows have colorful kid’s bedrooms, while suites feature hand-carved furniture, sofa beds, gardens with private pools. The top-end beachfront villas have private plunge pools, jacuzzi bathtubs, large terraces with pergolas. The resort boasts a fantastic sky bar-restaurant. Hotel Phone: +30 2831055181.
5 Best Hotels in Heraklion
1. Aquila Atlantis Hotel – Heraklion
Large, cosmopolitan hotel with spacious, modern rooms and suites with mini-bars & coffee/tea facilities with city or unobstructed harbor views. Upgraded rooms add balconies while suites add deep spa tubs and living spaces. Has 2 pools, spa, restaurant, and lounge bar. The city center, bus station, and ferry port are within walking distance. Hotel Phone: +30 2810229103.
2. GDM Megaron Hotel – Heraklion
Overlooking the harbor, this sophisticated hotel offers stylish rooms and suites with wooden floors, high ceilings, contemporary furniture, bathtubs (some), mini-bars, tea/coffee facilities, complimentary buffet breakfast, and balconies with city/sea views. Top-end suites have jacuzzis. The city center, bus station, ferry port, and the Archaeological and Historical Museum are within walking distance. Hotel Phone: +30 2810305300.
3. Lato Boutique Hotel – Heraklion
Set right above the old harbor overlooking the Koules fortress, this boutique hotel has modern rooms and suites with mini-bars and bathtubs (some). Upgraded rooms have sea views and balconies/verandas with panoramic sea & fortress views, while suites add sitting areas. Upgraded suites have jacuzzi bathtubs. Good location a short walk away from the ferry port, bus station, city center, and museums. Hotel Phone: +30 2810228103.
4. Olive Green Hotel – Heraklion
Modern, eco-friendly hotel with minimalistic rooms featuring vivid digital art, mini-bars, laptop-sized safes, and city/park views. Upgraded rooms have balconies and club rooms sport large furnished terraces. Short walk away from ferry port, museums, central market, and city center. Hotel Phone: +30 2810302900.
5. Veneziano Boutique Hotel – Heraklion
Beautifully restored boutique hotel in a historic landmark Venetian and Ottoman building. Four double rooms and two 2-story family apartments surround a gorgeous interior courtyard. Incredible restaurant, charming bar, gracious and attentive service. Minutes from Lion’s Square, St. Markus Basilica, and museums. Hotel Phone: +30 2810344758.
7 Best Hotels in Elounda
1. Elounda Beach Hotel & Villas – Elounda
Spectacular waterfront hotel with a lavish, contemporary, staggering accommodation range – sea view rooms with shared pools, sea view/waterfront/island suites, and luxury bungalows with private temperature-controlled swimming/whirlpool pools, to name a few. Basic rooms have balconies with bay views and in-bathroom tv & music, while bungalows have jacuzzi bathtubs & private terraces/gardens, heated floors & remote-controlled mattresses (some). Top-end, super-luxurious yatching villas have outstanding features such as 3 decks, leather-coated ceilings, yatching designer furniture, touchscreen room controls, sunken bathtubs, private pools, and hydro-massage. Royal villas have indoor & outdoor pools, pianos. Hotel Phone: +30 2841063000.
2. Porto Elounda Golf & Spa Resort – Elounda
Family-friendly, sprawling resort with 8 restaurants, gardens, private beach, 9-hole golf course. Offering yachts to charter, scuba diving, soccer camp, water sports, tennis, shopping, and even church, this is the ultimate one-stop resort in Crete. The resort features sea view rooms, suites, and villas with mini-bars & marble bathrooms. Sea view rooms have furnished private balconies while the next category adds sitting areas and furnished terraces with direct access to shared pools. Top-end rooms have sea & golf course views and terraces with private seawater pools. Suites add living spaces & follow the same classification. Villas have living rooms with bars & dining areas and private gardens with seawater pools. Hotel Phone: +30 2841068000.
