I lived in Greece for a while, I have explored most of the mainland and almost all the islands however I was missing one important part, Crete.
I think I was a bit intimidated by the size and I always postponed the trip till I had more time, till I could spend few weeks. The first question I asked myself was where to stay in Crete.
I usually like to be based in a town and explore the island from there however Crete is so big that this would have not been an option. I eventually decided to spend my time in a gypsy style and keep moving with only few long stops.
I have enjoyed Crete so much that since my first long trip I keep going back for shorter stays, however more stable ones.
This island has really all you need for. And 2017 will be a great year to explore it.
Majestic beaches, unique mountains and gorges for some interesting trekking, isolated villages connected only by ferry, amazing Cretan cuisine and so much more.
The fact that many politicians, including Prime Ministers, are originally from this island has helped in building a unique public infrastructure of impeccable roads and efficient bus transportation without equals in Greece.
Put it simply, Crete is the biggest island in Greece.
As I said, the large size can actually be intimidating, compared to other Greek islands that you can visit in 1 or 2 days. And this is why it is so important to understand where to stay in in Crete.
A car trip between two of the most beautiful beaches in the island, from Elafonissi to Vai Beach, can take 6 or more hours.
If interested to visit most of the island you may look into multiple basis from which you can explore the local areas.
From Crete you can also take a ferry to Gavdos island, the southernmost European island, still politically part of Crete. The ferry trip takes few hours and I would not suggest it for just a day visit. It’s a great hippy island though, worth a week or two if you are after some easy time.
Crete has two main airports, Chania and Heraklion.
Which on is best?
It really depends on what you want to do.
If you are after the nightlife of the island, then the closest airport to Hersonissos and Malia is Heraklion.
If you area after some trekking in the Samaria Gorge or want to visit and stay close to Elafonissi beach then Chania works better.
If you want to tour the island you could fly to Heraklion, explore the east part of the island and than move to the west and finally fly out from Chania, assuming your departing airport is connected with both cities.
There is no better airport, it all depends on what area you decide to stay in Crete.
Ok, I get this question many times:
What area would you stay in Crete, or what town?
There is no magical answer.
I have tried to organise the places based on the type of holiday:
If you fly to Crete you will either land in Heraklion or Chania.
Few questions I have heard and received many times:
I personally love both cities, although in a different way.
Heraklion is more of a city, however in a small scale.
It’s actually a university city with a great young generation around which makes it great for bars and nightlife.
There are 2 main streets with lots of shopping possibilities, you can easily spend a few days here without getting bored.
There is also another good reason to spend at least a couple of nights in Heraklion: Knossos, a must for any trip to Crete.
You have public busses leaving Heraklion for Knossos, very easy to organise. It will take around 15 minutes by car, it’s only 6km from the city centre, and around 30 minutes by public transportation.
Lots of nice restaurants in the city. My favourite is still Avli tou Defkaliona, walking distance from the city centre. My only problem there is that I eat too much!
Not to be missed is also the ROP – Roastery • Brewery, best coffee in the city and great beer too in a lovely square, popular with students.
It has to be said that there are basically no beaches in or around the city and this is the limit of Heraklion I believe. You would need to take the bus to Paleokastrou beach, great spot well worth the 15km trip.
Chania has more character with the awesome old city centre, it has lots of bars and restaurants, amazing old/ancient buildings, just more attractive. It is however more touristy, it is not as original as Heraklion, and this is probably the biggest difference.
It has a nice beach too, on a short walk from the city centre. It has really all you need for a much longer stay.
From Chania you can venture to some of the spectacular sites as the Samaria Gorge or the beautiful and unique Elafonissi beach, both described in this guide to the South of Crete.
I recommend the Fiali wine & more for an Italian dinner, in case you need a day off from the fantastic Cretan food. The all area around the Minares Achmet Aga has some amazing nice eateries, popular with the local young generation, just one after the other one, difficult to select one or the other, just taste them all.
If you have one week and you want to stay in only these two cities I would probably book 2/3 nights in Heraklion (to explore Knossos and the city) and 5 nights in Chania.
It’s very easy to go from one city to the other using the public bus transportation. You can check the KTEL timetable here.
You can also rent a car however keep in mind that you may experience problems with the parking, very limited in both cities. If you can drive a scooter it’s a much easier option, but only locally.
Chania is a beautiful, although busy, place to stay for couples.
If you prefer to be more isolated, have more of a romantic escape, then these 4 lovely towns/villages should not be missed
How lovely is the unpretentious Sissi. You can always miss it out when you drive from Heraklion, direction east…..but you shouldn’t.
Indeed, because this is one of the most romantic spot in the island with a natural inlet covered by palm trees.
The small port is what you probably expect, or look for, in Greece on a trip with your partner.
This was the port used during the Cretan revolution to unload the weapons but long gone is the fight time. Now Sissi is really a small peaceful village that come alive in the night with just few local restaurants and bars.
