Crete Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Crete is the largest island in Greece and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean. A popular favorite among the lovers of the Greek islands, Crete is filled with rural charm, renowned archaeological sites and seaside towns that offer amazing seafood. These are but a few of the many attractions that draw thousands of travelers to Crete each year.
Crete Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Chania is the capital of Crete which is built on the Minoan Kidona area, spreading out on the north coast of the island. Chania is one of the most beautiful and picturesque Greek cities and an absolute paradise for food lovers. Familiarize yourself with the city of Chania by wandering its streets, visiting its museums and admiring various architectural styles dotting the city’s historical route.

Chania houses Crete’s charming Old town, as well as one of its most historic areas. Mosques, churches and synagogues exist side by side here, and an array of photogenic buildings with Turkish, Moorish, Venetian and Roman influences are clustered around the harbor where life proceeds at a leisurely pace. Beyond the ancient core is a thriving modern city set against the backdrop of dramatic mountain peaks.

In addition to Chania, there are other Cretan regions worth exploring. Rethymno is the smallest prefecture on Crete, which is famous for its gorgeous mountain scapes, traditional mountain villages, historical monasteries, marvelous beaches, lyre melodies, spirits, legendary caves and monuments.

Heraklion is the largest region on the island, which is nestled among two imposing mountain ranges. The town boasts exceptional archaeological treasures, picturesque villages, significant coastal settlements, and vast valleys with vineyards and olive groves. This unique combination of natural wealth and urban scenery make Heraklion an attractive destination.

Lassithi is another interesting Cretan town which is home to the mythical palm tree forest of Vai, the Gulf of Mirabello, the windmills on the Plateau of Lasithi, beautiful beaches and crystalline waters, all of which make for a rather fascinating tourist destination.

While all the beaches on Crete are beautiful, there is something about the beaches of Elafonissi. Situated in southwestern Crete, Elafonissi is separated from the shores of Crete by a shallow lagoon. Its waters are crystal clear and its sand tones range from soft pink to sparkling white. Although popular, its beaches also have quiet spots that you just have to walk a little to find.

Agios Nikolaos offers visitors to Crete a blend of the traditional and the modern. This medium-sized port town is picturesque and boasts charm and style. Head over to Lake Voulismeni which is lined by charming little cafes and has been the subject of several legends. One has it that the goddess Athena herself used to bathe in the almost circular lake.

Visitors to Crete can admire the remnants of past eras; discover glorious beaches, impressive mountain-scapes, steep gorges and the fertile valleys that enhance the rich gastronomic culture of the island. With so much to see and do, you should plan to spend a week or more in Crete. You won’t regret it.

1. Chania

Chania is an ancient city that overlooks the Aegean against a dramatic mountain backdrop on the island’s northern coast. The second largest city on Crete after Heraklion, Chania is a charming yet vibrant modern city with a cultural scene that has preserved the centuries-old tradition of dance, arts and gastronomic delicatessen.

Regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Greece and the most picturesque of its kind on Crete, Chania is characterized by a rich cultural life with a plethora of cultural events being organized here each year including festivals, exhibitions, musical and theatrical performances among others. The city boasts wonderful houses, squares, parks and a well-designed town plan.

Chania has a beautiful old town whose atmosphere coexists with its contemporary side. Its old town is a delight of narrow streets with Byzantine, Turkish and Venetian architecture and packed with cafes, tavernas and restaurants housed within renovated houses or even inside the open-air remains of old buildings. Wander through the fascinating layers of Chania’s history by visiting its old town.

A walk around Chania’s old town is truly an experience worth savoring. The old town was built around the Venetian port and features Venetian buildings with Turkish elements that combine to create a unique architectural style. Wander around the old town’s maze-like alleys, beautiful Venetian mansions, elaborate churches and fountains and uncover some well-preserved monuments.

The Venetian harbor and narrow, picturesque roadways have retained the distinctive atmosphere of the Venetian and Turkish periods in the city. There are two pleasant beaches close to Chania’s old town: Nea Hora and Koum Kapi.

