Crete Holiday Planning Guide
The largest of the Greek islands, Crete offers travelers more than just sun, sea, and sand. Famed for its warm hospitality, outstanding infrastructure, and contrasting landscapes, the island represents one of the world's richest areas in terms of history and culture. Crete burst onto the world scene over 4,000 years ago, when it served as the center of the Minoan civilization, one of Europe's earliest organized societies. Despite the island's wealth of developed beaches, the traces of the mysterious and enchanting Minoan empire remain Crete's top attraction, drawing visitors from all over the world. Consider basing your Crete vacation in the island's capital of Heraklion, which provides an ideal base for exploring a renowned Minoan palace complex, the site of Europe's oldest city.
Places to Visit on CreteHeraklion
: The capital of Crete, the bustling port city attracts visitors with a mix of historical sites and modern facilities. The city is the fourth-largest in Greece and a great place to get acquainted with different aspects of Cretan culture.Rethymnon
: Resting in the shadow of an impressive Venetian fortress, this ancient town boasts a picturesque network of cobbled streets lined with shops and restaurants, as well as a long sandy beach for those looking to spend time by the sea.Hersonissos
: Renowned for its nightlife, rows of shops, and restaurants right by the sea, this town is one of the most popular destinations for a Crete holiday.Chania Town
: With its winding cobbled streets, romantic alleyways, boutique hotels, and a selection of bars and restaurants close to the old Venetian port, this town is a true gem in the western part of Crete.Elounda
: Located on a scenic bay and surrounded by beautiful nature, the town of Elounda is home to many luxurious resorts and also offers a more secluded environment.Kissamos
: A small town in the northwest of Crete, Kissamos is the perfect spot for enjoying a peaceful atmosphere and traditional hospitality. Some of the island's most stunning beaches are just a short drive away from the town.Elafonissi
: Definitely one of the most scenic spots in Crete, the small island of Elafonissi is a real tropical paradise, with soft sandy beaches and water so shallow that you can walk to the island from the Crete mainland.Sfakia
: Almost untouched by the mass tourism of the island's Aegean coast, this small town on the Libyan Sea makes a great addition to your Crete itinerary if looking for tranquil surroundings and excursions into nature.Malia
: Popular with the island's younger visitors, Malia is Crete's party capital. With its great selection of bars and clubs, the town boasts one of the liveliest atmospheres in the whole of the Mediterranean.Ierapetra
: Another hidden gem on Crete's southern coast, Ierapetra holds the title of Europe's southernmost city. Surrounded by stunning countryside and untouched beaches, Ierapetra is home to a selection of seaside tavernas as well as a port dominated by a medieval Venetian fort.
Things to Do on Crete
Popular Crete Tourist AttractionsThe Palace of Knossos
: Definitely one of the main places to visit on Crete, this famous archeological site lets you take a stroll among the remains of the palace that once controlled all of Crete, and see the houses and streets of the settlement where European civilization first began.Elafonissi Beach
: Clean, peaceful, covered in soft sand, and next to the calm, shallow, warm sea, this beach is one of the most romantic spots on the island.Spinalonga (Kalydon)
: Hop on a boat to this impressive fortress and learn about its history and its dark secrets.Balos Beach and Lagoon
: Without a doubt, this is one of the most beautiful Mediterranean beaches. Even though it might be a little tricky to get to, for many visitors this is a must on their Crete tour.Rethymnon Old Town
: Wander the cobbled streets, discover your favorite shops and restaurants, see the street performances, and have a drink below the fortress.Old Venetian Harbor
: With its promenade lined with cafes and restaurants bustling with activity, this makes the best spot to experience the spirit of Chania.Aquaworld Aquarium & Reptile Rescue Centre
: The aquarium is the perfect place to see local marine life and a large collection of reptiles from all over the world.Vai Beach
: One of major tourist attractions on Crete, the beach is located right in the middle of Europe's only natural palm forest.Heraklion Archaeological Museum
: Housing an impressive collection of artifacts, including the original frescoes from Knossos, Crete's largest museum is a must-see.Samaria Gorge National Park
: If you're looking to get into the great outdoors on your trip to Crete, consider hiking this iconic gorge, which runs from the top of the mountain to the coast of the Libyan Sea.
Planning a Crete Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit on Crete with Kids
As an island of diversity, Crete has something to offer for visitors of all ages and interests. While the seclusion of the towns on the southern coast might appeal to adults, children and teenagers will likely find the busier northern cities much more exciting. Heraklion
and Chania Town
are especially good choices for a family holiday on Crete, not only because of the local attractions, but also for the proximity to some of the best outdoor attractions and historical sites in Crete.
