Route 1: Chania TownWestern Crete
Chania may be the best preserved old town in Crete, a magical and romantic maze full of Venetian and Turkish neighborhoods–countless houses with surprising architectural details, Venetian arsenals (shipyards, not weapons factories!), old Turkish baths, Italianate churches, Muslim mosques and minarets–glamorous districts with neoclassical mansions, and a “trademark” old lighthouse distinctive in its architecture. The best time to see the charming Venetian harbor is early in the morning, when the sun creates playful red and orange colorful variations on the water and the old houses on the Akti (Quay) Kountourioti.
A walk through the Chania neighborhoods is an absolute must and will be one of the most enjoyable parts of your experience. The usual route through the picturesque Venetian district–called Topanas–runs along the Zambeliou, Kondylaki, and Theotokopoulou streets. The walk along the Akti Enoseos and then out to the old lighthouse is mildly demanding but certainly rewarding; as you walk along the inner harbor, you will see the wonderfully restored Great Shipyard, today host to the Center for Mediterranean Architecture. You may then continue on your walk into the famous Splantzia district, the old Turkish neighborhood where you can see the churches of San Rocco, Agia Ekaterina, and Agios Nikolaos with its minaret tower.
The hill rising above the Venetian harbor was the site of Kydonia, the biggest and most powerful town of the western Crete in Minoan times. The remains visible today are not all that exciting, as most of the stonework was used as construction material for the Venetian walls still visible around the harbor, but it is something to see 3,500-year-old remains in the center of a modern city.
The Municipal Market is the place to be for those who are lovers of marvelous food products. The interesting building that hosts the market is the major landmark of the modern town, and inside it you will find a fantastic world of sights and aromas of the true Crete. In the Agora, as the Greeks call the market, you will be treated to a vast variety of fruits and vegetables, cheeses, herbs, honey, meat, fresh fish, wine, raki, or paximadia (wheat rusks) as well as many other traditional Cretan products. Since customs officials may object to some of these fine food items entering your home country, you are lucky that a lot of the wonderful local tavernas offer dishes made out of those local products (most especially the fish fresh from this market).
A bit removed from the old town and the Venetian harbor is the sedate and aristocratic district of Halepa, a unique group of neoclassical mansions and beautiful gardens. Among them is the house of the great Cretan politician and Greek Prime Minister of the early 20th Century, Eleftherios Venizelos. If the name sounds familiar it is for good reason: It is Eleftherios Venizelos after whom the modern Athens International Airport has been named! Close to Halepa, the coast of Cum Capi hosts fine ouzeri (small tavernas that offer ouzo and spectacular appetizers) and tavernas, similar in quality to the wonderful ones also present on the Akti Enoseos harbor in the heart of the old town.Route 2: Excursions from the popular beaches next to Chania to Kissamos, Falassarna, Elafonisos, and PaleochoraWestern Crete
The western coast of Chania to Kolymbari is the summertime playground of Crete’s international tourist throngs. Resorts, tavernas, and any facility you might enjoy can be found close to the long sandy beaches. The most popular beaches close to Chania are the Agii Apostoli and Platanias: if you are in search of fun times, music, and young crowds, these beaches are the right place to be.
The large town of Kissamos (or Kastelli) is located next to a sandy beach between the two long peninsulas of the western Chania District. The eastern peninsula has a few old villages and a challenging dirt road that calls for skilled driving and leads to the ruins of the ancient Diktyneon and the remote lovely beach of Menies. The western peninsula of Gramvousa hides one of the most beautiful and exotic beaches of the Mediterranean, the unique red-coral beach Ballos, where you can go by boat from Kissamos. These boats usually also take tourists to the islands of Big and Small Gramvousa to see the picturesque Venetian fortress and the wild remote landscape of the northwestern Cretan coast.
A visit to Elafonisos on the southwestern corner of Crete–although long enough to justify a day-trip–offers an alternate excursion. There are several ways to get there: you may choose the one that passes via Falassarna, where you can find a wide and sandy beach as well as the interesting post-Minoan site of Falassarna. For those not feeling up to make the trip all the way to Elafonisos, the Falassarna beach itself provides a fine alternative for a day of leisure. The road from Falassarna to Elafonisos passes through some small and quiet villages, such as Sfinari and Amygdalokefali, and allows you to enjoy the magnificent view over the remote western coast of Crete. Elafonisos (or Elafonisi) is one of the most famous and spectacular beaches of the island–or the Mediterranean for that matter–featuring long stretches of white sand, crystal clear turquoise waters, small rocky islets, and a small cedar forest. Of course, such beauty brings along the crowds, and you will certainly find Elafonisi to be quite crowded during the peak summer season. Close to the beach is the historic and interesting Chrysoskalitissa Convent, which may be worth a casual stop on your way back.
