Greece › Crete Travel Guide
by Santorini Dave • Updated: September 17, 2022
Crete is the largest island in Greece by both area and population. It’s the size of a small country and doesn’t feel like an island in the same way that Santorini and Mykonos do. It deserves a week’s visit to even scratch the surface and two weeks to circumnavigate in any meaningful way. The highlight of a visit is the charming seaside town of Chania, filled with adorable restaurants and boutique shopping. But Rethymnon, Heraklion, Agios Nikolaos, and Elounda are other north coast towns that all make fine bases for exploring the island. The Samaria Gorge, Lasithi Plateau, Wine Country, and Knossos (one of the top historical sites in Greece) are all deserving of a visit.
The 2023 Crete Travel Guide
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Frequently Asked Questions about Crete
Where is Crete?
Located 160 kilometers south of mainland Greece and 320 kilometers north of Africa, Crete is the largest Greek island and the 5th largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Crete boasts over a thousand kilometers of coastline, a land area of 8,450 square kilometers, and a population of 636,504.
What is Crete famous for?
Millions of tourists visit Crete each year, drawn to its crystal-clear beaches, dynamic mountain landscape, and mild weather. Cretans are well known for their warm hospitality and rustic cuisine that incorporates mountain herbs and greens, local produce and cheese, fresh fish, and lots and lots of olive oil – more than 30 million olive trees grow on Crete, producing around 80,000 to 120,000 tons of olive oil annually.
Between 2700 and 1420 BC, Crete was home to the Minoans, Europe’s first advanced civilization. Minoan culture was noted for its innovative cities and palaces, vibrant art, extended trade contacts that spanned continents, and use of written language. In Greek mythology, Crete is both the birthplace of Zeus and the land of King Minos, a human who refused to sacrifice a white bull to the gods. As punishment, the god Poseidon made Minos’ wife fall in love with the bull; their offspring was the greatly-feared minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull, kept below the palace in an extensive labyrinth. King Minos’ labyrinth and the minotaur feature prominently in the myth of Icarus and his waxen wings, and the love story of Theseus and Ariadne.
What is the best way to get to Crete?
Travelers can arrive to Crete by both airplane and ferry. All three of the island’s airports (Heraklion, Chania, and Sitia) serve frequent flights from Athens International Airport; the trip takes about an hour, and tickets are moderately priced. (Book far in advance to get better prices.) Direct flights from many other cities across Europe are available to Heraklion and Chania during the busy summer travel season.
If coming from any island in the Cyclades, arriving by ferry is the best (and often only) option. Five ports on Crete’s northern coast (Heraklion, Chania, Sitia, Rethymno, & Agios Nikolaos) connect the island with ports across the Aegean, with additional and more frequent routes in the spring, summer, and early fall. Year-round crossings from Athens to Heraklion and Chania ports are available as well, though the crossing takes around 10 hours and costs not much less than flying. Still, many travelers prefer to avoid the airport hassle, book a bunk cabin on a night ferry, and sleep most of the crossing away.
What cities have direct flights to Crete?
All airports in Crete serve frequent daily flights from Athens and other domestic airports. The Heraklion airport serves seasonal direct flights from many cities across Europe, plus Israel and Abu Dhabi; the Chania airport serves seasonal flights from across Europe and from Israel; and the Sitia airport serves domestic flights only. There are no direct flights from the United States to Crete. Most flights originating in the U.S. and connecting through Europe will arrive in Heraklion.
What are the best months to visit Crete?
Crete is one of Greece’s best year-round destinations, but the best time to go will depend on what you want to do there. The most ideal time for sightseeing in Crete is in spring and fall, when there’s little chance of rain, the weather remains warm by northern European standards, and crowds are thinner than in the height of summer. Though Crete reliably sees warm, sunny weather from mid-May to early October, the warmest months in Crete are July and August, and Crete’s beaches are at their best during this time, when the sun is hot and the sea water is ideal for swimming. Summer is also peak tourist season in Crete and the ideal time for island hopping in the Aegean, as the greatest number of ferry routes are available during this time – though hotel rates will also be at their peak.
