Crete, birthplace of the mythological Zeus, is Greece’s largest island. Gorgeous beaches, snow-capped mountains, velvety olive oil, and hyper local honey abound. Driving across this beautiful island only takes a few hours, but you’ll experience a whole range of ecosystems.
Crete is not as touristed as islands like Santorini and Mykonos, so you can find beautiful vistas and stunning white beaches without the hordes of people. That said, it’s still a famous island in Greece and you’ll still find tourists, so read on for lodging and travel tips that will take you out of the “package tourism,” zones. My wife and I just spent a week on Crete (out of a three week adventure in Greece) and I’ve got all sorts of tips.
Are you taking a vacation on Crete?
Here are my recommendations for the best things to do on Crete.
- Visit the best Crete beaches
- Visit Chania
- Soak up olive oil culture and eat local honey
- Tour the Palace of Knossos In Heraklion
- Visit this cool coffee shop in Heraklion
- Crete Travel Logistics
Visit the best Crete beaches
Want to visit the most beautiful beaches in Europe? All of Crete’s beaches boast clear water, dramatic coastlines, and mountainous backdrops…so you can’t really go wrong. During summer (especially July and August), the wild and strong Meltemi winds blow from the North. The mountain ranges running east to west on the island temper these winds, making the southern beaches less blustery. This means, if you’re looking for super chill, head south.
Personally, Balos Lagoon enraptured me. It’s on the northwestern tip of the island and holy mackerel it’s gorgeous. Visiting Balos Lagoon is a must. Please be really gentle and respectful when you go, as it’s such a glorious natural asset and it deserves love and care.
Ways to visit Balos Lagoon:
- Rental car: We had a rental car for all our adventures. This means we stopped at least 14 times to take pictures of road goats on the very bumpy, wildly steep, dirt road out to Balos Lagoon that was probably intended only for 4-wheel drive vehicles (not our wee economy car)
- Boat: Ferry in from Chania or Kissamos. Here are one and two companies that provide the service, although I haven’t tried either
- Hired taxi: Pretty much any hotel or lodging will find you a tour guide or hired taxi. Be sure to get a van if you go in a group, otherwise you may end up walking. We saw a four-pack of ladies walking down a particularly steep and rocky section of the dirt road. Turns out the Mercedes taxi they were in was bottoming out
- Bus: From Chania or Kissamos, you can take public transit. It’s roughly two hours from Chania to the car park at the top of the site. Here’s the public transit site for Crete. I think
If arriving by land, you’ll have to hike down a steep, rocky path to reach the lagoon 3/4 mile below. The path is not wheelchair accessible or stroller-friendly at all. We saw two poor dudes schlepping a stroller full of baby stuff down the hill and it looked miserable. The climb back up is steep, but totally doable for most fitness levels, just be sure to wear sneakers. This is not a flip flop-friendly path!
Bonus Road Goats!
There are so many mountain goats. I stand by the extreme cuteness of these sweet, furry beasties. They just clamber up on stuff so dang much. I especially like the goat who took up residency in the honey booth, patiently waiting for customers on the drive to Balos Lagoon.
What to do in Chania
Crete is a mixed bouquet of cultural influences. Thanks to a strategic trade position in the Mediterranean Sea and luscious natural resources, pretty much every nearby power has fought to control Crete over the years. After the decline of the ancient Minoan civilization (the oldest known civilization in Europe) the island was ruled by the Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman Empires (and even pirates). Each of these groups left a distinctive architectural, religious, and social impact on the culture. In 1913 Crete became a part of independent Greece after centuries of outside rule. The small, historic city of Chania sums up these influences and is the perfect landing place for the start of your Crete adventure.
- Explore the breakwater and maritime museum
- Walk through the old city
- Scope out the Yali Tzamisi mosque
- People watch from the harbor cafes
- Have dinner in the historic Jewish Quarter
Explore the Maritime Museum if you’re so inclined. We ducked into their exhibit which recreated a Minoan sea vessel and I was boated out after that.
