The largest Greek Island, a jewel in the Mediterranean beautiful enough to make your eyes feel as if they’re going to burst into tiny little hearts and spill out all over the turquoise sea. This gem is an absolute paradise. Everyone hears about the hype of islands such as Mykonos or Santorini, but in my opinion they are overrated. They are touristy, pricey, crowded and filled with cruise ship passengers who just want to take the perfect Instagram photo, gain some bragging rights, and leave. Crete seems to be the well-kept secret amongst locals and wilderness/nature travelers and beach-goers. If you are planning a trip to Greece, my advice is to skip the hype and spend some quality time on Crete Island. You certainly won’t regret it. There is something here for everyone, whether you prefer the all-inclusive beach resort with your family, doing a 30-day trek across the E4 trail, hiking rugged gorges, exploring mountainous village towns, trying delicious local fare, or swimming in crystal clear turquoise waters. I have a feeling that this beautiful island will start popping up on travel guides and blogs across the country, and I am happy to be one of the contributors to share knowledge of this wonderful paradise. 🙂
People & Culture
Greeks, especially on Crete Island, are some of the friendliest people I have ever encountered in all of my world travels thus far. Most people speak enough English to ask you where you are from and how you are enjoying your stay, and the folks who work in the service industry speak English very well. They are extremely hospitable and I found them to be trustworthy. Being an island, the culture is laid-back and slow-paced. Nearly everybody on the street will say hello to you, and it is helpful to know at least a few words such as “good morning” (kalimera), “good evening” (kalispera) and “thank you” (epcharisto, pronounced “ef-har-eesto”). And the food…be warned, it’s best to view this article after you have eaten, otherwise you may very well attempt to jump through the screen or book the next flight out from wherever it is you are currently sitting. Crete will always hold a very special place in our hearts, especially because this is where we got engaged!
Where to Stay
There are three major cities on Crete Island:
Chania (Western Crete)
Rethymno (Central Crete)
Heraklion (Eastern Crete, the capital) – also the coolest name ever. It reminds me of a Sci-Fi movie.
The two major airports are in Chania and Heraklion. We stayed in Chania in one of Sasha’s friend’s parents’ house (free accommodation helped us out a lot during our six months of travel!) The house was just a 15-minute drive from Chania Airport (where we flew in from Athens), and a ten-minute drive from the Harbor, so we were close to shopping, beaches, nightlife, supermarkets and within a three-hour drive from all the beautiful hikes.
My Fiance’s parents also happened to be visiting Crete at the same time, and they stayed in a beautiful hotel just a 20-minute drive outside of Chania right across from the beach and paid a rate of $180 USD per night for a beautiful and spacious room. This would be a great option for families, as the hotel had a great pool! Airbnbs are also available on Crete Island.
We stayed a total of 11 days on Crete, which we felt was not enough time. If you’re going to travel all the way to Crete, I highly recommend staying two + weeks (if you enjoy hiking, relaxing on beaches, and driving scenic mountain roads.) However, I understand that many American companies only allow a total of two weeks of paid time off each year, so if you only have one week, I would suggest staying in one location and exploring that region, as it can take over five hours to drive from one end of the island to the other, and it is very mountainous, so driving takes time.
Transportation & Driving in Crete
We reserved a car online through Expedia as a backup, but when we arrived to Chania Airport, we negotiated rates with the companies who were physically there (most of them want your business and are willing to negotiate a rate, even if you are visiting during peak tourist season (we visited in July).) We used a company called Avance (yes that is spelled correctly without the “d”), and we paid 280 euro (around $320 USD) for ten full days. This included insurance, taxes and fees, and unlimited kilometers. We got a white Fiat Panda (most cars are white on the island because it is so hot.) Nearly all cars are a manual stick shift, though for extra money you can request an automatic. If you have a European or American drivers license, you do not need an international drivers license. We simply cancelled our Expedia reservation, though you should always have something reserved in advance just in case they are sold out upon arrival (which happened to us in Athens.)
