Crete is known for its food and wine in a country known for great food so that says a lot. Crete is the largest of the Greek Islands, at over 150 miles (250 kilometers) wide and taking about five hours to drive from the east to west coast. You can easily spend several weeks just exploring Crete.
We spent three weeks on Crete and left with a long list of things to do on our next visit to Crete. With relaxing white sand beaches, fantastic food and wine, centuries of history and plenty of great hiking or cycling opportunities it’s challenging to fit it all into your Crete itinerary.
To help you plan your Crete itinerary we provide an overview of the three largest cities in Crete, Heraklion, Chania and Rethymnon and their surrounds. We also include suggestions for where to stay based on interests and the time you have available. At the end of the article, we provide practical information for getting to Crete and traveling around the island.
A Brief History of Crete
Over 6000 years of history in a few short paragraphs, the Cliff Notes version (do they still have Cliff Notes?) of Crete History 101.
Most historians consider, Crete, the birthplace of the Minoan civilization, to be the beginning of European civilization and responsible for the development of trade, art, and navigation. A peaceful nation, Minoa developed trade routes with a focus on economic development. In Greek mythology, Zeus coupled with Europa and gave birth to Minoa, the King of Knossos and the ruler of the island, known as King Minos in mythology. Knossos, an archeological site near Heraklion from about 6000 BC, provides the oldest evidence of Minoan civilization.
Ruled by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Venetians, the Turks and occupied by the Germans in World War II, during its long history, Crete shows influences from many cultures. Under the Byzantines (also known as the Eastern Roman Empire) ruling for most of the 4th to 12th century AD, Christianity flourished. Constantinople (now Istanbul) was the center of the Byzantine Empire.
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Starting in the 13th century, the Venetians ruling for over 450 years, built forts, buildings, churches, public buildings fountains, monuments and beautiful mansions. Evidence of which remains in the Venetian Old Towns of Chania and Rethymnon.
Turkish rule under the Ottoman Empire is referred to as an occupation of the island lasting over two centuries. Inland from Rethymnon, visit the Arkadi Monastery, site of a famous massacre in 1866 after a battle with the Turks, to learn more about this time in Crete’s history.
Crete became autonomous in 1878, but this was short lived as the Ottomans tried to regain control. Finally, in 1913 Crete became part of Greece. Unfortunately, peace still alluded Crete, which sustained extensive damage during World War II when German troops occupied Crete. As a strategic location during the war, Crete sustained heavy damage.
Plan Your Crete Itinerary: Where to Go
Today Crete, like most of Greece, maintains at least three names for everything. Confusing for a visitor, Xania, Chania, and Hania all mean the same place. And there is a name in the Greek alphabet as well! Google maps must find it confusing as well, as GPS and google maps do not work well in Greece and that includes Crete.
To avoid spending all your time in the car, decide ahead of time your interests and the must do’s on your Crete itinerary. Then select accommodation and nearby activities leaving you more time to enjoy your vacation.
The largest city in Crete, we did not spend any time in Heraklion (also Iraklion or Iraklio), so I cannot comment on it. Near Heraklion, there are many archeological sites to explore, including Knossos, mentioned above, and the largest archeological museum on Crete, which is in Heraklion and well regarded. Unless you have a reason to stay in Heraklion, there are plenty of places to stay outside the city itself providing easy access to Heraklion.
Staying in Heraklion may be a good choice, if you don’t want to rent a car. Many buses run from Heraklion to nearby towns and beaches.
If arriving by ferry or plane into Heraklion, the nearby villages of Archanes and Scalani provide nice inland options with easy access to beaches, hiking, cycling and wineries. Along the coast, most of the towns close to Heraklion suffer from congestion and being overly touristy.
If you enjoy wine and interested in learning more about the wines of Crete, Archanes or Scalani are both well regarded wine regions. Stay at the Scalani Hills Boutari Winery and Residences, our recommendation for the perfect luxury getaway- and the wine is pretty good too! Read our full review of Scalani Hills Boutari Winery and Residences for more information on the winery and accommodation. The winery opens to the public for tours and tastings.
