Crete, Greece is the largest of the Greek islands, and due to its prime location between three continents, takes rich cultural influence from Europe, the Middle East and even Africa.
Crete is well known for its eclectic mix of endless mountains, stunning beaches and stylish nightlife. Crete’s tallest and most famous mountain is Mount Ida, the highest in Greece at almost 2,500m. The island is literally surrounded by beaches and lagoons, two of which boast the phenomenon of naturally pink sand. And as for nightlife, well – you just need to take a look at any of Crete’s many popular towns and cities to know they would make for a great holiday.
Crete’s population is 650,000, but unlike many places, this number is shrinking year on year, likely due to the volume of tourists the island sees. As well as its beloved tourists, Crete’s economy relies heavily on agriculture, the majority of which produces winemaking grapes and olives. This ultimate travel guide to Crete will show you all the most beautiful places in Crete, what to expect when visiting, where to stay in Crete and things to do in Crete which will help you in planning a trip to Crete.
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How to get to Crete, Greece
Crete isn’t connected to the European continent by land, so the most popular way to travel there is by plane. There are two main airports; Heraklion (the island’s capital city) and Chania (another city on the north coast of the west side). You can catch a direct flight from many cities in Europe, but if you’re travelling from further afield you will need to make a connection.
If you are able to travel into Athens, there are several ways you can continue on to Crete. Of course, you can take a connecting flight to Chania or Heraklion without leaving Athens Airport. You can also take a ferry to several ports in Crete, including Chania, Heraklion, Kissamos and occasionally Sitia in the far east. Some ferries do run during the day, but the majority are overnight ferries, leaving around 9pm and arriving between 5-7am the following day.
What to Expect in Crete, Greece
It’s no surprise that the locals in Crete speak Greek, along with a number of unofficial minority languages. You will find that most of the locals and travel operators speak English, however, thanks to their economic reliance on tourists from all over the world. Of course, it is always recommended to learn a few pleasantries in the local language, but you won’t have any problems speaking English.
As in the majority of Europe, the local currency is euros. A lot of places will accept card payments, but it is still advisable to carry cash, just in case! There are also lots of charming street stalls and smaller shops that don’t have the facilities to take card. No other currencies are widely accepted in Crete, and it is standard for cash machines to charge 2-3 € for making a withdrawal.
Although Crete is not a dangerous place, it is always wise to have your wits about you and maintain your personal safety in Crete. The biggest threats are pickpockets and small-time scam artists that will specifically target tourists.
How to Get Around Crete, Greece
Crete has a reliable, well-established bus service, both intercity and within each town. They are a great way to get around Crete, however, they are not always the easiest to navigate. Each city has a local bus app you can download, but believe me when I say they are ancient! They do work, but they function like they haven’t been updated since the invention of the internet. It is cheaper to buy a bus ticket from a local corner shop before you get on than it is to purchase a ticket on-board.
Taxis are generally reliable, safe, and cheap way to get around Crete. The best way to make sure you’re getting a good price is to ask your hotel or accommodation to call one for you. They will usually be able to recommend a taxi company (or even give you the number of a specific driver!) to bring you home.
Many car rental companies operate on Crete, although they do book up far in advance. If you want to rent a car in Crete, be sure to make a reservation before you go!
The Best Time to Visit Crete, Greece
Crete has quite a typical mediterranean climate, with a little extra wind thanks to the differing pressures between Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean Sea. If you want to soak up some sun, you’ll want to visit between May and September, when Europe’s glorious summer is in full swing. So far south, you’re sure to get some sunshine.
If you’re more of a party person, the town of Rethymno holds a month-long festival between February and March each year. You’ll find many of the locals in colourful outfits, dancing, singing and partying in the streets. Throughout the winter, the average lows are 9-11 degrees celsius. Warm? No. Warmer than most winters? Definitely. If you’re looking to escape the winter of northern europe, Crete might just be the place for you.
Where to stay in Crete, Greece
Each city in Crete also has something unique to offer; Chania has a more charming old town, with winding alleys and local street vendors. Rethymno, however, has a better nightlife, and better beaches right there in front of your hotel. If you want easy access to just about everything, Heraklion has the best connections to the rest of the island.
