If you find yourself wondering if Crete is worth visiting, wonder no more. Our guide to Greece’s largest island is ready to whisk you from Heraklion to Chania and across the White Mountains to showcase just a few of the reasons why more than five million people head to this southerly corner of the Med each year.
It will take a look at the rugged backcountry, where there are wild hikes and deep gorges filled with trickling rivers and mountain goats, perfect for those adventure-seeking travelers. It will also delve into the striking past of Crete, revealing the millennia of history that meets between the ruins of Knossos Palace and the Venetian harbor in Chania town. Oh, and we’ll reveal the shimmering beaches and lagoons (some of the best in the country if you ask us), along with the unique cuisine that’s just waiting to be devoured.
Our hope? You’ll wonder is Crete worth visiting no more and be reaching for the passport right away. This island has long been a favorite of us at Travel Snippet, and we’d like to show you why…
The beautiful beaches
Crete doesn’t do beaches like the rest of Greece. Things just seem to be on another scale here, and we’d say the largest island in the country hosts some of its very best beaches overall.
There are a few things to know about the general regions if you come beach hunting in Crete. First, the busiest area is the north-east coast past Heraklion, but the beaches are sandy and usually have bars and tavernas right on the seafront. Chania prefecture hosts some stunning bays and lagoons but is considerably less built-up the further west you go. You will get some spectacular options if you make it to Falasarna or Kissamos in that direction. Finally, the south coast is the remotest and least developed. It’s also on the hot Libyan Sea, though strong summer winds can make it difficult to relax there in the high season.
Some of the Cretan beaches you should 100% have on the itinerary include:
- Balos Lagoon – Greece does its best impression of the Bahamas at the Balos Lagoon. This has to be one of the most breathtaking beaches in the whole of Greece. You can go by boat trip from Kissamos Kasteli, but real adventurers will bike the rocky trail along the headland to earn their R&R.
- Elafonisi – The jewel of the south coast is the island of Elafonisi…only it’s not an island any longer because the channel has silted up with golden sand and it’s now a spectacular isthmus beach. Gets busy with day trippers and suffers from strong winds in the summer months.
- Falasarna – A characteristic west-coast beach that’s one of our perennial favs on Crete, Falasarna is backed by coastal mountains and tomato plantations, has roaring waves, and the ruins of an ancient port at its north end. Some sections are clothing optional.
Crete has some seriously jaw-dropping mountains. They scar the whole island from east to west, peaking with the Lefka Ori (the White Mountains) near Chania and the Dikti Range near Heraklion. There’s really no part of this 160-mile-long isle that isn’t covered in summits, which is why it’s not just a destination for beach lovers and holidaymakers, but also for adventurers and hikers.
There are hundreds of miles of trails to get stuck into. Not all of them are marked as well as they are in, say, Switzerland, but some are well maintained. Perhaps the most popular is the path that weaves through the rugged Samaria Gorge. It goes for 8.9 miles and showcases the sheer-cut geology where the mountains drop down to the Libyan Sea on the south side of Crete.
For those who like to climb high, there’s nothing that can beat the trek to the top of Mount Ida. It’s the tallest mountain on the island, with a top station at 2,456 meters above sea level. The way up is long but not overly challenging, though there are sections on scree and uneven rocks. Be sure to take a coat because the temperature can drop to more than 10 degrees below what it is at base level!
The fascinating history
Believe it or not, Crete was once one of the most powerful places in the world. It hosted the first ever advanced civilization in Europe. Known as the Minoan Civilization, it flourished from palaces and towns on the island from around 3000 BC to around 1500 BC. You can still see leftovers of that golden age today, most notably at the Palace of Knossos…
Located just south of Heraklion, that’s an immersive archaeological dig site that offers a glimpse of a partially ruined ancient palace complex. The highlight is the painted North Entrance façade, complete with red-hued pillars and a restored fighting bull fresco. The matching museum is in Heraklion town itself, which is where you get to see an amazing array of artifacts, from axe heads to precious jewelry.
