Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and floats gently between the Libyan and Aegean Seas.
The scent of wild oregano, thyme and sage peppers the air so thickly here, that you can savour the sweet perfume for 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’.
Open all year round, Crete is home to 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. Add to that the island’s ancient Minoan heritage to delve into, and you have all the ingredients for a superb travel experience.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Crete.
Two hundred and sixty kilometres long and 56 kilometres at its widest point, Crete has a population of around 600,000 people. Yet in many areas — particularly in the south and in the mountains — you’re unlikely to meet anyone other than the odd shepherd and their flock. For those who like 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. Chania’s Old Port, for example, boasts beautiful Venetian-era buildings, alongside a Turkish mosque, bath houses and public buildings.
To the east, Agios Nikolaos and Elounda were sleepy fishing villages until they featured in the BBC series Who Pays the Ferryman? in 1977. Today they’re popular tourist destinations, but have managed to retain unique identities — thanks to the tenacity of the locals who fiercely guard their culture and heritage.
Crete is an island of ‘greats’, ‘biggests’, and ‘best ofs’. 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 small 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 canyon. It encompasses mountainous pine forests and sheer cliffs, and stretches from the island’s interior to the village of Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea. Those who would like to trace the canyon’s path on foot should set off early and take plenty of water. The walk takes around six hours and is one of the island’s top adventure activities.
There are plenty of opportunities on Crete to explore the past. Located just outside Heraklion, the island’s most popular historic site is undoubtedly the Minoan Palace of Knossos — discovered by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in 1900. Get there before 10am to beat the crowds and the heat. A guided tour will ensure you get the most from your visit.
Head back to town and visit one of Greece’s most important museums — the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. It displays pottery, murals, jewellery and figurines recovered from archaeological digs at ancient Minoan sites around the island. The Heraklion hop on/hop off bus tour is a convenient way to move between these attractions and other historic sites around town.
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.
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, or on 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 also available out to the southerly islands of Chrisi and Koufonisi. Chrisi holds remnants of Minoan civilisation, Roman graves, and the well-preserved 13th century chapel of Saint Nicholas.
Many Greek artisanal skills, which have been abandoned on other islands, are alive and well on Crete. Potters still mould clay in the Minoan tradition (Minos Ceramics), and carpenters and carvers continue to create musical instruments from mulberry (Cretan Lyra Workshop) and art from olive wood (Art on Olive Wood). You’ll even find cobblers making shepherd’s boots by hand, and knife makers crafting traditional Cretan daggers (Cretan Knives) — just as they did centuries ago.
Cretan lace, embroidery and weaving are key components of local culture, and you can still see women weaving on looms and lace tatting in many small villages. The finest examples of these crafts can be found in the Historical Museum of Crete in Heraklion.
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 tradition of slow cooking meals in clay pots around an open hearth. A potter, anthropologist and archaeologist, Jerolyn has profiled the ancient Minoan diet by carbon dating the shards of excavated cookware. Guests take part in preparing, and then enjoying a three-course meal that utilises this age-old style of food preparation.
Crete has a thriving wine industry to match its culinary heritage. Mainly found in the Archanes region of central Crete — local wines are affordable and very drinkable. Visit stunning Boutari, Minos Wines (which dates back almost a century), and popular Lyrarakis Wines.
Hire a car (Crete Travel in Heraklion are highly reputable) and take some time to explore Crete’s coastline of picturesque bays and quaint fishing villages. 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 seafood they caught fresh that morning.
For a taste of rural life, visit Agreco Farm in the mountains south of Rethymno. You’ll gain an insight into traditional farming practices, raki brewing, olive oil production, and bread making. The farm is also renowned for baking the region’s famous Sfakian pies.
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 on the west coast is possibly the island’s most famous beach, 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 ruins of a Venetian castle for sweeping coastal views.
If you’re interested in supporting a worthy local cause, Archelon — the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece — welcomes individuals and family groups interested in volunteering to protect Crete’s endangered sea turtles. Important conservation sites can be found in Chania, Rethymno and Messara, and volunteers camp by the beach during nesting season to protect the fragile nests and hatchlings.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Crete? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Sydney-based freelance writer and tour concierge Francesca Muir fell in love with the Greek blue of the Mediterranean while living on the island of Crete in the late 1980s. She has written 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, and the Sun-Herald and Sunday Age magazines.