East Coast of Crete- Agios Nikolaos
Agios Nikolaos (or Aghios Nikolaos), the largest and most developed of the towns along the east coast of Crete, becomes congested and busy during peak season, June- August. Some beautiful, white, sandy beaches, off the busy road along the coast, offer some great spots to relax.
In the center of Agios Nikolaos lies mythical Lake Voulismeni, where the goddesses Athena and Artemis bathed. Local legends claim the lake is bottomless. Many restaurants surround the edge of the lake and a path leads up for fantastic views of the lake and town.
Just south of Agios Nikolaos, we recommend Almyros Beach, a white sandy beach with chairs and umbrellas away from the busy road. From Almyros Beach, take the path at the north end of the beach around to Gargadoros Beach, to find Gargadoros Taverna for a fresh seafood lunch at a friendly traditional Greek taverna with spectacular waterfront views. We enjoyed whole, grilled fish, boned at our table. Just delicious! Try the complementary raki flavored with honey and pomegranate. Made using his mother’s recipe, this was the best raki of the trip!
With many five-star resorts, some all-inclusive, for those seeking a week of pampering and relaxation, Agios Nikolaos offers many options. Check hotels and availability in Elounda, just north of the town of Agios Nikolaos, for five-star luxury resorts. Resorts built on the hillside overlooking Mirabella Bay, which translates to “nice views”, provide spectacular views of the bay.
For history, visit Spinalongha, a former leper colony (1903-1957) on an island just north of Elounda. Boat trips run daily from Elounda or Agios Nikolas. After Knossos, Spinalongha is the most visited archeological site on Crete.
Most of the town closes by the beginning of November, re-opening around Easter or mid-April. (Despite the fact the still perfect weather and calm warm water for swimming in November.)
If you prefer smaller, less touristy towns but still want the coast of Crete, try Sitia, Sisi, or Malia for accommodation.
Halfway between Heraklion and Chania on the north coast of Crete, Rethymnon (also Rethymno, or Rethimno) Crete’s third largest city, with a population of about 35,000, provides easy access to both cities as well as access to the rugged south coast of Crete.
With a quaint old town and Venetian harbor, Rethymnon’s restaurants and beaches offer great dining and swimming options. Many restored Venetian mansions house boutique hotels for staying centrally in town. Just outside of Rethymnon, options to relax include many beachfront resorts.
Dining in Rethymnon
When we asked for dining options, there were no shortage of recommendations in Rethymnon. Try Alana or Prima Plora.
Alana offers dining in town in a lovely relaxing setting under a beautiful shade tree. We enjoyed a very pleasant and leisurely seafood lunch here.
For waterfront dining, try Prima Plora. A large restaurant with seating outside on the waterfront as well as enclosed tables near the water. A beautiful glass wall provides views of the seas. Additional seating available inside the restaurant if you prefer to dine inside. Reservations are recommended, request where you would like to sit. Seafood is the specialty at Prima Plora and the wine list features a good selection of local wines from Crete as well as international choices.
Other restaurant recommendation received include Avli and Veneto, but we ran out of time in Rethymnon. More for the list for our next visit to Crete!
The charming town of Rethymnon provides easy access to everything. Choose to stay in Rethymnon if you only have one week in Crete. If you would like to stay inland, but still have easy access to Rethymnon, Kapsaliana Village Hotel makes a great choice. Set in a rural mountain location, the excellent service at this small, luxury hotel and the convenient location are highly recommended. For more information read our full review of Kapsaliana Village Hotel and learn about other things to do in the area.
The second largest city on Crete, Chania’s (or Hania or Xavia) Venetian Old Town and Harbor offer plenty to do and fantastic photo opportunities. Near beautiful beaches, Chania provides easy access to the south and west coasts of Crete.
Chania’s landmark, the Egyptian Lighthouse originally constructed at the end of the 16thcentury by the Venetians, marks the edge of the protected harbor. Rebuilt, to resemble a minaret, in 1830 by the Egyptian troops occupying Chania on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, earned it the name ”Egyptian Lighthouse”.
