Last updated on March 19, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, travelling and making photos for 20 years. Read more Things to do

Best places to visit in Crete based on the town of your stay 

In this guide, you will find the best places to visit in Crete based on where you actually stay.

There is no point in suggesting a place you need to drive 6 hours return.

Crete is a big island, with plenty of winding roads that also increase the travelling time

For example, the unique but remote Vai/Palm Beach is amazing, however, I would not suggest a visit if you stay in Chania. The return trip alone is at least 7-8 hours.

You get the point. This is not just a plain undoable list, it’s an actionable one. 

Without further ado, let’s get into it.

Amazing, however winding roads connecting the places to visit in Crete
Amazing winding roads connecting the places to visit in Crete

Best places to visit in Crete – in a nutshell

Below you find a map with all the attractions of Crete I talk about in this post.

It’s a great reference and I suggest saving it and keeping it for future reference.

If you have still not decided where to stay you may want to check out my favourite itineraries of the island and the best areas to stay in Crete based on your type of holiday, a very handy guide.

Best places to visit in Crete on a map
Best places to visit in Crete on a map (blue: beaches, brown: historical/trekking sites)

Here below is a list of quick answers to the common questions I regularly receive, however, keep reading for a more detailed description of every single experience and attraction of Crete.

  • Best historical sites: Knossos is the oldest city in Europe and without any doubt the must-do experience to have in Crete. The Old Centres of Rethymno and Chania are also spectacular, basically two open-air museums. I have here also two hidden gems, the Paliani Monastery and the Spinalonga Island.
  • Most popular tourist attractions: if I have to pick only 3 places then they have to be Elafonisi Beach, Knossos and the old town of Rethymno.
  • Places to visit in Crete by car: it really depends on how many days you have and how many accommodations you want to change. You can read all my suggested itineraries that you can easily do with a car based on the type of experience you want to have.
  • Places to visit in Crete by bus: the public bus transportation in Crete is actually very good and efficient, almost impressive. You can easily and quickly move between the major towns. From there you can book your local trips based on the type of experience you want to have. I have organised this guide based on the town of your stay to make your planning much quicker and easier.
  • Places to visit in Crete from Chania: located on the west side of the island, start your visit of Chania wandering around the charming and romantic old town. Chania is the closest base to Elafonisi Beach, Balos Lagoon, Samaria Gorge and Agia Irini Gorge
  •  Attractions to visit from Heraklion: Heraklion has more of a city feel and it does not have really a beach. It is however close to Knossos, the most impressive historical site of the island, and the Paliani Monastery.
  • Best places to visit near Hersonissos: this is a popular area for travellers. From Hersonissos and the nearby towns, you can easily visit the historical site of Spinalonga and the amazing beach of Chrissi Island, probably the most beautiful one of Crete.
  • Places to visit in Rethymno and around: the Old Town of Rethymno is one of my favourite places in Crete, so lovely. From here you can easily reach Preveli Beach on the South Coast, such a dreamy place. From Rethymno, you can also easily visit most of the attraction close to Chania
  • Crete hidden places: in this section, I have added two remote areas of Crete. The first is the South-West Coast of the island, reachable only by ferry, a romantic and secluded part of Crete. The second hidden gem is Vai Beach, in the easternmost part of Crete, the only palm beach in Europe, a Caribbean corner in the Mediterranean sea. 
  • Top 5 rated beaches in Crete: Elafonisi BeachBalos Lagoon, Golden Beach on Chrissi IslandVai Beach and Preveli Beach
  • Unmissable trekking: Samaria Gorge, Agia Irini Gorge, Imbros Gorge and Richti Gorge

In this video, you can see most of the places I am talking about in this guide, including 2 little hidden gems.

I have more videos on Crete in this dedicated YouTube playlist.

Places to visit from Chania

Chania is a lovely city with a characteristic old town, a unique example of an architectural mix of Venetian and Ottoman styles.

Walk in the early morning through the small lanes for a unique experience, it’s a bit of walking in an open-air museum and you will be almost alone.

Walk later in the evening to enjoy a long night of shopping, eating and drinking

Food is another experience not to be missed here.

I love the traditional Greek cuisine however here they have added a twist, and they have modernized it with new local ingredients, as, for example, honey.

Spend every single night in a different restaurant and try whatever they suggest to you. You will not be disappointed.

You should check out the Minares Achmet Aga area, full of picturesque boutique restaurants.

