Crete island, located in the south of Greece, is the largest and one of the country’s most beautiful and popular islands. Crete is famous for authentic Greek experiences, mouth-watering food, very hospitable and kind people, rivers of raki drinking, and some of the most stunning historical monuments and beaches not just in Greece but in Europe.
The island is separated into four large regions and this post is about the best sites in those 4 distinct areas. Popular Chania is on the west, authentic Rethymno and historical Heraklion in the middle of Crete island, and cosmopolitan Lasithi in the east. Crete is so versatile that you will need more than a month, or better a lifetime to fully explore the spectacular island.
I cover each region with the region’s capital sites/monuments and the sites/beaches that can be visited in the whole region in general. There is also information about the historical monuments, accommodation and restaurants, the best beaches, and popular outdoor sites, such as the Samaria or Sarakina Gorges. I also provide information on how best to get to each region.
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You can explore the island using the public buses but I would definitely suggest you rent a car.
When is Best to Go to Crete Island
Crete, due to its location in the south of Greece, is one of the warmest and driest areas in the country. In other words, the summer on Crete island is well extended into October, and the wintry months are more or less, mild (although in 2022 winter, it snowed almost everywhere on the island). This makes Crete island a 4-season destination, especially for the Europeans.
Up next I am going to tell you about the best things to do on Crete island!
Chania-Westernmost Region of Crete Island
The Chania region is the most popular area of Crete. Its landscape is characterized by 415 km of stunning coastline while the high Lefka Ori mountains are covered by tiny beautiful villages. The impressive landscape includes gorges, canyons, and untouched protected Natura areas that will fascinate nature lovers.
Its capital town, under the same name, Chania, is one of the most beautiful towns in Greece, where you will find a large collection of civilizations, cuisine, and amazing history. Some claim that Chania is the most beautiful town in Greece. If you ask me I would say Chania and Nafplion in the Peloponnese are both stunning towns.
Chania Map with Sites and Beaches
Find here the interactive Chania Map with the sites that I believe you should visit while you are in Chania Crete.
Top Things to Do in Chania Town
- Visit the Old Venetian port with fortresses, Yali Mosque, 17 Neoria (Venetian shipyards), and meet the mascot of the port: Harry the large Caretta Caretta (feed him with a fresh fish but be careful of your fingers!)
- Have dinner at Pallas Restaurant with an amazing view of the port, especially at sunset
- Go to the municipal market to buy the best traditional products in Chania, seek the local graviera with thyme and the best honey you have ever tasted
- Walk from the port to the Lighthouse, great for a romantic sunset
- Visit the exceptional Archaeological Museum
- Explore the 4 districts of Chania: Kastelli with the narrow alleys, Evraiki, the Jewish district, Topanas, the Christian district, picturesque and a real labyrinth – without a minotaur! -, and go to Splantzia the Ottoman district, and visit the Agios Nikolaos church. This unique church has both a minaret and a dome.
- Go to the modern part of Chania, the Chalepa area with historical mansions, and small shops with local sweets and pastries (try bougatsa sweet). Seek the villa of Eleftherios Venizelos, one of the most important politicians of the 20th century.
- Discover Tampakaria, the old tannery area of Chania, and dine by the sea at ‘Thalassino Ageri‘, a great restaurant for the freshest fish in Chania
- Swim in the nearby Golden beach & Agia Marina beach (Almyra beach bar is great for a snack or a cocktail in Agia Marina)
Where Best to Stay in Chania (My Pick!): Casa Delfino (doubles from €139, B&B), a beautiful 17th-century mansion in the heart of Old Chania city overlooking the port. Alena Apartments (doubles from €32, self-catering) is also very centrally located, offering free bicycle rental, and is pet-friendly. Best hotel in Tampakaria: The Tanneries Hotel & Spa (doubles from €157 Β&Β)
Best Things to Do in Chania Region
- Tour by a boat trip the Satan Limania or the Ports of the Satan with vertical steep cliffs and tiny bays between them with white sand and turquoise waters. You can hike but the easiest way would be by boat. They are called Satan ports because of the intense underwater currents that posed a great danger to the ships. A popular beach, go early in the morning for a quiet swim
- Spectacular Elafonissi is the southernmost beach in Chania or the Caribbean of Crete with turquoise shallow waters and pinkish sand at certain points. It is a very popular spot, with crowds almost all summer. If you will need a bed and an umbrella, you will find one only if you arrive before 10 am or earlier in August
- Vamos Village. One of the most traditional villages on Crete far from the tourist traps for an authentic experience. Great for olive oil and food tasting tour. Nearby Vryses Village, is full of plane trees and streams with great taverns
- Gramvousa beach with a Venetian castle set on the top of the mountain over the beach. There is no shade towards the castle, and the uphill is steep but the view is totally worth it. You can go to Gramvousa by boat from Kissamos. Gramvousa is a very popular beach, go there early in the morning
- Take the boat from Gramvousa to the stunning Balos lagoon (or boat trip from Kisamos or drive there). Half part of Balos is a lagoon and the other part is a sea. Balos is always on the top 10 beaches in the world. Take a shirt with you in case it is windy
- Have a fantastic day in Falasarna beach, a 1 km long awarded sandy beach
- Ancient Aptera: Aptera or Aptara is located on the hill “Paliokastro”, which dominates the southeast of the bay of Souda and is one of the most important city-states of Crete
- Samaria gorge. Needless to say, this is a (for experienced mostly) hiker’s paradise. The route via the main trail is almost 13 km to the southern entrance, 14.3 to the Forest Service post, and 16.9 to the coast. It appears to be the second in Europe in length, after the Gorge of Verdon in France.
