So you've booked your holiday to Crete and you know you are in for a break in a warm and sunny climate with lovely beaches and warm seas. But where else is there to do on the island of Crete? Here's Photos of Crete .com's guide to the best things to do and see whilst visiting the island.
Whether your a history buff or not Crete was the home to the first and earliest civilisation in the whole of Europe. The Minoans are said to have flourished on Crete from as early as 3000bce and are thought to have created over 50 towns and large settlements all over the island. We have created a separate and more in depth guide to Crete's rich ancient history however whilst you might have visited Crete for the sun, sand and warm welcome if you've got an appetite to head out beyond the beach checking out one of Crete's stunning Minoan palaces is an absolute must.
There are three major Minoan sites on the island of Crete that are both the largest and most famous 'Palaces' of the Minoan civilisation. The 'Palaces' of Malia, Phaistos & Knossos are all expansive and rich in ancient history.
The 'Palace' of Malia lies to the East of the seaside 'party' town and is famous for it's stunning offering table. Areas of the site are covered to protect the detailed ruins and guided tours are available both in advance and at the entrance. Car parking is ample and you can pay to enter the site at the booth as you enter and is priced at 6 euros for adults & free for children.
The 'Palace' of Phaistos is set in the most stunning of locations in the south of the island around 10 minutes drive from the former hippie colony at Matala and around an hours drive through the pretty mountains and hills on a very good road from the island's capital Heraklion. Phaistos is not only the location where the famous Phaistos Disk was found (Europe's earliest writing) but in addition provides the most atmospheric and inspiring of settings. The grand staircases are stunning and as you wander through the ruins the landscape around this place is simply stunning. We recommend visiting at dusk after a day on the beach at Matala to avoid both the mid day heat and capture the essence of the aura in this stunning ancient site. There is a car park that has a short walk to the palace and entrance is 8 euro for adults with reduced fees for kids.
The most famous of all the Minoan sites in Crete is the 'Palace' of Knossos. This is the home of the Minotaur, King Minos and one of Greece's most famous ancient stories: The labyrinth. Set just a short car / bus / taxi ride south of the island's capital Heraklion Knossos was partly restored by the workers of Arthur Evans who bought up the land that the site lay under and pumped most of his family's wealth into excavating the ruins. Evan's reconstructions of how the seat of King Minos (as he saw it) looked was based part on fact & part on his own perception but there can be no doubt that the columns, shapes and colours of Evan's efforts bring alive the ruins and inject your imagination with a tangible feel of ancient times. The throne room, huge amphora (storage pots), frescoes (ancient wall paintings), ceremonial road, theatre and mystical chambers will inspire children and adults alike, and if in Crete we'd class Knossos as a must see. However we'd advise to pick your time as visiting ancient ruins in the middle of the day in high season is punishingly hot and will be absolutely packed with bus and coach loads of day trippers. Go early or go late to avoid the madness of the middle day hours and be rewarded with Knossos almost to yourself as you explore this most famous of Minoan sites. Admission for adults is 15 euros and is reduced for students, children etc. Be careful when parking your car at Knossos. The 'official' car park is small and often full in high season meaning your only other option is to use one of the 'private' car parks for a fee. Some advertise their prices at the entrance, just make sure you don't pay too much to leave your car close to this fundamental site in ancient history.
Beyond the three large Minoan 'Palace' sites Crete has many more Minoan, Venetian, Roman & ancient Greek sites to visit and explore. Our picks of the rest are:
Gortyn: The former Roman capital of the island of Crete has both religious, Roman & Greek history scattered through the olive groves on the Mesara Plain not to far from the town of Moires. The incredible law code of Gortyn carved wide and high into the arc shaped stones is widely regarded as the earliest example of written ancient Greek law.
Lato: Nestling on the mountainside inland from the smart town of Agios Nikolaos the Doric former city of Lato flourished around 5bce and was an important centre of the island. Admiral Nearchos was Alexander the Great's most important seaman and came from Lato, and as you climb the mountainside the ruins of the settlement are packed with breath-taking views and atmospheric glimpses into the ancient past.
