Ultimate Travel Guide to the Island of Crete

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Featured image taken by @george.karydis on Instagram

As the largest and southernmost island in Greece, Crete offers visitors an abundance of things to see and do, from hiking the mountains to relaxing on the beach. The warm, sunny climate and fertile agricultural fields mean Crete would prosper even without its thriving tourism industry, but its lush landscapes and Mediterranean hospitality draw millions of international visitors each year.

Crete also boasts some of the richest history in Greece, with the relics of the ancient Minoan civilization evident throughout the island. This advanced Bronze Age population was largely wiped out by the effects of a volcanic eruption in 1450 B.C., but the Minoan influence lives on in the tombs, palaces and other sites still visible in Crete today. Later influences by the Ancient Greeks and Romans also survive in the Byzantine architecture and artwork of the island.

Travelers looking for a tranquil getaway will find the peace they seek in the quiet resorts and villages along the east and west coasts. The highly-developed northern coast will appeal to visitors interested in vibrant nightlife, beach parties and very active resorts. At the center of the island, the mountainous region is a near-total refuge from tourism.

With its plentiful sunshine and lingering high temperatures, visitors can enjoy the beaches and waters of Crete from May to November. During late summer, the northern Meltemi winds provide a welcome breeze to cool sightseers and provide a perfect environment for water sports.

Best Time to Visit Crete

The island’s mild climate makes Crete a lovely place to visit year-round, with optimal temperatures and manageable crowd sizes coinciding in late spring and early autumn. Tourism begins picking up steam in late April and slows by mid-October, so those endpoints are good times to plan your trip if you want to avoid extreme heat and crowds. However, visiting during high season also means that restaurants, museums and other attractions will be operating at full swing.

The “off season” between October and March tends to be an ideal time for outdoor activities like hiking and sightseeing, although swimming and most water sports will be out of the question. The weather will still be quite pleasant, requiring only a thick sweater or jacket to keep you comfortable. Some restaurants and other destinations do close during this slow season, but you should still be able to find plenty to keep you busy—and you’ll pay reduced prices on hotels and other expenses.

Places to Stay in Crete

Historically, Crete has been an affordable travel destination, with hundreds of budget-friendly hotels and beach resorts alongside more expensive luxury developments. However, Greece’s recent economic upheaval has pushed prices upward on nearly all goods and services. Still, there remain plenty of reasonably-priced accommodations and bargains to be found if you’re willing to compare prices (and potentially visit during the off-season.

Cheap Hotels in Crete

  • Futura Hotel: This laid-back apartment-style hotel offers guests access to a large pool, nicely-equipped modern fitness room, daily breakfast buffet, mini-market and even cooking lessons. Rooms include balconies and kitchenettes along with the expected amenities like Wi-Fi and air conditioning. The family-owned hotel is conveniently located within walking distance to Paralia Maleme beach and relatively close to the exotic beaches of Falasarna Elafonissi and Balos.
  • Idi Hotel: In the rolling hills adjacent to Mount Psiloritis in Heraklion, the Idi Hotel is a welcoming space for families and children, with a playground, tennis court and restaurant with daily breakfast buffet. The mountainous countryside is verdant and peaceful, with the clear springs of Zaros at its heart. Three nearby monasteries featuring Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, and the coast is just a half-hour drive away.
  • Faros Beach Hotel: The Faros Beach Hotel in Rethymnon offers guests a prime location for access to beaches as well as historic sites and museums. The rooftop terrace delivers jaw-dropping views of the harbor and the nearby Venetian fortress, and the Folk Art Museum, Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon and Center of Byzantine Art are minutes away. Rooms include Wi-Fi, air conditioning, refrigerator and high-pressure shower as well as the promise of soundproof walls.
  • Hotel Anna Apartments: These casual rooms and apartments are just steps away from Kokkini Hani beach. Furnishings are simple but clean, and the apartments are equipped with a kitchenette and modest dining area. All rooms are air-conditioned, but not all accommodations include TVs and Wi-Fi is only available in common areas, making your stay here an excellent opportunity for unplugging.
  • Iliana Hotel: This hotel near Panormos Beach offers 18 studios and 13 apartments, all of which include private terraces perfect for enjoying the brilliant Mediterranean sunsets. The units are arranged around a large courtyard with a pool, brightly-colored flowers and dozens of lounge chairs and umbrellas for sunbathers. Each room comes with air conditioning, TV, Wi-Fi, fridge and a fully-equipped kitchen.

