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Posted 18 May, 2020 | No comments
Posted in: Greece

Crete is a destination that’s bound to steal your heart. It’s a charming and mysterious island with some of the most hospitable people on earth. There are endless places to visit, things to do, and dishes to eat — you’ll never be bored on this Greek island. 

Often described as its own universe, the landscape of Crete is varied and full of diversity.

Home to stunning old towns and quaint ports, high mountains ideal for adventure, and a collection of awe-inspiring beaches — there’s something for everyone on a holiday in Crete!

Many people book a trip to Crete with the sole purpose of relaxing on the gorgeous beaches.

But, there’s so much more you can see and do in Crete than just lazing by the sea. It’s possible to go trekking, snorkeling, mountain biking, sailing, or even fishing!

I first came to Crete several years ago, and I kept returning each year. Like many others I’ve met, I completely fell in love with the place and decided to stay.

The coastal city of Chania has been my adopted home for more than four years. Now it’s time for you to discover Crete!

I’m excited to introduce Crete to you in this comprehensive travel guide.

Where to Stay in Crete, Greece

At 260 km (160 miles) long and 56 km (35 miles) wide, Crete is the largest and most populous island in Greece. It’s huge!

So, when it comes to choosing your accommodation in Crete, you have many options in each region. 

map of crete greece

To figure out where to stay, all you need to do is decide on which type of vacation you’re focusing on.

Are you into cultural experiences? Are you looking for the ultimate beach holiday? Would you rather just relax and disconnect from the rest of the world?

Crete can offer you all of that and more, you just need to choose your region wisely.

Let’s first take a look at Crete’s four main areas to help you decide which are the best places to stay in Crete according to your interests:

  • Heraklion for History and Culture
  • Chania for Best Beaches
  • Rethymnon for Traditional Villages
  • Lasithi for Relaxing Holidays

Here’s a short description of every main city in each of Crete’s four different regions.

Heraklion, the Capital of Crete

Crete’s main region and capital of the island is Heraklion.

The city is also one of the two main gates to Crete, with an international airport and an important port that receives ferries from mainland Greece as well as cruise ships almost every day.

This vibrant city offers endless choices of cultural activities, including art galleries and some of Greece’s most interesting museums.

But that’s not all. In this region, you can also visit three of the four Minoan Palaces that have been excavated on the island so far — the Minoan Palaces of Knossos and Malia, on the northern coast, as well as the mysterious Minoan Palace of Phaistos in the South.

harbour with boats in heraklion crete island greece

Younger crowds love the nearby coastal town of Malia as it’s the place to be for nightlife.

This seaside town gathers a collection of beach bars, clubs, and discos that make it the place to party in Crete.

One of the few hotels in Heraklion with a pool is Galaxy Hotel Iraklio, located in a very central position and serving one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever tried in town.

Those who come to Heraklion to enjoy the nightlife will want to choose an all-inclusive resort in the coastal towns of Hersonissos or Malia.

Chania, West Crete

Located on the western portion of Crete, Chania is a fantastic region that offers a plethora of opportunities for adventurous holidays.

Plus, some of the most impressive beaches of Crete are found along the coast of Chania.

The capital of the region, also named Chania, hosts one of the prettiest ancient towns in Greece.

Old Town Chania has an interesting past made of conquests and foreign rulers, all of which managed to leave their own trace and identity in the architecture of the city.

The old city is a great place to stay if you adore the romantic atmosphere of old Venetian mansions and Turkish facades. You can also go shopping for some authentic souvenirs in Chania’s Agora, one of the biggest municipal markets in the Balkans.

old town of chania on the water in crete greece

You can stay in one of the many boutique hotels of Chania. Casa Delfino is one of the most exclusive boutique hotels while those on a budget will be astonished at the modern facilities of Kumba Hostel.

Rethymnon Region

The region of Rethymnon is located halfway through Heraklion and Chania so a good base to visit both without driving long distances.

However, Rethymnon has more to offer — it’s not just a comfortable place from where to move around and explore.

If you loved the old town of Chania, you’ll be happy to discover the alleys of Rethymnon’s Old Town too.

Here, the Turkish traces are tangible in the wooden balconies and high Ottoman minarets shaping the skyline. The impressive Venetian Fortress, right by the sea, remains of Greece’s best examples of fortified castles.

