Once you get past Crete’s sheer size – it spans 160 miles from east to west and is the second largest island in the Mediterranean after Cyprus – you’ll discover that beneath its vast mountain ranges, unspoiled beaches and sapphire blue water, are histories and legends thousands of years old.
Located about twenty minutes southeast of Heraklion, the island’s capital, is the Palace of Knossos. Built in the Bronze Age between 1700 and 1400 BC, this archeological site is thought to have been the center of the first European settlement, known as the Minoan civilization. Unlike the other ruins on the island, sections of Knossos have been restored to give visitors a sense of its former grandeur and images on the walls give insight to the life of ancient Cretans.
If you head about 16 miles east of Heraklion via highway E75, you will come upon one of Crete’s most popular resort towns: Hersonissos. Not only is Hersonissos considered one of the premiere places to stay on the island, the town boasts a multitude of oceanfront restaurants, boutiques, and small stretches of beach.
If you continue east another 26 miles, you will come across the must-see coastal town of Agios Nikolaos (or “Ag Nik” for short). Overlooking Mirabello Bay, Ag Nik offers shopping, dining and live entertainment, all while maintaining the quaint appeal of a small port town. A small lagoon, known as Lake Voulismeni, is nestled in the center of town and is considered very special by the locals because, legend has it, that the goddess Athena bathed there.
For travelers looking to relax on the beach, you will find three small beach areas just outside of Ag Nik: Kitroplatia Beach, Ammos beach and Amoudi beach. However, you may want to venture a little further east to Voulisma Beach, which is arguably the best beach on the island.
Beach bums should be conscious of the fact that Crete’s definition of a beach may differ from their own. Many of the designated beaches on the island are actually small stretches of sand that are barely large enough to roll out a beach towel on. So before you set out to explore a new beach, you may want to seek a local’s opinion first.
These concerns, however, disappear when you set your eyes on the crescent-shaped inlet and turquoise waters of Voulisma Beach. Not only is its natural beauty awe-inspiring, but the availability of lounge chairs and umbrellas, and convenient access to bathrooms and nearby tavernas, make it the perfect spot to relax.
Another beach town worth seeing is Matala. Located on Crete’s southwestern coast, the main beach is sheltered by sandstone cliffs and overlooks the Bay of Messara. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can climb over the mountain to Red Beach, aptly named for the color of the sand and surrounding cliffs.
Whatever you do, make sure to leave time to explore the caves lining the cliffs at Matala’s main beach. Thought to be ancient Roman tombs, they are best known for being home to hundreds of hippies who flocked there in the 1960s and 1970s. The most famous cave dweller of that time was singer Joni Mitchell, who wrote the song “Carey” about her experience.
If beach going isn’t your thing, hiking is another great way to explore Crete. There is a massive mountain chain that runs across the island with the White Mountains in the west, Mount Dikti in the east and the tallest, Mount Idi, in the central region. While hiking paths are generally marked in red, hikers should be extra careful because signage is poor in some areas and it is easy to get lost.
Crete is also famous for its gorges and caves – with over 3,500 caves on the island, you’ll never run out of places to explore. At about 10 miles long, the Samaria Gorge, located in the White Mountains, is the longest gorge in Europe and makes for a spectacular hike. Its most famous section is known as “Iron Gates,” where the gorge is only a little over 13 feet wide, with walls towering 1,600 feet above you. Tour companies run excursions to the gorge and for those completing a hike, a ferry is available from the end at Agia Roumeli to Hora Sfakion, where buses can bring you back to your starting point. Keep in mind the Samaria Gorge is only open May 1 to October 15 and no camping, swimming or lit fires are permitted in the park.
Getting There: One hundred miles south of Greece’s mainland, travelers will arrive on Crete by plane or ferry. There are three airports on Crete: the international airports are located in Heraklion, the island’s capital, and Chania, while the smaller, domestic airport is on the northeastern end of the island in Sitia.