For those who want to venture off on a day-trip that does not feature as large a crowd as you will find in Elafonisi, visiting Paleochora may be a good alternative. Paleochora is a small town on the southwest coast. On the way from Chania to Paleochora, you will encounter an authentic Cretan landscape filled with old churches and small villages with their “kafeneio” (a traditional coffee-shop) and friendly Cretans willing to share with you their raki and mezes (casual Greek appetizers, similar to the Spanish tapas). From the quiet town of Paleochora–home to a fabulous sandy beach and an old castle–you can take the boat to the small Gavdos Island, the southernmost land of Europe.Route 3: Sfakia, the White Mountains, and the Samaria Gorge Central Crete
Gazing south from the town of Chania, you will see a long range of mountains whose peaks have the distinct characteristic of remaining white all year long. Covered with snow during the wintertime, and full of white-colored stones shining under the sun during the rest of the year, the famous White Mountains host some of the most spectacular landscapes on Crete. Scattered along the eastern and southern slopes of the mountains lie some remote and distinctive villages where the most indigenous Crete is still alive. That is the country of Sfakia, heartland of all the major revolutions in the island’s history, and home of the wildest-spirited and strongest kind of Cretans. Askyfou, Kallikratis, Aradena, Anopolis, Imbros, Asfendou and many more villages maintain to this day the feel and image of the most unspoiled and traditional Crete. When you make the trip to Sfakia, you will end up at the Hora Sfakion, a sea-side town where you can enjoy a fine meal and a traditional “sfakiani” honey-based pie. Following your Hora Sfakion visit, you may move on a bit to the east to the astonishing Frangokastello castle, built next to a sandy beach and close to other even more beautiful sandy beaches. The magical landscape has given life to a myth that claims that on a morning each May the ghosts of Sfakian warriors who died defending the fort against the Turks leave the castle as if to confront the Turks again before vanishing in the morning mists; non-believers claim that the phenomenon is simply a mirage of some sort. No matter where the truth lies, your trip to Sfakia and the Frangokastello area is your best opportunity to explore the most authentic side of Crete.
If you are interested in hiking through the Samaria Gorge, you can depart from Chania by public transportation–or better yet, by joining one of the planned daily excursions by the local travel agencies–and follow the road that leads to the beautiful Omalos Plateau, surrounded by the tallest peaks of the White Mountains. At the far end of the plateau the road stops at Xiloskalo, where you will put on your trekking shoes to walk through the Samaria Gorge–the most famous of the gorges of Crete and one of the ten national parks of Greece. Depending on your pace, it will take you several hours to walk through the gorge–an estimate for a moderately paced passage is six hours. Walking through the gorge offers a wonderful experience of nature in the wild–geological formations, botanical specimens, and if you are lucky you will even see high up on the cliffs the rare wild species of Cretan goats, the Kri Kri. The Samaria Gorge ends down by the sea at the Agia Roumeli village, where after a refreshing swim and some refreshments, you will take the boat to Hora Sfakion, from where you can make your way back to Chania on a scheduled bus transfer.
Note: Before attempting the excursion to the Samaria Gorge, we strongly urge you to consult with your hotel hosts in order to request specific information. Joining one of the pre-planned excursions by local travel agencies is highly recommended and much more preferable than using public transportation. You should also consider your physical capabilities and stamina before attempting this fairly challenging hike.
Route 4: Heraklion and KnossosCentral Crete
At first sight Heraklion does not seem very attractive to the average visitor. But for those who explore the city more patiently, Heraklion yields unexpected attractions. The mighty Venetian harbor fortress of Koules, a picturesque landmark catching your eye as the Cretan Sea splashes against its walls, and the magnificent Morozini fountain, decorated with four marble lions at the famous “Liontaria” (Lions) square, are just two examples of structures that give the city a distinctive appeal. Heraklion is divided into two parts: The town outside the walls is the modern part, but the most fascinating part of Heraklion is the town within the Venetian and Turkish walls. Filled with old neighborhoods, narrow streets, and old churches–among them the beautiful Agia Ekaterini of the Sinaites with the splendid Byzantine collection of paintings and frescoes, or the old Venetian buildings like the Saint Marcos basilica, the superb Saint Titus church, and the Loggia (a building of typical Venetian Renaissance architecture) –the town within the Venetian walls offers a look at the most sophisticated side of the capital city of Crete.