From Chania, you can organise many day trips

Elafonisi Beach and the spectacular road

Elafonisi Beach is one of the most famous beaches in the West, if not the most

There are plenty of agencies in Chania that organise daily trips, however, I highly suggest booking it online, as trips get quickly booked out, especially in peak season.

I have also done this day trip with a rented scooter from Chania and admittedly, the drive is an experience by itself.

The roads are really amazing, through wide canyons and refreshing gorges.

I drove through tunnels that looked like excavated and carved by hand (and most probably they were).

Taking my time through the olive trees fields and the old bridges, built in the medieval era.

Book with the organised tour

Two weeks in Crete, planning a trip – the south coast
Impressive old bridge still working

Eventually, I arrived at Elafonisi Beach.

It was already hot by the time I was there and I was really looking forward to a swim.

As soon as I drove down the hill I saw a beautiful landscape with a big contrast between the blue and azure colours of the sea and the orange and green of the land around this bay.

I was really open-mouthed riding my scooter through the last bends that took me to the beach.

Two weeks in Crete, planning a trip – the south coast
Elafonisi Beach

Be aware this is a very popular place to visit in Crete, so you will not be alone.

Parking a scooter was not a problem however finding a beach umbrella was.

It was early July and the beach was full. 

I had my swim, I eventually found some shadow under a tree however that sense of remoteness I experienced on most of the island was definitely not there.

In saying that Elafonisi is so spectacular that it should not be missed. You can read more on my guide to Elafonisi and how to avoid a bad experience.

Balos Lagoon, as blue as it can be

This is another spectacular beach close to Chania.

Also in this case you can reach it with a private trip or with a rented vehicle.

The organized boat tour will take you directly to the lagoon with a short sea trip.

Alternatively, drive to the Balos Lagoon by car or even better by scooter.

It is a bumpy road, at least the last few km, however, you will have a spectacular view from the top.

Once you park your vehicle you will have to walk down the steep trekking path.

The boat tour will make your life much easier, however, you will miss out on the viewpoint (unless you want to walk up to it)

You can read more on my practical guide to visit Balos Beach & Lagoon

Book with the organised tour

Balos Beach
Balos Beach and Balos Lagoon

Trekking in the Samaria Gorge

It is said by many people that the Samaria Gorge is the longest gorge in Europe.

Although it is not quite true (there is a longer one called Gorges du Verdon in the south of France) it is indeed a long one.

The walk goes through the 13 km of National Park and another 3km to the village of Agia Roumeli where you can take the ferry.

It is a full day of walking, a memorable day as the gorge is really unique.

How do you plan the Samaria Gorge hike?

If you stay in Chania there are essentially two options:

  1. Take a KTEL bus from Chania to the Omalos plateau. Walk down to Agia Roumeli and take the ferry for your sea trip along the south coast. Then the bus back to Chania. This is a tricky and complicated way to do it, as busses and ferries are not synchronised
  2. Book a tour online (by far the best option). You will leave early in the morning by bus. There is a guide that will follow the last person in the group to make sure that everybody is fine. Once in Agia Roumeli, the group will take the ferry to a nearby town where a bus is waiting for the trip back to Chania in the evening.

    Book with the organised tour

Through the Samaria Gorge
Through the Samaria Gorge

Another alternative, if you are keen to take the backpack with you, is to catch the KTEL bus and walk down the Gorge to spend the night in Agia Roumeli, right on the south coast, such a beautiful and remote town.

This is, however, a more challenging option. It’s a 16km long walk and you will feel every single kg that you will take with you.

You start the gorge at an altitude of 1,230m and you finish it at sea level.

A long descent on a rocky path where you need sturdy soles, which I did not have.

I suffered for the last 5km and for the next two days.

Never underestimate proper shoes for trekking! It did not help that I was not the only one with the same problem!

We left Chania with around 70 people organised on 2 buses.

Once on the Omalos plateau, the starting point, I decided to leave everybody going and sit for around 5 minutes at the start of the descent.

Once everyone left I was almost on my own. I could enjoy the Gorge in silence.

The guide followed always at the end of the group to make sure everyone was safe.

I took my time with the photos. I visited the inhabited villages en route, where I met other people.

I arrived at the highlight of the day, the very narrow passage called The Gate where the two sides of the gorge almost kiss each other.

The Gate
The Gate

I was told that the Samaria Gorge may be crowded and probably it is if you rush with the other 70-80 people that all leave at the same time.