Mid-Range Hotels in Crete

  • Aphrodite Beach Hotel: This family-operated beachfront hotel offers 74 air-conditioned rooms, most of them designed to accommodate two guests alongside a few larger suites for families. The property doesn’t have a pool, but guests can simply sprint across the pebbly sand of Aphrodite Beach for a plunge into the sparkling sea. The onsite restaurant cooks up delicious Mediterranean fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rooms include flat-screen TVs and private balconies with garden or sea views.
  • Candia Suites: Located in the heart of Heraklion, this sleek hotel delivers suites with colorful modern design, plush furnishings and private balconies with excellent views. Free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, spacious beds and air conditioning are among the amenities included with each room. The ancient palace of Knossos—a must-see attraction for any visit to Crete—is nearby, along with the restaurants, shopping and other sights of old town Heraklion.
  • Cressa Corona Boutique Hotel: This 16th-century Venetian townhouse in Rethymnon has been transformed into a sleek, adults-only hotel with a relaxing rooftop terrace for enjoying the Mediterranean sunset. Décor is understated and modern, and all rooms and suites include complimentary breakfast, Wi-Fi, air conditioning, satellite TV, high-pressure shower, and more.
  • Casa Maistra Residence: Also located in Rethymnon, these seaside apartment-style units are set in a renovated 19th-century building with exposed stone accents and stunning views. The spacious suites are ideal for families with children and include a dining room and fully-equipped kitchen as well as air conditioning, Wi-Fi, kitchen utensils and cookware.
  • Yiannis Retreat: Consisting of five roomy gardenside villas, this peaceful retreat on the island’s east coast is perfect for longer stays in Crete. Villas are decorated with stone walls and rich hardwood trim, lending them a luxuriously rustic aesthetic. A modest kitchenette and outdoor dining area give guests an opportunity to save on dining expenses, and the quiet, pristine beaches of Sitia are just a short walk away.

Luxury Hotels in Crete

  • Creta Maris Beach Resort: This posh seaside resort offers a dazzling array of amenities, including a brand-new water park with slides, spray games and pool; a massive open-air cinema; organized sports such as tennis, mini golf, beach volleyball and basketball; a water sports center with jet-skis, stand-up paddle boarding, fly boarding and more; and a spa and fitness center. Rooms include high-speed Wi-Fi, air conditioning, mini bar and satellite TV, and guests can dine and relax in the six restaurants and eight bars on the property. All-inclusive packages are available.
  • Royal Marmin Bay Boutique & Art Hotel: This adults-only property overlooking Mirabello Bay in Elounda delivers five-star luxury in an eco-friendly setting. Crafted from natural Cretan stone, the complex blends seamlessly into its spectacular natural environment. Guests can relax in the full-service spa, maintain their workout regimen in the professional-caliber fitness center and sample gourmet fare at seven on-site restaurants and bars. All rooms include Wi-Fi, fine Egyptian linens, mini bar and private balcony or terrace.
  • Nana Princess: With its five-star amenities and impeccable service, every guest is treated like a VIP at the Nana Princess Resort. Nearly all of the 112 suites and villas feature access to a private pool and spacious sun deck overlooking the sea, and some also include saunas, steam rooms or restorative spas. Three concept restaurants provide locally-influenced fine dining, and the Spa and Wellness Center provides an opportunity for relaxation and invigoration. Guests can indulge in a little retail therapy in the resort’s mini mall or view the original artwork on display in the gallery. Fine linens, a “pillow menu” and plush high-end mattresses ensure a good night’s sleep after a day of play.
  • Casa Delfino Hotel & Spa: Set in a 17th-century Venetian mansion, Casa Delfino Hotel and Spa has remained under the same family ownership for six generations, leading to its reputation for warm hospitality, attentive service and luxurious accommodations. The 24 rooms and suites have been painstakingly restored to maintain the character of the original structure, blending the hotel’s architectural heritage with modern comfort. Located in the heart of Old Town Chania, the hotel is walking distance to many of the most popular dining, shopping and sightseeing destinations in the city. In-room amenities include individually-controlled A/C, mini bar, flat-screen satellite TV, DVD player and free Wi-Fi.
  • Domus Renier Boutique Hotel: This small but elegant boutique hotel sits directly on the Chania harbor facing the Egyptian Lighthouse, ensuring spectacular views from any vantage point on the property. Each of the uniquely-decorated rooms and suites offers a different aesthetic and amenities, but all pay homage to the building’s Cretan Renaissance heritage. For example, the Markos double room includes a leather armchair and a library filled with translated works of Greek authors and poets; the Lorenzo suite boasts a queen-size bed in the loft and 2 studio couches in the lower floor, TV on both floors and views of the Venetian port and Yali Camisi mosque.