If you’re looking for something more up-market, there are long stretches of gorgeous all-inclusive resorts in every city. The kind that make you turn your head to look at the glass-fronted all-you-can-eat buffet as you walk past lucky guests with a view the beach. In Chania, most of these hotels are found in Platanias. In Rethymno, check out places in Adelianos Kampos, or for Heraklion, try Agios Dimitrios. Of course, in the capital city, even the best beachfront hotels are outside of the city centre.
Mid-range hotels in Crete come in all shapes and sizes; there is no shortage of options. Chania and Heraklion have the largest range of mid-range hotels. Some favourites are: Dom Boutique Hotel, Megaron Hotel, and Infinity City Boutique Hotel. If you want something a bit more flexible on a mid-range budget, or want to stay in a smaller town, self-catering apartments are available all over the island. Self-catering apartments almost always come with a swimming pool and bar or restaurant on-site (although do check before you book!). In Rethymno, Pepi Boutique Hotel is an adults only aparthotel, located in Rethymno Old Town with incredible luxury at amazing prices.
In Chania, there are some amazing hostels at budget prices, including Cocoon City Hostel, Diana Guesthouse and Kumba Hostel. If you don’t mind staying a little further outside of the city, you also have the option of Camping Chania, offering pre-built tents and cabins. Although the accommodation may be a little more simple, you get access to great facilities, including a huge pool, bar and restaurant onsite, something you don’t get from a hostel!
Options in Rethymno are slightly more limited, but Rethymno Youth Hostel has great reviews and a low price point.
So Young Hostel in Heraklion has the best reviews, location and price point all rolled into one (although the name makes it sound as though it could be a little noisy…). Intra Muros Hostel has equal reviews for an equal price, just a little further out of the centre.
Things to do in Crete, Greece
Each city in Crete brings something a little different to the table, but the great thing is that they’re all within reach of each other. With a rental car, it wouldn’t be difficult to make a day trip from any one city to another. If you want to see the majority of the island, you’ll want to stay in one of the more central cities; the capital, Heraklion, or the slightly smaller, more touristy town of Rethymno.
If you want to see an incredible pink sand beach, you can choose one of two; Elafonisi and Balos Lagoon. Both of these places can be tricky to get to, and the incredible pink sand is not guaranteed to make an appearance!
Elafonisi is on the far west coast of Crete, most easily accessible from the city of Chania. You can drive yourself, take the public bus, or take a day excursion. The only downside to day excursions, and even the public bus, is that they leave you on the beach with hundreds of other tourists at the exact same time. If you want a little peace and quiet, the best way to see Elafonisi is to rent a car, and set off first thing in the morning.
Balos Beach is a little more difficult to reach. Although there is a road, most car rental companies won’t give you permission to make the journey, because the roads are treacherous and not designed for an average saloon! Instead, the most popular way to get there is to take a bus or car to Kissamos, then take the one-hour ferry up and around to the lagoon.
You can organise this yourself, buying bus and ferry tickets separately, or organise a day trip to pick you up from your accommodation and organise the whole day for you. Most ferry trips will take you to Gramvousa Fortress on the way, or on the way back from Balos Beach. These castle ruins are well worth the view, but be warned there are a lot of stairs to climb before you reach the top!
Crete has an impressive range of mountains and gorges, many of which you can hike yourself or see on a tour. Some of the most popular are Imbros Gorge, Samaria Gorge, Tromarissa Springs and Rouvas Forest.
There are also smaller Greek islands you can visit off the coast of Crete, including Gramvousa Fortress and Spinalonga, the ruins of a former leper colony. You can take a boat trip to Spinalonga from Agios Nikolaos or Elounda, and spend a few hours exploring the ruins, admiring the waters and learning about the tiny islands’ unique history. A snack bar is available on the island right beside where the boats dock, but it is quite expensive, so make sure you stock up on food and water before you go!
