Crete is the largest island in Greece, and there are over 6000 of them in the country! Although it may not be as picturesque as Mykonos or Santorini, you will certainly enjoy visiting Crete. It’s a good bet that you are looking for good beaches and are interested in history. We propose you the 25 essential places to see in Crete.
Our advice is to rent a car to tour the island, buses are practically non-existent. Remember, it’s the biggest island in Greece, so you won’t be able to get around it in a day. In fact we think that the minimum necessary (and we are short) to travel to Crete is 3 days. If you have 7 or more, so much the better.
- Balos Lagoon and Gramvousa Island, a little piece of paradise
- Chania and its Venetian port
- Elafonisi Beach, the Greek Caribbean
- Samaria Gorge, the longest canyon in Europe
- The world’s largest collection of soccer team shirts
- Heraklion and the fortress
- The Minoan palace of Knossos
- The beautiful cathedral of Agios Minas
- The Minoan Palace of Phaistos
- Playa Matala, a place full of stories and legends
- Agios Nikolaos and Lake Voulismeni
- Voulisma Beach and Mirabello Bay
- The historic island of Spinalonga
- The historical centre of Rethymnon
- Street food
- The monastery of Arkadi and its exciting history
- Stavros Beach
- Falassarna Beach
- Lake Kournas and its thousand colours
- Loutro, one of the most beautiful villages
- The beautiful windmills of Lasithi
- The hidden beach Seitan Limania
- Gortina, a historical site
- Chrissi and its beaches
- The cave of Zeus
Balos Lagoon and Gramvousa Island, a little piece of paradise
We’ve never seen a beach like Balos Lagoon before. The thousand shades of blue in the water melt into the white sand. It is quite a touristic place, but we did not find it overwhelming at all because the lagoon is very spacious. Without any doubt, it was our favorite place to see in Crete.
How to get to the Balos Lagoon
You can reach the Balos Lagoon with a rental car. Keep in mind that the last 9 kilometers are on unpaved roads. If you have any incidents the car rental companies are not responsible, so it is advisable to take a car a little higher to avoid problems. You have to pay 1 euro to get to the car park. To get to the lagoon from the car park you will have to walk about 15 minutes on a dirt track. But I’m sure you’ll get over it very quickly with the piece of view there.
If you don’t have a car or you prefer to go more quietly there is a boat that leaves daily from the port of Kissamos. The big advantage is that, besides seeing the Balos lagoon, you will stop at the island of Gramvousa (inaccessible in any other way). It has a spectacular beach and a fortress at the top of the island with beautiful views.
Book the boat trip to the Balos and Gramvousa lagoon
Chania and its Venetian port
If we were to have only one city to see in Crete, it would be Chania. Not so much because of the city itself (which is also good) but because of the amount of wonderful places you can visit around it.
If you have a few hours to walk around Chania you can’t miss its beautiful harbour, decorated with restaurants and houses with colourful facades. The port was made during the Venetian era and became one of the most important in the eastern Mediterranean.
Elafonisi Beach, the Greek Caribbean
You can’t miss this turquoise water beach with fine pink sand, it looks like the Caribbean! The remains of shells on the shore make the sand look pink. The water is better than a pool, crystal clear, shallow and calm despite being quite windy. For all this, Elafonisi is part of the Natura 2000 site protection programme. It can be easily reached by rental car or by booking a tour from Chania.
The 10 best beaches in Crete.
Samaria Gorge, the longest canyon in Europe
If you like hiking, Samaria Gorge is a must see in Crete. It is the longest canyon in Europe, with 16 kilometres. It is the path that goes down from the highest mountains of Crete (1230 meters) to the sea level. On the way you will see spectacular landscapes and, if you are lucky, some native animals such as the kri-kri goat.
The path is not very complicated technically, but the walk is quite hard. You will spend from 3 to 6 hours walking under the sun. During the winter months the trail is closed for safety. The entrance to the trail costs 5 euros.
The world’s largest collection of soccer team shirts
One of the most curious places to see in Crete is the Museum of the Greek Football Team. It has a collection of hundreds of shirts of national teams from all over the world, not only the Greek one. It’s a real gem for football lovers, as you can see jerseys signed by the greatest players in history.
The owner is super attentive and you can see his passion for each of the objects on display. As soon as you enter, he explains the most famous shirts, what that game meant and the story of how he got the shirt. He even let us put up the replica of the Euro that Greece won in 2004. The entrance is free.
Heraklion and the fortress
Heraklion is an almost obligatory place to see in Crete. The vast majority of ferries arrive at the port of this city and the airport is also there. So, even if you’re just passing through, you’ll probably be in the capital of Crete for at least a few hours.
