This is Crete: 7 Reasons to Visit Greece's Big Island

by Katherine Poseidon

When you think of a holiday in Greece, we can guess what probably comes to mind: ancient monuments, Greek salad, feta cheese, ouzo, sparkling seas and dazzling beaches. At least something like that, right? Maybe you've also heard the legend of the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull who prowled the labyrinth of King Minos and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Or perhaps the mysterious Linear A, an ancient written language that archaeologists still haven't been able to decipher?

The place that connects all of these is Crete - home to some of the most enduring Greek legends, as well as some of the best modern Greece has to offer, whatever your taste. The island of Crete is the largest in Greece, and it has a truly magical atmosphere all its own. It is big enough for you to easily spend a full holiday there exploring its hidden corners, tasting the best of Greek cuisine, and basking in that magical Mediterranean light. No matter what you're looking for, we're sure you'll be able to find it in Crete. Check out our top reasons for visiting this mythical island!

#1 An Ancient Capital and Secret Codes

The Phaistos Disc - can you figure out the symbols? (Picture by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)

What was that mythical story about Theseus and the Minotaur again? The king of Crete, Minos, was plagued by the Minotaur, a monster locked in a labyrinth under the castle, who demanded a sacrifice of seven young men and women each year. King Minos in turn demanded that Athens send these young men and women to satisfy the Minotaur, which they did until Theseus, the son of the king of Athens decided to put a stop to things and sailed to Crete to defeat the Minotaur. With the help of Ariadne, the Cretan princess, he successfully entered the labyrinth and killed the Minotaur, and used a thread (Ariadne's idea!) to find his way back out of the maze again.

This story takes place in Knossos, which is also Europe's oldest city and just one of the ancient treasures to be explored in Crete. Knossos was the capital of the Minoan civilisation from around 2000 BC, and the palace (home of the famous labyrinth) is a short trip from Crete's biggest city of Heraklion. The site was controversially restored by a British archaeologist in the early 1900s, so you can actually go inside parts of the palace that have been reconstructed, complete with replica wall-paintings and frescoes.

An equally impressive ancient site, though with much less tourist traffic, Phaistos was the second largest city of the Minoans. The location is not quite as convenient for Heraklion, but it is just a few kilometers from the southern coast of the island and the sea. The site was inhabited beginning in 4000 BC, and is still a great destination for ancient exploration.  If you want to dig deeper (literally) into Minoan civilization you should join one of our hand-picked excavation tours!

Tip: If it's too hot for serious archaeological exploration, the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion is truly unmissable. The museum recently reopened after a seven year renovation, and the wait was totally worth it, as it is now one of Greece's top historical attractions. Its new exhibition spaces gather together treasures from the island's rich history, including the Phaistos Disc, covered with mysterious symbolic inscriptions that have eluded archaeologists. Check it out for yourself and see what you can make of the code!

 

#2 Mysterious Castles and Winding Alleys

Spinalonga island just off the coast of Elounda (Picture by Robert Linsdell) 

Though it's easy to get lost in Crete's ancient history, the whole island is dotted with incredible landmarks from the (relatively) more recent past too. Crete was part of the Republic of Venice for more than 400 years, and they certainly left their trace. The main cities of Crete, Chania and Heraklion were fortified with huge walls encircling and protecting the city. The walls of both cities are still standing (and still very sturdy!), and exploring the giant stones and ancient winding streets within them is a great way to time travel!

If huge walls don't seem impressive enough, Crete is home to serious castles. The city of Rethymno is dominated by a 16th century Venetian Castle (called the Fortezza!), which you can visit and easily imagine keeping watch for invaders from one of the many towers. If you're visiting the southern coast, check out Frangokastello, another Venetian castle seemingly forgotten on the beach.

The Venetians were driven out by the Ottoman Turks, who held on to Crete for another 200 plus years, and also left their own landmarks on the island. The major cities all have a unique mix of Orthodox Churches, mosques, Catholic places of worship (from the Venetians) and even a surviving synagogue or two. The diversity of Crete's history makes it a pretty special place, and getting lost in the winding alleys of Chania or Rethymno's old city is one of the most unique things to do to immerse yourself in the island's past.

