Best Things to Do in Crete: Vacationing on Greece’s Largest Island

Best Things to Do in Crete: Vacationing on Greece’s Largest Island

Crete feels like it’s born of many worlds. On the one hand, it is inarguably European—and of course, Greek at that. It has sprawling, undeveloped beaches and crystal blue coves, checking all the boxes of your Greek fever dreams. Cretan cities are largely of Venetian design, but its history spans Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman rule—only since 1913 has it actually been part of Greece.

But if you look solely at the land itself, you might think you’re in an arid, coastal corner of the Middle East or Northern Africa—albeit one as fertile as the Nile Delta. (Crete, with its Mediterranean locale, supplies much of Europe with olives, grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and more.) Perhaps it is Crete’s sheer size that allows it to take on these many faces and differentiate itself from white-painted islands like Santorini and Mykonos. A visit to those islands is perfect for the photobooks, but a visit to Crete is good for the story books. Not that there is any shortage of photos to be taken here. Trust us: Crete looks fantastic from every angle.

No two travelers have the same motivation for visiting Crete. For some, it’s the Minoan lore—one of Europe’s oldest major civilizations established nearly five millennia ago—and the ruins that come with such a visit. For others, it’s a chance to visit Greece but avoid the crowds of Athens, Santorini, etc. (while still getting a fair share of feta). Across Crete, travelers can hike, sail, swim, sun, wine, and dine, and even luxuriate at private resorts for a fraction of the cost of other Greek destinations. The island’s tallest peak is just 45 minutes by car from its most beautiful beach, and its core airports are an hour or three from most of Europe’s other capitals.

So if you want an island escape with historical layers, Crete has that. If you want recreation—from hiking to sailing to snorkeling—Crete has that. If you want wine, Crete has more than 70 family-owned vineyards. And if you want incomparable food… well, you know where we’re going with this. And you know where you’re going next: here are some highlights to do in Crete.

Mosque overlooking harbor

Anchor yourself in the city or countryside

Part of planning a trip to Crete is understanding its layout. Crete is divided into four primary regions, running west to east: Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion, and Lasithi. People tend to stay in the capitals, which are named similarly, except for the last: Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion (also the Cretan capital itself and most populous city), and finally, Agios Nikolaos.

Locals tend to favor Chania for its bustle and beaches, Rethymno for its beauty, Heraklion for its history, and Agios Nikolaos for its enchanting off-the-beaten-path expanse. Near Agios Nikolaos is the island’s most notable luxurious region, too—Elounda (and the town of Plaka), if a quiet but stunning resort is something of interest.

Agios Nikolaos church carved into rocks
Roberto Moiola/Sysaworld/Moment/Getty Images

You can either base yourself out of one or two cities and make day trip excursions from there or rent a car and do a cross-island road trip. The island’s core cities are largely in the north, each an hour or two from one another, though its southern draws are of equal distance.

Despite spanning all four regions, the south feels like its own region—almost by design, since the north is where most of the hotel-ized tourism takes place. Cretans seem to treasure the south (and its city of Ierapetra) for its general seclusion from the masses.

ancient ruins of Minoan palace of Knossos
Timofeev Vladimir/Shutterstock

Wander labyrinth ruins and fortresses

Without question, the island’s top tourist attraction is the Minoan city of Knossos. You can visit the archeological site of Knossos Palace in Heraklion, where it was excavated a century ago. Book a guided tour to skip the lines and have an expert color in all the bloodied, storied history of the place. Be sure to visit the Minotaur’s labyrinth there, to learn about the creature’s origin story. Combine a trip to Knossos with Heraklion’s and Chania’s respective archeological museums, and you should get a pretty good baseline of Minoan civilization through artifacts like statues, ceramics, jewelry, and more.

The other must is a boat trip to Spinalonga in the Elounda Bay, most easily reached from Agios Nikolaos, but also manageable from Heraklion. This ancient fortress served as a leper colony from 1903 to 1957 and is now uninhabited. The island also has pebbled beaches, so a visit can include both a fortress tour and some time relaxing by its shores.

honey being drizzled
Gioma meze

Eat lamb hot off the spit and cheese pies drizzled in honey

Oh gosh. This section should be Herculean in size, so let’s err on the side of simplicity. Below are some of the most important types of Cretan-specific food you should try. And look, you can throw a stone in any corner of the island and land it in a Greek salad or souvlaki platter, so you don’t need our tips for that. Still, we’ll toss in a few of the best eateries all overall by region, too.