Eleutherna: This ancient former city state sprawls through the foothills of Mount Ida around a 25 minute drive uphill & inland from the town of Rethymno. This area was settled by a multitude of civilisations and is a 'work in progress' in archaeological terms and continues to reveal it's fascinating history as archaeologists continue to excavate the area to this day. The finds have been so significant that the site has had it's own museum built which makes for an incredible scene setter before exploring the area, and the museum's garden is a great place to have a picnic. Once into the site you'll realise that this is a rugged and hilly walk through a large area so you'll need to be fit and able for the climb and rugged terrain. There's no 'main entrance' or enclosed area as Eleutherna teases you with an adventure that makes you feel like you're discovering these places from the past for the first time. Hero of he Trojan War Achilles has been linked to Eleutherna, and through Mycenaean, Doric & the Greek dark ages to Roman times this area was bustling with human life, and makes for a wonderful day exploring the past.
Towns & Shopping
So it's a bit too windy or you've managed to visit Crete during a rare cloudy day and fancy some town life, a spot of city square lunch and some shopping? Well the northern coast of Crete has a series of major towns and cities that are perfect for a metropolitan adventure.
Heraklion is the island's capital and you've probably only been here because on it's outskirts is the islands largest and busiest airport but if you head into town you'll find ample shopping some fantastic places to eat and no shortage of history too. You'll find free parking if you take the time to look for a spot around Georgiadi Park. Getting there early should secure a free spot but if you sleep in there are car parks with fees close to the centre. Once parked start at the stunning Venetian Morosini Fountain or 'Lions' Square then take your pick of shop lined avenues walking in loops from the centre to take in all the retail therapy you could ever want, and as you go immerse in the Venetian, Ottoman & Greek history with buildings of significance from the past dotted all over the central city.
As far as food is concerned you can get a pick up and walk snack from a bakery such as the Cretan chain Savoidakis or some Greek street food like a pita with bifteki or souvlaki, and there are a couple of great walk up local street food places just 20 metres from the Lions Square almost opposite the daily market on 1821 street. The bazar (or market) is well work a wander and is part tourist goods & part local produce, and if all that retail therapy has left you needing a sit down then head back close to the 'Lions' square and take a walk just a little down 25th August Street and you'll find some superb cafe / bar / restaurants filled with locals and tourists around El Greco park just to the left. You can check out our guide to the sights in Crete's capital city Heraklion HERE.
Rethymno is a vibrant, beautiful & historic town on the northern coast of Crete. With it's long sandy beach to the town's eastern reaches central Rethymno is packed with Venetian & Ottoman atmospheric buildings & history & provides winding narrow streets of shops, cafes, restaurants and the past. The old Venetian port with it's pretty harbour and lighthouse provides a scenic spot for a sit down drink or longer lunch in a setting straight out of the history. Rethymno has a younger vibe due to it's large university and provides an almost perfect synergy between younger urban culture, history & modern tourism. You can read our in depth guide to Rethymno HERE.
Chania is Crete's second most significant town in size and importance and acts as western Crete's most significant metropolitan area. The island's second international airport is here a little out of town and Chania's old Venetian harbour is larger than the one at Rethymno and the sea laps at it's winding portside pavement that is lined with restaurants and cafes where you can gaze upon the Venetian architecture and lighthouse.
Chania is a pretty town with a historic feel and shopping is plentiful as you wander it's narrow shady lanes & avenues. The covered market hall sells tourist goods along with fresh local produce and there's ancient history dotted around the town too as you get lost in the narrow alleys of the old town and discover the ruins of the ancient city of Kydonia that dates back to Minoan times.
Chalidon street takes you right through the centre of town to the fountain that marks the entrance to the old Venetian port and the town's cathedral is along the way, and when you get to the port you can take in the sea air and café life and wander round to the old Yali Mosque which denotes the town's Ottoman occupied past. Just past here eastwards the 'Megalo Arsenali' or 'Great Arsenal' is a two storey relic of Venetian times and you'll find horse and carriage rides that will take you from here around a memorable tour of this pretty and bustling town.