From the harbor, a labyrinth of cobbled alleyways stretches amid pleasantly haphazard Venetian architecture, and a maze of cafes, stores and churches. The Chania waterfront is lined with bars and restaurants were you can sit back and enjoy ouzo as you wind down in the early evening.

For some local action, head over to Platia 1821, a square with plenty of open-air restaurants, where food lovers can get a taste of the famous Cretan cuisine while enjoying a glass of excellent Cretan wine. If you have the time, don’t miss out on a visit to the many wineries of Crete where you can discover the varieties of the Cretan terrain, as well as the special local gastronomy.

Aghios Frankiskos is a large Venetian church dating from the 16th century. The impressive church is also home to the Archaeological Museum of Chania that’s worth a visit.

There are also plenty of night spots and bars in the old town. Chania’s nightlife is very intense with most places remaining open throughout the night. A typical night out for locals will begin with dinner, then proceed with a visit to bars and discos, and then end with coffee and sweets in the early morning hours.

In the town center is the public market, an impressive building that was constructed at the start of the 20th century. The market is worth a look as it houses a fish market, butcheries, grocery stores and vegetable shops.

Visitors to Chania can also explore the site of Aptera, an ancient city that was once an important Minoan city believed to date from around 700 BCE. The remains of its city walls are still visible today as they surround a 12th century monastery and an impressive 19th century Turkish fort that have also been constructed on the site.

A marvel in and of itself, Fort Firkas was built in 1629 and is the current home of the Maritime Museum of Crete. The Fort offers panoramic views of the Venetian harbor, as well as the stunning Venetian lighthouse so be sure to bring your camera along. Visitors can thereafter relax on Chrisi Akti beach, which is one of the most beautiful on the island of Crete.

Stop by Bougatsa Iordanis, the originators of the Chania bougatsa. A popular favorite among locals, bougatsa is a pastry with a creamy cheese filling. Chania bougatsa stands out from the other Grecian bougatsa because of its use of fresh and sweet mizithra cheese as filling.

Sometimes written as “Hania”, Chania has since ancient times faced numerous conquerors and been influenced by just as many civilizations, which its city monuments bear testimony to. This beautiful city has managed to preserve it historical character and original colors despite the fast growing Grecian tourism industry.

2. Rethymno

Situated on the northwestern coast of Crete, east of Chania and west of Heraklion, Rethymno is less hectic than Heraklion but offers better shopping than Chania. It is a small yet fascinating Cretan city that truly grows on you.

Head over to the Venetian fortress which offers a long and cool place to take a stroll along the seawall, especially at sunset when you will find yourself accompanied by many locals, some out for a seaside jog. Along the seashore are a host of traditional Greek tavernas that are favored by the residents.

For dining, find a tavern with live Cretan music and a traditional atmosphere, and then sample some traditional Greek cuisine of simple boiled lamb or boiled chicken. Restaurant choices in Rethymno are abundant.

There are several fun small shops in Rethymno, including a good carved olive wood store, and many shops that offer door amulets and ship models constructed out of sterling silver. The Rethymno Museum has a gift shop that offers reproductions of artifacts such as small statues.

Plan your visit to Greece during the Carnival Season during which Rethymno puts on a memorable show of festivities. The city also has a cultural festival that lasts all summer.

3. Lake Kournas

Crete’s only freshwater lake, Kournas derives its name from the Arabic word meaning “lake”. The lake is set inside a picturesque landscape that rests inside a valley amongst hills, and is located just 4km away from Georgioupolis Chania. The rather small lake makes for an ideal destination for an afternoon stroll or a daytrip, while its beautiful and relaxing landscape is a haven for nature lovers.

The natural lake was created by the holdback of underwater from the White Mountains, the resistant rocks and the lie of the natural cavity. Basically, this lake is a large hollow fed by water from its southeastern side. There are 2 fountains inside Lake Kournas, with only one – the Eye – being visible towards the end of summer.

An important part of the Greek ecosystem, the lake is a protected area surrounded by an environment of greenery with rare plants and trees. The lake’s dark color derives from seaweed from its depths, in which many marine animals find shelter.

