Top 7 things to do in Crete

Crete is Greece's biggest island and home to beautiful beaches, cultural sites and historical experiences. Here's our guide on the best places to visit.

By Andy Stevens

Published 6 May 2024

Aerial view of the old Venetian harbor of Rethimno, Crete, Greece

The Greek island of Crete is no ordinary island, embracing a singularly fascinating identity which stems from its place in the ancient world as the epicentre of Minoan culture in southern Europe.

With this in mind, your visit to Crete, Greece's biggest island, is an opportunity to get up close to cultural sites, natural sights and historical experiences like no other.

Mind you, putting Crete's unparalleled ancient history to one side for a moment, a holiday in this hugely popular island comprises every other tried and trusted element of what makes a good break on Greece's best islands.

Included among these are the finest beaches, buzzy restaurants and bars, a vibrant local food culture, plus splendid - at-times soaring - scenery, and charming traditional towns to explore.

Here is your guide to a selection of top things to see, do and savour on your next trip to Crete:

It would be remiss of us not to give a top billing to the superb Cretan climate.

It's customarily Med-hot as standard in summer months when the high numbers of tourists flock, but also wonderfully warm in winter, if escaping northern Europe's brrrr-factor to reconnect with some sunshine is among your main reasons for a visit.

Pleasing temperatures hovering in the mid-teens celsius will greet visitors to Crete in what used to be called the off-season, making this entrancing island a top place for an autumn or winter sun break.

The beauty of Crete's beaches shouldn't be underestimated.

Lazing around on fine sunny sands beside a gently lapping, warm blue sea, Crete's glorious beaches remain an enticing siren call to simple, relaxing old-school holiday joys.

Among the island's top beaches is Balos, on the bay of the same name at the northern end of Gramvousa peninsula.

Balos is simply born to be photographed, as it is by its many visitors.

A shallow blue lagoon perfect for a paddle, fringed by white sands and flanked by a wild natural setting, Balos is best visited by taking a boat trip from the port of Kissamos, which is around 12 miles away.

Then there's Falassarna beach, a long stretch of white sands with a distinctly tropical feel. This can best be reached by taking a bus from Kissamos or from Chania, should you be based in the latter charm-filled seaside city.

The Falassarna area is famed not just for its beaches but its amazing sunsets, while those of you interested in learning about the local archaeology can visit excavations of the ancient harbour on which the town was founded around 333 BC.

And in the many and varied list of other excellent Cretan beaches to discover around the length and breadth of the island's coastline, notable mentions should also be made of the long, sandy beach near the delightful medieval city of Rethymnon, and the beach on the islet of Elafonissos, with its shimmering sands of pink coral and clear blue waters.

Seeing as it is the home island of ancient Minoan culture, a visit to Crete for the historically-minded among you can be jam-packed - should you choose - with places revealing remnants of this past civilisation, reputedly Europe's oldest.

But where to begin? Rethymnon is as good as any starting point to brush-up on all things Minoan.

This easy-going small city has well-preserved Venetian and Ottoman architecture from the more recent (well, medieval) past to take in as you explore the place.

Make sure your trek includes Rethymnon's imposing Venetian castle, the Fortezza, within which is the impressive domed 1647 mosque of Ibrahim Han.

To take things way back, however, Rethymnon's archaeology museum and the Minoan necropolis at nearby Armeni are a must for visitors wishing to grasp a sense of Rethymnon's ancient cultural legacy.

Dating back more than 4,000 years, famous Knossos with its Minoan palace is the grandee of all the island's treasured and well-preserved archeological sites - with superlatives and mythology to match.

The capital of Minoan culture, excavations have concluded that Knossos is probably Europe's oldest known city, and alongside that one of the world's most significant Bronze Age sites, the earliest settlement of the place possibly going as far back as the Neolithic period, some 7,000 years BC.

In Greek mythology, it is claimed that the labyrinth beneath Knossos palace was home to the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull, horror-progeny of the wife of King Minos.

Modern-day visitors will be relieved to learn that this worrying mythical beast has been long since becalmed.

The vast Knossos site still reverberates with a sense of power and might of a long-lost civilisation.

A definite on your must-visit list, Knossos is just three miles southeast of Crete's capital Heraklion, in the valley of the Kairatos River.

And while you're in Heraklion, the capital's excellent archaeological museum houses an illuminating collection of Minoan finery including jewellery, pottery, murals and figurines, and is well worth a diverting couple of hours on your visit.

Keen to find out more about traditional life on Crete in times past? Then in popular Hersonissos, right on the Bay of Malia, you'll find the Lychnostatis Open Air Museum to help you do just that.

Lychnostatis is an unstuffy museum in every sense. Well, being outdoors it would be. Its mission is to keep alive and cherish the traditions of Cretan folk culture.

It succeeds in this by giving visitors a hands-on insight into the old ways of rural life for ordinary Cretans, before the modern age and tourism started to encroach.

There is a traditional farmers' cottage to visit plus other buildings, including a windmill and an old-fashioned school room.

You can also see a vintage olive press, learn how the local 'raki' fire-water was made, enjoy the sensory pleasures of the herb garden and more, all in a picture-perfect authentic setting.

Chania is the pretty seaside city in Crete that visitors never fail to enthuse about.

In fact, Chania redefines pretty, with its bright-coloured, sun-kissed buildings of Venetian and Turkish provenance and atmospheric narrow streets for shopping, stopping and a spot of gentle, general mooching.

Chania is an excellent base on Crete's northern coast from which to explore further afield on trips to the island's mountain villages and wondrous gorges.

But most of the immediate plaudits from those who visit this special town end up focusing on Chania's delightful Venetian harbour.

Complete with its charming lighthouse at the end of the harbour arm, Chania's waterfront port area is a magnet for those time-honoured pursuits which simply make a relaxing holiday in anyone's book: plenty of traditional restaurants and bars for sampling local culinary delights, and an atmospheric spot for al fresco people-watching.

And one other thing: make sure you pay a visit to Chania's excellent maritime museum while you're in town, which gives absorbing insights into the heritage of this historic trading port.

Samaria Gorge in western Crete's White Mountains is the island's greatest natural wonder. And it's well worth taking time out during your stay for a coach excursion to witness the majesty of the gorge and its surrounding Samaria National Park.

The spectacular gorge runs for a length of almost 10 miles, is 500 feet at its widest and a mere nine feet at its narrowest, eventually tumbling to sea level from its near-4,000 feet highpoint down to the village of Agia Roumeli and the Libyan Sea at its base.

As for the local wildlife in and around Samaria Gorge - discounting sightings of seasoned trekkers in full mountain mufti out for a serious yomp - you may be lucky enough to spot golden eagles at their soaring best.

Or if you're really on a roll, shy and ultra-rare mountain goats known as kri-kri have occasionally been known to break from their mountain cover; gentle creatures which have perfected living a quiet and elusive life in these parts.

If you love flowers and plants, you'll be pleased to hear that no fewer than 450 different types of plant species thrive in the Samaria Gorge region. Visit the gorge and mountains in spring to see these glorious natural blooms in their pomp.

Tempted by a holiday to Greece and her islands? Find out more about Greek holidays, including an archaeology holiday in Crete and a Crete tour with an Aegean cruise.

Recent articles