If cultural experiences are up your street, the Palace of Knossos will be a must. Just twenty minutes south of Heraklion by car, this site is easy to access and would make a good first or final stop if you’re travelling in and out of the capital. A combination of natural ruins and a reconstruction of the original building give an impressive image of this long-forgotten minoan palace. Many tales of Greek mythology take place in the Palace of Knossos, including stories of a Minotaur labyrinth.
What to eat in Crete, Greece
As you can imagine, Cretan food is very similar to food in the rest of Greece. Heavily based on a variety of weird and wonderful meat dishes, you will find something new to eat on every corner. You will also find a traditional Greek salad in practically every restaurant you visit.
Possibly the most famous dish on the menu is Gyros. Your choice of meat, or sometimes a cheese or vegetable alternative (often prepared in a similar way to the Turkish doner kebab) is served complete with salad, sauce and chips, all wrapped up inside a thick flour pita. You can traditionally buy these as a takeaway from street food vendors, or sit down and eat them in a restaurant with a knife and fork.
Cretan cheeses are also a must-try, from the deep-fried plate of saganaki (yes, it is literally a deep-fried block of cheese, served solo) to Kalitsounia, a delicious cheese pastry.
The local culture is so wrapped up in food that you will never struggle to find something delicious to eat. If you’re not feeling so adventurous (or are just missing home) plenty of hotels and restaurants on the tourist stretches cater to foreigners, too.
Tours to do in Crete, Greece
As I mentioned previously, tours can be a great way to organise a trip to Balos Lagoon, Gramvousa Fortress or Spinalonga island. You might also want to take a tour on one of the many available hikes, especially the ones that take you far off-piste. The list of other tours you can do on Crete is almost endless, but here are some favourites to get your inspiration flowing!
Several tour companies run wine and olive tours across the island. As well as admiring the incredible landscape and fertile growing grounds, you can find out how wine is made, from grape to bottle, and tour an olive farm. Many of these tours will also take you to what is believed to be the worlds’ oldest olive tree! Usually included is your transport, entry fees, bottled water and tastings.
If you haven’t already heard enough about Greek islands, try this boat tour to Dia Island. Sailing from Heraklion, this tour will take you to Dia Island’s most beautiful beach, hidden away in a cove to shelter you from the winds and waves of the mediterranean.
You can also take a tour to the Cave of Zeus, often in combination with other sights such as the Lassithi Plateau or a traditional Greek village. The Cave of Zeus was a sacred minoan palace, and rumoured to be the birthplace of Zeus. Largely maintained in its natural form, full of stalactites and filled with water, there is man-made lighting inside and a staircase leading you to the bottom.
If you’d rather stay overground, try a tour to Richtis Waterfall. Hailed as one of the most beautiful natural sights in Greece, this hike up Richtis Gorge to the waterfall at its end is breathtaking. Some of the footing on the trail can be tricky, but it is well worth the journey.
Day Trips from Crete, Greece
In addition to the many I have already mentioned, the most spectacular day trip from Crete has to be Santorini. If you can afford the time, I would definitely recommend staying overnight, but otherwise a day tour is possible. Although you have to make an early start (the boat ride from Heraklion takes 2-3 hours, depending on weather conditions), you’ll forget all about the tiredness once you reach this stunning island.
Straight out of a romcom, Santorini has cascading whitewash buildings from its highest points right down to sea level, creating a view like no other. Once on the island, you will have air conditioned transport taking you from town to town, and a professional travel guide, a sure-fire way to know you’ll make the most of your time on the island.
Recommended tours in Crete
- Semi Private Premium | Catamaran Cruise with BBQ on board & Drinks
- Full-Day Land Rover Safari from Heraklion with Lunch
- Off-Road Buggy Adventure in Crete
- Full-Day Small-Group Tour in Crete
- The Real Cretan Cooking Experience
- Zeus Cave & Lassithi Plateau (Safari Adventure Offroad Excursion)
- Wine & Olive Oil Tastings – Semi Private Safari Tour with Lunch
- Snorkeling and Boat Tour in Crete
- Crete Wine and Olive Oil Tour
- Boat Trip with Guided Snorkeling Tour & SUP in Chania
- The 7 Villages of Apokoronas Tour – Explore East Chania Mainland
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