Crete is the largest Greek island. With ancient ruins, historic fortresses, wild landscapes and fabulous beaches, it’s a popular holiday destination. And after our own unforgettable vacation there, we’d like to tell you some useful things so that you can seamlessly plan yours.
Rent a car to see the best of Crete
If you spend your days in only one town, you miss out on a lot of amazing places. Crete is wild, and its remote regions are the least busy and most magical. Even though you can reach some by bus or boat, many can only be accessed by car, so you better rent one at least for a few days.
Roads on the island are generally in good condition. Greek National Road 90 runs on the north of the island. Even though it’s called Crete’s highway, it’s not a real highway, it has two traffic lanes (one in each direction) and no lane separator. Locals expect you to use the emergency lane if they want to take over.
Other minor roads are fine, too, but you can’t drive fast. They’re in the mountains, some sections are narrow and steep. Sometimes the last, short section of the road is not paved.
Then there’s the road to famous Balos Beach: its last 8 kilometres is a dirt road (with some asphalted sections), and it takes about 30 minutes to drive it. It’s not too bad, but you need to drive carefully so you’ll be slow.
Have different bases to explore the whole island
Even though distances are not long, it takes time to get from one place to the other in Crete, because you can’t drive fast. Even on the national road it takes about 4.5 hours to get from Kissamos in the west to Sitia in the east. If you’d like to explore the whole island, we recommend booking different accommodations, at least two: one in the west (Chania or Rethymnon) and one in the east (Agios Nikolaos or Sitia).
We decided that, visiting only for 9 days in the summer, we focus on the western and southwestern area which have the most famous beaches, so our base was near Chania. We explored the Chania and Rethymnon regions, but we hadn’t planned to visit anything east of Heraklion (and we didn’t). Not that there’s nothing to see there – it was actually very tempting! -, but this time we managed to resist the temptation of creating a heavy itinerary with double the things we could really enjoy. Our little Tomi helped in that, too, you just can’t rush through places with a small kid. 😀
Not all beaches are sandy
When we think of beaches, we often imagine the typical golden sand beach, and Greek beaches often meet this expectation. However, not all beaches are sandy in Crete. It has some perfectly sandy ones with pure, fine, golden sand, but it has pebbly beaches, too, or beaches where sand is mixed with pebbles.
We have favorites in each category, but if you have a preference, read about the beach before you visit it. The finest sandy beaches we liked the most are: Elafonisi, Balos, Falassarna, Frangokastello and Kedrodasos Beaches (the latter has several bays, but most of them are sandy). Preveli Beach has sand mixed with pebbles. The incredibly photogenic coves of Seitan Limania and Kleidisi have small pebbles, and we loved Mikro Ammoudi and Glyka Nera Beaches very much – they are also pebbly. We don’t think you need water shoes even on the pebbly beaches, but we saw some people wearing them.
Hike to find the most fabulous beaches
Crete was busy in July, but we felt it mostly because of traffic on the roads and crowded parking lots. And because of an almost full flight there and back. We didn’t feel the crowd on the beaches, and that is thanks to the fact that Crete has lots of incredibly long beaches. Also, it has lots of hidden beaches that are barely known!
They required driving, maybe hiking (or a boat ride), as well, but they offered such beauty and solitude that made our trip worth it. Do you want a tip? Take the coastal trail from Elafonisi to Kedrodasos Beach. Kedrodasos is a gem, 10 minutes drive from super famous Elafonisi. It has the same beauty, but barely anyone knows about it. And hiking there from Elafonisi has the advantage of stumbling upon many fabulous little bays and coves from which you can choose your private beach.
But it’s not only the hidden gems that require hiking. Balos Beach is among the most popular ones, and you need to take a bumpy drive, then a 30 minutes long trail to get there (or a boat ride). Same goes for the pebbly cove of Seitan Limania.
But you know what? We enjoyed these beach hikes! No matter the heat (and yes, we were sweating all the way), the scenery is amazing. And wherever we travel, it seems to be an eternal truth that the best beaches are the ones that require some work. 🙂
It can get very windy on some beaches
You don’t need to worry about rainy days when visiting Crete in the summer. The same is not true about windy days though.
No, I don’t mean it gets cold. The wind is refreshing, however, it can make sandy beaches quite uncomfortable. The fine grains of sand are carried by the strong wind easily, they blind you, they get into your eyes, ears, mouth… everywhere. (No, a beach tent won’t protect you, but will also be full of sand.) Some of the most famous beaches – looking at you, Balos, Elafonisi and Falassarna – are also famous for getting windy on some days. There’s not much you can do. If you find it very uncomfortable, look for another beach that doesn’t face the same direction.
It was only on Falassarna Beach that we saw (and used) the rentable deck chairs that are fenced to be protected from the wind. It actually helps, but we haven’t seen them on any other beaches.
Crete offers some picturesque gorge trails
Samaria Gorge is a very impressive and strenuous day hike. But Crete has many more gorges! Some can be driven through – like Topolia Gorge on your way to Elafonisi Beach or Kourtaliotiko Gorge on your way to Preveli Beach -, and some offer scenic hiking trails.
Imbros Gorge is 11 km long, and taxi service is offered at the exit to take you back to the entrance. You can either park around the exit (there are free parking lots) and take the taxi to the entrance, or you can park at the entrance and take the taxi after your hike to get back to your car.
Patsos Gorge is only 1.5 km long, Kollita Gorges offers a 2.5 km long, almost flat path.
We planned to do one of the easy ones, but we traveled with only a carry-on hence we didn’t have Tomi’s carrier backpack with us, and the weather was also very hot – which takes us to our next advice…
Summer is very hot, visit in spring or fall for a hiking holiday
Long hikes with barely any shade can hardly be enjoyable in the summer in Crete. The average summer temperatures are between 20-30ºC, and you can easily have above 30ºC on each day of your vacation if you visit in July and August. So if you plan to do lots of hiking (and even sightseeing), it’s better to visit in spring or fall. Prices are better, too, and you still have very pleasant weather, even beach days if you visit in September or early October when the sea is warm after the summer.
Visit Knossos, but skip Heraklion
If you’re interested in history and archaeological sights, visit Knossos. Inhabited since the Bronze Age, it’s one of the oldest cities in Europe, and it was the centre of Minoan culture. The ruins of the palace of Knossos are close to the city of Heraklion, you can reach them by car or by bus.
I’ve been obsessed with Greek mythology and legends ever since my childhood. I knew the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur very well, and was excited to visit Knossos. It didn’t disappoint. Even though the restoration works done by Sir Arthur Evans, a rich British archaeologist, are controversial, they definitely help visitors imagine how the place could have looked like. Since we visited after 5 pm, walking around the ruins was pleasant, too. (Avoid the hottest hours of the day as there’s not much shade.)
Once we were there, we planned to spend a few hours walking around in Heraklion, too. We ended up shortening it and going to the beach instead. We didn’t find much to see in Heraklion. There’s the church of Agios Minas and St. Titus’ Cathedral… and that’s about it. We’ve seen the Lions Square and 25th of August Street, but honestly, we found the center of Rethymnon and even Chania prettier. Sorry, Heraklion, we should have skipped you entirely.
Have you been to Crete? What’s your top tips for a great vacation there?
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