Things to do in Crete
As the largest of the Greek Islands, there are many things to do in Crete. From lazy days spent relaxing by the glorious beaches, long lunches enjoying delicious food, and hikes through the stunning scenery, there is no shortage of Crete attractions to enjoy. There is also no shortage of great accommodation although it pays to research that carefully due to the sheer size of the island.
To help you decide how to spend your perfect holiday to this Greek island, here are some of the very best things to do in Crete.
The beaches of Crete
It’s often described as one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, and after one look at the Cerulean blue lagoon, we suspect you’ll agree. Allegedly, it even made the itinerary for Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ honeymoon, so it’s pretty special.
The calm waters and dazzlingly blue and the sand is powder soft – it’s the perfect spot for laying out your beach towel and spending a day just soaking in the peace and quiet. Plus, being just 56 kilometres from Chania, it is easy to reach on a day trip.
If you can drag yourself away from the sand, there’s a fabulous hike up the nearby beach path which gives you exceptional views out over the lagoon.
Crete, like much of Greece, has an intriguing ancient history that is never far away, even when you’re enjoying a blissful day at the beach. Take Falasarna in western Crete, for example – you can still see the remains of the harbour that was built more than 2,000 years ago.
As a result, you can easily mix Crete’s best natural and manmade sites in a day, by popping over to view the ruins before heading for the beautiful beach.
And beautiful it is, with a large, horseshoe-shaped bay that boasts incredibly clear water. Around it there is a beautiful, sandy beach that is westward-facing, meaning it’s a beautiful place to watch the sun set over the horizon.
Seitan Limania ( Satans Harbour) is a well-hidden corner of the northeast side of the Akrotiri peninsula about 15 kms north east from Chania.
Its consists of 3 hard to find inlets and one has a quite lovely beach with milky blue water and white sand. It is surrounded by striking rock formations.
Located in the southwestern part of the island, stunning Elafonisi is what beach dreams are made of. In fact, it’s been ranked by TripAdvisor as one of the top 10 beaches in the world.
The beach boasts the stunningly clear water that’s often described as ‘postcard-perfect’, while there’s also swathes of sand to stretch out on and enjoy. The sand around Elafonisi is quite unique, as it often has a pastel pink tinge that adds a bit of a unique look.
The beach is about 1.6 kilometres long, so there is plenty of space to go around. Everyone is welcome, but the beach is particularly ideal for families as the water is shallow and calm. It’s easy to get to and there are decent amenities as well.
Stavros Beach ( Gold Coast Bay)
If this pretty bay some 17 kilometres from Chania looks familiar, it may be thanks to its claim to fame – it was the backdrop for the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. Thanks, in part, to the popularity of the movie, it is now one of the most well-known things to do in Crete.
The pretty bay is horse-shoe shaped and flanked with soft sand dotted with sun umbrellas. Its secluded location is completely protected from the wind, so it is a relaxing and family-friendly place to spend a few hours enjoying the beauty.
As with most beaches in Crete, the sea if very clean and dazzlingly clear. There are a few small hotels and restaurants near the beach and you can also rent sunlounges from some of them.
Beautiful Mirambello Bay is one of Europe’s largest bays, and the largest on the Greek Islands, meaning there is plenty of space to go around. You’ll never be fighting for space on the beautiful beaches or in the welcoming sea around Mirambello Bay.
Even if you don’t actually stop at the beach, the coastal path that snakes along it is well worth a visit. The views out over the coast and towards the Island of Pseira are absolutely stunning.
The bay is also within close proximity of the popular tourist town of Agios Nikolaos, which has a great selection of cafes, restaurants and shops to enjoy, all while looking out over the stunning view.
Historical highlights of Crete
Chania Old Town
Over the years, Crete has been influenced by many different groups – the Minoans, the Ancient Greeks, the Venetians and the Ottomans. Each one has left their own visible marks on the island and particularly on the Old Town in Chania.