3. Elounda Peninsula All Suites Hotel – Elounda
All-suite hotel overlooking the bay featuring suites and residences with a yacht-like ambiance with mini-bars, marble bathrooms with tubs, private balconies and spectacular sea views. Upgraded suites add furnished terraces with private heated seawater plunge pools. Also has beachfront suites, villas with lovely furnished gardens, and presidential waterfront villas with kitchenettes. Basic seaside residences have unobstructed sea views, surround sound, whirlpool tubs, sauna, massage rooms, and private indoor pools while upgraded residences add kitchens & more. Suites with sea & pool views are recommended. Hotel Phone: +30 2841068250.
4. Elounda Mare Hotel – Elounda
Chic resort with 3 types of properties ranging from sea view rooms & suites to bungalows with private pools, and royalty suites with private pools. Rooms & suites have vibrant decor, marble bathrooms with tubs, mini-bars, and private balconies/terraces while the home-style bungalows add antiques and small private gardens. Top-end suites feature exposed stone and woodwork plus panoramic sea views. Hotel Phone: +30 2841068200.
5. Elounda Bay Palace – Elounda
Set on the bay edge in 20 acres of verdant gardens with private beaches, this hotel offers a huge range of impeccable rooms, bungalows, villas, and suites, many having private/shared heated pools, mini-bars, and private balconies with bay/mountain/garden views. More expensive suites get you bathtubs, hi-fi, in-bathroom tvs, private patios, and kitchenettes. Top-end silver club properties have bathrooms with skylights, jacuzzi bathtubs, private heated whirlpools, and exclusive club properties have fully equipped kitchens, dressing rooms, and private gardens. Hotel Phone: +30 2841067000.
6. Elounda Gulf Villas & Suites – Elounda
Set on a hillside, this boutique-style complex has lovely, fresh suites, pool villas, spa pool villas & beachfront villas with tea/coffee facilities, mini-fridges, and panoramic bay views. Suites have floor-to-ceiling windows and bathrooms with hand-painted ceilings. Upgrades get you private seawater infinity pools & private massage rooms. Pool villas have fully-equipped kitchens (cooking hob, washing machine) while the top-end pool villas add infinity heated pools with jacuzzi tubs, private saunas, pool terraces. Hotel Phone: +30 2810227721.
7. Blue Palace Resort & Spa – Elounda
Luxe resort with rooms, suites, and villas with private heated pools (some), private infinity pools (some), complimentary breakfast, and excellent sea views. Upgrades get you Nespresso Coffee machines, spacious patios/verandas, deep-soaking jacuzzi bathtubs. Villas have terraces with sunbeds, butler services (upon request), saunas, and hydrojet outdoor pools and indoor pools. The top-end villa has a wood-burning oven (chef services) and barbecue facilities around the pool. Hotel Phone: +30 2841065500.
2 Best Hotels in Agios Nikolaos
1. Minos Beach Art Hotel – Agios Nikolaos
Tranquil beachfront hotel featuring villas with private pools, whirlpools & home cinemas, rooms, suites, and waterfront/seafront bungalows with furnished balconies, mini-bars, and beautiful sea views. Top-end bungalows have private pools and jacuzzis, and top-end villas have dressing rooms, jacuzzi bathtubs, and fully equipped kitchenettes. The wonderful town of Agios Nikolaos is within walking distance. Hotel Phone: +30 2841022345.
2. St. Nicolas Bay Resort Hotel & Villas – Agios Nikolaos
Mediterranean-style, contemporary, bay resort with a huge variety of rooms, suites, and villas with pools, mini-bars, lounge corners, and balconies with stunning bay views. Upgraded suites feature private terraces with heated pools and jacuzzi-style bathtub; villas add kitchenettes. Hotel Phone: +30 2841090200.
