Of all the Greek islands, Crete is the largest and one of the most distinctive. This beautiful island has the most diverse mix of landscapes and stunning beaches. It is a place filled with everything from historic monuments, incredible Cretan food, to mountains and outstanding scenery.
When it comes to exploring Crete, you should consider staying on the island for at least a week. There is a heap of places to see and things to do. Let’s have a look at 12 of the very best places to visit in Crete.
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Without any doubt, Preveli Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in Crete, or in the whole of Greece. This sandy beach is pretty unique with its freshwater river surrounded by a palm tree forest.
The beach is located less than 40km south of Rethymno. You have different options to get here. You can drive to the Monastery of Preveli, where you can find a large parking lot. From the car park, you should take a scenic steep footpath down to the beach. It is not a hard walk and it should take you around 15 to 20 minutes, but you might find it harder on your return when you have to climb back up. If you prefer to avoid the walk, you can drive to Drimiskiano Amoudi and from there walk 5 minutes to reach Preveli Beach.
You can also take a full-day safari tour to the beach or jump on a boat from either Agia Galini or Plakias to get here.
On the west coast, 56km from Chania, you will find Balos Lagoon, one of the most stunning places in Crete and probably one of the most photographed spots on the island. The lagoon of Balos has shallow and warm water, perfect for swimming, and the beach of Balos is also ideal for relaxing and sunbathing.
Driving is one of the ways to get here. Keep in mind that 10km of your journey will be on a gravel and bumpy road and from the parking lot, you need to walk for 30 minutes to the beach. It is worth it though since you will have breathtaking views all the way to the beach.
Balos is a popular destination and can be crowded during peak seasons. If you want to avoid the crowds, get here early in the morning before the boats arrive.
You can also take a daily cruise from Kissamos to Balos and visit Gramvousa on the same day, click here for more information. Take a full-day tour from Chania to Gramvousa Island and Balos Bay, check the prices here.
Chania, also known as Hania, is the second-largest city in Crete, which means that there are plenty of things to see and do. Chania is a lively city and can also be an ideal base for those who want to explore the west part of the island.
Roaming around the narrow alleyways of the Old Town is a must. While in the town, head to the indoor Agora Marketplace, where you can find fresh fruit and Cretan products such as cheeses, olives and raki. Make sure to check out the Old Venetian Harbour, where you can grab food and watch an unforgettable sunset. A fun way to explore the city is taking a guided Segway Tour, which takes you to the Old Town, Venetian Harbor, Nea Chora, Kum Kapi, and Splantzi. Check the prices here.
Getting to know the real Chania and its culture means you should get familiar with its food and people. Taking the wine and olive oil tasting tour, where you will spend a day in family wineries and a local olive oil factory. Check the availability here.
Getting to Chania is pretty easy, you can fly directly from many European cities, including London, to Chania airport.
Elafonissi Beach and Island
On the southwest of Crete, sits Elafonissi, one of the prettiest beaches in all of Greece. It is famous for its pink coral sand and the crystal clear waters of the sea and the lagoon. It used to be deserted and pretty special, but it has become a major tourist attraction. You can still get a taste of wilderness if you walk away from where the road ends and get closer to the island, where you see the lagoon.
You can also walk to the island, the water is usually shallow, up to the knees. On the island, there are no sunbeds or umbrellas, only nature, as this island is a protected nature reserve.
You can drive to Elafonissi Beach or take a tour. If you are staying in Chania you can take the day tour to the beach by clicking here. From Rethymno, you can also take a small group tour to Elafonissi Beach. Check the prices here.
Rethymno, also known as Rethymnon, offers all that is expected from a Greek town: history, charm, amazing architecture and food. It is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Greece and the third-largest city in Crete.
Many tourists choose Rethymno as their base to explore the west of the island, while some prefer to stay only a few days here before moving to other parts of Crete.
By walking through the narrow cobblestone streets, you will see buildings from the Venetian era. Some of the historic buildings have been turned into restaurants, hotels and shops. You can easily find the Turkish influence in every corner such as the towering minaret. Head to the Venetian Harbour, where there are plenty of restaurants and cafes.
