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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 18 December, 2022
Expert travel writer: Rachel Howard

By far the largest and most varied of Greece’s many islands, Crete is practically a country in its own right (as any fiercely patriotic Cretan will assure you).

Divided by three towering mountain ranges, Crete takes time, patience, and good driving skills (or sturdy walking boots) to navigate.

Big, brash resorts are clustered around the three main cities on the north coast — Heraklion, Rethymno, and Chania. It can feel like one extended tourist resort — especially around Malia, Agios Nikolaos, Hersonissos, and Elounda.

The wild south and even wilder hinterland are an entirely different proposition. Here you’ll find ravishingly empty beaches, awe-inspiring gorges, deliciously remote villages, and some of the best food anywhere in Greece. If you’re into archaeology, you’re also in for a treat.

Orientation

Heraklion

Heraklion is the bustling, built-up capital of Crete. Though more of a modern (and slightly charmless) administrative centre than a place for holidays, Heraklion does have a certain gritty authenticity. Restaurants cater mainly to locals, so the food scene is excellent and affordable.

It is also the closest base if you’re on Crete primarily to visit Knossos, 5km away.

Chania

The seaside city of Chania is a vibrant jumble of old and new. The Venetian harbour and old town swarm with tourists in summer, but there are some interesting craft studios and restaurants among the souvenir shops.

Off season, there is a youthful nightlife scene in the meze joints and bars that line every square. The nondescript outlying neighbourhoods have little interest for the visitor.

Rethymno

Often overlooked by travellers, Rethymno’s gentle charms are all the better for it. With a lively student population, this fortified city thrums with energy year-round.

Intriguing remains of the area’s ancient, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman inhabitants are scattered in and around town.  The rest of the Rethymno region feels unscathed by time and tourism.

Southern Crete

The south coast is the least developed, good for more independent, adventurous travellers. The golden coastline from Souda to Agios Pavlos feels almost Californian — all lilting sand dunes, yoga retreats, and palm-lined beaches. The two main resorts – Palaiochora in the west and Ierapetra in the east – are relatively unspoiled in comparison to the north coast of Crete.

Eastern Crete

In the mountain plateau of Lasithi and the Sitia peninsula way out east, you’ll find a more rugged, authentic Crete. Canyons riddled with caves and waterfalls ripple through this agricultural heartland, making this corner of Crete a good choice for low-key hiking holidays. Minoan ruins, monasteries, and sleepy villages speckle the landscape.

Food & Drink

Seasonal, local, and traditional, Cretan food is phenomenally fresh and tasty. With its balmy climate and diverse landscape, the island produces a vast range of amazing produce, from olive oil, honey, wine, and cheese, to more atypical crops such as avocadoes, bananas, and mangoes.

Grilled, roast, or stewed meat is much loved by locals, particularly goat and lamb, which is often free-range. There’s less of a fishing industry than on smaller islands.

Cretans are generous hosts. Portions are generally huge, and you’ll be offered shots of raki (local grappa) wherever you go.

What to try

Raki, the local spirit of choice (see above), goes well with nubbly graviera cheese, wrinkly olives, and apaki (smoked pork).

A summer staple, dakos is the Cretan version of Greek salad: grated tomato, crumbled feta, olives and capers heaped onto a crunchy barley rusk and doused In plenty of olive oil. Stamnagathi (wilted bitter greens), fried snails, kaltsounia (turnovers stuffed with cheese or spinach), and sfakiani pitta (cheese-filled dough drizzled in honey) are also Cretan delicacies.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Hike Samaria Gorge

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

One of Europe’s most famous hikes, a 16km trail running through Crete’s most iconic canyon, from the 1200m Omalos plateau down to the Libyan Sea; freshwater springs, abandoned villages, isolated chapels and 450 species of flora and fauna.

Best for ages: 10+ | Free | 1 day

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Knossos

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

Considered the oldest city in Europe, this royal palace was a Bronze Age centre of commerce and culture. The centre of Minoan civilisation, Knossos was also home to the legendary Minotaur.

