The largest of the Greek isles, Crete is the birthplace of Zeus and the cradle of European civilization. It might also be the most distinct island of them all—nowhere else in Greece matches it for diverse landscapes. The highlights are well known, but there are plenty of hidden gems that most travelers miss.
History buffs can choose from a long list of enlightening sites, like Knossos, the capital of the ancient Minoan civilization. If excursions are your thing, try hiking the trails in the White Mountains or lounging on the beaches of Elafonissi, with sands both white and rosy pink. The below list combines these gems with Crete's other off-the-beaten-path spots and attractions.
Crafting Your Crete Itinerary
Though Crete fits nicely into a broader Greece itinerary, travelers often dedicate their entire trip to the country's biggest island, spending a week or more exploring its beaches, mountains, and towns. With nine days, you can get to know many of the island's highlights—this grand tour, based in the northwest harbor city of Chania, takes you to the Samaria Gorge, famed archeological site Knossos, beautiful Balos and Gramvousa beaches, and agricultural Vamos (get excited for the wine and olive oil).
Interested in local experiences? Consider this 8-day itinerary that dives into Cretan culture in Chania and Vamos—you'll take a guided village-to-village trek, learn to prepare a meal with island-grown ingredients, stroll waterfronts and botanical gardens, and take in the views from ancient archeological sites at Knossos and Aptera (travelers with less time can check out the 5-day version of this trip). Or take a 6-day culinary tour that features wine tasting, an olive oil factory tour, a truly farm-to-table cooking class, and some beach time thrown in for good measure.
Crete also makes a great complement to a mainland tour, or a worthy stop on an island-hopping adventure. With two weeks, you can split your time between Crete and the Cycladic isles of Santorini, Naxos, and Mykonos (or swap Santorini for Athens with this option). Or, pair one of the Crete-specific itineraries above with 5 days in Athens: visit the Acropolis and the Parthenon, learn about the ancient rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and relax by the sea on the Athens Riviera.
When to Go
Because Crete is the southernmost Greek island, temperatures remain pleasant throughout the year—this is where you want to be if you're visiting Europe in winter months, with average temps hovering in the 60s (Fahrenheit). This is perfect hiking weather, many sites of interest will be uncrowded, and seasonal activities starting in November include olive, herb, and orange harvesting, followed by cooking classes and tastings.
Summer is hot (though not as hot as the mainland—expect mid-80s) and very crowded, with long sunny days and ideal conditions for swimming in the Mediterranean. The shoulder seasons are both warm, and less crowded and pricey than summer—though you'll find the water to be warmer (read: better for swimming) in fall than in spring.
Crete has two main airports, Chania (CHQ) and Heraklion (HER), and the majority of travelers fly into one of the other with a stop in Athens. Travelers from North America can typically expect a stopover in a European hub on the way to Athens, as well. Chania, on the west side of the island, is convenient to the White Mountains, Elafonisi, and Balos Beach. Heraklion is equidistant to major sites and close to Knossos and the archeological museum.
Ferries from Piraeus on the mainland are also available, best utilized in the summer when the service schedule is most robust. Crete's ports with ferry service include Chania, Iraklio, Kissamos in western Crete, and Sita to the east. Timetables and fares change frequently throughout the year.
Balos Beach and Lagoon
At the northern tip of Crete, 35 miles northwest of Chania, lies Balos. This shallow turquoise lagoon is an icon unto itself—an ideal place to laze, snorkel, catch some rays, and soak up the isle's beauty. The beach is actually a tombolo connecting tiny Tigani Island to Gramvousa Island. To arrive, you can drive from Chania, then hike 30 minutes downhill to the lagoon and beach. Or take a boat excursion (April-October), which combines Balos with a short visit to uninhabited Gramvousa, with its 16th-century Venetian castle perched commandingly atop the cliffs. Bring lunch and drinks with you, and double-check the boat departure times so you don’t get left behind at Balos or Gramvousa. Know that the beaches here can get crowded during peak seasons.