2 Best Beach Resorts in Crete
1. Caramel Grecotel – Adelianos Kampos
Gorgeous boutique resort having a wide range of super bright, fresh-looking suites, bungalows/maisonettes, villas with antique & contemporary designer furniture, handmade tiled floors, large furnished balconies (some), Nespresso coffee machines, refrigerators, and sea/garden views. Family suites have kid’s bedroom; top-end bungalows feature spa bathrooms, fully-furnished verandas, and open-air jacuzzis (some). ‘Unique’ category properties have features like private outdoor jacuzzis, private pools, outdoor fireplaces while ‘ultimate’ category properties have top floor private jacuzzis (some), direct beach access, and wine coolers. The hotel has a beautiful confetti (color-changing) pool. This could be the best hotel in Crete – very quiet and best suited for visitors seeking solitude. Hotel Phone: +30 2831071803.
2. Amirandes Grecotel Exclusive Resort – Gouves
Surrounding a big lagoon, this outstanding resort has a staggering array of rooms, suites, specialty suites, bungalows, villas, and ‘ultimate accommodation’. Depending on the category, rooms may have enclosed glass balconies, terraces with dining areas, private pools, and mirrored walls. Family suites have children’s bedrooms, and bungalows have bathtubs with sea views. Top-end specialty suites feature ‘star’ pools with star lights & smooth currents (for exercising), private beach gazebos, wine coolers, and gym areas. Top-end villas add jacuzzi bathtubs with aromatherapy & color therapy and beds with direct pool access. The top-end ‘Ultimate’ property adds unique private pleasure/entertainment ‘caves’ with stone walls & floors, home cinemas, fully equipped kitchens, staff quarters, round jacuzzi bathtubs, private saunas, in-bathroom massage beds, billiards, and elliptical trainers. Amirandes is close to Heraklion’s airport and to the Knossos Archaeological site to score mega points for convenience. Hotel Phone: +30 2897041103.
The Best Places in Crete – Where To Stay & Go
Crete Itinerary – 3 to 5 days in Crete: Primarily Chania with a visit to Heraklion and Knossos. One week in Crete: 3 days in Chania (with day trips to nearby beaches and attractions), 3 days in Agios Nikolaos or Elounda, and 1 day in Heraklion (with a visit to Knossos). Two weeks in Crete: Explore the wonderful coastal towns along the south coast and the inland villages of central Crete.
Chania is a great city with a wonderful Old Town. It has tavernas strung around the crescent-shaped waterfront and hotels and shops on the streets and alleys back from the water’s edge. A good beach is within walking distance from town, and even better ones are a short bus ride away. Chania is a good base if you want to do the Samaria Gorge or make a day trip to the beaches of western Crete (like Balos or Elafonisi). That said, it’s easy to spend 2 or 3 days here and not get much farther than the great traditional restaurants found around the town center. Best Hotel in Chania: Serenissima Boutique Hotel
Rethymnon is similar in some ways to Chania but has a little less charm and is not nearly as developed. There’s a good beach a short walk from the center of town. In summer it has direct ferries to Santorini (twice a week) making it a convenient stop if you’re going to the Cyclades. Best Hotel in Rethymnon: Avli Lounge Apartments
Heraklion is not picturesque like Chania or Rethymnon (some areas are a little rough and ugly) but it has a working-class charm and Greek flavor that many of the tourist towns lack. The city is home to the best museum in Crete and the must-see historical sight of Knossos is just outside the city. If you’re catching an early morning ferry to Santorini you’ll probably spend a night here whether you want to or not. Best Hotel in Heraklion: GDM Megaron
Agios Nikolaos is my 2nd favorite town in Crete and a good base for exploring eastern Crete. It’s a beautiful town with a pedestrian friendly waterfront. Good beaches are nearby, and the popular small town of Elounda is a short bus ride away and has many of the best luxury resorts in Crete. This is a great area to spend a few days relaxing and unwinding as it’s much less busy than Chania, Rethymnon, or Heraklion. Best Hotel in Agios Nikolaos: Minos Beach Art Hotel • Best Hotel in Elounda: Elounda Beach Hotel
The 20 Best Places to Stay in Crete