I was almost on my own.

There is no way you can get lost, there is only one way down, very very easy.

If The Gate was the major highlight of the trekking, Agia Roumeli Beach was definitely the best reward I could think of.

The clear water of the Libyan Sea was so refreshing. I think I spent half an hour in the sea to take down the hot temperature of my body.

Once the ferry arrived the village almost emptied and we all went back to Chania.

You can read more on my full review of the Samaria Gorge Hike here, including more photos.

Other attractions from Chania

From Chania, there are also day trips to many other attractions as :

Places to visit in Heraklion and around

Let me say first that the city of Heraklion is not as spectacular as other major centres on the island, like Chania or Rethymno.

It is quite a modern city, with the biggest and best shopping area in Crete.

The port area is probably the most beautiful part of Heraklion, with the old wall still there, between the modern buildings.

From the top of the hill, just behind the Bus Station, you can unchain yourself with your sunset photography skills.

It has to be said one thing. Do not expect to have clouds in the sky between June and August, which is a real pity.

To have the best sky come to the Greek islands in September/October.

Heraklion by night
Heraklion by night

In Heraklion, you should not miss:

Knossos – the must-visit archeological site of Crete

I have been to Greece many times and one suggestion I can give is: visit the archaeological sites as early in the morning as you can, possibly at the opening time.

I reached Knossos quite early in the morning but, well, it was already extremely hot, at least for me.

Being an archaeological site means that you will have real difficulties finding a place in the shade. Not too many trees around.

Take with you lots of water because dehydration may be a problem.

However, even under the strong sun, you will really appreciate this unique site.

How old is Knossos?

Well, just imagine that Knossos is considered to be the oldest city in Europe, with settlements dating to 7000 BC and the first buildings dated back to 1900 BC.

That will give an idea.

Are you interested in more history of the site? Have a look at the Wikipedia website, a really good source for that.

How long will you stay in Knossos?

It is very subjective. I have spent roughly 2-3 hours.

You can rent an audio guide that will take you through an informative path and that’s the way I like to explore historical sites.

In saying that you can spend much less….or much more. I reckon that 1.5-2 hours is probably an average time.

After Knossos, I needed a break in a local restaurant with a fresh salad, fish and very cold refreshment.

How to organise your trip?

There are four possible ways:

  • get a local bus that will take you from Heraklion City to Knossos, the station is next to the port area and the frequency is every 30 minutes. This is the DIY option, the cheapest one, but also the most popular one so expect very busy busses and queues at the ticket counter.
  • join a guided tour with the skip-the-line option at the Knossos parking area. You will still have to take the public bus from Heraklion to the archeological site but you will not need to queue for tickets besides having a guided tour.
  • join a mini-van tour to Knossos and Heraklion. This is the easiest option. A van will pick you up from the hotel and it will take you to the Knossos, the archaeological museum of Heraklion and the city itself. It’s a guided tour at a bargain price, however, it does not include the entrance to Knossos (20 Euro)
  • rent a car or even better a scooter and do it at your own pace. It may be a bit more expensive (based on the number of people sharing) but you will have more freedom. You can also do Knossos and the Paliani Monastery (next attraction) on the same day
Knossos, Europe's oldest city
Knossos, Europe’s oldest city

The Paliani Monastery

The Paliani monastery is around 20km west of Knossos.

If you are driving your vehicle from Knossos keep in mind that you almost need to come back to Heraklion to go to the Paliani Monastery valley.

It was founded on the roots of a great myrtle tree (still there, you will see it on the back of the main church) in 668AD and it is considered to be one of the oldest monasteries in Crete.

The monastery was burned down and rebuilt a few times according to the oral tradition, but it never died.

I had a short chat with a local who told me how the monastery is actually lived only by nuns and unfortunately, the average age is getting older and older.

The new generation does not commit anymore to live under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

I understand the new generation more than the old, however, it’s a pity to see traditions disappearing with time.

The Paliani Monastery
The Paliani Monastery

You can explore the monastery at your own pace, wandering around and trying to be the most discrete you can be.

The church inside is beautiful with a collection of ancient icons that are just spectacular.

The whole monastery is built around this church and on the back, you will find the myrtle tree over 1000 years old.

The people from the local community come here to help the old nuns in daily life.

Meanwhile, the younger nuns still work in the backyard at their own vegetable gardens.

Once you leave the main gate, take the path on your left and walk up the hill for a 360-degree view of the area and monastery.

