Crete is a large island and to drive from end to end on the notorious National Road will take over 4 hours. With this in mind picking a base for your stay in Crete is vital not only to ensure you get to see what you have planned but also what type of trip you are looking to enjoy.
The island has a multitude of seaside resorts along with four significant towns along the northern coast. The largest of the towns isthe capital Heraklion the 4th biggest city in Greece and the largest of the metropolitan areas on the island. The city's Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport is the busiest of the island too and sits just East of the metropolis. Heraklion Airport mostly serves the strip of coast that runs east from the city which encompasses some of the most commercial resorts Crete has to offer such as Hersonissos or Stalida. A little farther along lies the infamous Malia and it's nightlife party scene and venture yet further eastward and you'll reach the pretty Agios Nikolaos and up market Elounda around the bay. Chania is the major town in the west of the island and provides the islands other major international airport. From here you can reach the pretty Venetian town of Rethymno an hour or so east, or the long quieter coast to the west of Chania where more secluded and tranquil breaks are offered. Rethymno lies almost half way between Heraklion and Chania so you can land at either and have a similar hour and a bit onward journey to your final destination. Far in the East is the little town of Sitia in what is the least tourist trodden area of the Northern coast. Sitia does have an airport but despite some recent work has never achieved permanent international status and the only traffic landing there is internal flights from elsewhere in Greece.
So you've got the hang of where you might land now where do you stay?!
This decision really lies in what you want from your trip. Do you want to see the major historical sights? Lay by the beach? Lounge around the pool? Be pampered? Do you want your holiday to be quiet or lively? Maybe you want to cycle up the mountains or go walking. The following advice is based around our own experiences of spending years on the island and is by no means a bible. Crete is a large island and it would take decades to know it all!
Lively break: You've decided you want the sea but you also want to get dressed up in the evening take a wander have something to eat and maybe a drink or a dance in a lively atmosphere? If this is what you are looking for then our advice is to take a flight to Heraklion and head east along the northern coast. A 30 minute drive will land you in Hersonissos a large bustling tourist hub with shops, tavernas, international food, bars and clubs. Beach wise the central town's sand is not the best but a walk westwards finds some larger beaches & bays. Hersonissos grew up around an old Roman port and the remains can still be seen in the old port, and this is a good spot to sit in a restaurant overhanging the pretty harbour.
A little further along the coat lies the youthful craziness of Malia. Not generally populated by families Malia is the choice of the young looking to mingle with the opposite sex and party hard. Malia has a fantastic long and wide beach to sleep those long heavy nights away on too. Between Malia and Hersonissos is Stalida or Stalis. Now stretching to join up with Malia Stalida is 'Malia light' in 'frenzy' terms and more family orientated whilst still having some of the party spirit too. Stalida's beach is long and decent if full of sunbeds to rent.
Quiet Holiday: If it's quieter break you seek then generally people head further west landing at Chania then heading nearby along the coast to the various smaller, quieter resorts that the area affords. Kalyves lies just past Souda Bay to the east of Chania and is a working village with tourist facilities and if you don't want to go too far from Chania that's a good shout. Almyrida a little further east along with Plaka are village type seaside resorts that some would call 'real Crete' and are popular with families or couples looking for a quieter more relaxed break whilst immersing into the local cuisine and lifestyle.
Traditional Cretan tranquillity can also be found from Heraklion airport heading east in the shape of Sissi or beyond Agios Nikolaos to Mochlos. The tiny seaside village of Milatos just after Sissi is beautiful and very 'rustic traditional.' Dotted around these lovely little sleepy seaside villages are huge all inclusive resorts sometimes with their own private cove and afford the type of retreat away from it all where there will not be an evening stroll for a drink but seclusion all but for your fellow guests and the resort's entertainment program.
Somewhere in the Middle: So you are taking the family or have decided you want a little bit of both. Quiet moments and livelier ones too. Or a quiet spot to rest on the beach with something more 'alive' later on into the evening if the fancy takes you. With this in mind (and if you don't mind the drive) we'd opt for Rethymno. Half way (ish) between Chania and Heraklion you will have a drive after your flight of an hour and a bit but having stayed here along the long wide beach that stretches east from the town I have found some wonderful quiet spots to read and rest. Of an evening it's just a case of a short cab ride or pleasant walk towards town. Rethymno town is just beautiful and full of Venetian history. The old harbour is the stuff of postcards and the narrow lanes and streets of the town give a historical feel whilst having a huge selection of restaurants, tavernas and bars. It won't be blow your head off loud music but the vibe is trendy partly due to the large population of students that reside here to study at the university. There are ample streets to browse & shop plus the Fortezza (fortress) sits overlooking the town adding atmosphere and history. Apart from that Agios Nikolaos is a huge favourite. Pretty... very pretty with it's lake the town has an up market feel. To stay beside a large beach close to 'Ag Nik' centre you'll have to find a spot a little out of town of but it's not too far and Agios Nikolaos affords restaurants and a quieter sit and people watch family type of vibe. Many go back to Agios Nikolaos again and again and you can see why with it's up market vibe and something for everyone offering.
