Top 10 Things to Do in Crete on a First Visit, Greece inner banner

Top 10 Things to Do in Crete on a First Visit, Greece

The Greek island of Crete has been the stuff of myth and legend for centuries. Today it's a fascinating package of culinary, cultural, and historical experiences that could keep a visitor busy for months. Here's a handy checklist of ten fabulous things to do.
Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Ten of the best things to do in Crete

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and floats gently between the Libyan and Aegean Seas.

The scent of wild oregano, thyme and sage peppers the air so thickly here, that you can savour the sweet perfume for miles out to sea. Perhaps that’s why Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis — author of Zorba the Greek — wrote of his beloved homeland: ‘Happy is the man, I thought, who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea’.

Open all year round, Crete is home to crystal clear waters, snow-capped mountains, untameable gorges, and some of the best olive oil, wine and organic fruit and vegetables to be found anywhere in Greece — possibly the world. Add to that the island’s ancient Minoan heritage to delve into, and you have all the ingredients for a superb travel experience.

Here are ten of the best things to do in Crete on a first visit.

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1. Explore Crete’s historic towns

Two hundred and sixty kilometres long and 56 kilometres at its widest point, Crete has a population of around 600,000 people. Yet in many areas — particularly in the south and in the mountains — you’re unlikely to meet anyone other than the odd shepherd and their flock. For those who like to be a bit more social, base yourself in one of the four main urban centres — Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion, and Agios Nikolaos. They all bear witness to the island’s tempestuous history of invasion by the Romans, Ottomans, Venetians, and Turks. Chania’s Old Port, for example, boasts beautiful Venetian-era buildings, alongside a Turkish mosque, bath houses and public buildings.

Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Ten of the best things to do in Crete: Chania

To the east, Agios Nikolaos and Elounda were sleepy fishing villages until they featured in the BBC series Who Pays the Ferryman? in 1977. Today they’re popular tourist destinations, but have managed to retain unique identities — thanks to the tenacity of the locals who fiercely guard their culture and heritage.

2. Discover an island of greats

Crete is an island of ‘greats’, ‘biggests’, and ‘best ofs’. In the mountains of western Crete, you’ll find the Monumental Olive Tree of Vouves — believed to be around 3,000 years old. It’s possibly one of the oldest trees in the world. Next door there’s a small museum dedicated to the humble olive itself. Cretaquarium near Gournes is one of Europe’s largest aquariums, and boasts amazing displays about the unique species and marine ecosystems of the Mediterranean.

Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Ten of the best things to do in Crete: Cretaquarium

Vai Beach on the north-east coast is home to Europe’s largest natural palm forest, which consists predominantly of the Cretan date palm. Visit from 5pm after the crowds have dwindled to watch the magnificent sunset.

The stunning 16-kilometre Samaria Gorge is Europe’s longest canyon. It encompasses mountainous pine forests and sheer cliffs, and stretches from the island’s interior to the village of Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea. Those who would like to trace the canyon’s path on foot should set off early and take plenty of water. The walk takes around six hours to complete at a relatively brisk pace.

Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Ten of the best things to do in Crete: Hike Samaria Gorge. Image: Bigstock

3. Visit the Minoan Palace of Knossos

There are plenty of opportunities on Crete to explore the past. Located just outside Heraklion, the island’s most popular historic site is undoubtedly the Minoan Palace of Knossos — discovered by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in 1900. Get there before 10am to beat the crowds and heat. A guided tour will ensure you get the most from your visit.

Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Ten of the best things to do in Crete: Knossos

Head back to town and visit one of Greece’s most important museums — the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. It displays pottery, murals, jewellery and figurines recovered from archaeological digs at ancient Minoan sites around the island. The Heraklion hop on/hop off bus tour is a convenient way to move between these attractions and other historic sites around town.

4. Walk and forage

Crete is a hiker’s paradise, so pack your walking shoes. Castello Taverna’s Foraging Walking Tour in Rethymno immerses guests in the beauty of this magical landscape — and will equip you with a few Cretan survival skills! Forage for wild herbs, vegetables, and nuts, and learn how to make wine, raki, and cheese with Vassilis — the owner of a local farm.