Agios Nikolaos is one of my favorite towns in Crete. It’s far enough away from the package holiday beaches to be considered low-key, yet is little more than an hour’s bus ride from Heraklion Airport. It’s a cozy, compact town overlooking the magnificent Mirabello Bay in Crete’s mid-north-eastern region. Trendy restaurants, bars, and cafés cluster around the town’s showpiece – a little sea-connected lake that serves as the centerpiece of an undeniably picturesque and postcard-pretty, lived-in yet popular holiday resort. Ag Nik is ideally situated for excursions to Eastern Crete with plenty of car rental outlets and a bus station with regular connections in most directions. Its beach scene runs generally northwards segueing into the thumb-like peninsula 2.5kms from the center where the town’s best hotels can be found, and more coves and budget accommodation can be found as you follow the coastline further northwards. Closer to town a couple of cozy beaches can be found on either side of the marina. Agios Nikolaos will appeal to people who like the quieter nightlife and relaxed, unhurried dining and swimming.
For a taste of the real Crete, Anogeia can never be described as touristy, but rather traveler curious. The residents of Anogeia are in the main made up of shepherds, shopkeepers, and musicians, and a wedding here may mean fusillades of gunshots into the air and a party that will last all night. The residents of Anogeia are proud Cretans who commonly wear their local pantaloons and black headscarves in public and who show more than a little disdain for Crete’s tourist excesses on the coast. They do show, however, genuine interest and hospitality to slow and curious travelers. Located 37kms west of Heraklion (55kms east of Rethymnon) and under the shadow of Mt Psiloritis, Anogeia is a true, Cretan mountain village. It’s good for a leisurely day trip, but even better when a feast or wedding is on or the annual Yakinthia cultural and music festival is held. Accommodation consists of a few hotels and scattered rooms to let. The winding main street links it all together from upper Anogeia to lower Anogeia and is peppered with little shops and taverns from which live, spontaneous Cretan music will often be heard.
Another ‘real Crete’ community worth exploring is the inland village of Arhanes, just 16km south of Crete’s capital Heraklion. Once a dusty nondescript farming village, Arhanes learned the smart way to re-invent itself as a popular day excursion for locals and a refreshing overnight destination for visitors. Life in this sprucely made-over town with its cobbled streets and leafy squares revolves firmly around the local community. Here you will get a taste of country Crete. Restaurants cater to demanding Cretan tastes and are very reasonably priced. Artisanal shops sell Cretan wares, wines, and spirits, and the whole place feels as comfortable as your favorite pair of shoes. The village boasts a rich panoply of some 200 heritage-listed buildings and fine examples of classical architecture all stemming from its period of wealthy landowners, following the founding of the Greek State in 1832 and their desire to be seen as a worthy member of the re-born Greece. Arhanes is worth at least a couple of nights’ stay. There is some very swish accommodation where you can while away an afternoon with a book and a bottle of wine in a walled courtyard, perhaps followed by a relaxing dinner in the shaded main square of the village.
Not to be confused with its Indonesian namesake, Bali is a north coast bay and beach community just short of halfway between Heraklion and Rethymnon. Easy to miss on a fast drive between the major centers on the main north coast highway, Bali discretely hides its attractions via a series of meandering bays and beaches, peppered with tavernas, cafés, bars, and souvlaki shops. Unusually, for the often-bleak north coast topography, the village consists of four sheltered beach communities each hiding its allure from the other. Bali provides a refreshing alternative to visitors who would like a new beach each day without having to travel far. Start with the furthest beach (Karavostasi) – viewed by many as the best – and work your way down through Mythos, Bali, and Livadi beaches. Bali is good for a stay of a week and visitors probably don’t need to go anywhere else on Crete. Buses between the north coast towns stop on the main highway, and you can pick up a cab or seasonal tourist ‘train’ down into the serpentine center of the village.