Hiking Information for Samaria
- Check here the temperature in Samaria
- Find here info on the entrance ticket (general admission €5)
- Check the other 10 signposted trails in Chania along with the main E4 European Trail on Crete island.
- Chora of Sfakia is a wild and authentic area that includes many small, sparsely populated villages at the foot of Lefka Ori Mt. Chora Sfakia, the main village is a stunning fishing village. This is where you take the small boat to Gavdos island, Greece’s southernmost area. Find the traditional Bakery Ntourountous and try its local, traditional recipes. Go to gorgeous Loutra Sfakion, a quiet, calm, not windy, bay, and settlement. Take the small boat to the spectacular Marmara (Marble) beach with exotic caves, an impressive tavern, and turquoise waters
- Best place to stay in Sfakia peaceful Anopoli Rooms (doubles from €47, B&B)
- Frangokastelo, a beautiful sandy beach with a 1450 AD large castle
- Gouverneto Monastery, Arkoudiotissa Monastery, Arkoudospilia Cave & Holy Trinity Monastery
- Stavros Beach, the bay where Antony Quinn danced in the Zorba movie. One of the best Family Houses with thematic rooms in Stavros and in Crete is Paradisio Baby & Kinder Hotel (your children will love the place) (2 bedroom apartment from €105, self-catering)
How to Get to Chania: You can fly to Chania from Athens (Duration: 50 minutes, plus travel to/from airports). There are some European cities that offer direct flights to Chania, such as London or Brussels.
Alternatively, you can take the ferries from Athens port, Piraeus. The trip lasts about 6.5 – 9 hours and if you are traveling with small children or older people, I suggest you book a cabin. Chania is also connected by ferries with Milos island.
Related Article: How to Spend 7 Magical Days in Chania
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Rethymno-Central Region of Crete Island
Rethymno in Crete island is not as popular as Chania, making it a more attractive destination for visitors seeking peaceful vacations. However, there are a lot of spectacular things to do and see in Rethymno. The region offers an authentic Cretan experience, with the local culture to fascinate you with small details, especially in the smaller villages.
Rethymno town has a charming Old Town with a Venetian fortress while the imposing Psiloritis (or Ida) mountain where Zeus, the ruler, and father of all ancient Greek gods was born (Cave Idaion Antros) defines the impressive landscape.
Map for Rethymno Region Sites
Find here the interactive Rethymno Map with the sites that I believe you should visit while you are in Rethymno Crete.
Top Things to Do in Rethymno Town
Rethymno, just like Chania, is separated into the old and modern parts of the town. The Old Town of Rethymno has many Venetian and Ottoman-era monuments and is one of the best-preserved Venetian towns in Greece. The town was lucky and has never suffered an earthquake and they also escaped with few damages from the heavy bombardment in WWII.
Being a university town, you will also notice a lot of young people swarming the cafes and the squares, especially if you are visiting during summer.
