CRETE – Go for the Beaches, Bathe in History and Culture

Crete is the largest island of Greece, and it’s packed with bliss for every style of travel. It has some of the best beaches in Greece, the food is out of this world, and its history and culture go back more than 4000 years. Here you can find a vacation spot for every style: from meditating isolation, to extreme nature hikes, to intense night life.

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Crete (Κρήτη) is the largest Greek island and one of the most popular travel destinations of Greece.

It is located at the southernmost end of the country and as such it enjoys a prolonged period of fair weather that starts early in the spring and lasts well into October.

The island’s illustrious history, it’s unique culture, it’s people, and the diverse landscape render Crete a favorite destination with thousands of repeat visitors each year.

Here you can find a vacation spot for every style: from meditating isolation, to extreme nature hikes, to intense night life.

The northern coast of the island is the most developed and a host to the four largest cities – Agios Nikolaos, Chania, Heraklion, and Rethymo – which act as either the first stop of an island exploration, or as travel destinations in their own right.

Heraklion is the largest city of the island and one of the the major metropolitan centers of Greece. It hosts the largest port and the main airport of the island, and thus it receives the bulk of the visitors first. Chania and Rethymno to a smaller extend have ferry connections of their own.

Crete’s interior alternates between rugged mountains and fertile plateaus, while it’s southern coast offer some of the most quiet and isolated spots in Europe.

It’s entire coastal perimeter is laced with superb beaches, villages, resorts, and historical sites of every kind.

Given the size and diversity of the island, it is best to visit Crete on an extended holiday. While it is possible to see much on a two week vacation, realistically it would take over a month (or multiple visits) to absorb it all comfortably.

Things to Do and See

Bask in the Sun for Days on End

Elafonissos beach
Elafonisos beach, in the western coast of Crete.

Crete has some of the best beaches in Greece. You can travel around the world but you will be hard pressed to find better beaches than Balos, Elafonissos, Falassarna, Belegrina, or Vai.

The best beaches are spread all around the island, some are hard to reach, while many smaller ones are completely unknown an secluded.

Read our reviews of the beaches of Crete

Stroll the picturesque promenades of Chania, Agios Nikolaos, or Rethymno

Chania old harbor
The picturesque Venetian harbor of Chania is one of the most popular tourist hangouts

Chania and Rethymno old towns are preserved from Venetian times. They are very charming and inviting to stroll around their cobblestone, winding streets.

The centuries old homes, defensive walls, and especially their picturesque harbors are very popular with visitors.

Explore Ancient Crete

Typical reconstruction at Knossos. The palace was the most important Minoan center in Bronze Age Crete.

Crete is a great destination if you enjoy visiting ancient sites and museums.

It’s long history that goes back to the Stone Age has left the landscapes marked with a plethora of ruins waiting to be explored.

Minoan, Mycenaean, Geometric, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine ruins intertwine with the modern cities and villages in the most natural way.

The Minoan palace at Knossos near Heraklion is unquestionably the most visited Archaeological site in Crete. The partially restored ruins will give you an insight in the life of Bronze age Crete.

Other palaces from the same period are sprinkled around the island.

A couple of hours south of Heraklion, in the Messara plain, you will find Phaistos Palace, and the palace at Malia is about half-hour to the east.

It’s possible to visit both of these palaces in the same day, but for the more remote palace of Zacros you would need at least one overnight trip to the eastern shore of Crete.

The most visited archaeological sites and museums of Crete include:

Click here to read more about the archaeological sites and museums of Crete

Visit the Heraklion Archaeological Museum

Phaistos disk
The Phaistos disk is made of baked clay and it was found at the palace of Phaistos.

The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion is one of the most important museums in Greece.

It was recently renovated, and its exhibits include the worlds largest collection of Minoan artifacts. The Minoan civilization flourished in the Bronze Age.

Along side the Minoan objects, you will see artifacts from the later Greek and Roman periods.

For more information, click here to see our Heraklion Archaeological Museum page.