For some swimming you can visit Boufos Beach, probably not the most popular beach in Crete, however great for some relaxing time
The most amazing restaurant is not actually at the pier. It’s a 15 minutes walk from the town to Neromilos taverna. Not to be missed!
If you are after fresh fish just visit one of the many taverns at the pier. They can actually be quite busy with Greeks from Heraklion that drive here for the best fish in the island, so it is said at least but I can’t imagine not being great in other villages too LOL
Sissi is certainly one of the most picturesque sites in Crete and if you are after a bit of nightlife you can always take a taxi to Malia, so close, just 10 minutes by car, however so distant with the many night bars open till late.
Paleochora used to be the hippy town of Crete many years ago, in the 70s.
It’s not anymore, however it still keeps that slow pace. I arrived there with the bus (easy trip from Chania). The station and the main street were like a desert late in the morning.
I had a walk around, I found my accommodation, I had a little nap and I was ready for the “party”, a Nescafe at the main beach. Not much happening really but still quite a romantic town, especially after sunset with all the characteristic restaurants and bars around the end of the main street (closed to traffic at night).
There is a great long beach in the small bay with the wind coming up after lunch.
Relaxation is really the word that comes to my mind when describing Paleochora.
One of my favourite restaurant here is the Oyzepi Restaurant. The Oyzeri is usually a place where you drink Oyzo (a Greek aperitif) and eat some sort of Greek tapas, however here they have added also some typical mains. Loved it.
Remember to have a walk to the castle for the beautiful view.
From Paleochora you can take the ferry to the villages in the south coast, mostly isolated and with no land access. Really a romantic trip. Have a look to the guide to the south coast of Crete for more information.
Maleme is the perfect spot if you want to have a relaxed time, close to the beach, very quiet but still a great base to visit the nearby tourist destinations.
The town is only 16km from Chania, which makes it great for a late afternoon visit followed by a dinner there
A tour to Elafonisi beach, probably the most famous beach of Crete, is around 50km one way, or about one and half hour.
And if you are after an action day you can always take a detour at the Samaras Gorge, around 1 hour away. This is the experience I would suggest to everyone, however take some good shoes with you, not the flip flops like I did!! I know I am a bit of a idiot LOL
And, once back in Maleme. it’s relaxing time.
The beach is long and nice, with few organised spots usually connected to either a cafe or a restaurant
Sitia is a 3 hours bus drive east of Heraklion. It is indeed a long trip however you will be rewarded by a lovely sleepy town that wakes up when the ferry arrives in town.
Sitia has in fact a port where ferries connect to Athens or other islands, so if you are into an island hopping experience you will probably end up here, which is great.
The promenade is a fantastic spot for a night walk after the usual amazing dinner at one of the many local restaurants.
There is also a town beach, on the right side, quite a long one actually, with few organised spots connected to the cafes and/or restaurants.
This side of Crete can be quite hot in summer which explains the landscape around the town. Isolated as in a desert. I suggest to grab a scooter to explore the surrounding, really interesting.
Consider a day trip to Vai Beach with the amazing blue water, green palms and brownish sand. Great contrast of colours.
I would suggest Sitia also to families with kids, so easy to enjoy the beach and have a relaxed time.
Heraklion is probably not a great place for families. There are no beaches and a consistent city traffic.
Chania is instead much better, with a nice beach too.
In saying that there are other towns and villages that are probably more suitable for a family oriented holiday
I just love Agios Nikolaus. Nice town on the water with a natural inlet, that creates a small lake, and a small square where Greek performaces are usually organised in the nights, mostly during the high season.
The bus station is a long walk from the town centre. I would suggest a taxi drive for the last leg to the hotel, especially if you are with kids.
It’s a great town to have your dinner and go for a walk along the 2 pedestrian streets interconnected by another square.
There are two small beaches, the first one called Kitroplateia Beach, right in the heart of Agios Nikolaos, and Ammos Beach on the southern side of town. They are both enough for a short stay.
If staying longer I would probably suggest to rent a car and explore the surrounding, including a visit to the Fortress Spinalonga, a small island with a long history, as a Venetian fortress, a refuge for the rebels and, more recently, a place of exile for lepers. It is now one of the major attractions of the Crete.
If driving the own car, head to Plaka and catch a local boat. They run quite frequently. If you prefer an all organised local excursion ask your hotel/resort, there are a few around.
This is the place to come if you are after a beach holiday. There are so many around to choose from. Just keep in mind that they mostly face the north and they can get a bit wavy in the afternoon.
There are however a few beaches covered by the break water that keep the area as a natural pool, Marina Beach and the ones around the port are the most popular ones.
Gouves is not actually the name of a town, in fact if you search it on Google Map you will be redirected to an inland area. It’s the name of a district made of Kato and Pano Gouves, lower and upper Gouves. Two town slowly created with the tourism, made mostly of hotels and restaurants.