Walk through the old city
Stroll Chania’s old town and around the historic Venetian harbor which was built between 1320-1356. Look for the domed mosque, Yali Tzamisi, built during the 17th century when the city was under Turkish rule. The historic site now houses intermittent art exhibits. Next, walk out along the breakwater to reach the Lighthouse of Chania built in 1570 and also get fab photos of the harbor and old city.
People watching in Chania
The cafes lining the harbor make for an excellent afternoon resting spot to enjoy a cappuccino freddo (the local summer fave of espresso over ice served in a rocks glass. Cold frothed super creamy whole fat milk floats on top. Dreamy.) Cafe Remezzo has a sweet view over the street scene and is perfect for sipping and people watching.
Darling boutiques line the cobblestone streets behind the harbor. You’ll find locally made goods (olive oils, honey, handicrafts) and typical tourist trinkets. It’s a lovely stroll through the pedestrian streets. You can’t really get lost in Chania, so just turn away from the water and wander. An evening meander through the cobblestone alleys is also a great way to find cute cafes to have a progressive meal.
For dinner pop into Enetikon Restaurant right next to the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter. It’s just off the main tourist drag, feels cozy and inviting, and we loved the live Greek folk music playing during dinner.
We stayed at Notus Hotel in Chania for one night. Our room was modern, clean, and lovely. Our work requires reliable high speed internet, so whether we’re hoteling, Airbnb-ing, or doing a home exchange that’s the first priority. Notus was great WiFi speeds. The remaining week on the island we stayed in a home exchange up in foothills outside of Stalos. Here is a view from our porch:
All in all, the city’s charm makes it a perfect place for exploring the Northwestern region of the island—including its magnificent beaches and olive oil tasting.
Soak up Crete’s Olive Oil
Oh my gosh I love Cretan olive oil. It’s buttery and smooth and everyone drinks it like water.
Olive trees grow everywhere on Crete, covering over a quarter of the island. They line the winding, mountainous roads, they’re carved into artifacts from the ancient archaeological sites, and their fruit is the foundation for every Cretan restaurant. Olives are central to all parts of Cretan society from ancient religion to culture to diet to present day economy. In fact as far back as 3,000 BC the Minoan civilization cultivated olives commercially. Needless to say, Cretan olive oil tastes fabulous. The small but mighty Koroneiki olive reigns supreme on the island.
Ancient Olive Tree
Start with a visit to the world’s oldest olive tree—purported to be approximately 3,000 years old. It’s a lovely drive up into the mountains (everything is a drive up into the mountains as Crete is essentially beaches and crazy gorges and hilltops that turn into mountains). The small, but sweet, Olive Tree Museum of Vouves provides historical and cultural context for the beautiful old beast of a tree. Go say hello.
Modern Olive Oil Production
Next, schedule a tour (7 euros) of Terra Creta. Holy moly we adored this behind-the-scenes look at modern olive oil production. Old and new ways truly mix in this most Cretan of experiences. The facilities feature modern technology customized to work with small-scale, family farming production. The individual farmers drive their individual harvests in their personal trucks (olive branches and all) for processing each season.
Olive oil really is the heartbeat of the Cretan society. It was beautiful to learn that generational olive farming families can survive and thrive in a global economy so dominated by large agricultural companies. After the (truly fascinating) tour we tasted olive oil. Warm, swirl, sniff, sip, aerate, swallow. Repeat. Cretan olive oil has a mellow, less spicy flavor than many of the Italian olive oils we tasted last year. If you want to visit Terra Creta, there are three tours a day, but you have to book ahead (even if only the day before) to participate.
Palace of Knossos
The Palace of Knossos is at the heart of Greek mythology. It’s where Icarus flew too close to the sun while escaping the labyrinth and the dreaded minotaur who guarded the entrance. The palace was also said to be the home of King Minos.
