Planning Your Visit to Crete
A lot of travelers to Greece combine a trip to some of the island with a visit to Athens, but Crete is big enough that it could easily be made into a trip of is own (driving from one end to the other would take approximately 5 hours without stopping). It’s also a year-round destination.
With its remarkable hospitality, exceptional cuisine drawn from the island’s own local produce, traditional villages and monasteries, and pristine beaches, Crete could easily be explored for a week or more. In less than a week, however, you can still check off many of its main sites, including the bustling capital Heraklion and the Venetian cities of Chania and Rethymno, charming coastal towns like Agios Nikolaus and Sitia, the Minoan ruins of Knossos, and the striking Samaria Gorge.
A rental car will allow you to make the most of the island while maximizing flexibility and keeping costs down. Consider having two home bases—one each on either end of the island—in order to minimize travel time among various sites, or spend several days covering the island from one end to the other. Keep in mind, there are airports close to both the capital of Heraklion and Chania, but several ferry ports, so you may opt to fly into Crete and travel by ship back to Athens to catch your international flight home, or vice versa.
Click here for the ultimate guide to Crete.
Crete in 24 hours
If you have just one day in Crete, either sandwiched between two overnights, or one evening and one morning with an overnight in between, you should plan to visit the Palace of Knossos, a massive Minoan complex dating back thousands of years, covered in frescoes and including the ruins of ancient baths, and the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, with its comprehensive collection of Minoan art and artifacts.
Spend the night in Heraklion so that you can wake up early and explore its rich heritage, including a history museum, a seaside fortress, and buzzing markets and shops selling produce, local liquors, jewelry, and folk art. If you’d rather get a more intimate glimpse into everyday life on Crete, take a trip to the nearby village of Archanes, where you can wander picturesque streets full of well-preserved painted houses and visit an olive oil factory. It’s also the start of a hiking path that leads up to the top of Mount Yiouhtas, perfect for taking in some fresh air and expansive views of the island.
Crete in 2-3 days
With 2-3 days in Crete, you can branch out from the capital and spend some time exploring the island’s many charming towns, including the old town of Chania, a Venetian city with a 16th-century lighthouse and a Nautical Museum with model ships. The nearby village of Apokoronas is a gateway to the White Mountains beyond and the freshwater Lake Kournas, a destination for nature walks and brisk horseback rides.
If you’d rather get some sun, the beach at Gramvoussa, with azure waters and imposing cliffs, Balos, known for its secluded inlet, and, Elafonissi, which is actually on its own island separated from the rest of Crete by a sandbar.
If a trip to Greece makes you dream of tasty delights, let a guide introduce you to the delicacies of Chania or Heraklion, or go on a tour of a vineyard or olive oil press. If you’re ready to dedicate a full day to the legendary cuisine of the island, and learn some new skills you can take back home with you, consider a cooking class, where a local will show you how to bring out the flavors of traditional island ingredients in classic dishes like savory pastries, vibrant salads, and goat or lamb cooked with olive oil and lemon.
For more on the cuisine of Crete, click here.
Crete in 4-5 days
With a few more days in Crete, you can get out of the cities and off the beaten path to see more of the island’s natural areas. Crete is known for its olive groves, and many of them welcome visitors. Wander around the gnarled but beautiful trees that produce this unique and world-renowned fruit, or stop in at an olive oil mill to see how that fruit is turned into the golden liquid that is the basis for most Mediterranean cooking.
Crete’s Botanical Park and Garden, run by a single dedicated family, grew out of the ashes of a 2003 fire. With its meandering paths, fruit trees, medicinal plants, and wandering peacocks, it is a good stopover for familes with rambunctious kids, and an easy way to see the flora and fauna of the island all in one place. For a more ambitious outdoor hike, you can explore Samaria Gorge, a 16km fissure in the White Mountains, dotted with tiny churches and chapels, which will take you from deep in the mountains all the way out to the sea.
Opt for an overnight in Rethymno, a town on Crete’s north coast with age-old buildings, that now house lively shops and restaurants, as well as churches, mosques, and the Fortezza, a 16th-century Venetian fortress.
Take a look at this guide on hiking the Samaria Gorge.
Crete in 7 Days (or More)
If you have up to a week to explore Crete, your best bet is to rent a car to cover some of the longer distances and reach some of its more secluded locations, stopping at some of the imposing historical monasteries that dot the island.
Take a day to visit the fishing village of Elounda, now a vibrant seaside resort with plenty of beaches, and a gateway to the island of Spinalonga, which is entirely taken over by a Venetian fortress that stayed in operation until the 18th century, long after the Ottomans had taken over the rest of the island.
Combine it with the town of Agios Nikolaus on the Gulf of Mirabello farther down the coast, known for its lagoon-like lake surrounded by statues and monuments, and its shops selling traditional crafts and delicacies.
Check out this sample itinerary for an 8-day trip to Crete.