How Long to Stay in Crete

Crete is an expansive island with a wide variety of cultures, landscapes and attractions. To truly do it justice, visitors should plan to spend at least a week here to partake in the rich Mediterranean cuisine, sun-swept beaches, verdant forests and secluded mountains—not to mention the dozens of architectural and historical sites to be explored.

Getting Around Crete

  • Rental car: Ideally, travelers should rent a car for the freedom it provides to control their own schedule and itinerary, especially given the island’s size. Rental prices vary by season and vehicle, but average costs tend to be around 30 euros per day.
  • Bus: If renting a car isn’t feasible, the public bus system is affordable and easy to navigate, although bus routes don’t extend to some of the smaller or more remote sites.
  • Taxi: Taxis are widely available on the island, but they’re also the most expensive transportation option, so use them only as a last resort if possible.
  • Ferry: Ferry services are a good way to get around southern Crete, where paved roads are scarce. Ferries are also available for day trips to nearby islands.

Things to Do in Crete

  • Archaeological Museum of Heraklion: At this second-largest archaeological museum in Greece, artifacts and exhibits span more than 5,500 years of Greek history, with a special focus on the Cretan civilization. Located in the Heraklion town center, the museum is open daily with reduced hours during the winter months. Admission is only six euro and worth every bit of it.
  • Kato Zakro: At Crete’s easternmost point, this beach town sits at the base of a massive gorge known as the “valley of the dead” for its ancient tombs and other Minoan ruins. Beachside tavernas offer fresh fish and other delicacies, and ambitious tourists can stumble upon secluded beaches and other “secret spots” with a bit of exploration.
  • Knossos: A visit to the capital of the ancient Minoan empire provides an essential glimpse into this once-thriving culture. The old palace is surprisingly well-preserved, and among the ruins you’ll be able to see painstakingly-restored frescoes as well as the remains of the world’s first flush toilet.
  • Samaria Gorge: Active travelers will appreciate this challenging hike from the Omalos plateau to the Libyan Sea. Plan for four to seven hours of trekking if you decide to pursue this endeavor, and you’ll also want to save time to enjoy the spectacular views in Agia Roumeli at the finish. Buses run frequently to return hikers to their starting point.
  • Dikteon Cave: This massive cave system in Lasithi is thought to have been a sacred site for ancient Greek cult worship; today, it’s adorned with impressive formations of stalactites and stalagmites.
  • Rethymnon: This city in northwest Crete is known for its incredible 7-mile stretch of beach as well as the Venetian fortress, which has the distinction of being the largest Venetian castle ever built.
  • Loutro: This small village in southern Crete is a perfect escape from the crowded cities and beaches on the east and west coasts of the island. Retreat here for a few hours or a few days and soak in the sun on the white-sand beaches at the edge of the brilliant blue sea.
  • Chania: Crete’s second-largest city combines fast-paced modern life with historic Venetian architecture. During the day, spend time wandering the labyrinthine streets at the center of town and browsing the Old Cross Municipal Market; in the evening, enjoy a meal at one of the many waterfront tavernas and tap into the energy of the city’s buzzing nightlife.
  • Spinalonga Island: The island of Spinalonga boasts an unusual history. Originally connected to Crete via an isthmus, the Venetians cut through it in the 16th century to provide greater protection to the fortress, which was ultimately the final fortress to be captured by the Turks. It was later turned into a leper colony—one of Europe’s last—in the first half of the 20th Today, the island is a popular day destination for tourists, who take ferries from Plaka, Agios Nikolaos and Elounda to swim, sun and play on its beaches.
  • Toplou Monastery: This 15th-century monastery in eastern Crete stands out for its towering stone walls and lush gardens, as well as its collection of Byzantine icons, including Theotokos the Immaculate, one of the holiest icons in Greece.