It’s an easy spot for family with kids as you will have all you need on a walking distance.
You can however drive from there to Knossos for a cultural day.
For more fun you can take your kids to the Anopolis Water Park or the Hersonissos Water Parks. Plenty of option for a crazy day.
Another activity is a visit to the local Crete Aquarium, a great display of the Mediterranean sea life.
If you are after a characteristic village however, I would not consider Gouves
Almyrida is another town that expanded in the late few years, thanks to the tourism influx.
In saying that, it is still really a quiet area with 2 nice front beaches. They both face north and they can get some waves and wind in the afternoon. If this is the case you should move on the east side where it gets covered by the little pier.
It’s so close to Chania, less than 20Km, that it makes it a convenient day trip.
Again, a nice family town with all you need at walking distance and few local trips that you can organise with one of the agencies around.
The beaches are all organised, with sunbeds and umbrellas for a relaxing time.
Malia is all you about late night, it is a synonymous of extreme nightlife in Crete.
Explore this area in the morning and you think that there is no tourism at all and all the hotels around are struggling to find customers. Stay till the evening and suddenly it gets populated with a young crowd.
It’s more of a British enclave with the many Irish and English pub along Beach Road (which is not the real name, however everyone know it that way).
It’s party till the early part of the morning in the many nightclub
The beach is fine and tends to be empty till mid-afternoon.
For more peace head to the old town, inland, still with lots of character packed in the small lanes and typical restaurants.
If you are after a nightlife holiday, than don’t look any further….well maybe check out Hersonissos 😉
Hersonissos is the biggest resort area in Crete. The old part of town is really small and till the 60s it was just few houses around the harbour.
It all expanded with the arrival of the mass tourism that now monopolises this area of Crete.
The town is more dedicated to a young crowd with lots of bars and a long nightlife till the early hours of the morning.
If in Malia the tourism is mostly British, in Hersonissos you will find more of an international crowd.
From here you can organise tours in one of the many agencies. Knossos is probably the most famous spot to visit
If you are after a bit of everything I would consider Chania as one of the alternatives. Heraklio is also a good starting point, except there is no beach.
These are other towns that I would suggest, with Rethymnon probably my favourite, especially for the amazing food, unique in Crete
Rethymnon is more of a city town than a village. It actually offers everything you want, for either a family vacation, a couple stay or more of a nightlife experience.
The old part of town is just magnificent and mostly off-limits to the traffic which makes it a really nice place to have a walk around both during the day and in the evening.
The beach is a long stretch of sand on the east side of town. It is not my favourite spot for swimming as it tends to be quite busy and the beach itself is very narrow, just the space for a few sunbeds from the promenade, not ideal for kids however good for a relaxing day after a long night out
The modern part of town is not really inspiring and mostly based on buildings.
The Greek cuisine here is just fabulous. Many restaurants have added that little twist that takes the usual expected dishes to the next level with the addition of honey and spices. Rethymnon is my favourite place in Crete for food.
Restaurants are mostly located in the old town. I love To Rakodikeio. It’s all so amazing that is hard to suggest any dish. It’s also in a nice spot, facing the Neratze Mosque and next to the Mikrasiaton Square.
Nightlife is big. You can start for few drinks and mezedes (small tapas version food) in one of the few bars at the Arkadiu and from there move to the Old Harbour for dinner. Walk around the corner to Venizelou road (Eleytheriou Venizelou) for one of the many bars to start your night.
Elounda is the luxury destination of Crete with the highest concentration of 5-stars hotel in the island.
It has been long favourite of many Greek politicians, music stars and Russian tycoons. And this is no wonder, being the area so beautiful.
It is situated in a natural bay with amazing water and limited wind, being the town covered by the hills all around.
But it’s not only luxury, in fact you can find accommodation at a similar price as in other parts of the island.
A must attraction close to Elounda is Spinalonga, the island where the Venetians built a fortress that lately was used as an exile for lepers.
There are two small beaches, on the north and south end of town. But not really the reason to come here. It’s more about the beauty of the area and possibly of the resort you will stay.
Georgioupolis is a bit of a sleepy town, however with few options also for the nightlife that would make happy the young crowd a well.
The village is organised around the antique square that gives a lot of Greek character to the town, with some nice tavernas and bars/cafes
The beach is a long one that starts on the narrow side, in the town, but it gets much wider once you walk few hundreds meters away from the centre.
If you are there with kids, and you are after a swimming pool, have a look to the Corissia Park, great spot also for a cocktail…or two…or more 🙂
If staying in Georgioupolis, you should not miss Arkadi” Fish Taverna for either lunch or, even better, dinner. It’s probably the best spot in town with a unique view and awesome local food, based mostly on fish.
You can also check the interactive Google Map here.