Crete may be an island, but it packs in a whole country’s worth of unmissable sites within its lovely shores. From the ornate architecture and culture of Hania to the deeply symbolic monastery at Moni Preveli, there is so much to see on Greece’s largest island.
Don’t miss the 4000-year-old wonders of the Palace of Knossos – one of the world’s top ancient sites – and allow plenty of time for the dozens of gorgeous beaches. Indulge yourself with a vineyard tour paired with delicious local cuisine when you’re able to tear yourself away from the coast.
Whatever your mood, Crete has the perfect place for you – here are eight of our favorites.
Best city for dining and walking
Crete’s second-largest city has many excellent places to eat, lining the labyrinth of ancient stone lanes that make up its 17th-century Venetian quarter. Some of the finest food in all of Greece can be found in Crete, thanks to its bountiful produce and ingenious cooks, and Hania is the island’s culinary capital. While you stroll, snack on boureki, a rich, layered cheese pie, and marvel at the myriad ways Cretans use locally produced olive oil, which is some of the best in the Mediterranean.
Before and after a meal, stroll down to the Venetian Harbour, which is studded with pastel-colored buildings and fortifications built across the centuries. Follow the breakwater walk out from shore for stunning views of all the magnificence.
2. Crete’s southwest beaches
Best for sand, sea and sun
The journey to Crete’s best beaches starts with a twisting drive through the mountains and down to the charming little port town of Hora Sfakion. As you loop around bend after bend, panoramic views across the Libyan Sea show the rocky Cretan coast in all its filigreed glory.
Stretching off to the horizon are coves enclosing perfect little beaches, often backed by a tiny village with waterfront tavernas. Make a beeline for Loutro, Agia Roumeli, Paleohora and the crowning glory that is Elafonisi, renowned for its pinkish-white sands and the dune-blanketed islet offshore.
Planning tip: You can reach most of these strands by car, but it’s better to grab a ride on one of the coastal ferries that operate from May to September, making it easy to beach-hop from one strip of sand to the next.
3. The Palace of Knossos
Best for reliving Minoan history
Just south of Iraklio in eastern Crete, the Palace of Knossos is Crete’s top unmissable attraction. Once a mighty palace for the Minoan civilization, which thrived here from 1900 BCE, Knossos is a sprawling site of marketplaces, grand chambers, inspiring frescoes, hidden passages, rows of sturdy columns and more. You can easily spend several hours exploring the site.
During the busy summer, escape the crowds and find a quiet corner to contemplate life 4000 years ago. Signage is sparse, so come with a guide from the site shop or join a tour, which will provide vital context that brings the site to life.
Planning tip: Avoid the touristy restaurants in the area and have lunch in the beautiful wine country to the south.
4. Bali’s Beaches
Best for family beach days
No, you don’t have to go all the way to Indonesia; just come to this azure bay on Crete’s north coast. The name Bali is derived from a Turkish word for honey, which was once harvested locally, but those days are long gone, and modern visitors come to harvest fabulous holiday memories.
A string of beaches with distinct personalities dot the coves lining the shore. Livadi is perfect for families with teenagers who revel in the party vibe at the cafes and clubs along the water. Couples looking for a romantic evening enjoy Varkotopo with its elegant bars oriented towards the sunset views. Karavostasi is the quietest beach, and it’s well-suited for smaller kids, who can build castles on sand lapped by gentle waves.
5. Samaria Gorge
Best for natural beauty
The Samaria Gorge is one of Europe’s top geological wonders. Sheer rock walls tower over 150m (492ft) high, standing less than 3m (10ft) apart in the most dramatic stretches. In other areas, the gorge opens up into a wide green valley framed by soaring hills, tracing the path of a year-round river. The best way to see it is by hiking its length from an elevation of 1230m (4035ft) down to the coastal village of Agia Roumeli, which has a refreshing beach.
Only open from May to October, the hiking trail is over 16km long (10 miles) and gets busy at summer’s height. Sights include old churches and seasonal wildflowers; if you’re lucky, you may spot a kri-kri, a species of mountain goat native to Crete.
Planning tip: If you’re not up for the full hike, you can get a sense of the gorge on short walks in and out from the start and endpoints.
6. Moni Arkadiou
Best for a deep dive into Cretan history
In 1866, scores of local men, women and children fled their villages and sought refuge in this hilltop monastery when Ottoman troops violently tried to put down island-wide revolts. Completely surrounded, the villagers chose to blow themselves up with a cache of explosives, which also killed more than 2000 Turkish troops, rather than surrender.
Today the site is a potent symbol of the Cretan spirit and the Greek quest for independence. Displays, statues and memorials recall the tragic events of the siege. The monastery’s 16th-century Venetian church survived and is a lovely spectacle, with glittering decor and sacred icons. Don’t miss the old wine cellar where the gunpowder used by the villagers was stored.
7. Iraklio Wine Country
Best for thirsty couples
Crete’s wine is popular far beyond the island, and 70% of it comes from the lush valleys and plains south of Iraklio and the Palace of Knossos. Quiet back roads meander over and around gentle hills lined with grape vines. Among the varietals grown here are Kotsifali, Mandilari and Malvasia.
It seems like there’s another vineyard, tasting room or taverna around every curve. You can join organized wine tours of the region or just go exploring, letting your whims, moods and tastes guide you. More than two dozen wineries can be found here – notable stops include the hugely popular Boutari and Minos-Miliarakis, which sits right in the middle of the lovely village of Peza.
8. Moni Preveli
Best for mixing beaches and history
One of Crete’s most beautiful and historic monasteries is perched on a bluff high above one of the island’s best beaches. What more could you ask for on a day out? The star of Moni Preveli is its ornate chapel, which features artworks dating back to the 13th century. Memorials at the site recall the 1866 resistance to the Ottoman Empire and the role the monastery played in sheltering Allied troops escaping from the Nazis in WWII.
Far below the complex, Preveli Beach is shaded by palm trees and has river-fed freshwater pools. Crystal-clear turquoise seawater laps the sand, and the beach’s low-key seaside tavernas are ideal stops for lunch.