To save money, visit Crete in the shoulder season (especially May into early June, and late September into early October), hotel rates aren’t quite so high. The very best month to visit Crete is May, which offers weather that’s ideal for both beaches and sightseeing, good island-hopping, and lower prices.
How long should I spend in Crete?
How much time have you got? There is so much to see and do in Crete (and with its size those things are fairly spread apart), that you could easily spend a week or two and barely see the highlights. Three weeks to a month would be ideal for seeing all of Crete, but we recognize that most of us don’t have that much time to work with. An ideal 10-day trip would include the following:
- 2 to 3 days exploring Heraklion and the surrounding area (Knossos, excellent museums & restaurants, nearby wine country).
- 2 days in the beachy resort towns of Elounda and Agios Nikolaos (spend one beach day and one day visiting the ruins on the nearby island of Spinalonga).
- 3 days in Chania to wander the charming streets of the Old Town, see the Venetian Harbor and fortress, pop into a few of the smaller museums, and visit the Samaria Gorge and/or the farther-flung beaches of Elafonisi or Balos. (Or stay the night in Elafonisi and subtract a day from Chania.)
- 2 to 3 days in Rethymnon, exploring the town and using it as a home base to explore the island’s remote southern beaches OR skip Rethymnon and spend 3 days exploring the southern beaches, using Loutro as a home base.
What are the most interesting cities and towns in Crete?
Crete’s three main towns are all located along the northern coast, with good bus access running between them. Chania (pronounced “han-YA”), in western Crete, is the prettiest of all the Cretan towns, with a picturesque harbor and tangled warren of pedestrian lanes that are wonderful for wandering. An hour east along the coast, Rethymnon has a similar quaint feel to Chania, and is almost as pretty and charming, though less touristy and more authentic. One hour further is the island’s capital city, Heraklion. If Heraklion isn’t quite as charming as Chania and Rethymnon, it is worth a visit for its busy sea port, excellent restaurants and museums, interesting historical sites, good shopping, and proximity to Cretan wine country and the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos – the most important archaeological site in Crete.
Also on Crete’s north coast are the neighboring beach towns of Agios Nikolaos and Elounda. Only ten minutes apart, Agios Nikalaos offers more of a local vibe, while Elounda is more centered around seasonal holiday resorts. They both feature beautiful scenery, luxury hotels, and boat access to the enchanting historical island of Spinalonga. On Crete’s southern coast, the laid-back beach towns of Sfakia and Loutro offer a decidedly different vibe, with more backpackers and fewer 5-stars. Both towns are along the water taxi route that runs along the island’s more remote southern beaches; Sfakia is easier to get to and has more facilities, but those travelers in search of a quiet stay will prefer the beautiful beach bay of Loutro, lined with small quaint hotels and restaurants.
Toward the center of the island, in the wine country south of Heraklion, the picturesque restored village of Archanes is charming and friendly, with great food and drinks, mountainous hiking trails on the slopes of mount Giouhtas, and a few small but noteworthy museums. With most of its buildings having recently been returned to traditional Cretan architecture, Archanes has been awarded the title “the best restored village in Europe”. Also toward the center of the island but closer to Rethymnon is Margarites, a beautiful traditional village with wonderful Byzantine churches and a history of pottery and ceramics that spans centuries. Both villages make a great choice for either a day visit or for a village stay with a historical feel.
What are the best beaches in Crete?
With over a thousand kilometers of coastline, the island of Crete boasts over 110 blue flag-certified beaches. Here are our favorites:
- Elafonisi. Consistently voted one of the world’s best beaches, Elafonisi Beach is famous for its powdery pink sand (made from the crushed shells of tiny sea creatures). It also features pillowy dunes and clear, shallow, crystal-blue water along a long strand, studded by coves. During the busy summer months especially, spend the night here for a more memorable, and less crowded, experience. To get there without a car, take a day trip from Chania or Rethymnon.
