How to spend a perfect holiday in Crete

Advice

Variety is the spice of life on the largest Greek island. Crete, home of the Minotaur legend and birthplace of Europe’s first evolved society, is a vivid and sensual mosaic of contrasts: from lofty mountains and pink-sand beaches, to buzzing nightlife and traditional kafeneions (coffeehouses). Standing at the crossroads of three continents, the atoll described by Homer in his Odyssey as ‘a fair land … in the midst of the wine-dark sea’ has been invaded countless times over the centuries. The traces of successive invasions can be found in Turkish bathhouses, Venetian fortresses, and Byzantine architecture.

However, Cretans refuse to dwell on the past: any and every occasion is an excuse for a glendi (party), usually revolving round food: home-grown vegetables, locally produced olive oil, fat snails gleaned in the mountains, or raki brewed in the local still. And (as any Greek will proudly tell you) Crete is the country’s most hospitable island, so you can expect plenty of invitations to join in the fun.

Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do. For further Crete inspiration, see our guides to the island’s best hotels, restaurants, nightlife, beaches and things to do. For further inspiration plan the perfect Greek island-hopping holiday with our itinerary.


In this guide


How to spend your weekend

Day one

Morning

You’ll need a car to explore Greece’s largest island. There are dozens of car rental kiosks at Heraklion Airport, so you might want to wait until you arrive to book a car – though advance booking is essential during the high season (from late June to early September). On arrival, bargain hard: expect to pay €15-€30 (£13-£26) per day, or less if you plan to keep the car for more than three days.

Start (early) in the superb Heraklion Museum in the island’s capital, where jaw-dropping archaeological wonders include the intricate Malia bee pendant, Kamares tableware, and those legendary Minoan frescoes.

Sip an ice cool frappé in the museum’s café, then take the rutted road inland through silver-leaved olive groves to Knossos Palace. To get the best value from your visit, buy a combi museum/palace ticket, which costs €15 (£13) – and it’s also well worth paying extra for a guided tour of this sprawling site. For €8 (£7) you’ll get in-depth information about the life and times of Crete’s Minoan civilisation, along with a host of fascinating anecdotes that really bring the visit to life. It was the seat of mythical King Minos (and the bloodcurdling minotaur), and where archaeologist Arthur Evans carried out his controversial – but evocative – restoration work.

A small road, looping through tousled vineyards that produce some of the island’s best wine, leads to the traditional village of Archanes. Sit at a tree-shaded table of gourmet restaurant Kritamon and order the maggiri – fresh pasta served in a meaty broth, dotted with white anthotyros cheese. For more suggestions of the best things to do in the area, see our guide



Palace complex in Knossos, Crete


The palace complex in Knossos, which was the political centre of the Minoan civilization, has been abandoned for almost 3,000 years


Credit: Vladimir_Timofeev

Afternoon

After lunch, head next door to Myrtia’s Nikos Kazantzakis Museum. The life of Crete’s literary giant is commemorated with rare photos, travel souvenirs, and an excellent little video. Real fans should visit his tomb in Heraklion’s hilltop cemetery, too.

Back on the coast, take the old National road to Agios Nikolaos (traffic melts away as you head for the island’s less crowded eastern side). If you have kids it’s well-worth stopping off en route to visit the CretAquarium, a vast marine-themed space with 60 different tanks and its own thrilling shark tunnel. The shop-lined streets of Lasithi’s capital Agios Nikolaos descend to Voulismeni, a circular lake surrounded by taverns where legend says the Goddess Athena once bathed.

From here it’s a short drive to Elounda, where boats leave for Spinalonga – the leper island which featured in Victoria Hislop’s bumper-selling novel, The Island. After the sombre trip, raise your spirits with dinner at The Ferryman – a gastro tavern overlooking Elounda’s glittering bay. You’ll love the crusty home-baked carob bread, baked lamb, and fluffy feta-flavoured aubergine scones – all sprinkled with sea salt gathered from the local shoreline. For more suggestions of the best beaches in the area, see our guide



Spinalonga, Crete


The island of Spinalonga was used as a leper colony until the mid 20th century


Credit: milangonda

Late

Back in Heraklion, the bars will be buzzing. Follow hip Herakliotes to Stone Project – a stylish, low-lit bar with friendly service, which serves some of the city’s best raki-based cocktails. Try the bitter-sweet Mediterranean Manhattan, made with raki, Vermouth and orange bitters.