The lake’s colors change in accordance with the specific time of the day. The sun also plays some creative games with the trees and hills surrounding the lake, as it lights up one side first and then the other, to give the waters a tint of aquamarine.

This lake also changes its size as its levels drop during late summer to reveal a thick layer of white sands that serves as a temporary beach. During this period, it is easy to stroll along the lake banks and all around the water body. A full circuit should take you less than one hour.

A popular destination for both tourists and locals alike, Lake Kournas is ideal for taking a relaxing walk around its transparent waters. On one side of the lake are taverns and cafeterias that offer remarkable views of the lake. Visitors can swim and sunbathe along the small magnificent beaches characterized by white sand. You can also do pedals as a way of exploring the lake.

As with any self-respecting lake, Kournas has its own legends. Because of its dark waters, the lake has many myths associated with it. For instance, there is an old myth that says that the lake has no bottom. However, science has since proven the lake to have a depth of 22.5 meters. There are also theories about electromagnetic fields close to the lake that make some uneasy while others get a good vibe.

An important wetland, the lake is home to eels and water snakes. Cormorants and Herons sometimes also appear on the lake. There are numerous ducks and ducklings on the lake that you can watch and feed. The ducks can make a really deafening noise when they begin to quack at the same time. But should their noise or droppings irritate you, just remember that you are but a visitor while they actually live here.

Visitors can enjoy some food at one of the numerous cafeterias and tavernas at Lake Kournas. Sit by the lake and have your meal while taking in the lovely views. The tavernas serve traditional Cretan dishes including the recommended apaki or smoked pork, which is a local specialty.

There are little beaches on the banks of the lake in front of the tavernas just underneath the main road. Here you can find umbrellas and sun loungers during the summer. You can also purchase some souvenirs from the pottery workshops around that sell their own handicrafts and other tourist items.

Lake Kournas is your best bet whether you wish to swim, ride a pedalo on the lake or simply go for an afternoon stroll in the Greek countryside. Many also go here to enjoy an afternoon picnic within a relaxing lovely landscape. If you have time, go and visit the picturesque Kournas village which is situated ten minutes’ drive south of the lake.

4. Agios Nikolaos

A large island, Crete stretches far enough to permit visitors the pleasure of driving along the splendid highway that serves as its coastal road. One popular destination is the busy town of Agios Nikolaos in the province of Lassithi, which is a hub for locals and a good base for tourists visiting the eastern part of the island.

There are a couple of spots for sightseeing in Agios Nikolaos. Visitors can begin at the local Archaeological Museum. A base for archaeologists working in the region or poring over a new find close by, the Museum’s exhibit comprises a detailed look at local pottery as well as other items that have been excavated within the region. This Museum is bigger than some of the island’s other archaeological museums.

The small, busy and hilly streets of Agios Nikolaos fill up fast with locals and tourists, while the nightlife is frisky with some nightclubs tucked into otherwise quiet streets. Another good place to peek into the past of Agios Nikolaos is at the Cave Bar. As the name suggests, this is a bar built into a cave that features inscriptions of World War II freedom fighters on its walls.

Visitors can also check out the bottomless lake which on the surface appears like a small enclosed bay within the heart of Agios Nikolaos. The lake is pretty and worth a special look, as well as photos if you brought your camera along.

For dining at Agios Nikolaos you will find taverna-type family places. Like most of Greece, the restaurateurs in Agios Nikolaos are turning back to their Cretan and Greek roots and have began reinventing and celebrating Greek cooking on a much higher scale than before. The result is fantastic food, great cuisine and several brands and types of ouzo to wash it all down with.

5. Moni Arkadiou

Situated to the north of Crete, approximately 25km southeast of Rethymno, Moni Arkadiou is a 16th century fortress that was built during the late Venetian period. Built on the edge of a high plateau rising 500 meters above sea level, the Monastery is quite big with high walls typical of a fortress. The Eastern Orthodox monastery was built in 1587 on the remains of a Byzantine church from the 13th century.

Moni Arkadiou is marked by influences of the Renaissance, which are visible in its architectural style. The monastery was a place of art and science, and also had a school with a rich library.

