Essential Crete

  • 2 Weeks

Bookended by two of Crete’s great cities, this route is a roller-coaster ride through the natural wonders of mountain and sea, and several of Crete’s most famous historical treasures. You’ll also get to soak up Venetian architecture, and feast on both mountain-village and seafront cuisine.

Start in bustling Iraklio, checking out the superb museums and soaking up its cafe culture, before heading to the Palace of Knossos where the mysterious Minoans ruled about 4000 years ago. Spend a day enjoying the fruits of the Iraklio Wine Country, where 70% of Crete’s wine is produced, and which is dotted with wineries. Next, stake out a base near Matala to combine trips to Gortyna, the former capital of Roman Crete, as well as the grand Minoan palaces of Phaestos and Agia Triada. The outstanding Cretan cultural museum at Vori and swimming at wide, sandy Kommos and Kalamaki beaches round out the area’s offerings.

Travelling west, lunch in the quaint village of Spili, home to several excellent tavernas creating traditional Cretan cuisine. Then drive (or hike the Kourtaliotiko Gorge) to Moni Preveli, a working monastery on a hill with sweeping views of the Libyan Sea, and picture-postcard Preveli Beach down below. Start week two by heading north to soulful Rethymno, where you can spend two days wandering the maze of Venetian lanes and another exploring the countryside, perhaps steering towards the pottery village of Margarites, the peaceful Moni Arkadiou, site of momentous historical events, or the cool natural spring oasis at the mountain village of Argyroupoli.

For a taste of the west stay in Hania, a lively modern city wrapped around a romantic Venetian harbour and atmosphere-laden pedestrianised quarters. When you’ve had your fill of this historic beauty, take the early bus to Samaria Gorge and trek one of Europe’s most famous canyons to the beachfront terminus at the small hamlet of Agia Roumeli. Stay over or catch a boat to Loutro, to spend the night in this quaint harbour accessible only on foot or by boat. Next morning, take the boat to Hora Sfakion where you can have a seafood lunch and the local cheese-stuffed-crêpe specialty, and then loop back to Hania.

Central to West Crete

  • 10 Days

This trip presents you with the mother lode of soul-stirring attractions, including the unspoiled southern coast, higgledy-piggledy mountain villages, Crete’s best beaches, and spirit-lifting culture in Crete’s two most attractive towns, Rethymno and Hania.

Kick off your trip in Iraklio, taking in the Archaeological Museum and imposing fortress, and swinging out to the Palace of Knossos, before steering west to quaint Anogia, where ancient traditions and Cretan music thrive at the foot of Mt Psiloritis. Continue west via the pottery village of Margarites to Moni Arkadiou, the site of one of the bloodiest moments in Crete’s struggle for independence from the Turks. Spend the next day in stately Rethymno, taking your sweet time ambling around its bewitching mix of Turkish and Venetian buildings.

From Rethymno push on to the southern coast, where the lively beach town of Plakias makes an ideal base for exploring nearby secluded beaches, including palm-studded Preveli Beach, stunningly located at the mouth of a rugged gorge.

Heading west, make a pit stop at the seaside fortress of Frangokastello before zipping over to Hora Sfakion, where you can hop a boat to explore the remote villages along this beautiful stretch of coast for a day (or two!). Continue north from Hora Sfakion towards the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) and make time for a hike through spectacular Imbros Gorge. Continue to the northern coast and linger a night or two in Hania, with its beautiful harbour, grand fortress and ambience-packed old town.

From here you can explore the far western reaches of Crete. Take the circular route southwest via Kolymbari and the Innahorion villages to the westernmost tip of the island at Elafonisi, which beckons with pink-shimmering sandy beaches. Pushing back north via the coastal road, continue the beach theme at broad Falasarna with its rolling waves, or detour to the Gramvousa Peninsula’s spectacular lagoon-like beach at Balos, which you’ll most likely access by day-boat from Kissamos.