To tell the truth, the city does not have as many attractions as other parts of the island. But during a visit to Heraklion you can’t miss the fortress that surrounds the port. It was built in the 13th century, after the Venetians conquered the city. Over the centuries it has served a variety of functions: from storing food to recruiting prisoners.
The Minoan palace of Knossos
About 5 kilometers from Heraklion you can see the remains of the palace of Knossos. Built around 2000 BC, it was the political and cultural centre of the Minoan civilisation. Knossos is considered the oldest city in Europe and in its time of splendor had up to 100,000 inhabitants.
The ruins of the palace were discovered in 1878 and since then several archaeologists have tried to reconstruct some of the 1200 rooms of the huge complex. The palace had to be rebuilt after an earthquake, but with the eruption of the Santorini volcano in 1450 BC came its final destruction, which led to the end of the Minoan civilization.
The entrance fee is 15 euros. Access is free for children under 18 and students from the European Union.
The beautiful cathedral of Agios Minas
Don’t leave Heraklion without visiting its Orthodox cathedral. It’s one of the biggest we saw during our trip around Greece. Its central dome and the two towers are impressive. It was finished in 1895, after several decades of standstills due to the Cretan Revolution against the Ottoman occupation. It is dedicated to San Minas, the patron saint of the city. Right next door you can see an even older small temple dedicated to the same saint.
The Minoan Palace of Phaistos
Phaistos (or Festos) was another important city during the Minoan period. The remains of the Phaistos Palace, with a central courtyard and simpler architecture than the Knossos Palace, are much less crowded. So it’s a good place to see in Crete without being overwhelmed.
It was in this palace that the mysterious disc of Phaistos was discovered in 1908, a clay disc with inscriptions on both sides. It follows one of the greatest mysteries of archaeology, as its origin and purpose have yet to be discovered.
Playa Matala, a place full of stories and legends
At the end of the 1960s Matala Beach became famous for hosting the followers of the hippie movement. Many came to life inside the caves built by the Romans as tombs centuries before. Now it is difficult to find the peace of that time, as it has become one of the most famous beaches in Crete. Surrounded by cliffs and caves, it has a unique landscape.
According to the legend, Zeus became a bull to conquer Princess Europa. He managed to kidnap her and bring her to this beach before raping her and leaving her pregnant.
Agios Nikolaos and Lake Voulismeni
Agios Nikolaos is the main city east of Crete. Despite being a very touristy place, it manages to preserve that feeling of a fishing village with a lot of charm. The most special feature of this town is the Voulismeni Lake, which communicates with the sea. The whole harbour area is surrounded by shops and restaurants with colourful facades that give it a beautiful touch.
Voulisma Beach and Mirabello Bay
Agios Nikolaos has a small beach to touch from the center that makes the arrangement. But if you want a place to spend the day, we recommend you to go about 10 kilometers away from the village and discover Voulisma beach. It is spacious, with beautiful water and quite warm by Greek standards. It is located in the Mirabello bay, an area with beaches that are very worthwhile.
The historic island of Spinalonga
From the port of Agios Nikolaos a boat leaves daily for the island of Spinalonga. It was not always an island, as it was separated from the mainland during the Venetian occupation of Crete. It was precisely the Venetians who gave it this name.
Spinalonga is a somewhat mysterious place, as it served as one of the last leper colonies in Europe, closing down in 1957. You can still see the ghost town, with the ruined buildings abandoned ever since.
The round trip by boat from Agios Nikolaos costs 16 euros. Before arriving at Spinalonga you stop at Kolokitha bay, where you can swim.
The historical centre of Rethymnon
Among the great cities of Heraklion and Chania is Rethymnon, the third largest city to be seen in Crete. Although it is usually in the background in terms of tourism, we liked it very much. Its historic centre is beautiful: it has stone buildings, flowers hanging from the facades and Venetian courtyards. Luckily it has never suffered any natural disasters and is one of the best preserved on the island. The atmosphere is very lively thanks to the shops and restaurants that open late in the summer. The most photographed spot in the city is the Rimondi fountain, built in 1626 in the heart of Rethymnon. Don’t miss the Venetian fortress either.
You can’t leave Crete without trying some of the island’s most typical delicacies. As in all of Greece, both Greek yoghurt and honey-fried feta cheese are impressive. Don’t miss the dakos as an appetizer, a toast with crushed tomatoes, cheese and olive oil on top. But the island’s specialty is two very strong liqueurs made from grapes: raki and ouzo. Drink them with caution!
The monastery of Arkadi and its exciting history
Near Rethymnon is one of the most historic places to see in Crete. The monastery of Arkadi has been a spiritual, religious and scientific centre for almost eight centuries. Its Venetian church, located in the central courtyard, is a beauty. It can be reached by bus from Rethymnon and the entrance costs 3 euros. Besides the beauty and peace that the place transmits, you must know its history.
