I used to think you had to spend years in a city before throwing up a travel guide, but when a favourite blogger of mine posted a Puglia travel guide after being there for only 3 days I thought: OK, I can do this.
I recently visited the Greek island of Crete for the third time this summer (as well as Puglia – don’t worry, a like-a-local guide for that region of Italy is coming this month too), and every time I’m reminded why it is one of the best hot weather destinations on the planet. I’ve had the privilege of traveling to places like Thailand, Australia, Central America, the Caribbean, and Europe, and while I definitely have a LOT more to see, I am confident that I’m not overstating Crete’s appeal as a vacation and travel destination.
This summer while on Crete, I had the pleasure of traveling with my cousin and her husband who have been spending a month on Crete every summer for the past 15 years. Traveling with them on Crete was like being a local and I learned even more about the Greek island I thought I already knew so well.
I could talk for hours about why everyone should visit Crete (if you’re feeling up for something more interactive, check out my vlog), but today I’ll go through a more condensed version.
Getting to Crete and Getting Around the Island of Crete
Most large European airports have direct flights to Crete, however if you’re coming from across the ocean, my suggestion is get yourself first to any of the large airports or directly to Athens, then take a discount airline to Crete on a different ticket.
Once there, getting around is a breeze. Depending on your comfort level with driving in foreign countries, budget, and timeline, you could easily and comfortably take public transportation or rent a car.
As un-environmentally friendly as it is, I would recommend renting a car since a lot of the best beaches are off the main highways and need a little creativity to access. HOWEVER – a great compromise would be to take public transportation to your city of choice (more on that below), then rent a car on a daily / as needed basis for days you want to explore. Every main town (and even the smaller, beachside ones) has several daily car rental places where you can rent a car for the day, saving you money and reducing your environmental impact.
Public Transportation on Crete: Scared of taking public transportation on Crete? DON’T BE. Instead of the stereotypical nightmare that comes to mind with European public transpo (ie; no a/c, pickpockets, delays, etc.), Crete’s local and public buses are air conditioned coach buses with ample storage underneath for luggage, and an attendant (in addition to the driver) who collects and distributes change for tickets, and usually advises which stop is coming and when you should get off. Oh yes, and they run on time. YES – CRETE IS LIKE A MAGICAL MUSICAL. The first time I visited Crete with my mother, we took the public buses all over the island and it was incredible and totally affordable.
Driving: If you prefer to drive, there’s more good news (with the exception of the use of petrol); driving on Crete is incredibly easy and chill. Nobody drives fast or like maniacs, and while the majority of roads are only two lanes, there’s an unspoken rule where slower cars simply move to the right (the road shoulders are enormous so this is very safe), allowing faster cars to pass.
Where to Fly Into: Heraklion is the capital city and largest airport, but in my opinion the best beaches and towns are found on the west and south parts of the island. We flew into Chania airport this year and found it incredibly convenient. Flights to Chania might be harder to find and more expensive however.
What’s important to remember is that Crete is the largest of all the Greek Islands and unless you’re there for a month, you likely won’t get to see all of it’s magic. A car or bus/car combo will definitely help if you’re limited on time. For larger cities, stick to the north coast, but for quieter, authentic and rustic beaches and towns, head to the south coast.
Eating on Crete
Much like in Italy, it’s hard to not eat well on Crete. While I don’t have specific restaurants to send you to (except one – more on that below!), here are some things to try and keep in mind when eating on Crete.
Never order dessert: It is a Cretan tradition that at the end of every meal, guests receive a shot of homemade Raki (a little bit like their version of Grappa but it’s so much better) and some sort of sweet to end the meal. Sometimes it’s a beautiful plate of fruit, other times its something more elaborate like a panna cotta or pastry. (Obviously, order dessert if there’s something specific you want to try, but I always feels like that takes away the excuse of a mid-afternoon coffee and treat, no?)
Seafood is where it’s at: If you’re lucky enough to live by the ocean, then this one might not be special for you, but for the rest of us, eating on Crete offers the chance to enjoy some caught-that-morning seafood and it tastes way better than the frozen stuff you’ll get at home.
Keep it simple: Much like Italian food, Greek cooking is incredibly simple. But don’t be fooled by the dishes that you’ve likely seen at home and want to skip for something more exotic – they’re staples for a reason and taste so.much.better. than what you get at your local Greek restaurant at home.
Tipping: Much like in other European countries, tipping is not expected but always welcome. And the Greek people on Crete are so friendly and incredibly welcoming that it’s easy to leave extra. (ie; a few Euro or enough to round out a bill)
A must-visit restaurant on Crete: If you’re near the town of Rethymnon, I highly recommend Taverna Biofarm Armos, located on the side of the mountain that overlooks the northern coast of Crete and the Sea of Crete. Once in the tiny town of Maroulas (park in the main square), follow the signs to “Taverna Biofarm” all the way up the mountain and you’ll come across a stunning terrace with terraced organic gardens and olive trees. The sight is breathtaking, and Violetta (one of the owners, she runs this place with her husband) will welcome you with the biggest smile and most delicious homemade food. This place is literally off the beaten path, and worth every minute it takes to get there.
Where to Stay on Crete
I’ve been lucky enough to stay on varying parts of the island so I’ll give you my top two spots.
Chania: Chania is on the north west part of the island and worth at least a day visit if you can’t sleep there. It is an old medieval town with plenty of Venetian influence and architecture. The old town has incredible restaurants, boutiques, and pedestrian friendly zones, as well as seaside cafes, boutiques, and nightlife at the port and throughout.
