Crete, I discovered this past April, is one of my favorite places on earth. At least from what I saw, and there is so much more to see there. We only had three full days in Crete, and I could have probably spent three full weeks easily. Crete offers everything I could want in a destination. Cities, beaches, mountains, history, wineries and breweries, fantastic food, friendliness, scenic beauty, art, and culture. But what I loved the most about Crete was the slightly wild feel of the island (to clarify, wild as in less polished, not as in “big party” type of wild). Now this doesn’t mean that it’s uncivilized or third world or anything like that. It’s absolutely not. But the island is just such a presence in and of itself. It’s hard to describe.
Crete is green, mountainous, and appears to be generally under-explored, apart from the major cities and some of the more popular sites. But it has so much possibility. As we didn’t have enough time there, I certainly can’t list all of the “must do” items. So instead, I’ll go with the places that we experienced, and give my thoughts on each.
Chania: Chania, roughly pronounced “ha-knee-uh”, is located on the northwestern coast of Crete, and it’s known for its Venetian-style harbor. The old city does, in fact, feel like you’re walking through a Greek version of Venice. The streets are narrowed, many cobblestoned, with restaurants and stores on the ground level, and apartments or small rooms for rent on the upper floors. The harbor itself features restaurants with outside dining all along the perimeter, and a large open walkway for pedestrians. Like Venice, no cars are allowed into the old section of the city. I’d say give yourself at least a day to explore Chania itself.
Along the edge of the harbor is a large stone wall that leads to a lighthouse. Climb the stones, walk along the wall. To me, it’s an absolute must in the city. It’s a nice walk and gives you great views of the harbor. But mostly you get to feel like a little kid climbing along the walls.
I rarely give restaurant recommendations on my blog, mostly because I have a hard time remembering them, but I will say this: eat at Tamam in the old section of town. It’s located in a building that dates back to the 15th century and was once used as the Venetian Baths. We ate here at the recommendation of our hotel (more on that in a minute) and ended up going back a second time for dinner, even with the variety of restaurants nearby. It’s that delicious.
Hotel wise, we stayed at the Casa Delfino. I can’t recommend this place enough. It’s a little pricier, but it’s absolutely worth it. It’s the former home of the Delfino family, completely refurbished with a mix of both modern and classic decor, and has remained in the family for the past six generations. This hotel is boutique – only 24 rooms and suites – and has a central courtyard where you can eat breakfast, and enjoy a little bit of a quiet oasis from the city. My only cautions are these: I did not see a lift, and a lot of the rooms are up numerous flights of stairs. So if mobility is an issue, you may want to check with the hotel before booking. Also, the “one bedroom apartments” vary in style and setup. Ours was a modern-looking loft with a staircase up to the bedroom. My parents was a more classic style room that was basically just a very large hotel room. So if you have a preference, you may want to check with them about the type of room you’re getting. But the hotel was great – especially helping us when we arrived late, in the dark, with an overloaded rental car. We parked as close as we could to the pedestrian zone, walked to the hotel, and told them where we were parked, and they brought us back in a golf cart, helped us find an approved parking lot, and proceeded to drive us and our luggage back to the hotel in the golf cart. Breakfast was homemade every morning, and the staff was incredibly helpful and friendly.
Now, for the rest of Crete. First of all, rent a car. It’s an absolute must. And you will need an international driver’s license. Driving in Crete is an experience – the roads are narrow and curvy. They also do this super polite thing where if they want you to pass them (or realize you need to), they pull to the side and let you go around them. So the roads are basically a constant stream of what looks to be people impatiently weaving in and out Mario Kart style, but it’s actually how they drive – I presume to help with traffic so everyone isn’t stuck behind some really slow driver or tourist unsure of where they’re going. If you drive, STAY ON THE MAIN ROADS! I’m completely serious. Our GPS tried to take us down an incredibly narrow, rocky dirt “road”, which was basically like a path that led to someone’s farm on the side of a mountain. At one breathtaking point, all of us passengers had to get out of the car while my husband perilously had to K turn an SUV on the edge of an extremely narrow cliff. It is a moment that I never want to experience again. So please, please do yourself a favor, no matter how much you like off-roading, and stick to the main roads.
On our second full day, we drove to Heraklion (Iraklion) and Knossos. It’s about a two hour drive from Chania to Heraklion, so this was a full day excursion. If you’re unfamiliar with Knossos, it’s one of the most famous Minoan archaeological sites. One of the most famous sites that I will say I was “meh” about. Now, let me add that we did not do a tour or have a guide, and that might have made all of the difference. And I think in part, having seen the Minoan site in Santorini that we’d not even known about, we figured this, being so much more well-known, was going to wow us. I’ll also admit that I’m travel-spoiled. I was picturing something along the lines of Chichen Itza or Machu Picchu or even Pompeii. It was not. I think what was most disappointing about is that, while the site at Akrotiri was excavated as-is, for lack of a better phrase, much of Knossos was based on what one particular archaeologist (and I am guessing honestly on his career) thought it had looked like. Now he didn’t just make it up – he did a lot of research of course. But basically, most of what we saw at Knossos was rebuilt structures based on what one person thought it looked like. We weren’t seeing fully excavated sites or even sites someone had walked up upon, like Machu Picchu. They were rebuilt, much of them in entirety. So while it was interesting, it wasn’t all that impressive, if that makes sense. As for Heraklion itself, we didn’t get to explore a ton, but it looked like a pretty cool city, and I’d have liked to have a little more time there. We also went to the Archaeological Museum, but it was overrun with teenage tour groups, and I honestly think by that time we were kind of Minoaned-out.
For our third and final day, our destination was Elafonisi Beach. Elafonisi is in the southwestern corner of Crete. It’s not a short drive (probably about an hour and a half or more, though ours also involved the back road detour and cliff-side K turn described above, which added to the transit time). On the way, we passed through tiny towns of the Crete countryside, one of which we stopped in for lunch on the way back. I love seeing the way people really live in a country, and especially away from the cities, so this drive, despite terrifying moments, was really worth taking. The beach itself was absolutely gorgeous. Blue-turquoise waters gently rippling across sandbars, so that you could walk way out into the water and onto the rocky outcrops that looked out over the beach. Probably the prettiest beach I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying a lot.
On the way back we stopped at the Cretan Brewery (it never got old calling things “the Cretan xyz… because we’re ridiculous like that) and got to sit outside enjoying some very generous beer flights – so generous that I couldn’t actually finish mine,and I’m pretty used to beer flights. The beer was decent, and sitting out on the deck in the sunshine was really the perfect way to end our time in Crete.
There’s so much more to explore in Crete – hiking trails, monasteries, other beaches, the city of Rethymno (about half way between Chania and Heraklion) and its surrounding area, wineries, other archeological sites, just to name a few things.
If you’re headed to Greece, Crete is an absolute must. Give yourself at least three days, but I’d say five or more is optimal. I also highly suggest heading there around April when we did – it’s warm enough, but not high tourist season, which means driving isn’t as bad (every person we met in Greece warned us about driving there), and you can enjoy the island as it should be – without a bunch of tourists. That said, even in high season, Crete isn’t like Santorini or Mykonos when it comes to tourists.