- Balos. A popular remote, shallow, clear, and lagoon-like beach backed by steep rocky crags. Note that there is no shade here, and limited facilities. Balos Beach is accessible primarily by pedestrian ferry out of Kissamos – book ahead to secure a spot.
- Vai. A picturesque but somewhat pebbly beach backed by a lush grove of date palm trees, Vai Beach has good facilities and has rows upon rows of umbrella-shaded sun beds; arrive early in the summer months to snag one. Preveli Beach, located at the mouth of the Megalopotamos River, is also backed by palms, but is significantly less crowded. Both are family-friendly.
- The lovely southern beaches of Sweetwater, Loutro, and Marmara offer an idyllic escape from the more crowded and popular northern beaches. Remote and serene, they are accessible only by water taxi from Sfakia.
- Falasarna, on Crete’s far western coast, is famous for its large waves and great sunsets.
- Xerokambos. 14 sandy and mostly deserted beaches spread along 4.5 kilometers of coastline here, backed by mountain cliffs, sand dunes, and interesting caves.
- Elounda. This popular resort town features a pretty stretch of coastline backed by a string of luxury hotels, and facilities like sailing tours and diving centers.
- Kolymvari. A long, pebbly beach with great seafood tavernas and a laid-back vibe.
- Rethymnon. The best and longest beach of the 3 main towns across the north coast.
- Matala. Popular, sandy, southern coast beach backed by ancient cliffside caves.
- Hersonissos. This crowded tourist town has a lovely long stretch of sand backed by loads of hotels, restaurants, beach clubs, and family-friendly activities.
- Elephant Cave. Technically not a beach, but an awesome sea cave that’s great for diving.
What other islands are closest to Crete?
Santorini is the easiest and most natural island to visit after Crete, and can act as a transfer point for ferries to Milos, Ios, Folegandros, Sifnos, and Serifos, but other Cycladic islands are well-served by ferries out of Crete, as well. In the summer travel season, the port of Heraklion serves daily routes to the islands of Naxos, Paros, and Mykonos, often offering multiple trips per day. Depending on the size of the boat (conventional ferries travel more slowly and are more stable, high-speed ferries can cut the travel time in half but can be a choppy ride in high winds), it takes 2-6 hours to travel from Crete to Santorini. From Crete to Naxos takes around 4 hours, and the Crete-Mykonos ferry takes from 4 to 8 hours. Rhodes can be directly accessed from Heraklion and Sitia, though the crossing time is at least 10 hours. In the height of summer, there are a few high-speed ferries per week that run from Rethymnon to Santorini, with a crossing time of about 2.5 hours.
What are the top historical sites in Crete?
Crete’s history stretches back to the 7th millennium BC, populated in turn by prehistoric, Bronze-Age Minoan, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman cultures. Now the island offers a treasure trove of historical sites and artifacts for visitors to explore – there are far too many to list here, but we offer our favorites.
Crete is perhaps best known as the ancient home to the Minoan civilization, and the Minoan Palace of Knossos outside of Heraklion is one of the most important historical attractions in Greece. The vast palace complex includes a central courtyard, domestic quarters, shrines, workshops, and more. In Greek mythology, the vast labyrinth below the palace held the half-man/half-bull minotaur, from whom Daedalus and Icarus escaped. (Theseus found his way out too, with a little help from Ariadne.) The site’s colorful – and controversial – reconstruction helps visitors imagine what the palace may have looked like long ago. For the best experience, book a guided tour.
A half-hour east of Knossos on Crete’s northern coast, the Minoan Palace of Malia offers a cruder but more authentic archaeological experience, with excavations still ongoing to the palace and surrounding settlements. On the island’s south coast, the Minoan Palace of Phaistos includes ruins that date back to the Neolithic Era and excellent views to Mount Ida and over the Messara Plain. It’s also where the Phaistos Disc was found, with its cryptic, circular script that has yet to be fully translated. The Phaistos Disc and other important artifacts from all of these sites can be seen at the excellent Heraklion Archeological Museum.
