Often falling behind the mainland and Santorini on popular Greek destination lists, the island of 620,000 is the largest in Greece and 5th largest in the Mediterranean overall. With an area of 8336 square kilometers, it boasts a landscape that varies from sandy beaches to rolling hills to breathtaking mountains, and oozes enough culture and local color to satisfy not only the museum aficionado in your midst, but also that guy who, somewhere along the way, attached himself to your group and now speaks only of locals, fishing boats and Ouzo. So here, folks, are the best things to see and do in Crete, and simultaneously, the main reasons that this island should become your next vacation destination.
10. Watch the Sunrise
While we generally equate vacations with sleeping in and moving through the day at our own pace, pulling yourself out of bed in the early morning to see the sun come up, at least once, is an absolute must. Whether you’re in the quiet Mediterranean villages of Chania or across the island in the bustling urban center of the island’s capital, Heraklion, the extreme stillness and serenity of the Cretan sunrise is a one-of-a-kind experience.
9. Spend the Day in Matala
Located 75 km from Heraklion, Matala is a tiny fishing village on the Bay of Messara that provides crystal-clear waters and a well-maintained beach. The village retains much of the same relaxed atmosphere that made it a popular haunt in the 60s and 70s (apparently Joni Mitchell spent a night in one of the caves). As well as allowing visitors to have a taste of its ancient past, the caves that rise high above the beach and plunge into the water on the north side of the bay are said to be either early Roman or Christian tombs.
8. Get Lost in the Local Agora
Agoras are essentially massive Greek marketplaces that can either be open-air or covered and since ancient times, have been regarded as the cultural hubs of a community. Today these marketplaces exist in some form all over the island, with the largest ones in Heraklion and Chania selling everything from fresh produce and meat to clothing and household essentials. Scattered with tiny cafes and raki (Cretan booze) bars, wandering through one of these agoras is a good way to get a genuine sense of Greek culture and way of life, as well as meet and hear the stories of a ton of different people, from locals to other tourists.
7. Pose for Pictures at Balos Lagoon
Located about 50 km west of Chania, the lagoon at Balos Beach is one of the most photographed areas of the island. It’s not hard to see why, with picturesque scenery, white sands and crystal clear turquoise waters, this little bit of paradise is a must visit during any Cretan holiday. The lagoon also offers both large areas of shallow waters and deep areas ridden with aquatic life, providing activities for both children and adults and solidifying it as one of the best places for family fun on the Island.
6. Marvel at Panagia Kera
Found on the eastern side of Crete, approximately 70 km from Heraklion, Panagia Kera is a tiny and ancient church that contains the most beautiful Byzantine frescoes on the whole of the island. Stepping into the 13th-14th century building is overwhelming, with images depicting everything from Gospel scenes to the Second Coming taking up all of the interior walls. For the full experience, make a day trip out of it, and grab lunch at the neighboring Taverna before heading to check out Platanos Krasi, a world famous 2000 year old (estimated) oak tree in the nearby village.
5. Relax on Elafonisi Beach
Under a restrictive development order, this astounding inlet on Crete’s extreme southwestern coast remains virtually untouched, and retains its status as one of the most beautiful locations on the island. With crystal-clear waters along white and pink sand, the site overlooks the Libyan sea and provides an important destination for bird-watchers, acting at the final stop for many species migrating to Africa. The area also offers the unique chance to catch a glimpse of the endangered Bearded Vulture, for which an observation point is located just over the Agios Dikaios mountain.
4. Explore the Old Town of Chania
Found about 140 km east of Crete’s capital, Chania is undoubtedly the island’s most charming historic town. Wandering its streets you will be surrounded by a plethora of cobblestone walkways, ancient buildings of Roman, Jewish, Turkish and Venetian origins, and a hodgepodge of restaurants, shops and cafes. The town stands testament to its extensive history of surviving five occupations, with institutions of various cultures standing side by side and citizens co-existing at what can only be described as a laid-back leisurely pace. After a day of exploring, take in the unique atmosphere of this little corner of the world at Platia 1821 (1821 Square), which is riddled with a variety of open-air restaurants and is the hub of the town’s social scene.
3. Check out the Heraklion Archaeological Museum
As a precursor to visiting any of the island’s Minoan ruins, check out the newly renovated Heraklion Archeological Museum, which is home to 22 galleries exhibiting over 5000 years of history. One of the most important museums of this kind in the country, the institution houses the most extensive collection of Minoan art and artifacts in the world, consisting of upwards to 15,000 items from the Neolithic era to the Roman period. The most treasured items on display include the snake goddesses from Knossos, the “Prince of the Lilies” fresco and the Phaistos Disc.
2. Venture Back in Time at Knossos Palace
Found just outside of the island’s capital city, Knossos Palace is the largest excavated site depicting the grandeur and sophistication of Crete’s ancient Minoan civilization. Walking through the massive complex, which dates back to 1700 BC, visitors really develop a sense of appreciation for the advanced level of architecture and artistry developed by the ancient peoples; in fact, the site’s layout is so intricate it has sparked speculation that this was actually the legendary labyrinth of King Minos. Thanks to the restoration efforts of Arthur Evans, the site now showcases a variety of ancient points of interest, including original store houses, burial grounds, throne room and a bathing area, not to mention the distinctive red columns and impressive frescoes.
1. Explore the Samaria Gorge
Crete’s most popular hiking location, the Samaria Gorge, sees upwards of 1000 daily visitors during summer months, and is, quite simply, the coolest thing you can do while on the island. Hailed as Europe’s longest gorge, the Samaria Gorge trail starts with a steep stone decline (don’t worry, there are handrails) that stretches for 11 miles and ends with the rewarding sight of the Libyan Sea. The six hour (on average) trek features a river trail abundant with wildflowers, sightings of the island’s endangered wild goat, the kri-kri, and momentous stone gorge walls that envelope the trail and narrow in some places to a mere few feet. The beauty of this location and the sensation of being enclosed by a gorge is unlike any other hiking experience in the world, and is a must for any traveler who has even the slightest interest in having an adventure during their visit.