Places to Eat in Crete

If you come to Crete seeking multi-course fine-dining, you may leave disappointed—but if you take the time to explore the distinctive regional flavors and proud heritage of the island’s cuisine, you may just enjoy some of the best meals of your life. Hole-in-the-wall tavernas often serve simple but excellent dishes, and many Cretan restaurants feature locally-sourced items like flavored rusks, cured meats, edible flowers and raki, a clear spirit distilled from pressed grapes.

Best Breakfast in Crete

With locations in Rethymnon and Heraklion, Hari’s Creperie serves up a wide variety of pancakes, sweet and savory crepes and waffles, and more, seven days a week. For an indulgent breakfast, try the “Hari’s Special” waffle piled high with milk and white chocolate, vanilla cream, strawberry, banana, crushed Oreos, caramelized almonds, meringue cookies, marshmallows and more. For a taste of local flavor, consider one of the Cretan crepe options, which include apaki (Cretan smoked pork), feta or kefalotyri cheese, tomatoes and spices. Vegan diners have plenty of options here, with items like the savory pancake with vegan cheese, pesto sauce, dried tomatoes, mushrooms and almonds. Lighter choices like fruit salad and yogurt with honey and nuts are also available.

Best Lunch in Crete

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better tableside view than Med Café in Hersonissos Beach. If you make your reservations early, you just might snag one of the coveted rock-side tables just a few feet above the shore, where the gentle lapping of the waves on the rocks below will be your soundtrack for dinner. If not, the main outdoor dining area still offers lovely scenery and the fresh sea air.

Adhering to a strong farm-to-table ethos, the restaurant relies heavily on locally-sourced organic ingredients, many of which come straight from the restaurant’s own garden. The bread is baked fresh daily in a local bakery’s wood-fired oven, while the beef is sourced from northern Greece’s Omega Farm. Rice, chickpeas, figs and mushrooms are all imported from the Greek mainland, while the cheese is made by a family dairy in southern Crete.

To start your meal, consider one of Med’s tempting appetizers, such as grilled octopus or green melon soup with prosciutto, manouri cheese and sunflower seeds. For your main course, the pasta dishes—such as the Cretan pasta with anthotiro cheese, cured smoked pork and portobello mushroom—make an excellent choice; the mixed souvlaki with grilled beef, pork and chicken breast, multicolored bell peppers, pita, grilled tomatoes and tzatziki foam also comes highly recommended. Seafood lovers may wish to try the wild-caught tuna steak accented with edamame, baby potatoes, mizithra cheese and a red grapefruit glaze.

The café also offers a long list of classic and creative cocktails, from the Aegean Spritz (Aperol, Skinos Mastiha, Mediteranean tonic, Prosseco) to the Cotton Candy Martini (raspberry-infused vodka, cranberry juice, lime, homemade cotton candy).