Best for ages: 18+ | £5

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Hike Aradena Gorge

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

A dramatic 7.5-kilometre hike through a sheer gorge that takes you from a ghost village to a remote beach in the province of Sfakia.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free | 2-3 hours

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Crete’s best food & drink

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

Seasonal, local, and traditional, Cretan food is phenomenally fresh and tasty. Don’t miss home-grown produce, especially olive oil, honey, wine, and cheese.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

Balos Beach [sailing]
Experience

Balos Beach [sailing]

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

Crete’s luminous ‘blue lagoon’, Balos is a shallow turquoise bay with powdery sand that could be in the Caribbean. It’s a bumpy, dusty 40-minute drive down a dirt road, followed by a 30-minute hike down to the photogenic beach. For a more relaxed experience, sail there from Kissamos port with Balos Sailing.

Best for ages: 4+ | Free

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Dialeskari taverna
Experience

Dialeskari taverna

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

With a terrace overlooking the sea, a wood-fired oven, and meat and cheese from the owner’s own flock of goats and sheep, this lovely taverna on Marmara beach is as authentically Cretan as it gets. Order braised lamb tsigaristo, boureki (baked, layered vegetables with feta), dakos, and loukoumades (honey-drenched donuts) for dessert.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Experience

Heraklion Archaeological Museum

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

Second only to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the astonishing collection focuses on Minoan art. Highlights are: vivid frescoes from Knossos,  tablets inscribed with the syllabic Linear B script, and the enigmatic Phaistos disc whose spiral pictograms and signs have yet to be deciphered.

Best for ages: 13+ | £8

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Manousakis Winery
Experience

Manousakis Winery

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

Cretan wine has come a long way since the days of home-made retsina. At the exceptionally well-run Manousakis winery, not far from Chania, tastings, pairings, and cooking classes take place in a beautiful olive and orange grove. Before you go, pick up beautifully packaged olive oil, tsikoudia (Cretan grappa), and sea salt, along with a case of the excellent Nostos Pink rosé.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Milia Mountain Retreat

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

For a natural high and authentic local experience, this eco-retreat is still the benchmark on Crete. Hidden away in the forested peaks of Kissamos, Milia is ideal for active walking holidays and gourmet locavores (the food is phenomenal).

Official star rating:

Ammos Hotel

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

Design-forward interiors, Cretan home-cooking, and a sandy beach on the doorstep make Ammos a much-loved favourite with parents and children alike.

Official star rating:

Kapsaliana Village Hotel

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

Once an olive mill owned by the nearby Arkadi monastery, this 200-year-old stone hamlet has been sensitively converted into a secluded hillside hideaway, where nature and traditional heritage take centre stage.

Official star rating:

Blue Palace Elounda

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

A modern classic on the quieter end of Elounda, with a wealth of facilities and warm Cretan staff. The atmosphere is calm and cossetting, making it hard to venture out and explore the island.

Official star rating:

When to go

Crete is one of the rare Greek islands that is truly a year-round destination.

In the winter, you can visit the archaeological sites without the crowds, mingle with locals in the many lively cities, and even hit the ski slopes of the White Mountains.

Spring and autumn are perfect for hiking, painting, or cooking holidays.

The ‘summer’ tourist season lasts a full six months on Crete. As the southernmost island, it has a temperate climate and the sea stays warm well into November. July and August are the busiest, and hottest, months.

Getting there and away

Crete has two international airports at Heraklion (best for Knossos, Lasithi, and Ierapatra) and Chania (best for the Samaria gorge, Sfakia, and the famous beaches of western Crete).

Car and passenger ferries from Athens (7-12 hours) run several times a day throughout the year to Chania, Rethymno, and Heraklion. It’s best to take an overnight ferry and book a cabin. There are also ferries from Santorini to Heraklion, which takes 2-6 hours depending on the vessel.

Getting around

It’s pretty much essential to hire a car in Crete, unless you plan to fly and flop in a five-star resort. Distances are considerable and mountain roads can be twisting and treacherous, so be prepared for plenty of driving time. Parking In urban centres can be challenging.

Taxis in all the cities and towns are plentiful and reasonable compared to other European destinations.

Cycling is only advisable for serious road or mountain bikers.

Where to stay

First-time visitors keen to see Knossos usually base themselves in and around Elounda, Agios Nikolaos, and Heraklion.

Others opt for the Venetian old town of Chania and its environs, a handy base for exploring the beaches and gorges of Western Crete.

Less crowded than Chania and Heraklion, Rethymno makes a convenient alternative roughly in the centre of the island. From here, you can venture south into the unspoiled Amari valley and the long, sandy beaches along the south coast.

If you want to avoid the crowds altogether, stay away from the coast in a charming mountain village such as Milia.

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