Agios Nikolaos lies further east and is a smart small town that flourishes around the tourists that return year after year to this part of the island. The capital of the Lasithi Region of Crete the town is famed for its Lake Voulismeni which at a depth of nearly 50m has a legend of being bottomless from ancient times. The circular lake lies right at the heart of this pretty town and is surrounded by walkways with cafes and restaurants all along it's perimeter that provide stunning views of the floodlit cliffs that surround the far end of the water. Walking out from the lake eastwards you can't fail to come across the town's two major shopping thoroughfares that provide both tourist goods and fashionable boutiques and jewellery. The harbour was connected to the lake by the French back in the early 1900's and you'll find more pretty waterside cafes and restaurants here to take in the sea view and enjoy a shady rest. Venizelou Eleftheriou Square lays at the top of the shopping area and is a pretty little square full of greenery and shady trees and a walk around the town's coastal road will bring you to the Horn of Amalthea for a photo opportunity with the sculpture that pays homage to the Greek god Zeus & his upbringing on the island of Crete.
Sitia is Crete's most easterly town and lays some 70kms further east than Agios Nikolaos. With a pretty bay and a quieter vibe Sitia has been less touched by tourism and if Chania & Rethymno are an equal balance between tourism and daily life Sitia is a living working town... with just a tiny hint of tourism.
The pretty port makes for a pleasurable stroll with taverns & cafes to stop and enjoy the sea view, and just beyond your walk lies the town's beach to the eastern end of this small agricultural & fishing centre. If you want to shop in Sitia then the streets just behind the port are where you'll find the town's retail offering but this is more 'I need something' shopping than casual browsing. Sitia boasts a 13th century Venetian fortress which it set up the hill and provides an atmospheric setting for a pretty view down over the town.
So you want to get out on the water? Well there are a multitude of organised boat trips on the island of Crete that provide stunning views, history & idyllic beach days.
Spinalonga is a little fortified island that lies in the gulf Elounda nestling in the calm waters just across from the pretty village of Plaka. Spinalonga has a long history of fortification to protect the calm waters of the bay with a multitude of settlers using the island as a place of defence and isolated safety. The Venetian & Ottoman past is not the only reason to take a boat ride from Plaka, Elounda & Agios Nikolaos to see the little islet. When the Turks were evicted from Spinalonga in the early 20th century the island was used as a leper colony. Those with Leprosy that were sent to the island made the one way short boat trip never to return, and the island became a hamlet of people forced together by circumstance that made the place their home. The remnants are a place of sadness & of happiness and you can still see the hospital, the little main street along with the houses they made their homes. You can walk a circuit of the island and take in the Venetian fortress too, and the old fortifications provide breath-taking views of the bay back toward Elounda & Agios Nikolaos.
Directly south from the little town of Ierapetra on Crete's southern coast lies the island of Chrissi. Starting your boat ride from Ierapetra Chrissi means 'golden' and refers to the stunning golden sandy beaches found on the island. The uninhabited island is a mixture of beautiful beaches & forests of juniper trees and a boat ride for a day of idyllic beaches takes between 30 minutes and an hour depending on the boat you book. There's not a lot of shade on the island so go with your own mean to cover up from the high season sun. You can get food on your boat trip but you'll need to take your own supplies for your day on Chrissi as there are no shops. Chrissi island is a little paradise and we want to keep it that way so please take your rubbish with you when you leave and keep this place a stunning natural beauty for all to enjoy. If you decide the little paradise island that is Chrissi forms part of your Cretan exploration then we advise booking your boat tickets in advance as in high season they fill up fast.
You can get to the stunning Balos lagoon by car / 4x4 and a walk. Balos lagoon and it's breath taking beach is a piece of paradise and holidaymakers fly a lot farther than Crete & Greece to find tropical beauty like this. However a boat trip to Balos not only takes you right to the beach itself but in addition adds some romance and adventure to your day out. The daily cruise ships to Balos (and neighbouring Gramvousa) leave from the port of Kissamos and booking in advance is once again recommended in high season.
The exotic white sandy beaches that the turquoise waters lap against will make you feel you're much farther from home that southern Europe, and the boat trips also stop at Gramvousa where there's a Venetian fortress to explore along with ship wrecks and jaw dropping scenery. If you're staying in the western reaches of the island of Crete then Balos lagoon in our opinion should be high on your list of days out.
The mountains of Crete run like a spine almost the entire length of the island. A consistent backdrop to the beach resorts and towns of Crete the mountainous terrain inland on the island provide a multitude of activities, and Crete's gorges are many and form a popular walking pastime on the island.