Tip: Have you heard of the international bestseller by Victoria Hislop The IslandThe book was inspired by the island/fort of Spinalonga, just off the coast of Elounda a short ride from the picturesque Agios Nikolaos in the Eastern part of Crete. The little island was fortified by the Venetians for defence purposes, but what has turned the island into a 'legend' are the stories from the 20th century when it became a leper colony

 

#3 Wild Nature and Gorgeous Gorges

The dramatic start of the Samaria Gorge trail (Picture by Katherine Poseidon)

The diversity of Crete's history is surpassed only by the diversity of its natural landscape. The more developed northern coast (home to the three largest cities) is dwarfed by the incredible mountains of central Crete. The 'White Mountains' dominate Western Crete, while Mount Psyloritis (also known as Mount Ida), the highest mountain on the island at almost 2500m, is located south of Rethymno. For much of the year the mountains are capped with snow, and create a rugged and wild landscape that is truly breathtaking.

Among the mountains are a variety of deep gorges, including Samaria Gorge (a reason on its own to visit Crete!) and Imbros Gorge which are great for walking and exploring the dramatic landscapes. In the province of Chania, you can find Crete's only freshwater lake, Lake Kournas, which is surrounded by a lush green area full of wildlife.

In another vein entirely, the eastern coast of Crete hides Europe's only palm forest in Vai and one of the most unique places in Greece. Visit the nearby beach, munch on truly local bananas, and if you close your eyes you'll forget that you're not in the tropics!

Tip: Hiking through Europe's longest gorge (aka Samaria Gorge) is one of the best things to do in Crete, hands down. The gorge was created by a river running from high in the White Mountains down to the sea, and you can hike down along the river for an unforgettable experience. The walk itself is a long one, at nearly 16km, but if you are up for some active exploration it is well worth it (plus it is all downhill!). The path ends at the tiny village of Agia Roumeli, where you get your reward for the hike - a dip in the sea at the black sand beach. The only way out of the town is by ferry boat to a nearby port with bus service, so you are forced to relax and recover for a little while, and get a bit of extra sightseeing in at the end.

adventurous things to do with thetravelporter

#4 Tropical Waters, Without the Sharks!

The incredibly clear waters of Elafonisi - it does actually look like this in real life (Picture by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho)

Don't be fooled into thinking that Crete's landscape is only dramatic mountains and craggy cliffs. The entire island is circled by beaches one more stunning than the next, and exploring the variety of Cretan beaches is one of the best things to do in the summer.

The list of best beaches in Crete is a long one, but some of the highlights include the crystal-clear, Caribbean-like waters of Elafonisi, which look too perfect to be real (but we promise it actually is that gorgeous in real life); the exotic lagoon of Balos (in the cover picture); the black sand beaches at Agia Roumeli; the Paleohora beach on the southern coast which is a dreamy stretch of endless sand and the beach at Vai, which is right next to the palm forest.  

But that's not all! Crete is surrounded by exotic islets only a short ferry ride from the main island. The island of Chrysi (also Gaidouronisi, aka 'Donkey Island'!) will enchant you with its white sand, turquoise waters and cedar trees (the island hosts the largest natural Lebanon cedar forest in Europe!). Also magical, the island of Koufonisi in the Libyan sea is surrounded by pure white sand, and crystalline waters but also magnificent white rock caves. 

Tip: Crete's beaches are legendary not only for their beauty but for their energy and lively history! Special reference here to the beach of Matala, known for the rocks surrounding it, which are full of tiny caves that housed hippies in the 1960s, and is now one of many Blue Flag beaches in Crete. 

 

Day trips to Crete's dazzling beaches that you will love!

#5 Divine Greek Cuisine

A traditional Cretan gourmet meze, snails - or in Greek 'Hochliee'. (Picture by Canonim)

Cretan cuisine has a language all its own, with incredible flavours and local ingredients so unique that there are specialty Cretan stores found throughout the rest of Greece. Let's not forget that Crete is also a top producer of quality olive oil -which is also something you need to pack in your bags before you leave the island! Along with olive oil, Crete has a wine tradition more than 4000 years old that is definitely worth exploring! The best part about Cretan food is that so much of it is local and fresh, and it draws on a unique tradition influenced by the varied cultures that have passed through the island throughout its history.

Among the top things to eat in Crete are the local salad called 'Dakos,' made with fresh tomatoes, Cretan mizithra cheese and olive oil all on top of a crisp, hard rusk, vaguely similar to a bruschetta (but better!). The cheeses in Crete stand out all on their own, ranging from soft and mild mizithra to aged graviera, as well as a cheesy spread called xinogalo. Visit the markets in Chania or Heraklion to get a sense of the numerous cheesy choices, and try a little bit of everything to find your favourite! For foodies, there are organized food tours in our collection that can guide you to foodie' meccas and reveal the secrets of Cretan gastronomy; check them out here!

