Updated: March 20, 2018
The 20 Best Places To Go 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 cosy, compact town overlooking the magnificent Mirabello Bay in Crete’s mid north-eastern region. Trendy restaurants, bars and cafés cluster round the town’s showpiece – a little sea-connected lake that serves as the centrepiece 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 hire car 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 centre 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 cosy 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 traveller 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 travellers. 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 learnt 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 and 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 favourite 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 half-way between Heraklion and Rethymnon. Easy to miss on a fast drive between the major centres 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 centre 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 harbour, narrow streets and abundant waterfront and backstreet restaurants some of which operate in Summer without roofs. A striking 16th Century lighthouse guarding the harbour and of Venetian, Egyptian and Ottoman construct 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 its sheer spirit of place from its busy, unavoidably likeable 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 annexe 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 and musical 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 neighbouring 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 centre 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 centre, or with a bit of effort, on deserted beaches on the causeway-connected island peninsula of Kolokytha. The harbour 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 centre 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 most of all have fun. Accommodation is of the upper market business hotel type, but with at least one new ‘green boutique’ hotel pitched at travellers, plus a variety of middle-market more ageing establishments. The streets have been re-paved, pedestrianised and re-humanised and each night sees a tide of people eating, drinking, walking and socialising. Heraklion is not a beach city and even those within easy reach are not rich pickings. Heraklion will suit urbanites, night-lifers and archaeology buffs and people looking for an easy transit to and from Crete.
Considered by picky travellers 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 organised 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 wave-less 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 sheep herders or sheep rustlers – or both. They also liked guns and knives, had a penchant for the local raki spirit, tended to be independent minded and 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 commercialisation of the Samaria Gorge. It is a great spot to linger in after the Samaria Gorge walk. When the walkers have left, locals and travellers come out and mingle over rustic lamb dishes and local wine around the harbour to swap tales of derring-do. Accommodation is low-key and there is 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 travellers, 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 travellers are most welcome additions to the mix. Its main attraction is its simple Crete-ness. It neither depends 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 appartments. 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 annexe 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 and 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 – and 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 (3.4 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 centred around the small jetty and a very decent beach a few hundred metres further west. Accommodation is very much low-key and inexpensive and consists in the main of studios and appartments with a couple of hotels along or near the main through road. Further to the east at Nopigeia (6kms) the scene is quieter and well-served with more studios and appartments 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.
Kolymvari is the Yang to the Ying of Chania’s lengthy beach and hotel strip running west of Chania. Just as you think you have run out of beach and hotels, you meet another shy, but getting popular low-key village resort – the village of Kolymvari, 25kms west of Chania. 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 favours independent travellers, 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 good-bad boy of Cretan holiday resorts and it appeals to a lot of people. It is a countrified version of Hersonisos and can also be labelled loud and rowdy. It’s Party Town Crete #1 – 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 parlours, 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 the quiet side of holidaying. 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 the 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 cosy 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, appartments and studios and 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 a bit cheeky in Summer, so an off-season visit might be a better idea. Buses run from Heraklion and Rethymno and you can hire a car of motor bike in the village.
The soothingly pleasant and mellow village of Myrtos on Crete’s southern coast and 16kms west of Ierapetra, usually gets discovered by travellers 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 traveller 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 centre, 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. Accommodation has reflected the popularisation of the village and is ample in scope and comfortable. Come here if you don’t want to move for a week. Bring a book, bathers and an appetite and still chill until the urge to leave arrives. That may be a while.
Palaiochora sits comfortably yet remotely at the south-eastern corner of Crete, a small community some 77kms south west 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 traveller – 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 a varied mix of rooms, studios and appartments. 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 travellers 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 Rethymno and is located in an area that offer many options for alterative 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 travellers of all ages. It’s a popular destination for Greeks and Cretans to 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, socialising 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 travellers 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 traveller stakes and is more personable, compact and even friendlier than its larger siblings. Its real charm lies in its almost completely pedestrianised 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 an opt for the beach annexe 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 organised package holiday or for a 2-3 day stay for island tourers with a car.
Siteia? Where’s Siteia? Is the common catch-cry for many visitors to Crete. That’s good because you can enjoy Siteia without the crowds, but not-so-good because Siteia is a still under-appreciated town in eastern Crete that hasn’t yet seen its days of fame and glory. 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 centre is compact and easily walkable and because restaurants cater to Cretans in the main 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.