The monastery was a key site during the revolution against the Ottoman occupation in 1866. Almost a thousand people took refuge there during a battle and after three days, when everything was against the Cretans, they decided to bomb the monastery and sacrifice rather than surrender to the enemy. That act managed to attract the attention of the rest of the world and the Arkadi monastery is a symbol of resistance to the Ottomans.
Stavros has grown from a fishing village to a great tourist destination thanks to its spectacular beach. Besides having fine sand and turquoise water, the most original thing is the surrounding landscape. Next to Stavros beach there is a mountain famous for having appeared in the final scene of the film Zorba the Greek, with Anthony Quinn as the main character. Focusing on the beach, it has all kinds of services: showers, beach bars and restaurants on the promenade. So it’s great to spend a few quiet days staying in one of Stavros’ hotels.
Another recommended stop in Crete for beach lovers is Falassarna. It is not just one beach, but a group of five. They have gone out a lot of times in rankings with the best beaches of the island, so you can’t miss them. Its white sand makes the blue color of the water look great.
Try to go on a day that is not too windy, because Falassarna is quite exposed and there may be some swell. Mind you, surfers rub their hands together. Thanks to their west facing location, these beaches have great views of the sunset. Falassarna can be easily reached by bus from Chania or Kissamos.
Lake Kournas and its thousand colours
The only freshwater lake to be seen on Crete is in the middle of the island. Lake Kournas is not very big, but it’s worth stopping to see. The most curious thing is to see how the tonalities of the water change according to the light. You can rent a boat to tour it, walk along its shore or even take a bath when the water level drops in late summer.
Loutro, one of the most beautiful villages
This little town of 50 inhabitants multiplies its population in the summer months, when most of the people who walk its streets are tourists. But even so, it’s one of the most peaceful corners of all Crete. It can be reached in 20 minutes by ferry from Chora Sfakia.
Its little white houses piled up on the cliffs look like they’ve been painted. The village is surrounded by mountains where you can go for a walk and also by turquoise water beaches where you can take a bath on your way back. This is an ideal stop in Crete to spend the day, although if you want to take it easy you can stay in one of its few hotels overlooking the sea.
The beautiful windmills of Lasithi
The Lasithi plateau has one of the most curious landscapes to see in Crete. The small villages that occupy the area are surrounded by hundreds of traditional windmills with white blades.
During the last century the force of the wind was used as a motor for the irrigation systems of the crops. Now the new techniques have made them obsolete, but the Lasithi wind farm was once the largest in the world, with thousands of windmills.
This small cove 20 kilometers from Chania is a real paradise to see in Crete. Its name comes from the time of Turkish rule. Seitan means Satan in Turkish, while Limania is port in Greek. It is considered a “cursed port” because of the big waves in the area. But quiet, that the cliff protects perfectly from the bad sea and the water in this cove is a wonder: crystal clear, calm and with an ideal temperature.
How to get to Seitan Limania beach
If you drive there you must drive very carefully on the last stretch to the beach. The road has very sharp curves, there are no guardrails and rocks can fall off. If you prefer, you can get there by bus from Chania for 3 euros.
The path from the car park to the beach is quite steep and it is advisable to wear closed shoes to avoid slipping on the stones. It is best to arrive first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds. As it is a small beach it fills up very quickly.
Gortina, a historical site
This is another of the many places to see in Crete if you are interested in archaeological sites. It is a unique complex as it preserves ruins from the Neolithic, Minoan and later Roman periods. It was then that the city was at its peak, being the centre of power in Crete.
The most interesting place today is the remains of the Basilica of Agios Titos. It was built in the 7th century, following the Byzantine style, and marks the place where St. Titus was martyred. The entrance costs 6 euros.
Chrissi and its beaches
South of Crete is the island of Chrissi, a true paradise thanks to its dreamy beaches and its cedar forest that occupies the heart of the island. Please note that it is part of the Natura 2000 protection programme. Therefore, it is forbidden to take shells from the shore and, obviously, to throw garbage, make bonfires or anything of this style that you would not do on any beach.
To get to this beautiful island you have to take a boat from the village of Ierapetra. Most leave in the morning and return in the mid-afternoon, so you have time to enjoy your day at Chrissi.
The cave of Zeus
Did you know that there are over 3,000 caves on the island? To finish our list of things to see in Crete we couldn’t leave out the most famous one. Near the village of Psychro is a cave where, according to legend, the titan Rhea gave birth to Zeus.
Other versions say that she hid him there to protect him from his father, Cronus, who wanted to swallow the baby. Because of this myth, the Dikteon cave is the most visited. You can imagine the legend and see its stalagmites and stalactites for £6.