A car was the best option for us as we like to go off the beaten path and be away from the tourist crowds and busses. A car gave us the freedom to get lost on dirt roads and stumble upon the coolest-looking furry goats like these guys:
If you have a family, renting a car is your best option to explore the island, though be forewarned that the roads are quite windy, so if you or your kids are prone to car sickness, be sure to bring ginger or ginger chews (helps ease the stomach), or Seabands (stretchy tight material that goes over the wrists with a ball at the pressure point on the inner wrist that aids balance and prevents nausea.) Driving on Crete is quite easy and laid back because of the slow, windy roads. We learned the driving etiquette very quickly, which is to allow others to pass on the left of you down the center line and for you to move over to the right side. Most Greek drivers actually drive at all times halfway into the shoulder lane and halfway in the actual lane so that fast drivers can pass on the left if they so wish. It was a strange concept to us as American drivers, but it worked and we felt safe and comfortable at all times.
Cretan Local Food
If you’re like me and eat every two hours, constantly worrying about how long you will need to go without food whilst traveling, I can assure you that will not be a problem on Crete. There are tavernas (local and typically family-owned restaurants) in every single mountainous village, coastal harbor or on a random road somewhere all over the island. No matter how remote the area is, you are guaranteed to find a taverna serving delicious home-cooked fare at decent prices (between €5 – €15 for mains). We never drove more than one hour without seeing a taverna that was open and ready to serve us. However, this may be different during the winter season, as many family businesses close down when there are fewer tourists.
If you are a vegetarian, you are going to have a difficult time in Greece. If you eat seafood, then your chances of finding food that will suit your needs are much greater, however, vegans might need to fly in their own food to sustain themselves here. 😉 Greeks are meat-eaters (mostly lamb, pork and chicken). We didn’t see a single cow on Crete, but we did see plenty of goats, which are also used for consumption. In the way of vegetables (in July anyway), it seemed that all that was available was: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. You can assume that olive oil will be drizzled generously over everything and used to cook all foods. This is something I love about Greek fare; the fact that it is so healthy and pure, unlike in America, where many restaurants use terrible oils such as palm and corn.
Most meals are served with bread to start (usually at no extra cost, but be careful in the touristy areas where they give it to you but don’t tell you that it is an extra charge.) This happened to us only once in Chania Harbor, where they tried to charge €2 for bread we didn’t touch. I had him remove the charge from our bill since he didn’t notify us. Olive oil and vinegar are always at the table so you may go as crazy as you’d like with it and nobody will judge you.
Nearly every starter and main are served with a fresh lemon, usually from their tree somewhere nearby. Most mains are served with french fries. Even though these are fresh cut from locally-grown potatoes, they still aren’t the healthiest option. Feel free to ask for vegetables instead of potatoes. Most places will understand and not charge anything extra for the substitution.
Similar to Russia’s tvorog, this is a fresh unpasteurized cheese usually from goat’s or sheep’s milk. This one was on the house included in our meal.
Honestly, it’s hard to screw up a Greek salad (wait a minute, wouldn’t you just call it “salad” here?) Eight simple ingredients: largely diced tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, green peppers (sometimes), fresh olives, lemon juice, olive oil and a huge block of feta dusted with oregano. This is my Fiance’s favorite dish probably in the whole world, and he would eat two per day (one for lunch, one for dinner). The onion breath was getting out of hand, so he ordered them sans onions (smart man). 😉
Cretan Rusk Salad
Rusk is twice-baked bread, similar to a biscuit and very hard and crunchy. It is topped with tomato puree, special Cretan cheese, dried olives (those are olives, not raisins) and of course, olive oil.
Each restaurant makes it a bit differently, but it’s basically yogurt, cucumber, lemon and spices. Some were better than others and no recipe is the same.
Dolma (stuffed grape leaves)
Most people will be familiar with this food as it has long ago made its way to other countries. However, you must try them here as this is where they originated. They are typically stuffed with ingredients such as: rice, onions or minced meat.
Saganaki (fried cheese)
If you like cheese, you’ll love this. And you don’t even have to feel too guilty because everything is fried in…you guessed it…olive oil!
I’m not a fan, but I’ll try most things once!
Dish of the Day
Your best bet for the freshest food is to inquire what their dish of the day is. Unlike in America where this can mean whatever is getting old and they have to get rid of, the dish of the day on Crete is actually what they are making best and most fresh that day (I’m talking just caught that morning, or just slaughtered that week and is currently roasting on the fire in their kitchen in the back.) Be prepared for a lot of lamb dishes. Below is an eggplant and vegetable stew in tomato sauce.