After exploring the impressive archaeological museum, take a quick rest at the “Liontaria” square, enjoy a hot traditional cream cake–the famous Bougatsa–or dine on traditional Greek food at one of the many Heraklion restaurants before taking your car, a taxi cab, or the public bus to visit the nearby renowned ruins of Knossos. The site, surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, is a mere 10 kilometers (7 miles) from the city center. Seeing these important remains of the Minoan civilization, you will understand the reason for the gratitude of the Greek nation toward Sir Arthur Evans, whose excavations uncovered the Knossos Palace and brought to life all the legendary tales of the home of King Minoas, the Labyrinth, the Minotaur’s lair, and the glory of Theseus, son of the Athenian King Aegeus and successor to his throne, who according to myth killed the Minotaur.Route 5: Rethymnon TownCentral Crete
Rethymnon, competing with Chania for claiming the unofficial title of the most picturesque major Cretan town, has kept a Venetian/Turkish atmosphere in its old quarters that will certainly enchant you. You may start your exploration by visiting the magnificent Fortezza, the Venetian fortress (1573-83), which sits over the old town like a handsome crown. The fortress is surprisingly large, so be prepared for a walk across the field full of wild flowers where you will encounter Venetian army buildings, a Byzantine church, the Mosque of the Pasha Ibrahim, and of course the spectacular view over the rocky coasts of the Cretan Sea.
Walking through the colorful narrow streets of the old town with its many well-preserved examples of Venetian architecture will probably become part of your daily routine and will inevitably lead you to the beautiful Arimondi fountain (1626) with its stone lion-heads from which the water springs. This Venetian fountain sits at the crossroads of the old town, surrounded by an area full of cafes and bars, souvenir stores and artisans’ workshops. One especially fine Venetian building you should visit is the Loggia, which now houses an interesting collection of authentic archaeological replicas for sale–an ideal gift to bring home!
Rethymnon, like the rest of Crete, was under Turkish occupation for over 200 years and a number of the impressive structures of those times still survive, in particular, four beautiful mosques –the Nerantze (with its superb minaret), the Kara Musa Pasha, the Grand Entrance Mosque (“Megali Porta”), and the Veli Pasha–or the Ottoman baths at Rathamanthyos Street. The special appeal of Rethymnon is its amalgamation of different cultures–Orthodox churches, Muslim mosques and Roman Catholic churches; Venetian, Turkish, and Greek structures; authentic old Cretan and spanking new tourist hangouts. Finishing your walk by the small and romantic Venetian harbor in the early evening and having some fresh fish as you gaze over the fishing boats may be an ideal way to wrap up your day.
Route 6: From Rethymnon to the Libyan coastCentral Crete
Exploring the southern part of Crete in the Rethymnon Prefecture can be a rewarding experience since the scenery is spectacular. Following the main road to the south of Rethymnon will lead you past the village of Armeni, site of a Late Minoan cemetery with impressive chamber tombs. Continuing south, you will reach Plakias, a well known beach and a perfect place for a swim. If you find the beach noisy, you may try the quiet beaches to the west or the beautiful remote sandy beaches around Damnoni on the east.
Arguably the best place for swimming along this stretch of Crete is the spectacular beach located under the Preveli Monastery: You can reach the beach by boat either from Plakias or Agia Galini (a popular tourist town well east of Preveli); you can also drive to Preveli Monastery, park you car nearby, and walk the path down to the beach (approximately a 15 minute walk on an average walking pace). The beach is a sandy strip at the end of an impressive gorge crossed by a river and surrounded by palm trees. Preveli Monastery itself rewards a visit not only for its Byzantine architecture and the beautiful ruins but also for the wonderful view. There are two monasteries–the old and the new–so make sure you see them both if you do make a stop. The south coast has some of the best–yet not as popular–beaches of the island. If you decide not to visit the beach under the Preveli Monastery, you may continue your exploration further east until you find Triopetra, Agia Fotini, Ligres, or the magical Agios Pavlos.
An alternate excursion to the south of Rethymnon is the route though the beautiful Amari Valley, situated among the mountains of Psiloritis and Kedros (you can pick up this route at Armeni, described above, and then you will be driving east of the main route that takes you all the way to Agia Galini). If you drive around the valley following the secondary roads you will pass through various villages such as Thronos, Monastaraki, Amari, Vizari, Gerakari, Agia Paraskevi, Apodoulou, Kouroutes, or Nithavris, some of the most authentic Cretan villages of the island, many with medieval Byzantine frescoed chapels.Route 7: Elounda and the Mirabello RegionEastern Crete
In ancient times Olous was a small town on the Cretan coast overlooking the Mirabello Bay. Of course, the ancient Greeks never could have imagined that on that same coast would rise a modern resort town with almost the same name–Olounda, or Elounda–that would include some of the finest and most glamorous hotels of the Mediterranean! The small village of Elounda, with its inviting natural setting and the traditional fishing boats docked at the small pier, provides a fine base for various excursions in Eastern Crete.