Shops, restaurants and boutique hotels occupy many of the restored, old, Venetian homes and mansions. Narrow, winding, pedestrian-only (which we love about Europe) stone streets make it a delightful place to explore. You never know what lies around the next corner!
At the mosque, near the seaside, you can take a horse drawn carriage ride or just take photos of this timeless scene.
Glossitses is our recommendation for waterfront dining in Chania harbor. Specializing in fresh seafood, the specials change daily based on the catch of the day. Very affordable and always busy. Our tip: don’t sit in the seats right along the harbor. People stop to busk and try to sell you things. One row back the view is just as good, and no one bothers you!
Chrisastamos is the pick for traditional Greek food. One block off the harbor at the corner of Defkaliona and Ikarou Street. If you want an outside table come early or make a reservation. The vibe of this bustling restaurant is warm and friendly. The portions were huge, and the menu has some Cretan dishes I had not seen yet on a menu. With a wood-fired oven, the lamb is a house specialty, but the entire menu is extensive. You can find most dishes in our traditional foods of Crete list in this restaurant.
Relaxation in Chania
Seeking relaxation after a day of sightseeing, visit one of the many spas in Chania for a well-earned massage. A couple’s massage at the Delfino Spa at the small, boutique Delfino Hotel was our choice. The package includes a soak in the jacuzzi bath, steam room and an hour-long massage. A perfect way to relax.
The Delfino Hotel looks like a nice place to stay. The rooftop terrace with a bar, and lounge chairs provides beautiful views of Chania Harbor.
We spent several nights in Chania staying at Casa Regina, a self-catering, restored Venetian home, only a block or two from the harbor. The location provides easy access to everything in Chania. Parking in front of the house meant easy access to head out of town to the nearby beaches.
Beaches near Chania and Day Trips
Deciding to chase one more day at the beach, we drove 15 minutes to the calm waters of Marathi Beach. Chairs and umbrellas area available. We enjoyed lunch at Loukoulos, with a waterfront view before returning to Chania.
Another beach near Chania is Agia Marina. More developed than Marathi, the several kilometers of white sand beach and calm waters at Agia Marina provide good swimming options. We stayed at Agia Marina for several nights at The Theodore Boutique Hotel, enjoying staying right on the beachfront. After several days of absolute relaxation at the beach, we moved to Chania staying several nights in town.
Known for its wine and olive oil, don’t miss the chance to learn more about Crete wine and olive oil during your trip. A short drive from Chania, the Anoskeli Winery offers wine tasting and a tour of olive oil production. Stop at Eleas Thea after the winery and olive oil tasting for a great lunch with unbelievable views of the vineyards and olive trees. And possibly here I might have enjoyed the best chicken dish of all time, served with goat cheese and mushrooms.
One Week Itinerary for Crete
If you only have one week to spend on Crete, decide if you would like to explore the east or west side of the island, or stay centrally near Rethymnon for access to Chania, Heraklion and the South Coast. For more information on what to do in the area, click on the link in the table.
One Week Itinerary for Beach Lovers
|East Coast||Agios Nikolaos or Elounda||Access from Heraklion (ferry or flights)|
|West Crete||Agia Marina||Access from Chania (ferry or flights)|
|Central||Rethymnon||Access from Chania or Heraklion|
One Week Itinerary for Food Lovers
|East Coast||Archanes||Access from Heraklion (ferry or flights)|
|West Crete||Chania||Access from Chania (ferry or flights)|
|Central||Kapsaliana or Rethymnon||Access from Chania or Heraklion|
Two Week Itinerary for Crete
If you have two weeks, combine two of the one-week itineraries outlined above. Any combination will do, if you want a week at the beach, select one of the beach options plus another week.
It is possible, depending on the locations you choose and your interests, to not rent a car. We found car rental on Crete inexpensive so rented a car for our three-week visit. This provides the freedom to go where you want when you want. We did meet other travelers relying on the bus for transport.
For car rental we use and recommend Holiday Autos. Their all-inclusive quotes for local and international car rental providers on Crete mean no surprise fees at the rental car counter.