The important points of interest in Rethymno town that I suggest you visit are:
- Explore Venetian Fortezza Castle, a large impressive castle built by the Venetians in the 16th century. It is on a hill with a sea view and the large plains behind it. The Fortezza is a fantastic place to enjoy a romantic sunset
- Rimondi Venetian Fountain of the 17th century
- Old Venetian Harbor, with the 2-story buildings, and the traditional small fish taverns all around it. In the end, you will find a beautiful lighthouse that you can walk to
- Visit the Archaeological Museum housed in the impressive church of Saint Francis
- Discover Neratze Mosque (built in 1600) with a 27-meter-high minaret, at the large Mikrasiaton Sq, and the cafes right behind the historical building
- Walk in the old Rethymno and admire the Venetian and Ottoman mansions, excellently preserved
- One of the best terraces to eat in the Old Port is ‘Achinos Restaurant’, which focuses on fish and seafood
Where Best to Stay in Rethymno: Vista Del Porto Luxury Suites. Beautifully decorated suites on the Old Port of Rethymno. Areti Seaview Residence (Can host up to 4 people, self-catering) boasts beautiful sea views in a finely decorated apartment.
Best Things to Do in Rethymno Region
- Arkadi Monastery is a wonderful, fortress-like monastery of the 16th century and the most important monastery on Crete, 23 km southeast of Rethymnon. It is perched on a hilltop plateau surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. This Eastern Orthodox monastery is a monument to the strong Cretan spirit and a symbol of freedom. Read here about the Arkadi Monastery and the ferocious battle against the Ottomans and the sacrifice of 964 Cretans
- Margarites is a traditional village with stone houses, gardens, and flowers, where the main decoration is all kinds of handmade ceramics. Discover the many tasteful little shops that sell artifacts made by the local ceramic artists
- Enjoy a swim in the stunning Preveli Beach, looking out on the Libyan Sea. If you walk up the gorge on the beach, through the palms, you’ll find a small exotic river. There are no beds and umbrellas but you can find shelter under the trees
- Go to Argyroupoli Springs, 25 km southwest of Rethymno, a lush green, rural village with countless small waterfalls rising from underground springs. Find the tiny cave dedicated to Agia Dynami. The Argyroupoli village is full of Venetian houses some from the 15th century.
Best Venetian Boutique Hotel in Argyroupoli: Arcus Suites with mosaics and impressive decoration
- Hike Psiloritis Mountain, with a peak of 2,456 m, is the second-highest mountain in Greece after Olympos. Discover the Cave Idaion Antros, an important Sanctuary on Crete island that flourished between 4000 BC to the 1st century AD. The Ideon Cave was famous for being the place where Zeus, the Father of the Gods, was born and grew up
- Kournas Lake: located in the east of the Rethymno region with the deepest point being 25 meters, is ideal for a family paddling in one of the boats
- Best south seaside village: Agia Galini, a quiet resort with Alexena Apartments (Self-catering)
How to Get to Rethymno
There are no direct ferries to Rethymno from Athens so you have to go either to Chania or to Heraklion by ferries ( FerryScanner or FerryHopper) and drive to Rethymno or take the buses. There is no airport in Rethymno and again you will have to fly to the International Airport of Chania “Ioannis Daskalogiannis” or to the International Airport of Heraklion “N. Kazantzakis” to get to Rethymno.
If you want to drive from Chania, the trip will take about 1 hour of driving.
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Heraklion-Central Region of Crete Island
Heraklion region hosts the most important archaeological sites on Crete island. Although the most famous ones are the Knossos and Faistos Palaces, there are at least 10 more sites that you can visit, if you are a history buff like me.
Herakleion region is also a cosmopolitan and financial center of Crete with rich history and culture, beautiful beaches, and traditional villages.
Map for Heraklion Region Sites
Get your interactive Heraklion map here with the sites that I believe you should visit while you are in Heraklion Crete.
Top Things to Do in Heraklion Town
- Walk around the Heraklion Marina towards the Koules or Castello a Mare, a Venetian fortress located at the entrance of the old port of Heraklion
- Find the Morosini Fountain or Liontarakia in the heart of Heraklion
- Visit the impressive Church of Agios Titos with its unique architecture – used to be a mosque
- Discover Venetian Loggia, the most stunning and best-preserved Venetian Mansion in Crete. Used to be the headquarters of the Venetian officials
- Visit the archaeological museum of Heraklion, where among others, the disc of the Minoan Palace of Faistos is on display. It is covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols that haven’t been deciphered yet
- Go to the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, an extremely important but relatively unknown aspect of ancient Greek culture. There is also ancient Greek technology museums in Katakolo and Ancient Olympia.
Heraklion town is a large, modern town located in front of the famous Cretan beach, the 4 km long sandy Ammoudara beach, organized with many hotels.