Viewed by many visitors to Crete as the jewel in the Cretan crown, Chania wears its moniker with pride and conviction. This thriving city boasts an Old Town and Old Port that is both a photographer’s nirvana and a foodie’s fascination. The Old Town is a walled 14th Century Venetian settlement renowned today for its pretty harbor, narrow streets, and abundant waterfront and backstreet restaurants – some of which operate in summer without roofs. A striking 16th-century lighthouse guarding the harbor and of Venetian, Egyptian and Ottoman construction is said to channel power from the Ley Lines. Chania boasts a Nautical and an Archaeological Museum the latter housed in a former monastery. Chania’s draw is its sheer spirit of place from its busy, unavoidably likable atmosphere, walkability, and buzzing social ambiance. You are more likely to meet a long-lost friend here than anywhere else in Crete. While not a beach destination per se, you can easily walk to a couple of local beaches for a dip or take a bus or cab (5km) to Chrysi Akti. Alternatively, you can pick a place to stay on the beach annex of Platanias/Agia Marina 14km to the East and come to Chania when the mood dictates.
Long regarded as Crete’s playground for Greek politicians, actors, music stars, and wealthy foreigners, Elounda itself is in fact a rather compact former fishing village with quite a few tricks up its sleeve. Approaching Elounda from its neighboring town of Agios Nikolaos in Crete’s Eastern province of Lassithi you cannot help but spot the sprawling hotel complexes along the coast. Good for all-in comfortable holidays, they can be expensive, but if you come in shoulder seasons you can find some good deals. Elounda village itself wraps itself round a sheltered port and consists of a quite compact center around which you will find restaurants, shops, supermarkets, and tour offices. Tours here usually mean to the former leper colony island of Spinalonga (recommended), or on local boat rides. Swimming can be enjoyed just north of the center, or with a bit of effort, on deserted beaches on the causeway-connected island peninsula of Kolokytha. The harbor front and backstreets are good places to find reasonably priced, rooms, studios, and the occasional formal hotel. Visitors with a car or scooter may want to explore the coastline north to Plaka Beach (5.5km) where there are scattered tavernas, pebble or sand beaches, and more luxury hotels.
Heraklion used to be the Cinderella sister to the other towns in Crete, then the handsome Prince came along in the form of inner-city reformation and urban gentrification. Heraklion can today stand on its own foundations as a destination in its own right. It has a lot going for it. It is the main port back to the mainland and the only exit point for the popular Crete-Santorini-Mykonos axis. Crete’s primary international airport lies conveniently no more than 3km from the town center and the island’s primary archaeological gems – the Archaeological Museum and the Knossos Citadel are located here and nearby. Heraklion is above all the capital of Crete. Here Cretans, Greeks and foreigners mingle to live, work, and have fun. Accommodation is of the upper market business hotel type, but with at least one new ‘green boutique’ hotel pitched at travelers, plus a variety of middle-market more aging establishments. The streets have been re-paved, pedestrianized, and re-humanized, and each night sees a tide of people eating, drinking, walking and socializing. Heraklion is not a beach city, and even those within easy reach are not rich pickings. Heraklion will suit urbanites, nightlifers, archaeology buffs, and people looking for easy transit to and from Crete.
Considered by picky travelers as loud, brash, and ‘touristy’, Hersonisos still picks up a lot of the on-island tourist trade so it must be doing something right. Its advantage to incoming tourist groups is its proximity to Heraklion’s international airport – a 21 minute, 23km drive from baggage hall to poolside cocktail. That’s a big plus in many people’s judgment. Hersonisos is loud and brash, and the tourists that visit like it that way. The main street of Limenas Chersonisou (the actual resort side of the town) is packed block to block with every kind of shop, fast food joint, rental, or tour office imaginable. Tourists in flip-flops gingerly thread their way through the organized chaos, and everyone seems to sport a weary holiday-induced smile. The waterfront is the domain of the tourist hotels and its skinny (but always full) beaches. The water is calm and overall waveless and the whole parade is laced with the predictable cafeterias, bars, and eating places. You’ll be struggling to find independent accommodation here in July and August, and if you go to Hersonisos, you will in every likelihood be on a holiday package. Love it or leave it: it is Crete too.