Probably the Cretan’s most important symbol of the freedom struggle against the Turks, Moni Arkadiou has a bloody history. In November 1866, Crete rebelled against the Turks who had dominated the island for the previous two hundred years, and about 900 people fled to the monastery away from the Turks. Faced with the Turks superior force of 15,000 men with cannons, resistance was futile.

Following 3 days of fighting, the Cretans chose to sacrifice themselves rather than surrender and so they blew up the gunpowder room of the monastery in the process killing many Turks and Cretans. Parts of the skulls and bones of the defenders killed during this explosion are kept inside the former windmill opposite the monastery.

The cells of monks surround the central courtyard where the splendid church is located. The courtyard has numerous trees and shrubs with flowers including many roses of various colors. Also at the front of the monk cells are pots of flowers. Take a look at the large dead cypress in the shape of a cross which witnessed the 1866 explosion. You can still see old bullets within the trunk of the tree.

Inside the Moni Arkadiou, where the former dining room was located, there is now a small interesting museum that displays old coins, a splendid collection of post-Byzantine icons, as well as relics from the 1866 holocaust. There is a strand of hair and a portrait of the woman who it belonged to, and who died there in 1866. The monastery also has a little souvenir shop that sells handmade items as well as great copies of Byzantine icons.

Moni Arkadiou boasts a prestigious history, a unique natural beauty, and many legends deeply rooted in time. For the last 8 centuries, the monastery has been an inseparable and continuous part of Cretan history. It was a center for education and the copying of manuscripts. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the monastery also produced needlework embroidered with gold that dazzled the world.

The drive to the Moni Arkadiou will take you through a beautiful hilly green landscape. You will drive through Kiriana village which is worth making a stop for its beautiful Byzantine church.

6. Heraklion Archaeological Museum

Most visitors to Greece will end up at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, which is one of a handful of truly world-class museums. However, thousands of visitors to Crete will go through Knossos but skip the great museum only a couple of miles away in Heraklion. The tragedy is that your visit to Knossos will come alive in a much more unforgettable way when you combine it with the experience of seeing thousands of artifacts displayed at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

Within the halls of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum you will find all the icons of Cretan culture including rhyton, the magnificent bull head in the form of a drinking vessel; another rhyton that’s carved out of rock crystal; and the forever mysterious Phaistos disk that’s inscribed with undecipherable symbols. The objects have been displayed beautifully in cases that allow for a 360-degree view.

Visitors can also have a peek at the faience statue of the Snake Goddess, which is perhaps the most famous of all Cretan artifacts.

Further into the Museum you will find a room bristling with dark double axes, which are the Minoan symbol of dominance and power. The big metal axes are mounted onto long poles next to cases that display exquisite dagger blades made from bronze. These serve as evidence that the Minoans were quite capable of defending themselves in war.

There are also thousands of intricately carved seal stones displayed next to their impressions, which depict small scenes of adoration of goddesses, powerful small bulls and twining florals. In a different room are ceramic statues of divinities with their hands raised to the heavens. Further still you will find dozens of sarcophagi that served as the final resting places of many Minoans.

Upstairs adorning the walls are frescoes from Knossos and elsewhere, still vibrant with emotion and color. The frescoes feature beautiful contemporary depictions of women with rouged lips and curled hair; studies of monkeys and solemn processions.

Another phase of Cretan history is on display inside a room filled with statues from the period of Roman domination, including images of Pan, Aphrodite and a striking family group of Isis, her consort Sarapis and a 3-headed dog typically associated with Pluto, Cerberus, the Lord of the Underworld. The lower floor of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum features exhibits that cover post-Minoan artifacts.

The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is situated on Xanthoudidou Street. Handicapped access is limited to the Museum’s extensive ground floor which is well worth a visit.

7. Palace of Knossos

From the busy, narrow road leading to Archanes from Heraklion, the ruins of the heart of Minoan culture are hardly visible. A Minoan Palace of Mystery, the Palace of Knossos was once the most powerful in Greek, which had the rest of the Greek cities looking up to Crete.

As such, tributes were sent to Knossos in the form of gifts and produce, as well as young women and men. Excavations suggest that Knossos Palace reigned over its city of one hundred thousand people which was large by ancient standards. That said, the island of Crete was known to be more densely populated than the rest of the Grecian world.