History of Knossos
The Palace of Knossos built by the ancient Minoans, and that civilization thrived between 2000-1350 BC. The area, however, had been occupied since 7,000 BC. I love visiting historic sites where great civilizations once ruled. Seeing my sweet, minute part in the grand scheme of time is humbling. It’s also fun for the imagination to envision what life at (now crumbled) ornate palaces once looked like.
The palace architecture was influenced by the Minoan’s trade with Egypt and beyond. Clean lines and open design made it a far different look than the castles that would come in later years in Europe. The Minoans had plumbing (they piped in fresh water from a nearby mountain), they dealt with sewage and sanitation, and had bathing chambers. There was art and culture and celebrations. They maintained foreign relations and they loved and revered olive oil.
Tips for Visiting Palace of Knossos
If you’re visiting the Palace of Knossos (or any archaeological site, really) here are suggestions to make your experience more fun:
- Hire a guide! Whenever people approach me outside of a cultural site, I usually feel a little on guard. In this case, it’s totally legit. Licensed guides hang in front of the palace entrance and organize groups of up to 8 people who speak the same language to take part in their tour. The tour cost is separate from the palace entrance ticket (which is 15 euros). As of May 2019, a tour cost 80 euros, so they’d organize groups of 8 with each person paying 10 euros. If you dislike the GP (general public) you can pony up the 80 euros for a private guide. Without the guide, this would have been a lovely pile of rocks. With the guide, history, art, and architecture came to life.
- Go in the afternoon. Yes it will be hotter, but almost all the tour buses leave by noon so you’ll have way more breathing room. If you can’t bear the heat, go very first thing when it opens
- Bring a sunbrella. Don’t worry about looking like a nerd. Sunbrella makes being outdoors in the summer sun bearable. And you’re protecting yourself from sun damage, so, win-win
- Bring water. Keep hydrated, sweetheart
- Wear comfy shoes and sunscreen
Crop Coffee in Heraklion
After you immerse yourself in Cretan history, stop for a cappuccino freddo (iced cappuccino) or a cold microbrew at Crop in the port city of Heraklion. It’s walking distance from the center of town but feels tucked away like a little city oasis. Inside you can scope the coffee roasting and their microbrewery doo-dads. The outdoor patio made us feel like we were definitely hanging with the cool locals.
Crete Travel Logistics
From airports to rental cars to driving on Crete, here are a few tips for getting to and around the island.
Driving a rental car
Don’t be scared to drive in Greece. There is a fair amount of lane straddling, but in general having wheels allows so much more freedom to visit sites around this mountainous island that you will really be able to maximize your time and have more freedom to visit sites that are off the beaten path. My wife and I lovingly termed the Italian/Greece manner of hugging the middle or side lane as lane straddling. Also, most roads on Crete being one lane, slower cars are expected to lane straddle into (what we in California consider) the emergency shoulder. It’s normal for cars to cozy up to your backside if you’re going too slow and they can’t zip past you in the one lane. You’ll get the hang of it! Most of all, don’t let the idea of it deter you from driving.
We booked through Enterprise and it was easy as pie. We have a credit card that covers rental car insurance in (most) foreign countries so we save money on paying for coverage through the rental car company. A compact (automatic) rental in late May, with two drivers, for 8 days cost $224 usd. This was relatively steep, but so worth it for the freedom it provided.
Flying to Crete
There are 3 international airports on Crete (which is wild considering the island is roughly 160 miles across its longest point). We flew in and out of Chania from Athens on Aegean Airlines. Tickets were ~ 80 euros. Prices can increase during July and August, and will of course be lower in low season. Tickets were ~20 more to use Aegean airlines, but we were able to earn miles with our go-to airline, and safety ratings for Aegean were far better than for some of the cheaper flights such as Ryanair.
Flights are 30 minutes (ish) and will likely have turbulence so hang tight. But despite being hopper flights you can check baggage so if you, like me, adore outfit options you don’t have to worry about fitting it all in a carry-on. Heraklion and Sitia are the two other airports. Heraklion is on the Eastern side of the island so choose your airport based on your lodging and plans.
Ferries between Athens and Crete take 6-8 hours, depending on winds, currents, etc.