To better discover the old town, it’s a great idea to book a stay in the area.

Avli Lounge is one of the most traditional boutique hotels in town and it has a remarkable restaurant where the Cretan diet is praised and celebrated with truly cutting-edge culinary ideas.

For an even more romantic stay, the adults-only Pepi Boutique Hotel has been receiving guests for years and has built a prestigious name in town.

A short trip towards the south of Rethymnon will take you through unique mountainous landscapes and traditional villages.

the area of Rethymnon on crete island greece

Visit historic monasteries active in the long years of fighting to oust different foreign rulers.

Whether they were the Venetians, the Ottomans, or the Nazi Occupation Forces, monasteries fought side by side with the Cretans to conquer their own freedom, which finally occurred in 1898.

The southern coast of Rethymnon (and of all Crete) is surrounded by the pristine Libyan sea.

The southern coasts of Crete are more isolated than the touristic North, meaning cleaner water, wilder landscapes, and a feeling of freedom hard to find anywhere else.

This is also the reason why most nudist beaches can be found on the southern coast. If you’re into sunbathing without a bikini, the southern beaches of Rethymnon are a great place to go.

Lasithi, East Crete

The easternmost region of Crete is Lasithi. Rather isolated and quite off-the-beaten-track, the region is home to magnificent beaches that you could even enjoy totally on your own during less crowded months.

The capital of Lasithi is Agios Nikolaos, a small town also on the northern coast of the island.

However, there are other cities you can check in the region which can prove to be excellent places to stay in order to drive around and explore. If you wish to visit the uninhabited island of Chrissi, it’s a good idea to stay in Ierapetra.

If instead, you want to discover the exotic Palm Beach of Vai, Sitia is a great city where to stay too.

A hotel in Agios Nikolaos is a great idea to visit the former leper island of Spinalonga or the exclusive resort town of Elounda.

elounda greece boats in the harbour

One of the prettiest hotels in Agios Nikolaos is Porto Maltese Boutique Hotel, with a privileged view of Lake Voulismeni, which naturally flows towards the sea of Crete.

If you prefer to stay in a more exclusive area, Elounda is the place to be.

There’s no shortage of luxurious resorts when it comes to this small village, all of them facing the tranquil Gulf of Mirabello and boasting exclusive beaches and rooms that open directly to the sea.

Domes of Elounda is one of the most luxurious places to be not just on Crete, but all of Greece

What To Do in Crete (Top 5 Best)

There are hundreds of great things to do in Crete, from beach hopping to rip-roaring adventures, eating your way through the mouthwatering Cretan diet, or splurging in the wine scenario of the island.

It wasn’t easy narrowing this list down, but here are my top 5 choices for things to see and do on a stunning holiday in Crete.

1. Discover Chania’s Old Town

The Venetian atmosphere in the alleys of Chania’s Old Town will take you on a journey of wonder and discovery. The ancient city is divided into different areas, each of them with traits that build the eclectic identity of Chania.

The Venetian quarter is the most elegant part of town, with exclusive boutique hotels, traditional restaurants, and tiny souvenir shops that add a touch of color.

exploring the old town of chania when visiting crete

The old harbor, the Egyptian lighthouse, and the little Mosque right in front of the sea are some of the landmarks to check while walking in the area.

Towards the center of the old town, the former Jewish quarter, Zudecca, is home to the last remaining synagogue in Crete (Etz Hayyin), which is somewhat hidden but open to the public.

Entering this religious building from the 15th century is like entering into a forgotten oasis with a beautiful green garden, one that has left its tragic past behind.

The history of the Jewish community strived on the island for centuries but sadly disappeared from Crete during the Nazi occupation.

Moving towards the west of the city, the Turkish neighbourhood of Splantzia is a corner with a bohemian atmosphere, where life seems to run at a completely different pace.

A great way to explore the best of each quarter, the municipal market, and taste the local flavors, is to book a walking gastronomic tour of Chania.

2. Marvel at the Minoan Past of Crete

Probably one of the main reasons why tourists flock to Crete in the first place is to discover the wonders of the ancient civilizations that once populated the island.

The best place for such an adventure is the Minoan Palace of Knossos, just a few kilometers away from the center of Heraklion.