Still filled with an ancient and indefinable atmosphere, to this day, Knossos continues to lead its visitors astray. Its maze of passageways is in ruins and seems to twist and shift even as you wander within it. It’s not uncommon to get parted from your companions, sure that they turned down the corridor just up ahead, only to get there and find it empty.

During his venture into this labyrinth, the legendary Theseus was protected by Ariadne, the brave Minoan maiden and daughter of King Minos, who gave him a piece of string to help him find his way back through the tangled hallways. If you’re not as lucky as Theseus, there are paid tour guides at the Palace entrance offering their services.

Another legend surrounding the Palace is that of Minotaur, the half-bull, half-man. Minotaur was said to be confined within the heart of the palace because he was the illicit offspring from a mating between Queen Pasiphae and a royal bull she had been cursed into loving.

The remains of the buildings that constitute the Palace of Knossos include some crimson pillars stretching up unexpectedly between unpainted walls, or a restored reproduction of one of the original frescoes that depicts beautiful Minoan women and men.

To the south, the giant “Horns of Consecration” announce the presence of a palace to be reckoned with, one which enjoyed power long before Greece’s “Golden Age” shifted its influence onto the Greek mainland. Visitors will also be impressed by the rows of large decorated storage jars and the “Throne Room” with its carved stone chair.

The labrys is an important symbol of the Minoans that’s shrouded in mystery with some taking it to be a double-edged tool of war, while others viewing it as a butterfly. This symbol has led to debates about the true nature of Minoan culture.

The Minoan palace complexes were virtually undefended without massive walls to protect the royal inhabitants. As such, some historians have tried to cast the Minoans as an essentially peace-loving culture. However, there is also evidence to suggest that the Minoans had secured dominance over the Aegean Sea such that no one would dare attack them.

Right across the road from Knossos are several small decent snack shops with souvenir racks. There’s a gift shop offering an extensive collection of inexpensive reproductions of Minoan artifacts. Their ceramic reproduction of the faience snake goddess uncovered at Knossos is the best you’ll find anywhere else.

Surrounding the site is the Cretan countryside, a lush fertile area that competes for your attention. Try to combine your visit to the Place of Knossos with a tour of the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

8. Elafonissi

The proverbial paradise on earth, Elafonissi is a small islet that’s connected to the rest of Crete via a shallow reef that you can easily cross when the sea is calm. The islet is situated on the southwestern corner of the island, approximately 75km southwest of Chania town. Along with Balos lagoon, Elafonissi offers some of the most tropical beaches of Crete.

A unique creation of nature, Elafonissi is one of the most picturesque corners on Crete, characterized by an islet close to the coast that gives the impression of being a lagoon. Also known as Elafonissos, this islet is located just off the beach and can be accessed on foot as the narrow strip uniting it with the mainland has a very shallow depth, with a little lagoon between the two parts.

Elafonissi has very interesting flora and fauna that forms a natural environment of astonishing beauty and uniqueness. The islet is characterized by protected sand dunes with juniper trees and sand lilies. This area is also a natural refuge for numerous sea bird species, as well as a breeding ground for the protected Caretta Caretta loggerhead sea turtle.

Exotic beaches with turquoise waters reminiscent of the Caribbean are formed on either side of the peninsula. The islet has pinkish sand which derives from the millions of crushed seashells and corals that give the water its clear turquoise color.

The area is breathtaking, isolated and ideal for swimming. The beaches away from the eastern side are less crowded and most beautiful, offering stunning azure colored waters.

If you wish to experience a more secluded section of Elafonissi, you may take a walk south along the peninsula until you find a quiet hidden cove, of which there are plenty for naturists. Bring an umbrella. At the end of the islet are a small church and an old lighthouse that you can also explore.

Your drive to Elafonissi will take you past scenic villages and the impressive Topolia Gorge, as well as other beautiful areas along the route. Before arriving in Elafonissi you will also come across the famous Chryssoskalitissa Monastery which is built atop an impressive rock.