Best Dinner in Crete

While you’re sightseeing in Chania, plan to stop for dinner at Chrisostomos, which serves flawlessly-executed traditional Cretan fare near the Old Port. The menu is heavily influenced by the cuisine of Sfakia, an isolated culture found in the rugged landscape of the White Mountains southeast of Chania. For centuries, the residents of Skafia have adhered to a unique diet based largely on seasonally available ingredients and traditional preparation methods, which include using honey to boil meat and preparing Skafian pies with mizithra or pichtogalo cheese, flour and water.

Be sure to sample one of these unique pies as an appetizer, along with a portion of dakos (rusk, fresh tomato sauce, mizithra soft white cheese, oregano, olive oil and olives). Main courses include oven-baked lamb and suckling pig, boureki (sliced potatoes and pumpkin with soft mizithra cheese), mutton with white cheese and garlic and the classic moussaka (fried potatoes, eggplant and ground beef covered in creamy bechamel sauce).

Best Dessert in Crete

Since 1997, Koukouvagia has cemented its place in the Greek culinary scene, offering rich desserts and other treats with a beautiful view of Chania Harbor. In fact, Greece’s leading chefs and foodies voted Koukouvagia the top spot for dessert throughout all of Greece in 2018—quite an honor for this humble establishment on the island of Crete.

Deciding what to order can be nearly impossible, with the irresistible array of choices served fresh daily. Popular confections include the restaurant’s famous zoumero, a light chocolate cake dipped in a rich chocolate sauce and topped with whipped cream; traditional lemon and walnut cakes; mille feuille; and ekmek kataifi as well as other traditional Greek recipes.

The café is open all day, so feel free to start your day with an indulgent treat, stop by for an afternoon pick-me-up with a cup of coffee or end your day on a sweet note as you watch the sun set over the water.

Top Photo Spots in Crete

  • Chania Harbor: The harbor offers spectacular views of the famous Egyptian lighthouse, the pastel hues of the Venetian mansions along the water and a charming Ottoman mosque.
  • The walls of Chania: Erected by the Venetians more than six centuries past to repel the invading Ottomans, the walls of Chania provide a captivating backdrop for sunset photos.
  • Elafonissi Lagoon: The sands of Elafonissi beach owe their striking pink hue to microscopic marine organisms, and the contrast with the azure-blue water of the Mediterranean Sea creates an unforgettable photo.
  • Preveli Beach: Just outside Plakias in southern Crete, this rocky beach features dramatic cliffs, rock-carved stairs and a lush palm forest.
  • Knossos: The bold red, black and yellow tones of the palatial ruins—and the ancient Minoan history they represent—are an essential photo opportunity for any visit to Crete.
  • Old Town Chania: This neighborhood lives up to its name, with 2000-year-old foundations that have been transformed in turn by the Venetians, Ottomans, Arabs and Greeks, providing a colorful mix of cultures and architecture for the camera.
  • Skinaria Beach: Also near Plakias, this stunning landscape features radiant white stone formations against the deep blue sea.
  • Balos Lagoon: This site is likely the most-photographed beach in Crete, with its brilliant turquoise waters set against white sands, and rocky cliffs.
  • Arkadi Monastery: Built around the 12th century, this weathered structure was restored in 1870 after being virtually destroyed during the Cretan rebellion against Turkish rule in 1866. Its imposing stone exterior and twin bells make for a classic photo.
  • Agios Nikolaos: This mid-size port town on picturesque Mirabello Bay blends the modern and traditional, with charming, brightly-hued homes that circle the boat-filled water.

Final Thoughts

Home to an incredible diversity of ecosystems and cultures, Crete has something to offer every visitor: historic ruins filled with rare artifacts, peaceful mountain villages, beautiful beaches and incredible food, all made even more memorable by the warm Mediterranean hospitality that permeates the island. Its reasonable prices and endless opportunities for relaxing, exploring and entertainment make it one of the best values for travelers considering a European vacation.

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