Directly connected with Elounda by a small bridge, the area of Spinalonga offers a fine opportunity for an easy walk. At Spinalonga, you can enjoy remains of the ancient town now extending into the shallow waters, the foundations of an early Byzantine basilica with a fine mosaic floors, the charming view of wind mills, or the lovely Kolokitha beach. Another worthwhile and recommended excursion is taking the short boat-ride from Elounda to visit the small Kalydona Island (or Spinalonga Island), where you can see one of the most powerful Venetian fortresses of Crete, the Spinalonga Castle; early in the 20th century it was used for a colony of lepers, long since closed and declared free of any hazard to visitors.
The mountains behind Elounda form a region called “Northern Mirabello” that–although so close to the most famous resorts–is home to some of the least known and least changed villages in Crete. The area is best described as one with rugged terrain and fantastic panoramas, land with so little rainfall that huge wells save the last precious drops, strong winds, small olive and fig trees, ruined windmills and Venetian towers–and very few people. Selles, Vrouchas, Loumas, Nofalias, Fourni, Sirmeso, Pines, Agios Antonios and many more villages are the last keepers of the truly traditional Cretan way of life. If you decide to be adventurous and rent a car to explore the Northern Mirabello, you should make a point of stopping at a local kafeneio to taste a modest raki with “mezes,” thereby experiencing what will probably feel like a true ceremony of induction into the Cretan culture. As for beaches, don’t expect to find any enticing ones in the immediate area. The whole coast is rocky and wild like the rest of the landscape, so you are better off enjoying the private beaches and pools of your resort.
Of course, some of the finest moments of your vacation at Elounda stem from the refined hospitality you will experience in your resort hotel. Whether it is enjoying an afternoon by your shared or private pool, swimming at the private resort beaches, experiencing a fabulous spa treatment, or tasting wonderful Mediterranean or international recipes at the resorts’ elegant seaside restaurants–which by the way provide for the best dining experience in the area–the unforgettable feeling that comes from gazing over the endless blue of the Aegean from your Elounda resort will remain for long in your hearts.Route 8: Agios Nikolaos and the Lasithi PlateauEastern Crete
Agios Nikolaos, filled with cafes, tavernas, and souvenir shops, is now one of the liveliest towns of the island. Walking around the Voulismeni Lake–the most picturesque spot of the town–and enjoying a Greek coffee at one of the many cafes adjacent to it will inevitably be part of your Agios Nikolaos experience. There is no shortage of villages around Agios Nikolaos worth exploring, but the beautiful village of Kritsa should be your first choice for a short excursion. Kritsa is known for its traditional handicrafts and also has some authentic kafeneia and tavernas. On the outskirts of Kritsa, definitely stop at the important Panagia Kera chapel, where you can admire the wonderful frescoes, among the most significant on Crete. By the way, the chapel was featured in the movie, The Moon-Spinners , while Kritsa was used as the setting for the film He Who Must Die , based on the Kazantzakis novel, Christ Recrucified .
If you are seeking a swim, head east from Agios Nikolaos until you reach Istron, which has some less frequented and quite beautiful beaches. If you have gone this far you really should continue on a few more kilometers to Gournia, the only completely excavated Minoan town (as opposed to a palace). Spread out over a slope, it is both a unique and spectacular site.
If you are travelling independently you may rent a car and drive the approximately one- to two-hour road from Agios Nikolaos up to the famous location of the Lassithi Plateau. The Lassithi Plateau is a surprisingly large upland plain surrounded by the Lasithiotika Mountains, with one distinct characteristic you cannot miss: It is full of windmills! Although now far fewer than the 12,000 once said to have been present here, their white “sails” are quite a sight on a breezy day. Scattered around the plateau are many villages, such as Tzermiado, Avrakontes, and Agios Georgios, but most visitors will want to head straight to Psichro in order to visit the famous Dikteon Andron: A large and mysterious cave that according to mythological tradition was the birth place of Zeus, the father-figure of all the other ancient Greek Gods. If you make it to Dikteon Andron during visiting hours (you should check with your hotel before you depart), you will find people there to help you with lighting, footing, and information as you make your way into the cave to examine the rock formations and the small pool. All who visit this cave leave with the feeling that they have a fuller sense of the power of the Greek myths!Route 9: Sitia, Vai and ZakrosEastern Crete
Once little frequented by most visitors to Crete, this easternmost part of the island has become increasingly more popular. The major attractions could be visited in a full day’s excursion from Elounda by those with a rented car. The narrow and often winding coastal road to Sitia does require special attention and minimal speed, but you will be rewarded by the wonderful views and the numerous small villages, such as Tourloti, Mouliana, and Sfaka. Sitia, a small, quiet town, the largest in Eastern Crete, is known for its excellent fish tavernas, its pleasant waterfront, and its wide sandy beach. Sitia also now boasts of a fine if small archaeological museum.