Itinerary for Three Weeks in Crete or Longer
Combine a week at the beach with Chania or Rethymnon and a week inland in one of the villages. Archanes or Kapsaliana both make nice places for a week-long stay. The mountain villages offer a different perspective to Crete than the beach or the city and a perfect opportunity to relax and enjoy the famous Crete hospitality.
Dining Out in Crete
Service in a restaurant is either excellent or mediocre, not much in between, but usually very friendly. Despite there being headings on the menu indicating appetizers/starters and main courses, with mediocre service, everything tends to be served at the same time. If you want your food served in succession just ask, but the main usually arrives before you have finished the appetizer.
In better restaurants or peak season, reservations are recommended.
Toward the end of our trip we were amazed to learn smoking is not permitted in restaurants. Amazed because this is largely ignored and smoking in restaurants is commonplace.
A * on a menu next to a seafood item generally means it is frozen, ask if you need clarification.
Complimentary raki and a sweet dessert usually appear when you ask for the check. This lovely bit of Crete hospitality is the perfect end to the meal.
Getting to Crete
Crete is well serviced by many airlines, with Chania and Heraklion as the main airports and the ferry to both Chania and Heraklion.
Arriving by Ferry
Daily overnight ferry service operates from Athens to both Chania and Heraklion (8-9 hours). Several times a week a ferry runs from both Santorini and Mykonos to Crete (4-4.5 hours). During the summer the Mykonos ferry is daily, check schedules other times of the year.
For some overnight ferries booking a cabin is mandatory. Private cabins are available in limited quantities so book in advance.
When we priced the overnight ferry for two passengers no car, it was about the same cost as one night’s hotel and flights for two. The ferry timing did not work for us due to the arrival time of the ferry into Athens from Syros and the ferry from Mykonos did not operate the day we needed to travel. The ferry arrives very early in the morning so checking in to your hotel early in the morning may be an issue.
Departing from Crete, once again the timings for the ferry didn’t work as our international flight was in the afternoon leaving all day to sit around with our luggage in Athens. Also, Piraeus, the seaport which services Athens is not at all close to the Athens airport. You will need to take the bus, train or a taxi to the airport after arriving via ferry if you are flying out the same day.
For more information about getting around in Athens, see our travel tips for Athens.
Arriving by Air in Crete
Heraklion and Chania both have international airports. Many flights are direct to Chania and Heraklion, bypassing the need to change planes in Athens. Some international services are seasonal, especially some of the direct flights.
Several local airlines provide service from mainland Greece, including flying Athens to Crete. We arrived and departed Crete from Heraklion Airport. Flying Ellinair, a local Greek airline, the fare included checked luggage and a drink on the flight. Ryanair and EasyJet, the two large European budget airlines service Crete. Generally, airfares are inexpensive to Crete if you book in advance. Lots of carriers servicing the route keeps fares competitive.
Renting a Car
With so much to see and do in Crete, we decided to rent a car. When renting cars overseas we use Holiday Autos. I really like the all-inclusive quote. What you are quoted is what you pay. There are no surprise fees or budget blow-outs at the rental car counter. Read the terms and conditions when you book, and the cancellation terms and conditions. You can usually cancel the booking with Holiday Autos at no charge up until 24 hours in advance.
Driving in Crete
Near the main cities of Heraklion and Chania, the roads at times can be busy and in some of the tourist towns along the coasts there was congestion. For the most part though, there is little to no traffic. Speed limits vary widely, and they do use speed cameras. Driving in Crete is on the right hand side of the road.
Drivers tend to drive on the shoulder and pass in the middle of the road, even in no passing zones. Stay alert when driving and drive like the locals. We always laugh that we end up on the shoulder which where we live is considered unsafe to drive and you would be ticketed. In Crete (and other places we have traveled) this is the norm and it is safer to drive like they do.
If you enjoyed this post. you might also find information and tips for planning your trip to the Greek Islands helpful.
Please check the most recent content on food and travel in Greece and the Greek Islands, including fantastic Greek recipes to make at home. We are always adding additional food and travel content on Compass & Fork.
Compass & Fork a was a interviewed on the the Amateur Traveler Podcast. You can hear all about traveling in Crete on the show.