That’s what makes walking around Chania Old Town so spectacular. The narrow laneways are a mix of architectural styles and traditions, giving them a charming hodge podge appearance. They’re fully of authentic tavernas and cafes and the perfect place to stop and sip a coffee, or perhaps to sample some of the delicious Cretan cheese produced on the island.
One of the key landmarks of the town is the beautiful Venetian Harbour which has a 16th-century lighthouse at the entrance. Nearby is the Nautical Museum and the Archeological Museum of Chania which is housed in the former Monastery of St. Francis.
For ancient history buffs, another highlight is the excavated ruins in the Kastelli hill neighbourhood, which are believed to date back more than 5,000 years to when the city was known as “Kydania”.
We highly recommend doing a guided walking tour of this wonderful town so you can fully appreciate the many gems hidden within these town walls.
Beautiful churches and monasteries are plentiful all over Crete, but the sixteenth century Arkadi Monastery is one of the most beautiful of all.
The stunning monastery was built during the height of the influence of the Renaissance style, which can be seen in the details on the intricate façade.
It is located on a plateau south-west of Rethymnon and takes about about half an hour by public bus, or of course you can drive.
Not only is the monastery a stunning sight, but it’s also an interesting and culturally significant one – it is known as a monument to the Cretan resistance, after a group of local people huddled within the monastery during the 1866 Cretan uprising. A number of festivals and commemorations are still held at the site to this day.
The Arkadi Monastery is open every day from 8am – 8pm during summer, and 8am – 6pm during winter.
An entry ticket is €2.
It’s arguably Europe’s oldest city, and undoubtedly one of the must-see attractions of Crete. Whether or not it can claim to be the oldest city in Europe, one thing is for sure: it is very old.
Knossos was believed to been inhabited as far back as the Neolithic period (7000 BC), and by around 2000 BC it had become the centre of the Minoan civilisation. It was the Minoans who built the impressive palace which is Knossos’ best-known feature.
It is truly incredible to walk around the site and to think about how many others have looked up at the palace over the millennia.
Undoubtedly, it’s one of the most fascinating things to do in Crete.
Knossos is open every day from 8am – 8pm during summer, and 8am – 5pm during winter.
An entry ticket is €15.
There are many small and beautiful islands dotted around the Aegean Sea, but Spinalonga just off of Crete is particularly unique, having once been a leper colony.
Not far from the coastal town of Agios Nikolaos, in Elounda Bay which is about 90 minutes by public bus from Heraklion to the ferry in Agios Nikolaos , or you can drive or get a guided tour.
Fascinatingly, its 20th century use as a leper colony was only the latest chapter in a series of dramas involving the island. For centuries, it was ferociously fought over by groups including the Venetians and the Ottomans thanks to its strategically important location.
The Venetians in particular left many indelible marks on the island, and there are many interesting sights to explore. It also offers beautiful views back over Crete and Mirambello Bay, so definitely head over on a boat from Crete for a fascinating day trip.
This island was the setting for the very popular novel The Island by Victoria Hislop.
Open : 8am – 6pm during Summer, April 1 to October 31.Closed on National Holidays.
An entry ticket is €2.
Culture and Food in Crete
Crete is renowned for its rich history and culture throughout the world. With a colourful (and often violent) past the island has developed resilience and tenacity that has seen its way of life evolve and improve dramatically over the decades.
Food, in particular, is something the Cretans are very good and there are many dishes and recipes that you can try in Crete, Dakos for example, that is unique to the island.
There are also songs and music that is special to Crete and with that comes its own unique dances, in particular, the fascinating Pentozales dance which you must make time to try and see.
Food in Crete
Cretan food is some of the best in Greece if not Europe. With an abundance of land used for agriculture that has excellent year-round weather, there is no shortage of fresh produce and organic products such as olive oil, honey and liqueurs.
