Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, and floats gently between the Libyan and Aegean Seas.
Here the scent of wild oregano, thyme and sage peppers the air so thickly, 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 explore. It all adds up to a superb travel experience.
Here are ten top things to do in Crete.
260 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. 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.
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 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.
The most popular historic site on Crete is undoubtedly the Minoan Palace of Knossos, located just outside Heraklion. It was discovered by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in 1900. Get there before 10am to beat the crowds and the heat. A guided tour is well worth doing.
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 the attractions and 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.
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, and spot myriad birds along the way. There’s a superb taverna on the beach at the end of the walk.
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.
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.
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, Minos Wines (which dates back almost a century), and popular Lyrarakis Wines.
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 seafood they caught fresh that morning.
Agreco Farm is located in the mountains south of Rethymno, and offers an insight into traditional farming, raki brewing, bread making and olive oil production. They also bake 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 Venetian castle. It offers magnificent views.
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
Sydney-based journalist 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 about Greece 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, the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age.