Moving eastward from Sitia you will pass a number of other lovely small beaches. At about 14 kilometers (9 miles), a turnoff to the left leads to the famous Toplou Monastery, which warrants a visit due to its distinctive architecture, famous ancient inscribed plaques, and its collection of Byzantine ikons, in particular the spectacular one known as “Great Art Thou, O Lord.” Continuing eastward, at about 30 kilometers (19 miles), you will come to Europe’s one and only stand of wild palm trees, Vai, a perfect location to enjoy swimming on a fine sandy beach that also offers sunbeds and umbrellas. So perfect, alas, that it can be overcrowded in high season and you might want to try one of the other fine beaches in the area such as Kouremenos. Or there is the lovely beach of Hiona at nearby Palekastro, the site of some Minoan remains–and home to a couple of wonderful fish tavernas. But anyone at all interested in Minoan culture should make the extra effort to drive on (about 20 kms/13 miles from Palekastro) to the southeast coast and Kato Zakros, site of the fourth of the most significant Minoan palaces of Crete. Although not as impressive as Knossos or Phaestos, Kato Zakros’s remains and location provide the perfect climax to the attractions of Eastern Crete.Museums & ActivitiesChania
- Archaeological Museum. Hosted in the superb 16th-century Church of St. Francis, the Archaeological Museum showcases a fine collection of ruins ranging from the Neolithic period to the Roman times, as well as numerous ruins that have been discovered in contemporary excavations.
- Naval Museum. The Naval Museum, the handsome red building with the huge anchors situated at the end of the Venetian harbor, guides visitors through the naval history of Crete from ancient times up to the Second World War and the famous Battle of Crete.
- Archaeological Museum. The second most important archaeological museum in Greece, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum has a fabulous collection of Minoan remains from the most important archaeological sites of Crete, including of course findings from the four Minoan centers of Crete–Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, and Zakros. Among the sculptures, the amazing ceramics, the golden and silver jewelry, the bronze weapons and treasures, you will also find superb frescoes from the Knossos palace.
Note: Due to restoration work, a large part of the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion is expected to be closed to the public. A small section featuring some of the Museum’s exhibits is open to the public.
- Knossos. As you walk around the stone corridors of Knossos, passing through the countless private and public rooms and seeing the most important finds of Minoan Crete–such as the flower prince, the dolphins, and the bulls–you will quickly find yourself lost: no wonder ancient peoples believed this was the labyrinth (maze) in which the Minotaur lived! Although many of the walls, pillars, and staircases that you will see were built by the archaeologist Arthur Evans and some archaeologists dislike this reconstruction of the original structures, the end result and overall palace atmosphere is impressive.
- The Fortezza and the Archaeological Museum. The Fortezza, contemporarily used for holding summer concerts and festivals, is an imposing fort up on a hill that overlooks the old town and the beautiful Venetian harbor of Rethymnon. Located at the fortress’s entrance you may find the Archaeological Museum, where you can admire a small collection of Minoan and Hellenistic-Roman antiquities.
- Folk Art Museum. Within the old town of Rethymnon lies the Folk Art Museum, showcasing local art and handicrafts. This Museum blends in perfectly with the old town of Rethymnon, which is full of workshops and maze-like streets that travel you into the town’s past under the jasmine and orange blossoms.
Southern Crete - Phaistos
- Archaeological Museum. Founded in the 1970s, this Museum hosts a collection of ruins ranging from the Neolithic period to the Greco-Roman era and features unique finds from the Eastern Cretan excavations–the Kouros of Palekastro is especially notable.
- Under the highest mountain peak of Crete, 1456 meters above sea level, lies Phaistos, the second most important excavated palace of the Minoan Cretan civilization. The Phaistos Disk, arguably the most important finding of the Phaistos palace, is kept in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Covered on both sides with a spiral of symbols, the Disc is stamped with hieroglyphics that are widely believed to show an early form of the Linear A scripture, but its purpose and meaning remain a major archaeological dispute to this day.