Chania Walking Tour
Crete’s second-largest and (some would say most evocative) city, Chania draws the lion’s share of summer visitors. The ancient Venetian harbor—lined with cafés, restaurants, and boutique hotels—is tourist heavy, but the atmosphere renders the crowds moot. It's hard not to lose yourself in the images of local fisherman unloading sponges and octopus on the docks, or by wandering the mazes of narrow cobbled streets rising inland from the shore. Don’t miss Skridlof, a narrow lane and bazaar of leather products. Other arts and crafts stores are scattered throughout the walled old town.
Most top sights can be seen strolling the harbor, which is separated into a western and eastern section and fronted by a pedestrian-only walkway. Start your stroll at the west entrance and you'll see Fort Firca (aka the Revelino del Porto), which guarded the harbor in centuries past. Built by the Venetians to protect the harbor mouth, the fort's bastion is home to the must-visit National Maritime Museum. It houses a superb collection of model ships, war relics, treasures, and other maritime items arranged in chronological order from the Bronze Age to WWII. A stone’s throw across the harbor, on the mole (outer wall) you'll see the 16th-century "Egyptian Lighthouse."
Following the western harbor as it curls like a shepherd’s crook, you’ll pass dozens of cafés, restaurants, and colorful town-homes. Notos Jazz & Bossa Café is a great place to stop for a coffee, cappuccino, or ouzo. Ahead, rising over the eastern side of the harbor is the domed 17th-century Mosque of the Janissaries. Built by the Turks during the Ottoman occupation of Crete, today it’s an art gallery.
Continue eastward on the waterfront and you enter the second end of the harbor, lined with fishing boats and swanky yachts. The hulking Arsenali (Great Arsenal), built in Venetian times, has been restored and today houses the Center for Mediterranean Architecture—a cultural center with changing exhibitions and events.
Now you'll enter the old Turkish quarter of Splantzia, extending inland as a labyrinth leads you to St. Nicholas Square and the Agios Nikolaus (Church of St. Nicholas). Built as a monastery by the Venetians (hence the bell-tower), it was turned into a mosque by the Ottomans (hence the minaret). Don’t leave town without visiting the Agora—the cruciform Municipal Market—built atop the Venetian fortifications on Nikiforou Foka St. Here vendors sell olives, dates, bread, pickles, cheeses, and a kaleidoscope of fruits, veggies, and fresh-caught maritime critters.
Just 45 miles southwest from Chania, Elafonissi is famous for its blush-pink sands running out to turquoise waters. It gets this pink hue from the numberless crushed seashells that adorn the beach. If you're thinking of taking some as a souvenir, be warned: Elafonissi is a Natura 2000 Protection Program area and it’s illegal to remove the pink sand. To arrive here, you can drive from Chania (two hours) along windy and narrow roads, or book an excursion with a reputable tour agency.
When you do arrive, you won't be disappointed. Offshore, to the north, windsurfers zip across the water, while the south side is sheltered and good for snorkeling. Here you'll find umbrellas, volleyball nets, bathrooms, and a trail leading to a chapel and lighthouse atop a tiny island connected to the mainland by a tombolo. In every season save for winter, you can expect to share this paradise with a legion of other travelers. By wandering away from the main beach, you can escape the throngs and find a secluded bit of sand in the tiny coves backed by juniper forest.
Combine your visit to Elafonissi beach with a stop to the 17th-century Chrissoskalitissa Monastery, which is perched atop a cliff outside the village of Elafonissi. Built during the Venetian period, this Orthodox Christian nunnery draws a steady stream of visitors. You can ascend the 98 steps and inspect it up close, as well as visit the folklore museum on site. It actually takes its name from folklore: apparently, one of the steps is made of gold, but according to legend only true believers in God can see it.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
One of the most important museums in Greece, the state-of-the-art Heraklion Archaeological Museum offers an education in Crete’s ancient history that spans 5,000 years. The two-story venue, located in Heraklion in a rehabbed 1930s Bauhaus building, is a trove of archaeological artifacts displayed chronologically and thematically in color-coded rooms. Life-size statues, sarcophagi, Knossos’ famous frescoes, the enigmatic Phaestos Disk—you can see them all here. The mesmerizing displays (with descriptions in English) will keep history buffs enthralled for hours.