Hike the Samaria Gorge

The Gates of Samaria gorge
The famous “gates” is the place where the walls of the Samaria gorge narrow to only a few meters.

Hiking through Samaria gorge in western Crete, south of Chania, is a nice experience that thousands of visitors undertake when in Crete.

The hike is very popular with tourists so you will be enjoying some of the most stunning Greek landscapes in the company of many.

Click here for more details about hiking Samaria Gorge

Take a day-cruise to Gramvousa and Balos

Balos beach panoramic view
The spectacular Balos beach is one of the best beaches in Greece.

Make your way to the west of the island and take a small-boat cruise to the remote beach of Balos from Kissamos. You can get there by car through a very rough road, but going with a boat is a lot more comfortable.

The added benefit of going with a boat is that you will also get to visit the fort on the rugged island of Gramvousa, and to swim at the beach there as well.

Read more about Balos beach

Go on a day-cruise to Chrysi island

On the southeast of Crete, you can take a small ferry from Ierapetra or Myrtos to the uninhabited island of Chrysi.

Chrysi is a protected park with beautiful sandy beaches, with the largest natural forest of Juniper macrocarpa (it’s a small Juniper, do don’t imagine a lush overgrown forest.)

The island has no natural source of water, but in the summer, the place is hopping with day-cruise visitors, and the multitude of free campers who become permanent summer residents.

Given the summer crowds, you will not feel like you are on a deserted island, but swimming and snorkeling at Belegrina and the other beaches would be one of the highlights of your vacation.

History of Crete

Crete is host to the first European advanced civilization: the Minoan civilization flourished between 3000 and 1100 BCE, and bejeweled the island with a plethora of archaeological remains of remarkable sophistication.

Rython in the shape of a bull's head
Bull Rython from Knossos

The Minoan palaces of the Bronze Age featured elegant stylistic refinement, indoor plumbing, beautiful wall frescoes, and multi-level architectural plans of such complexity that they are identified with the mythic labyrinths.

The Minoans were a powerful maritime power and dominated the eastern Mediterranean both commercially and militarily.

It is a testament to their powerful navy that none of the excavated palaces have defensive walls, and none of the grave offerings include weapons (which are found only in the graves of the very last stage of the Minoan era).

Goods from Crete have been found through the eastern Mediterranean coast, and there is evidence that they dominated culturally, commercially, and militarily the islands of the Aegean as well as the southern parts of the Greek mainland.

The Minoan civilization lasted of about 2000 years in the Bronze Age, but the island’s history did not end with their demise in the 11th century BCE.

Extensive artifacts from the Geometric and Archaic periods that followed show that the island’s culture was still active, albeit it diminished in importance well into the Classical and Hellenistic eras (circa 500-30 BCE.)

Crete enjoyed a revival in importance under Roman administration and was part of the Eastern Roman Empire (otherwise known as the Byzantine Empire) from the 4th century CE.

Throughout its long history Crete has been one of the most important and contested islands by every major maritime empire that coveted it’s strategic location at the center of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Arabs conquered the island in 820 and formed the Emirate of Crete until the Byzantines reconquered the island in 961 CE.

When the Fourth Crusade dissolved the Byzantine Empire briefly in 1204 Crete became the property of Boniface of Montferrat who sold the entire island to Venice in 1205.

Venice’s rivals, the Genoese controlled large parts of the island for a brief period, but eventually the island passed and remained under Venetian administration (named the kingdom of Candia) for several centuries until its conquest by the Ottoman Empire who formed the Walis of Crete in 1699.

The Ottomans retained control of Crete until the end of the 19th century. The Cretan revolt of 1866 resulted in an independent Cretan state in 1898, and the eventual unification of the island with Greece in 1912.

In World War II Crete was of vital importance to the allies, but the Germans took the island after a daring paratrooper assault.

The British army along with the entire island’s population resisted mightily so the invasion resulted in major losses fo the Germans. As a result, this was the last time paratroopers were used as the major invasion force since then.