The myrtle tree over 1000 years old
The myrtle tree is over 1000 years old

Other attractions from Heraklion

From Heraklion, there are also day trips to many other attractions as :

Places to visit near Hersonissos

This is the area east of Heraklion with plenty of accommodations scattered along the coast.

There are many attractions nearby that can suit really any age of the traveller

The historical island of Spinalonga

Spinalonga is an inhabited tiny island and one of the most impressive historical sites in Crete.

Originally it was not actually an island, it was well connected to the mainland.

The Venetians, however, decided to separate it from Crete with an incredible amount of work as you can imagine.

As an island, it would have been a perfect vantage point for defence purposes and a castle was also built

It went through a turmoil sequence of occupations and it was last used as a leper colony.

You will see how the village was built around the main hospital centre.

There is an interesting walk-through with information written in several languages

Impressive view from the Spinalonga fortress
Impressive view from the Spinalonga fortress

How to organise your trip?

There are two possible ways:

  • join this organised trip that includes also a visit to the lovely town of Agios Nikolaos and the romantic Elounda lagoon
  • rent your own scooter or car and drive to Plaka, a tiny village facing the island. From there it’s an inexpensive 30 minutes trip by boat.

Read more information on my full guide to Spinalonga, including a few beaches around to have a swim

Chrissi Island

The main reason to go to Chrissi Island is the amazing Golden Beach, one of the most beautiful in Crete and possibly Europe

You will need to take a ferry from Ierapetra, on the south-east coast of the island.

It’s a short and pleasant trip (1.5 hours) that will take you to the south coast of the small Chrissi island.

From there, walk to the north side (10-15 minutes) and you will have the amazing Golden Beach in front of you.

Coral white sand, purple shells, and turquoise crystal-clear waters.

This is the Cretan beach that has impressed me the most, and I think I have visited all of the famous ones.

It’s a popular place to visit in Crete, however, not as crowded as Elafonissi Beach or Balos Beach.

You can read more on my Chrissi Island Guide with a few photos too

How to organise your trip?

There are two possible ways:

  • join this organised trip that will pick you up directly at the hotel, probably the easiest option, especially because you can have a nap on the way back after a long tiring day
  • rent your own scooter or car and drive to Ierapetra. Parking with a car may be a bit of a struggle though. From there buy your tickets directly on the boat.

ATTENTION: Chrissi Island has been closed till further notice for environmental issues. The re-opening is under review, so make sure the tours are still operating. At the moment, they will leave you 100m from the beach and you will have to swim to the island by yourself, which is not ideal.

Other attractions from Hersonissos

From Hersonissos, there are also trips to many other attractions as :

Places to visit in Rethymno and around

Rethymno is one of my favourite towns in Crete, with a charming old town and a lovely harbour area.

Together with Chania, I believe it offers the best restaurants and food experiences on the island.

I love the traditional Greek food cooked in a fusion of new flavours typical of Rethymno.

The street I love the most is Emmanoil Vernardoy, a small pedestrian lane with amazing restaurants, simply the best in town

Some of the best places to visit in Rethymno are:

All of the above are within the old town, easy to reach all of them on a half-day walk.

From Rethymno, you can also organise day trips to other attractions of Crete

Preveli Beach

A remote and well-known beach in the bucket list of many people. So lovely.

If you stay in Rethymno there are essentially three options:

  1. Rent a car or a scooter and drive there yourself. It’s easy enough and you can stop at one of the many villages along the route to have breakfast, lunch or dinner for a more local experience.
  2. Book a Land Rover tour online. You will be picked up directly from your hotel and guided using secondary roads on a great safari through the amazing gorges of the inland roads. Lunch is also included as well as the local wine
  3. Book a simple and inexpensive trip. This is a no-frills transportation option, much cheaper than the previous Land Rover trip, however, shared with a much bigger bus group.
View of Palm Beach from the coast
View of Palm Beach from the coast

I rented a scooter and decided to leave very early in the morning.

It’s only 30km but a very winding road.

When I arrived there I was not alone however it was not crowded.

You can access it from two sides, I decided to go from the top where organised parking is also available for cars.

I walked down and what a beauty! I could not believe my eyes.

A small gorge full of palms, all under the Preveli monastery.

It’s basically a botanical garden with its own microcosm.

Most of the people arrived there in the early afternoon, so I had the whole morning to enjoy it by myself.