To explore Crete and not visit the Palace of Knossos would be like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. The capital of the Minoan civilization (and first-ever city in Europe) is not only Crete's most important historical attraction, but it's also home to the mythical Minotaur of King Minos. Just three miles southeast of Heraklion, this former ceremonial and political hub boasted more than 1,200 rooms before it was destroyed around 1450 BCE by a natural calamity thought to have been a volcanic eruption of Santorini.
Knossos was restored in the early 1900s by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in a controversial effort to reconstruct certain palace features. You’ll need several hours to explore the evocative site, with its frescoes, massive columns, and a folklore-heavy museum that displays artifacts like vases. Knossos is best appreciated with an expert guide, as they can show you the hidden treasures (like the ancient plumbing and ventilation systems) and explain Knossos' fascinating mythology. Arrive early to beat the heat and cruise-ship crowds.
The ruins of Phaestos, a former Minoan palace, are a must-see, not least for its setting on a hill overlooking the verdant Massara Plain. As a tourist draw it's second only to the more famous Palace of Knossos, and was similarly built around 1,700 BCE. It features a central courtyard that was once flanked by pillars, as well as the remains of temples, a theater, and royal apartments.
Although simpler than Knossos and with fewer frescoes, it nonetheless exudes history. It was here, in 1908, that the mysterious Phaestos Disc was discovered. This Minoan disc of fired clay is imprinted on both sides with pictographs, still undeciphered, spiraling towards the center. You can find it today at the Heraklion.
White Mountains & Samaria Gorge
The entire west end of Crete is dominated by the White Mountains (Lefka Ori), a limestone massif towering up to 8,343 meters and topped with almost permanent snow. A wild landscape, deep gorges cut through the peaks and are home to many endemic species of flora and fauna—with luck you'll spot a Cretan badger or endangered kri-kri, Crete's native wild goat. The most famous gorge is Samaria (detailed below) but there are many more.
For many travelers, hiking the enigmatic Samaria Gorge—at 11 miles, the longest in Europe—is reason alone to visit Crete. Following a twisting path, the trail runs through the remote national park of Samaria and reaches its zenith when it narrows to just 10 feet wide, flanked on each side by rock walls rising 5,250 feet. Allow four to eight hours to cover the distance from Xyloskalo, perched high atop the Omalos plateau, to the seaside hamlet of Agia Roumeli.
Start out at dawn to beat the heat and get ahead of the 1,000 or so like-minded folks who hike the gorge daily in high season (Samaria is the second-most visited site in Crete). It can be windy and cold atop the plateau, but be prepared with water and sunscreen, as the heat builds as you make the descent. Sturdy hiking shoes are essential as the path is stony and pitted with angular limestone outcrops and sinkholes. Unless you’re an experienced hiker, we recommend taking an organized tour.
Where to Stay
Located in the hills east of Chania, Aria Traditional Hotel is a small traditional guesthouse with just a few rooms. The guesthouse is over 200 years old and rich in history, including a period as a headquarters of the local resistance to the Germans in WWII. The rooftop terrace has views of the sea and mountains, perfect for an evening drink or a pleasant breakfast. There's also a nightly three-course dinner made with local recipes and ingredients, including olive oil sourced and pressed on the guesthouse grounds. While you're there, take advantage of the spa (services include massage and yoga classes) and pool, perched high above the olive groves.
For an authentic experience, spend a night or two in a traditional guesthouse in Vamos, a small village about 30 minutes outside of Chania. Stroll through the old town center, or visit the cultural museum showcasing traditional ways of life in this region. Lots of great hiking and walking paths are available in the surrounding countryside, and the Monastery of Karydi has a beautiful courtyard, small chapel, and the ruins of a centuries-old olive press.