5. Learn the story of Spinalonga

As if there isn’t enough to do onshore, Crete also has plenty of offshore islets worth a visit. Of particular note is Spinalonga, which can be reached by boat from the fishing village of Plaka or on a day tour from Heraklion. With a history dating back to Minoan times, it’s infamous as the site of one of Europe’s last leper colonies — which closed in 1957. Victoria Hislop’s book The Island gives a heart-wrenching account of the daily lives of sufferers.

Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Ten of the best things to do in Crete: Spinalonga

Day cruises are also available out to the southerly islands of Chrisi and Koufonisi. Chrisi holds remnants of Minoan civilisation, Roman graves, and the well-preserved 13th century chapel of Saint Nicholas.

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6. Watch artisans at work

Many age-old Greek artisanal skills — which have been abandoned on other islands — are alive and well in Crete. Potters still mould clay in the Minoan tradition, and woodworkers continue to create musical instruments and artworks from mulberry and olive wood. You’ll even find cobblers making shepherd’s boots by hand, and knife makers crafting traditional Cretan daggers — just as they did centuries ago.

Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Image: Cretan Lyra Workshop

Lace making, embroidery, and weaving have also long been part of the island’s cultural story, and you’ll still see women in small villages weaving on looms and lace tatting. Visit the Historical Museum of Crete in Heraklion to see fabulous examples of all these handcrafting traditions.

7. Take your tastebuds on a journey of discovery

Food is another integral part of Cretan culture. Key to the island’s Mediterranean diet is the thick green olive oil purported to be the best in the world. The Cretan Olive Oil Farm in Agios Nikolaos produces olive oil, honey, cheese, wine and raki (the local brew), and offers reasonably priced cooking lessons.

Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Image: Minoan Tastes

Jerolyn Morrison’s Minoan Tastes celebrates the Minoan tradition of slow cooking meals in clay pots around an open hearth. A potter, anthropologist and archaeologist, Jerolyn has profiled the ancient Minoan diet by carbon dating the shards of excavated cookware. Guests take part in preparing, and then enjoying a three-course meal that utilises this age-old style of food preparation.

Crete has a thriving wine industry to match its culinary heritage. Mainly found in the Archanes region of central Crete — local wines are affordable and very drinkable. Visit stunning BoutariMinos Wines (which dates back almost a century), and popular Lyrarakis Wines.

8. Get off the beaten track

Hire a car (Crete Travel in Heraklion are highly reputable) and take some time to explore Crete’s coastline of picturesque bays and quaint fishing villages. Don’t miss seeing Loutro (only accessible by boat), Agia Galini, Agios Pavlos, and Agia Fotini — all of which have excellent places to stay and tavernas that serve up whatever seafood they caught fresh that morning.

For a taste of rural life, visit Agreco Farm in the mountains south of Rethymno. You’ll gain an insight into traditional farming practices, raki brewing, olive oil production, and bread making. The farm is also renowned for baking the region’s famous Sfakian pies.

Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Image: Agreco Farm

9. Head for the beach

There are hundreds of beautiful beaches around Crete; in fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t wow you. Some will be busier than others or offer more facilities depending on the location. Situated on the west coast, Elafonissi is possibly the island’s most famous beach, while the shimmering lagoon at Balos Beach is a photogenic must-see. Make sure you do the short walk from the anchorage up to the ruins of a Venetian castle for sweeping coastal views.

Ten of the best things to do in Crete
Ten of the best things to do in Crete: Balos Beach

10. Give something back to the island

If you’re interested in supporting a worthy local cause, Archelon — the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece — welcomes individuals and family groups interested in volunteering to protect Crete’s endangered sea turtles. Important conservation sites can be found in Chania, Rethymno, and Messara, and volunteers camp by the beach during nesting season to protect the vulnerable hatchlings.

For more inspiration, visit www.visitgreece.gr.

Browse our range of Crete day tours and experiences here.

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Crete on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Francesca Muir

About the writer

Sydney-based journalist Francesca Muir fell in love with the Greek blue of the Mediterranean while living on the island of Crete in the late 1980s. She has written about Greece for Living Postcards, Crete Travel, Politismosmuseum, Stigmez, Athens News, TV Soap, Soap World, Gourmet Traveller, Vogue Entertaining, Vogue Living, Ita, Way to Go, Travel Abroad, the Sun-Herald, and the Sunday Age.

 

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  1. Fantasmagorical! Well done Francesca! Oh to be in Crete now that Francesca’s there!

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