Returning back to Iraklio via Hania, consider making a quick detour to the springs of Argyroupoli before taking the coastal road east of Rethymno via peaceful Panormo and busy Bali.

Eastern Crete

  • 1 Week

There’s a world of discoveries awaiting in eastern Crete, from the inviting town of Agios Nikolaos to some of the island’s most beautiful churches and moodily historic sights. Arm yourself with some curiosity and a good map, and the week will fly by with no two days spent the same way.

Make your base at charming Agios Nikolaos, arrayed beautifully along both the sea and an interior lake. You’ll have to tear yourself away from its bustling cafes and delicious waterfront eateries in order to take in the gorgeous mountain scenery on the Lasithi Plateau, high on the upper decks of the Dikti mountains, where wind power once drove the sails of thousands of windmills. Plan a day of walks or cycling, and visit Zeus’ birthplace in the Dikteon Cave, to earn your meal when you return to the coast.

It’s easy to lose yourself along the winding roads north of Myrtos, where bare mountains crowned with coxcombs of rock rise from green woods. You can also easily lose a few days along the coast here, soaking up bohemian beach living.

If you’re keen on history, plan a day wandering among the fascinating ruins on Spinalonga Island, made famous recently by Victoria Hislop’s novel, The Island. Or, visit Milatos Cave, the site of an 1823 massacre of villagers by Turkish besiegers, which today is a serene and absorbing corner of rural Crete.

To satisfy artistic cravings, steer yourself to the Church of Panagia Kera near Kritsa for a feast of fabulous 13th-century frescoes, the finest in Crete. Archaeology fans can indulge their passion at the Late Minoan site of Gournia, where a full Minoan town is overlooked by a once-great palace.

Outdoors lovers should not miss the walk along the tail-end of the E4 European Path, down the Valley of the Dead, where the awesome landscape overwhelms the human element. You’ll pass Minoan cave burials and reach the eastern coast at the ruined Minoan palace of Kato Zakros.

Around Iraklio

  • 1 Week

Iraklio is a big, busy city, but it can be a useful base from which to access many of Crete’s most famous sights, even without your own vehicle. Or if you have wheels and your budget allows, stay in Arhanes in the nearby Iraklio Wine Country, to make these looping day trips.

Crete’s largest city, Iraklio offers top-notch museums, a Venetian fortress, a colourful street market, lively nightlife and excellent dining. While there, make sure you visit the beautifully renovated and curated Archaeological Museum so that you’ll be prepared for Crete’s grandest Minoan palace. Drive or hop on a bus for the quick ride to the world-famous Palace of Knossos for a full-scale introduction to Minoan society, partially reconstructed.

On another day, apply what you’ve learned on a visit to the Palace of Malia, another Minoan site, and some people’s favourite, with sweeping sea views. You can then explore small mountain villages by zigzagging through tiny Krasí to Kerá, which is home to the revered Panagia Kardiotissa monastery, with its 14th-century frescoes and holy icon. Nearby Sfendile was controversially inundated by the creation of a dam.

If you have your own wheels, designate a driver and spend a day sampling the local vintages of the Iraklio Wine Country, which is dotted with wineries and tasting rooms. Plan to stop at the Nikos Kazantzakis Museum in Myrtia and the moody Minoan vestiges in Arhanes, which also has great traditional tavernas – perfect for a lunch break. Or sample the tipple around Dafnes, the other main hub of wine country.

Take a scenic drive to the rustic mountain village of Zaros, at the foot of Mt Psiloritis. Leave time to hike nearby trails, explore Byzantine churches and dine on fresh trout. If you’re thirsty for a beach day instead of a hike, continue a bit further along to beautiful sands at Kommos or Kalamaki Beach. And if you have time to sleep over, the next day you can explore quaint villages Sivas and Kamilari, Minoan ruins at Phaestos, and Roman ones at Gortyna, before looping north again.