Crete – the largest of the Greek islands – floats gently between the Libyan and Aegean Seas.
Here, the scent of wild oregano, thyme and sage peppers the air so thickly, you can savour the sweet perfume miles out to sea. Perhaps that’s why Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis – author of Zorba the Greek – wrote of his beloved homeland: “Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea”.
Sailing into Crete is visual and olfactory overload. Open year round, the island offers something for everyone, including ancient Minoan culture, crystal clear waters, snow-capped mountains, untameable gorges, and some of the best olive oil, wine and organic fruit and vegetables to be found anywhere in Greece – possibly the world.
Here are ten top things to do in Crete.
Find some quality me-time
260 kilometres long and 56 kilometres at its widest point, Crete has a population of around 600,000, yet in many areas – particularly in the south and the mountains – you’ll be hard pressed to meet anyone other than the odd shepherd and their flock.
For those wanting to be a bit more social, base yourself in one of the four main urban centres – Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Agios Nikolaos. They all bear witness to the island’s tempestuous history of invasion by the Romans, Ottomans, Venetians and Turks. Today, modern architecture sits very comfortably beside ancient monuments. Chania’s Old Port boasts beautiful Venetian buildings alongside a Turkish mosque, bath houses and public buildings.
To the east, Agios Nikolaos and Elounda were once sleepy fishing villages, until featured in the BBC series Who Pays the Ferryman? in 1977. Today they’re popular tourist destinations, but have managed to retain their unique identities – thanks to the tenacity of the locals who fiercely guard their culture and heritage.
Discover an island of greats
In the mountains of western Crete you’ll find the Monumental Olive Tree of Vouves – believed to be around 3,000 years old. It’s possibly one of the oldest trees in the world. Next door there’s a museum dedicated to the humble olive itself.
Cretaquarium near Gournes is one of Europe’s largest aquariums, and boasts amazing displays about the unique species and marine ecosystems of the Mediterranean.
Vai Beach on the north-east coast is home to Europe’s largest natural palm forest, which consists predominantly of the Cretan date palm. Visit from 5pm after the crowds have dwindled to watch the magnificent sunset.
The stunning 16-kilometre Samaria Gorge is Europe’s longest and most famous canyon. It passes through mountainous pine forests and sheer cliffs, down to Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea. For those that would like to trace the canyon’s path on foot, set off early to beat the heat, and take plenty of water. The walk takes around six hours and is one of the island’s top day tour activities.
Escape the Minoan maze in Heraklion
The most popular historic site on Crete is undoubtedly the Minoan Palace of Knossos outside Heraklion – discovered by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in 1900. Get there before 10am to beat the crowds. A guided tour is a worthwhile option.
Back in town, don’t miss one of Greece’s most important museums – the Heraklion Archaeological Museum – which displays pottery, murals, jewellery and figurines discovered at many of the ancient Minoan sites around the island.
The Heraklion Hop On/Hop Off Bus tour is a good way to move between the historic sites around town.
Take a walk on the wild side
Crete is a walker’s paradise. Castello Taverna’s Foraging Walking Tours in Rethymno will immerse you in the magical countryside – while equipping you with a few Cretan survival skills! Forage for wild herbs, vegetables and nuts, and learn how to make local wine, raki and cheese with Vassilis, the owner of a local farm.
Hiking the Gorge of the Dead at Kato Zakros ticks many boxes. You’ll visit a Minoan ruined palace, drink fresh water from an ancient aqueduct, spot myriad birds along the way – and there’s a superb taverna on the beach at the end of the walk.
Book an island boat cruise
As if there isn’t enough to do onshore, Crete also has plenty of offshore islets worth a boat trip.
The island of Spinalonga in eastern Crete is reached by boat from the fishing village of Plaka. You can also book a day tour from Heraklion. With a history dating back to Minoan times, Spinalonga is infamous as the home of one of Europe’s last leper colonies – which closed in 1957. Victoria Hislop’s book The Island gives a heart-wrenching account of the daily lives of sufferers.