For a real dose of local lifestyle, end your evening at warehouse-style music venue Nyn Kai Aei, where Cretan music stars come to strum and improvise their rhyming mantinades folk songs. For more suggestions of the best nightlife in the area, see our guide



Stone Project, Crete


For expertly crafted cocktails (especially ones using raki as a base), head to Stone Project

Day two

Morning

Food specialties abound in the home of the ‘Cretan Diet’, but it can be tough to find them without insider help. Instead of having breakfast at your hotel, follow local-born guides from Crete Urban Adventures on a gourmet walking tour through Heraklion’s busy backstreets: sample flavoursome cheeses in the local market, try the best bougatsa (custard pie) in town, and visit hole-in-the-wall kafeneions serving delicious local snacks.

Appetite sated, follow the old National road to the outskirts of Rethymnon. Stop anywhere along this beach-lined coast for a refreshing dip, then escape the heat in the pretty jasmine-scented labyrinth of Rethymnon’s old streets. Lined with mosques, mansions and Venetian fortifications, the old town is dominated by a 16th-century fortezza (citadel) whose ruined walls make an atmospheric venue for concerts and other events in summer.



Rethymnon, Crete


Colourful cafés, tavernas and shops can be found on the streets of Rethymnon


Credit: TOMS AUZINS

Afternoon

Continue along the coast, past the pretty coastal town of Giorgioupoli (nature lovers should make a detour to see rare striped terrapins bobbing on Kournas lake). Then, venture up the breathtaking – and occasionally terrifying – panoramic mountain road to Hora Sfakion. Hop on a boat to Agia Roumeli and hike through the bottom end of Samaria Gorge: check timetables, but in high season the last boat usually returns from Agia Roumeli around 7pm.

Cretan shops stay open until 10pm in summer: head for Chania and enjoy a late afternoon stroll in the city’s intricate network of shopping streets behind the Venetian harbour.



Samaria Gorge, Crete


Samaria Gorge is a national park and a Unesco Biosphere Reserve


Credit: ULTRAMARINFOTO

Late

Restaurants near Chania’s harbour tend to be tourist traps, so it’s well worth heading a few kilometres out of town to Stalos (direction Platanias) to seek out hole-in-the-wall taverna Leventis, where brothers Giorgos and Panagiotis Chatzimanolakis have (justly) received countless awards for their authentic Cretan culinary delights. For more suggestions of the best restaurants in the area, see our guide

For more exotic victuals, choose The Well of the Turk in Chania’s Splantzia district. Here you can sit outside at a table surrounded by pots of bright-coloured geraniums and lemon-scented basil, watching crowds mill around the 13th-century Irini church opposite. The food is fantastic: think crunchy pitas stuffed with red pepper and tomato, lahmajoun (a sort of Turkish pizza flatbread) topped with minced beef or lamb, and other Middle Eastern specialties.

Dance off those calories on the sands of nearby Platanias beach: built around a large pool (ideal for cooling off), Mylos Club is one of the island’s hippest dance venues. The vibe is casual but sophisticated, with guest DJs flown in for their sets during the summer months.



Chrisostomos, Crete


At Chrisostomos, you can feast on hearty Sfakian mountain cuisine based on family recipes


Insider tips

Island hack

For a concentrated dose of local life, look out for posters advertising Cretan music evenings – glendis. Held out on the village square in summer, the great-value ticket price (around €15/£13) generally includes a set menu: starter, main meat dish and dessert, along with a carafe of raki or local wine. The festivities and dancing start around 10pm – be prepared to party until dawn.

Restaurant

Greek street snacks are super cheap: order a filling gyros pita stuffed with chicken or pork, bundled together with rough-cut chips, fine slices of onion, tomato chunks and dollops of yogurt tsatsiki for €3-€4 (£2.55-£3.55), for a filling, affordable lunch. Vegetarians should order patatopita, the meat-free version. Other cheap and tasty veggie snacks include spanakopita (spinach pie).