This one was the best meal of our entire time on Crete Island, and one that I was hesitant to order (so Sasha ordered it). 🙂 This is stewed rabbit in olive oil and rosemary and was the best-tasting meat I’ve had in my whole life. Tender, juicy and incredibly flavorful. I figured there’s enough rabbits procreating in the world, right?
They do Italian pretty well too. 🙂 Sea bream is a commonly found fresh-caught fish.
Chocolate is not a big thing on Crete, but honey and fruit are, and that’s much healthier. 🙂Growing up eating what I thought was authentic Greek food in America, in my mind, baklava was a traditional Greek food. While this is somewhat true, the origin of this delicious honey and pistachio-filled dessert actually comes from Turkey, but the Greeks adopted their own recipe. The only place I could find home-made baklava was at a bakery, which were a rare sight. I expected the tavernas to have it, but they mostly served ice cream (which was good too!)
After every meal, the waiter will bring out some sort of free dessert “on the house”. This usually consists of yogurt, honey, fresh fruit and raki. Raki is vodka made from grapes. It is extremely strong and a great way to cleanse the palate. And they don’t just bring you a shot glass, they bring you an entire bottle that you may drink none of or all of, it’s up to you. And it’s all FREE! Another traditional Greek alcohol is called ouzo, which is an anise aperitif.
As most people will likely spend only one week on Crete, below I will detail a 7-day itinerary.
HOW TO SPEND THE PERFECT WEEK ON CRETE ISLAND:
Visit Chania Harbor
Chania Harbor is my new happy place. I’m not a huge fan of shopping, but when it’s outdoors on cobblestone streets and each turn is a hidden alley lined with artisan shops selling locally-made goods and products, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of wonder and connection to this land and all that surrounds it. I particularly appreciated (especially after having traveled in South America), that the shop owners don’t harass you as you walk by or try to lure you in. Just walking around the harbor is calming and a prime spot for people-watching. Chania Harbor was built in Venetian style with a lighthouse marking the start of the crescent opening.
There are countless restaurants, shops and buskers about, and night time is when everyone comes out to enjoy the cooler weather, stars and moonlit dinners on the sea.
One evening we went for a walk along the seawall and stumbled upon a live tango band playing under a full moon and several couples dancing in the open area. It was heaven. You can easily spend a full day here, exploring the shops, dining in the restaurants, and enjoying gelato as you window shop. There is a lot for parking down by the harbor, but it is typically full. Be aware of parking spots that are for locals with a permit only. We parked on the main street above before you turn down to go towards the water. There was plenty of street parking at most times during the day.
Visit the Historic Site of Phaistos Minoan Palace
Located in Southern/Central Crete, drive time from Chania is around 3.5 hours, from Rethymno, 1.5 hours, and from Heraklion 1 hour, 15 minutes. Entry fee is 8 euro per person. If you visit during summer, be sure to wear your floppy hat and sunscreen as it is HOT!
I purchased a cute rose gold-plated sterling silver bracelet from Chania Harbor that has the disk of Phaistos, not knowing at the time what the significance was (I just thought it looked pretty and was something unique and hand-made in Greece.) I later learned during this visit to the ruins, that the disk is a bit of an enigma.
The original disk was found in the Minoan society and was made of clay. Its average diameter is 16 cm and is 2.1 cm thick. Its mysterious inscriptions are made of 241 symbols in a spiral pattern. There appear to be 45 distinct symbols with repetitions. The symbols were pressed onto wet clay and the disk was then hardened by fire. The signs belong to what scientists and historians believe to be a syllabic script, which has not yet been deciphered despite numerous attempts over the years, using diverse methods of study. Researchers have proposed various speculations about the purpose and where the creation came from, but the true meaning remain unknown to this day.
This cute hippy town has a nice sandy beach and cave walls that you can climb on, explore and jump off of into the water. There’s also a beach volleyball net and a restaurant overlooking the ocean!
Beach Hop Around Chania
Crete is known for their beaches with crystal clear turquoise waters. One of the things I love about Crete is the ease of finding remote beaches with few people, even in the peak season of July. Don’t forget your floppy hat, it’s a necessity in Greece!
Sougia Beach – relaxed, calm and quiet. This is a nudist beach, but just on the other side is a small harbor with the most turquoise water I have ever seen in my entire life. I was bedazzled.
