With an incredible landscape and an incomparable history, Crete is everything you could wish for in a destination… A complete holiday lovelist, from coast to coast.
Wherever you travel in Crete – from the western region of Chania, through Rethymno, Heraklion and on to the eastern shores of Lassithi – you’ll find an irresistible story of beaches, culture, mountains, valleys, villages, wine routes and people. And somehow, once you’ve sampled it all, it becomes your story.
Legendary beaches & hidden gems in Crete
When it comes to beaches, you’ll probably already know what Crete is capable of. It’s not for nothing that the exotic blue water and soft white sands of Balos and Elafonisi, on the westernmost coast, regularly feature in Top 10 lists of breathtaking beaches. But on an island of 1,000km of coastline, there are endless beaches worthy of discovery, all along the popular north coast but in the lesser-known south too.
If you’re based in Rethymno or Heraklion, it’s just a short journey to the four beaches of Bali, perfect for a family splash or romantic getaway. But you could also head south to the twin beaches of Triopetra (separated by a peninsula) or secluded Agios Pavlos and intimate Lentas, a little further along the south coast.
Likewise, Malia and Sitia, to the northeast, have rightly gained their popularity on the back of their sandy, organised beaches that tick every holiday box.
And if you feel like venturing out, there’s wonderful Falasarna (less than 1hr from Chania, near Balos) or Kedrodasos (close to where you catch the boat for Elafonissi). And finally, the remote Agios Ioannis (on the tiny islet of Gavdos) or Chrysi (golden by name, golden by nature), reached by boat from Ierapetra. And that’s just the start.
An extraordinary cultural legacy
Crete’s long and very proud history of invasion, rebellion and trading on an island at the crossroads of all ancient Mediterranean civilisations has left an historical and archaeological legacy that is quite simply extraordinary.
We start with the Minoan civilization, which flourished here from 3000-1200 BC – with the world-renowned palaces of Knossos (near Heraklion), often referred to as Europe’s oldest city. But there are other Minoan settlements on Crete (notably Phaistos, Gortyna and the Palaces of Malia and Zakros), as well the archaeological site of Vasiliki (near Ierapetra) and the Museum of ancient Eleutherna, all worth a visit.
There are, of course, also plenty of examples of Classical civilization to explore (such as the archaeological site of Aptera, on the northern coast of Chania). Just make sure you don’t miss the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, to put everything into context.
And then there’s the legacy of the Venetians, who ruled from 1212 for more than four centuries, notably at Frangokastello (the castle of the Franks), built in 1371-74 as a garrison to impose order on the rebellious Sfakia region, and the Fortezza of Rethymno, built the following century.
And then there’s Spinalonga, the tiny island in the Gulf of Elounda that merges Venetian, Ottoman and Greek history and a unique way (from playing a role in the Cretan revolt against the Turks to being used as leper colony).
And don’t think it’s just about archaeology: Highly recommended are the Museum of Typography in Chania, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rethymno, the Natural History Museum in Heraklion and the Folklore Museum of Agios Nikolaos.
Discover the Cretan way of life
If you really want to get to know Crete – its people, traditions, food, legendary lifestyle – head to its villages. Whether in the mountains or along the coast, there are villages all around Crete with locals going about their business, seemingly untouched by time.
Little more than 30km outside Chania, the collection of Apokoronas villages offers just that. Amongst them are the semi-mountainous Vamos, with its collection of preserved mansions, and beautifully preserved Gavalochori, a settlement of 400 people complete with a 14th-century oil press and a folklore museum. Or how about heading to the south coast town of Hora Sfakion, from where you can catch a boat to the neighbouring – and carless - village Loutro.
We’re going 740m up to the village of Anogia next (1hr from Heraklion and 1.5hrs from Rethymno), a village with a turbulent past at the hands of the invading Ottomans and Germans but with a spirit that remains undimmed. Locals are often stockbreeders and musicians here… with a glass of raki close to hand.
Close to Heraklion, the lovingly restored Archanes is definitely worth a visit. And, if you find yourself in eastern Crete, take some time to explore the villages of the Lassithi plateau (Zakros, Ziros, Makris, Neapolis, Krtisa…), traditional settlements with local delicacies and the good old Cretan way of life.