Check out my pick from Ammoudara Beach: seafront Minoica Beach Apartments (Doubles from €60, self-catering).
Best Things to Do in Heraklion Region
- Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and has been called Europe’s oldest city. The Minoan civilization flourished between 3000-1100 BC and Knossos was the administrative center and palace of King Minos. It is located 5 km southeast of Heraklion. Look out for the site’s mascot, a playful male peacock, named Petros.
- Tickets for Knossos: Full: €15, Reduced: €8, pre-purchase tickets online for the archeological site of Knossos at the official e-ticketing service of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports at www.etickets.tap.gr
- Archanes is a very beautiful village, with neoclassic houses, and bougainvillea-laden streets that lead to Greek Orthodox churches
- Faistos is another important archaeological site, a very rich and powerful city in Minoan Crete. It is located on one of the hills of the vast olive tree plain of Mesara. Mesara is the area where most Cretan virgin olive oil is produced
- The archaeological site of Agia Triada is located three km south of Faistos, on the river Geropotamos
- Agia Pelagia village is a lovely settlement in a protected bay where the winds don’t affect it and you can swim here on the windy days. Nearby is the Fothele, Dominikos Theotokopoulos village, a green settlement crossed by a river, great for a refreshing lunch
- Walk for 10 minutes through the Agiofaraggo gorge, pass a small church and caves to get to the small-pebbled beach on the southernmost of Heraklion
- Famous (and popular) Matala beach and town with the ancient caves carved into the white limestone hill which stands imposingly north of the beach. Matala is 70 km from Heraklion and you can reach it by following the national road from Heraklion to Mires.
- Take the red beach trail from Matala and end up on the stunning red sandy beach with imposing white rocks overhead
Best seafront apartment in Matala(My Pick!): Flores Playa (Doubles from €70, self-catering)
- Gortyna was an ancient city of Crete, which was the capital of Crete and Cyrenaica during the Roman era. The city, after almost 10 centuries of prosperity, was destroyed by the Arabs in 828 AD. On its ruins are built the villages of Agioi Deca, Metropolis, and Ambelouzos which are worth a visit
- The Archaeological Collection of the Municipality of Malevizi is located in a special room of the Municipal Hall in Gazi and a hike to Voulismeno Aloni is highly recommended
- Go to the sunken Sfendyli village in the artificial lake and dam in Chersonisos
How to Get to Heraklion
The fastest way to reach Heraklion from Athens is via a direct flight from Athens airport, a duration of about 1 hour. Alternatively, you can take the ferry (try FerryScanner or FerryHopper) from Athens’ main port, Piraeus. The trip will last around 9 hours and I suggest you book a cabin. The drive from Chania to Heraklion takes about two hours.
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Lasithi-Easternmost Region of Crete Island
Lasithi is the easternmost region of Crete island, a region full of exciting things to do and see.
Lasithi’s capital town is Agios Nikolaos, located 65 km from Herakleion and built around the Mirabello bay and a lagoon. The area is famous because of the sparkling blue waters of nearby famous Elounda, the exotic palm forest of Vai, Spinalonga (where poor lepers were kept) Island, and many beautiful traditional villages.
Map for Lasithi Region Sites
Find here the interactive map of Lasithi region on Crete island with the sites that I believe you should visit
Top Things to Do in Agios Nikolaos Town
Agios Nikolaos is built on five hills, next to the mouth of the Xeropotamos stream and around the Voulismeni lagoon, which is believed to have been a crater of an old volcano. According to mythology, the goddesses Artemis and Athena bathed in its waters.
Some of the best things to visit in Agios Nikolaos are the archaeological museum from eastern Crete that will bring you in touch with the ancient civilizations that passed through the island, the Folk Art Museum, the Natural History Museum, and several churches in the town.