Sougia has a wonderful little village where you can select from several restaurants right on the beach to watch the sun set and moon rise. Most of the restaurants serve fresh seafood.
Paleochora Beach – unreal crystal clear waters and visibility for over 25 meters (great for snorkeling). This water felt like a swimming pool!
There are also neat pebbles permanently etched in the sand in cool shapes like sail boats and spirals. Like most beaches on Crete, you can rent an umbrella and chairs for a small hourly, half day, or full-day fee (rates are negotiable based on time of day and whether or not it’s peak tourist season.) For example, we arrived around 4:30 PM on a Tuesday when the beach was not very crowded, and negotiated a rate of 5 euro for 2.5 hours.
Hike Imbros Gorge (entry €2.5)
Marvel at Pink Sand at Elafonissi Beach – Perhaps one of the most touristy beaches on the island and most popular, but absolutely spectacular and worth it. If you are visiting during peak summer season, I recommend going later in the evening a few hours before sunset (sunset is around 8:30 PM in July), as most people are leaving then, so you get the beach to yourself, otherwise daytime can get quite crowded.
However, if you have kids, daytime is the popular time for families to come so they can meet and play with other children their age. This is also where you can find pink sand!
Elafonissi will forever be a very special place to us, as this is where my Fiance proposed to me.
Hike Samaria Gorge (entry: €5)
Samaria is the most popular gorge hike in all of Europe. That was surprising to me, as I thought surely it would be somewhere in Norway with all the stunning fjords. But nope, it’s right here in Crete. Tourists come each year in droves to check it off their bucket list. We intended to conquer this hike earlier on in our stay, but we became too comfortable with beach life that we put it off until our last day, and I didn’t feel like hiking 13 kilometers in one day when we had to wake up at 4:00 AM the following morning for our flight back to Athens. We wanted to skip the crowds and busses full of tourists, so we decided to wake up early and hike only part of it, then hike back up again. We ended up doing six kilometers total (3 down, 3 up) in just under three hours, and that was plenty, though we are bummed that we missed seeing the most beautiful part of it once you reach the bottom.
This is normally a full-day excursion, so plan on allotting one full day and start early. Tourists are driven on large motor coaches to the start of the hike. They hike the entire 13 kilometers down (which isn’t too challenging because it’s down the entire way and the first steep part has hand rails made of natural wooden branches). We saw several families with kids doing it, so it’s certainly not an advanced hike, and surely suitable for children.
Parents be sure to pack everything your family needs for a full day of hiking, including hat, sunscreen, camera, sanitary wipes (there are toilets along the way, but they are sparse), snacks and water. There are fresh water springs along the entire route where I saw folks filling up their water bottles, which is good because your body will require a lot of hydration during this mostly-exposed sunny and hot hike. Once they reach the bottom, they board a ferry that shuttles them to the town of Sougia (where the nudist beach is located that I referred to above). They then get a taxi or bus transportation back to their hotel. The ferry is around 13 euro per person and I was told the ride is around 30 minutes.
Visit the Mountain Village of Anogeia
There are endless mountain villages with spectacular views left and right. One of our favorite little cozy towns for a quick stop for avocado/orange juice was Anogeia. Located just one hour’s drive from Heraklion in Central Crete, Anogeia is the third most picturesque town (according to “Crete’s Top 10”, a guide book I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it!)
This quaint village felt just like the set of the opening scene of Beauty And the Beast, so, being the musical theatre nerd I am, I had my Fiance film me on the GoPro singing “Belle”, which is when everyone opens the shutters and sings “bonjour!” when the clock chimes.
What we Spent in 11 Days on Crete Island
|CATEGORY DESCRIPTION||TOTAL SPENT IN 11 DAYS||AVERAGE PER DIEM|
|Clothing, Gifts & Accessories||$132||$12|
|Accommodation (free because we stayed in a friend’s home)||$0||$0|
|TOTAL SPENDING IN CRETE||$1,284||$117|
Crete is one of the locations we visited where we were actually sad to be leaving and didn’t feel we had enough time to explore everything we wanted to. We both agreed that out of the ten countries and over 50 cities/regions we had visited over our six months of travel, Crete was one of our favorites. This is a place that people return to time and time again because there is something special and lulling about an island gem in the middle of a sparkling deep blue sea. Crete, we will return to you someday.