Let’s hit the wine roads
Crete has a growing reputation for producing really excellent wines, made with local varieties and European blends at modern family-run vineyards that also offer fantastic wine tasting experiences. So our next recommendation is to hit the road… or, more specifically, one of Crete’s wine roads.
Around two-thirds of Crete’s vineyards are found near Heraklion, with the vineyards of Archanes and Peza, or Dafnes (on the lower slopes of the Psiloritis Mountains), standing out.
To the west, Chania is the island’s second largest wine area, with the foothills of the White Mountains offering excellent vine-growing terrain. Many wineries centre around the village of Kissamos, which has gained PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status, although numerous wineries can be visited in northeastern and central Chania.
Wine-making was more recently introduced to Rethymno, with wineries well worth visiting in the areas of Geropotamos and Finikas. And, to the east, the vineyards of Lassithi are located around the town of Sitia and the Ziros plateau.
Big, big nature… and lots of it
No island in Greece does dramatic quite like Crete. Mountain ranges have risen across the island, with cloud-piercing tips sending water cutting through the limestone terrain to leave a legacy of more than 400 canyons and gorges that have rightly gained cult status amongst ramblers.
If you know one gorge already, it will likely be the Samaria Gorge, in Chania’s Sfakia province, starting at the White Mountain’s Omalos Plateau and descending through a magical landscape of pine and cypress trees. You’ll hike through a narrow path with vertical walls rising 500m above you, emerging at the seaside village of Agia Roumeli.
A National Reserve, the White Mountains boast a rich variety of flora and fauna, with a central massif of more than 50 peaks above 2km known as the Mountain Desert. Truly incredible.
Heading east are the impressive Psiloritis Mountains (also a Natural 2000 site). In Rethymno, the Kourtaliotiko Gorge, in which flows the Megalos River, ends at the beach of Preveli (complete with palm groves). And Heraklion also boasts many exciting canyons, notably Agiofarago (Martsalo and Trafoulas) and Gafaris, crossing the magnificent oak wood of Rouvas.
In no ways less impressive, we end in the Dikti Mountain range, home to impressive canyons of its own – the most famous being Sarakina and Mythi and, of course, Zakros and its Canyon of the Dead, so named after the discovery of Minoan graves in its walls. Now we’ve got your attention..
Living the great outdoors
It should be pretty clear by now… if you love the outdoors, you’ll love Crete. Whether it’s the sea or mountain life, why stop yourself?
Talking of the sea, there are many excellent dive sites but if you want one tip head to Chania’s Gramvousa Peninsula (to the east) or Kalyves (on the edge of Souda Bay). The coastline all the way to Georgioupoli is well worth exploring, including the evocatively named Cave of Elephants, so called because of the elephant bones found on the sea floor.
With all those gorges, can we tempt you to try something new? You’ll need the help of a specialist company and the appropriate equipment, but how about canyoning? The gorges of Ha (experience required), Tsoutsouras, Kalami and Arvi (which turns into a dark underground river after an 80m waterfall) are all recommendations.
Next, we’re sending you mountain biking in the Asterousia Mountain range, south of Heraklion, between the plain of Messara and the Libyan Sea. Rising to 1,230m, you get a pure mountain thrill without the extreme altitude.
And you can’t leave Crete without having a little fun on the water. The popular family beaches in Sitia and Elounda Bay are ideal for hiring a Stand Up Paddleboard or for other water sports, as Kouremenos beach, on in northeastern Lassithi, is for windsurfing and kite surfing.
Let’s call it a night (to remember)
Finally, it’s Crete by night. This is, after all, when the island really comes to life. You’ll be spoilt for choice, so here are a few pointers.
The charm of both Chania and Rethymno is set by the atmosphere of Old Town districts in both locations, so that’s where you should head for a leisurely moonlit stroll by the sea. Both the settings have inspired a new generation of restaurant and bar owners, with inventive menus and cocktails. And you’re sure to spend far too long in a “rakadiko”, a traditional little Cretan eatery serving the traditional Cretan spirit raki (in large volumes) and meze.
In Heraklion, the city feel takes nights out to another level, with a vibrant clubbing scene to go along with the seaside restaurants and bars that also cater to a softer vibe.
And if you’re in Agios Nikolaos, you should head to Lake Voulismeni, the small inland body of water connected to the sea, in the centre of town. Known simply as “The Lake”, it’s scene to some of some of the best nightlife in town.