Classical Era Treasures
Gortyn was a flourishing Cretan city during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, and now features well-preserved archeological ruins that include the Gortyn Code. Discovered in 1884 and carved on the side of an odeon (theater) built by the Roman emperor Trajan, the Gortyn Code is the oldest and most complete example to date of a code of ancient Greek law. Along with other matters, the 2,600-year-old legal document touches on the legal issues of family relations and inheritance, ownership of tools, and property rights.
Among Crete’s best 14th-century Venetian sites are the castle fortresses in the island’s three main harbor towns in the north, the most impressive being the Venetian Fortezza in Rethymnon, which also includes the Ibraham Han Mosque and the late 19th-century church of Agios Theodoros Trichinas.
The imposing fortress of Koules (also known as Castello a Mare or Rocca a Mare) guards the entrance to the Venetian harbor in Heraklion, boasting outer walls that are almost 9 meters thick. Koules was the site of the 21-year-long siege of Candia, where locals and Venetian held off the Ottomans for decades. These days, Koules plays host to indoor art exhibits and outdoor summer concerts.
The charming Venetian harbor at Chania is lined with shops and eateries and features a walkable seawall with a lighthouse at the end – the oldest lighthouse in Greece and among the oldest in the world. It was first built by the Venetians around 1595, then remodeled into its current form to look like a minaret by the Egyptians in 1839.
Accessible by boat from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda, and Plaka on Crete’s northeast coast, small Spinalonga Island is home to the picturesque ruins of a 16th-century Venetian fortress, but is perhaps most famous for its early 20th-century role as one of the last active leper colonies in Europe. At first considered a squalid death sentence for those exiled from the mainland, the island’s ill inhabitants transformed it into a place of community and possibility. At the height of the outbreak, Spinalonga had a population of almost 400, with everyone on the island receiving food, water, and medical care. Today, visitors tour the streets and buildings of the abandoned settlement, often overwhelmed by its tragic yet inspiring history.
• Boat tour of Spinalonga and Mirabello Bay
Monasteries and Mythology
If monasteries are your thing, Crete’s got plenty to choose from. Among Crete’s best are the fortified 15th-century Moni Toplou, filled with fantastic icons, the 16th-century Moni of Arkadi, with its lovely setting and heart-rending history, and the 17th-century Moni Preveli, featuring a small museum and panoramic views over the Libyan Sea. Predating all of these is Dikteon Cave (also known as Psychro Cave), the mythical birthplace of the god Zeus and a place of cultish worship and sacrifices in Minoan and Roman times. To see the cave without a car, book a guided tour.
What are the best things to do in Crete?
We’ve touched on Crete’s best towns, villages, beaches, and historical sites. But what else is there to do? Here are some of the best tours in Crete and our favorite off-the-beaten-path activities around the island.
- Hike the Samaria Gorge from Chania or Rethymnon.
- Take a food tour of Heraklion or Chania.
- Take a traditional Cretan cooking class from Chania.
- Visit a farm to learn wine and olive oil making. We love beautiful Agreco Farm outside of Rethymnon, or take this tour of small family farms out of Chania.
- Take a wine tasting tour out of Heraklion.
- Go horseback riding in the Finikia Mountains (out of Heraklion).
- Visit Takis, a unique animal shelter currently caring for over 400 dogs and cats within a beautiful olive grove.
- Take a sailing trip to Dia Island from Heraklion.
- Go snorkeling or stand-up paddleboarding out of Chania.
- Visit a traditional artisan workshop, like this luthier who makes traditional stringed instruments in Old Town Rethymnon, or this pottery studio in Margarites.
- Take the kids to the CRETAquarium in Heraklion.
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