9. Balos

Balos is a famous lagoon that’s situated about 56km to the northwest of Chania. The most photographed of Cretan beaches and one of the most beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean Sea, Balos is popular among tourists to Greece.

Famous for its vivid blue and turquoise waters, beautiful exotic scenery and wild natural beauty, Balos is best visited in the morning before the ferries arrive from Kissamos port with loads of beachgoers. Spending a couple of hours in the remoteness of such a heavenly place is bound to remain forever etched in your memory.

The waters here are calm and crystal clear because the Gramvoussa islet protects this bay from strong winds. The sea is warm and shallow, while the sand has a lovely pinkish color in some places due to the presence of millions of crushed shells. Similar white sands cover the soft seabed, giving the sea an emerald color. Beyond the rocks at the lagoon boundaries, the water gets cooler and deeper which makes it suitable for snorkeling.

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The lagoon and its surroundings are protected and feature rare species of flora and fauna. Here you will encounter shags, cormorants and Eleonora falcons nesting in the caves. This area is also a habitat for the protected monk seal, as well as the Caretta Caretta sea turtle.

On your way to the lagoon, the road will stop at a wide parking lot adjacent to a canteen, just over the lagoon. From here, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Balos and the islet of Gramvoussa.

Gramvoussa is a small uninhabited island that lies opposite to the beach and is home to a steep Venetian castle that offers gorgeous views of the region and the surrounding seas. The island is covered in oregano, thyme and wild flowers.

The castle was built between the years 1579 and 1584 by the Venetians to protect Crete from occupation by the Ottoman Turks. It was one of the last unconquered bastions and the first Cretan area to be liberated from the Turks in 1825. For 3 years, about 3,000 revolutionaries used the islet as shelter. To solve the problems of food scarcity, the inhabitants took to piracy, earning the island this reputation.

One exciting way to access Balos is by trekking 3 hours from Kaliviani. This will involve crossing the dry and rough Gramvoussa landscape, as well as the range of Platyskinos. Be sure to wear a hat and carry plenty of water.

Once in Balos, you can tour the little chapel of Saint George that’s situated in Tigani. North of Balos at Cape Korykon are the remains of the small Roman town of Agnio which has a temple of Apollo. Visitors can also tour the picturesque chapel of Agios Sostis while here.

10. Lassithi Plateau and the Dikteon Andron

As more and more travelers discover its charms, Crete gets busier each year. The southernmost part of Europe, eastern Crete marks the major land boundary between Africa, the Middle East and Europe. As a result, the region has always been of strategic importance in both trade and war. Today, it is seizing its strategic role in Greek tourism.

The Lassithi region in eastern Crete is characterized by expansive vistas with fields that stretch out into the horizon, charming small ports, whirling windmills and the ruins of a Minoan palace that unexpectedly appears around a bend in the road.

Sitia offers a good base for your adventures in Lassithi. Sitia is an atmospheric town that occupies a location dating from the Minoan era. Less developed than Ierapetra and cheaper than Agios Nikolaos, Sitia boasts numerous attractions of its own.

The municipality of Sitia has adopted several cultural festivals. Plan your visit in July and the first half of August to attend the Kornaria, a cultural juggernaut that features theater, athletics, photographic exhibitions and other special events held inside the small villages close by, such as Klidonas’ and its festival of fortune-telling.

Thereafter, the older and vibrant Feast of Sultana music festival is held during which folk music is accompanied by free wine. The feast is in honor of the sultana or raisin, which is a rich seasonal export of Sitia.

Many of the finds from the Zakros Palace nearby are now preserved inside the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, with others are being displayed locally at the Archaeological Museum of Sitia.

Visitors can also enjoy a tour of Dikteon Andron, one of the alleged birthplaces of Zeus the Greek god. Dikteon is an impressive cave that is rich in stalactites and stalagmites. Famous in antiquity, the cave was dedicated to the worship of the greatest of the Greek god, as the numerous offerings found there suggest.

Situated within the Mount Dicte range on the Lassithi Plateau, Dikteon cave boasts very picturesque interiors, as well as breathtaking views offered by the top of the mountain it rests on.

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