For the complete antidote to what may be viewed as the resort exuberance of the north, try a little corner of Crete with a reputation. Hora Sfakion is a small south-coast village port known primarily as a port on the coastal ferry system linking Hora Sfakion with Loutro, Agia Roumeli, Sougia, and Palaiochora. Hora Sfakion never really sold itself as a holiday destination: its residents were either sheepherders or sheep rustlers – or both. They also liked guns and knives, had a penchant for the local raki spirit, tended to be independent-minded, took part in numerous rebellions, and believe themselves to be the direct descendants of the Dorians who invaded Crete in 1100 BC. Tourism was a definite novelty until the commercialization of the Samaria Gorge. It is a great spot to linger in after the Samaria Gorge walk. When the walkers have left, locals and travelers come out and mingle over rustic lamb dishes and local wine around the harbor to swap tales of derring-do. Accommodation is low-key, and there are a couple of pebbly beaches to cool off on. Transport is easy, with direct buses to Chania and the ferry to Palaiochora.
Usually overlooked by most tourists and commonly stumbled upon by accident by more adventurous travelers, this small and agricultural coastal town south of Agios Nikolaos is a surprisingly enticing corner of Crete that deserves more attention than it commonly receives. It lives off its own resources – the surrounding region is Crete’s fruit and vegetable basket – and tourists and travelers are most welcome additions to the mix. Its main attraction is its simple Crete-ness. It does not depend on visitors but welcomes them openly. The vibe of the town is soothing: slower and a little less frantic than the rest of Crete, and a long, shaded beachside paved walkway occupies the best part of the town’s real estate. Here you can chill, wander at will, stop and sit down for a beer or an ice cream without the constant pressure of touts. Ierapetra is a comfortable town, content with itself and surprised – almost – to welcome guests from way beyond its confines. Accommodation is geared to the local market and consists of family hotels and apartments. It’s not a beach town as such, but there is a tidy beach strip in front of the restaurants near the Fort. Ierapetra will appeal to independent visitors and island-tourers looking for a comfortable stop-off for a night or two.
This minuscule settlement at Crete’s eastern extreme is known to few and only because they may have been there. Certainly, not a resort and not even a village, this strip of restaurants, rooms to stay, and the odd holiday house or two should probably not be on the map. It is in effect the beach annex to the larger and more populated village of Zakros way up on the hillside above, as its name – ‘Lower Zakros’ – suggests. Connected to the parent village by a winding road and an ancient walkable gorge known evocatively (and perhaps ominously) the Gorge of the Dead – it holds ancient rock tombs. Kato Zakros is perhaps the ultimate Crete hideaway. There’s not a lot to do here, other than contemplate the sea, which looks impressive when the moon rises from it, read large novels, meditate, eat, sleep, drink, and when motivated walk the Gorge. It’s not everyone’s ideal place to stay, but it is the ultimate antidote to hyperactivity, noise, and people buzz. Accommodation is limited and needs to be planned well beforehand. Food is good – four tavernas to choose from – the beach is pebbly, and the water clean and crisp.