Two weeks in Crete, planning a trip – the south coast
The “botanical garden” behind Palm Beach

Other attractions from Rethymno

From Rethymno, you have access to all of the attractions near Chania (the two towns are only 45 minutes from each other):

Crete hidden places

In this section, I have added two experiences that are not as popular with travellers, but so beautiful.

The main reason they are “hidden” is that you need some effort to reach them.

South-West coast reachable only by ferry

Planning a trip through the south coast by ferry should be on anybody’s bucket list.

The villages of the south coast are accessible only via ferries or water taxis.

There is an easy timetable at each information centre or small harbour.

There is always space on the ferry for pedestrians, however, you really need to book your hotel well in advance.

There are not many options in these small villages

You will find remote communities based on fishing, during the winter, and tourism, during the summer.

You can take the ferry from Palaiochora, the town where you can arrive from Chania by KTEL bus.

I decided to hop the villages of the south coast till the village of Hora Sfakion, where I could catch another bus and go back to Heraklion for my flight.

The first stop was Sougia, then Agia Roumeli, Loutro and finally Hora Sfakion.

My favourite one was definitely Loutro.

Quite remote however still few tavernas and accommodations to sleep and eat.

I could stay at the local beach to read my book or adventure through the coast to other remote beaches.

Glika Nera (sweet water) Beach was my favourite one. It’s a pebble beach open also to naturists.

The highlight of Glika Nera is the freshwater coming from the underground that creates paddles along the beach refreshing the place and the seawater too.

The little village of Loutro
The little village of Loutro

Hora Sfakion, the last stop, is also another smallish remote town.

KTEL buses are available here to Heraklion. Again plenty of beach options around

The pebble beach of Hora Sfakion town
The pebble beach of Hora Sfakion town

In Hora Sfakion I decided to book a day trip by ferry to Gavdos Island, the southernmost European island.

This is hippy heaven that I could not miss.

I was told by the ticket seller that the trip is just a few hours.

Maybe, but delays are always there and I ended up spending much more time on the ferry than on the island itself.

Not worthy.

The few hours I spent in Gavdos were interesting but it deserves at least 3-4 days.

Free camping is also available in a sort of hippy-style community.

Vai/Palm Beach on the east coast

Vai Beach is the only Palm beach in Europe, a small Caribbean corner of Greece

It is very remote, not only far away from Heraklion or any other popular destination as Hersonissos but also connected with a tedious winding road.

For this experience, I based myself in Sitia, the easternmost town in Crete.

It’s actually a lovely place to be, with much less tourism than anywhere else in Crete.

This is where you can have more of a local holiday, with mostly Greek people around.

Sitia has also a small airport with a limited number of flights.

From there you can take a KTEL bus to Vai Beach or you can rent a car/scooter and make the whole day of it, with visits also to the nearby Erimoupolis Beach and the secluded Kyriamaki National Park

Vai Beach, well known also as Palm Beach
Vai Beach, well known also as Palm Beach

How to move around Crete

Crete has some of the best roads in Greece, if not the best.

You have three options to move around the island:

  • take a public bus
  • use the ferry (on the south-west coast)
  • rent a car

They are both good ways however I feel that having a car allows me more freedom.

There are few areas not well served by public transportation but no worries if having a car

If you decide to visit only the main cities/towns then the bus is a better option.

The drawback is that you will not be able to experience the small villages and monasteries between, basically the local life.

For more information about public transportation, you can check the KTEL timetable.

To rent a car, my go-to website is DiscoverCars.com, they give the best unbeatable deals analysing all the current prices from more than 30 rental companies.

Check the car prices

If you have any questions about the above places to visit in Crete, or others not listed here, please, do not hesitate to leave a message. I usually reply in no time

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

6 thoughts on “Top-rated places to visit in Crete [including some hidden gems]”

  1. Hi Stefano,

    I’ve got 4 days in Crete but have come across your post now. I see that most of your tips for tours start from Chania or Rethymno but none from Hersonissos near Herakleion.

    Any suggestions for a traveller staying 4 days in Hersonissos?

    Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Hi,

    We are planning a trip to Greece and want to stay in Rethymno for 3 nights. What hotel suggestions do you have that are located in Old Town? Do you know of any with a Turkish Bath?

    Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Hi Stefano! Thank you for your post! It is very helpful! I got 8 days in Crete flying both ways in Chania. Do you think I could fit This itinerary other way around without Vai Beach?
    Thank you!

    Reply

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