This massive archaeological site remains Greece’s most visited ancient settlement, right after the Acropolis of Athens.

It’s fairly easy to reach the archaeological site with local transport. The bus departs from the old bus station of Heraklion and leaves you right at the entrance gate of the site in less than 15 minutes.

However, for a better experience, book a guided tour of Knossos and learn everything about this unique place touring it with a certified tourist guide.

knossos places to see in crete

If you plan to do so, check for tours including a visit to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, the biggest Minoan collection you will be able to find on the island.

3. Visit the Beaches of Crete

Back in the region of Chania, there’s no shortage of stunning shores. Here you can swim, sunbathe, and enjoy a traditional beach holiday.

The fantastic Elafonisi is world-renowned for its pink sand. Yet, even more striking is the unique turquoise palette of the sea.

Located in the south of Chania, it takes about an hour and a half to reach this isolated area, but the landscape is worth the trip.

For a more adrenaline-driven experience, try spending a day in the exotic shores of Balos, a shallow, emerald lagoon that needs a somewhat difficult off-road drive to reach.

balos beach best beaches in crete

If you’re not in the mood for such an adventure, you can always visit with a day cruise. This way, you will also be able to discover the impressive island of Imeri Gramvousa and swim close to a forgotten shipwreck off its coast.

4. Explore The Mountains of Rethymnon

Driving through the valleys and mountains of Crete can be an exhilarating experience!

You’ll discover stunning gorges, forgotten villages, and impressive monasteries.

Rethymnon is a perfect region to do so. The Valley of Amari right next to Mount Psiloritis (Crete’s highest mountain, at 2,456 meters above sea level) is a great place to start.

Mount Psiloritis crete greece

Stop by some traditional villages such as Anogeia or Axos, or go all the way to the village of Zoniana where you can have some fun exploring the unique formations inside Sfendoni cave.

Going further, you can spend a few hours in the beautiful monastic complex of Preveli and hike all the way down to Preveli Beach, following the river while under the shade of Crete’s second palm grove.

5.  Get Lost in East Crete

The remote region of Lasithi has plenty of opportunities for a fantastic holiday.

If you’re short of time, the area manages to concentrate the best of Crete offering a clear panorama of the local traditions, great isolated beaches, and unique mountain roads. 

A trip along the Lasithi Plateau is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Lonesome and undiscovered, this elevated plane hides a fantastic landscape dotted with the last remaining windmills of Crete.

lasithi crete island with windmills and mountains

Go even further and reach the southeastern coast for true disconnection. The beaches of Xerokampos are virtually unknown to mass tourism and are the most secluded place to stay on Crete.

What & Where to Eat in Crete

One of the most enriching parts of any trip to Crete is definitely the local cuisine. Greek food is some of the best in the world — but Crete has its own unique ingredients.

With local cheese, olive oil, nuts, honey, phyllo pastries, pies, and proteins such as sheep, goat, snails, and lamb, you’ll never be hungry in Crete! 

Fresh, seasonal, and full of taste and authenticity, the Mediterranean diet is perhaps one of the healthiest in the world. These are the four best restaurants in Crete, one for each of the regions. 

traditional crete food cheese tomatoes and bread

Heraklion: Peskesi 

  • Location: Kapetan Haralampi 6-8, Heraklion
  • Phone #: +30 28102 88887
  • Reservations: [email protected]
  • Rating on TripAdvisor: 4.5/5

This place is great both for lunch and dinner and it is popular both with locals and tourists. 

Cretan cuisine is at the forefront in this restaurant which manages to combine traditional ingredients and local cooking methods, sprinkled with the fragrance of Cretan herbs. Be sure to book a table at any time of the year.

Chania: Chrisostomos

  • Location: Deukalion and Ikarous, Chania
  • Phone #: +30 28210 57053
  • Reservations: [email protected]
  • Rating on TripAdvisor: 4.5/5

Chrisostomos is one of the most traditional places to taste the authentic flavors of Crete and discover some fantastic local dishes, many of them still cooked only at home.

