Many people choose to visit Greece via cruise ship, stopping at the popular islands of Santorini and Mykonos along the way. Often cruise ships leave from Athens or also commonly from Rome or Venice in Italy, although there are a multitude of cruise options in this area. I understand the draw; it’s much easier to let someone else choose the itinerary and take care of everything along the way.
I often travel differently than most people, however, so it’s fitting that when I went to Greece, I chose to spend the majority of my time on the island of Crete. It was considerably cheaper to fly into Athens instead of Crete, so I spent a few days in Athens and saw the major sites there. Although I liked Athens, I didn’t really love it, as you can read here: I’m Sorry but I Just Didn’t Love Athens.
Options for traveling from Athens to Crete are by ferry, which take from 7.5 to 11 hours, or to fly, which takes a mere hour flight time. This was a no-brainer for me, so I flew and arrived in Chania on the northwest coast, where my hotel was. You can also fly into Heraklion, further east on the island. Although I wouldn’t recommend having a rental car in Athens, it’s necessary if you want to explore Crete on your own. Drivers in Greece are aggressive and some of the roads in the remote villages are not in the best condition so there are those factors to consider, but if you can manage to stay on the major highways at least the majority of the time, you should be fine.
If you’re staying in the Chania area, just south of here is the White Mountains Protected Forest (Lefka Ori), a great place to hike. This is where you can find Samaria Gorge and Agia Irini Gorge. Both Gorges are easy to do on your own; just pay a small entrance fee and you’re off! The paths are well-marked and well-maintained. Just be sure to bring your own water, snacks, sunscreen, and sturdy shoes.
For views of Crete’s highest mountain, Mount Ida, drive east from Chania to Kouloukonos. There’s a cave and a rocky path to the summit with great views of the area. Very close-by is Ideon Andron, also called Psychro Cave/Diktean Cave, a limestone cavern said to be the birthplace of Zeus.
On the far eastern tip of Crete you’ll find Richtis Gorge near the tiny village of Exo Mouliana. As you can imagine, this area isn’t frequented nearly as much as the gorges on the western area of Crete, so it’s a great place to go if you want to get away from other people. There’s also a stream and a waterfall here, so bring your swimsuit if you want to get in the water.
Another reason to stay in the Chania area is for the beaches, since many of the best beaches are here. In fact, one of the top-rated beaches on all of Greece is in Chania, Elafonissi Beach. This beach has crystal-clear water and soft white sand. The part with sunbeds and umbrellas gets extremely crowded so either come early or late in the day to minimize crowds or find a quiet spot on your own. Balos, Falassarna, Sougia, Glyka Nera, Krios, Marathi, and Loutraki Beaches are all in the Chania region and are all consistently ranked high as far as beautiful beaches in Crete.
Heraklion and Rethimno also have some beautiful beaches including Preveli, Plakias, and Rodakino Beaches (in Rethimno) and Matala and Tymbaki Beaches (in Heraklion). These beaches tend to have coarser sand than the beaches in Chania but they are still great options. Prevali Beach is actually where a river flows into the sea, forming a lake next to the sea, so it’s unique in that sense.
There are four major historical sites in Crete:
Gortyn- site of the Gortyn Code, the oldest and most complete known example of a code of ancient Greek law.
Hagia Triada Royal Villa- Minoan settlement on the western edge of the same ridge as Phaistos. Not as substantial as Minoan palaces.
Knossos- controversial site due to the “reconstruction” by Sir Arthur Evans but nonetheless a significant Minoan historical site thought to have once been the center of political and ceremonial events of the time.
Phaistos- an important center of Minoan civilisation, once the wealthiest and most powerful city in southern Crete.
To avoid ticket lines, you can buy your tickets for archaeological sites, museums, and monuments in Greece in advance through the Archaeological Resources Fund e-Ticketing System found here: https://etickets.tap.gr/.
The Heraklion Archaeological Museum, located in the center of Heraklion city, is one of the top museums in Greece and in Europe as well, sits on the site of a Venetian Franciscan monastery destroyed by an earthquake in 1856. Here you can find Minoan artifacts from all over Crete.
Also worth checking out, especially if you’re staying in Chania is the Archaeological Museum of Chania. This museum in a former Venetian Franciscan monastery houses a wide collection of Neolithic and Minoan artifacts as well as treasures of the late Roman periods.
Crete is a big island and it would be impossible to see and do everything in just a few days or even a week but it is possible to see many of the highlights I mentioned here in a full week. If you have 10 days to two weeks to spend, that would definitely give you more time to fully explore the island and all it has to offer.
Lastly, I would like to say how friendly and kind I found the people in Crete. One morning we drove to what we thought was an open restaurant for breakfast, only to quickly figure out the restaurant was not open yet. My Greek is pretty much limited to knowing the letters of the alphabet and it was clear the restaurant owner did not speak much English, but between us, it was conveyed that our family would like some breakfast.
An older woman quickly went back to what I can assume was the kitchen and whipped up a tasty Greek breakfast for us, and the man and woman both had huge smiles on their faces the entire time. When the bill came it was reasonable and fair. It seemed clear we were their guests and they were happy to have us, even if it was before the restaurant was supposed to be open.
Have you ever been to Crete? If so, what did you do there? Do you have plans to go to Crete someday?