There’s also lots more to Cretan history than just the ancient stuff. You can delve into Chania and Rethymno town, for example, to find maze-like medieval districts that were built by the Venetians. The Nautical Museum of Crete is particularly good if that’s the period that interests you most – it’s located right on the side of Chania harbor.
This island might not often be thought of in the same ilk as Switzerland or the Dolomites when it comes to lacing up the boots and hitting the trail, but there’s no doubt in our mind that Crete is a hiker’s dream come true. The soaring peaks – which we’ve already mentioned – meet deep gorges – the piece de resistance of the Cretan hiking scene – and lovely coastal trails to offer oodles and oodles for adventurous travelers.
Our advice? Start in the south-western region of Sfakia. The main town there, Hora Sfakion, is the very last stop on the winding coast road. It’s also the gateway to three wonderful canyons. Among them is the UNESCO Samaria Gorge, which has a seven-hour hike in the company of gurgling streams and mountain goats, and the lesser-known Apadana Gorge, which is emptier and crossed by incredible bridges. There’s also a coastal hike to do from the town to handsome Loutro village, encompassing beaches with uber-clear water.
Frankly, though, there’s hiking to be done all over the island. It’s best to have a car of your own, because the trailheads for the most famous walks are often a hefty drive inland from the shoreline highway.
Is Crete worth visiting for the food? The truth is that it may be even more than the rest of Greece. The mainland and other islands might be known for their moussakas and Greek salads, but Crete has a unique take on the national kitchen that’s sure to get the taste buds of any foodie tingling with joy.
It mixes the ancient farming techniques of the island with a strong connection to the sea, tops that off with a simple and rustic cooking method, and adds a fantastic wine culture to boot. The result? Menus that offer intriguing dishes like dakos – a crispy, pizza-like bread topped with fresh tomatoes and crumbly white cheese – and bursting kaltsounia – pastry pies that mimic a South American empanada. Lovely stuff.
Ease of access
Island hopping through the Aegean might be a bucket-list topper for many, but it’s never going to be a cinch to plan. You’ll either have to fork out a pretty hefty chunk of your travel budget for a pre-planned trip or link up countless ferry connections and hotel check-ins yourself. There’s no such headache with a holiday to Crete. Here, it’s usually a case of booking a flight, bagging a transfer or a car hire, and finding a play to stay that suits. Easy.
That’s mainly down to the fact that Crete is so far from the other Greek islands that it rarely makes sense to add it to a bigger itinerary. Don’t worry, though – there’s enough to keep you going in Crete for weeks on end. What’s more, there are two major airports on the island (Heraklion and Chania) that enjoy low-cost links with carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair to cities all over Europe, along with a major port with ferry connections to Athens, Rhodes, and the Peloponnese to name just three.
The range of hotels
Crete’s littered with fantastic hotels. Of course, you get all the usual Greek family hotels with oversized suites and pools right on the beachfront. The main area to look for those is west of Chania, along by Platanias and Gerani, or east of Rethymno, where the coastline flattens off and there’s enough space for shoreline resorts.
However, there’s also a special sort of rustic stay that you can find in Crete that’s a bit different to the hotels in the rest of the country. We’re talking stone-built cottages in the hills and isolated B&Bs with views over lesser-known coves and sands on the south coast. If that sounds like you, be sure to check the following:
- Plakias Riviera ($$) – Set under the rocky peaks above the beach of Plakais, this chic, boutique hotel has stylish interiors in one of the less-trodden parts of the island.
- Dorovinis Country Houses ($$$) – You’ll live like the 1% in this stunning villa that has an outdoor hot tub with sweeping views of the Libyan Sea.
- Antartisa B&B ($-$$) – Escape the crowds by breaking out to the Lefka Ori mountains and this rustic bed and breakfast surrounded by chestnut forests and streams.