By taking the Self-Guided Mobile Tour in Rethymno, you can explore the city on your own and learn about its history and the stories behind the places around you.
Village of Margarites
The mountains behind Rethymnon are home to charming villages such as the village of Margarites. This picturesque village is located just 30km south-east of Rethymno and it is known for its production of ceramics and pottery.
Margarites is one of Crete’s four main pottery centres. The tradition of making pottery has been passed on for generations. You can just pop up to one of the many ceramic shops or pottery workshops, where some of the shop owners are happy to demonstrate pottery making techniques. You can also get your hands dirty and try to make a small pot.
Monastery of Arkadi
Just 23km from Rethymno, you will find the Monastery of Arkadi, one of the most important historic monuments in Crete. It is famous for its unique architecture and its loud bells.
The monastery dates back to Byzantine times while its church was built later on, in 1587. It played an important role in the war against the Ottomans in the 19th century and became a shelter for Cretan rebels until the Turks broke into the monastery and the Greeks including children and women who didn’t want to fall into the hands of the Ottomans, set fire to a gunpowder storage room, killing all of them. This tragedy made the monastery the symbol of the Cretan freedom movement.
You can drive here, but the best way to explore the monastery is by taking a tour. The tour takes you to the village of Margarites, Melidoni Cave as well as the Arkadi Monastery. Check the availability here.
If you are up to cycling and want to visit the monastery, you can take the Arkadi Monastery e-Bike Tour which includes a delicious Cretan lunch at a traditional taverna.
Agios Nikolaos is a charming town situated on Mirabello Bay in eastern Crete. This popular seaside town offers visitors a mix of the modern and the traditional. It is a bit different from all other towns in Crete.
This town faces the sea and it also has a lake. Lake Voulismeni, which is lined with lovely cafes and restaurants, has been the subject of a number of legends. One myth is that the goddesses Athena and Artemis used to bathe here. The lake is connected to the sea with a strip of water under a tiny road bridge.
You can enjoy walking around the town or head to the beaches nearby. Agios Nikolaos is a perfect place for a relaxing holiday trip.
Palace of Knossos
About 7 km south of Heraklion, you will find the Palace of Knossos which is also referred to as “Europe's oldest city”. It is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site in Crete.
Getting to the archaeological site of Knossos is very easy. You can drive 15 minutes from Heraklion or take a bus (number 2) from Heraklion port. You need to pay about €15 for the entry. You can book it online here to skip the queue or purchase the combined ticket for the Archaeological Museum & Knossos with Audio here.
Stunning Gorges in Crete
There are more than 400 gorges in Crete and this is why the island is known as “the King of Gorges in Greece”. Obviously, you can’t visit all the gorges during your trip, but you can visit at least one of them. The top three gorges are Samaria, Patsos and Richitis.
Probably the most popular gorge in Crete is Samaria Gorge and it is easy to guess why. It is the longest trekking gorge in Europe and a 10-mile walk takes you through a stunning UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and jaw-dropping scenery. Getting here by car is not recommended since the hike is quite long and will end far away from the starting points. You can take a bus from Chania, take the Full-Day Samaria Gorge Trekking Excursion from Chania as well (book here) or take the same tour from Rethymno. Check the prices here.
The gorge of Patsos, also known as Agios Antonios, is situated 8 km southwest of the Monastery of Arkadi. The path to the beautiful cave-chapel of Saint Anthony is easy and well-marked. At some point, when you see a waterfall falling into a cave, the path gets narrower and requires trekking skills. For some parts, you might have to walk in the water, especially during the spring. The whole hike through the gorge should take 2.5 to 3 hours.
From Rethymno, driving is the easiest way to get here. You can start the walk from the parking lot.
The Richtis Gorge is situated in one of the most unspoiled regions of Crete on the northeast side of the island. This gorge is famous for its stunning 15-meter waterfall. The path to the waterfall is well marked and you might find some parts of the path challenging. It can take you up to 1.5 hours to get to the waterfall where you can go for a swim.