Their menu includes a great selection of dishes from the indomitable region of Sfakia, pies baked in a wooden oven, abundant use of thyme honey, and savoury Cretan cheeses.

sfakiani pie crete

Rethymnon: Avli Rustic Fine Dining

  • Location: Xanthoudidou 22 & Radamanthios, Rethymnon
  • Phone #: +30 28310 26213
  • Reservations: [email protected]
  • Rating on TripAdvisor: 4/5

When in Rethymnon, Avli is the place to go in order to discover the most authentic tastes of Crete.

Set in the romantic herb garden, the restaurant offers authentic cuisine and one of the richest wine lists on the island. They have a unique Cretan menu as well as interesting cooking classes to learn everything about how the Cretans cook.

Agios Nikolaos: Karnagio

  • Location: Konstantinou Paleologou 24, Ag. Nikolaos
  • Phone #: +30 28410 25968
  • Reservations: only by phone
  • Rating on TripAdvisor: 4.5/5

Karnagio has turned into another must-visit landmark in Agios Nikolaos, so much so that you need to be ready to wait in line if you don’t book in advance.

Products are sourced from local farmers and are transformed into unique, colorful, Cretan dishes with a superb twist of originality.

Best Beaches in Crete

Arguably one of the main reasons to visit Crete is the stunning variety of beaches you can visit on the island, each offering something different — from shallow sandy beaches to rocky coasts. Some of the top beaches in all of Greece can be found on this island.

The beaches of the northern coast of Crete tend to be more wavy and windy than the south. However, there are a few well-protected peninsulas and bays that are ideal for swimming.

Head to the west and discover the bay of Falassarna for some adrenaline-inducing waters sports. The wind conditions make the area ideal to chase the waves and enjoy the best sunset on the island.

I’ve already mentioned the beautiful pink sand beach of Elafonisi and the superb Balos Beach and Lagoon both of them in the region of Chania, but there are many other beaches in other areas that will blow your mind with their beauty.

Here are three of the lesser-known, top beaches in Crete:

1. Lentas Beach, Heraklion

At this remote beach south of Heraklion, you’ll find the most stunning landscape of sand dunes and blue water.  

Although it can be somewhat hard to reach, Lentas is a fantastic place for isolation and complete relaxation — making it one of the best beaches in Crete. 

The beach lacks any sort of amenities so it’s a great idea to pack your own necessities to spend a day in the area. The landscape is certainly an amazing treat for anyone who visits.

2. Triopetra Beach, Rethymnon

This beach is also located south of the island, in the region of Rethymnon.

It’s not as isolated as others, but the shore is wide and spacious making you feel alone even when thousands of tourists are on the same beach as you.

The three impressive rock formations that the beach is named after are located on the extreme east of the island. There, three uniquely shaped massive stones jut out of the sea forming a bizarre landscape.

Triopetra beach visiting crete

It’s possible to rent sunbeds and umbrellas from the few tavernas that also sell drinks, snacks, and food. All you need to pack is your beach towel and your sunscreen.

3. Voulisma Beach, Lasithi

Also known as Golden Beach, this unique bay is located on the Mirabello Gulf, just a couple of kilometers away from the coastal town of Agios Nikolaos. Voulisma is a fantastic beach with a lush green backdrop.

The transparent waters are virtually waveless, which makes the place ideal for families with kids or for just lounging on your inflatable mattress for hours.

Voulisma Beach crete greece

There is a great taverna serving snacks and drinks, so again, just pack your towel!

Top Tours in Crete

If you’ve had enough of beaches, road trips, and adventures in the mountains, organized tours are a great way to meet new people, learn something new and discover places you would otherwise have not been able to enjoy.

Gastronomic tours are a highlight of any trip to Crete. You can choose from wine tasting and winery tours, cheese-making experiences, cooking lessons, and gastronomic visits to the local markets.

You can also book sailing trips to Crete’s closest islands, such as Chrissi or Gavdos.

Cultural trips will take you to discover forgotten archaeological treasures, ruins, and ancient settlements, allowing you to discover more about the magnificent and puzzling past of Crete.

Here are 3 of the absolute best excursions in Crete:

1. Knossos Palace Skip-the-Line Entry with Guided Walking Tour

One of the top tours on Crete is the one that takes you to visit the Archaeological Palace of Knossos. This is one of the main reasons why people choose Crete for their holiday. 

knossos on crete island greece

Visitors eventually discover that there is more to the island than Knossos (which is considered to be the cradle of western civilization), but usually, travel planning for Crete starts with this site.