Many monuments sprinkled throughout Crete remember the brutal German occupation and pay homage to the dogged resistance of the islanders. Crete was liberated from the Germans in 1945.

Cretan Culture


The long occupation of the Venetians and the Turks have left their mark on the language.

While in general the population of Crete utilizes the standard modern Greek language, there are distinct differences in the way certain consonants sound in the Cretan dialect., and certain Greek words are different.

Besides the vocabulary differences, spoken Greek in Crete is also distinguished by its distinct accent.

The development of the Cretan dialect is due to the relative isolation of the island, and it shares characteristics with the Greek spoken in Cyprus and other southern Aegean islands.

Sounds like the ‘k’, ‘h’ for example have a different sound in Crete than in modern Greek, as they acquire a listing softness and sound like ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ respectively.


The music of Crete is as distinct as its people, and it permeates society as it is ever present in all social events.

Cretan traditional music exhibits a unique sound emanating from a unique instrument, the “lyra”. Lyra is held vertically, resting on the thighs of the player, and is played with a bow like a violin.

Another instrument which contributes to the unique sound is the “lute” which is played like a guitar and provides the vigorous rhythm of the songs.

Mantinades are one category of songs that utilize improvisation and speak of age old concerns of love and death.


Three Cretan dishes
The food of Crete. Clockwise from the top: Xylagouro (wood-cucumber), ntakos (dried bread with olive oil and dried tomatoes), kochlioi (snails)

If you like the Mediterranean diet, you will be in heaven with every meal in Crete.

The tastes generated from the simplicity of the dishes and the freshness of the ingredients will delight your palate.

Despite it’s robust tourist industy, Crete still retains its agricultural base, and exports produce throughout Europe. The ingredients on your plate will most likely be locally grown.

In Crete you will find many unique dishes like “Chohlious” (snails) fried and boiled, “ntakos” which is dried bread coated with olive oil and crushed tomato, “kolokythokeftedes” (fried zuchini patties), “xygalo” which is a kind sour milk, and “gamopilafo” (a rice dish), Greek salad (horiatiki), and an impressive array of meats. Pork and beef are readily available, but more popular is goat and rabbit meat–usually cooked in the oven.

A staple at every meal of course is the fresh bread which every household buys every morning, and a bottle of local wine.

Speaking of wine, just about every house in Crete makes their own wine and raki. The quality of home wine is hit or miss, but its usually light and chilled (even red wine is kept in the fridge).

Xylagouro (or wood-cucumber) is a type of local cucumber which is very crunchy as well as juicy. There is another kind called neragouro (or water-cucumber) which is much juicier. You will be hard pressed to taste any difference between the two.

Slices of cucumber are a regular feature on every tables, especially as a snack in mid-morning and afternoon, or as a complement to the ubiquitous raki.

Raki is a clear alcoholic drink that contains more alcohol than drink – or something like that – and it is made by just about every household on the island. In fact, much of August in Crete is dedicated to harvesting the grapes and processing them to make enough white wine and raki to supply the family and friends for the whole year.


It can take months just to explore the island alone and it offers enough variety to keep every traveler happy with the multitude of holiday styles it offers.

Choose your Base

For a typical two-week holiday choose one part of the island and plan to explore it with a rental car or the local bus lines.

For the best beaches stay on the east part of the island, in Chania or Kissamos, although you will be able to find great beaches all around the island. Read our reviews of the beaches of Crete.

For quiet relaxation choose either eastern Lasithi or the southern coast of Heraklion. For extreme partying the stretch east of Heraklion all the way to Malia that includes wildly popular with youth, Hersonisos.

If you want to explore ancient Crete make Heraklion your base and most archaeological sites and museums will be within a day trip by car – except for Zakros and Palekastro that would be best visited on an overnight trip to eastern Lasithi.

Agios Nikolaos is a picturesque town with several upscale hotels in its vicinity. In fact, some of the most luxurious resorts dot the land around Agios Nikolaos.