Up Market: You want to go all out be spoilt and waited upon like an 'A list' celeb? Well have no fear Elounda just around the bay from Agios Nikolaos is fast becoming the summer destination of choice for the rich and famous. The all inclusive resorts that wind around the coast are some of the most exclusive in Europe and offer high luxury. You'll see helicopters come and go and huge yachts anchored in the bay. Rooms with private pools complete with stunning view is just the start, and of course to top it all the beautiful sleepy seaside village of Elounda itself is within reach. Sitting in a protected bay the water is absolutely calm and out into the bay lies the incredible little island of Spinalonga with all it's history. From the traditional village of Plaka (just a couple of KMs up the road) you can take a short boat trip to the former leper colony and whilst in Plaka (a beautiful seaside village) take a long drink and watch the world go by. Victoria Hislop of 'The Island' book fame resides near here and I met her once in a little cafe as she gazed out at Spinalonga the subject of her most well known book. It really is the stuff of a Greek fairy tale.
History: You are coming to Crete to discover the Minoans or find the Minotaur's labyrinth. Crete has some of the most stimulating ancient history in the Mediterranean but where to stay?
The islands historical sites are dotted right accros Crete. Of most well know note are The Palace of Knossos which lays just South of Heraklion, The Palace of Maila just to the East of Malia itself and the Palace of Phaistos in the South. We'll talk more of this in another guide but if it's the major historical sites you've come to see try and base yourself somewhere between Heraklion and Hersonissos. British philanthropist Arthur Evans partial reconstruction of Knossos brings alive history before your eyes whilst a drive south to the Palace of Phaistos provides one of the most scenic and dramatic settings for an ancient site I have visited. I visited Phaistos at dusk one summer and the atmosphere was incredible. There's much more to Crete's historical sites too including the ancient city state of Eleutherna which as they currently excavate becomes more and more important to history and some freshly discovered links to Achilles have been found!
Activity Holiday: Water sports, boating, fishing, cycling, walking even skiing (if you don't mind walking up the mountain!) in winter are possible in Crete. Where to stay? If it's water sports you are after then stick to the larger resorts that will have stands on the beaches offering a whole range of organised aquatic activities. Surfing is possible all along the coast too and when it comes to boating or sea fishing all of the bigger resorts have excursions on offer and in the smaller ones if you make the acquaintance of a fisherman you might find yourself heading out to sea one night to help! Beyond the sandy beaches and in land Crete is mountainous all the way across it's breadth and I've seen many a mini bus with a bike laden trailer heading uphill for the scenery gazing holidaymakers to then have a stunning and gentle cycle back down the mountain to the coast. But don't be put off if you are a serious mountain biker as it's all on offer in Crete. Walking & hiking are huge pastimes on the island too and the various gorges afford breath-taking opportunity for those with some physical fitness and experience. Samaria Gorge sits to the south of Chania & is a Greek National Park and is one of the most famous gorges in Greece. The E4 walking path runs the whole width of the island and offers some fantastic walking for those who like the mountain type of experience. There is a coastal section for those who'd rather not, and the off the beaten track nature of the E4 route is something of an adventure and a complete immersion into true Cretan culture far away from the tourist hoards.
Wherever you decide to stay in Crete the one consistent will be a warm and friendly open arms welcome from the wonderful people of the island. Never be afraid to explore off of the beaten track, you will often be rewarded with an adventure and atmosphere to live in both your heart & memory forever.
Photos of Crete bring you our unbiased and honest guides to the island of Crete, Greece. We've had a connection to the island for over 30 years and we as called on our own personal experiences to bring you what we think is important and our opinions on how to get the best from your stay as we write guides about each and every aspect of visiting the largest of the Greek islands... Crete. We have a SHOP and we also offer PROPERTY CONSULTANCY & MANAGEMENT within Crete so don't forget to take a look and have a wander about the entire PHOTOS OF CRETE SITE. Thanks for reading.
© Simon Mcilvenna 2021 Photos of Crete