Whether you are flying into or out of Crete, keep a close eye on your departure time, as there is very good chance it may change. As with all the Greek isles, flight times are known to shift from ten minutes to two hours, even on the day of travel. To avoid problems, confirm your flight time both the day before and day of travel.
Ferries arrive daily at the Port of Heraklion and Chania’s Port Souda. The main ferry lines serving Crete are Anek Lines (website or +30-210-4197400), Blue Star Ferries (website or +30 210 8919800), Hellenic Seaways (website or +30 210 4199000) and Minoan Lines (website or +30 2810 399800).
All airports and seaports have buses and taxis available to take you to your final destination.
Getting Around: Since Crete is such an expansive island with mountainous terrain, traveling around it takes a great deal of time. For this reason, renting a car is the most convenient and cost-efficient way to explore the island. When renting a car in Crete, keep in mind that Greek law requires you to present an International Driver’s License along with your valid driver’s license.
Hertz (website) has locations at both international airports (Heraklion: +30 2810 330452; Chania: +30 28210 63385), as well as in Agios Nikolaos (15 Akti I. Koundourou Str.; tel: +30 28410 28311) and Rethymnon (5 Ari Velouchioti Str.; Tel: +30 28310 26286). Kosmos Rent-A-Car (website; tel: +30 2810 241357) serves Heraklion, Chania, Rethymnon, and Lassithi. You can also rent a car through most hotels.
Weather: Between May and September, temperatures typically range from 74°F – 83°F with very little rainfall.
Best time to go: June. Traveling to Crete in early June is ideal because you will benefit from cheaper early season pricing, fewer crowds and comfortable temperatures in the high 70s or low 80s.
Language: While the primary language is Greek, many locals speak at least some English.
Tipping: Tipping 10% is customary in Greece. Round-up taxi fares.
Eat & Drink
With both indoor and outdoor dining, Kiriakos Restaurant (53, Dimokratias str, +30 2810 224649. website) offers authentic Cretan cuisine like calamari in basil and ouzo and cheese pies topped with honey.
Migomis (N. Plastira 20, +30 28410 24353. website) is a piano restaurant situated high up on the hill overlooking Lake Voulismeni and the town below. With both indoor and terrace dining, you can enjoy live piano music, international cuisine and an extensive wine list. Be sure to try the poached pears, sautéed octopus and beef filet medallion. Entrees start at about $15.
Located a short walk up the hill from the port, Pelagos (Koraka 10, +30 28410 25737) is a fish tavern infamous for the blue and white fishing boat adorning the front of the restaurant. Pelagos features a lovely outdoor dining scene with tables tucked among trees, glowing lanterns and a massive waterfall. Entrees start at about $12 and any of the fish dishes are a sure bet.
Part of “restaurant row” in downtown Hersonissos, Kymata‘s (55 Agias Paraskevis str., +30 28970 22386) exceptional food and tranquil ambiance set it apart from the rest. The best seats in the house are out on the terrace overlooking the harbor. The menu offers a broad range of dishes from Greek specialties, from rooster in wine sauce to sushi and sashimi. With entrees starting just under $20, Kymata is pricier than other options, but the food and atmosphere are worth it.
Located on Matala’s main drag, Zafiria (+30 28920 45496) is a small café with an expansive terrace overlooking the main beach and caves. It is a great spot to stop for a sandwich, snack or drink. Sandwiches start at about $5.
Where to Stay
Though the capital city of Heraklion is the largest on the island, its traffic congestion and proximity to the airport make it one of less appealing places to stay. The most desirable accommodations can be found in the northeastern and southern parts of the island.
Candia Park Village (website, +30 28410 26811) offers affordable prices and convenient access to desirable Agios Nikolaos. Room rates start at around $160 per night.
Hersonissos Maris (website, +30 28970 22400) overlooks the gulf and is a 15 minute walk to the town’s center. Room rates start at about $125 in May and June and increase to $165 in July and August.
Hotel Matala Valley Village (website, +30 2892 045776) is situated a half mile from the beach and offers great value for your money with room rates starting at about $60/night.