Heraklion is in the middle of the island and receives the vast majority of ferries and flights. It’s one of the largest and affluent cities of Greece, so if you enjoy busy cities and want to visit Knossos, Phaistos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, it’s a good place to stay.

Both Chania and Rethymno offer that certain Greek island atmosphere and cityscape that attract large crowds of visitors each year. Rethymno is a smaller town than Heraklion, but it has many charming streets and a small picturesque harbor lined with restaurants.

Chania is a good base for exploring western Crete or hiking Samaria gorge. Some of the best beaches of Greece (Balos, Falasarna, Elafonisos) are on the west coast, and visiting them all would be best from the smaller town of Kissamos.

Sitia is a smaller town off the tourist radar. It’s a good base to explore easter Lasithi, to visit the palace of Zakros and some excellent beaches in Vai, Kouremenos, and Erimoupolis.

Hersonisos would be a good place to stay for younger crowds eager to party all night before going straight to the beach to sleep on a sunned during the day.

Ierapetra in shouthern Lasithi is a good base to visit Chrisi island and for exploring southern Lasithi, which is relatively more isolated.

Myrtos is a smaller village in southern Crete and it’s a good place to get away from it all in relative isolation.

Agia Galini is a tourist town in decline but it makes an excellent base if you want to visit the archaeological sites of  Phaistos, Ag. Triada, an Gotyrn. It’s has a decent beach in its vicinity but the nearby Matala and Komos are better swimming choices.

Best time to Visit

Given it’s location to the southern tip of Greece, Crete enjoys an extended tourist season. Chances are good that the weather will be favorable from April till October.

May and early June, as well as September are the best times to visit Crete.

July and August are also a good time to be in Crete, but keep in mind that you will be competing with another 2 million tourists on the roads, on the streets, on the beaches, and in every corner of the island.

The Meltemi (Northen winds) pick up between mid-June and the end of August and can become very uncomfortable, but they do provide some relief from the summer heat. At this time the waves make swimming a little more challenging.

Getting There

Many charter flights from Europe fly directly to Heraklion along with connection flights from Athens. Several ferries per day connect Pireas (Athens) to the same city, while fewer sail to Chania or Rethymno.

By Boat: The trip form Piraeus to Heraklion takes about eight hours and most ferries leave around 9:00 PM, and arrive in Crete around 6:00 AM.

Booking a cabin for the overnight trip is a good idea, although many passengers rough it out on deck or on any comfortable spot they can find inside the bars and hallways.

In fact many groups of travelers who do not have a cabin embark early and set camp in the most comfortable corner of the boat they can find. After 11:00 PM the halls are lined with sleeping passengers.

Many boats offer connections from Santorini to Heraklion (daily), Rethimno, and Chania. In general they are smaller boats and the tickets between islands are expensive.

By Air: The main airport of Heraklion (Nikos Kazantzakis airport) serves most of the international and domestic flights, while Chania also has a smaller international airport.

The small airport of Sitia serves domestic flights. There are daily flights from Athens and less frequent ones from Thesaloniki.

Many charter flights from abroad touch down on the island, and there is air service to and from Rhodes, Mykonos, and Santorini.

Getting Around

Crete is the largest island of Greece so it’s best to rent a car to explore the greater vicinity around your hotel, and to visit some of the more remote beaches and attractions.

Renting a smaller vehicle (like a mopped or four-wheeler) is popular for getting around the immediate vicinity of your hotel, but not advised for longer trips from one town to the other.

Be aware that Crete has a very high accident rate, so drive extra carefully.

The main road that connects all the major cities of northern Crete is a multi-lane highway. However, the locals drive very fast and erratically so driving defensively is advised.

Other sites of interest nearby

Looking at the map you can’t help but think that it must be easy to visit the islands nearby (Karpathos, Kythera, Santorini, etc.).

But getting ferry or air connections to them is another story. There none on a regular basis.

In the summer you will find ferries connecting Heraklion with Santorini, and less infrequent ones connecting Sitia with Karpathos and Chania with Kythera. None of these trips would be possible one-day cruises though.


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