Samaria Gorge is the most famous of all of Crete's many ravines. A national park of Greece the first thing to say about Samaria is go dressed prepared for a beautiful but rugged walk. So many arrive in beach wear and flip flops and the rocky walk will punish your feet and body unless you go with appropriate footwear & attire. The gorge is 16km long ending at Agia Roumeli nestling in the Libyan sea on Crete's southern coast. Samaria Gorge is on many visitors to the island's 'must do' list and it's rugged natural beauty is simply stunning. The walk begins at a height of 1230m just south of Omalos and when you reach Agia Roumeli a swim in the sea might be in order after the long walk. You'll need a boat ride to then get to Sougia or Hora Sfakion and the complexity of the overall experience lends itself to an organised excursion. Cutting through the beautiful White Mountains of Crete for those who like to walk along with natural beauty will never forget their stunning day exploring the Samaria Gorge.
Agia Irini Gorge is further west in the White Mountains around 40kms from the town of Chania. The gorge forms part of the E4 walking route that weaves it's way along the entire length of the island and to walk the gorge will take around 3 hours and at it's end is the sea and the little seaside hamlet of Sougia where you can relax on the beach and grab something to eat or a cool drink. Agia Irini Gorge was used as a refuge by the local Cretans during the Turkish occupation and there's a couple of churches within the gorge that date back over 500 years. Agia Irini Gorge is far quieter than the busy Samaria Gorge and even in high season will afford the chance to explore in relative peace and quiet.
Agiofarago Gorge lays on the southern coast of Crete and can be walked from the former hippie colony of Matala around 75kms south from Heraklion. The gorge was known for it's hermits who lived there and it is said that some still inhabit the area and can be seen praying on the beach that marks then end of your discovery of this natural and serene place. This is a shorter walk of around an hour and will take in stunning rural beauty along with caves & the Chapel of St Anthony. Close to the church there is a well and a trough where the local goats get a drink.
Once you reach Agiofarago beach you'll find a perfect spot for swimming & snorkelling but there are no shops so take your own supplies if you're spending the day here. The gorges sheer vertical walls are popular with rock climbers and cave explorers go deep into the caverns but both are only advised for experienced enthusiasts with the right equipment. You can get a boat to the beach entrance to the gorge from Matala and then walk back to Matala through the gorge making this a pleasant circular day's walk & swim. The walk is around 1.5kms in length.
Days out in Crete are wide and varied in their scope but if you are travelling to Crete as a family with kids a trip to a water park might be on your list of fun things to take a day out and explore. There are a selection of large water parks on the island that provide a multitude of aquatic fun and there are 3 major water parks that will provide a full day out of splashing around in the Cretan Sun. These parks are open from early till late right throughout the summer season (May to October) and are 'family friendly' attractions with all you need on site for a day for all ages.
Acqua Plus water park lies up in the hills around 5kms behind the seaside resort of Hersonissos and is a purpose built large collection of water slides and rides that will keep the family busy all day. From a large paddling swimming pool for toddlers with little slides to the huge, steep make you scream with delight tubes of jetted water. You can be a virtual droplet of water in a sink as you plop into a deep pool from a whirling plughole or get on an inflatable and whoosh down a series of canals, and if you enjoy a slower pace then there's a lazy river too. You'll find lots of opportunities for a day trip to Aqua Plus with coach and entrance fees included and once there you'll find a selection of places to eat and drink along with a shop to buy towels, swimming costumes and tourist goods.
Water City lies closer to the island capital Heraklion & once again is set up the hill this time around 5kms behind the seaside resort of Kokkini Chani. The Photos of Crete .com team prefer Water City to Aqua Plus (personal opinion) and it has pretty much all Aqua Plus has and if you're staying in one of the resorts that stretch from the islands capital Heraklion along the northern coast to Agios Nikolaos (Gouves, Stalida, Malia, Hersonissos) then either Water City or Acqua Plus will fit the bill nicely.
There are grassy areas with sun beds to base yourself upon and if throwing yourself about in watery delight is not your thing you'll find a quiet spot to read and chill out, and the wave pool offers somewhere to cool off from the hot Cretan sun.