The wild herbs and greens that are abundant on Cretan hillsides are also a staple of local cuisine - especially stamnagathi (remember our intro to horta, greens dressed with olive oil and lemon?) and askordoulakous (bulbs of wild greens, eaten fresh as salad). If you are looking for an 'intro' to Greek greens (aka 'horta") and if you need help to navigate through a Greek taverna menu, you should definitely read this. 

Tip: For more substantial munchies, the ever-resourceful Cretans are known for enjoying their snails called 'hochliee' in a wide variety of interpretations, from fried (with vinegar, salt and rosemary)  to baked in a clay pot. Smoked ham called apaki is also a delicious classic, with a delicate herb flavour setting it apart from other meat.  Last but not lest, Sfakianes pites (also mizithropites) are Crete's interpretation of the classic Greek tiropita (cheese pie). This variation is round and flat, stuffed with a mild, soft cheese and then lightly fried. The real game changer is the drizzle of local honey on top, which creates a flavour combination unlike any other. 

related posts for local activities in crete

#6 The Colourful Cretans Themselves

Don't miss a traditional 'panigiri' Cretan traditional fiesta! (Picture by Sergio Alvarez)

Cretan food on its own is mouth-watering, but it usually never comes without a hefty dose of Cretan hospitality. Locals are known for their indomitable spirit (and may remind you that in World War Two it took the invading Germans 11 days to occupy the island), but also their pride in their local culture. Many meals are introduced with the Cretan spirit-of-choice, tsikoudia (also known as raki), which friendly locals may invite you to share with them, regardless of the time of day. While you're sipping your raki enjoy some people watching - Cretans are especially known for their incredible moustaches!

Cretan culture is not just based on fierce independence and pride, but also on a unique literary and artistic culture as well, based in the island's unique history. Writer and cultural giant Nikos Kazantzakis, creator of the legendary Zorba the Greek and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature nine times, and the iconic artist El Greco both hailed from Crete, along with a number of other major cultural figures. 

The island's music is equally unique, and a rich tradition of folk music and dances permeates everyday life. In the summer, live music can be heard almost every night, and if you're lucky try to witness some Cretan traditional dancing. The dances are notable for their high energy and pathos, and some serious acrobatics as well, and the spirit is totally infectious (check out this video for a sneak peek!).

Tip: A visit to Crete isn't complete without at least a little bit of music and dancing! To experience the best of both track down the closest 'panigiri' (or else 'local traditional fiesta')! 'Panigiria' (plural!) are hosted in the centre of villages, in the back yards of churches, even in school yards and training tracks; they are often 'themed' (e.g. dedicated to 'raki' or 'mizithropita' or even 'bread') in which case expect to learn -and taste- more of the featured product!

 

#7 True Escapism and Adventure

Day adventures in the bays of the island (Picture courtesy of Adventure Crete)

You've probably understood by now that calling Crete an 'island' doesn't quite do it justice. It has all the pros of an island: stunning beaches, laid back life style, amazing amenities - but it is so big that you can easily go off the beaten path and do your own exploring. Traversing the island end to end will take you more than a week if you want to catch just the highlights, and for serious travellers you could easily spend twice that much time there. Crete literally has it all - any type of landscape, hotel, activity, pace, whatever you can imagine, you can find it here.

A huge bonus with Crete is that although the island itself is huge and it's easy to find your own corner for exploring, it is still easily accessible. It has three airports (Heraklion, Chania and a smaller one in Sitia) serving both the Greek mainland and other islands, as well as direct daily connections with Europe. Plus there are always the overnight ferries from Athens if you have a little bit more time on your hands or travelling on a budget. 

Crete is full of great things to do on a trip to Greece, including all the classics like beach time, sightseeing, cultural adventures and (obviously) eating, but it also offers abundant opportunities for outdoor adventures and unique tours and activities. If you like the idea of a day spent outside doing something like walking Samaria Gorge, you can also try off-roading in a 4x4, scuba diving to ancient shipwrecks, visiting a working olive grove and getting up close and personal with the olive oil making process, or snorkelling along the coast. 

Tip: We have hand-picked an amazing selection of fun things to do in Crete, from gorges, to excavations, hikes, authentic and unique adventure tours, day boat-trips and gastronomic experiences which you can check out here.

Whatever you can imagine, you can find it in Crete, and will surely have an incredible time doing so!


This map of Crete will show you the VERY basics

How to get to Crete? 

Ferries from Piraeus to either Heraklion or Chania take from 5-8 hours for the best services. The two main carriers are Minoan Lines and ANEK-Superfast. Alternatively, a number of air carriers including Aegean, Ryanair and charter flights from many European countries arrive at the airports of Crete every day. Last but not least, the island has decent connections with Santorini