Best Place to Stay in Agios Nikolaos with a Lake View: Emerald Lake Studios(Doubles from €81, self-catering)
Top port view restaurant in Agios Nikolaos: Migomis Piano Resto
Best Things to Do in Lasithi Region
- Nearby Agios Nikolaos beach, Voulisma, is a turquoise sandy beach, very popular with a beach bar
- 11 km from Agios Nikolaos visit Kritsa village, very picturesque and specialized in woven and handknit fabrics. The ruins of ancient Latous are located about 3km north of Kritsa, scattered in a gap that connects two hills at an altitude of about 380m
- Elounda, with world-known 5-star hotels, and emerald, warm waters on fantastic beaches. An exceptional villa for a group of up to 10 in Elounda is Elounda Lavender Villa (from €750 per day)
- Krousta village is exactly how Greece was 50 years ago, with small taverns where you will enjoy amazing local food at fantastic prices
- Go to Plaka village, for amazing fish and seafood and take the boat to Spinalonga island, the island where the lepers were left there in the early 20th century. Spinalonga became worldwide known by Victoria Hyslop when she wrote the book ‘The Island’
- Explore Ierapetra’s many villages and stunning beaches. Chrissi island or Pelegrina, is an exotic island with green crystal waters, a real paradise with 1 single resident
- Malia village is notorious for its huge beach and its very lively nightlife. Thousands of young people drink until dawn in the area’s clubs in a stupor, unfortunately often until they go completely off the rails. Malia also houses the third most important Minoan palace of Crete located at Chrysolakkos or Tarmaro
- Discover the unique Palm Tree Forest of Vai, 94 km far from Agios Nikolaos. Here you will visit the largest natural palm tree colony in Europe with about 5000 palm trees. It is a protected area with an exotic sandy beach and right across from the beach, there are the Peristerovrahoi, small islets that complete a really magical scenery
- If you are traveling with children you should take them to the thematic park of Greek Mythology in Psihro. It is a fun and affordable attraction and your children – I bet you will as well – will love it. More details about the park here
- Cross Sarakina Gorge, a 1,5 km long with very Impressive walls that rise high and imposing rocks, which make it a very worthwhile hike.
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How to Get to Agios Nikolaos
You can fly to the international airport in Heraklion or to the Sitia airport, a new airport with flights from Europe. Alternatively, you take the ferry from Athens to Heraklion (check out FerryScanner or FerryHopper) and from there, via public bus or private car you can get to Agios Nikolaos in 1 hour.
When is Best to Go to Crete Island
Are you wondering when is best to go to Greece and specifically to Crete?
If it is summer then be prepared for hot weather (on heatwaves the temperature has reached 45 C). Keep in mind that in July and August, the northern part of Crete will be strongly affected by the warm Meltemia winds. Although they are warm winds, they can make the sea wavy and the sand can drive you crazy
So, if the Meltemia makes swimming a bit unpleasant for you then go to the southern coast. The large mountains in the middle of Crete obstruct the winds and the south will be quiet from the winds.
The wettest day will be December and the coldest January and February.
What Difficulties you may Encounter in Greek Islands?
There are a few things that a first-time visitor should keep in mind while visiting Greek Islands:
- The roads are not always in good condition or they may be too narrow for what you are used to. You need to be careful especially if you are driving at night
- Many of the unorganized beaches have no trees or other shade available, water, or food supply. You should carry your own supplies if you are visiting a remote beach. Get your best beach towel with you
- When it gets windy (June – August meltemia), it just won’t stop. It can also get a bit chilly in the evening
- Remember to always carry an anti-mosquito with you.
- If you go hiking in summer on an island with no trees, you can get very easily heat stroke. For more info on travel dangers and precautions in Greece, read here my post on hiking safely in Greece
- For Solo Travelers: Greece is a perfectly safe country for everyone regardless of age, gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. In addition to that, Greek people are gene-programmed to be hospitable and are always eager to offer directions to your destination or any other advice, so ask freely.
Plan Your Next Trip to Greece With These Resources
- Best 12 Things to Do in Chania Crete and how to visit Elafonissi, Balos, Samaria, Loutra Sfakion
- Greece Packing List – What to pack for a 10-day trip to Greece
- Mamma Mia Greece Locations – All the mainland and island shooting areas in Greece
- Salamina Island – So close to Athens, so unknown to the mass tourism
- First Time to Greece? All the info you need to know before you come to Greece!
Some of my Favorite Travel Resources for Greece
- ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’ in Greek: “Ya sou” and “Efharisto”
- FerryScanner or FerryHopper to book ferries to the Greek Islands
- Rent an Affordable Car in Greece
- Athens Metro Website (timetables and tickets info)
- Map of Athens Metro
- Trains (Hellenic Train)
- Public Buses KTEL
- Booking.com: I use Booking.com because I can get the best deals on both hotels and apartments, free cancellations, and great prices!
- Get Your Guide: For all your day or multi-day tours and city guide needs, I use Get Your Guide
- COVID Info for Greece: Ministry of Tourism Official Website
- Emergency Numbers Anywhere in Greece: AMBULANCE 166 – FIRE 199 – POLICE 100– EMERGENCY NUMBER 112