Things to Do on Crete with Kids
Hiking or having fun at beaches are definitely things that active, outdoorsy kids will find thrilling, but you can also head to Limnoupolis Water Park
and enjoy a variety of pools and slides. At Cretaquarium Thalassocosmos
children can see sharks, turtles, and many other marine species face-to-face. For young travelers with a taste for history, opportunities for sightseeing in Crete are abundant, from castles and ancient towns to walled monasteries like Sacred Monastery of Arkadi
Tips for a Family Vacation on Crete
The best vacation ideas on Crete include quite a bit of moving around, both because of the island's size and the distances between the most famous attractions. Renting a car is a much better choice than relying on public transportation, especially if you're traveling with young children. Bear in mind that a good number of historical sites, as well as some beaches and old towns, might be difficult to navigate with a stroller, so bringing a baby carrier might save you a lot of trouble. One of Crete's main advantages is that many attractions, even though not specifically children-oriented, appeal to both kids and adults, so you won't have to make too many compromises when planning your itinerary.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday on Crete
Cuisine of Crete
For gourmand travelers, a trip to Crete offers an opportunity to explore a variety of local cuisines. Recognizable Greek specialties, such as moussaka and souvlaki, are readily available on the island, but there's also a selection of local recipes that you won't find anywhere else in Greece. Somewhat surprisingly, traditional Cretan cuisine doesn't include a lot of seafood, but rather relies on homegrown vegetables, olives, dairy products, and meat, especially lamb. Stuffed zucchini flowers are a perfect snack on a hot summer's day, and if you're feeling adventurous, try the traditional snail dishes. Sampling local cheeses is another must during your Crete holiday; the best introduction to these sheep-milk and goat-milk varieties is walking through a local farmer's market. Try, for example, the Atsalenion Wednesday market in Heraklion
Even the smallest coastal towns have a selection of restaurants. But for a more authentic feeling, head to the inland villages, such as those near Rethymnon
, and taste home-cooked specialties at one of the rustic tavernas. While ouzo is the favorite spirit of most Greeks, the Cretans prefer raki, a locally made grape brandy often flavored with honey or lemon, which is served as an aperitif or digestif. Crete also has a long tradition of winemaking, and some of the island's best wines come from Moni Toplou
Shopping on Crete
Two things that Cretans are most proud of are their history and their local products. Ever since the Minoan era, Crete has been famous for its pottery and ceramics. Small, family-owned workshops that make these items can still be found all over the island. For the biggest collection of workshops in one place, stop by Margarites
, a picturesque village where almost every house has a ceramics kiln and a shop. Crete has one of Europe's oldest traditions in growing olives and making olive oil, and you can find these superior products all over the island. If you're looking for fresh food, whether fish, meat, dairy, fruit, pastries, or vegetables, visit the farmer's markets in the larger towns and immerse yourself in the abundance of flavors, aromas, and colors. Finally, keep in mind that every coastal town and tourist resort has at least one shop where you can purchase souvenirs to remind you of your trip to Crete.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Crete
History of Crete
The history of Crete is exceptionally rich, even by Greek standards. The island was home to Europe's oldest civilization, the Minoan, which thrived during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE. The monuments of this period, including The Palace of Knossos
, rank among the top tourist attractions in Crete.
During the classical period Crete lost its dominant role in the Mediterranean world and fell under the influence of Greece and Rome, but commerce and culture on the island continued to flourish. Together with the numerous pieces from this period that you can see in Heraklion Archaeological Museum
, Crete is dotted with archeological remains from these times, such as Ancient Aptera
In the early Middle Ages, control of Crete was contested between the Byzantine Empire and the Arab conquerors. Despite their victory in this struggle, the Byzantines didn't enjoy the spoils for very long. The Fourth Crusade brought the conquest of Constantinople and the partitioning of the empire's territories. Venetians, the greatest contributors in the crusade, were well-aware of Crete's riches and exceptional strategic location and soon established firm control over the island.
The rise of the Ottomans forced Venice to invest heavily into protecting its interests in the eastern Mediterranean, and numerous remnants from this period are clearly visible throughout Crete's cities and countryside. Countless Venetian fountains and lodges were built for the island's new rulers, while walls, fortified ports, and castles like The Castle of Frangokastello
were erected to protect the sea routes and the land from invasion. With the Venetian presence increasing, the spirit of the Renaissance engulfed the island and influenced local artists--the most famous of these is, of course, El Greco.
The Venetian rule lasted until the 17th century, when Crete was conquered by the Ottomans. To see one of the best monuments from the Ottoman period, make sure to add a visit to Hassan Pascha Mosque
to your Crete itinerary.