Almost forgotten by the rest of Crete, the pretty town with the confusing twin name sits comfortably way to the west ignoring and mostly being ignored by the rest of Crete. Many Chania-based visitors will nonetheless pass through Kissamos on their way to the port (3 km) where the popular Gramvousa Peninsula boat cruises depart from. The town itself is relaxed, compact, and well-positioned on the western end of the expansive Kissamos Bay as a base for touring western Crete. It has a breezy promenade with restaurants and cafés centered around the small jetty and a very decent beach a few hundred meters further west. Accommodation is very much low-key and inexpensive, consisting mainly of studios and apartments with a couple of hotels along or near the main through road. Further to the east at Nopigeia (6 km), the scene is quieter and well-served with more studios and apartments plus a clean pebbly beach. Kissamos will please visitors looking for an alternative scene to the often hyper-busy atmosphere of Crete’s larger towns and who have a hire car to make excursions further afield to the villages and beaches of Western Crete.
25kms west from Chania, just as you think you have run out of beach and hotels, you meet a low-key but getting popular resort – the village of Kolymvari. The village consists of a through road, a port and a sizeable beach strip dominated with umbrellas and beach clubs at one end and all yours at the other. Friendly and unassuming restaurants and tavernas are threaded into the mix. A couple of luxury hotels have taken up residence in the village (one of which is adults-only), and there are rooms and studios to rent also. Kolymvari is close enough to head into Chania for an evening meal, yet far enough away to feel like rural Crete, so it offers the best of two worlds. The locale favors independent travelers, adults with a taste for luxury or families who want a really posh hotel with private and public pools. Additionally, there are well-stocked shops, ATMs, and rental facilities. A great spot for a quality, quiet Cretan holiday.
Malia is the most popular party town in Crete – so be prepared. Originally an agricultural settlement until hotel developers discovered its rather enticing location and lengthy run of exposed, but half decent sandy beaches Malia has grown out of its rural roots to become a magnet for party-mad youth. Handy to Heraklion’s airport (34kms) you can be out of arrivals and on the beach with a beer in just over 30 minutes. The strip linking the quieter village of Malia with the beach is a patchwork of soccer pubs, clubs, cafés tattoo parlors, fast food joints, mini-markets, and rental outfits – and the action is non-stop. You could be excused for believing you have not left home. The beach strip is a quilt of sun umbrellas, loungers, kayaks to rent, bars, studios, and hotels. Get the picture? Come here if you love all this – there’s plenty of it all Summer. Stay away if you want a quiet vacation. Malia is an acquired taste, and there is no accounting for the differences thereof.
Matala achieved accidental yet meteoric fame in the early 70s when Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell visited and wrote about life in the village in her seminal album ‘Blue’. Back then hippies gathered to hang out – California style – in the weather-hewn rock caves that back Matala’s cozy beach. Visitors still come to this evergreen and popular south coast village resort, though the troglodyte dwellings of the 70s flower children have long been closed off to would-be campers. In its place is a busy, flourishing mini-resort consisting of one large umbrella-shaded beach (with caves to the side) a packed package of attractive waterside cafés and restaurants, shops and trinket stores. Matala draws a perhaps disproportionate share of day visitors, so staying a day or three is a good idea. Accommodation runs the usual gamut of rooms, apartments, and studios, while latter-day hippies can even camp. No mega hotel chain has moved in yet (there’s basically no room). As befits a popular place, prices can be high in summer. Buses run from Heraklion and Reythymnon, and you can hire a car or motorbike in the village.
The soothingly pleasant and mellow village of Myrtos on Crete’s southern coast, 16kms west of Ierapetra, usually gets discovered by travelers by accident. It’s not on any main route, nor near any airport or port, yet it draws a steady stream of repeat visitors and people who have heard of Myrtos on the traveler grapevine. It’s just one small and comfortable village community that lives for itself – its mainstay is agriculture – that happens to be by the sea. It welcomes visitors with a smile, and blow-ins usually end up staying for a week or so. Consisting of a compact hospitality center, Myrtos is cradled by a large stretch of smooth, dust-grey sand and an incredibly blue Libyan Sea. A relaxing boardwalk binds the land and water, and unsurprisingly, a rich menu of fish tavernas and genuine Cretan restaurants have popped up. Accommodations have reflected the popularisation of the village and are ample in scope and comfortable. Come here if you don’t want to move for a week. Bring a book, swimsuit, and an appetite and chill until the urge to leave arrives. That may be a while.