Day cruises are available out to Koufonisi island off the southeastern tip of Crete. Discover pristine beaches, Roman ruins and Europe’s most southerly ancient theatre.
About 45-minutes by boat from Ierapetra on the south-east coast is the tiny protected island of Chrissi. Discover remnants of Minoan civilisation, Roman graves and the well-preserved 13th century chapel of Saint Nicholas.
Observe Crete’s handcrafted traditions
Many Greek handcrafts – which have been abandoned on other islands – are alive and well in Crete. Potters still mould clay in the Minoan tradition (Minos Ceramics, Thrapsano), carpenters and artisans still create musical instruments from mulberry (Cretan Lyra Workshop, Rethymno) and Cretan art from olive wood (Art on Olive Wood, Agios Nikolaos). Cobblers continue to make shepherd’s boots by hand (Leather Lane, Chania), and even Cretan daggers (Cretan Knives, Chania) are crafted just as they were centuries ago.
Cretan lace, embroidery and weaving are key components of local culture, and in many villages such as Kritsa you can still see women weaving on looms and lace tatting. The finest examples of these traditions can be found in the Historical Museum of Crete in Heraklion.
Take your tastebuds on a journey of discovery
Food is another integral part of Cretan culture. Key to the island’s Mediterranean diet is the thick green olive oil purported to be the best in the world. The Cretan Olive Oil Farm in Agios Nikolaos produces olive oil, honey, cheese, wine and raki (the local brew), and offers reasonably priced cooking lessons.
Jerolyn Morrison’s Minoan Tastes celebrates the Minoan culinary tradition of slow cooking around an open-hearth in clay cooking pots made on the island. A potter, anthropologist and archaeologist – Jerolyn has profiled the ancient Minoan diet by carbon dating the shards of excavated cookware. Minoan Tastes is an experience not to be missed.
Crete has a thriving wine industry. Mainly found in the Archanes region of central Crete – local wines are affordable and very drinkable. Visit stunning Boutari, organic Creta Wines, Minos Wines (which dates back almost a century), and popular Lyrarakis Wines.
Get off the beaten track
Hire a car (Crete Travel in Heraklion are highly reputable) and take your time exploring Crete’s endless tiny villages and picturesque bays. Don’t miss Loutro (only accessible by boat), Agia Galini, Agios Pavlos and Agia Fotini – all of which have excellent places to stay, and tavernas that serve up whatever they caught fresh that morning.
Agreco Farm – in the mountains south of Rethymno – offers an insight into traditional farming, raki brewing, bread and olive oil production, and the baking of the region’s famous Sfakian pies.
Swim with mermaids
There are hundreds of beautiful beaches around Crete. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bad one. Some will be busier than others or offer more facilities depending on the location.
Elafonissi beach on the west coast is possibly the island’s most famous, while the shimmering, shallow lagoon of Balos beach is a must-see. Book a day cruise/tour and take the short walk from the anchorage up to the Venetian castle. It offers magnificent views.
Enjoy family friendly Crete
Crete is an exceptional destination for families. Archelon, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece welcomes families to volunteer to protect endangered sea turtles. Important project sites can be found in Chania, Rethymno and Messara. Volunteers camp on beaches during the nesting season to protect the nests.
Little Train Tours in Agios Nikolaos offers family friendly daily trips into the mountains overlooking the island of Spinalonga, and to the village of Kritsa.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Crete? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Sydney-based journalist Francesca Muir fell into photography while living on the island of Crete in the late 1980s. Living with that Greek blue is a writer and photographer’s dream, so it came naturally to combine the two. Francesca has written and photographed for Living Postcards, Crete Travel, Politismosmuseum, Stigmez, Athens News, TV Soap, Soap World, Gourmet Traveller, Vogue Entertaining, Vogue Living, ITA, Way to Go, Travel Abroad, Sun-Herald & Sunday Age magazines. She lives to breathe Mediterranean air, peppered with wild thyme and oregano, swim in azure seas and bathe in that Greek light which has mesmerised so many for so long. In 2018 Francesca is joining The Cape Club and taking small groups to Crete (and other islands) to show them why she calls it her spiritual home.