Dishes that are native to Crete that you should try are Dakos, a form of Greek Salad with a barley bread rusk, Chaniotiko Boureki, a zucchini-potato pie and Tsigariasto, a delicious lamb or goat stew. If you can find time to do a cooking class, I stongly recommend this – heaps of fund and you will learn a lot!
There are also drinks that are unique to Crete. Raki is the favoured spirit which is a potent grape-based pomace brandy drunk instead of Ouzo like most of the rest of Greece.
Cretan wine is also excellent and you will see wineries across the island. Be sure to visit Manousakis and Pnevmatikaki Wineries near Chania, Dourakia near Rtheymnon and Lyrarakis Winery in the Mountains behind Heraklion. In fact, that whole area is full of excellent wineries to explore and is the most important wine region on Crete.
Nature and Outdoors in Crete
While simply lying by the beach or the pool is a great way to spend your time on Crete, there’s also plenty to do if you feel like getting more active. As the largest of the Greek Isles, Crete also boasts one of the most diverse landscapes, perfect for exploring on foot.
During April and May Crete is abundantly covered with wildflowers that include wild orchids, Gladioli, coloured chamomile, poppies, anemones and Iris.
Areas where they grow in abundance are in the Lefka Ori mountain range (White Mountains), Heraklion, and around Rethymnon.
You can find many of these beauties right by the side of the road or otherwise take one of the hundreds of hikes across the island for even more splendour. A jeep safari is becoming quite a common way to see them all too!
The only national park in Crete (less than an hour from Chania) is a beautiful one, with many enticing trails and hiking paths. At the heart of the park is Samaria Gorge, a dramatic plunging cavern with several offshoots.
The hike to get to the gorge takes around 6 – 8 hours, so it’s a bit of an effort – but it’s well worth it. Along the way, you can see more than 450 species of flora and fauna, including many indigenous Greek species such as the kri-kri goat.
Best of all, there’s those enticing beaches to cool off in afterwards!
The National Park is open from May to October each year.
Samaria Gorge hike from chania or rethymnon
Hike in the Samariá Gorge on a day trip from Rethymno or Chania and see the rich flora and fauna of Europe’s longest gorge.
Encounter the Cretan “kri-kri” goats and swim in the crystal-clear sea with lunch at a taverna in Agia Roumeli.
Visit the mountains of Crete
Crete is home to some very distinct and quite huge mountain ranges.
There are 3 main ranges ; Dikti range in Lassithi, the Ida (Psiloritis) range in central Crete and the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) in Chania. The highest summit is Timios Stavros on the Psiloritis range (2.456 m), however the largest area is spanned by the White Mountains.
There are many villages,farms, caves and waterfalls to visit on the mountains as well as numerous hikes and of course, spectacular views.
While most of Crete’s well-known attractions are located above sea level, the subterranean Psychro Cave is a fascinating place to visit in Crete. It is located in the Lasithi region in eastern Crete on the northern slopes of the Dikti Mountains. There is a bus to the Lassithi Plateau several times a day from Heraklion, Chersonissos and Agios Nikolaos, or you can drive or take a tour of the entire plateau ( see button below), which is a great day out.
The cave dates back to ancient Minoan times, and many artefacts have been removed from it (you can see them in the Heraklion Museum on Crete, or in the British Museum or Louvre). However, the cave is perhaps best known as the alleged birthplace of Zeus, the most famous character in Greek mythology.
Not only is the cave interesting for its connection to Greek mythology, but it’s also a true natural wonder, filled with semi-precious stones as well as many stalactites and stalagmites.
As you can see, whether you’re looking to go back into the pages of the history books or simply relax by the stunning sea, there’s no shortage of things to do in Crete.
Hours of operation: Summer – 08:00 to 20:00 and Winter 08:00 to 15:00
Cost: 6 Euro and 3 Euro concession
Zeus Cave & Lassithi Plateau Full day tour
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