Crete’s not quite as wild as Mykonos but it’s certainly not a sleepy island. There are places here that will give Magaluf a run for their money. To see what we mean, head east from Heraklion to the resort town of Malia. That’s the epicenter of hedonism. Its pumping strip stretches down Dimokratias Street, offering a seemingly endless array of shot bars and pubs, all of which get positively wild during the high-season months between June and August.
Malia isn’t the only place you can go for nightlife, though. Stick to the main towns of Chania and Heraklion and there will be oodles of after-dark spots. They’re a more local affair, with rakia (a Balkan homebrew spirit) drinking and traditional dancing in abundance. We’d say Chania is better if you’re looking for some romantic nightlife, especially if you manage to seal a table in one of the harborside cocktail bars to catch the sunset.
The lovely towns and villages
Crete isn’t only about the sparkling beachfronts and the rocky mountains. It’s also dotted with stunning little towns and villages that often beguile visitors into extending their stay time and time again. Chief among the bigger ones is Chania, a venerable Venetian settlement that has a harbour dotted with Byzantine domes and backstreets that weave and wiggle to no one-knows-where.
The capital of Heraklion is also pretty enthralling. The most vibrant town on the isle, it spills into a ferry-filled harbour and hosts edgy coffee joints next to museums with relics that are over 3,000 years old!
Smaller settlements abound too. Check out the ramshackle hippy town of Matala on the south coast. It looks plucked from Popeye as it straddles the clifftops above its own scythe of golden sand. Then there’s Palaiochora, another New Ager getaway beneath the mountains, along with stylish Agios Nikolaos in the east, where boaters meet in the cocktail joints at night.
Because it’s so unique (and massive)
We’ve said it time and time again: Crete often feels more like a whole other country unto itself than just another island in the Aegean Sea. It’s the biggest island in the country, after all, but it’s also fiercely independent and likes to do things its own way. So, get ready to encounter a land that’s a little more off-beat than the usual holidaying spots of the Cyclades…
This is a place where the goat herders still shoot bullet marks into the road signs as a pastime. It’s a land where weddings can last a whole week on end, given ample supplies of ouzo, of course; where local domino players still gather on the shaded squares of tiny villages to talk politics passionately over a steaming mug of Cretan coffee.
What we’re saying is that Crete can be that typical vacation spot if you want it to be. It can be all about lazing on the beaches and splashing in the hotel pool. But it can also offer something truly unique and different to basically the whole of the rest of the country to those willing to adventure and explore.
Because it’s cheap (compared to other Greek islands)
Crete isn’t one of those islands that has to break the bank. It’s not chic and stylish like Mykonos. It’s not highly sought-after like Santorini. That means trips here can be surprisingly affordable.
For example, we last visited in 2021 and managed to bag a seafront hotel on the south coast in the late summer for around $90 a night for two – that’s right there on the beach, mind you. There are also usually country hotels and self-catering rentals for as little as $40 a night, even in the height of the main season. On top of that, the cost of travel to Crete has reduced A LOT in the last 10 years, as more and more budget carriers are now serving the two airports at Chania and Heraklion (we’ve seen one-way flights from London in the region of $25!).
The other great thing about Crete being so far south is that it lets you make the most of a longer season that runs pretty much until the end of October and even into the first weeks of November. Most people won’t consider holidaying then, but the weather is still fantastic and prices are way lower than in, say, July or August.
So, is Crete worth visiting?
Crete is most certainly worth visiting. In fact, we’d put the island up close to the top of our Greek bucket list as one of the places you should visit first in the land of sunshine, feta, and Zorba dances. The reason? It’s not really like anywhere else in the country. For a start, it’s massive – the largest isle in the Aegean. That gives it the feel of a country in its own right. Then you get the hotter climate that comes with being so far south, and the unique mix of south- and north-coast beaches, the soaring mountains and gorges, and the quaint little old towns. Ahh…take us back!