Neighbourhood watch

Clustered around 1821 Square, Chania’s Splantzia district is a concentrated slice of the city’s Turkish occupied past. Visit the 14th-century church of Agios Nikolaos, with its bell tower and lofty minaret; tuck into meze dishes; and browse the book stores and knife-making workshops along the flower-strewn Maxaradika street.

Hotel

At Domes Noruz some of the suites’ plunge pools are only big enough to splash around in. Water babies should choose Blue Heaven and Ultimate suites, which have pools that are suitable for swimming.

Attractions

Most sites and museums are usually open all day, or at least until 3pm. To avoid the coach-tour crowds, visit around noon when tourists will generally be having their lunch. For sights that are open in the evening, plan to visit around 5pm when most day trips have ended.


When to visit

Temperatures are balmy all year round along Crete’s extensive coastline – although it will often rain from January to March, and sometimes there will be a few days of snow. Weather up in the mountains is colder: expect chilly weather from late December to early April. Conversely, in summer when temperatures along the coast climb to 30-35C, the mountain villages – which are often five degrees cooler – are ideal for escaping the heat.

Sea temperatures start to rise in late April and May, and you can often still swim in November. The island is crowded during July and August when Cretans from overseas come ‘home’ for the summer, but in late spring and early autumn the beaches and attractions are generally far less crowded – especially in the east of the island.


Where to stay

Luxury Living

No expense has been spared in creating Abaton Island Resort & Spa, a sleek and classy Cycladic-style resort close to Hersonissos. Rocking chairs scattered around the property invite repose, and lighting is used to create ambiance: a forest of light bulbs dangles above comfortable sofas in reception, and the main bar glows with coloured lights.

From

£
206

pn

Rates provided by
Booking.com



Abaton Island Resort & Spa, Crete


Rooms at Abaton Island Resort & Spa are gleaming white, with decorative touches such as huge carved headboards from India and driftwood sculptures

Designer Digs

Domes Noruz, a stylish design hotel modelled on the domes of nearby Chania’s Venetian shipyard, has two large pools (one of which has a swim-up bar) and a bijou spa. Public areas are immaculate, with scatter cushions and bean bags strewn over carefully tended strips of grass. Close by are some of Crete best beaches, including the pink sand beach of Elafonisi.

From

£
161

pn

Rates provided by
Booking.com

Budget Beauty

The four-star ibis Styles Heraklion Central has Fifties-inspired decór, a decent restaurant and friendly staff. There are 72 rooms across six categories, all featuring big beds with plump mattresses and plenty of cushions. Large prints of local scenes on walls and a canny use of mirrors gives an impression of space.

From

£
59

pn

Rates provided by
Booking.com



ibis Styles Heraklion Central, Crete


Off-white tiles, gleaming surfaces, and quality finishes create a simple, relaxed ambience at the ibis Styles Heraklion Central hotel


What to bring home

Traditional stivania boots can be made to measure at Nikos Terezakis’s Chania store, Gilotes-Stivania.

For authentic local crafts head for Verekinthos Arts and Crafts Village, where you can purchase leather, glass and jewellery items, as well as old-fashioned toys made from tin or wood.


Essential information

  • British Consulate: Heraklion: 00 30 28102 24012; gov.uk
  • Tourist police: 171
  • Ambulance: 166
  • Fire: 199
  • Tourism Office: 00 30 28102 28225; Xanthoudidou 1, Heraklion

The basics

  • Currency: Euro (€)
  • Telephone code: 00 30 
  • Time difference: +2 hour
  • Languages: Kritikoi (Cretan patois), Greek
  • Flight time: Around four hours

Local laws and etiquette

  • Cretans are relaxed about sartorial style, but they appreciate modest clothing (no shorts or crop tops) when visiting churches and other religious places – and you are expected to remove headgear when entering. Nude sunbathing near Cretan families is considered extremely rude, and is only acceptable on designated beaches.

Author bio

Heidi Fuller-Love is Telegraph Travel’s Crete expert. Seeking clean seas and Cretan food she moved to Greece’s ‘big island’ ten years ago. A fan of local music, she learnt Greek by listening to Cretan mantinades.

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