Palaiochora sits comfortably yet remotely at the south-western corner of Crete, a small community some 77kms southwest of Chania and occupying a peninsula about 700m long and just 400m wide atop which lies a ruined castle. It is also a popular holiday – more a traveler – destination. The peninsula means that there are two beach spaces: a wide sandy beach on the west side and a smaller pebbly beach on the east side. The village has just about the right mix of amenities and is an ideal location for a stay of a week or so. Most of the action – restaurants and cafés – lies in the thin belt of the peninsula and everything else is within walking distance. Accommodation is comprised of small, family hotels and a varied mix of rooms, studios, and apartments. The atmosphere is relaxed, laid back and oh-so unhurried. Because of its distance from Crete’s airports, Palaiochora does attract mainly determined and travel-wise visitors. Buses link the village with Chania a few times daily. In summary, Palaiochora is an ideal mid-sized village that has not reached resort status yet. Good for independent travelers and families who like it quieter.
Plakias is another of those lower-key south coast village resorts that is more a lived-in community than a seasonal tourist enclave. Easy to get to by local bus or a hire car, it is a mere 30kms south of the mid-western town of Reythymnon and is located in an area that offers many options for alternative beaches and sights. A rich agricultural valley supports Plakias supports the village year-round, but in Summer visitors come here for day visits or stays of a week or so. It was for many years a popular backpacker community, though these days you will see a wide profile of mainly independent travelers of all ages. It’s a popular destination for Greeks and Cretans to visit, and that is reflected in the quality of food on offer. Nightlife also offers a couple of music bars, though on the whole visitors spend their time strolling, socializing, and eating. The village beach stretches for about 1.5kms around the wide bay, though more personal beaches can be found at Damnoni, Ammoudi, and Schinari over the headland a 40-minute walk, or 8-minute drive away. No major chain resorts other than one on Damnoni beach so accommodation is the common mix of small hotels, studios, and apartments.
Rethymnon used to be the rather looked down upon town of the north coast. Neglected over the years it was usually passed over by travelers heading to Chania further west. Today, it is a bustling, pretty town every bit as good as Chania and anywhere else in Crete. It occupies the middle ground in tourism and traveler stakes and is more personable, compact and even friendlier than its larger siblings. Its real charm lies in its almost completely pedestrianized Old Town with tree-shaded or street-seated tavernas of high quality. A pretty old port (smaller though similar to Chania’s) is the focal point. From here the byzantine, narrow streets of the old quarter radiate out like a spider’s web. Visitors are encouraged to stay in the Old Town, though you can opt for the beach annex running eastwards where you can find some excellent quality hotel resorts. Access to Rethymnon is easy and although the passenger ferries no longer run, the town is the central hub of the Heraklion-Chania route and equidistant from either airport. In short, a good choice for an organized package holiday or for a 2-3 day stay for island tourers with a car.
A sizeable town of around 10,000 residents, Siteia lies 70kms east of Agios Nikolaos and is the ideal base for touring Eastern Crete. It boasts a port with links to Karpathos and Rhodes and a huge under-used airport that receives seasonal domestic and international flights. It’s a ‘good feel’ kind of town where the locals probably know after a day that you are in it. The center is compact and easily walkable, and because restaurants cater to Cretans, you can be sure of a good quality and inexpensive meal. There is a sizeable beach just to the east of the port while a phalanx of cafeterias and restaurants surround the port area. Siteia is no more than a 15-minute drive to the Toplou Monastery or just over 30 minutes to the famous Vaï Beach on the far east coast. Plentiful buses connect Siteia with Agios Nikolaos and further west. Sleeping is the common mix of small hotels, studios, and apartments.