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 the best of the island’s historical treasures. You’ll also get to soak up Venetian architecture, and feast on both mountain-village and seafront cuisine.

Start in Iraklio, checking out the superb museums before heading to the Palace of Knossos and enjoying the fruits of the Iraklio Wine Country. Next, stake out a base near Matala to combine trips to Gortyna, the Minoan palaces of Phaestos and Agia Triada and the outstanding museum at Vori with swimming at Kommos and Matala beaches.

Travelling west, lunch in Spili en route to Moni Preveli and picture-postcard Preveli Beach, before steering north to Rethymno for a wander around its lovely maze of Venetian lanes. From here, venture into the countryside, folding the pottery village of Margarites, Moni Arkadiou or the mountain village of Argyroupoli into your route.

Zip west to Hania, your next base. When you’ve had your fill of this historic beauty, take the early bus to Samaria Gorge and trek to Agia Roumeli, then board the boat to Loutro to overnight in this quaint village. Catch the boat to Hora Sfakion and bus 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 and some of Crete’s best beaches, as well as spirit-lifting culture and gastro treats in Crete’s two most attractive towns, Rethymno and Hania.

Kick off your trip in Iraklio, taking in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and imposing fortress, and swing 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 easily zip over to 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. You'll most likely access the peninsula's spectacular lagoon-like beach at Balos by day-boat from Kissamos.

Returning 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 cosmopolitan town of Agios Nikolaos to some of the island’s most beautiful churches, moodily historic sights and pristine beaches. 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 first base at charismatic Agios Nikolaos, where bustling cafes line the waterfront, the harbour and a dark and mysterious lake. Tear yourself away to steer north to ritzy Elounda and the ferry ride to Spinalonga Island, a former leper colony turned sightseeing magnet thanks to Victoria Hislop’s novel, The Island, and ensuring TV series.

Another delightful day-trip option from Agios Nikolaos takes you west to the Lasithi Plateau, high on the upper decks of the Dikti mountains, where wind power once drove the sails of thousands of windmills. The main attraction here is Dikteon Cave, where none other than Zeus himself was born.

South of Agios Nikolaos, Kritsa is one of Crete’s most bewitching mountain villages, with a cool gorge, the island’s oldest church frescoes and the ruins of the ancient city-state of Lato among its attractions. More ruins, Minoan this time, are in Gournia, reached by heading east along the coast, perhaps preceded by a swim at Caribbean-clear Voulisma Beach and followed by a fish lunch in Mohlos.

Sitia is a handy base in these eastern reaches for trips to Moni Toplou, a brooding fortified monastery, and the palm-lined beach at Vaï. More fun beaches await near Palekastro, including Kouremenos Beach, which is Crete’s windsurfing mecca.

The mountains get bigger and more rugged as you head south to Zakros, the launchpad for the trek through Zakros Gorge down to the beach community of Kato Zakros with its Minoan palace ruins. For splendid solitude, brave the serpentine roads leading south to ultra-remote Xerokambos, whose main ammo is its dozen or so gorgeous and often deserted sandy beaches.

From here steer west, perhaps stopping in bustling Ierapetra or, better yet, in pretty nearby Myrtos where you can soak up bohemian beach living. The route north back to Agios Nikolaos is wonderful, taking you past bare mountains crowned with coxcombs of rock rising from woods.

Around Iraklio

  • 1 Week

Iraklio is a big, busy city, but it can be a useful base for accessing many of Crete’s most famous sights. Since the bus network is decent in this province, it can even be done without your own vehicle. Alternatively, if you do have wheels and your budget allows, stay in more scenic 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 here, make sure you visit the expertly curated Heraklion Archaeological Museum so that you’ll be prepared for Crete’s grandest Minoan relic, the Palace of Knossos. Drive or hop on a bus for the quick ride to this mesmerising, and partially reconstructed, introduction to Minoan society.

On another day, apply what you’ve learned in Knossos 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 Matala. And if you have time to sleep over, the next day you can explore quaint villages such as Sivas, Minoan ruins at Phaestos, and Roman ones at Gortyna, before looping north again.