Crete's mountains, beaches, monasteries, wineries, unspoiled villages and Venetian old towns are some of the highlights you'll enjoy on these five road trips. Each one delves deep into the island's best bits and all of them can be done in a day.
Many of these driving routes follow sinuous mountain roads, so don't expect to get anywhere quickly. On the plus side, this means you get the time to savor the countryside as it passes by your window.
Southwest Hania Province is the best road trip for remote beaches and natural beauty
Hania round-trip; 96km (60 miles)
Southwestern Crete has the island's most stunning natural beauty. It's a tangle of mountain roads twisting and curving between bucolic villages, orchards of olive trees, deep rocky ravines and sheer peaks. This route is punctuated by some of Crete's most beautiful beaches. It's an all-day adventure, so leave early from Hania and plan on slow-going and frequent stops – which is really the point.
Stop first at Lakki, an unspoiled village with 360-degree views and a lovely old church. Continue to hidden Omalos and take a gander at the world-class Samaria Gorge (if you're following the rest of this road-trip itinerary you don't have time for the full trek, just go 2km/1.2 miles in and return). Backtrack slightly and cross the Omalos Plateau to Agia Irini Gorge. Walk a bit of the trail to get a sense of the lush foliage and drive on through traditional villages like Rodovani and Temenia. Near the coast, Azogires has caves and waterfalls. Hit the beaches at Paleohora and then do the long loop over to the trip's crowning glory: the pinkish-white sands of Elafonisi. Next, head to the beautiful Moni Hrysoskalitissas Monastery and then follow the west coast north through the isolated Innahorian villages and Sfinari. Make your final stop for sunset at the beach at Falasarna. From here it's a straight shot back to Hania.
Amari Valley is a great road trip through unspoiled mountain villages
Rethymno round-trip; 150km (93 miles)
Psiloritis Natural Park in central Crete encompasses religious, cultural and natural splendor in a designated Unesco Global Geopark. Within the sprawling park is Mt Psiloritis, Crete's highest peak (2456m/8058ft), visible throughout the region. One of the park's must-sees is the Amari Valley, a heady mix of traditional villages, olive groves and fruit orchards. With frequent stops, this is an all-day road trip, so set off from Rethymno early.
Leave Rethymno on the coast road and make the first stop Moni Arkadiou, the deeply sacred and symbolic monastery. Head south to Thronos, where the Agia Panagia church boasts 14th-century frescoes (ask for the key at the cafe). Wend your way through the fruit trees to Amari, the valley's namesake town, which boasts a beautiful collection of Venetian buildings. Have refreshments at the cafe- and flower-filled main square. Heading southeast, Monastiraki has Minoan ruins, Bizari Basilica dates to the 7th century and Vizari has woodworking shops. Fourfouras is the start of trails up the side of Mt Psiloritis. Turn back north at Apodoulou, which is the site of an ancient Minoan ceremonial building. Gerakari is a market town and if cherries are in season, you'll be delighted. Watch for wild tulips along the road and wind your way to Meronas, another lovely village with a 14th-century church. Now follow a broad river valley back to the coast.
Iraklio Wine Country is the best road trip through Crete's vineyards
Iraklio round-trip; 45km (28 miles)
More than two dozen wineries spread their vines over the gently rolling landscape south of Iraklio. In fact, right about the time you see the Palace of Knossos, the grapes begin. Although short in length, this itinerary can easily fill a day, since the point of the trip is to visit wineries. In addition, spending time at Knossos and the many lovely villages will add even more time. There are genteel tavernas along the route, so finding a suitably delightful stop for lunch with a view of the vineyards will be easy.
The route of the road trip takes you past myriad vineyards, which together produce 70% of Crete's well-regarded wines. Let your mood help you decide where to stop. Note that many tasting rooms operate during business hours, so some may be closed on weekends and from November to March. Two top picks are Boutari and Minos-Miliarakis.
If you've yet to see one of Greece's greatest ancient sites, make Knossos your first stop. Just south of the palace you'll see a double-arched aqueduct from the early 19th century. At Koronekes, stop into the namesake olive oil estate for all manner of exquisite food items. Arhanes is a wine-country hub and the village has a small museum. Detour up Mt Yiouhtas for sweeping views of the region. Back on the loop, you can see a Minoan wine press in Vathypetro. Near the southern boundary of this drive, Houdetsi has an engaging traditional musical instruments museum. Heading back north, Peza is another winery hub and you can choose from several neighboring tasting rooms. Admire Myrtia's beautiful main square and return to Iraklio.
Eastern Crete is a mountain road trip with Mediterranean views
Agios Nikolaos round-trip; 55km (34 miles)
A web of small roads make sinuous treks through the rocky pinnacles and tree-covered escarpments of the narrow chunk of Crete hemmed in between the Bay of Mirabello and the Libyan Sea. This route takes you far from tourist centers, so even in the busy summer months, you'll savor a more intimate Crete.
Agios Nikolaos is an excellent place to start and end your tour. It has a stunning seaside location and the streets tumbling down to the waterfront are lined with good cafes and tavernas. Head southwest to the hill town of Kalamafka. Just south, climb the 220 steps to the cave chapel at Timios Stavros – the views are worth the sweat. Stop at the preserved village of Anatoli and have coffee outdoors at a cafe. Drive northwest through the hills to Males and turn south into the broad Mythi Valley. The Sarakinas Gorge is worth even a short stroll. Once you reach the coast at Myrtos, follow the signs to Myrtos-Pyrgos, a Minoan hilltop villa. Following the coast road due east, ignore the greenhouses on the left and ponder the sea to the right. Stop off at deserted grey-sand beaches. The port town of Ierapetra is a fine place for a seafood lunch. Head northeast and watch for views of the Ha Gorge, which cleaves the Thripti Mountains. Pause for the Minoan ruins at the villages of Vasiliki and Gournia and then return to Agios Nikolaos.
Drive the North Coast to visit Crete's three best cities
Iraklio–Hania or vice versa; 142km (88 miles)
Many visitors make the journey between Crete's two main cities, Hania and the capital, Iraklio. Many even stop in Rethymno, the Venetian port town roughly midway along the route. This route is designed to highlight the must-see sights in and between these three unmissable Cretan hubs. The busy E75 highway links all three. Dive off it at any time for more sedate local roads, or to simply find a vantage point to gaze at the Sea of Crete.
In Iraklio, the Heraklion Archaeological Museum is open year-round and details the ancient Minoan culture in all its brilliance and beauty. Leaving town to the west, your first potential stop is the Agia Pelagia, which has a lovely beach. The same is true for Bali, although it has several lovely beaches, with varying personalities, from family-friendly to raucous. Next up, Panormo is the most traditional and unspoiled of the north coast beach towns. Rethymno is an unbeatable lunch stop. Roam the ancient center and port. Climb to the Fortezza, the Venetian fortress, then stop into one of the many excellent tavernas for a well-deserved meal. Continuing west, look inland from the E75 for Aptera, the ruins of an ancient city that dates to the 7th century BCE. In Hania, stroll out on the long stone breakwater and take in the views of the beautiful, pastel-colored old town. With extra time, visit the Archaeological and Maritime museums.