As for the must-eat Cretan foods, you gotta start a few meals with dakos, which in execution look like a greek salad on soaked, open-faced rusk barley bread (though dakos is often served as a salad with crouton-style rusk cubes). It’s the oregano and capers that elevate it beyond your usual Greek salad. The next essential is kalitsounia, which are traditional fried appetizer pies. They can be open-faced or enclosed, similar to an empanada, and are typically topped or stuffed with cheese or spinach. (Try them with honey for a sweet zing.) We dare you to try chochlioí boumpouristoí, AKA fried snails, which are most popular in summer and well paired with tomatoes and thyme. But the kingpin is antikristo—yes, you read that right. This is a Cretan-style lamb spit-roast over a wire-caged flame. Chase any of it with zoumero, a moist chocolate cake drizzled in syrup and typically served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and as you pay the bill, take a tipple of raki. This pomace brandy is made from grapes and is upwards of 40% alcohol. Add an enthusiastic cheers (“Ya Mas!”) before you throw it back.

restaurant overlooking water
Gioma meze

It’s reductive to suggest that any one Cretan restaurant is better than the next, and there is no shortage of options. But in terms of hospitality, ambiance, and a range of offerings, here are the best Cretan picks (rather than straight Greek) for the core cities.

In Heraklion, put Pasiphae atop your list for its traditional Minoan fare. You’ll find it on the outskirts of town near Knossos. Second to that is Peskesi for locally sourced, picture-perfect platters. In Chania, fancify things with Mon.Es’s minimalist and purist take, or pick Kritamon for its unparalleled Cretan wine selection. As for Rethymno, Taverna Zisis is a generations-old family-style taverna, while To Parastratima serves up exquisite Cretan tapas. Lastly, in Agios Nikolaos, you’ve got the best slate of picks at the best prices, starting with Gioma Meze with its high-quality sea fare, as well as Ofou To Lo, where you can taste the catch of the day while gazing out over the sea where it was caught.

Samaria Gorge hiking trail

Hike to Zeus’ birthplace or island hop around the island

If you’ve packed your best boots, then head to Samaria Gorge in southern Chania. The nine-mile hike follows a creek through the forested White Mountains, past farms and ghost towns, with breathtaking expansive views. If you want a less crowded and shorter distance, consider instead the Imbros Gorge (four miles), which runs parallel to Samaria. For either trek, make sure you are hydrated, fed, and stocked up with a day’s worth of that same fuel.

Gorges aside, more seasoned hikers might look to the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) themselves for a snow-capped victory. And if you like spelunking (and Greek lore to boot), then visit the Cave of Zeus (AKA Psychro Cave/Dikteon Cave) in Lasithi, which is rumored to be Zeus’ birthplace. Many of the best beaches are secluded and pair a decent hike with a blue-expanse reward (see the next section for those).

Tourists descend down the Gorge Samaria

Wine tasting is an ever-popular option in Crete, given the number of home-spun vineyards that span the island (primarily in Heraklion). For your own day trips and tasting tours, consider Scalarea Estate (with its own guest house) or Lyrarakis just south of there.

In Crete, island hopping and sailing are also commonly sought-ought excursions—with stunning beaches (and activities like snorkeling) awaiting. Dia Island is the most common trip from Heraklion, typically visited by catamaran. Quiet Chrissi Island is popular from the southern shore (starting in Ierapetra), or you can catch sail to secluded beaches, like the popular Balos Lagoon via Kissamos in Chania.

Gialiskari beach
Georgios Tsichlis/Shutterstock

Lounge on pink and white beaches

This is a hot-button topic amongst locals and frequent visitors alike, but westernmost Chania typically gets some of the highest marks in the beach department. The pink-sand Elafonisi is more or less the agreed-upon favorite in the southwest and is many tourists’ ultimate destination for their stay. Meanwhile Balos Lagoon (Kissamos) is adored for its picturesque white sand and is much closer to Chania proper in the north. (Though if you opt out of the ferry route, you’ll have to earn the experience through a drive/bus-ride and hilly hike.) Less crowded but of equal beauty is Gyaliskari in the south of Chania (in Paleochora), since far fewer tourists venture that way.

In Rethymnon, one of the best beaches is Preveli in the south, where palm groves line the Kourtaliotis River as it enters the sea. (Be ready to hike!) In Heraklion, head south to Agios Nikitas, a secluded oasis that requires a 16km drive off road (some might want to hire an expert to get there). And in Lasithi, Xerokambos (way out east) and Argilos (slightly west of Xerokampos) are top grade for their remoteness.

beach front property
Photo courtesy of Cretan Malia Park

Where to stay in Crete

One of the best parts about visiting Crete is that its hotels and resorts cost far less than competing islands, but its hospitality is ever as warm. For a top-tier city stay (with aesthetics and location of utmost priority), try Megaron in Heraklion, Chania Flair in Chania, Pepi in Rethymno, and Casa Porto in Agios Nikolaos.

Now, hear us out: This visit is a terrific chance to stay at an all-inclusive retreat, too. We’re not suggesting you fly all the way to Crete to not explore the island, but it’s a great way to either settle in for a couple nights after a long-haul flight, or to wind down the trip with few logistics (not to mention, exquisite Cretan cuisine and private beaches). The easiest pick is Cretan Malia Park in Malia. You’d pay quadruple the asking price in rivaling islands or getaways, and few restaurants can compete with CMP’s onsite Mouries, serving up fare picked from the property’s own garden, as well as from nearby providers. And did we mention the private beach? (On top of that, it’s a family-friendly resort, if you’re traveling with kids.)

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Adam Hurly is a contributor for Thrillist.