If you have a more robust budget, stay at the Casa Delfino – a family-run boutique hotel located in a 17th century Venetian mansion just steps from the water. The inner courtyard somehow blocks out the city noise and brings instant calm. I had the chance to poke around this beautiful hotel because this is where my cousins stay every single year. I understand why they always come back. You’re treated like family (my mom and I were welcomed there every morning to have breakfast with my cousins despite not being “official” guests), the hotel has been beautifully restored with a fine balance between ancient and modern, there’s a killer rooftop terrace, and a five star spa. (For a more interactive view, check out the vlog where you can hear me gasping at every turn as my cousin gives me a tour of the place)
If you’re looking for something more affordable, look no further than Elia Porta Due, part of a small grouping of hotels called Elia Hotels all located in the chic historic centre, ranging from affordable to high end hotel options. We stayed at Elia Porta Due, which was a room located in a little apartment building in the centre. To collect your key etc. you have to go to the lobby of the main hotel, which is only a few minutes walk away, and the hotel staff was extremely friendly and communicative when it came to getting ourselves checked in and out.
Chania is a great base to explore the western beaches like Balos, Triopetra, and others (more on beaches below). Chania is also located close to the thinnest part of the island (where it’s only about an hour to cross from the north to the south coast) so it’s a great spot to stay if you want to explore parts of the south west coast as well.
Makry Gialos: At almost the opposite end of the island (south east coast) is the little beach town of Makrigialos. This place is a little slice of heaven – very different from Chania or the cities on the north coast because it exudes the laid-back vibes of a beach town. There are tavernas and cafes that line the huge, crystal-clear beach (which is a combination of sand and pebble) as well as your typical inexpensive beach shops. It’s a perfect spot if you don’t want to explore and would rather chill.
My favourite part about Makrigialos was the beach – the waters are shallow for a long way out, crystal clear, and the beaches are clean. There are also trees along the coastline so it’s easy to find shade. It’s also not so overrun with tourists. We loved it so much where we were that we didn’t bother to explore any of the surrounding area but it would be a great base from which to explore the eastern part of the island.
We stayed at an older hotel and while it was OK, I think you would get better value for money if you simply looked for an airbnb or vacation rental by owner type accommodation here as there were plenty that were well located.
Beaches to Visit on Crete (in no particular order)
I have to preface this by saying that pretty much all beaches on Crete are awesome, and while you will see lists that include very popular beaches like Vai and Balos, I’ve listed these beaches which are a little lesser known but incredibly spectacular and also less overrun by tourists (more beach for you – yay!) In general, the beaches on Crete are pretty amazing because you don’t have to worry about things like jellyfish or sea lice, the water is super warm and the beaches are kept so clean.
Triopetra: This is a more popular beach but it’s huge and expansive so there’s plenty of room for everyone. It gets its name from the three beautiful rock formations that stick out of the water at one end. The water is crystal clear and it’s a sand beach. However it is not very protected so on windy days it can be less than pleasant! There is also no natural shade.
Agios Pavlos: This is the beach we went to near Triopetra. There are two coves – one with a taverna and umbrellas and the other which is at the bottom of rocks and sand dunes. There is no shade on the second and it is a bit more rough, so you’ve got to bring your own umbrellas and be prepared with snacks and water. It is also a sand beach, but the rock formations that rise above it are quite impressive.
Sweetwater Beach: This is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to and is only accessible by boat which you can take from Sfakia. Although it is small pebbles, the water is crystal clear, a deep turquoise, and calm because you’re in a bay. There is a taverna that was built over the water and umbrellas and chairs which you can pay for, but again the beauty of Greece shines through because they don’t cost a fortune. Sweetwater beach got its name because cold freshwater can be found if you simply dig holes along the beach – it runs down from the mountains, so you can take a nice freshwater shower (there is a solar powered shower as well as designated holes with buckets nearby) before heading home.
Makrigialos: This beach is incredible for kids and families because it is shallow and crystal clear for a long way out, and the water is almost always very calm and easy to swim in. It’s long and there’s natural shade so it’s easy, but there are also cafes that have umbrellas and chairs which you can rent for the day.
Other Places on Crete & Things to See and Visit
If you’re into culture, Knossos Palace is a must-see. The tours are affordable and well worth it, as the ancient history and stories are fascinating. I would recommend going earlier in the morning or the afternoon when it is cooler.
Stop in Spili: We stopped in Spili on our way back from Agios Pavlos. Spili is a small town that is picture perfect: the architecture is folk-like and everything is well-maintained, large flagstone is at your feet and ancient trees soar overhead, but the best part is the ancient Venetian fountain which has a constant flow of freshwater flowing from the mountains. It’s romantic and picturesque. It is a small town so there aren’t too many accommodations to stay overnight but it’s definitely worth a stop for ice cream and a little wander.
Rethymno: Aside from Chania, Rethymno is my next favourite city on Crete because of the interesting mix of history and architecture, which varies from Moorish to Venetian and everything in between. The historic centre is full of small streets with boutiques, restaurants and cafes and it has a beautiful waterfront boardwalk that extends very far – you could easily stay just outside the city and hop on a bike or walk along the boardwalk into the main part of town.
The People: I can’t talk about Crete without mentioning how hospitable, gracious, and kind the Cretan people are. They are friendly, generous with their time and knowledge, and you truly feel welcomed on their island. I think this is one of the reasons why my mom and I go back as often as we can. Although the beaches are incredible too;)
Wow, that was a lot. And I said it would be condensed. There is so much to love about Crete, and so much to explore, but after several visits and lots of exploring, these are the most special experiences/things to see and do, in my opinion.
I know I will be going back because it is a magical place that nourishes your mind, body and soul. I hope you get to enjoy it someday too!
As always, thanks for reading, xx