2. Authentic Greek Food Cooking Class in Heraklion

  • GetYourGuide Rating: 5/5
  • Cost: €340 (for a group of two people)
  • How to book: Online. Click here for details.

Cretan food is probably the second-best reason to travel to Crete, and what better way to explore the tastes of Crete than learning how to cook the local staples with a Cretan as a teacher?!

Roll up your sleeves and get your hands on the dough to bake Cretan pies, or stuff some delicious Mediterranean tomatoes and sprinkle with a generous dose of authentic extra virgin olive oil from Crete. 

taking a cooking class in crete greece with olive oil ingredients

If you’re a foodie, taking a cooking class in Crete will be a highlight of your holiday. 

3. Scuba Experience I-Discover Scuba

No matter your age or your ability at sea, this experience can be enjoyed without any certification. This is an excellent way to get to know the marine life of Crete.

But also to learn how to breathe and communicate underwater with zero gravity. With this discover scuba tour, diving is accessible to everyone over 10 years old.

When to Visit Crete, Greece

The island is a perfect destination all year round.

Summers are long and dry, with temperatures that can be quite high during the months of July and August. This is the peak season and therefore the island tends to be packed with tourists.

Accommodation can be hard to find and somewhat expensive if you do not book well in advance.

Restaurants and attractions are jam-packed so you might find that is often necessary to wait in line or fight for a free parking spot.

Yet, despite all of this, the high season in Crete is great for nightlife, beach parties, and meeting friends from all over the world.

Both autumn and spring, the shoulder seasons, are my favorite times of the year to fully enjoy Crete. The temperatures are milder, but going to the beach is still pleasant.

matala beach when to visit crete

Late autumn and early spring can be extremely hot with no rain. 

The winter period is not long, but it can be very cold and rainy. The highest peaks of Crete receive lots of snow and are popular places to go skiing and snowboarding.

Driving is not really dangerous, but some roads can be inaccessible due to snow and rain. Take that into consideration if you plan to drive around in winter.

Crete’s most important cities, such as Chania, Heraklion, and Rethymnon don’t close for winter! There are still plenty of shops and restaurants open as well as several hotels and studios for rent, making it a great place to visit in January

These three cities are home to some of Greece’s most important universities, so the island has a lively population of young adults coming from all over Greece to study.

December, January, and February are not the most popular months among tourists, but if you’re not a beach fanatic, you will definitely have fun.

How to Get Around Crete

Probably the most comfortable way to visit Crete is to do so by renting your own vehicle and having the freedom of reaching every corner of the island.

The public bus system is quite good and it will safely take you from one main city to the other.

Still, many of the southern coasts of Crete remain quite isolated when it comes to bus schedules, and many villages are hard to reach if you don’t have your own wheels.

driving around crete island

Public transport is the answer if you don’t really want to drive around Crete. But if you’re looking to get to the most secret corners of the island, driving is the way to go since taking a taxi can be somewhat expensive to travel long hours.

Is Crete Safe?

Many people ask if Crete is a safe place to visit.

This is a very common question when people decide to book their holiday on the island. Other than the occasional pickpocketing (bound to happen in any crowded tourist destination), visiting Crete is very safe. 

Of course, and out of precaution, it’s always a must to book solid travel insurance for your trip

That being said, locals are incredibly hospitable and helpful, always willing to offer assistance to anyone in need. Most of them speak fairly good English or are open to finding someone to help you that has the right language skills you need.

Now You’re Ready to Visit Crete!

There you have it, a guide to visiting my home, and one of the top places to see in Greece. Whether you’re into lazing on a beach, exploring hidden villages, or sampling tasty food, there’s something for you in Crete.

For more on travelling to Greece, make sure you check out this Ultimate Travel Guide to Greece. It’s jampacked with information on where to go, when to go, things to do, how to get around, must-try foods, health and safety, pros and cons, and much more! Everything you need to know to make your trip to Greece a memorable one.

Note: Images in this article were sourced on Shutterstock.

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Gabi has lived and travelled around the world but has called Crete home for the past 4 years. She’s an expert on Crete and her blog, The Tiny Book, focuses on travelling this Greek island. Check out her website to find the best and most thorough articles & guides to help you plan a visit to Crete.

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