The 19th century saw numerous rebellions against Ottoman rule, and by the end of the century the island had gained its freedom as an independent state. Soon after, it was united with the rest of Greece, but to this day it proudly displays both the cultural and the architectural marks of its turbulent and diverse past.
In more recent history, Crete was the stage of a significant battle during World War II. Though Greece had managed to resist Nazi invasion for several months, in April 1941 German forces occupied the country. Crete, however, remained free until late May, when it was finally captured by air. The battle was nevertheless disastrous for Germany, which suffered tremendous losses due to a vigorous Allied resistance. War and occupation (which, on Crete, lasted until May 1945) left scars on all of Greece, and today on Crete you can find numerous memorials to the Allied soldiers and civilians who perished in the Battle of Crete.
Landscape of Crete
Crete is the largest of all the Greek islands, its elongated shape dominated by mountain ranges. Rising up 2,456 m (8,057 ft), Mount Ida (Psiloritis) Tour With Green Tour
is the highest point of the island; this mythological birthplace of Zeus is one of several peaks on Crete where you can see snow even in the middle of summer. Hiking is definitely one of the things to do on Crete, where numerous gorges provide an ideal setting. In addition to the popular treks, you can find more peaceful surroundings at Gorge of the Dead
Crete's coastline touches two seas, the Aegean in the north and the Libyan in the south. Mountains often extend all the way to the coast, depriving the island of spectacularly long beaches, but providing an abundance of secluded bays with towering cliffs rising above the sea. Probably the best and the most scenic example of this is Glika Nera Beach
, accessible only by water.
Holidays & Festivals on Crete
The population of Crete is predominantly Greek Orthodox Christian, and local festivities largely reflect this. Christmas and Easter are the main religious holidays, and are widely celebrated throughout the island with processions, church services, and feasts. Another important religious holiday is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, celebrated on August 15 with services held in all the island's churches. Many Cretans return to their towns and villages from the mainland for the event, so the whole island bustles with activity. Forty days before Easter, carnivals--colorful reminders of Venetian rule--are held in many Cretan towns, with the liveliest in Rethymnon
. Throughout the summer several of the island's larger cities organize music, theater, and visual arts festivals. Additionally, all towns and villages have their local celebrations, such as wine days. While many of these are held in the summer and early autumn, the exact dates tend to vary. If you're planning your Crete vacation according to the local festivities, it's best to check the dates ahead of time.
Crete Travel Tips
Climate of Crete
The climate of Crete is distinctly Mediterranean, with long, dry, warm summers and mild winters. July and August are usually the hottest months of the year, with average temperatures in the low 30s C (low 90s F). The southern coast bears the traces of a North African climate, which tends to be somewhat drier and warmer. The Libyan sea, however, is noticeably colder than the Aegean. This might make an enjoyable contrast on a scorching day; just make sure to feel the water first before jumping in. Even during the summer, the northern coast is often exposed to wind, which creates a pleasant cooling breeze, but can also raise waves on beaches that are not secluded by bays. The wind can also be a real obstacle for cyclists. Rainy days are extremely rare between May and September, and you can easily spend your entire Crete holiday without seeing a cloud in the sky. Apart from the tallest mountains, it rarely snows heavily in Crete; when it does snow, the cover almost never keeps for longer than a day or two, even at the peak of winter.
Transportation on Crete
The major transportation route on Crete is the E75 highway, which runs along the north coast and connects all of the island's major cities. Further inland, and toward the southern coast, there's a wide network of smaller, regional roads that are rarely busy. Due to Crete's mountainous landscape these roads are often very scenic, but they also require an additional level of care while driving, especially at night. Even though major cities are connected by bus lines, cars and motorcycles are the main modes of transportation on the island--if you're considering a rental for your Crete holiday, they are widely available. In addition to the inter-city lines, the island's capital of Heraklion is served by local public buses, while the other cities are generally small enough that you can reach all the sights on foot. There are a few isolated villages, especially on the southern coast, that are still accessible only by sea or hiking trails. Cycling in Crete is a great adventure for seasoned bikers, but frequent steep climbs can prove to be too grueling for those less experienced. Crete has two airports, and frequent ferry lines connect the island with mainland Greece.
Language of Crete
The Cretan dialect is a distinct form of the Greek language, and tends to be more noticeable in the rural areas than in the coastal towns. However, the dialect is related to the mainland Greek closely enough that it just adds to the local flavor, rather than posing an obstacle to communication. Additionally, many islanders have a good command of foreign languages, especially English.